Far from the blood and guts battles we are accustomed to seeing in big screen depictions built around WW2 with tanks, infantrymen, fighter jets and secret missions, this Ralph Nelson directed effort for Universal focuses less on the action and allows two Oscar winning actors the opportunity to verbally spar with each other over the course of a couple hours. Not your average WW2 film, Counterpoint, unfolds as a battle of wills between two like minded individuals. One an unforgiving world famous conductor on a U.S.O. Tour with a full orchestra in tow, the other a stern German Officer commanding his troops near the front lines during the Battle of the Bulge. Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s ….
Charlton Heston vs. Maximilian Schell
I’ve selected this title for the WW 2 Blogathon kindly put together by Maddy who proudly Loves Her Classic Films and Jay from Cinema Essentials. Be sure to follow the links to their sights and see what other films are being featured and just who the contributors are. Back to my selected choice ….
When Heston’s latest U.S.O. concert for the military brass is cancelled midstream due to the German’s breaking through the front lines he’s less than enamored at the audacity of the German forces. His orchestra climbs aboard their tour bus and will promptly find themselves captured by a German platoon who are not having any of the stern Heston demanding their release. Arrogant Chuck will barely bat an eye when the soldier assigned as their driver is shot down in front of him for so much as challenging his German captors. With that the bus is sent forward to Schell who has taken a medieval castle as his headquarters.
Schell enters the story looking haggard and unshaven. He’s tired of the war and at odds with his bloodthirsty second in command, Anton Diffring. Anton is a little too giddy at dispatching orders from Berlin that state all prisoners of war are to be executed on sight. When Heston’s troupe arrive at the castle compound they are promptly marched in front of a firing squad. While Anton’s soldiers await his order to fire, Heston will have his first go around with Schell’s commander. Schell knows what Berlin’s orders are but he also knows who the world famous conductor is standing in front of him. Perhaps a concert might be in order to entertain the troops?
Heston isn’t about to entertain the enemy but he does convince Schell to cease the execution of his orchestra for the time being. An orchestra that includes his ex-flame, Kathryn Hays, his lead violinist ….. wait for it …. Leslie Nielsen (see below), and a pair of soldiers masquerading as musicians, Linden Chiles and Peter Masterson. With Heston firmly refusing to entertain Schell’s command, many of his orchestra are willing to play to stay alive. Heston contends that should they give in and play, Schell will then leave their fates to the bloodthirsty Anton. Schell wants his music, Heston demands the release of his orchestra and Anton goes behind the back of Schell and wires Berlin.
Heston stalls to buy time by having his musicians practice yet continues to be a hard man, “The music is sensuous, not pornographic.” he baits them. While they continue to practice the two soldiers in their midst begin plotting an escape. Best scene in the film? Surely it’s when the wily Anton spots soldier, Chiles, looking out of place with a trumpet in the horn section. He demands the undercover soldier impress him with his skills on the instrument. Heston attempts to take charge of the scene but Anton is having none of it and with his Luger in hand pushes Chiles to play something. In a scene reminiscent of Casablanca, the soldier plays the only song he recalls from his school years, the American National Anthem to the cheers of the orchestra members.
Sadly Anton will get the last laugh and Schell is still demanding his concert. A great line from Heston follows when he states to Hays and Nielsen that Schell’s “an arrogant, egotistical martinet with all the classic symptoms of a God complex.” Both Hays and Nielsen realize he’s just described himself. Yes Heston and Schell are mirror images of each other.
No more out of me as I’m not going to play spoiler on this lesser known Heston/Schell film that deserves a look should you get the opportunity. I hadn’t seen the film since late night TV maybe 30 years ago. Thankfully it has surfaced on the Universal Vault Collection in the made-on-demand market.
Consulting Heston’s autobiography, In the Arena, I found three interesting comments he made worth sharing. On learning to conduct, “This turned out to be the toughest thing I’ve ever learned for a part.” On his co-star, “Max was a joy to act with. A true pro and a good man.” On his character, “another one of my hero-heels.”
It’s interesting to note that the music being played by the orchestra’s many practice sessions on screen served the film well in key sequences throughout including the attempted escape of the American soldiers from Schell’s grasp. Poor Anton Diffring is once again cast as the one dimensional killer but I guess an actor has to work. On Leslie Nielsen it’s sometimes hard to separate these early roles from the hilarious deadpan comic he became in later years. I challenge you to watch this and not anticipate a Frank Drebbin sized screwup as Leslie expertly mimes the violin under Heston’s command.
“Ours was a conflict of moralities.”
Digging deep in the medieval castle I call home, I unearthed this original one sheet I purchased ages ago as I did many of Heston’s films. Yes as a kid in the 70’s Heston was a bona-fide screen hero and for good reason. A few key words should explain all. Apes, Omega, Midway, Green, Earthquake etc.
Now don’t forget to visit those other sites and as the top left hand corner of the poster points out be sure that if and