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War flick picks

Aesop joyously rips into The Art Of Manliness’ list of Top Ten War movies, then ponies up one of his own as a corrective. I’m in complete agreement with him, save for his evaluation of Saving Private Ryan:

Good, but it still doesn’t make the cut, despite the Normandy beach landing scene being among the best scenes ever filmed in motion picture history. Loses out because the rest of the movie, while ranging from good to great, is pure fairytale.

Fairytale? Okay, so stipulated. Athough the War Movie admittedly requires a certain gritty verisimilitude in order to really work, moreso than just about any other filmic genre, I’m not particularly bothered by SPR‘s fairytale tendencies myself. Dialogue; character development; direction— to include staging, lighting, and cinematography especially, which are Spielberg’s most finely-honed skills—are superlative. The casting, too, is spot-on. If the admittedly essential thread of realism unravels to some extent…well, hey, it’s only a movie, right?

That duly-picked nit aside, Aesop’s choices for Top Tenner status I can endorse most heartily. I mean, The Great Escape? Patton? Blackhawk Down? Das Boot? Braveheart? Can’t argue with it, folks. The priceless closing rant:

We could have picked another twenty not mentioned, and so could you, before having to descend to some of the execrable picks of AoM, and anyone that would pick The Thin Red Line for anything but “Screenwriter Most Deserving A Firing Squad” should be fed to wild hogs while on fire, and then have the pigs nuked from orbit. Just to be sure. Some TV shows are shot in front of a live audience. Some movie directors should be as well.

Nota bene that nothing made in the last twenty years even makes the cut.

And I’ve lost track of how many defeatist, anti-hero, anti-American, anti-everything-that’s-honorable incomprehensible piles of shit pretending to be “epic” films just make me want to infiltrate a sound stage and choke the living shit out of some asshole twentysomething never-served wannabe film producers and directors, and pin their still-beating hearts to a wall with a rusty bayonet.

Amen to that as well. I’ll close this out with my own personal endorsement of Kelly’s Heroes, a star-studded slice of cinematic strangeness so far from combat-flick traditionalism it can’t be seen from there. Like other movies from the late 60s/early 70s counter-culture era, it struts its period influences so prominently they can grate at times. But it’s also a lot of fun—a genuine oddity whose defiance of war-flick norms manages to be more lighthearted and innocuous than heavy-handed and obnoxious, actually enhancing the film instead of ruining it.

5 thoughts on “War flick picks

  1. The new version of Midway was damn good IMO. I was pleasantly surprised by it considering who they chose to play Nimitz and the fact that Spruance and Fletcher are basically non existent. But the movie concentrated on the folks flying the planes and it’s pretty damn good and very accurate.

  2. @ Cold Fury

    I will always remember seeing “Saving Private Ryan”when it first came out in the late 1990s. As well, the slim book called “Now You Know,” with testimonials from veterans of Omaha Beach. If you manage to impress the men who were actually there, then you are accomplished something special with your film. Spielberg and company raised the bar on making war movies, in particular films about the Second World War and for that we are in their debt.

    However, as time has passed, the film has not aged as well as one might expect. I’ve commented to my wife that SPR is “how liberals make a war movie,” meaning that Hollywood just can’t let a film about WWII stand upon its own merits without injecting some fanciful element into the plot. In this case, grabbing a hold of the fate of the five Sullivan brothers aboard the U.S.S. Juneau (and other similar cases) lost in combat and building a special mission out of it. It’s thin, very thin.

    The worst part of the film, however, from a standpoint of plausibility is the extensive mutiny scene in the middle. The loss of the two Rangers prior to that is almost as foolish in its plotting. Caparzo dies because he disobeys his officer and NCO and grabs a child to take with them? More lefty plot-making. The implication being that the plot needed devices such as this to “prove” that the GIs were fighting for a good cause. Wasn’t defeating Nazism enough, guys??

    The scene where the squad frontally assaults the MG42 is, again, pure Hollywood fantasy. They needed an excuse to kill off another character, so that’s how they did it.

    There are easily half-a-dozen other better ways of handling the problem, tactically-speaking. Thin, very thin. Oh, and when the small unit made an assault, the medic was invariably ordered to linger in the rear of the column. Why? So he would be alive to treat the wounded, when called forward by his leader.

    But the mutiny takes the cake. The Rangers were handpicked elite soldiers, analogous to the British Commandos, after whom they were modeled. Having a mutiny in such a unit stretches credulity to the breaking point.

    The final “last stand” makes for great cinema, but if the mission was to find Ryan, then why not just retreat back across the bridge and call in an air or artillery strike on the span? The plot spends the whole film convincing us how vital it is to get Ryan out of harms way, and then deliberately places him back in harm’s way so the film can end with a bang. It’s weak.

    I’m not suggesting that SPR is not a great film or an important one, but simply doing some corrective analysis. Time is the only true test of quality, and it is only over time that we can make reasonably objective appraisals.

  3. Here’s some perhaps unheralded titles for what they’re worth….

    1. Clint Eastwood’s 2006 two-fer about Iwo Jima is excellent. “Flags of Our Fathers” told from the U.S. perspective, and “Letters from Iwo Jima” from the Japanese side. Ryan Phillippe shines in the former as Navy Corpsman John “Doc” Bradley, and great Japanese actor Ken Watanabe in the latter, as well as many others. Highly-recommended.

    2. “Defiance” (2008) – This version of the Bielski Brothers (“Forest Brothers”) saga from WWII is a superb telling of their story, which took place during the occupation of Poland during the war. It stars Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos, and others. Based on Nechama Tec’s 1993 book “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans.”

    3. Although it lacks the special effects realism of later films, Samuel Fuller’s “The Big Red One,” (1980) an autobiographical take on his time in the Army’s famous 1st Infantry Division during WWII, is an excellent, gritty film which captures much of the tedium, terror and unpredictability of a combat soldier’s day-to-day life. Lee Marvin, a combat veteran (Marine Corps) of that war, starred in the title role, with a host of up-and-coming stars.

    4. “Flyboys” (2006) – This film, now somewhat obscure and forgotten, is absolutely terrific. It tells the tale of the famed WWI Lafayette Escadrille of the French Air Arm. An all-volunteer unit composed of Americans flying French aircraft and commanded by French officers, the unit compiled an enviable record in combat prior to the U.S. entry into the war, as well amassed enough tall tales to last a life time. Their unit mascots were two lion cubs, named “Whiskey”and “Soda.” Stars James Franco. Great dialog and acting, as well as spellbinding aerial effects. Pretty historically-accurate, too.

    5. “Enigma” (2001) – Starring Kate Winslet and Dougray Scott. A murder & espionage mystery set in Bletchley Park during WWII, the script was based upon a best-seller by Robert Harris, but does not follow the book completely. The plot has a romance built into it, but it of interest to history buffs mostly for its portrayal of the secret code-breaking center at Bletchley, and the unheralded role they played in securing the final victory. Superb score by John Barry.

    6. “The Great Raid” (2005) Another James Franco film, this time the epic story of the famous Cabanatuan Prison Camp Raid in the Philippines during the late stages of the war, one of the most-daring and successful commando-style raids of all time. With Benjamin Bratt and Connie Nielsen.

    7. “Enemy at the Gates” (2001) The story of the WWII campaign at Stalingrad, using the story of famed Russian sniper Vasily Zaitsev as its focal point. A romantic subplot, plus Zaitsev’s now-famous duel with his German counterpart, Major Koenigs, but the real star of the film is the set, which must have cost a fortune recreating wartime Stalingrad and all of its devastation. Jude Law, Ed Harris, Rachel Weisz, Bob Hoskins, and others round out an impressive cast.

    6. “A Bridge Too Far” (1977) Based upon the best-selling non-fictional book by Cornelius Ryan, this film features an international cast second-to-none, as well as a superb script, interesting plotting, and also manages to remain true to the history of the event, which is no small feat.

  4. Three lesser-known? flicks that I liked that popped into my head:


    Breaker Morant: Boer War action and a military court marshall, starring Edward Woodward:


    Go Tell the Spartans: early US military involvement in Vietnam, starring Burt Lancaster:


    Taking Chance (made for TV): The coffin of an American soldier killed in Iraq is escorted by an officer, played by Kevin Bacon, because he was from the same hometown as the fallen:



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