Sunday, August 07, 2016

My Favorite War Movies.

I have read a lot of war history in my life. Everything from the battles of ancient empires pre-dating the Romans, to modern conflicts in the 21st Century. I've also seen a lot of movies about war. Again, older films that feature battles with men wearing primitive armor and slashing at one another with bronze weapons, to films featuring up-to-date GPS guided missiles and massive tanks with computerized targeting systems. (I won't mention films that carry robots and time machines, or dragons and magic. Those would be science fiction or fantasy films. Not part of the topic of today's blog.)

I'm not exactly sure why I watch war films. I'm not a soldier and I'm not particularly attracted to the subject of warfare as far as nationalism and conflict is concerned. I suppose I am interested because, as a writer, warfare is the very essence of story: personalities, conflict, and a linear progression.

For that reason there have been a number of great war movies that have inspired me at one level or another, or for a combination of reasons. Here, then, is a list of my five favorite war movies.

1: "Come and See". This a late Soviet film (1985) directed by Elem Klimov, written by Klimov and Alex Adamovich, and starring Alexi Kravchenko and Olga Mironova. The movie takes place over the course of an indeterminate amount of time but which stands in for the years during which the Soviet Union was initially overwhelmed by Nazi forces before finally wearing them down and turning the tables on their Fascist enemies.

The action seems to be within the borders of Belorussia which was victim to some of the most horrific of the racist atrocities of World War II. "Come and See" serves as a microcosm of the entire conflict between the Aryan occupiers out to exterminate the Slavic natives. The film is so monstrously effective as a tool of patriotic fervor that I found myself wanting to go out and kill Germans after I'd seen it. I'm not sure if this is the reaction Klimov was hoping for, but it's what I felt. This is, easily, the best war film I have ever seen.

Monsters walked the Earth.

2: "Fires on the Plain". This 1959 black and white Japanese film centers on the closing days of World War II from the point of view of an ill Imperial Japanese soldier in the Phillipines as the Americans are closing in. It was directed by Kon Ichikawa and was written by Natto Wada and based on a novel by Shohei Ooka. The movie stars Eiji Funokosha as the lost and wandering Japanese soldier.

Funokosha portrays a lowly Private Tamura who is suffering from tuberculosis and of no worth to his outfit. He is ordered to a hospital that does not wish to house him. He is further ordered to commit suicide if he cannot find shelter there. Twice refused sanctuary at the makeshift hospital he decides not to kill himself and instead marches out in the hopes of meeting up with a naval force that will hopefully rescue the starving, ill-equipped Japanese forces and return them to Japan.

Of course there are no Imperial Navy ships to rescue anyone and the tightening noose of American forces slowly closes in on all of the Japanese soldiers trying to make their ways to the coast and the ships which are never coming to remove them. The scenes of savagery and violence and despair that Tamura encounters are the very breath of horror and depression. And, strangely, in the midst of it all Ichikawa finds a way to instill a few moments of mirth along the way.

I first saw this movie when I was a child...on Public Television. Although the horrific imagery stayed with me all of my life, I did not see the movie again until recently. It's a solid second place on my list. (This 1959 film was remade for some reason in 2014. As with most remakes...why did they bother?)

Funokosha as Pvt. Tamura.

3: "Attack" is a 1956 film directed by Robert Aldrich, adapted for screen by James Poe from a play by Norman Brooks. The cast is about as good as it gets for this period of American films when it comes to character actors. The star of the film is Jack Palance who plays the battle-hardened Lieutenant Joe Costa. He obeys his orders and excels at killing Nazis, but is tired of being forced to risk his men to the whims of his drunken, cowardly commanding officer, Capt. Cooney played by Eddie Albert.

The play on which the screenplay is based is heavy-handed in its anti-war stance, but effective nonetheless. It doesn't hurt that all of the acting in the movie is about as good as it can be under the direction of Robert Aldrich in one of his best moments as a director. And even with great actors like Lee Marvin as a cynical major, Richard Jaekel, Buddy Ebsen, William Smithers, Robert Strauss and others, Palance stands out. His portrayal of the killing machine US Lieutenant focuses the story in such a way that makes the whole film far more memorable than the script likely deserves.

One thing that I was impressed by was that the 1954 play seems to presage the phenomenon of American enlisted men "fragging" their officers during the war in Vietnam. Either this kind of thing happened in the Second World War and served as fodder for Norman Brooks, or it was a brilliant bit of prescience on the writer's part.

Palance as Lt. Costa.

4: "Patton". I speak to very few people who have not seen "Patton" at least once. George C. Scott dominates the color scenery in this movie like few actors are ever able to do in any film in their career. I hope he kissed Franklin Schaffer's ass for allowing him to chew the scenery to brilliant effect in this intensely watchable scream of propaganda. Just as "Attack" was an anti-war yarn, "Patton" is a big-foot monstrosity of pro-war bullshit, yelling the so-called honor of warfare from the highest peak and promoting a total bastard of a man as some kind of wondrous hero with flaws that are so sweet they bleed gold. As a kid I bought every second of it, and as an adult I still cannot make myself turn from the screen when I walk into a room and seeing it playing on a TV screen. It's that effective a film and that fine a performance from Scott as the bloody bastard, Patton. Karl Malden does a pretty good job (as Omar Bradley) of trying to make one forget that the star of the movie is George C. Scott, but his skill is so subdued and so human that he doesn't stand a chance against a cad like Patton.

Try to watch this movie once in your life and never again. It would be a difficult task.

Propaganda. About as good as it gets.

5: "Kagemusha" by Akira Kurasawa and starring Tatsuya Nakadai. This film about 16th Century Japanese intrigue and violence between warlords variously battling to unify Japan, or to keep it as independent feudal states is another of my favorites. As a Kurosawa film it is eye-popping in its visual beauty. But swimming about on the surface with these images of vibrant color is a tremendous story of intrigue, connivance, ingenuity, and the accidents that most humans have come to call "fate".

Nakadai plays a dual role here. Both the brilliant tactician warlord Takeda Shingen, and the lowly Kagemusha of the title. The genius of war, Shingen, is shot and mortally wounded by a clever sniper using an arquebus. Before the great lord can die, his retainers recruit a lookalike to stand in for the warlord and Kagemusha must not only look the part, but be trained to act as a brave leader would at the head of his armies.

This film combines hope and fatalism in a unique way and one does not know how the chips will fall until the final minutes of the story feed out. Expertly helmed at the peak of Kurosawa's power as a director and cinematographer, the tale is also unique and powerful under his hand.

Tatsuya Nakadei as Kagemusha.


mark smith said...

Bobby, a Russian made film hat begins with a German tank chasing a Russian infantryman on a desolate battle field the Russian solider happens onto a antitank weapon in he bottom of a crater. He uses the antitank gun to destroy the German tank. His commander asks him what he wants and he says give me a pass to visit my dying mother.

James Robert Smith said...

That would be "Ballad of a Soldier", a 1959 Soviet film directed by Grigori Chukhrai. I'm watching it this evening.