Monday, January 12, 2009

The Pre-Inaugural Popular Culture Oasis Day 1: So Yahoo Has a Best War Films List? We Bring You Our (Much Better) Alternatives

Prior to the inauguration next week, we respectable negroes are going to chill in the shade so to speak by featuring a week long series of posts on popular films, television, coming books, and the like. As we keep teasing, yes in fact and we will deliver, we have something jumping off for inauguration--funny, that it is the day after Dr. King's holiday (members of the tribe on the right sidebar, we do hope you will participate in our festive plans). We didn't forget that fact and you best not either. Today, we bring you a guest post from one of my best people, soul brother number one, the great White hunter, and expert in flying planes virtual rather than real, Bill the Lizard. Two points towards a We Are Respectable Negro no prize for those of you who get the joke. Courtesy of guest blogger, Bill the Lizard, we bring you Popular Culture Week's first post:

The Realest War Movies of All Time

The truly classic war films speak to the human condition, highlighting the ugliness of conflict while at the same time giving audiences the chance to take momentary glimpses into the lives of those who, be they civilian or soldier, have been touched by warfare. Over the last hundred years of film, there are certain movies that are generally accepted to be the best examples of the genre. A short list of notables includes: Patton (1970), Apocalypse Now (1979), Das Boot (1981), Paths of Glory (1958), Full Metal Jacket (1987), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) and The Deer Hunter (1978).

However, this very small sampling of great war movies is far from complete; all potential “best of list” always fall short of being authoritative. So when Yahoo posted their recent Top Rated War Films on December 23, 2008, I glanced through their photographic countdown with great interest. Compiled through “the average grade and the number of ratings” of each film, Yahoo ranked the thirty user favorites in a descending order, starting with Three Kings (1999) at number 30 and ending with Saving Private Ryan (1998) as number 1.

Being a self-proclaimed film buff, I found Yahoo’s list to be predictable, surprising and disappointing all at the same time. Saving Private Ryan’s place at the apex of the list was expected, as was Schindler’s List (1993). Both, despite some minor flaws, are true classics of the genre, and the fact that they’re from the same director should show anyone just how gifted a filmmaker Steven Spielberg really is.

However, I was shocked to see Braveheart (1995) as their number 2. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve never considered this film to be a “war movie”. Instead, I’ve viewed it (and continue to view it) as an award winning, non-historical, Hollywood blockbuster that updates the “sword and sandal” genre to medieval Scotland. The Battle of Stirling Bridge in the film, for example, doesn’t actually include Stirling Bridge. And while this is not necessarily a bad thing, as any great film can overcome its lack of history through great drama and plot, more realistic medieval combat and warfare can be found in other movies, such as Kingdom of Heaven (2006).

I was also amazed that Three Kings, previously mentioned as their number 30, was included on the list and that Jarhead (2005) was not. Jarhead, which I personally consider to be the better of the two films, is also the more realistic Gulf War film. It deals directly with the real issues and emotions that US Marines in 1991 felt while on the front line of Iraq. To quote Richard Roeper of The Chicago Sun Times: “I knew guys who fought in this war, both on the ground and in the air, and from what they told me, this film really gets it right.” Maybe Roeper isn’t an expert on the subject, but I can’t help but agree with him.

And finally, while I was thrilled that Gunga Din (1939), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) each found a place on the Yahoo list, what I found most startling was what they excluded. Where was The Battle of Britain (1969), or Tora Tora Tora (1970), or Midway (1976), or The Longest Day (1962) or Empire of the Sun (1987)? And similarly, where were those lesser-known “essentials” (to borrow a Turner Classic Movie term) that are influential benchmarks within the genre? Clearly, some other type of lists are needed.

What follows, therefore, are three of my favorite war movies which were not on the Yahoo list. They are either lesser-known gems or underappreciated “diamonds in the rough”. Each, in their own way, has significantly influenced moviemaking and the war film genre, and while I know that nothing about my opinions are definitive, just as the Yahoo list was not, I encourage everyone who has not seen these films to make the effort to see them. They are all well worth your while.

Battleground (1949)

Battleground is an oft forgotten classic, notable as one of the first post-World War II movies to attempt to realistically deal with the hopes and fears of the common G.I. It tells the story of a squad of soldiers belonging to the 101st Airborne Division, as they deal with the Siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

The film’s pedigree is impressive. The writer, Robert Pirosh, had actually served at Bastogne as a Master Sergeant with the 35th Infantry Division, and his first-hand experiences are faithfully brought to this film through his skillful use dialogue and plot. Pirosh also co-produced this film.

Further, Battleground was directed by William A. Wellman, a World War I veteran who flew with the Lafayette Flying Corps and directed 1927’s Wings - the first film to win an Oscar for Best Picture. Add to this an excellent performance by James Whitmore as Sgt. Kennie, who seems to channel cartoonist Bill Mauldin's ‘Willie and Joe’ perfectly, and you have a uniquely empathetic movie. It hits it subject matter hard without ever flinching – and this just 4 years after the war ended.

The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)

Based more on Lord Tennyson’s poetic ideal than the real history of the Battle of Balaklava, 1936’s The Charge of the Light Brigade is the reason why laws today are so strict with regards to the treatment of animals within the movie industry.

The epic charge at the end of the film, which visually is absolutely jaw dropping (even seventy-three years later) was one of the most dangerous scenes ever filmed in the history of motion pictures. In order to get the horses and riders to fall realistically, director Michael Curtiz (of Casablanca fame) and Assistant Director B. Reeves Eason (who had worked on the chariot race for 1925’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ) had a series of trip wires set up across the field to impede the charging animals and then buried explosives to create realistic cannon fire. The result was the death of one stuntman, who fell on his own sword, and the deaths of supposedly over 200 horses (though I’ve also seen it listed as the maiming of hundreds and the deaths of “dozens”).

Regardless of the exact figures, so outraged was star Errol Flynn that he secretly contacted the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) and begged them to come to the location - public protest soon followed and Warner Brothers never re-released the film after its initial run.

It should be noted, however, that Curtiz and Eason did not invent the methods used on this film; they had been staples of the movie industry for years prior. But it was because of this movie and its real death toll that such methods were subsequently banned from all future films.

Hell’s Angels ( 1930)

Hell’s Angels was the dream child of millionaire and director Howard Hughes. Originally conceived of as a silent picture (before Hughes, midway through filming, decided to start over as a “talkie”), the focus was always the aircraft and the dogfights. Hughes was determined to make the air combat within this movie as realistic as possible, even going to the trouble of hiring actual World War I aces to fly the stunt planes. Further, Hughes choreographed many of the aerial stunts himself. And when his pilots refused to fly within one specific scene that they thought too dangerous, Hughes flew the stunt plane himself, getting the shot, but also crashing as a result.

Hell’s Angels is obviously a labor of love just as much as it’s a gripping war movie with incredible action sequences, which for me far outstrip anything seen in Flyboys (2006). There is something about knowing that you’re not looking at CGI effects, but a real plane and a real pilot that makes the action of this movie all the more riveting. And as someone who is fascinated with air combat and its history, it’s amazing to see a film (especially a 79 year old film at that) that depicts realistic World War I flight formations and tactics so well.

Realism came with a heavy price, however. Hughes himself was injured after his previously mentioned crash, and three of his stunt pilots were killed during the production: Al Johnson crashed after hitting wires while landing, C. K. Phillips crashed while delivering an S.E.5 to the shooting location and Phil Jones died while filming the crash of the German Gotha.
So there you go – three films with which you may or may not be familiar. However, each of these films has left their distinctive mark upon the war film genre. Battleground speaks to our humanity, while both The Charge of the Light Brigade and Hell’s Angels are attempts to combine both realism and action, sometimes at the expense of safety.

Do I think that any of these three films should have been included in the Yahoo list? Battleground, definitely; Hell’s Angels, maybe. Regardless, it’s a shame that such remarkable and influential movies should be sidelined by both the passage of time and short memories. All public opinion polls, however, are just popularity contests, where the more easily accessible film will always list higher than the more obscure, regardless of how relevant that forgotten classic is.

Let me know your personal opinions regarding this, and feel free to list your own forgotten favorites.


All-Mi-T [Thought Crime] Rawdawgbuffalo said...

I would add

mos def (longest day)
Full metal Jacket
Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo
Gone with the Wind

gordon gartrelle said...

I don't normally care for war films, but I might have to try to find some of these.