WE SHALL REMEMBER THEM: AND WE ALL DID, WORLDWIDE, IN A MOVING DISPLAY OF UNITY
Moving Forward: Here are some movies to ensure we truly #neverforget
The world united at the weekend in a spirit of reflection and remembrance. Events sobered somewhat by our still divided world (the tone of political commentary was, to my mind, disappointing). Also, overshadowed by our ongoing conflicts; all too easy to remember ‘them’ yet neglect those brave service-people who still fight and sacrifice for our freedom, daily. And sadly contrasted with the raw destructive power of nature, as Malibu burns and invites the kind of bravery we must also honour, among firefighters and those stars doing their best to help each other and put aside rivalries in saving homes, horses/wildlife and each other. Thoughts with you all. You are an inspiration.
That said? From Danny Boyle’s brilliantly beautiful beaches / visual poetry to Peter Jackson’s colourised World War 1 footage (They Shall Not Grow Old), Hollywood magic played a part in vital tributes to those who fell in conflicts past. The BBC put aside programming and devoted its channels to themed content, as did many other broadcasting outlets. There was a precedent setting ‘peoples’ march’ and veterans, worldwide, across social media and in person, paid tribute to generations of heroism and fortitude. Towns honoured specific stories; families marked legacies and every religious denomination and grouping united in respect.
The British pageantry remains a thing of beauty and as much warning shot to the enemy as celebration of the virtues of winning the peace. The Cenotaph inspires awe and demands respect: a monument to might. Royalty, politics, the beat of a drum and the haunting horn sound: all signalling that we are, at our heart, DEFENDED and by the best of the best. A VERY clear message to ANY enemies with designs on tyranny: ‘DO NOT MESS WITH THE BRITISH!‘ / ‘COME AND HAVE A GO IF YOU THINK YOU’RE HARD ENOUGH‘.
I must stress that bravery, heroism and innovation in service of nation are just as important as the sombre reflections on the losses that wars create. We forget, at our peril, an absolute need for a thriving on survival, on vigilance and a celebration of excellence and glory and military fraternity alongside the more civilian philosophies that define remembrance.
Peace must of course be the goal and the prize, above all else. But it would be foolhardy to fail to prepare for a pervasive threat of war. And to attempt the suppression of moderate nationalism is to dangerously toy with inviting its rabid, rapid rise via unsavoury and extremist pockets. Certain world leaders: take note.
Indeed, if history teaches us one thing, it is that when we deny war as tool of foreign policy: we are all thereby more complacent about marching into its destructive and demonic layer, blindly ill prepared.
With that in mind? I have compiled a list of a few war/related genre movies that, whilst never shying from the brutalities of warfare and its philosophical challenges, nonetheless emphasise and rightly mythologise, the triumphs and inspirations of human will that are catalysed in conflict. By no means an exhaustive list and you will no doubt have others. And NOT exclusively ‘war’ movies in genre, either. But ALL worth a look.
Cinema is essential in capturing the virtues of our service personnel and remains, also, a vital tool in ‘psychological operations’ propaganda against enemies, be they foreign or domestic. We must be as aware of the strengths and triumphs associated with military endeavour as much as we are mournful of its casualties and sacrifice.
Because, like it or not? THAT is how we WIN, both the war and the prevailing PEACE. And we ARE still a nation at war. Make no mistake. ‘Terror’ remains a daily threat. And certain regimes’ designs on greater power will, alas, continue to clash with our own national and indeed ethical interests in years to come. So we owe it to ourselves to remain vigilant in the present and prepared for the future, via reference and deference to the past. Cinema is a core ally and a weapon in itself amidst that never ending struggle.
BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI:
This gem from 1957 is one of David Lean’s finest films. There is a study in obsession here; a character piece akin to William Golding’s novel The Spire or to the Biblical Tower of Babel. This is primal stuff but balanced by the kind of British sensibilities that the world now simultaneously shuns and misses in equal measure. It’s all very civilised, even as the team of British servicemen are tortured via starvation and isolation at the hands of the Japanese. This is a film about endurance and endeavour against all odds; building teams and bridges in concert and resurrecting morale in the process. You FEEL the toil, the sweat, the anger, the hunger, the mud, the sacrifice. The use of colour and lighting help a great deal with that quality.
Alec Guinness is superb as Colonel Nicholson; making a heaven out of hell as he applies himself and his team to build the finest bridge possible, under duress, if only to show (and thereby shame) the enemy the very best of British craftsmanship. Star Wars fans: THIS is what a young Obi Wan Kenobi would have been like. It’s a complex notion, though. Nicholson ultimately does not want his work lost and there is an element of frightening hubris, verging on madness as he sees the work through, in conflict to an extent with the Allies’ need to destroy the bridge. Speaking of which? One also gets a spy on mission movie here, like two movies for the price of one.
William Holden is Shears: a boys’ own romantic adventure hero type; entrusted with a sabotage task and without spoiling things for you, you can probably predict where the conflict will go. The film is visually stunning and truly epic, and has the mandatory catchy theme tune to match. Steven Spielberg cites Lean as one of his favourite filmmakers and one can see how this film influenced his approach to filming landscapes. Unmissable, both for movie and history fans.
THE DAM BUSTERS:
This is NOT just a ‘war film’. It is not even ‘ABOUT’ war. It’s a lesson in science and innovation. Yes, historical / moral revisionists have questioned the ethics of certain allied bombing raids during WW2. But that seems unfair, given that it was a genuine fight against extinction and the last truly great conflict of pure good vs evil in our history? Subsequent wars have to some extent, always seemed coloured by political shades and subtleties that cannot compete against our then unavoidable call to quell the Nazi menace.
In that context, one can rally round the characters in this movie and simply view them as ‘the goodies’. It is interesting that there are no Germans at all on display, aside from anonymous gunfire.
This is ALL bout achieving an OBJECTIVE. The engineering, the endeavour, the prize. You get a solid three act structure to that effect. Act one is the sometimes frustrating development and mastery of the ‘bouncing bombs’. Act two sees the gradual evolution and acceptance of the seemingly impossible plan, via an insight to the everyday lives of pilots at the Mess. And then, act three is the big action scene: the daring mission, under cover of darkness, at low altitudes. A destructive battle, won through CONSTRUCTIVE genius.
The film is tense, touching and has special effects that were surely ahead of their time back in 1955?
Using the STAR WARS analogy again; note that that the final action scenes are inter-cut with a briefing room. George Lucas, in 1977 was indeed paying tribute to this genre, back in a simpler age when it was ‘WW2 in space’ rather than ‘Disney spin off of the week’. This is Star Wars for grown ups! But there is still a sense of idealised ‘derring do’ at work here.
THE DAM BUSTERS IS an adventure story. And we NEED that, frankly. If ALL war stories were to dwell solely on the loss and the horror of war then we would never muster the courage inside to fight in the first place. It pulls off the impossible; enabling one to mourn the casualties, respect the bravery and yet be swept in by the sheer joy of patriotic adventure.
Richard Todd is a compelling, convincing leading man here; perhaps because of his own wartime experience, but he’s a charismatic star either way. Michael Redgrave (acting royalty) is excellent too as the endearingly eccentric and brilliant brain behind the bouncing bombs (Dr Wallis). Throw in the most adorable black lab’ dog (no i will not name it here) and THAT thumpingly catchy theme tune and yet again you have a must see best of British war movie and so much more.
THE GREAT ESCAPE:
How can one classify genre here, beyond ‘war movie’? Not easy! THE GREAT ESCAPE = an adventure, arguably a comedy in places, a touching glimpse of bonding between otherwise disparate characters, an insight to escapology and a great thriller. Some of the formula beats are here (‘for you za vor is over’ maybe gets a mention here? or words to that effect) and there is a pervasive spirit of fun and resistance to the piece.
Yes, there are stakes and some soberingly serious, saddening moments. But the emphasis here is from the title: be ‘great’ and yes, escape, at all costs! If that sounds sanitised or unsubtle, don’t be so swift to judge. The Nazis here are portrayed as ruthless but also rather civil in their dialogue with counterpart officers.
It’s all too easy to forget that whilst limitless evils were perpetrated by the Hitler regime, his rank and file military were not always driven by his ideology or its specific horrors. Some were Officers of old school; who genuinely saw war as a contest between men of skill and endurance, albeit with a belief in German supremacy as endgame. So still very much villains of the piece to be defeated /evaded but they seem to treat the prisoners here almost as naughty boys in a Boarding school who must be gated for insubordination. It is only once the escapes become all too real that the nastier machinery of the Nazi menace must be unleashed on our heroes and that is, for sure, a jarring shift in tone that wipes away any boyish smiles of fun.
This is Steve McQueen at his coolest, circa 1963 (you can make arguments for Thomas Crown trumping this, later in the decade, but..). Whether nonchalantly bouncing a baseball in the ‘cooler’ isolation room or kicking ass in one of the greatest bike chases ever put on film..you are entertained by his every scene. He also convinces as an engineer so one gets a real hero/role model : Captain Hilts is an academic action hero of the kind they simply do not put onscreen nowadays. Indiana Jones is a fictional successor, perhaps, though even he is now missing in (in)action.
It’s an ensemble piece, though. The interplay between the men is frequently funny and always touching. The way that Hendley ‘The Scrounger’ (James Garner) attends to a failing sighted Bartlett ‘Big X’ (Donald Pleasance) brings a tear to the eye, as does the tragic irony of the men who come so close to getting away from the Germans completely, only to fall to a simple ‘Good Luck’…’Thank You’.
And yes: WHAT a theme tune; now a rallying cry /victory call for many an England football match. COME ON ENGLAND! GO ON MY SON! BACK OF THE NET! 🙂
THE LONGEST DAY:
John Wayne! Richard Burton! Sean Connery! This is, once again, a rousing call to action, rather than more modern meditation on the evils of warfare. So yes, it is of its time and would perhaps feel out of place today. And yet..WOULD IT? Because if you look, carefully, at the storytelling STYLE at work here, it’s not THAT far removed from the current zeitgeist of allowing each character their own mini plot arc. Even the Germans are given some objective life here; helped in part by use of their native language (via subtitles) rather than dramatic accents in English. Still ‘the baddies’ but an opposing team, to be beaten, and close to their own decisive victories too. Neither panto villains nor comedic nasty nazi caricatures but methodical adversaries.
For 1962, the effects work is outstanding. Notice the shots of the fake parachute attack. Excellent use of light too, within the black/white frames. Sound also used to great effect even in ‘silent’ moments you FEEL an impending adrenaline. So there is danger in each scene, even the more reflective moods, but the essential spirit of adventure is there, onscreen. This is a mapping of the endeavour of the deciding battle of WW2 and it really takes you into that sense of a turning point, with everything on the line and all to play for. And yes: a catchy theme tune is there!
THE THIN RED LINE:
THE THIN RED LINE IS a darker, more philosophical piece. BUT. A big but. It manages to provide that kind of revisionist take whilst STILL honouring the bravery, action and dynamism of the service personnel. Being a man of thought and of action are NOT mutually exclusive in this beautiful movie. For that reason, I far prefer this to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (released the same year; its opening is unbeatable but as whole is a less satisfying war movie ‘imho’).
One gets an insight to WHY we fight and HOW we do so at our best and worst. The primal nature of fighting in the grass to the last man; the majestic display of conquest on the high seas and the simplicity of survival itself. All accounted for, here. The cast are a great help. There is a stunning array of big name cameos and whilst they fill the screen and justify their time so it never feels gimmicky, they selflessly segue into the next storyline. George Clooney, John Travolta, Nick Nolte: Bravo! An underrated gem from 1998 and one of director Terrence Malick’s finest films.
Watch it. That is an ORDER!
DARKEST HOUR / PEARL HARBOR:
Darkest Hour is in fact quite a small scale film, almost tele-visual in places. And for all its many strengths (still one of the finest films of this year; Gary Oldman as Churchill: his Oscar winning turn), there are a couple of scenes that could be deleted (Churchill on the underground) in favour of some wartime action to show the stakes at work. If one could cut from the rousing speeches that Winston makes to Parliament and the like, to the aerial choreography of Michael Bay? Then I think you would have the perfect war movie.
Pearl Harbor is NOT a great or even very good film. I cringe when watching its wannabe TITANIC love triangle dynamics and its shamefully shoehorned shots of those nice Kamikaze bombers who genuinely did not want to hurt any children or civilians, it seems???? But what it DOES do, brilliantly, is cut from political speeches ABOUT war and sacrifice TO the essence OF that combat. And it was one of fate’s odd coincidences that the movie was released the same year as 9/11; when NATO leader, Lord Robertson had to reference a ‘Tokyo Bay’ counter-attack counterpart on our Taliban foes.
It’s an immersive movie. One still gets TOP GUN style cockpit based banter /boys own adventure vibe but there is also real, visceral peril in the naval combat sequences. All scored, majestically and with rousing verve, as ever, by Hans Zimmer, and inter-cut with Jon Voight as President Roosevelt (a historical figure whose presence is felt, off camera / on phone conversations, via Churchill’s viewpoint in DARKEST HOUR).
Maybe rent them both on Amazon / a n other platform, it’s possible to cut between the two movies? Or just watch as a double bill? Just a thought.
CRIMSON TIDE/ THE ROCK/ENEMY OF THE STATE:
Ok I am cheating here a BIT. these are NOT serious ‘war’ films by ANY stretch. Think on these as pure popcorn pulp from the mid to late 1990s; rewards for watching the worthier counterparts above. Fast, flashy, pop video attention span level edits and bright shiny star powered blockbusting action spectacles. All from Jerry Bruckheimer as Producer and Tony Scott /Michael Bay as Directors.
Beneath the fun though? There ARE some literate, witty, poignant, trenchant and pertinent scenes that revolve around debate to punctuate the action. Is patriotism really the ‘virtue of the vicious’? Is warfare solely about action or thought? How does one follow a chain of command that might be wrong? How do you beat a more powerful enemy? And how far should we go to protect our privacy vs public safety? All are ‘there’ in those movies: defining questions of warfare in the last 20 years and still powerful, relevant movie motifs.
Also, ensemble cast wise: Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Ed Harris, Nicolas Cage and many more at their best!
Guns of Navarone; The Dirty Dozen; The Sea Wolves; Battle of the Bulge; Battle of Britain; Where Eagles Dare.. and many, many more..
So: there you have it. I hope it’s an entertaining and educative selection; respectful to the severity of war whilst recognising its versatile veterans and innovative strides in human endeavour. Bank Holiday movies you can watch with your beloved Dad /Grandad et al! And accomplishments on film in their own right in each case, transcending genre limits /redefining conventions and techniques.
If you have any favourite war movies we would love to hear from you.
And as to veterans: past, present and indeed, future: we truly respect and value what you do. You are in our thoughts and prayers, not only in November, but ALL year round. God Bless you. And Thank you for your service, one and all.