Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day Movies

And movies for any patriotic day dedicated to remembering Vets.  There are others that aren't mentioned that are every bit as essential.  Tora, Tora, Tora leaps to mind, but I typically keep that for December 7th.  Stalag 17 and even the historically over the top The Battle of the Bulge have always had a 'Christmas feel' to them.  But the following are ones that are shown, or to me are worth watching, whenever the flag goes up and our thoughts turn toward those who gave that last measure of devotion. 

The Longest Day
Staring almost every male actor in the film industry at the time, The Longest Day is the war movie where everything works.  It has that old time patriotism, mixed with just enough moments of terror and loss and honesty to remind everyone what war is all about.  Made in 1962, after the first wave of Rock and Roll but before the British Invasion, it was a mere 18 years after the event.  That's as long ago as the Oklahoma City bombing to us.  And yet already there was that tension, that anti-war, increasingly anti-American liberalism vying with those still lifting up what America and its allies had done to defeat evil.  This splendid movie, superstar packed to the hilt, won the match and gave Americans and free people a reason to look back and be proud.

One of the most iconic images in motion picture history right there.  George C. Scott's magnum opus performance as the ivory handled pistol wielding, cussing and slapping general of WWII is the stuff of legend.  It's a reminder of how in those war years, generals and military leaders held the public in as much awe as Hollywood celebrities and musicians and athletes.  Scott's performance is in the spotlight, but also Coppola's masterful screenplay which avoided the controversies surrounding Patton that would bog down a modern movie.  Instead, he focuses on Patton's quirks and little traits, his poetry and his belief in reincarnation, his religion and his mouth.  He says 'this is Patton, you decide.'  A tendency no longer near alive in modern movies. Except...

HBO's Band of Brothers
In one of the greatest mini-series or television events ever produced.  Band of Brothers is right in every place that the theatrical Saving Private Ryan was wrong.  The reason SPR isn't in this list is that, apart from the brutal opening scene, the movie is a Baby Boomer retelling of WWII through Boomer eyes.  Mostly, SPR is a bunch of foul mouth fellows walking around and whining about how unfair everything is.  In ten episodes of Band of Brothers, you never once hear the phrase 'this isn't fair!'  Based on Stephen Ambrose's book of the same name, BoB leans on actual interviews with the real vets, and allowed their input during production.  It was their story told by them.  What we have is not something that dwells on vast, geopolitical controversies, or anything really.  It just says 'here's these guys, here's what they did, let's watch.'  The link to the real interviews adds an extra dimension that cannot be reproduced anywhere.  A definite watch for those losing site of America's greatness and just why that generation was once called the greatest.

Based on Michael Shaara's book The Killer Angels, Gettysburg started as a made for TV movie, but the powers that be thought it might be better for a major theatrical release.  Not perfect, and sometimes bogs down as one after another, the cast must have its chance to stand and give a ten minute speech explaining to the audience what it's really all about.  But when the action starts, and the historical reenactors have their chance to replay that fateful day, it can't get much better.  The star power alone is worth its weight, and Jeff Daniels gives one of his best performances as one of the most fascinating war heroes in American history.

The Bridge on the River Kwai
This isn't American!  No, it's David Lean's great tribute and analysis of an oft-forgotten part of WWII, namely the Pacific War that didn't happen over Pearl Harbor or Hiroshima.  It showcases, albeit in sanitized fashion, the brutality of one of history's most murderous empires.  But more than that, it looks into the mentality of the men who fight, what can go right, and what can go so wrong.  Sir Alec Guinness's award winning portrayal of a man who is the best and worst of war is unforgettable, as are all the performances, not the least of which is Sessue Hayakawa's scene stealing Colonel Saito.  The movie is also noteworthy as a lesson not to put too much faith in Hollywood versions of history more interested in making points than telling the history.  Though with modern historical studies, there's not much difference.

The Guns of Navarone
With a cast like this, what can go wrong?  A fan favorite, and one of the most influential war movies that established the whole 'those poor suckers don't have a chance' story line.  Oddly, David Niven was the only one of the main cast to serve in WWII, and do so heroically.  His 'I don't want the responsibility' Corporal Miller, an explosives genius, matched against 'whatever gets the job done' Captain Mallory, played by Gregory Peck, is the crux of the movie's theme.  As Peck lamented many times, the movie is so fun, people forget it's supposed to be an anti-war movie.  In many ways, just like Bridge on the River Kwai.  A mere decade and a half after the war, and already that generation was beginning to take a second look at what happened.  Something the Boomers often overlook.

Operation Pacific
John Wayne?  Really?  Yes, really.  Sure, many of his movies stretched the boundaries of realism, but no worse than many war movies today, which often err on the opposite side, where everything is lousy, everyone sucks, nothing is worth anything.  Same lack of realism, different reasons. For Wayne, a patriot through and through, the Americans were the good guys, end of statement.  And his movies showed it.  There were many of course, not the least of which the aforementioned Longest Day.  But in terms of Wayne vehicles, not only does this show a side of warfare often forgotten, but it was one of the best in terms of showing it for what it was, with as few embellishments as possible.

Send the kids to bed with this one.  One of the earliest 'just cuss every few seconds to make the point' movies, Platoon doesn't suffer from Stone's utter hatred of Capitalist America as much as most of his later films.  This is Stone telling his story.  There's enough commentary, in the part of Berenger's Barnes and Dafoe's Elias to remind us of the controversies of America's first lost war.  But he also makes it about the people, and brings in the little details he knew from experience to make this one of the best war movies of all time.  Dale Dye's commentary on the DVD is perhaps one of the greatest such commentaries ever.  In some ways, it moved me more than the movie itself.

Charles Kuralt's The Revolutionary War
Not a Hollywood production, but a series produced in the heyday of Cable channels, when The Learning Channel meant learning.  Still enough of Americana to make it worth watching, the emphasis is certainly on showing some of the meaner, shadier sides of America's war of independence, while unpacking some of those famous villains and giving them a human side, Arnold being the most obvious.  The reproductions are well produced, Kuralt's narration is worth gold, and there's still enough of a balance between the bad which needs told as well as the greatness that needs remembered, to make this a far better series than most of what is produced today, most of which sadly emphasis the bad to the exclusion of anything.  A good watch to remember just why we have this country to slap around in the first place.

The Dirty Dozen
How did this get here?  A fictitious movie that nobody really knows what to do with.  Part Boomer rebellion, part callous who cares about human life, part in your eye to the establishment, The Dirty Dozen was a major hit in the Summer of Love, when so many were singing All You Need is Love.  The cast makes it work.  You can't go wrong with talent like that.  Even though you get the feeling there is plenty of commentary about war, its ugliness and its brutality, the movie never quite goes over the line to outright preaching like so many today.  It's also worth remembering that many of the attitudes of this time, rethinking the greatness of the war and those who fought it, were being held by those who back in their day were landing on the beaches of Iwo Jima and Anzio.

Kelly's Heroes
Even the name can't be taken seriously, inspired as it obviously was by the surprising hit TV series Hogan's Heroes.  And even then, the movie Kelly's Heroes takes Hogan's Heroes and knocks it down another notch.  These heroes aren't out to save the world in some crazy POW camp.  These guys are out for loot!  A fictitious sixties inspired yarn in which a ragtag bunch of soldiers stop caring and decide to break the rules, not to defeat Nazism, or save the world, or defend freedom, but just to nab some gold from a bank behind enemy lines.  Fun stuff to be sure, but also a reminder of just how far we'd come as a nation.  In college, it was these movies or John Wayne that led many of my classmates to conclude WWII was no big deal after all, not like Vietnam, which was really bad.

The sixties generation anti-war movie against which all sixties generation anti-war movies are measured. MASH was a Vietnam anti-war movie only loosely set in Korea.  From the sex, drugs and sex emphasis, to Sutherland's hopped up flower child Hawkeye, one almost forgets this is supposed to be in the 50s Korean conflict.  Yes, it's fun.  It's a good watch.  The gags, the performances, the talent, and the link to the classic and immensely successful TV series of the same name, all make it worth the watch.  What is especially noteworthy is that this was a major hit the same year as another major hit named Patton.  What does that tell you about the conflicting attitudes in 1970.

The next generation, born in the wake of the Boomers, had to have its say.  By now, Vietnam was lost, and movies like MASH and Easy Rider had a bigger impact on the general mindset than The Longest Day or any John Wayne movie.  Stripes was a vehicle for Bill Murray, and set him perched on the edge of the super-stardom he would enjoy three years later battling ghosts.  A take off of Private Benjamin, Stripes held the basic contempt for most things America that was all the rage by then.  Breaking rules was the thing to do, and the army was now an industry of buffoons and dolts, at best.  What is really worth noticing, however, is Murray's famous 'mutts' speech.  Almost edgy in its day for poking fun of America's triumphant diverse heritage, against the utter hatred and contempt for traditional America that comes out in many movies today by the likes of Oliver Stone and others, the speech comes off as almost John Waynish.  There's how things can change.

Red Dawn
Controversial in its day because of the violence, Red Dawn was an anomaly in a cultural landscape that was increasingly concluding that we'd met the enemy and it was us.  Reagan was president, and we were being told that it was Reagan, not the Soviets, who would doom us all.  In fact, as a series I've seen on PBS points out, the whole Cold War may have been orchestrated by the American Military Complex, and not the fault of those misunderstood Soviets at all.  That attitude was already taking shape when this odd thing came out.  Assuming an unlikely scenario in which the Soviets pair up with Hispanic forces to invade the hinterland, Red Dawn assumed a bunch of high schoolers of varying backgrounds could bring the Red Army to a standstill.  Good performances and a captivating story line help.  Mostly, it's just interesting to see how a movie with the attitude of 'America is great let's defend it!' stands out like a sore thumb when set in juxtaposition to other Hollywood fare in recent years.

The Best Years of Our Lives
A movie that smacks down the Boomer Myth that they were the first generation to honestly look at the ugly underside of things like war and anything else to do with America.  Winner of 1946's Academy Award for Best Picture, and a box office hit, this movie takes an honest look at the cost of war in a way few movies before or since have equaled.  It's not at the end of the list because of its stature.  In fact, if that were the case, it'd be at the top.  Instead, it's here to remind us that much of what we've bought into in order to forget our country's greatness was, in fact, a lie.  And few lies have been more effective than the one that said ours is the first generation to be honest about America's real history.  Truth be told, most of what passes for honesty is anything but that.  Instead, look at the movies from the times, such as this remarkable gem, and see how that generation that came before the Boomers, like most generations, actually dealt with reality.  Get your hankies, you'll be glad you did.

There are others.  Some as I said are watched at specific times because of historical accuracy or that's just how I remember them.   Many, like All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, The Lost Battalion, The Blue Max, From Here to Eternity, Twelve O'Clock High, Apocalypse Now, My Boy Jack, and First Blood, among others, are worth their weight, and have a place, though maybe not in a day that's supposed to be a day to remember the fallen, those who went before, those who died in some faraway land so that we could do what we do best, and that's sit around and complain about the country we inherited.  But then that's why I didn't list such things as the Deer Hunter or Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket.  After all, why watch those movies when I could watch a modern Stone movie instead?

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