Tuesday, May 27, 2014

War on Film

Yesterday in the United States of America we celebrated Memorial Day, a day devoted to honor and remember America’s veterans, especially those who gave their lives in the call of duty. It is a kind of paradox that while we consider ourselves a peace-loving people, we have been at war practically throughout our history.

From 1775 we fought the Revolutionary war to secure independence from Great Britain. After that, Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the new Republic thought that America would never go to war again because the Atlantic ocean would be a barrier to aggressors. For this reason, he virtually dismantled the American armed forces while the Napoleonic wars were ravaging Europe. He also believed that the value of the trade and commerce of the United States would be a more potent weapon than ships and guns.

Since then, however, practically every generation of Americans has seen war. From 1812-1815 we fought the War of 1812. From 1846 to 1848 we fought the Mexican war after the annexation of Texas.  From 1861 to 1865 we were engaged in our Civil War, the bloodiest in history until that time.  Memorial Day traces its origins to that conflict. In 1898 we fought the Spanish-American war against the tottering Spanish empire.

In 1917 the United States became involved at the tail end of the European conflict that will always be remembered as the First World War. WWI  was supposed to be the War that ended all wars but only a generation later America became involved in the Second World War after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. That terrible conflict ended in 1945 with the unconditional surrender of both Germany and Japan.

Since then American forces have fought in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Today, our military commitments are stretched all over the globe.

I have never served in the military. I was born in 1939 only two years before American entered World War II. I was too young in 1950 to be drafted into service in 1950 when the Korean War broke out. During the Vietnam era I was deferred from service because of my student, teacher and marital status. Luck kept me out of war but I must confess that I never had any desire to serve in the military.

Nevertheless, I always have had a great admiration for those who entered harm’s way. I admit that I was and am an avid armchair soldier. Even as a child my interest in history spilled over into military history. I remember reading daily accounts of the events in Korea as American troops were steadily pushed back by overwhelming numbers, and then rejoicing when General Macarthur’s daring land and sea flanking maneuver turned the tide.

Since that time I have never stopped reading military history and historical novels. The best historical writing will try to avoid the excesses of propaganda and present the good, the bad, and the ugly on both sides of any conflict. Good war films should also have this quality. Here is a list of personal favorites that portray ordinary soldiers in extraordinary times.

Audie Murphy in Red Badge of Courage

“The Red Badge of Courage.” John Huston’s adaptation of Stephen Crane’s classic Civil War novel of the same name stars the baby-faced Audie Murphy who was incidentally the most decorated American soldier of WW II. The real stars, however, are the many other actors who so realistically portray ordinary soldiers.

Clark Gable in Command Decision

“Command Decision.” Clark Gable and Walter Pidgeon starred in this gripping WW II drama of high-level decision-making in the light of terrible losses of B17 flight crews on missions over Germany. The film was made after the War and was based on a Broadway play.  As a result, the dialogue is superb.

Gregory Peck and Dean Jagger

“Twelve O‘ Clock High”. This film starred Gregory Peck as an Air Force general faced with the difficult task of reviving a demoralized bomber command that was reeling from unacceptable losses. Dean Jagger (pictured above) won an Oscar for best supporting actor. I recall that this film was used later by corporate sales organizations for its lessons in how to get the most out of your people.

Harold russell, dana Andrews, frederic March

“The Best Years of Our Lives.” Dana Andrews and Frederic March starred in this 1946 film about veterans returning from WW II. Their performances were more than matched by Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, and Virginia Mayo as the women who stayed behind and held the fort. The film also featured Harold Russell, a young sailor who lost both his hands in action. Best Years of Our Lives swept the Oscars in 1946 and when Robert Osborne introduced it on TCM last night, he said that some consider it to be the greatest film of all time.

“A Foreign Field.” This little known British film about veterans returning to Normandy on the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day begins as a somewhat light comedy but then becomes serious, very serious, and then deeply moving. It features a handful of movie greats at the end of their careers. Alec Guinness, Leo Mc Kern, Lauren Bacall, Jeanne Moreau, and Geraldine Chaplin all give magnificent performances. 

Click on the link or view the video clip below for the battle scene that ends the "Red Badge of Courage." The last minute is particularly poignant.

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