Valkyrie: the Dubya version of history

Why is Tom Cruise idolising a Reich-sympathising aristocrat who described Jews as a ‘rabble’ who should be lashed?

Mark Adnum

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Everybody’s favourite couch-stomping avenger Tom Cruise recently admitted that as a boy he ‘wanted to kill Hitler’ because he ‘hated that guy’. Tom – no fool – is obviously not a notorious Hitler-lover like Eva Braun or Goebbels, and his bravado would be applaudable, except for the fact that Hitler was already long dead – 17 years dead to be precise – when Mary Pfeiffer and Thomas Cruise Mapother III welcomed their dopey little Top Gun into the world in 1962.

Poor young Tom went through school as a dyslexic so you can’t blame him for mixing up the odd date here and there, but surely a teacher or friend could have had the decency to whisper to him that the global enemies he was set against to such a degree that he was prepared to assassinate them were about as present and dangerous as Nicole Kidman’s post-Oscar movie career.

The latest Tom-ism (‘Here’s the problem. You don’t know the history of psychiatry. I do.’) came at a press call for his new movie Valkyrie, where he plays Claus von Stauffenberg, a colonel in the German Nazi army who lost his arm, a few fingers and an eye to an Allied attack in North Africa and then returned to Germany where he became the key member of an inside plot to kill the Fuhrer.

Though Stauffenberg got to plant a bomb right next to Hitler during a top-level war meeting deep inside the Wolfsschanze, he didn’t count on another Nazi unknowingly shifting the briefcase that contained the explosive to the wrong side of one of the thick legs of the meeting room’s thick oak table. When it exploded (four died, Stauffenberg had left the room and was hustling back to Berlin to orchestrate a coup), the desk-shielded Hitler sustained only minor injuries and was on German radio later that evening addressing the Reich and announcing the arrest and execution of Stauffenberg and all involved.

This entertaining but necessarily simplistic action thriller/biopic – by the director of the X Men films and Superman Returns – distills the complex Stauffenberg down into a Dubya-era all-American hero, hell bent on rounding up a posse and bringing those darned evildoers to justice. Stauffenberg is acclaimed today for his valiant act of heroism, but he was also the writer of this sentence, part of a letter he sent to his wife from the Polish front in 1939:

‘The population here are an unbelievable rabble; a great many Jews and a lot of mixed race. A people that is only comfortable under the lash. The thousands of prisoners will serve our agriculture well.’

Stauffenberg, like Tom, hated Hitler and wanted to kill him, but he had no problem with some of the tenets of the Third Reich – his last words were something along the lines of ‘Long live sacred Germany!’. It would be hard not to be compelled by such a delicately calibrated patriot who came astonishingly close to altering the course of modern history, but the makers of Valkyrie (of which Tom, though only credited as an actor, was surely a strong but silent partner) were clearly up for the challenge. In this film, Stauffenberg’s mission, if he chooses to accept it, is to parachute himself into Hitler’s inner circle, kill Hitler, and pinball his way out of danger in time to rescue Germany from the clutches of National Socialism. Tick, tock – will Stauffy make it back to Berlin in time? Will his gorgeous wife and gorgeous kids be safe from Hitler’s retribution? Etc.

I was so busy enjoying the well-shot Valkyrie’s impressive glide from one impeccably crafted set piece to the next, and its carousel of top-shelf actors (Terence Stamp, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Kenneth Branagh), that I lost count of how many times Tom’s Stauffenberg says words to the effect of ‘it’s simple, we have to kill Hitler’. But it must have been several times, or one particularly resonant time, as I can’t remember any of his other lines of dialogue. Oh, and he continually asks about the safety of his wife and kids. Europe may be on the block, but let’s get our priorities straight here – will my sweetheart be waiting for me when I get home from work? Preferably in an apron with my glass of scotch in her loving hand?

This is a fun film, but the absence of any kind of exploration of the true Stauffenberg and his complicated affiliations – and the burning fuse action adventure template that takes their place – creates a vacuum that theatres full of patrons will rush to fill, only to end up two hours later with a collective case of very cynically raised eyebrows.

Cruise’s longevity as a Hollywood star has succeeded – despite his unprecedented unpopularity as a public persona – in large part because his movies make terrifically large piles of money and they do that in large part because of Cruise’s entertaining and inoffensive on-screen charisma and knack of selecting lead roles in crowd-pleasing blockbusters. A one-man Hollywood on legs, Cruise is Eyes by Newman, Nose by Streisand, Body by Brando, Brain by Mickey Mouse.

The movies made by Hollywood in the last two years of George W Bush’s presidency will still be trickling into theatres when President Obama is midway through his first term, and Valkyrie is one of the first post-Bush films that exemplifies Bush’s America: why complicate matters when you can bomb the baddies and be home in time for the prom?

Mark Adnum is a writer on film based in Australia and editor of Outrate.

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