31 of 39 people found the following review helpful
on June 6, 2002
Format: VHS Tape
Lavish biodrama on the life and times of President Woodrow Wilson (and therefore the US's involvement in the First World War, which traditionally is called the Great War, of course, and in its time and for some years was called The World War). This film seems to be getting discovered lately, though it has been available on tape since the 1980s. Some of it is even accurate, no small thing for a 1940s biodrama dealing with human complexities. Alexander Knox in the title role is differently shaped and less serious-looking than his namesake, but he does capture well the habit of lecturing everybody.
There's an intense sequence in the middle around the entry of the US into the war. In the actual events, late on January 31, 1917, Ambassador Count Johann von Bernstorff notified the US State Department that Germany would resume submarine warfare against neutral (i.e., US) vessels in blockade areas (a policy, by the way, that Bernstorff himself had lobbied against vigorously with his government). This and subsequent events are compressed into a vivid sequence where Bernstorff presents the news late at night to Wilson. The President (the former professor) then gives the envoy the lecture of his life on Imperial German aggression, arrogance, and racism; orders Bernstorff deported; and in the next scene, summons Congress, requests and receives a declaration of war. (So there!) The live Wilson was much less decisive (evidently obsessed with remaining neutral and mediating, a role he pressed in modified form after the war), but no doubt the dramatized stand against Germany played well to US movie audiences in 1944. Another memorable scene soon after concerns civilian volunteers serving refreshments to US soldiers.
The interested reader can find fascinating details in any number of histories and biographies of the era, such as Tuchman's _Zimmerman Telegram_ (ISBN 0345324250 in paperback), which addresses events around the US entry into the war. Tuchman depicts the labyrinthine intrigues in the US during the neutrality. Thus, senior German agents in New York were so diligently trailed by multiple sets of secret police (from the US and other countries) that crowds of them would collect in hotel lobbies (nonchalantly, of course), watching their common subject and casually reading newspapers. The interested reader, for that matter, will enjoy all of Tuchman's books, about various times and places, because she is such an outstanding writer. For further insight into the old aristocratic European order that the Great War undid, see _Grand Illusion,_ 1937 (the movie, not the reviews about it). For more on the human side of the war, see the timeless classic _All Quiet on the Western Front_ (1931, US Best-Picture Oscar).
Some people today might forget that the First World War ended 11/11/1918 not in any sort of victory but rather in a negotiated cease-fire acknowledging stalemate. At the time of the cease-fire, Germany occupied vast territories beyond her prewar borders. 103 years earlier, after the Napoleonic wars, a peace conference (the "Congress of Vienna") opportunistically divided war-torn Europe and "gave" some smaller countries to larger countries, occupants of the smaller countries having limited voice in the matter. The resulting resentment and underground nationalism fostered terrorist acts including those that ignited the First World War. After that war, a peace conference at Versailles forced, at French insistence, Germany (economically blockaded and starving) to accept humiliating terms and pay ruinous reparations. The resulting resentment and nationalism in Germany fostered the rise of Nazism and the eventual Second World War, in which France was conquered in 1940. Whatever the merit of what-if games, evidently the French statesmen at the Versailles peace conference had failed to learn an important lesson.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 10, 2013
Format: DVDVerified Purchase
This film boasts a superb Oscar-winning screenplay by Lamar Trotti (Young Mr. Lincoln, The Ox-Bow Incident, etc); a beautiful, sometimes spectacular production lensed by Leon Shamroy's Oscar-winning cinematography; and an outstanding Oscar-nominated performance by Alexander Knox in the title role. (Ruth Nelson and Geraldine Fitzgerald as Wilson's wives and Sir Cedric Hardwick as his nemesis Henry Cabot Lodge also turn in excellent performances.) This was the film that legendary mogul Darryl F. Zanuck considered his finest achievement, and it was intended to educate Americans of the World War II era about the lengths President Wilson went to to establish an international peace-keeping organization at the end of World War I. The story begins in 1910 at Princeton, where Wilson is the university's president and the New Jersey Democratic political machine wants him to run for governor. It then traces his rise to national prominence and his nomination for President in 1912. Politics and foreign policy intermingle with Wilson personal life throughout the film, in particular the death of his first wife, Ellen, just as the war in Europe is about to explode, and then his remarriage to Edith Galt not long before the 1916 campaign season. The final portion of the film focuses on American entry into the war, the Paris peace conference, and Wilson's struggle to get the U. S. Senate to go along with the Covenant of the League of Nation (during which time the president suffered a devastating stroke). Wilson's warnings of another terrible war to come if the U. S. did not join the League was powerful stuff in 1944, when the film came out. Highly entertaining and often quite moving it remains very much worth seeing today
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on June 23, 2014
Format: DVDVerified Purchase
In his 1943 keynote address to the Writer’s Congress, 2oth Century-Fox movie mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck called upon Hollywood’s wordsmiths “to lead the way. If you have something worthwhile to say, then dress it in the glittering robes of entertainment. Without them, no propaganda film is worth a dime! Is it possible to make pictures which have purpose and significance, and yet, show a proper return at the box office? I believe – it is. I believe the answer is entertainment!”
Zanuck, a writer a heart and always ten steps ahead in what he fervently believed was Hollywood’s role in the reeducation of America’s public agenda, would provide proof of the efficiency in this model with Henry King’s Wilson (1944); a superior semi-biographical account of the presidency of Woodrow Wilson that, sadly, failed to catch the zeitgeist and inspiration of the American people. The most expensive picture to be made in Hollywood since Gone With The Wind (and for some time thereafter), and – at 153 minutes one of the longest – Wilson would be a testament to the glory and goodness of a great nation-building humanitarian; re-imagining the president’s salient nature against his formidable brand of internationalism, and, with an uncommon dignity and remarkable percipience into the times in which he lived.
Although the enterprise was sound – Zanuck spent profligately to ensure every inch of the production looked the part (his White House recreations among the finest ever brought to the screen) – the ambition behind it seemed flawed to nearly everyone except Zanuck, who compounded his commitments on the picture by issuing the following statement to the press. “I am gambling $3 million in an effort to prove that audiences are ready to accept something more than straightforward entertainment. I am making one mighty bid to try and open the floodgates of production toward the making of entertaining films that are enlightening as well.”
Screenwriter Lamarr Trotti assumed an intimidating responsibility in reconstituting the facts of Woodrow Wilson’s life and times. His finished script is, quite frankly, a miracle of narrative concision. Not only do we get an account of Wilson’s eight years in the White House, but a preamble from his days as President of Princeton University. In keeping with Zanuck’s edicts to remain focused on the deification of the man, Wilson – the movie – omits the president’s counterintuitive track record for military interventions in Latin America, Panama and Haiti. Zanuck’s Wilson is a dyed in the wool isolationist, reticent to plunge his country into any war. We also lose Wilson’s racist viewpoint as both a Southerner and committed segregationist.
Before embarking further in this review, I suppose it would be prudent to share my own thoughts on the Hollywood biopic. I have a certain affinity for fictionalized movie biographies – done right, of course. For if one can set aside contemporary prejudices requiring absolute adherence to the historical record, then there is a far richer verisimilitude at work, infinitely more rewarding. One cannot expect biopics to evolve and/or critique the historical record as – say – a documentary on the same subject might (and, in fact, should). After all, historians continue to debate moral/political ambiguities long after the era has passed; often with their own biases and prejudgments attached.
Wilson is therefore not a soul-searching exercise; not a movie about the facts of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency or even the man himself; but rather a grand and glowing snapshot of the essence of both and the impact each had on America’s socio-political fabric; something of a gushing epitaph to one man, made by another who clearly holds his subject in incredibly high esteem. On that score, Zanuck’s Wilson is a masterpiece, supremely satisfying in ways history can only guess at, much less capture without the embellishments of a skilled Hollywood wordsmith in the driver’s seat.
Research on the film was prodigious. Zanuck had personally supervised and/or produced a good many movies at Fox, giving more than his seal of approval and his name above their title, but never with as much daily interventions on the set as on Wilson; instructing art directors, James Basevi and Wiard Ihnen to spend whatever was necessary to resurrect this period of brash American optimism preceding the First World War. To helm such a gargantuan production, Zanuck turned to Alexander Knox; a little-known Scottish actor who, despite obvious physical discrepancies with his alter ego, nevertheless managed to convey the essential qualities and overall tenor of the 28th president with pronounced spirit and sincerity.
Wilson remains an engrossing and fairly rigorous account of the high points of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency; the consolidation of nearly eight years of diplomacy and heartache into a little over three hours, impressive to say the least. If the film lacks humor and understanding, neither Alexander Knox’s performance, nor Zanuck’s ambition in retelling history can rightfully be blamed. While critical response to Wilson was laudatory for the most part, the public failed to find reasons to attend. Lamar Trotti’s broad canvas paints a glowing portrait of Wilson – the man – to be sure, with mere vignettes as husband and father sandwiched between more lavishly appointed scenes dedicated to the progression of world events and Wilson’s own political ambitions. Still, it’s a tasteful representation, if, at times, veering wildly from the truth.
Either out of the necessity for narrative concision or perhaps, Zanuck’s zeal to deify this man he so obviously felt a kinship toward, and for better or worse, Wilson makes several glaring omissions to the historical record. Otherwise, the picture’s general construction is undeniably proficient in every way. Cribbing heavily from music of the period, as well as time-honored hymns of American patriotism, Alfred Newman’s superb underscore elevates Trotti’s prose to another level of melodrama entirely, as does Leon Shamroy and Ernest Palmer’s superior use of Technicolor to add mood, flavor and that zest for visual opulence for which, undoubtedly, Zanuck has partly angled his dreams of success for the picture.
Better still, is Alexander Knox heartfelt and sincere performance as the man of the hour; effortlessly graduating from pragmatic college president to intellectually stimulated politico and, finally, visionary idealist; the architect of a tenuous world peace. Thriving in the cutthroat political arena, even rising above the fray to look after the interests of the average American, gave the real Woodrow Wilson rare insight into the machinery of government. Zanuck’s Wilson merely vacillates in the machinations of this obstinate fanatic. Yet, at the height of another world war, Zanuck’s Wilson harks back to the stymied political ambition of this elder statesman – qualified, ethical and nobler than most in his unaffected pursuit of humanity’s self-preservation. Alas, then as now, audiences prefer men of action to those of conscience. Wilson’s spectacular implosion at the box office is rumored to have caused Zanuck to decree no one at the studio ever speak of it again. And yet, for the rest of his life, Zanuck regarded Wilson with a great personal affection as the one film nearest his own heart.
Perplexingly, Wilson is a movie impossible to digest at intervals. Leaving the theater for a bathroom break, pausing the video at home, or, observing it incrementally with commercial interruptions via standard television broadcasts all but destroys both its continuity and its striking emotional impact. Yet, taken in one fell swoop inside a darkened room, one is apt to be overwhelmed by the magnitude, scope and content in this production. Wilson is a great film, superbly cobbled together from the historical record and Zanuck’s impassioned covet to make a supremely fine testament to his hero.
Radiating ample portions of wisdom and ethics, Wilson doesn’t so much invent its moments of scrupulousness as it finds the estimable and splendid qualities in its subject, ably bringing these to light. The balancing act is, in no small part, an authentication of Zanuck, Trotti, editor, Barbara McLean and director, Henry King’s efforts; each contributing to the movie’s incalculable entertainment value. Considering the enormity of exposition, Wilson rarely devolves into a weighty invective. Pictorially, it is practically peerless; James Basevi and Wiard Ihnen set design, seamlessly married to evocative matte paintings and endless gatherings of real live people for the staggeringly impressive ‘crowd scenes’. In the final analysis, Wilson is a tragically underrated masterpiece. Its’ failure at the box office deeply wounded Zanuck. But the film is purely his vision and unequivocally one of his enduring works of genius.
Alas, I cannot say the same of Fox’s Cinema Archive incarnation. If there was any artistic justice in the world today, then Wilson would already have made the necessary leap to hi-def Blu-ray.
In my review of Forever Amber I complained about the studio’s short shrift of its classic catalog. But in viewing Wilson even Forever Amber’s thoroughly lackluster transfer seems more like an ephemeral miracle of loveliness. What on earth?!? Wilson’s DVD transfer is so hopeless marred by atrociously substandard elements the movie is virtually un-watchable for most of its run time. Where to begin? First, overall color fidelity. This transfer has none. From shot to shot the Technicolor veers wildly from marginally accurate and/or acceptable to woefully under-exposed and severely faded. Next, to contrast levels: these are anemic in the extreme and at best. Third: a barrage of age-related artifacts chronically plagues every inch of this presentation. At times, they grossly distract.
Last, but certainly not least; I will expose this transfer for what it is: a careworn NTSC scan, derived from a very old VHS master with excessive amounts of video noise wreaking havoc on virtually any and all fine details inherent in the visuals. Wilson on Fox’s MOD DVD looks about as far removed from its original theatrical release as it can. The audio is mono and passable without ever distinguishing itself as anything but present and accounted for.
I would not have expected such an abomination from a fly-by-night bootleg operation, much less one of the cornerstone studios of old-time and present-day Hollywood. What could the powers that be, be thinking in giving us this disc – a Frisbee by any measure of quality and one for which I am quite certain NO standards of quality were ever applied! As a biopic, I would sincerely recommend Wilson as one of the all-time greats. As a DVD for retail sale I can only say ‘don’t waste your money or your time on this one!’ Wilson on DVD is undeserving of both! Very sincere regrets!!!
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 20, 2013
I first saw Wilson on television back in the 1960s and immediately fell in love with it. Watching it now, I still feel a good deal of affection for it despite its idealizations and fabrications, characteristics that it shares with perhaps most biographical films -- and perhaps all such films of its era. Yes, Wilson was a racist. Yes, he was a moralizing prig much of the time. Still, I love the sense of history -- even revised -- that runs through this picture. Still, many will find it a flat cardboard diorama that moves, and I won't argue that point -- it is tedious. The production values, however, are high, and there are dramas both large and small that make the film engaging from start to finish. Objectively, I should give this a 3.5, but nostalgia runs strong -- I'm springing for a perhaps undeserved 4.