24 May 2009

War, What is Good For? Films, Of Course

I missed out on being in a war. Never shot at. No sleeping in mud. No seeing my buddy's brains blow out. No being under heavy artillery attack. No charges at enemy lines. No going out on patrol. No wounds. No medals. No shipping out. No furlough. Nothin.

My dad fought in the Winter War, aka the Finno-Russian War. He was also on merchant marine ships during WWII that came under airplane fire and was at the helm of one that was sunk by a Japanese submarine. I heard his stories. But me? Closest I come was being tear gassed at anti war demonstrations when I was in high school.

I've read a lot about wars, particularly the two world wars. I mean A LOT. Being an expert is relative. I'm certainly an authority on such arcane things as growing up Finnish American in Berkeley in the Sixties. I'm an expert on teaching 8th grade history. I know one helluva lot about other things like baseball, movies and World War II. But an expert? That's another thing.

There's so much to know about wars. I'm never interested in generals and their tactics. My eyes glaze over when I read that stuff. I am fascinated with certain leaders. I'm currently reading my 896th book on FDR and he had a lot to do with US response to and actions in WWII. But besides a few civilian leaders what really interests me is the men who do the fighting. Generally speaking you're taking an ordinary guy out of his comfort zone and throwing him into most unusual and horrifying circumstances. He's not only in danger of being killed or maimed, he's often called upon to do some killing of his own. And what they go through! Hard to image. It's not just the being shot at, it's the conditions a solider lives in. if you can really call it living. The lack of privacy, the discomfort, the anxiety are just the tip of the iceberg. Disease has been rampant in most war zones. Showers, hell, even being able to just wash your hands can be the stuff of dreams. And toilets and toilet paper? Let's not even go there.

Something that can help one understand the life of a soldier is film. There are a lot of good and many superior films that are set in war time. I dedicated a post to 25 great World War II films last summer and I've got a follow up I hope to post tomorrow. I also had a post on World War I films last Fall. The point is war, as disagreeable as it is (and there's very little mankind has come up with that's worse) is compelling material for film.

The world's greatest TV station, TCM, is in the midst of their annual 72-hour Memorial Day weekend marathon of war related films. I've got the old DVR set to record several and have already watched a couple: Battleground (1949) and The Story of G.I. Joe (1945). Both directed by the great William Wellman.

The later, based on the experiences of America's greatest war correspondent, Ernie Pyle. Hit theaters before the war was even over and even featured extras who'd recently seen combat. Indeed many of them shipped out to the Asian Theater of Operations after filming and several were killed in action as was Pyle himself.


The story of G.I. Joe is all about the soldier's faces. Wellman had the camera hold on faces. The power of the story is etched in their mugs. We see them react. We seem listen. We seem the think and pray and wonder. We see their courage and fear. Those faces tell the story, everything else is backdrop. The film is dark. The soldier's humor and bonhomie is fleeting and tinged with the reality of where they are, what has happened and what may yet come.

Like the soldier's lament, it's hurry up and wait. The soldier's are either moving to the next battle site or stock still, sitting in pouring ran or blazing sun awaiting orders. There is intermittent action and by action I mean battle, which can mean death. There is nothing glamorous about it. We admire the soldier's for their perseverance, their ability to keep on. One finally cracks, but a slug in the jaw from Robert Mitchum settles him long enough to that he can later rejoin the fray. Knowing the ultimate fate of the central character, Pyle (played by Burgess Meredith) adds to the sense of gloom. When another central character dies near the end of the film and the soldier's must press on... well, it makes for a powerful story. The war of this film is sad.

Battleground was made four years later and in comparison seems light and breezy. But taken on its own terms it too is an unflinching and unglamorous look at men at war. The story centers on the infamous battling bastards of Bastogne, those brave souls of the 101st Airborne who helped stem the tide at the Battle of the Bulge.

Van Johnson adds glitz and charm but with frozen toes, buddies blown to bit and James Whitmore spewing tobacco juice, this is not exactly Brigadoon (1954). What I find surprising in Battleground is the effective performances of George Murphy and Ricardo Montalban, not exactly heavyweights. Ultimately Battleground is the more accessible film. We get to know the characters better, they're funnier and there is more optimism. Perhaps the fact that the film was made when the war was starting to fade a bit in the rear view mirror helped. Both were in glorious black and white and that adds to their grittiness. Their is at times a documentary feel to each. They feel immediate.

The battle scenes in both films lack the in living color blood and intestines of later films like Saving Private Ryan (1998) but we get the idea. You don't need technicolor gore to appreciate the exacting wages of battle.

Like literature, films have done us the favor of showing what war is like. Sadly, too many people get the wrong message from the wrong films or ignore the right messages from the right films. They still see war as the ultimate expression of man's virility and if they're not in a position to jump into battle themselves are glad to cheer lead politicians who will send young people into carnage. One grows sick at the happy willingness of Americans to send young men and women to die or have body parts blown off in Iraq, in an utterly unnecessary and indeed self defeating cause.

I suppose the truth is that all the great books and films in the world are not going to sway some people who don't get the idea that war is really, literally hell and should be avoided at all costs.

For the rest of us, war films can give us pause to appreciate or at least understand what our forebearers have gone through. They can be great studies of the human condition. Thankfully very few of us today face the prospects of going into battle. But we do deal with dramatic situations and dangerous foes and must come to grips with our own cowardice and bravery. War films can help us explore our inner demons.

They can also help to illuminate and inform the human condition and not incidentally are often ripping good yarns in the bargain.

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