“When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today”
Inscription on the memorial to the dead of the British 2nd Infantry Division at Kohima.
The upcoming Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer, is a time of fun here in the US. However, it should also be a time of memory. Memorial day is derived from the Latin “memoria”, memory, and we are duty bound this weekend to remember those who died in our defense, and who left us with a debt which can never be repaid. One aid to memory can be films, and here are a few suggestions for films to watch this weekend.
10. 300-This may seem like an odd choice, not involving Americans, and a fairly bizarre retelling of the battle of Thermopylae. However, it celebrates the idea of never forgetting those who died for their country. “Go tell the Spartans passerby, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie”. So wrote Simonides, the greatest poet of his time, in tribute to the Spartans who fell at Thermopylae. The speech of Dilios at the end of the film, which may be viewed here, reminds us of our duty to remember those who laid down their lives for us, a message to be recalled this weekend.
9. They Were Expendable (1945) John Ford and John Wayne tell the story of the doomed PT Boat crews that fought against overwhelming odds during the invasion of the Philippines in 1941-42. The film has a gritty downbeat feel, appropriate to the subject matter, but an oddity for a film made during the War.
8. Hamburger Hill (1987)-Content advisory: very, very strong language in the video clip which may be viewed here. All the Vietnam veterans I’ve mentioned it to have nothing but praise for this film which depicts the assault on Hill 937 by elements of the 101rst Division, May 10-20, 1969. It is a fitting tribute to the valor of the American troops who served their country in an unpopular war a great deal better than their country served them.
7. Porkchop Hill (1959)-Korea has become to too many Americans The Forgotten War, lost between World War II and Vietnam. There is nothing forgotten about it by the Americans who served over there, including my Uncle Ralph McClarey who died recently, and gained a hard won victory for the US in one of the major hot conflicts of the Cold War. This film tells the story of the small American force on Porkchop Hill, who held it in the face of repeated assaults by superior forces of the Chinese and North Koreans. As the below clip indicates it also highlights the surreal element that accompanies every war and the grim humor that aspect often brings.
6. Glory (1989)-A long overdue salute to the black troops who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Robert Gould Shaw the white colonel who led the 54th Massachusetts died at Fort Wagner in the assault of the 54th. He was buried by the Confederates with his black troops. His parents were given an opportunity to have his body exhumed and returned to Boston for burial. Their reply was immortal: We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers….We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company – what a body-guard he has!
5. The Alamo (1960)-The story of the Texan Thermopylae and John Wayne’s love note to America.
4. Gods and Generals (2003)-Out on blue ray this week, the prequel to Gettysburg. It failed as a feature film partially because too much was left on the cutting room floor. It works better in its uncut glory viewed as a miniseries on the small screen.
3. Gettysburg (1993)-Also out on blue ray this week, it is fitting that the greatest movie made about the Civil War deals with the greatest battle of that war. You simply cannot understand the United States without understanding the Civil War.
The Civil War was really one of those watershed things. There was a huge chasm between the beginning and the end of the war. The nation had come face-to-face with a dreadful tragedy… And yet that’s what made us a nation. Before the war, people had a theoretical notion of having a country, but when the war was over, on both sides they knew they had a country. They’d been there. They had walked its hills and tramped its roads… They knew the effort that they had expended and their dead friends had expended to preserve it. It did that. The war made their country an actuality.
2. Saving Private Ryan (1998)- “Earn this….Earn it”. A message for us all to remember this Memorial Day and every day.
1. Sergeant York (1941)-A film biopic of Sergeant Alvin C. York, who, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on October 8, 1918 , took 32 German machine guns, killed 28 German soldiers and captured another 132. Viewers who came to see the movie in 1941 must have been initially puzzled. With a title like Sergeant York, movie goers could have been forgiven for thinking that Sergeant York’s experiences in World War I would be the focus, but such was not the case. Most of the film is focused on York’s life in Tennessee from 1916-1917 before American entry into the war. Like most masterpieces, the film has a strong religious theme as we witness York’s conversion to Christ. The film is full of big questions: How are we to live? Why are we here? What role should religion play in our lives? How does someone gain faith? What should we do if we perceive our duty to God and to Country to be in conflict? It poses possible answers to these questions with a skillful mixture of humor and drama. The entertainment value of Sergeant York conceals the fact that it is a very deep film intellectually as it addresses issues as old as Man.
The film was clearly a message film and made no bones about it. The paper of the film industry Variety noted at the time: “In Sergeant York the screen has spoken for national defense. Not in propaganda, but in theater.”
The film was a huge success upon release in 1941, the top grossing film of the year. Gary Cooper justly earned the Oscar for his stellar performance as Alvin C. York. It was Cooper’s favorite of his pictures. “Sergeant York and I had quite a few things in common, even before I played him in screen. We both were raised in the mountains – Tennessee for him, Montana for me – and learned to ride and shoot as a natural part of growing up. Sergeant York won me an Academy Award, but that’s not why it’s my favorite film. I liked the role because of the background of the picture, and because I was portraying a good, sound American character.”
The film portrays a devout Christian who had to reconcile the command to “Love thy Neighbor” with fighting for his country in a war. This is not an easy question and the film does not give easy answers, although I do find this clip compelling and a nice summation about how many of our combat veterans I think view their service.