Title: Saving Private Ryan
Release Date: 1998
Nationality and Language: USA, English
Running time: about 165 Minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Distributor and Production Company: Dreamworks LLC
Director: Steven Spielberg
Producer: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon
Relevance to HPPUB site: WWII
I recall seeing the menacing marquee for this film in the tunnel-hallway from Planet Hollywood to the General Cinema 14 at the Minnesota Mall of America. I thought, maybe this is something like my own experience in Basic Training during the Vietnam era.
Again, congratulations to Steven Spielberg, Nick Katzenberg, and David Geffen for forming Dreamworks, an ambitious movie studio that will produce big films on major, often difficult, political and social issues (as well as light kiddie fare) as viewed in a historical perspective. Their ambition is like mine, multiplied by several orders of magnitude.
And Spielberg continues the legacy he started with Schindler's List.
Much has been made of the graphic depiction of the D-Day invasion, a knife-edge turning point of our own history. Spielberg himself insists this is not suitable for children or even younger teens. You see a soldier vomiting from seasickness in the "Let 'em Rip" crossover of the English Channel. You see a soldier with his furrowed, pinkish intestines hanging out of his exposed lower torso, while he is still conscious for triage. (He will be left to die.) You see a soldier get hit on his steel pot with a bullet, take the pot off and then get shot, dead-center forehead, Born Losers style.
Later, we do get into the characters. Tom Hanks plays a married English teacher, and a kind of Everyman from English lit. (and brighter than Forrest Gump). Private Ryan himself is played by a charismatic Matt Damon, who hasn't lost any edge from Rainmaker or Good Will Hunting (Damon's own opus, with Affleck). Ryan doesn't want to go back home until he finishes his duty to his country. And he performs with great honor in the final battle over a bridge, and then does go back.
This brings me to the two main points of the story. Younger generations do not experience how their personal freedoms were enabled by the sacrifices of members of my father's generation. And these were sacrifices forced upon young men by the state. If you didn’t hit that beachhead, you could be court-martialed and shot for cowardice. But most young men of that generation saw "going" as a mark of manly honor, a rite of passage, a requirement of their dominion.
The other point is that a young man might have more right to his own life if he had the compelling family associations - being the only surviving child. In the story, of course, Ryan's three brothers have all been killed in action within a few days. The value of life itself in that generation depended upon family situation, in a way some people find hard to believe today.
One technical question: why does Spielberg avoid wide-screen (Panavision) format in portraying his visions?
Schindler’s List (1993, Universal/Amblin, dir. Steven Spielberg, 195 min, R) brings back memories of some years back when Hollywood would make serious, epic historical theater films about major issues. And this film is mostly in black-and-white. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a Gentile German businessman in Nazi Germany, starts a factory in which he hires Jews, and then turns his place into a refuge. Along the way there are harrowing scenes of roundups and concentration camps. You see the ordinary items like shoes and leather briefcases thrown into heaps. In one scene, there is a splash of red as a little girl tries to escape a roundup. In another scene, an SS officer target practices on concentration camp prisoners for sport. At the end, the film turns to color for a modern day memorial. Includes Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes.
I visited the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau in May 1999, on foot, alone, going through the prison buildings with exhibits of everyday items, after a night train ride to Poland from Berlin, “to the East,” a bizarre experience. My own DADT black-and-white cover has that barren look that I used to call a “Schindler’s List” look.
The Aryan Couple (2005, Hemdale/Celebration/Atlantic, dir. John Daly, UK/Hungary, 120 min). The film starts with a visual tour of Auschwitz-Bikernau today, which I visited on foot in May 1999. It then settles into the story, to which I was drawn by the title: what would it have been like to live as a Gentile in that society and wonder where the values were headed. Actually, it’s too late for that. It’s 1944 in Hungary, and the Aryan couple is really a young Jewish husband and pregnant wife Hans and Ingrid Vassman (Kenny Doughty and Caroline Carver) “passing” to get along and spy on the enemy. They work as servants for Joseph and Rachel Krauzenberg, who are being forced by the Nazis to give up all of their estate and art collection for safe passage to Palestine. Things come to a head when Himmler (Danny Webb, who rather looks like Hitler himself) Edelhein and Eichmann invite themselves to a final dinner, a kind of last supper, catered by the couple. At one point, Himmler says of the Jews, “there is no country than can take many of you.” Then the couple is “caught,” by ingeniously manipulates German soldiers and bureaucrats into letting them escape to Switzerland, including one climatic scene at a train border crossing. There are a couple of mildly homoerotic probes of Hans by German soldiers. This is a gripping film, and I am surprised it was not picked up by a larger distributor (how about The Weinstein Company?)
Your Unknown Brother (“Dein unbekannter Bruder”, 1982, Ice Storm/DEFA, dir. Ulrich Weiss, 115 min, sug. PG-13) is a rare film that shows the world of 1935 Germany for Gentile Germans. What was it like living in improving prosperity with a seductive totalitarianism that offered a belief of superiority? This is a journey to another dominion, a rather cold, boxy world of small shops and apartments and dark furniture, stone buildings and cobble streets and little sunshine. A projectionist Arnold Clausen (Uwe Kockisch) has been released from prison for association with Communism and tries to keep a low profile. But he is befriended by Walter (Michael Gwisdek) who offers him a future job as a guard and draws him into a private world that has its dangers. There are hints that Michael (whose family consists of a monkey and a turtle) is gay. Eventually other companions fall under the spell of the Gestapo, including his unknown brother. The last scene of the film is a gulag on a North Sea marsh (the film is shot near Hamburg).
Sophie Scholl: The Last Days ("Die Letzten Tagen", 2005, dir. Marc Rothemund, 117 min) Blogger.
Rotation (1949, DEFA/IceStorm, directed by Wolfgang Staudte and written by Erwin Klein and Fritz Staudte) Blogger. .
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (or "Pajamas") (2008, Miramax, dir. Mark Herman, UK, 95 min) A Nazi commandant moves his family to a house next to a concentration camp and his innocent son befriends a boy in the camp, leading to tragedy. Blogger.
Before the Fall ("NaPolA", Constantin / PictureThis!, dir. Dennis Gansel, 2004, R, 110 min, Germany) gives an even deeper look at life for Germans in Nazi Germany. An ambitious teenage boy Friedrich Weimer (Max Reimelt) forges a signature to get around his working class father's wishes that he apprentice the family business and goes to the National Political Academy after getting in because of boxing skills and because he "measures" according to racial standards. He befriends Albrecht (Tom Schilling), whose own father is at the Academy, creating complications after they spend a night hunting Russian POW's and children are killed. Albrecht's father makes him write an essay when Albrecht chokes at having to do that, and then there is an ice water swimming test . When Max loses a boxing match, he is kicked out. The movie does demonstrate the ideology that made "superiority" itself a virtue, and how it falls on its own sword. But some of the scenes mimic our own values today to a shocking degree.
Triumph of the Will ("Triumph des Willens",1934,Connoisseur-Meridian,dir. Leni Riefenstahl, 110 min) is an infamous propaganda live film of one of Hitler's rallies in Nuremburg in 1934. On one level it is "offensive" but one can try to learn a lot about the sociology and mass psychology that allowed Hitler his asymmetric takeover of an advanced country. In sharp black-and-white and all on location, it is a "you are there" glimpse of another world that almost seems like another planet. You see the mass rallies and the uniform angular salutes to Hitler, and the mass conformity, masked by a curious veneer of mysticism. The pitch seems to be a uniform kind of nationalism: if you were a legitimate "Aryan" "Christian" ("Holy Roman Empire") German, you were equal to everyone else. The term national socialism is almost an oxymoron, so extreme that it is neither on the Left or the Right. But the equality was relative and virtual, as toward the end Hitler talks of those among the ranks with "superior blood" who fight harder but who "deserve" the leadership positions. But generally, this was a sociology of "team play" and mass participation, not one in which one reveled at association (what I call "narcissistic upward affiliation") with "better" (?!?) people at any kind of individual level. Early in the film there are scenes among the Hitler Youth (I remember a book "Education for Death: The Making of a Nazi," 1972, by Gregor Ziemer), and there are military camp scenes of moderate homoeroticism, with mutual bath scrubs. The film begins with a blank screen for a minute while Wagnerian music plays, and one wonders how the meaning of German classical music that we revere today got so corrupted; during the film the music degenerates into boring, repetitious marches with monotonous rhythms and tonic to dominant or subdominant harmonies. This film makes Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" almost tolerable in comparison.
The Great Raid (2004, Miramax, dir. John Dahl, 132 min, R) is another rescue film in the Private Ryan tradition. The history is the rescue of American POW’s in the largest camp in history, at the Catanabuan Camp, of over 500 prisoners who had somehow survived the Bataan death march. The film, although full widescreen, is more deliberate and subtle than the Ryan film; it is a bit of an art film, funded by Miramax Weinstein brothers. The cast includes Benjamin Bratt, James Franco, and Joseph Fiennes. The opening and closing show black-and-white news reels, cropped for widescreen, and the film itself is in muted color. The first hour and a half go for drama and buildup; they show the gamesmanship among the prisoners, the Filipinos, the medical help, the Japanese, and the Army rangers preparing to attack.
There are scenes on an island city that seems improbably large and varied. At a couple points, unmarried men offer themselves as sacrifices in place a men with families, a controversial point for today's individualistic world. The conclusion is indeed a spectacular finale. There is one horrific scene where prisoners are executed, shot in the back of the head in cold blood. The film stays in the island environment (set up in Australia) and does not move back to civilization, so it seems a bit claustrophobic.
A Very Long Engagement (“Un long dimanche de fiancailles”) (2004, WB-France, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie), based on the novel by Sebastien Japrisot, 134 min, R) will compete with Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan for battlefield gore and realism, this time the Marginot line of World War I. Five French soldiers are sent into “No Man’s Land” for intentionally wounding themselves to get out of the trenches. One of them, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), is an especially gentle soul and son of a lighthouse tender (he looks a lot like Josh Hartnett), and has been in love (all right—betrothed, a fiancé) with polio-stricken Mathilde (Audrey Tautou). She will go on an odyssey in Post-Great-War France to find out what happened to him. This film becomes a spectacular period piece, filmed in Cinemascope with tinted colors, often with a brownish tint, but with the greatest detail of household life (down to the cat that sets fires). Slowly she pieces together what happened on the battlefield from indirect survivors, until she is finally reunited. The film is epic (and maybe attractive to WB for Oscar potential)—although it seems like it belongs to the genre of Miramax’s Cold Mountain. I think the script needed to focus more on Manech so that you learn exactly how he could have survived from his inner strength. One of the most shocking scenes is the field hospital underneath a hydrogen blimp. The battlefield scenes come back all the time, with relentless horror—this is more the reason for the R rating than anything else. There are interesting black-and-white flashbacks (on standard screen size) also, including one on-camera guillotining.
Paths of Glory (1957, MGM / United Artists, dir. Stanley Kubrick, novel by Humphrey Cobb, 87 min) During World War I, a French general (Adoplphe Menjou) orders his men to carry out a suicide attack. When some men refused, they are tried for "cowardice in the face of the enemy", and Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas) defends them. The men are picked to be tried, sometimes by lot, sometimes because the commander believes that they are "undesirables." Where have we heard that. Dax says that the reason they were picked on for sacrifice is immaterial. The film is a draft-era examination of a value system that forces young males to offer their lives for others. Early, one soldier is asked if he "has a wife" and he is too shell-shocked to answer. He is dispatched. The stagecraft for the constructed trenches is interesting, and the battle advance anticipates the filmmaking of Spielberg in Ryan, although here everything is crisp black and white, literally and figuratively. .
Flyboys (2006, MGM / Electric / Elstree, dir. Tony Bill, 140 min, PG-13, UK/France) This is the story of the Lafayette Escadrille, young American men who joined the French Army during World War I before the United States, under Woodrow Wilson, entered the war. Some of the men had been convicted of crimes and left the country. One of the men is suspected of being a German spy until he admits his bank robbery with a toy gun. Starring James Franco, Phillip Winchester, David Ellison, Jean Reno. There are spectacular dog fights in the air with vintage planes, and a hydrogen-filled blimp blows up. The training camp has a young male lion that acts pretty much like a Labrador Retriever and rough houses with the men.
The Great Dictator (1940, United Artists, dir. Charles Chaplin, 126 min, PG) Charley Chaplin goes way beyond physical comedy (with which the film starts in the World War I battle scenes) to structure a satire that tries to explain how Nazi Germany could indeed have come about, from the level of ordinary people. I'm not sure it works, but the film ends with a stunning speech where the Jewish barber (not exactly Sweeney Todd) played by Chaplin gives a stunning speech when he has been mistaken for Adenoid Hynkel (aka Adolf Hitler) while being escorted by Commander Schultz (Reginal Gardiner) to the border of Osterich (aka Austria) then still a "free country." The Nazis have disparaged "democracy, liberty and equality" as protecting the weak and unworthy, and are planning to replace this with the State which, through absolute loyalty to its aims, would raise the people of Tomania (aka Germany) to aesthetic perfection. (Jack Oakie plays Benzini Napolini, aka Mussolini, dictator of Bacteria (aka Italy); Mussolini, remember, heavily taxed bachelors!) Chaplin turns all of this upside down in his speech, in which he says "We think too much and feel too little" and decries technology (a lesson that could apply to today's Internet) as having become perverted to serve false idols rather than help everyone. Is this an argument for socialism? Not exactly, and the middle parts of the movie (in crisp black and white) would attempt to show how Nazi ideology would have become tempting to ordinary Germans. It's odd that "the state" can determine worthiness or deservedness; libertarianism says that the free market does that. The film demonstrates great (and maybe dangerous) concept, but I would like to see it done better in a straightforward drama. It's remarkable that this movie was made in 1940, before Pearl Harbor. If it had been made in the late 50s, when I started high school, I wonder what the spin would have been. The fictional circle of the movie is complete, as even the swastika is shown as a simplified white on dark cross.
Joyeux Noel ("Merry Christmas", 2005, Sony Pictures
Classics/Nord-Ouest, dir. Christian Carrion,
France, PG-13, 116 min). During World War I, on the front lines, there was a Christmas truce that started with music, first from the
Scottish bagpipes, and then carol singing. This incident was mentioned
in the Christmas 2006 sermon at the Washington Cathedral (one week before
President Ford's funeral there.) For a day the men exchanged stories of their
wives and kids and played games. Then the carnage had to resume. But most of
the movie sets this up and then analyzes it. Scottish, French, and German
children give speeches in their own languages depicting the enemy. Then we
are led to wonder, why are men drafted to go out and
kill and fight someone else's political battles. Toward the end, an Anglican
priest gives a sermon about the gospel of the sword, or the Great War as a
crusade to kill Germans so that they won't have to be killed again. (An
ironic view of history.) Officers are criticized, and asked what their own
families will think of their "disloyalty." The film certainly makes
us examine how we decide what is right and wrong in terms of arbitrary tribal
and national loyalties, even among people who look exactly alike. The film is
visually striking, in Scope, and starts with great vistas, many of which
probably couldn't have been on the Marginot line.
Do not confuse with an 80s film about the Pacific
theater, "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence."
InVincible ("Unbesiegbar," 2001, Fine Line, dir. Werner Herzog, 135 min, prob PG-13, UK/Germany) is another important film about personal v. public life in pre-WWII Germany as the Nazis came to power, and about particular Jews ("Juden") who found themselves in the morally ambiguous position of working with or for the Nazis. That sounds like a stereotyped mouthful, and it needs to be parsed. In 1932 in Eastern Poland, Zishe Breitbart (Juoco Ahola, possibly a Finnish name?) takes a job as a weightlifter in a local circus to pay back a debt from a barroom brawl damage when he is insulted by anti-Semitic slurs. Soon he finds himself invited to go to Berlin to perform in a cabaret as a strongman. He "befriends" (not exactly) owner Eric Jan Hanussen (Tim Roth), and gradually Hersche reveals his dream of becoming the minister of the Occult in the new Reich. Zishe stands up to him a couple times, however, and finds himself in the morally ambiguous position of speaking up for what he thinks is right, v. loyalty to protecting other people. Eventually, he makes a serious accusation and is challenged in German court. Eric is revealed to be an imposter with various aliases (like Hersche Steinschneider) and is actually a Jew himself, but has embarked on a life of self-promotion, which curiously comports with the mythical complaints that the Nazis made against his people.
There is all kind of symbolism along the way. Zishe actually dresses up as Siegfried (with a blond wig and steel pot) but the show presents him in analogy to the story of Samson in the Old Testament. There are various magical tricks in the show, to the point that Eric is quizzed about them at the trial. (In that regard, the movie bears resemblance to "The Illusionist," where again there is a political context.) The Mahler-like score of Hans Zimmer adds to the emotional climate and serious tone, and the E major slow movement of the Beethoven 3rd Piano concerto is performed in part (It is one of the longest musical performances in the movies, other than "The Pianist"; I wish there had been time to finish it in the closing credits).
At the end, Zishe returns to his people in Eastern Poland. He has an accident and gets a serious leg infection (gangrene), has an amputation, but will eventually die, just before the Nazis come to power. There is a scene where the other people say they believe that they have nothing to fear from Germany, because it is demilitarized, and they fear Russia much more.
Zishe, however, believes that he can, with an occult sensibility, anticipate the future himself, and it is bad for his people. The Holocaust, we all know, would soon begin. He has a long conversation with a rabbi in which the rabbi says that in any generation there are 36 people with special gifts, and they are so sensitive that God often delays their reward in Heaven when they pass on. So Zishe will pass on before the Holocaust. But the idea that some people must postpone their eternal life for the good of everyone is very curious and interesting indeed.
This movie should not be confused about the 2006 film by the same name from Disney, about pro football.
Flags of our Fathers (2006, Warner Bros./Dreamworks/Amblin, dir. Clint Eastwood, book by James Bradley and Ron Powers, 132 min, R). The Battle of Iwo Jima, in early 1945, was a critical battle in the Pacific and from a filmmaking point of view it offers a vision or war and brutality that rivals the Private Ryan film about D-Day. Not that many people know that the island is largely volcanic and desolate, and that made Iceland a suitable location. Six men credited with raising the flag and creating the perfect "picture" are assigned to go stateside and raise money for war bonds, at a time when, according to the film, the nation was drowning in debt that threatened the loss of the war in the Pacific. It's a challenge enough to be recruited to sell someone else's message. But here the men are bothered about what really happened on the mountainous (Mt. Surabachi) tip of the island, where it isn't clear which men are in the photo, and where several if the men involved would die in subsequent brutal combat (only three made it back. The most important acting performance is probably Adam Beach as Ira Hayes, the indian, who faces discrimination when he is on tour and has a big drinking and throwing up problem Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Barry Pepper and Jamie Bell round out the young men. The story is told in flashbacks, and runs around out of sequence as a dying old man in president constructs the flashbacks, including a meeting with President Truman (David Patrick Kelly). The battle scenes are in sharp sepia, almost black and white, probably to echo the abstract style of the epic WWII films of the 60s (reviewed below). They are recalled in little images, as when the men are served ice cream shaped as the memorial, draped with raspberry sauce. There are a couple of great stadium scenes: Soldier Field in Chicago (that looks like Germany itself), and a shot of old Griffith Stadium in Washington when the Yankees play the Senators.
The companion film at the end of 2006 from Clint Eastwood and WB/Amblin is Letters from Iwo Jima, (2006, Warner Bros./Dreamworks/Amblin, 140 min, R, USA/Japan, mostly in Japanese with subtitles, wr. Iris Yamashita) almost in black and white, from the Japanese viewpoint. This film opened in NY and LA just in time for the Oscars, and in the DC area is in only one theater, Landmark's Bethesda Row, even though it is a major studio movie. In this film, the moonscapes on the island come through in natural grays, as the film meanders to a close like a twentieth century symphony that dies away. (The Vaughn Williams Sixth comes to mind, but the composers are Kyle Eastwood (Clint's son?) and Michael Stevens; the studio trademarks are silent so as not to disrupt the audience before this film, which is a somber requiem). I did wonder if the movie should have simply been shot in plain black-and-white. The Cinemascope gives the images a grand scale indeed, and you live in this movie for its 2 hours and 20 minutes, as the soldiers face their morally defined fates. A young man grows up, kills ten of the enemy for his country and then dies. Hopefully, he has had a chance to marry and sow his seed for a male heir. It is all about sacrifice for collective posterity, totally socialized heterosexuality, so vulnerable to political manipulation. The flashbacks are interesting. In one of them, Japanese police troll the civilian neighborhoods, and scold a woman for not having the Emperor's flag up, and then they kill her dog (after hesitation) for making too much noise. Another is a state dinner, where it is not yet known that America and Japan will become enemies, and the Japanese soldier admits that his own beliefts are the same as his country's. (My country right or wrong?) Horishi Watanabe, Takumi Bando, Yuki Matsuzaki. Lucas Elliot makes and interesting appearance as Sam, a casualty brought into one of the Japanese caves.
Sands of Iwo Jima (1949, Republic/Artisan, dir. Allan Dwan, 109 min, sug PG) is the obvious comparison, and the first half of the older film seems patronizing by today's standards. It starts with John Wayne as Sgt. Stryker, looking military enough with open neck in khakis (after the USMC hymn "From the Halls of Montezuma") telling his men he will tell them exactly what to do every moment. That's what basic is like. Some of the scenes do look comical, as when one man wants a transfer because he has trouble with bayonet and Stryker dances with him. (Nobody had imagined "don't ask don't tell" then.) There are silly lines in combat, like "the Navy clearing its throat." Later Stryker tells his men, "let the other guy die for his country, you'll live for yours." Does that fit the coming "Letters" movie above? Finally, the men land on Iwo Jima and fight their way up for the flag raising on Mount Suribachi. The film is interrupted with live battle scenes, but the native black and white lacks the detail of the recent Spielberg/Eastwood films; movie making has come that far. At the end, Stryker gets mowed down, and the men read his letter to his son, whom he advises to protect his mother. Another man will have to finish the letter. Is this the inspiration for Eastwood's second film?
Go for Broke! (1951, MGM, dir. Robert Pirosh, 92 min) Van Johnson plays Lt. Michael Greyson who, out of OCS, is assigned to train a company of Nisei, Japanese Americans previously interred by volunteering to fight for the US. There is a lot of talk that the United States military will not discriminate, which rings rather strange in that at the time, troops were still segregated (and they pretended to exclude men who "didn't like girls" until 1943). At one point the Greyson tries to apologize for discriminatory attitudes toward Italians! The small Japanese men, in a brutal campaign in Italy and then France, turn out to be better soldiers than the officer.
To Hell and Back (1955, Universal, dir. Jesse Hibbs, book by Audie Murphy). Audie Murphy plays himself as a war hero during several WWII campaigns. He had enlisted in the Army to support younger siblings after his mother died. Eventually he would win the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Battle Hymn (1957, Universal, dir. Douglas Sirk, 115 min) is an early full "CinemaScope" picture that explores obligation to others (kids) but that which is incurred as karma from participating in war. Col. Dean Hess (Rock Hudson) accidentally bombs an orphanage in Germany during WWII when a bomb gets stuck. He becomes a minister after the war but feels that his words from the pulpit are empty. Despite his marriage (and his wife has become pregnant), he volunteers to fight in Korea and overseas the accidental strike on a family exposed to combat from the air. To pay back his moral debt, he sets up an orphanage for Korean children (who actually play in the movie), but has to fight in combat to protect them. The movie uses the famous hymn (now common with the religious right) for emotional effect, but the script doesn't have the subtlety of some of Sirk's other (and better) films.
Days of Glory ("Indigenes", 2006, The Weinstein Company, dir. Rachid Bouchareb, 120 min, R, in French) has four Muslim North African soldiers enlisting and fighting in both North Africa and various locations in France during the liberation. The film starts each episode with a black and white landscape (Cinemascope) that migrates to color. I'm not sure that all of the geography is right (would they have hiked across the Alps? Or was it the Pyrenees (once they were already in France). Jamel Debbouze, Samy Naceri, Roschdy Zem, Sami Bouajila. Algeria used to be legally part of France, but soldiers from North Africa lost their pensions in the 1950s. Of course, all of this seems relevant to the problems with Islam in France today. The last battle scene, where the four men have a siege in a small town, is spectacular. At one point Said (Jamel) is asked, "Have you ever given an order before?"
The Tuskegee Airmen (1995, HBO, dir. Robert Markowitz, story by Robert Williams and T.S. Cook, 106 min, PG-13). "How do you fight for a country that thanks us with lynching?" Gode Davis poses that question in his own project "American Lynching". That line in the script occurs after the African American airmen (called, with historical custom, negro) played by Laurence Fishburne, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Andre Braugher provide cover in Italy for white dive-bombers. While taking losses themselves, they achieve a perfect record in protecting their white-piloted raids. They've been on a long road (including North Africa) to get there, starting when they enlist in the segregated Army -- then the "Air Force" was the Army Air Corps, and face word salad manipulations from whites and pseudo-science that is not that far from that espoused by the Nazis who had become the enemy of civilization. John Lithgow is chilling as the prejudiced Sen. Conyers. In an early scene, one of the men worries about residual lipstick as he gets on a steam-engine driven train. The DVD is sold in the shop at the Smithsonian NASA museum at Dulles Airport in Chantilly, VA. There is a stirring music score by Lee Holdridge, which holds together during the end credits. See also "Glory".
Home of the Brave (2006, MGM / Millennium, dir. Mark Friedman, 105 min) did not come out until spring 2007, well after the other war films of the end of 2006, and, as a dramatization of the domestic problems of returning Iraq war veterans, is seemed a bit turgid. After the spectacular opening in Iraq (filmed in Morocco -- here is where the documentary films seem more real when they are really shot there), where Venessa Price (Jessica Biel) loses an arm in an ambush, and Tommy Yates (Brian Presley) loses a buddy (Chad Michael Murray, from "One Tree Hill") whom Army surgeon Will Marsh (Samuel L. Jackson) cannot save, the last two thirds of the movie flattens into a sequence of scenes that might work better in a stage play -- although the background of Spokane, WA is well used. Relatively little of the politics of the Iraq war comes into play, except in the sequence involving Marsh's son (Sam Jones III, Clark's best friend in "Smallville"), who gets into trouble at school with a "Buck Fush" t-shirt.
Stop-Loss (2008, Paramount, dir. Kimberly Peirce, 112 min, R) starts with a brutal fire-fight in Iraqi streets, under squad leader Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), with some maimings and deaths. King comes home to Texas, distressed, are the other surviving buddies in his unit, who behave badly, despite exhortations from their First Sergeant to stay out of trouble (don't beat their wives, don't have sex with underage girls). King expects to get out, but is told when he reports that he has orders for Iraq and has been "stop-lossed". He goes AWOL, which alienates the legal system (including a Senator) from helping him. He almost does a Vietnam-era split to Canada, and then Mexico. But, finally, he has to make a decision.
The movie makes much of the unfairness of the stop-loss system, which seems to be at the discretion of the President (who is at the receiving end of an epithet in the movie). The stop-loss system covers up the lack of a draft, and, when combined with graphic depictions of the maimings, amputations and casualties (I don't know how they set these up, whether they were real as in the recent documentary "Fighting for Life") makes a powerful political point. You also see how far these men have migrated from the everyday civilian life of self-promotion as many Americans know it.
The Best Years of our Lives (1946, RKO Radio / MGM / The Samuel Goldwyn Company /dir. William Wylor, novel by MacKinlay Kantor, 170 min) Al (Frederic March), Fred (Dana Andrews) and Homer (Harold Russell) return home from World War II and find that the civilian world has changed irreparably. Homer has lost both hands (they were burned off), and toward the end of the movie there is a tender scene where his girl helps him with everything. Fred lives in his memories of being a bombadier, and recollects it all in a chilling scene where he walks through an field filled with old airplanes and parts. The men find that they don't have their jobs back, and are challenged as to whether their skills are transferrable. Investors have to take real chances in loaning them money. The phrase "he went up" is coined in the movie. This was a good example of early "independent film". It's amazing that this film could be made so quickly after the end of WWII.
In the Valley of Elah (2007, Warner Independent Pictures / Summit, dir., wr. Paul Haggis, 114 min, R) The title of the movie comes from the obvious Bible story, and Goliath here is the entire culture of the US Army, especially the underbelly of unit cohesion and loyalty. Tommie Lee Jones plays a former Army officer Hank Deerfield, living in Tennessee with wife (Susan Sarandon), who lost an older son in war and whose wonderful other son has disappeared when due home at a base in New Mexico from Iraq. He drives to the base (near Albuquerque, used in the film -- it makes up the fictitious town of Bradford) and quickly learns that his son was murdered and dismembered. He pressures a local police detective (Charlize Theron) to get interested, while getting a local computer hacker to reconstruct a cell phone record of a humvee battle in Iraq which may have killed civilians, leading to a cover-up. There is an early scene where Hank looks at his son's intended room, and the film shows military barracks life closely (even the showers) as if to make a political point about the discipline and forced intimacy. He sneaks the cell phone out of the drawer (arranged like a foot locker for inspection). As the case unravels, the conclusion will be quite shocking. The film recalls "A Few Good Men," but the only good men seem to be Hank and his son; Theron (who looks good here) plays the role analogous to Tom Cruise in the earlier film.
The Red Badge of Courage (1951, MGM, dir. John Huston, novel by Stephen Crane (1895), 69 min, PG). Of course, the title of the film means a war "wound". As a film, this is noteworthy for a flag-raising scene near the end. Having proved himself a man finally, the Youth, Henry Fleming (Audie Murphy) raises a tattered Union flag while a Confederate soldier with his own collapses. Maybe that scene helped inspire the Iwo Jima movies. I read the novella in 11th Grade English (1959). It was published when Crane was 24, and the movie contains many quotes of narration. Crane actually self-published his first novel, "Maggie: A Girl of the Streets." Of course, the Civil War novel, considered naturalistic in its time, is known for its examination of the morality of the self-sacrifice demanded of young men as a way of "paying their dues" to society -- in an era when men could buy their way out of the draft. Fleming flees the front lines (there are plenty of lines where commanders order men back into the fight), and Crane's narration calls him a "mental outcast." Behind the lines, he goes on a miniature odyssey, encountering various wounded characters, and begins to accept his shame. Finally, he gets punched out. Crane writes, "He had performed his mistakes in the dark, so he was still a man." Cowardice is the worst of sins, ironically in a world trying to promote freedom, because freedom is not free. In a military environment, Fleming could be convicted and shot for desertion (not just AWOL). (I don't recall that the English teacher in 11th grade made much of this point.) When he returns to battle, he has redeemed himself. The movie is in black-and-white, and was obviously filmed in California despite happening in Virginia. There are great BW effects, however, as in a scene capturing the shimmering of a pond in sunlight.
Is Paris Burning? (“Paris-brule-t-il”, 1966, Paramount, dir. Rene Clement, France 173 min, wr Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola) is an extravagant film about the trials faces by Parisians in the period just before the liberation of Paris in 1944. In Black-and-white Cinemascope, it is artsy and gorgeous to watch in some scenes, as when they walk into the Palace at Versailles. At the very beginning, Hitler threatens to burn Paris to the ground. The film has an intermission at 2/3 the way through. There is a simple march theme (including an overture) by Maurice Jarre, that provides the background music, and adds an atmosphere of artificiality. In the closing credits, the scenery reverts to color, with scenes of "modern" Paris. I would not visit Paris myself until 1999 and again in 2001 (after missing a chance in the Ninth Grade).
The Longest Day (1962, 20th Century Fox, dir. Darryl F. Zanuck, Ken Anakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, 178 min, G) is probably the most famous film about D-day, in crisp black-and-white CinemaScope (giving the film both abstraction and depth, with more effect as a whole than in the later Clement film), and docudrama style in the native languages. Many stars, including John Wayne, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda. An interesting episode occurs when steganograhy over the radio ("John has a long moustache", etc.) announced the raid to the Resistance. Then there is a train wreck near Caen that anticipates "The Fugitive." Much of the film documents the parachute landings before the invasions. The music score features a rhythmic leitmotif based on the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth. The restored digital stereo (ADD) on the DVD is outstanding. The film was shot on location at the various beaches, some of which are near the ancient/modern town of Bayeux with its William the Conqueror Museums, which I visited in 1999, only to lose my rental car keys there. But I would get to drive areas around the beaches anyway. The beach landing is as much a spectacle as in Spielberg's film, more so because of the Scope (which Speilberg's is not), though without the closeup guts (with some of the same personal situations on the beaches); in fact, this movie looks like a more typical Spielberg film to me.
Battle of the Bulge (1965, Warner Bros., dir. Ken Annakin, book by Philip Yordan, 170 min) is one of the later movies to be available for single-projector Cinerama. It depicts the last German attempt in late 1944 to recapture French and Belgian territory. The scenery, while striking, is not accurate; the land was probably mostly rather flat, and scenes with snow mix in with scenes that look like desert. The train sequence before the Intermission is striking. The movie provided an overture, intermission and exit music. The score by Benjamin Frankel reminds one of Copland and works up to a great martial climax at the end, with the result that the exit music (not really used for closing credits) become superfluous.
The Diary of Anne Frank (1959, 20th Century Fox, dir. George Stevens, black and white Cinemascope, 170 min with a 9 minute musical overture by Alfred Newman, based on the diary by Anne Frank and a play by Frances Goodrich) depicts a Jewish family in Amsterdam hiding from the Nazis from mid 1943 until after D-day, when they are found, from the point of view of a girl keeping a diary. There are family dynamics: Anne (Millie Perkins) prefers her dad, as her mother calls her "constipated" when she asks too many questions. The family deals with scare food rations, with scraps shared the the family cat. In one sequence where the cat is nibbling on a sandwich and a plate falls, the Nazis almost find them until the cat meows and leaves the impression that only feral "katze" are in the house. The film depicts the horror of waiting "them" to come and make you subservient.
Memphis Belle (1990, Warner Bros., dir. Michael Caton-Jones, dir. Monte Merrick, 107 min, PG-13) was a famous bomber flown from England in raids over Dresden in WWII, by a very young crew. There is one final raid, and the opportunity for danger and heartbreak. I visited Dresden myself in 1999.
Operation Crossbow ("The Great Spy Mission", 1965, MGM, dir. Michael Anderson, 115 min, UK/Germany, PG-13). This film was renamed for a while because "Crossbow" became associated with Robin Hood. Three British spies with German backgrounds (who have to make up their minds about what they "believe") (George Peppard, Trevor Howard, John Mills) infiltrate the Nazi's secret rocket test site for the doodlebug and V2 rocket. The early scenes where Hannah Reitsch (Barbara Ruttig) tests the rocket along the Baltic Coast are interesting, and the launch tracks are also curious to look at. The movie tends to bog down in a lot of talk (until one Hitchcock murder with a silencer), but then picks up steam as it visits Bavaria and then then shows the late raids on England. The rockets were considered a threat even after much of Europe was liberated. It has the style of the MGM widescreen epics of the 60s.
White Light, Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (2007, HBO Documentary, dir. Steven Okazaki, 85 min, R) is a graphic documentary of the use of the atomic bomb to end the war with Japan to end World War II. It starts in the usual historical narrative, and adds a comment to the effect that the Japs can match our technology but that their Shinto thinking is 2000 years behind ours. (Where do we hear that today?) It also presents rotoscopic animated art depicting the bombings, as well as some actual color shots of the fireballs (which as art are quite "beautiful"; later the film will show victims fingerpainting the bomb blast). Then the film ventures into the aftereffects of the bombing, showing more footage (black and white and faded color) than ever before scene. There are two surreal scenes of steam trains going through the wasteland. The film interviews many victims in both cities, now in their 70s, and gradually migrates to graphic photographs of their injuries, both the scars today, and their burns and wounds shortly after the blast. The burns are monstrous and the most graphic real wounds ever shown in film. There is curious mention of "purple spots" from radiation poisoning; this reminds me of the "purple spots" associated with Kaposi's Sarcoma in AIDS. Because the scenes of radiation and blast injuries and burns are real, they outdo the violence of "Saving Private Ryan." If this has a theatrical release (Picturehouse), parents, be warned. Probably not for under 16.
Atonement (2007, Focus / Working Title, dir. Joe Wright, novel by Ian McEwan, 123 min, UK, R) is a stunning layered story of how a teenage girl (talented as a writer) lets her emotions and jealousy run away, makes a false accusation and destroys a family in pre and early World War II Britain. The battle injury scenes when Robbie (James McAvoy) sees the Battle of Dunkirk are more harrowing than even in the Private Ryan movie. Extended blogger discussion here.
Mongol (2008, Picturehouse, dir. Sergei Bodrov, 126 min, R, Russia, in Mongol with subtitle) is an epic film giving the early history of Genghis Khan Temudgin (Japanese actor Tadanabo Asano). The movie depicts tribal society, including the picking of brides by children to settle tribal disputes. Blogger discussion.
The Recruiter (2007, The Film Sales Company / Propeller / HBO, dir. Edet Belznergm 87 min, PG-13) chronicles Army recruiter Clay Ulie in Houma, LA (famous Terrebone Parish) and several soldiers through Basic. With one female recruit, the issue of homosexuality in the military comes up But so does the draft and the idea of "federal service" or national service. Blogger discussion.
Miracle at St. Anna ("Miracolo a Sant’Anna", 2008, Touchstone, dir. Spike Lee, novel by James McBride, 160 min, R, Italy) is a stunning recreation of the 1944 Nazi massacre at Sant’Anna di Stazzema in Tuscany, with a layered story of four African American soldiers who save a boy, and the statute head of Ponte Santa Tranita as a macguffin. Blogger discussion.
Valkyrie ("Walkure",MGM / United Artists, dir. Bryan Singer, 120 min, PG-13, Germany) Tom Cruise plays Claus von Stauffenberg, who tried to lead the attempt to assassinate Hitler at Wolf's Lair in July 1944. Almost a docudrama. Blogger.
Defiance (2008, Paramount Vantage, dir. Edward Zwick, 139 min, R) Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell play three brothers who build a forest survival camp for Jews escaping Poland during WWII. Blogger.
Grace is Gone (2007, The Weinstein Company, dir.James G. Shouse). John Cusack plays a widower who must break the news to his daughters that their mother was killed in combat in Iraq. Blogger.
The Hurt Locker (2009, Summit/Grosvenor Park, dir. Kathryn Bigelow, Canada, 131 min, R). A bomb tech company hangs on in Iraq. Blogger.
Inglourious Basterds (2009, TWC/Universal Focus, dir. Quentin Tarantino, 159 min, R, Germany): Nazi hunters in WWII France. Brad Pitt, Eli Roth (the latter with a very hairy chest). Blogger.
One Day You’ll Understand (“Plus tard tu comprenderas, (2006, Kino, dir. Amos Gatai, book by Jerome Clement, France) A writer looks at the life of his Jewish grandmother, who married and feigned Catholicism to escape the Nazis. Blogger.
The Soviet Story (2008, Perry Street/PBS, dir. Edvins Snore, 78 min) Searing indictment of Joseph Stalin during WWII and a comparison of communism to fascism. Blogger.
The White Ribbon (2009, Sony Pictures Classics, dir. Michael Haneke, 128 min, R). Kids, possibly abused, even sexually, by an authoritarian reverend in a town in Germany before WWI, show signs of Nazi values as they start committing atrocities. This is indeed a horror film. Blogger.
For Love of Liberty: The Story of America’s Black Patriots (2009, PBS, dir. Frank Martin, 210 min), Blogger.
Restrepo (2010, NatGeo, dir, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, 90 min, R, US/UK) Reality combat in Afghanistan Korangal Valley. Blogger.
Band of Brothers (2001, Dreamworks/HBO, TV series by David Frankel and Tom Hanks) premiered two days before 9/11 and covers three brothers from D-Day to the victory in Japan. Damian Lewis, Donnie Wahlberg, Ron Livingston. With a slow buildup.
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