Oh my Lordy, Sydney Pollack’s Castle Keep is a revelation. First thing is the magical Michel Legrand score; second is the gorgeous winter imagery – shot with Panavision perfection by French New Wave legend Henri Decaë; and thirdly, the sterling cast of Hollywood heavyweights, including Burt Lancaster, Peter Falk, Patrick O’Neal and a very nutty Bruce Dern.
Shot in Novi Sab, Serbia using a Disney-like castle (supposedly made out of Styrofoam) as its centrepiece, this dreamlike anti-war satire takes a brave stab at adapting William Eastlake’s offbeat 1965 novel of the same name, which drew on the author’s experiences at the Battle of Bulge.
Burt Lancaster heads the cast as the mercurial one-eyed Major Falcone billeting his remaining soldiers at the Ardennes castle of the Count and Countess of Maldorais (Jean-Pierre Aumont and Astrid Heeren).
With the castle’s position in the direct line of the German advance, Falcone prepares the castle for an assault; much to the concern of Captain Beckman (Patrick O’Neal), an art historian who is using the long waiting time to do an inventory of the castle’s art treasures which he wants saved.
While Beckman and Falcone debate the castle’s fate, the war-weary ragtag squad consisting of a ‘22-gold carat Indian’, cowboy, cook, baker, and minister occupy their free time at a local whorehouse, which is being picketed by Bruce Dern’s band of hymn-singing conscientious objectors.
Although Castle Keep preceded Robert Altman’s groundbreaking M*A*S*H* by a mere five months, it bears much the same style of black comedy, albeit with a strong dose surrealism added in. And this comes from the fact that the film is being told from the perspective of Private Benjamin (Al Freeman Jr), whose wartime experiences have been turned into a book called – yep, you guessed it! Castle Keep.
Among the visual highlights is the Red Queen brothel which, under Altman and Decaë’s visual eye, is turned into a dazzling jewel box hued in Bava-esque colours, and a comical scene in which a Volkswagen racing Beetle seems to have a mind of its own (ala Herbie The Love Bug) and refuses to sink after two soldiers try to shoot holes in it.
Altman peppers the film with imagery that really bangs home his nihilistic anti-war message – best represented in a sequence in which Dern’s fundamentalist Lieutenant leads shell-shocked soldiers Pied Piper-liked through a street under attack – and an underlying theme about class: which bubbles through a sub-plot involving the castle’s aristocratic owners wanting to continue their bloodline by getting the young Countess (symbolising old Europe) to mate with the Major (aka the New World).
Unlike M*A*S*H* however, Castle Keep was a flop on its release – probably on account of the film’s surreal, arthouse approach, and the dialogue – which comes off a little pretentious at times – penned by Daniel Taradash (From Here to Eternity) and Altman’s frequent collaborator David Rayfiel.
Thankfully, however, Powerhouse Films have dragged Castle Keep out the shadows to present a region-free Dual Format Edition as part of the Indicator series so that cult film fans can reappraise this underrated cinematic gem. Now, if only I can find that score….
• High Definition re-master
• Original mono audio
• Alternative 4.0 Surround sound track
• The John Player Lecture with Burt Lancaster (1972, 100 mins): audio recording of an interview conducted by Joan Bakewell at the National Film Theatre, London
• The Lullaby of War (2017, 18 mins): a new interview with actor Tony Bill, who played Lieutenant Amberjack, about his experiences making Castle Keep
• Eastlake at USD (1968, 29 mins): an archival, videotaped interview with author William Eastlake
• Original theatrical trailer
• New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
• Limited edition booklet with a new essay by Brad Stevens, archival interviews with Sydney Pollack and Burt Lancaster, and original pressbook material