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Sunday, November 23, 2008
For a Few Movies More... The Top 5

My top 5 war movies in reverse order with some commentary about those which missed the cut and those movies that have yet to be made.

5: Ran: Okay so it's really King Lear and maybe it stuck with me because it was the first Kurosawa movie I ever saw and I was just blown away about it... but the battle scenes are shot and scored in a way that have left me speechless by their power. You feel instantly transported to feudal Japan.

4: Where Eagles Dare: The best WW II adventure movie... Kelly's Heroes was ruined by the goofiness of Donald Sutherland, trying to bring a touch of hippie madness to the 1940s. Dirty Dozen might have made it but Telly Savales with a southern accent? That's just the start of the problems.

No problems here... a plot with twists and turns, Richard Burton playing yet again a hard-boiled British vet, and with both he and Eastwood mowing down Nazis with an everlasting supply of submachine gun ammo. Not to mention one of the great war movie of all time.

3: Black Hawk Down: This should be #2, but for reasons that will become clear I want to treat #1 and #2 together. The critics lambasted the movie for its wooden characters and that's true. It's also true that there are some awful American accents... Jason Isaacs?

On the plus side, the movie is beautifully edited and scored. As you follow the flow of the movie... from hubris, to Stoicism, to finally acceptance... you see how the movie was put together in post-production to bring forth themes that make it stand larger than a botched afternoon mission in Somalia.

After you see the movie once or twice, make sure to listen Hans Zimmer's soundtrack and you can pick out those themes, and the virtues, from the extended tracks.

If you want to read the book before you watch, go ahead, but be forewarned the movie does take liberty with it. However by reading it, you gain appreciation for the character of the men that composed the Delta Force unit stationed there. I am pretty sure Eric Bana didn't get an Oscar nomination for his depiction of a Delta non-com but I think he perfectly captured those men in Mark Bowden's book.

#1 and #2: Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan Okay I know Band of Brothers is a miniseries and not a movie but bear with me here.

Saving Private Ryan will probably get the #1 slot. It really did change not only how war movies are made but most importantly what viewers expected from war movies. When you watch the first 20+ minutes as Tom Hanks' company storms Omaha Beach keep in mind that military censors blocked from the papers all but the most saccharine types of pictures; there was a famous picture of 2 dead GIs rolling in the New Guinea surf covered with maggots that was blocked. WW II movies came a long way from the Sands of Iwo Jima.

The reason I put the two films together is because of two men; Captain Miller and Major Winters. You know the first character, that's the Ranger captain played by Tom Hanks. The second character is Band of Brothers and is real-life.

This is a case where you will first need to read the book Band of Brothers to gain appreciation for Winters. The popular historian Stephen Ambrose sat down with WW II veterans of Easy Company, 101st Airborne and wrote what amounted to a unit history stretching from their formation in 1942 through the end of the war. Winters, who started out as a platoon commander and rose by war's end to be battalion XO, stands out in Ambrose's book for 3 reasons.

The first was his assault on a German battery position at Brecourt Manor on D-Day when he led a hodgepodge group of only 13 paratroopers. The attack was a complete success, Winters was awarded the Army's Distinguished Service Cross, and the assault is still taught as a classic example of small group infantry tactics at West Point.

The second happened soon after D-Day when Winters' unit assaulted the town of Carentan. In the initial phase of the assault, hidden machine guns pinned down a large part of Winters' unit on an access road creating the possibility of a debacle. Winters stood up in full view of the German gunners and kicked and cursed his men to continue the assault; which they did.

The third is toward the end of the book in the present day when Winters and Ambrose were walking by the Winters' house in Pennsylvania. Ambrose noticed an injured duck and suggested to Winters since the duck was doomed to be killed by a predator anyway, that Winters should kill and freeze the animal for his own use. To which Winters replied with shock and dismay, saying that he could never do such a thing.

The first two reasons are depicted in the first two hours of the mini-series and while the film takes alot of liberties with the book, the assaults on Brecourt Manor and Carentan are both true-to-life and breathtaking. In the assault on Carentan you see Winters from the perspective of the German gunners, standing in the clear and kicking his men laying in the safety of the ditches. In the assault on Brecourt Manor, the footage shows the translation of classic infantry tactics (Winters read widely on the subject) into the reality of a brutal combat assault. In both reasons brought to life through masterful film-making, you understand what an elite American infantry officer both looks and acts like.

Note many US combat units in WW II were assigned redundant platoon officers because lieutenants were killed in such abundance. After watching Winters in the Carentan episode, I now know why.

The third reason comes out in the later episode "Crossroads" where Winters surprises a company of SS troopers; in the opening moments of the battle, Winters surprises and coldly shoots an unarmed and young German soldier. The act haunts Winters through the rest of the episode.

At this point it's useful to bring in Saving Private Ryan, who does Winters resemble? Yep... Hanks' Captain Miller, the mild-mannered Pennsylvania boy turned into a coolly-efficient killer. After the war as we can see from the story of the injured duck, Winters seems to revert to the man he was before the war. We don't know about his conscience or his dreams at night, but that day with Ambrose he seems miles away from the killer who shot down the young unarmed trooper or stood up in a hailstorm of gunfire to lead his men to take a town and kill Germans.

In the scene where his small squad is on the point of killing one another over letting a German prisoner go, Captain Miller reveals to his men what he was before the war, a school teacher. He wondered if his wife will even recognize him when he gets home. We know, from watching his nerves fray and hands shake, that in a sense he can never go back.

It's not a coincidence that Ambrose was involved in both films; a common theme throughout his long work of histories and biographies was common American men and women selected to do uncommon things.

Both films tell two stories.... the first is the murderous nature of life as an American combatant in the European Theater of Operations. By the February 1945, most front-line units had suffered a horrific rate of casualties and there was a dire need for trained infantrymen. Second, was the fact that the people who had to fight those murderous battles were citizen soldiers, plucked from their teaching jobs or life on the farm, to fight a war and to hopefully return to that same life afterwards. After seeing war, after being a hero and a successful infantry officer in history's greatest war, after seeing Paris... Winters returned home; Miller did not.

Some movies that didn't make the cut....

Patton, I go back and forth on this. Maybe I should make room for a pretty good character story about one of America's greatest warrior who wasn't cut out for peace. A good depiction of Patton's 3rd Army can be found in Victor Davis Hanson's The Soul of Battle.

Gettysburg. The dialogue is awful, forced; the story-line forced. However it almost makes the list if only for its depiction of Pickett's Charge which is magnificent. One of the items on my bucket list is to go to the battlefield and walk that ground.

When We Were Soldiers. Good movie but the end ruins it for me. Not only is ending wrong and hackneyed but it ends too soon. More on that in a bit.

Movies that should be made...

Afghanistan. Where to begin? A movie about the opening months from the perspective of CIA operations officer and special warfare NCO leading perhaps through Tora Bora? Operation Anaconda, the March 2002 assault into the Shahi-Kot Valley? Story based on the recent assault on the forward combat base? Operation Red Wing when 16 SEALs and special warfare personnel were killed trying to rescue one lone SEAL?

Iraq. The November 2004 assault on Fallujah from the perspective of a Marine or soldier? The story of the Punishers in Mosul, as depicted by Michael Yon? As with Afghanistan, the material here is rich and varied and open to all viewpoints.

Ia Drang. The problem with the movie "When We Were Soldiers..." was that it only dealt with the first part of the book. After the initial battles, American units marched out to other landing zones in order to leave the area before B-52 strikes on the battlefield. On the way, while strung out in column, the Americans were attacked and nearly crushed by Viet Cong and NVA units. Read the book and you find it to be an amazing story. One of the amazing characters is the guy who's on the cover of the book as well someone I've mentioned before, Rick Rescorla. Heck... why not make a movie on "Heart of a Soldier"