Monday, May 25, 2009

dignity; always dignity (a memorial day post)

I have always been a huge fan of war films. Strange because I can't stand the sight of blood, fictitious or not, but as opposed to the often gory, useless violence and bloodshed in many horror films, I see war films as an approximation of actual events as opposed to more abstract emotions. People are killed in combat, people are persecuted, three legged monsters do not terrorize neighborhoods (as far as I know).

Because there is really no way to understand these events unless you live through them, I love watching war films because they are such a great lens for the political state of a country at a specific time. It is a look at how we view the world around us and how we view our own actions. I am especially interested in WWII war propaganda propagated by the OWI, how films were used to convince American's to fight and the complete support of the industry itself. The film Bataan even features an integrated unit, 5 years before Truman signed Executive Order 9981.

In honor of the holiday, I thought I'd post a list of my five favorite war films for your viewing pleasure. Defining the war genre can be a bit tricky, but in my own personal opinion it extends past combat (though not to Holocaust films, i consider them their own sub genre) and that is reflected in my picks.

1. The Best Years Of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946)

This Best Picture Winner must have been incredibly relevant in 1946 as a film about soldiers returning from the war trying to fit into civilian life. This task is represented by three very different men at three very different stages in their lives. Al Stephenson (Fredric March) has been married to Milly (Myrna Loy) for 20 years, has two grown children (Teresa Wright) and was a successful banker before leaving for the front. He returns to find that his children are completely different people, and has trouble living up to the banks standards of frugality when another returning soldier needs a loan. At the next platform, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) a successful pilot, returns to his war bride Marie (Virginia Mayo) and finds that his medals do not secure a well paying job upon his return, rendering him incapable of supporting Marie in the style she is accustomed to. All the glory and romance has been stripped away from their relationship. Homer (Harold Russell) and Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell) were high school sweethearts and planned to wed as soon as Homer came home. This is thwarted by the fact that Homer lost both his hands in the war, replaced with metal hooks. He feels subhuman and must learn to live with his disability. In real life Harold Russell, a non actor, actually lost his hands in the war, adding a different level of realism to the film. A gutsy move on Wyler's part. All three readjust in different ways and must try to move on with their lives. Fantastic ensemble, fantastic direction, fantastic film.

Favorite Scenes: Fredric March's return to his family: It's just so understated. Myrna Loy reacts beautifully & Dana Andrews in the plane graveyard: This scene is just amazingly shot as Dana trys to recapture the glory of the recent past.

2. The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978)

If it isn't becoming obvious, I love war films that deal with the differences between war and civilian life, how the folks at home react to and try to understand what is happening to their men overseas, and the readjustment process. Because of this I find The Deer Hunter far superior to its contemporary Apocalypse Now. I'm all about the human element. Unlike readjustment films that only show how soldiers must react to life at home, it also shows how the war changes the way people at home see the world and how the war affects their lives. DH really makes the audience care about its characters, and with heartbreaking performances by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, and then lovers Meryl Streep and John Cazale (who died shortly after the film's completion) it is hard to beat.

Favorite Scenes: Christopher Walken suffers a nervous breakdown in Saigon hospital & De Niro visiting John Savage at the Veteran's hospital

3. The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)

In this film about the resentment of french rule in Algeria, the filmmaker puts the viewer in an interesting position of sympathy with the FLN (National Liberation Front) and humanizes those who fought against imperialist power. Unlike other war films, it does not treat war in a purely good/evil dichotomy, marking a difference between those in power in France who were seen as in the wrong and innocent civilians.

Favorite Scene: In a sequence that Hitchcock himself couldn't have done better, three FLN fighters dress up as European civilians and plant bombs in three public areas. The audience watches these people, completely unaware of their fate, and waits.

4. Three Came Home (Jean Negulesco, 1950)

Based on the true story of Agnes Newton Keith's imprisonment in Japanese POW camps between 1941 and the end of WWII, the film is about how Agnes, portrayed by the highly underrated Claudette Colbert, must survive with her young son, hoping that they will one day be reunited with her husband held separately in other camps. In several ways it was ahead of its time. 1) It portrays the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as horrific events from the Japanese point of view, portraying a Japanese Colonel (the great Sessue Hayakawa) sympathetically and as a friend to Claudette. 2) The film shows an attempted rape of Claudette by a Japanese soldier, and the gritty consequences when she tries to report it. 3) At the beginning of the film, Claudette suffers a miscarriage in a very poignant scene, portraying this event as a tragedy in its own right before they are taken prisoner.

Favorite Scenes: Claudette suffers the consequences for disgracing a Japanese soldier by reporting the attempted rape. Ok, so Claudette still looks a little too glammed up but in my mind her acting makes up for it. During the filming of TCH she suffered the back injury that kept her from portraying Margo in All About Eve

5. Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)

Very rarely do war films come from the eyes of a child, and that is exactly what made this film so terrifyingly real and unexpected. In 1944 Fascist Spain, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) creates a fantasy world to escape her evil stepfather, an army officer, and the reality of the world around her. It is a film that shows how war and conflict affects the young and innocent. The cinematography, art direction, and special effects are amazing, the story tragic.

Favorite Scene: Pale Man

What are your favorites?


  1. This must be one of the best blog posts you've done. Truly great.
    I agree with you on The Best Years of Our Lives, such a thrilling, touching picture. I almost was torn apart from the inside when Harold Russell returns home, only wanting everything to be as it was before, and feeling the resentment of his family. Just the small parts where he wants to help lighting a cigarette, but the man prefers to light it himself - brilliant and heart breaking.
    I haven't yet had the pleasure of seeing the last three films you wrote about - you made me put them a bit nearer the top of my to-see-list!

  2. Lolita-hurrah! I am glad that you approve, thanks. :) The part at the end where Wilma tucks him in and there's a close up of Russell just smiling always makes me tear up, it's just so beautiful. The entire movie tears me apart. And they are all worth seeing imo (though as someone with a to-see list of hundreds i understand if it still takes awhile to get around to them.haha)

  3. Oh dear - there are so many great movies I haven't seen... a bittersweet feeling! As long as I can be sure that I will be able to see them all before I die, I can relax - but what if I can't do it? Aaaah... Haha. Pan's Labyrinth is one of the few "new" films that I actually is tempted to see. Thanks for introducing!

  4. Apparently, I must catch up on my war movies. I've been meaning to see the 2nd half of "The Deer Hunter" for years. I swear, YEARS! And I've been trying to get my hands on "Pan's Labyrinth" for quite awhile. But now I have to check out the others you listed as well.

    Off the top of my head, I have to go with "Saving Private Ryan" as my favorite. It's superb. Favorite scene? Oh, how to decide... I can't!

  5. Lolita-I feel the same way. :) Or at least I plan on seeing as many things as I can.

    Rhette-Saving Private Ryan is wonderful (the first scene alone is worth an oscar) and the shot of all the crosses in the cemetary at the beginning made me tear up.

    you MUST see it. must.

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