Memorial Day is commemorated with ceremonies, parades, barbecues and mattress sales. And cable TV marathons. War movies are everywhere on the tube for the long weekend, but which are actually worth your time, and just as important, which have anything to say about the sacrifices and service of our armed forces?
Saving Private Ryan: Obvious, but appropriate choice
Saving Private Ryan is an obvious, but appropriate, choice. Steven Spielberg directed from a script by Robert Rodat, and the result was an instant masterpiece. Tom Hanks gives an unforgettable performance as a school teacher in civilian life, now a combat-hardened infantry captain who’s lost count of how many men he’s killed and worries that his wife won’t recognize him when he comes home. His unit storms Omaha Beach on D-day and then is given a mission: find Pvt. James Ryan (Matt Damon), a paratrooper who landed behind enemy lines, and who doesn’t know that all his brothers were killed in separate theaters of action on the same day, and get him sent safely home in accordance with the Sullivan Act.
The script isn’t without plot holes, but is nonetheless a gripping, riveting emotional rollercoaster ride that depicts war as alternately dehumanizing men to their worst and elevating them to their best. Jekyll and Hyde are both on full display as men at war demonstrate the better angels of our natures and the inner demons of a truly Conradian heart of darkness.
The action sequences were revolutionary, with an unflinching, unromanticized and graphic approach to violence and it’s aftermath, and the 45 degree shutter cinematography by Janusz Kaminski, which gave the movie an immediacy and verisimilitude that knocked audience’s’ socks off and was to become one of the most imitated cinematic techniques in decades.
Saving Private Ryan features an eclectic array of dynamic and colorful performances from Tom Sizemore, an icon of modern war movies, as well as Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Ted Danson, Paul Giamatti, Dennis Farina and some guy named Vin Diesel.
Patton: Tribute to one World War II’s greatest generals
But there are other movies worth your attention. 1970’s Patton, starring George C. Scott and Karl Malden, is an engrossing cinematic portrait of one America’s most controversial and most successful generals, during the cumulative years of his career during World War II. Widely misunderstood at the time of its release, Patton is not a pro-war movie, but a movie about a man who loves war yet understands it’s a moral failing. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (Planet of the Apes) from a script co-written by Francis Ford Coppola, Patton is fast-paced, exciting and dramatic. The movie won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith’s classic score. And yes it’s true that Scott won the Oscar but refused to show up to accept it.
The Longest Day: Almost as many directors as troops
Another strictly fact-based World War II movie deserves more attention and respect than it often gets. Based on Cornelius Ryan’s non-fiction book about D-Day, The Longest Day is a sprawling, star-studded spectacle. Veteran producer and studio executive Darryl F. Zanuck godfathered the gigantic production from its inception.
The international cast includes John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Eddie Albert, Sean Connery, Red Buttons, Richard Beymer, Fabian, Peter Lawford, Robert Ryan, Paul Anka, Roddy McDowall, Robert Wagner, Jeffrey Hunter, Sal Mineo, Curd Jϋrgens, Rod Steiger, Gert Fröbe and Tom Tryon, among many others.
Interestingly, no one director is credited – Ken Annakin, an English second stringer with a long career, directed “British and French exteriors,” which comprise a large percentage of the film. Veteran second unit director Andrew Martin (Ben-Hur) helmed the American exteriors. German sequences were directed by Austrian actor and director Bernhard Wicki. Though uncredited, Zanuck directed some scenes himself, and journeyman movie and TV director Gerd Oswald shot the parachuting sequences uncredited.
Yes, it’s in black and white. Get over it. The Longest Day is thrilling, engrossing and really big. Well worth the three hour running time.
Romance in Korea: The Bridges of Toko-Ri
There are more than just World War II movies that deserve inclusion in our Memorial Day movie marathon list. The Korean War inspired movies other than MASH. One of those, a naval saga to boot, is an old-fashioned Hollywood epic. The Bridges of Toko-Ri is based on a James Michener bestseller about an embittered lawyer and WWII aerial combat vet (William Holden) who’s put back on active duty when the Korean War breaks out, as he’s building his practice and raising his family. Considering he’s married to Grace Kelly, his consternation might be understandable. Frederic March plays the paternal admiral whom Holden reminds of his own son, killed in action.
Mark Robson helmed the big scale picture, giving equal weight to the romance and the action, which is well-mounted with excellent special effects. Mickey Rooney and Earl Holliman co-star.
The movie is often remembered for Frederic March’s line: “Where do we get such men? They leave this ship and they do their job. Then they must find this speck lost somewhere on the sea. When they find it, they have to land on its pitching deck. Where do we get such men?”
The line of course is inspirational, but it gained a little inadvertent notoriety when President Ronald Reagan quoted it, apparently believing he was quoting a real admiral. He wasn’t, but it sounded good when Reagan said it, too.
Before M*A*S*H there was Bogart in Battle Circus
Set and made during the Korean War, Battle Circus is little known to modern audiences, and well worth seeing. Humphrey Bogart stars as a hard-drinking and hard-bitten Army surgeon at a MASH unit, who falls hard for idealistic Army nurse June Allyson. The title comes from the “Mobile” part of MASH, emphasized neither in the movie or the TV show. The MASH unit has to be near the front, and so the tents come down, the unit travels, and they go up at a new location, just a circus. This is a comparatively early directorial outing by writer and director Richard Brooks, who would go on to direct the iconic Blackboard Jungle, as well Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Elmer Gantry, The Professionals, In Cold Blood and Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Keenan Wynn co-stars and steals scenes as a good-hearted but thoroughly capable sergeant.
Hollywood shied away from Vietnam for years, until The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now broke the ice, although neither was strictly really about Vietnam. The Deer Hunter had more to do with loyalty between friends and its limits, community, family and every generation having its war, and what it costs. Apocalypse Now was a trippy, even hallucinatory allegory of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In 1986, Oliver Stone’s Platoon came out, followed in 1987 by Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Vietnam vet Stone had actually written Platoon years before he was hired to work on the script for John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian. Milius had written the first drafts of Apocalypse Now, and if you actually watch those three movies together, you’ll find common themes, dialogue and even some scenes that are eerily similar.
Vietnam: Hamburger Hill
Platoon and Full Metal Jacket garnered a great deal of attention between them, which actually buried another fine Vietnam movie, John Irvin’s Hamburger Hill, which also came out in 1987. Irvin, a British filmmaker, had made combat documentaries in Vietnam for the BBC, and knew the territory. The screenplay was written by Jim Carabatsos, who served with the 1st Air Cavalry Division in Vietnam during 1968 and 1969. Hamburger Hill is a straightforward drama about men at war, and doesn’t delve into politics. Irvin, whose other credits include the BBC adaptation Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Dogs of War, Ghost Story, Raw Deal, and Mandela’s Gun, is known for an unflinching, gritty technique which served him well on the sometimes devastatingly violent Hamburger Hill. He had a good eye for casting here, featuring unknowns and up-and-comers like Dylan McDermott, Don Cheadle, Courtney B. Vance and Steven Weber in principal roles.
Vietnam: We Were Soldiers
In 2002, Randall Wallace, who had written Braveheart, adapted and directed a movie based on Lt. General Harold G. Moore’s Vietnam memoir. Mel Gibson stars as Moore, and the movie follows his selection and training of the American soldiers who fought the first major battle of the Vietnam War. Like Hamburger Hill, it stays mainly apolitical, focusing on the sacrifices of men at war, and the sacrifices of their wives and families at home. Madeleine Stowe is superb as Moore’s wife. Greg Kinnear shines as a gutsy helicopter pilot. American treasure Sam Elliott plays a career Sergeant Major and Moore’s right hand man, and this is the sort of role no one has ever played better than Elliott. Other familiar faces include Keri Russell, Barry Pepper, Jon Hamm and Clark Gregg. The movie is also notable for its stark, frank treatment of combat violence, and its respectful treatment of the North Vietnamese forces.
World War I: Sergeant York
World War I was actually a Hollywood staple until the Second World War started – King Vidor’s silent classic The Big Parade (1925) remains an impressive piece of work, and William Wellman’s 1929 Wings was the first silent movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. (The second silent movie to win Best Picture was The Artist in 2011) Wings was also the first glimpse most moviegoers got of Gary Cooper, soon to become one of Hollywood’s most enduring stars. Cooper also went on to star in Sergeant York, the true story of Alvin C. York, a backwoods boy from Tennessee who went on to become one of America’s most decorated heroes of World War I. York, though raised by a very pious mother, was a hard-drinking, brawling bad boy, until he had a profound conversion experience. When first drafted, York actually claimed conscientious objector status, but was eventually persuaded that his church’s teachings didn’t actually forbid military service. York was a crack shot with a rifle, a skill which served him well overseas. He was apparently fearless under fire, was rapidly promoted to sergeant and eventually single-handedly killed some dozen German soldiers and took 130 more prisoner. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Sergeant York, directed by pioneering filmmaker Howard Hawks, is unabashedly sentimental and patriotic (it was released during World War II) and was the highest grossing movie of 1942. Cooper’s performance earned him an Oscar.
The Civil War: Glory
The Civil War has been well-handled numerous times, but 1989’s Glory deserves a particular mention. Dramatizing the story of Robert Gould Shaw, a white Union officer who was born into a prominent abolitionist family and who accepted command of the first all black regiment in the Northeast, Glory tells a little-known, gripping true story that demonstrates that there was plenty of racial prejudice to go around on both sides of the war. Matthew Broderick plays Shaw, who encouraged his troops to refuse their pay until it was equal to that of white troops. Denzel Washington, fresh off the TV show St. Elsewhere, co-stars with Morgan Freeman. Neither were movie stars at the time. Cary Elwes, Bob Gunton, Andre Braugher, Cliff DeYoung and an uncredited Jane Alexander co-star. With superb direction by Edward Zwick (Legends of the Fall, Courage Under Fire, The Siege, The Last Samurai), Glory is alternately horrifying, moving, inspiring. The combat scenes are among the best ever filmed.