American History: Memorial Day Weekend Movies

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.

A few films to help remember that there is much greater significance to Memorial Day than sun and fun:

 

 

1.  American Sniper (2015)- A grand tribute to the late Chris Kyle and to all the other troops who served in Iraq.

“I am a strong Christian. Not a perfect one—not close. But I strongly believe in God, Jesus, and the Bible. When I die, God is going to hold me accountable for everything I’ve done on earth. He may hold me back until last and run everybody else through the line, because it will take so long to go over all my sins. “Mr. Kyle, let’s go into the backroom. . . .” Honestly, I don’t know what will really happen on Judgment Day. But what I lean toward is that you know all of your sins, and God knows them all, and shame comes over you at the reality that He knows. I believe the fact that I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior will be my salvation. But in that backroom or whatever it is when God confronts me with my sins, I do not believe any of the kills I had during the war will be among them. Everyone I shot was evil. I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die.”
Chis Kyle

2.   Hamburger Hill (1987)- A moving film about our troops in Vietnam who served their nation far better than their too often ungrateful nation served them.

3.  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 a few years ago, 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 above clip indicates it also highlights the surreal element that accompanies every war and the grim humor that aspect often brings.

 

4.   Hacksaw Ridge (2016):  Mel Gibson fully redeemed his career as a director with this masterpiece.  A film that goes far beyond mere entertainment and illustrates what a man of faith can accomplish when he stays true to his beliefs and cares so much more about helping others than he does about his own mortal life.  Incredibly, the movie does justice to Desmond Doss, a true American hero.

 5.   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 the clip above compelling. (more…)

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They Shall Not Grow Old: A Review

 

 

 

Well, my bride and I watched They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) last Sunday, and technically it was as magnificent as I had heard.  The expertise applied to make World War I era films look like contemporary colored films was awe-inspiring.  The skillful use of sound with these films allowed us to think that we were seeing a modern broadcast from 1914-1918, if the current broadcast technology had existed back then.  It reminds us powerfully that the men who fought were not merely figures from old, grainy black and white films, but flesh and blood like us going through a great and terrible experience.  The voice over in the film is from World War I veterans, presumably from broadcasts decades ago, or recreated readings from memoirs and/or written interviews.

One thing I very much liked is that the film totally reflected the views of the British soldiers who fought.  No Twenty-First century sensibilities were imposed on these soldiers from a century ago who fought for King and Country at the dawn of the Twentieth century.  The film skillfully takes us through the experience of the soldiers:  recruitment, training, meals, life in the trenches, medical care, etc.  The time allotted to the actual fighting does not dominate the film, as it did not dominate the wartime lives, at least those who survived, of the men who fought.  Battle was obviously the most important element in the lives of the soldiers who were at the front, but few soldiers spent more than a few months in combat, at most, even for the small minority who served throughout the entire War.  At the end of the film, the soldiers are looking for work, some of them missing serving in the Army, for many of the young soldiers the first real job they had held.

At the beginning of the film, some of the Tommies talk about what a life altering experience the War had been for them, and how they would not have missed it for the world, and that is the general sentiment portrayed by most of soldiers at the end of the film.

 

 

To say all this is out of step with popular perceptions today of World War I, a useless war where the soldiers were only pawns, or, at best victims, is to engage in considerable understatement.  My hat is off to Peter Jackson to allow the men five generations removed from our time to have their say.

My only mild criticism of the film is that a viewer will gain no knowledge of the actual campaigns fought by the British Army on the Western Front.  However, this is clearly a result of the film’s firm focus on the perceptions at the time of the front line soldiers.  The fabled Big Picture was for Generals and civilians safely reading newspapers back in Britain.  For the soldiers, the battles all blurred together into small scale fights of attack and defense, where life and death were all that mattered, and for these combatants the Big Picture simply didn’t exist.

 

A truly great film.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.

 

Published in: on May 21, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on They Shall Not Grow Old: A Review  
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Herman Wouk: Requiescat in Pace

Herman Wouk has died at age 103.  A Navy veteran of the War in the Pacific, he became a celebrated novelist after the War.  To me his best novel will always be the Caine Mutiny, in which he drew upon his experiences to paint an unforgettable picture of life in the Navy during the War.  Here is my review of the movie based upon the novel:

For my sins, perhaps, I have spent my career as an attorney.  Over the past 27 years I’ve done a fair number of trials, both bench and jury, and I am always on the lookout for good depictions of trials in films, and one of the best is The Caine Mutiny.  Based on the novel of the same name by Herman Wouk,  who served in the Navy as an officer in the Pacific during World War II, the movie addresses the question of what should, and should not, be done in a military organization when the man at the top of the chain of command is no longer in his right mind.

 

The cast is top notch.  Humphrey Bogart, an enlisted man in the Navy during WWI and a member of the Naval Reserve, he tried to enlist again in the Navy after Pearl Harbor but was turned down because of his age, gives the performance of his career as Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg, the captain of the Caine.  In the hands of a lesser actor Queeg could easily have become merely a two-dimensional madman.  Bogart instead infuses Queeg with pathos and demonstrates to the audience that this is a good man who sadly is no longer responsible mentally for his actions.

 

 

 

Van Johnson delivers his usual workmanlike job as Lieutenant Stephen Maryk, the “exec” of the Caine, a wants-to-be career officer who does his best to remain loyal to an obviously disturbed CO, while also attempting to protect the crew of the Caine from Queeg’s increasingly erratic behavior.  Robert Francis, as Ensign Willis Seward Keith, is the viewpoint character:  too young and inexperienced to make his own judgment, he relies on Maryk and Lieutenant Keefer.  Fred MacMurray is slime incarnate as Lieutenant Thomas Keefer, a reservist who hates the Navy, spends all his time writing a novel, and eggs Maryk on to take command away from Queeg.  Finally, in a typhoon, reluctantly and only, as he perceives it, to save the ship, Maryk, with the support of Keith, relieves Queeg from command.

 

In the ensuing court-martial of Maryk and Keith, lawyer Lieutenant Barney Greenwald,  portrayed with panache by Jose Ferrer, reluctantly agrees to defend them.

What I admire most about the film is the realistic way that the defense is depicted.  A legal case consists of the facts, the law and people. (more…)

Published in: on May 17, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Herman Wouk: Requiescat in Pace  
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The Bishop’s Wife

Dudley:

All right. Let me think. This
happened many, many years ago.
Debby:
That's not the way to begin.
Stories start "Once upon a time".
Dudley:
Yes, that's true.
Once upon a time there was a little
boy and he lived in a little town.
Debby:
- What was his name?
Dudley:
- His name was David. He was a shepherd.
The town was called Bethlehem.
Debby:
I know Bethlehem. That's
where the star was.
Dudley:
That's right. Only David
lived long before the star.
One night, David was out in
the hills tending his sheep.
- He was playing the harp and singing.
Debby:
- Was he singing "Jingle Bells"?
Dudley:
No, no. "Jingle Bells"
hadn't been written then.
David was singing songs
that he wrote himself.
Suddenly, an angel came
down and spoke to David.
Debby:
- How did David know it was an angel?
Dudley:
- He didn't know.
And that's the way it always is.
Angels come and put
ideas into people's heads
and people feel very proud of themselves
because they think it was their own idea.
This angel said to David "One
of your lambs has strayed. "
So David put aside his harp and went
into the darkness to find the lamb.
The angel guided him.
And when David found the lamb,
he saw a great big ferocious lion.
Debby:
Oh!
Dudley:
So David said to the lion
"You get away from that lamb. "
And the lion said "You get away
from me or I'll eat you too. "
Debby:
- Did David run away?
Dudley:
- No.
You know why? Because the angel
put another idea into his head.
So David took out his
sling and he hurled a stone
and hit the lion right between the eyes.
Debby:
I bet that lion was surprised!
Dudley:
Yes. And so was David because he
didn't know an angel had helped him.
Well, he picked up the lamb
and took it back to the fold.
Then he felt so happy that he made
up another song. It started out:
"The Lord is my shepherd.
I shall not want. "
"He maketh me to lie
down in green pastures. "
"He leadeth me besides
the still waters. "
"He restoreth my soul... "
Screenplay The Bishop's Wife

 

A fine Christmas movie is The Bishop’s Wife from 1947.    David Niven is an Episcopalian bishop of a struggling diocese;  Loretta Young (ironically one of the more devout Catholics in the Hollywood of her time) is his wife;  and Cary Grant is Dudley, one of the more unimportant angels in Heaven, sent by God to lend the Bishop a hand.  The film is a graceful comedy which effectively and quietly underlines the central importance of faith in God as we see in this little scene when undercover angel Dudley, Cary Grant, uses his powers to summon a tardy boy’s choir for an unforgettable rendition of O Sing to God:

Published in: on December 16, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The Bishop’s Wife  
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Top Ten Patriotic Movies for the Fourth

 

For those of you who want some patriotic movies to watch over the  Fourth of July, here are some suggestions for viewing.  Longtime readers of this blog will see that this differs somewhat from earlier lists of top ten patriotic movies with some additions and deletions.  Feel free to suggest additional movies in the comboxes.

10. National Treasure (2004)-Sure it’s cursed with a ridiculous plot involving the masons and a treasure, it is still a lot of fun and calls us back to the foundation document, the Declaration of Independence, that is the cornerstone of our Republic.

9. 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.

 

8.    Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)-James Cagney in perhaps the greatest film bio of them all, a salute to George M. Cohan, the legendary composer, playwright and patriot.

 

7.      Saving Lincoln (2013)-  Overshadowed by the Lincoln film of 2012, this rendition of Lincoln’s years as President is first rate.

The human cost of the War is always at the core of the film, as we see in the delivery of the Gettysburg Address where some of the members of the crowd hearing Lincoln are holding pictures of soldier relatives who have died.

Lincoln in the film comes to believe that he will die in office and accepts his fate, hoping that God will spare him until his work is accomplished.

 

 

6.    Gettysburg (1993)-The movie that I think comes the closest to conveying to us the passions of the Civil War.  You really can’t understand America unless you understand the Civil War.  As Shelby Foote, one of the greatest historians of the war, said:  “Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War. I believe that firmly. It defined us. The Revolution did what it did. Our involvement in European wars, beginning with the First World War, did what it did. But the Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things. And it is very necessary, if you are going to understand the American character in the twentieth century, to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the mid-nineteenth century. It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.” (more…)

Published in: on July 2, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Top Ten Patriotic Movies for the Fourth  
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Incredibles 2: A Review

 

 

My family and I went to see Incredibles 2 on Saturday.  Most sequels I find disappointing, but this one more than lived up to my expectations.  Review below the fold and the caveat as to spoilers is in full effect: (more…)

Published in: on June 18, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Incredibles 2: A Review  
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Chappaquiddick: A Review

From a distance, Kennedy has long seemed like a man playing a role: the role his staff expected him to play, the role his public expected him to play, the role his brothers and their retainers expected him to play, the role his father expected him to play. “Ted Kennedy, Liberal Icon” was performance art which dragged on for decades. One of his more vigorous opponents over the years, Raymond Shamie, pointed out that his signature issue was ‘national health insurance’, but that his proposal had never got out of subcommittee, and he was chairman of the subcommittee. Maybe all along what he really cared about was making waitress sandwiches.

Art Deco, commenter, The American Catholic, April 7, 2018

 

 

My son and I saw the movie Chappaquiddick on the  Saturday before last.  It is a superb evocation of time and place and a damning indictment of the cowardice of Ted Kennedy that led to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne.  My review is below the fold, and the usual caveat as to spoilers is in full force. (more…)

Published in: on April 23, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Chappaquiddick: A Review  
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The Death of Stalin

 

I finally saw The Death of Stalin (2017) with my wife and bride last Saturday.  Most films that I have high expectations for often leave me at least slightly disappointed.  This film exceeded my expectations.  It is a superb evocation of the power struggles that ensued in the wake of the death of Stalin in 1953.  The blackest of black comedies, it is also hilarious, albeit with quite a bit of very rough language.  The language however in this context works.  The men of the Politburo were gangsters, murderers.  We would no more expect them to use decent language than we would expect the demons to do so in Dante’s Inferno.  However, if there are gradations in Hell, the worst was Stalin’s Himmler, Lavrentiy Beria.  A Georgian like Stalin, and head of the NKVD for the latter part of Stalin’s rule, Beria had the blood of millions on his hands.  However, his colleagues were little better than him.  None of them had the courage not to go along with Stalin’s paranoia that executed millions and send millions of others to living deaths, and often simply deaths, in the Gulag.  All of them had to sign off on execution lists and imprisonment lists of people they knew to be completely innocent.

 

Beria is the villain of the film, as the film depicts, albeit in truncated fashion, his rise and fall post Stalin.  The film’s comedic tone leaves it right at the very end when during his “trial” Beria is denounced for his habit of taking advantage of his position to rape women at will, to have women prostitute themselves to him in usually futile efforts to save themselves or their men and children and Beria’s involvement in pedophilia.  Only then do we see moral outrage from his colleagues, because here they are talking about crimes they did not engage in themselves.

 

 

 

Communism is back in vogue on the Left, and thus this film appears at an opportune time to remind us of the gruesome reality of Communism in practice.

 

 

 

Published in: on April 13, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The Death of Stalin  
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Paul: Apostle of Christ-A Review

Hollywood, when it goes into the realms of History and Faith, often does justice to neither, getting the History wrong and making a complete hash of the presentation of religious faith on the screen.  I am pleased to report that Paul: Apostle of Christ defies this usual litany of failure.  My review is below, and the usual caveat as to spoilers applies:

 

(more…)

Published in: on April 6, 2018 at 4:30 am  Comments (4)  
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Seven Samurai

(I posted this at The American Catholic and I thought the film mavens of Almost Chosen People might enjoy it.)

 

 

 

This is the nature of war. By protecting others, you save yourselves.

Kambei, leader of the Seven Samurai

 

 

Dave Griffey at Daffey Thoughts takes a look at Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, The Seven Samurai.

 

I finally did it.  My entire life, I’ve heard of the almost mythical movie The Seven Samurai.  Considered one of the greatest foreign language films by American critics and universally praised by critics around the world, I just never got around to watching it.  When I did look for it, it was difficult to find.  And when you could find it, it was always expensive.

Finally, this last Christmas, The Seven Samurai ended up under the tree.  Because of its length of 3 1/2 hours, we couldn’t find time to see it.  Since the two oldest have moved on with college, they’re not around to watch things like they used to, but they wanted to watch it with us for the first time.  So it wasn’t until Tuesday night that we could get everyone together for the first viewing.

It was worth the wait.  Long and short, it lived up to the hype and then some.  Everyone knows of its influence.  We all know The Magnificent Seven was just an American version of the film.  We know that from Guns of Navarone to A Bug’s Life, the movie has been considered one of the most influential and copied movies of all time.

Despite this high expectation, and I can’t put my finger on why, it lived up to all I had heard and more.  I think, when the dust settles, it was the interaction between the players.  Oddly, in the end (without giving away too much), the seven Samurai do little of the fighting, instead funneling the fight over to the village farmers and letting them do most of the heavy lifting.  The movie is mostly about the relationships between the villagers and the Samurai, and the Samurai (technically mostly Ronin) and each other. 

But here’s what dawned on me.  In America, there is this notion that only in America, and all because of that infamous ‘Code’ of the 1930s, our films were repressed and unable to express themselves openly.  We have this notion that the sex and drugs culture, with explicit and open and unrestrained sexuality and hedonism, accompanied by increasingly gory and bloody violence shown graphically in film and on television, were all just the logical result of the ‘Code’ finally crumbling and true artistic expression emerging.

Furthermore, we are now just getting back to how it always was, when sex and sex and graphic sex and gore and graphic violence were just the way it should have been or always was or both.  Without saying it directly, we have this notion that we’re finally getting things back to the rest of the world, where gay sex, group sex, graphic violence, drugs and all the explicit ‘invite the camera in the bedroom’ movies were common around the world.

Except, it wasn’t.  The Seven Samurai, a movie where hired guns come in to save a village from rampaging bandits, is violent.  There are dozens of deaths.  And yet, you never really see much.  No blood.  No gore.  No guts hanging out.  You see a few fights at the end.  You see some duels.  But no explicit violence.  You see a case where a village girl and a young Samurai get together in a barn, much to the father’s dismay.  Later, the head Samurai chuckles that they’ll expect more from the youngster now that he has ‘become a man.’  We all know what that means, just as I’m sure audiences did back then.  But they didn’t show it.  And all that restraint without the evil Hollywood Code, driven by the nefarious Catholic Church.

And that got me to thinking, as I am wont to do.  The fact is, there was no real ‘Hollywood Code’, at least any different than anywhere else in the world.  Oh, there was a code.  And it had its demands and its expectations from films, just like today.  If you think on it, there isn’t a lack of movies coming out of Hollywood that question homosexual normality, or challenge abortion rights, or reflect on the failures of the Civil Rights movement over the last quarter of a century, because there is nobody out there imagining these things.  They simply aren’t allowed.  If they were made, they would be boycotted, banned, attacked and even sued.  Codes have always been around.  I’m sure they always will be.

And not just in America.  Being a fan of old, silent movies, I’ve seen my share from around the world before there was this mythical Hollywood Code. Heck, a few predate Hollywood.  Sometimes you get a little more than you would in 1930s or 1940s Hollywood fare.  Sometimes you might catch a bit of skin in some old, silent Italian film, or see some more direct examples of innocents dying in an old Soviet propaganda film.  If there was any nudity at all, it came off as more artsy than anything sexual, and that’s stretching it since I don’t recall anything, but I’m willing to allow for the possibility.  Yes, you could get a little more nitty-gritty at times, like the original King Kong, but like 1954’s The Seven Samurai, there just isn’t a case of flagrant, porn like sex and graphic blood and gore violence that I have found.  There just isn’t.  Anywhere.  Around the world.

This is something that has arisen only over the last fifty years or so of film making and other visual entertainment.  Sure, the ‘themes’ were there.  Samurai was about the real, down in the trenches lives of these legendary warriors as much as it was anything.  It was taking the chivalrous knight down a notch, by showing warts and all.  But it didn’t show it with the camera.  It showed it with the dialogue and the mind of the viewers.

Somewhere, however, filmmakers in America, Europe and around the world began showing us, rather than pointing our minds to think it through.  By the fifties, violence was starting to creep into the explicit levels.  By the sixties, sex was getting more open as violence became more graphic.  No longer did a mixture of camera angles and convenient barricades mixed with clever dialogue point the audience to what happened.  Nope.  By the late sixties, the cameras were going into the bedroom or showing the gunshots and saying ‘here you go, this is what happened.’ 

It was about then that the same began happening around the world, to a greater or lesser extent. By the late seventies, everything was on the table.  Explicit sex (not counting the porn film industry that had been developing apace for a couple decades by then) and graphic violence were the name of the game.

And it was right around that time, if memory serves, that the mass killings began, at least as we  know them today.  And not just here in the old US of A.  Of course movies and entertainment around the world have become pretty graphic – including in Japan.  And it seems that mass killings are quite the global phenomenon.  Oh, not the shootings like we have.  But mass knifings, mass bombings, basically attempts to kill as many innocent people you might or might not know as possible.

Could it be connected?  Based on the film record, there simply was no culture at the dawn of the film industry that threw all manner of graphic sex, violence, gore and smut out there for public consumption.  Even outside of the Hollywood ‘Code’, there seemed to be pretty strict codes around the world.  But all of that changed by the mid to late 20th century.

Could there be a connection with this relatively new phenomenon of people seeking to slaughter as many innocents as possible for no other reason than to slaughter them, and the rather graphic level that entertainment has risen to?  We already elevate celebrity and entertainment to the place that religion and national identity enjoyed in ages past.  Could there be a connection?

It turns out that this whole ‘Code’ thing wasn’t reserved for America, just like this phenomenon of mass killing of innocents isn’t confined to America. Because the breakdown of barriers in cultural output, and the rise of mass killings through terrorism and personal crime seem linked in the timeline, could there be a connection worth examining?

Just curious and sort of thinking out loud after watching one fine romp of a film. 

 

Go here to comment.  In his capacity for endless violence Man reveals himself as lower than the beasts.  In his capacity for self-sacrificial violence in defense of others Man stands above the angels.  Once upon a time, film makers understood that central truth of the human condition.

 

Published in: on March 12, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Seven Samurai  
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