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At this time of year you can’t turn on a television without being inundated with war themed shows; shows which run the gamut from the good, to the bad, to the truly ugly. For what it is worth, here is my two cents worth on that very subject. It is, after all, my website.
So here, in no particular order, are the Aardvark’s picks for required Remembrance Day viewing. Cook yourself up a nice big batch of popcorn, stock your refrigerator with your favorite libations and prepare yourself to be transported back to:
World War I (aka, The Great War, the first War to End All Wars)
There have been surprisingly few movies made about the first world war. Perhaps the thought of hundreds upon hundreds of men being sent “over the top”, hunkering down against a hail of bullets as thick as the worst rain storm and, more often than not, falling; a victim of the onslaught has put off Hollywood. But a few have managed to see the light of day.
All Quiet On The Western Front
The grand daddy of them all must surely be Erich Maria Remarque’s compelling tale of German youth, seduced into the service of the Fatherland by their school teacher. The story rang so true with the heartfelt futility of a nation’s youth being fed into and spit out of their countries war machine that the book and movie was for countless years banned by countries mobilizing for war. This masterful 1930 adaptation of Remarque’s novel to this day retains its ability to disturb.
Lew Ayres plays the youthful Paul Bauman, who, along with his fellow classmates soon realize that the patriotic bullshit they were fed by their headmaster holds little if any relation to the realities of trench warfare.
I dare you to watch this movie and remain unmoved.
Hello kiddies! My next pick for WW I movies that thrill and chill comes from a rather unusual source; Season Three of the popular Tales From the Crypt television series. Kirk Douglas, his son Eric, Dan Aykroyd and Lance Henriksen star in a tale of family, cowardice and betrayal.
To say more would spoil the tale. A tale from the Great War with classic Tales From The Crypt twists.
The Lost Battalion
A gritty, vividly portrayed telling of the WW I 308th Battalion of the American 77th division. As was the case in so many engagements of the time gains were made, only to be willingly surrendered in the face of an enemy counter offensive. Trench warfare, a concept which sprang up out of necessity, was just such a battle.
When the other divisions retreated, the 308th unknowingly stood their ground in the Argonne forest. Stunned that an allied unit was so deep behind enemy territory, their own commanders lied to them, telling them that the French army still had their back. In fact they were completely surrounded by Germans and had to face wave after wave of enemy counter attacks as their ammunition, supplies and men were inexorably eroded.
A&E really hit the nail on the head with this one folks.
World War II (aka, the second War to End All Wars)
In contrast, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a movie based on WWII. So, without further adieu, lets take a look, shall we?
I dare you to watch the opening battle scene of Steven Spielberg’s ambitious WWII movie and remain unmoved. There have been a number of movies that have recreated the horrors of the D-Day landing but none have been able to achieve the same level of zeitgeist, the same level of being in a time and a place. At first I had a bit of a time getting over the premise of a whole squad of men being dispatched on a mission to track down a sole surviving member of a family, but that didn’t last long.
If the final scene doesn’t bring a tear to your eye then, I’m afraid, you just aren’t human.
Do yourself a favour. Watch this movie.
While not technically a movie this excellent 10 episode mini series follows members of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division from their basic training right the way through to the end of the war with stops at D-Day, Operation Market Garden, the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of a concentration camp along the way. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks collaborated on this wonderful HBO production.
Avoiding the temptation to populate this tale with big name stars it instead comes alive with relative unknowns, up and comers and new faces.
This one is highly recommended folks.
How can you think of a movie set during World War II and not think of The Great Escape. This movie features a stellar cast including Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, James Garner, Charles Bronson and Steve McQueen in a seminal role for him as American Captain Hiltz. Then again, when was any role that Steve McQueen ever played not a seminal role for him? Just don’t worry too much about the presence of American officers in a primarily British P.O.W. camp.
The banter; the scheming; the complete audacity of the whole damn plan are made all the more resonant because they are based on an actual event. Made larger than life by Hollywood to be sure but what the heck; it certainly does not diminish the tale any.
Bloody good fun, wot?
David Lean’s masterpiece ostensibly about a group of British POWs forced to endure slave labor, scant rations and completely inhuman conditions as they struggle to build a railway bridge for their captors, meant to span the titular River Kwai. In actuality it is a story of the battle of wills between the obstinate British commanding officer Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and the Japanese camp commander Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). This battle of wills leads to a reversal of roles as one’s opposite number takes on their obsession while they themselves find the true meaning of honor, and madness.
The subplot of escaped American prisoner Commander Shears, brilliantly played by William Holden, being convinced to go back to the site of his captivity lead by the incomparable Jack Hawkins as British Major Warden drives the story to it’s inexorable conclusion.
The moment of complete and utter clarity for one of these characters, punctuated by their incredulous line “My God, what have I done?” remains one of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history.
Miss this at your peril.
A black comedy tinged with very real suspense, Stalag 17 tells the story of a group of American POW’s who suspect that someone in their midst is collaborating with their German captors. The someone they suspect is Sefton, a self serving opportunist who isn’t above making deals with the Germans in order to better his lot. Sefton is played brilliantly by William Holden. Otto Preminger plays the beleaguered camp commandant Colonel von Scherbach.
The second half of this story deals with Sefton’s attempt to clear his name. But is he really clearing his name or only attempting to cast suspicion away from himself.
This movie was one of the rare ones that was shot in sequence, that is to say, the scenes were shot in the same order which they were shown. Many of the actors themselves were surprised by the final plot twist.
A brilliant Canadian short film which tells the tale of a former funny man who, after serving time with the medical corp. during the second World War has returned home only to find that he no longer seems to know him self; nor those who were closest to him.
Bittersweet tale of one soldier’s attempts at adjusting to life not lived at the broken end of a bottle.
As a side note, this one holds a special place in my heart since myself and Mrs Aardvark were extras for this tale. You can see us both around the 11 minute 33 odd second mark of the film. You catch a glimpse of the back of my head and more than just a little of Mrs. A`s face as the camera pans by.
The Korean War
If cinematic reflections of WW I exposes a lack of material then the Korean conflict tell the tale of a fertile field yet to be adequately harvested. So, while this might be brief two movies come immediately to mind.
This is not your father’s war movie. It deftly dispenses with the self serving bluster which, more times than not, comes part and parcel with any “patriotic” movie. William Holden (there’s that name again) plays Lieutenant Harry Brubaker, a reluctant Navy Reserve pilot who has been recalled to duty to fly with a bomber jet squadron over one of the enemies most heavily protected targets, the strategically important bridges in the canyon of Toko-Ri.
No matter how he tries Brubaker just can’t shake the feeling that this mission will be his last.
Admirable supporting roles Grace Kelly as his dedicate but emotionally torn wife and Mickey Rooney, a helicopter pilot who has save Brubaker’s ass more than once.
Who knew that Frank Sinatra could act; I know he was in a number of movies, but really, honestly and truly acting? Who knew? Sinatra plays Fred, a veteran of the Korean conflict who has nightmares of his platoon having been captured and brainwashed during the war. A Cold War era political thriller which mixes suspense, humour and satire to great effect.
Watch for Angela Lansbury, the future Jessica Fletcher of Murder She Wrote fame, taking a brilliant turn as a decorated yet enigmatic war veteran’s mother.
Before there was Adam Alda; before there was Wayne Rogers, there was Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould. This movie unfolds in a very loose linear fashion but plays more like a series of episodes from a TV show. Witness the undoing of Frank Burns, played very adroitly by Robert Duval as a much more intense version of the character who most will be more familiar.
Then there’s the football game. Paired with the climatic game betwixt the prisoners and the guards in the original The Longest Yard, the clash of two army units, one well trained, the other not so much so, the football game in M*A*S*H is classic dark cinema.
While I hold the television version of M*A*S*H in the same high regard as I do Cheers, WKRP In Cincinnati and the X-Files, you truly have not seen M*A*S*H until you have seen Robert Altman’s vision of the Richard Hooker novel.
Mandatory viewing (and reading).