The Best Movie Critic + review

Better Know A Genre: War Movies, Part II

Continuing into Justin's Better Know A Genre - War Movie Month, I am struck by what he is creating here. By offering up the myriad faces of war movies, Justin is outlining a greater vision of how we understand these larger than life events through story. No one war movie has the answers to all our hopes, dreams, fears, and doubts about this volatile topic, but each forms a part of a tapestry the as a whole might help us understand better how we digest the most epic and destructive events in modern history.
But Justin has a lot to say today, so I'll let him get to it. By the way, if you missed Part One, read it here. Otherwise, enjoy...
THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS – UNCHAINED SENTIMENTALITY

The Fighting Sullivan’s is an interesting movie that’s perhaps better lost to history. Like The Green Berets, The Fighting Sullivan’s was produced in the midst of war, in this case WWII, and was basically a propaganda piece. What sets this aside, however, is that rather than trying to draw up clear reasons why young men should enlist, this movie simply plucks the heartstrings in a way that would make Frank Capra envious.

The movie focuses on a family with 5 children, who are all extremely tight. They are cared for by loving parents in a very Norman Rockwell-esque portrait of semi-rural American life. The bulk of the movie focuses on different Hallmark moments as the children grow up and we get to know them. That is, until the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and the five Sullivan children decide to do their part and enlist. We only actually see about 10 minutes of fighting in this movie as the brothers struggle helplessly to fend off their destroyer from marauding axis forces. The ship goes down and viewers are left with a hole in their hearts.

It’s not a stretch to see this serving the dual propaganda purpose of demonizing the enemy while also encouraging young men and their mothers that if The Sullivan’s sacrificed 5 of their boys, then sending 1 or 2 off might not be so bad. This movie is unique in how short it is on war footage. I’m not sure if this is because of budgetary or time constraints, or if there just wasn’t that much to show. The director, Lloyd Bacon was a studio hack that cranked out over 100 movies in his career. Perhaps more notable is that it is easy to see that this movie was a clear inspiration for Saving Pvt. Ryan, as well as countless other nostalgia-farming WWII flicks.

Magic Moment: When the youngest spanks his dad while he’s trying to shave with a straight razor.

PATHS OF GLORY – RIGHTEOUS INDIGNATION

Instead of Full Metal Jacket, I’ve included Stanley Kubrick’s WWI movie, Paths of Glory, which is one of the finest and most eloquent anti-war statements ever made. The movie stars Kirk Douglas as a young French military commander notable for compassion to his men and his love of reason. His character is a former DA and is not at all interested in climbing the military ranks. His foil is General Mireau, who - after it is established he is a total dick - orders artillery to fire on French positions for not advancing into a suicide push for a strategic hill that is well occupied by the Germans. Mireau, rather than take the blame, organizes a farce court martial for the soldiers and demands that they be executed for cowardice and insubordination. Douglas is the voice of the soldiers and of reason. Ultimately, the brigade is represented by only 3 men who have to face the firing squad.

Paths of Glory is a great existentialist and humanist examination of why people fight in wars, and what is the nature of bravery and humanity. The movie is absolutely beautiful to look at (like you would expect from Kubrick) shot entirely in black and white, it is a stark contrast to the widescreen Technicolor of Kubrick and Douglas' next outing, Spartacus. The movie is full of fantastic reverse tracking shots following General Mireau as he stalks the trenches inspecting the troops. Both of the major battle scenes are intentionally shot to be confusing. What’s also interesting is how Kubrick uses negative space. The scenes that take place in the officers HQ and the military tribunal have lots of open air and space. The shots are usually framed to show the breezy attitude of the military brass surrounded by gilded nonsense while the shots of the enlisted men are tight, claustrophobic, and dark.

There are other interesting thematic choices. One I did not pick up on until my most recent viewing, there is only one woman seen on screen in the entire movie, and it is in the last sequence. Beyond that, the framing is extremely disengaged from the action of the movie; most shots are standard portraiture shots with the quiet Kubrick intensity. Near the end of the movie is one close up canted angle on Kirk Douglas that is fantastic and really sticks out comparative to the rest of the movie.

I chose this movie as the antithesis to the sentimental movie for a couple of reasons. No one can accuse this movie of being sentimental. There is nothing in this movie that makes WWI look good or heroic. The choices that the General and other top staff makes are so morally reprehensible that I can’t help but hate them more than practically any other movie villain I can think of. This movie revels in its righteous indignation to war and even organized systems of thought and institutions in general. Its message seems to be that even in war, the most dehumanizing part of the human experience is cold bureaucracy. This movie is extremely powerful and should be just as popular and well regarded as Full Metal Jacket.

Magic Moment: The beetle

THE DIRTY DOZEN – MEN ON A MISSION

My decision here was in some respects a tossup between this, The Guns of Navarrone (which I prefer), or Where Eagles Dare (which is the Nazi-killingest movie of all time). I settled on Dirty Dozen though for reasons which will become apparent soon. Dirty Dozen is the most iconic of those movies. It stars Lee Marvin leading a suicide mission with a bunch of characters. I’m not going to spend too much time on the plot here because it’s pretty generic. That’s not a bad thing, and it makes an interesting point about war movies and in particular this sub category of them.

I contend that The Dirty Dozen is more of an action movie than it is a war movie. The fact that it is set in WWII is just, in my opinion, for convenience. Aside from it being a latter day romantic time period where might was right and the bad guys literally wore black, Nazis are just plain old evil. When you make an action movie and set it in WWII, you don’t need to spend a lot of time explaining why the bad guys are bad. This is in opposition to most modern action movies, the likes of which from Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal in particular spend the majority of the first act showing how bad the bad guys are. Oh shit, they poisoned the water supply, oh shit, they kidnapped his son and murdered his wife, oh shit, they eat barbecued panda burgers! That whole thing. In our modern politically correct climate, there are only two things it’s OK to kill without question, Nazis and zombies.

Another distinction I’d like to make is that men on a mission movies should be viewed apart from the warrior glorification movies because with movies like The Dirty Dozen, there is a group dynamic that propels the movie more than any one character. Sure, there might be the biggest bad ass (in this case Lee Marvin), but it’s a group effort.

Magic Moment: Lee Marvin – I love this guy.

THE BIG RED ONE – REALISM MEETS ROMANTICISM

The Big Red One is one of my personal favorite war movies. It follows a squad in the army’s 1st battalion as they fight through WWII from Africa to Italy to France to Germany. It came out in the 80’s, and like The Dirty Dozen starred Lee Marvin as the battle hardened sergeant commanding the squad that we follow throughout including Mark Hamil as a sharpshooter – a role he does surprisingly well in if you can tune out the Star Wars thing. The movie was based on a book by the director, Sam Fuller, which was based on his own experiences. One of the characters in the squad is a proxy for Fuller and narrates the movie.

This movie was notorious for the cuts and alterations that were made by the studio. Consequently, the movie had a hard time finding an audience. A lot of the crowd that was looking for a solid men on a mission movie was disappointed by the disjointed narrative and surprising emotional depth. Movie goers looking for more serious dramatic fare were confronted by a war story better suited for the 1960’s than the 80’s in which it was made. A couple of years ago, a restored version was released on DVD that has Fuller’s original vision of the movie. Strangely, I much preferred the truncated theatrical cut.

The reason why this movie works so well for me is because of the cuts the studio made. Large portions of the movie were cut from the theatrical version to move the story along quicker. The “restored” version is much easier to follow in terms of geography and time because there are a lot of the original transition scenes. The theatrical cut jumps the view around jarringly between major battles and operations. This focus on minimal set-up and action gives the movie the feeling of a classic WWII comic book like The Losers, or Two-Fisted Tales, or Front Line combat. The action feels constructed in an episodic way like an adventure serial or with the disregard to coherence that a lot of the John Wayne WWII movies have where action is shown over character development or plot. The squad finds fortune, runs a commando style raid on an occupied mental institute, celebrate, show their heroism and bravery every chance they get. It’s a popcorn movie that is a joy to watch until…

The last mission of the movie has the squad liberating a concentration camp. The guys kick in the doors to an oven and are absolutely shocked and horrified about what they see. It brings the movie to earth with a resounding thud. Lee Marvin carries a Jewish boy around on his shoulders until the boy dies. The other squad members deal with it in their own ways. This was the biggest strength of the movie to me: the tonal switch at the climax of the movie. The vast majority of WWII movies do not deal at all with the holocaust. It’s always in the background, but never confronted. The enormity of it in this movie is really stunning.

Magic Moment: The Bouncing Betty

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Better Know A Genre: War Movies, Part II + review