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‘Castle Keep’ Sees the Real and Surreal Collide During Wartime

The great Sydney Pollack directs the great Burt Lancaster in an underseen but, well, great film.
Burt Lancaster in Castle Keep
Columbia Pictures
By  · Published on November 15th, 2020

Welcome to The Prime Sublime, a weekly column dedicated to the underseen and underloved films buried beneath page after page of far more popular fare on Amazon’s Prime Video collection. We’re not just cherry-picking obscure titles, though, as these are movies that we find beautiful in their own, often unique ways. You might even say we think they’re sublime… and this week we’re watching American soldiers push back against fascism (and maybe a little bit of madness) in Castle Keep.

“Sublime /səˈblīm/: of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe”

When you think war-themed tales of off-kilter narratives and oddball characters, the films that most likely come to mind are Catch-22 (1970), Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) and The Ninth Configuration (1980). All three are interesting movies, but one that doesn’t get the same level of attention is Sydney Pollack‘s late 60s adaptation of William Eastlake’s novel, Castle Keep. So let’s change that, shall we? It’s on Amazon Prime, we gave it a watch, and we think you should too!

What is ‘Castle Keep’ about?

World War II is waning, but death, destruction, and madness still reign across Europe. Eight US soldiers, part of a ragtag group made up of survivors from otherwise decimated units, arrive at a castle in Belgium called the Maldorais. The Count and Countess who look after the place welcome the soldiers in the hopes that they can protect it and its contents from being destroyed by the Nazis. The couple are odd — they dress as if themed to the 10th-century castle itself, and when Maj. Falconer (Burt Lancaster) begins an affair with the Countess, the Count is not only aware of the relationship but actively encourages it.

Their time there is peaceful at first, outside of minor squabbles, but it also grows increasingly odd. Sgt. Rossi (Peter Falk) meets a baker’s widow in town and immediately falls in love with both her and a renewed interest in baking — to the point that he leaves the unit and becomes the town baker. Cpl. Clearboy (Scott Wilson) falls in love too, but it’s with a Volkswagen Beetle. Pvt. Benjamin (Al Freeman Jr.), meanwhile, is a hopeful writer taking notes on their stay… and maybe even narrating their fate?

What makes ‘Castle Keep’ sublime?

“Someday the world is gonna be populated by nothing but Volkswagens,” says Clearboy, and it’s not even the strangest utterance in Sydney Pollack’s Castle Keep. While it opens like many other war films with its motley crew of soldiers and varying personalities, the film quickly begins revealing its quirks. The threat of war hangs in the air despite the initially deceptive calm, and the increasing uncertainty builds a tension that plays off the film’s surreal and blackly comic beats.

The script, by Daniel Taradash and David Rayfiel, makes an effort to offer each of the characters their own distinct personality traits. We learn who they are through actions both alone and together, and it works well to add a level of humanity to each of them. Two standing guard enter into conversation with an unseen German hiding in the bushes over a broken flute, and what seems friendly takes a dark turn. A group of straggler soldiers (led by Bruce Dern) roam the streets preaching and singing about being celibate conscientious objectors. Capt. Beckman (Patrick O’Neal) finds himself torn between his own barely concealed attraction to the Countess and his even stronger infatuation with the castle’s artwork.

These recognizable traits make their individual and inevitable fates all the more affecting. We’ve watched them living — not killing or leading rote soldier lives — and seeing them die lands with more than a generic hit. This remains the case even as the action moves between the epic (a tank driving through a church) to the absurd (the ladies who work at the Red Queen “whorehouse” joining in and tossing Molotov cocktails at the approaching Germans). War is hell, and hell is bloody confusion and mayhem.

The action in Castle Keep is kept to a minimum and occurs mostly in the film’s third act, but it’s no less exciting and thrilling for it. After more than an hour of character beats, surreal humor and wonder, and increasing uncertainty as to the soldiers’ location in space and time, the violence is a stark reminder for characters and audiences alike. As much as they might wish to be elsewhere or in different situations, they are at war — and there may not be any escape. “You’re a dreamer,” says one of the men to Benjamin. “They’ll get you first.” It’s a personal statement, to be sure, but it’s also an angry observation about how the world targets our most vulnerable and necessary at times. It’s tragedy paired with a slightly askew grin, and the film leaves viewers thinking which is never, ever, a bad thing.

And in conclusion…

Castle Keep is a war film, but it’s as much of an argument for the necessity of violence as it is against it. That’s a rarity for the subgenre for obvious reasons, but it works well here alongside a surreal atmosphere. The reality of it all comes into question throughout, but the characters and the humanity remain.

Want more sublime Prime finds? Of course, you do.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.