It is 1945 and the Second World War is raging across Europe, but before they are beaten the Nazis are not going to give in without a fight, as these eight American soldiers in Belgium as winter draws in have discovered to their cost, their transport even more broken down than they are. Their commanding officer, Major Falconer (Burt Lancaster), wishes them to reach a village up ahead, but all he can see as their jeep's engine sputters out is a medieval castle. Suddenly there is the sound of hoofbeats and two people on horseback pass by, with the one bringing up the rear stopping to observe these visitors. He is Count Maldorais (Jean-Pierre Aumont) and he has a proposition...
Author William Eastlake's Castle Keep was a very fashionable book in the nineteen-sixties, probably because it looked like a war novel but acted like something more obscure and profound with a little to say about a certain, then-current war: it was a decent text to work out for yourself what it was about and how much of it you could trust. The movie took much the same path, except for the success bit: it was a major flop, except in France apparently, and thus it was relegated to cult status as something this heavily pretentious tended to turn into, especially when there was a hint of the counterculture about it. Add in a whole bunch of bombs going off and bullets flying, and it would appeal to a particular sensibility.
For a while the most notorious fact about the film was its connection to The Amityville Horror, with the man who murdered his family in that famed house, the one which it was later claimed was haunted, having watched Castle Keep on television right before he committed the crime. He tried to make a link between Hollywood violence in the movie and real life violence he was inspired to carry out, which some people bought but most regarded with the disdain it deserved: millions of viewers watched it that night and never killed a soul, after all. Now, if it is remembered at all, it is thanks to its curious atmosphere, crossing the sixties with the forties for its distinctive qualities.
Which naturally means you're not fooled that this is the forties one iota, as everyone in it simply looks far too late sixties, kind of like one of its contemporaries, another World War II cult effort in Kelly's Heroes never sells itself as an accurate portrayal of that time either. That was comedy, this was more like surrealism in that you could tell it was making some statement or other on the hell of war, but quite what that was stubbornly refused to translate to the experience of watching it. If anything, it was as if director Sydney Pollack had seen Last Year at Marienbad a few too many times and was attempting to conjure up that sort of thing for Eastlake's novel, so hard to fathom conversations ruled the day as did lovingly photographed artistic imagery. Which is naturally how the "pretentious" tag got to be applied, making it the equivalent in war as Lancaster's other movie of this time The Swimmer was to domestic drama.
Every so often a character here will speak some dialogue which has you thinking, "Did they really say what I thought they said?", emerging from the discussions of European artworks (the Count wants the troops to defend his priceless collection) or Peter Falk insisting on bringing up baking bread as a topic of conversation and you start to pay attention, then a bunch of shell-shocked Jesus freaks led by Bruce Dern show up for a rant or one soldier professes his romantic affection for a Volkswagen Beetle (had Pollack seen The Love Bug recently?) and you start to wonder if it's worth the bother. What it did have for modern action movie fans was an orgy of destruction for its final half hour or so, with detonations going off all over the shop, so mix that with the overarching strangeness of how alive these people actually are and you had a distinct novelty. It also gave the rarely seen supermodel Astrid Heeren her biggest role; she makes an impression as the Countess whose impotent husband insists Falconer should sleep with, another conundrum for the viewer. Oddly jaunty music by Michel Legrand.