When I originally picked up a DVD titled “5 Classic War Films” for $4.99 I didn’t expect it to include a movie like Sydney Pollack’s Castle Keep.
Judged solely on the low price and the cheesy posters featured on the cover, I strapped myself in to watch some bottom-of-the-barrel, exploitative trash.
The hokey plot synopsis for this film specifically didn’t help matters either, since it centres around a rag-tag group of American soldiers tasked with defending a medieval castle full of priceless art pieces during the Battle of the Bulge.
However, while Castle Keep doesn’t attain “classic” status, as advertised, the filmmakers should be given credit for trying to inject some art house sensibilities into an otherwise formulaic war movie.
Within the first 20 minutes, the movie stomped my expectations into the ground by establishing a detached, laid-back tone that doesn’t initially seem to fit with other “man-on-a-mission” World War II epics of the time (think The Dirty Dozen).
Instead of getting down to business and showing the audience how the castle is being fortified for the on oncoming German assault, most of the first and second act features our main characters just farting around.
They drink, they smoke, they fuck (with several trips to a nearby brothel) and they carry on inane conversations that don’t really go anywhere. Mid-way through the movie one of the soldiers spouts off about how indestructible Volkswagen Beetles are, and that this particular model of car will inherit the earth after the war wipes out all human life.
Coupled together with a dream-like score that seems like it jumped right out of an old perfume commercial, and Castle Keep becomes a truly bizarre viewing experience, to the point where I even wondered if I put in the wrong DVD by mistake.
In the last 40 minutes the story does eventually turn into a more conventional direction, with plenty of explosions and gritted teeth that would satisfy even the most jaded action junky. However, this kind of action climax gets so exaggerated that it veers off into the direction of satire, especially when Germans soldiers start using fire trucks to mount the castle walls.
To be fair, most of these strange choices make sense if you put this film’s release in the right historical context.
By 1969 the United States had been escalating their involvement in the Vietnam War for over a decade, with no real end in sight. With that in mind, it’s understandable that Americans like director Sydney Pollack would have become disillusioned with traditional military heroics and decided to make a film about the tedium and pointlessness that’s involved in a protracted foreign conflict.
Actor Peter Faulk (who plays sergeant Rossi Baker) even reveals the filmmakers’ intentions at one point during the chaotic climax by blurting out “What the hell war is this?”
While the filmmakers should be applauded for this kind of ambition, Castle Keep is not without its problems.
Certain sections of the film suffer from poor ADR and sound mixing, to the point where you can’t even tell which character is supposed to be talking.
Because the movie adopts the look and feel of a waking dream, the middle part of the story really drags, something that could have been solved by chopping at least 20-30 minutes off the runtime.
And while the individual actors do a really good job with the material they’re given, it doesn’t stop them from being flat caricatures with no real depth. This usually what happens when characters are written to hammer home a theme rather than to tell a good story.
Overall, even though I think calling Castle Keep “pretentious” would be a bridge too far, I wouldn’t fault anybody else for using that label to describe it.
After all, the filmmakers are obviously much more concerned about waxing poetic on lofty topics like war, art, and sex rather than telling a good story with fleshed out characters, which definitely prevented me from engaging with the movie on an emotional level.
With that being said, Castle Keep did at least take me by surprise and give me something to think about once it was over. Hopefully this becomes a re-occurring theme throughout my adventures into the darker corners of Corner Store Cinema.
Corner store companion:
Skor butter toffee (because it looks fancy, but it’s still really just cheap candy on the inside)
-Release date: July 23, 1969
-Budget: $8 million (estimated)
-Box office gross: $1.8 (Canada/US)
-Two years after this film was released, Peter Faulk (one of the main supporting cast members) would go on to find great success by staring in the series Columbo. Faulk ended up playing the titular, unassuming detective in a grand total of 69 specials, with the final episode airing on Jan. 30, 2003.
-Mass murderer Ronald Defeo Jr. claimed that he was watching Castle Keep right before he shot his parents and four siblings to death in Amityville, New York on Nov. 13, 1974.
-While this film ultimately flopped, both critically and financially, director Sydney Pollack would bounce back with his next project They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which landed him 10 Oscar nominations (including one for Best Director).