Castle Keep Review

There are better war films than Castle Keep - The Dirty Dozen is more entertaining, The Deer Hunter more affecting, Apocalypse Now! both more harrowing and surreal and if it's never quite as daft as Escape To Victory, it still has its moments - but there are none that I return to as often as this one. That it's almost forgotten about adds to its appeal, being somewhat of an unknown treasure destined only to show up occasionally on television, scheduled for nightowls or insomniacs. Such a placing in the schedules is normally worth a complaint or two but in the case of Castle Keep, the smalls hours of the morning seem to be exactly the right time to watch it, given that it drifts between reality and the illusions of dreaming, similar to falling in and out of sleep.

Eight US soldiers led by Major Falconer (Burt Lancaster), all of whom are tired of the war, arrive at a tenth-century castle in Belgium sometime during the Second World War, where they are to hold it to prevent the advance of any German troops to the Allied front line. Whilst the owner of the castle, Tixier (Aumont), welcomes them initially, he becomes wary of their bullishness amongst the works of fine art but, equally, he welcomes the Falconer's bedding of his wife, Therese (Astrid Heeren) to provide for his family an heir that he, through impotence, cannot. The need to protect the fine art in the castle leads to disagreements between Falconer and both his captain, Beckman (Patrick O'Neal), and Tixier, which continue in spite of hearing that the German army has gathered outside of a nearby village. Word comes of their taking of key Allied points, leaving the way open for an attack on the castle...

This description, however, could also be used to summarise any number of war films and, indeed, looked at in such a straightforward manner, Castle Keep is not particularly effective. Certainly, there is little in Sydney Pollack's list of credits as a director to suggest that Castle Keep would be anything more than a mediocre film, as well made but, ultimately, as workmanlike as The Firm, Out of Africa and The Electric Horseman. Whether by accident or by a determined push to make a beautiful war film, Castle Keep stands out, not only from other films in Pollack's credits but amongst other war movies.

At its most basic level, Castle Keep is a surreal wartime adventure in which slight diversions pull the main story away from that of the soldiers battling the approaching German army. Much of the perceived drifts in the film will doubtless have been influenced both by the year in which it was made - 1969, sufficently late in the sixties to have taken note of psychedelia and of the nonsensical, not to mention the jazz-pop over the title sequence - and by a slight amateurishness, particularly in the ramshackle way that jokes and asides are edited into the film.

One feeling that persists through the viewing of the film is that of the studio, having taken delivery of such an odd film, really didn't know what to do with it and simply cut it together as best as they could. However, give Castle Keep some time to open up, watch it a second or a third time and, in doing so, notice that some fundamental doubts about the characters in the film begin to appear.

What follows in this review is, of course, open to personal opinion but there is much evidence to support the notion that Falconer, Beckman and the rest of the group of soldiers are already dead, killed in combat some time before they approached the castle. The first impression of there being no connection between reality and the events of the film is in Private Benjamin's voiceover, in which he tells of, "All of us had been killed twice, some of us three times...maybe that's why we were at the castle" but Castle Keep follows this with a closed world in which everything appears to exist to give the soldiers a life to step into with ease, as though it had been designed around their life outside of the army.

For example, Sgt. Rossi (Peter Falk) tells of being a baker before being enlisted and on the soldiers' first visit to the nearby village, he sees a bakery run by the widow of the original owner, who not only welcomes Rossi into both the bakery and her life but has a little boy who bears a remarkable similarlity to how Falk must have looked aged seven or eight. Similarly, Cpl. Clearboy - designated as the driver and mechanic early in the film - falls in love with an air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle whilst Amberjack, who plays the flute, meets a German scout who studed the instrument at a school for music before the war. Finally, Captain Beckman, the famous art historian, who even Amberjack's German flautist knew of, finds himself at home in a castle containing hundreds of works of fine art.

Whilst on patrol, these soldiers find themselves surrounded by strange, otherwordly events - the brothel in town, La Reine Rouge (The Red Queen), is a mix of the sexually bewitching and the hallucinatory sounds of the carnival whilst, back at the castle, a painting comes to life as Amberjack studies it, from which a woman reaches out to seduce him. Elsewhere, gaps open up in the world to accommodate the soldiers' actions, including their attacking of a German tank that kills the occupants but leaves the tank undamaged. Such things only serve to drive the soldiers back to the castle, where they prepare for the eventual onslaught by the attacking Germans, who, although appearing throughout the film, appear to be no more a part of any army than Falconer's unit have the backing of the Allied forces in Europe. Even in meeting other Allied soldiers in the village, Falconer and his men return to hold the castle alone.

Within the castle, Falconer's group of soldiers would appear to have stepped into their own, private Purgatory - in Catholic teaching, this is a place between Earth and Heaven, through which all souls must pass to be purged of human weaknesses before being considered pure enough to enter Heaven. If Benjamin is right in saying that the soldiers in the troop have already given their lives in combat before arriving, their arrival at the castle is within their afterlife and, again, if Benjamin is right in saying, "All of us had been killed twice, some of us three times", the defence of the castle would, therefore, only look to be one part of a Purgatory that the troops must continue to make progress through to gain sight of Heaven.

But there is a problem with this reading of the film in that it is only Benjamin who appears to realise, through his voiceover, what is happening, which suggests that he has more of a role in the creation of what happens at the castle than do the others. Even before the titles, Benjamin is introduced as a writer and the final line in that sequence is of Beckman telling Benjamin that he now has a title for his novel - Castle Keep - before we see the film play out as Benjamin's story and through his eyes. Watch the film a second or a third time and it becomes difficult to see how anything is resolved without Benjamin saying that it is so, particularly as the film ends.

Throughout Castle Keep, we see and are sympathetic to the action from Benjamin's point of view and if we see La Reine Rouge as bizarre, with 'a dreamlike quality' to it, it is because Benjamin has voiced that opinion aloud and has, therefore, bent what we are seeing to his voice. If the viewer does not see the actual deaths of any of the core group of soldiers, this is also because Benjamin, by being separated from the main battle, has failed to see exactly what happened and only knows the conclusion. Indeed, the film only acknowledges any casualties because Benjamin appears on the roof and in the film's final moments, the audience sees exactly what Benjamin sees as he escorts Therese through the tunnel underneath the castle.

In this reading, Castle Keep is a film to stand alongside Alain Robbe-Grillet and Alain Renais' Last Year At Marienbad and Bertrand Blier's Notre Histoire. In Blier's film, Nathalie Baye and Alain Delon meet on a train before she tells him a story about a man and a woman who meet on a train, have sex and part before Baye and Delon do just that. Baye and Delon then spend the rest of the film relating to one another through stories and the film plays out both in what we take to be reality and what are no more than stories told by the characters in the film.

Similarly, in Marienbad, a beautiful woman, A (Delphine Seyrig), who is married to M (Sascha Pitoeff), meets X (Giorgio Albertazzi) at a spa. X narrates the film as he tells A that they met last year, had an affair and that she had planned to leave M before asking X to delay her actions for a year, when they will meet at Marienbad again but, when they do, A denies ever meeting him. As the film plays out, we see what we believe to be the truth when first presented with X's story but when presented with A's and M's stories, Marienbad reveals itself to be a mystery that exists only to be told and that no truth exists - Marienbad illustrates A and X having an affair, then not; that they met a year prior to the film and that they did not; that M was aware of his wife's infidelity and that she kept it a secret and, finally, that M murdered his wife before showing us that she is still alive. Unlike the game M plays in the film, which M will always win no matter the opening moves, there is no fixed conclusion in Marienbad, simply a series of stories, closed into a world that is ultimately the creation of the characters within it.

Castle Keep, therefore, can be looked at as no more than a story told by Private Benjamin and it is he who creates the castle, populates it and, come the time, writes of the German attack and the deaths of the characters in his story. That we hear Benjamin tell the story is in line with William Eastlake's original novel, which was told from successive points of view, but the film takes this further, showing inconsistencies in anything unseen by Benjamin, which are then simply holes in Benjamin's story. By connecting Benjamin the writer and the origins of the story as a novel and in only presenting Benjamin's point of view, the film suggests that it is simply one telling of the story of the defence of the castle and that further drafts will resolve the disappearance of the Germans inside the tank, will question the comparitive ease with which Rossi beds into the village and will see Beckman succeed in his bid to protect the works of art within the castle.

Of course, it is possible to analyse a film too much and to look for meaning where none may exist. In the end, Castle Keep may not be anything more than a poor adaptation of an already surreal novel that was excessively influenced by the times in which it was made. That is why, however, I would suggest that, more than anything else, Castle Keep succeeds through a slow, careful pace and from being so beautifully shot as to stand a comparison to The Thin Red Line, although the stark white landscapes, Belgian village and castle surrounds of Castle Keep are a world away to the humid jungles of Terence Malick's film. In this, Castle Keep works best in its first half, when any fighting around the castle is brief and decisive and only briefly interrupts what is otherwise a peaceful if surreal barrack. When the snow melts and the Germans begin their advance through the village and onto the castle, Castle Keep is less successful but finally succeeds with an ending that recalls the surreal opening half of the film as well as reflecting the counter-culture of the late-sixties that would be expressed more confidently in Easy Rider and The Trip.

As in the opening paragraph, there are better war films and Castle Keep's lack of a placing in any listings of the 100 Best War Films is not surprising but like The Virgin Suicides, Last Year At Marienbad, Michael Mann's The Keep, Morvern Callar and the recent Code 46, there is something about Castle Keep that memories of it continue to drift back in, even years after a viewing, much like a dream, which is, after all, what it resembles more than anything else.

The Transfer

Whilst Castle Keep looks wonderful, any praise is due to the beautiful cinematography by Henri Decaë rather than solely to the transfer onto DVD, although as this Region 2 release was the first to be presented in the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (the original Region 1 release was in 4:3 P&S), CTHE are to be congratuled on getting it right over here. Thankfully, they have also reissued Castle Keep on Region 1 in the correct aspect ratio.

As many times as I have seen this on television, I was still surprised at how good it looked here, although, as with the actual film, the first half looks better than the second, and any beauty in the cinematography gets lost in the smoke and fire of the final battle. The print does not, however, appear to have had any major restorative work done on it so there is the occasional fault but, otherwise, the image quality is excellent. .

The English audio track is presented in LCRS 4.0 (Left, Centre, Right and Surround), which would suggest that a 4-track original soundtrack existed rather than this being a remix of an English Mono audio track but the IMDB only list a Mono soundtrack. Either way, there is some use of the rear channel and although the soundtrack is clean and responds well to the audio effects and light jazz soundtrack, it's functional rather than outstanding. French, German, Italian and Spanish Mono soundtracks are also available.


There are no extras included on this release of Castle Keep other than trailers for The Caine Mutiny (52s), The Bridge On The River Kwai (3m08s) and Castle Keep (3m16s).


For a long time, Castle Keep looked as though it was never going to secure a DVD release, leaving those late-night screenings - complete with the nasty switch back to P&S after the title sequence - as the only way to see it.

This DVD release is, therefore, most welcome and although it doesn't feel like a definitive release given the lack of extras, it feels better suited to the film. In as much as I have always felt that a well-defined conclusion to Last Year At Marienbad would do the film a disservice, the lack of extras to explain Castle Keep results in a DVD release that is appropriate to the film within.

Castle Keep is a deliberately strange film but never keeps the viewer at a distance. Instead, through humour, Decaë's cinematography and a freewheeling sense of the sixties, it pulls the viewer in, often in spite of the destruction onscreen, before leaving them with an inconclusive ending. As such, Castle Keep is likely to remain outside of popular success but that is no criticism, merely acknowledging that a film that is as offbeat bleakly entertaining as this one may not be to everyone's tastes.

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