Veterans Day Films: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

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Homer, Fred, and Al on their way home from combat

This movie, which won the Academy Award for Best Film in 1946, is a moving tale about three World War II veterans and their difficulties in readjusting to civilian life.

Fred (Dana Andrews), Homer (Harold Russell), and Al (Fredric March) have returned to their home town of Boone City after discharge from the military.  Each of these men has his own challenges:  Al is dealing with incipient alcoholism, Fred with post traumatic stress disorder, and Homer with the physical challenges of having lost both of his hands in combat.  (It should be noted that Russell, a non-actor, was actually a WWII veteran and double amputee.)

Ironically, Homer the amputee adjusts to his situation better than the other two.  Fred is chronically unemployed and married to an unsympathetic, unfaithful wife.  And Al and his spouse are confronted with the reality that their daughter (Teresa Wright) has fallen in love with Fred and intends to break up his marriage.

If you have never seen this movie, please do so.  It is beautifully acted, with real-life situations that still ring true today.

The Best Years of Our Lives is frequently shown on Turner Classic Movies and can be obtained through Amazon.com, either on DVD or on instant download.

Instant download address is:

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DVD purchase address is:

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Pluses:  Beautifully acted, believable real-life situations

Minus:  Can’t think of any

Cast:  Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Harold Russell, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright

Director:  William Wyler

Rating:  Unrated

Black and white

Length:  172 minutes

In Theatres Now: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

“Lord, please help me get one more.”  – Army medic Desmond Doss, rescuing soldiers in “Hacksaw Ridge.”

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Corporal Desmond Doss, receiving the Medal of Honor from President Harry S Truman

Hacksaw Ridge, directed by Mel Gibson, tells the true-life story of Desmond Thomas Doss, a World War II veteran who was the first U.S. conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor.  Doss, a devout Seventh-Day Adventist, enlisted in the U.S. Army as a medic.  While serving in the Pacific theater, Corporal Doss single-handedly carried dozens of wounded soldiers across the battlefield to safety while being exposed to enemy gunfire.  He did so without firing a shot, because his religious beliefs prohibited him from using firearms.

The plot of Hacksaw Ridge is divided into two parts.  The first half of the movie concerns Doss’ life in his hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia, and time in basic training prior to being shipped to battle.  The much superior second half concerns fighting on Okinawa.  Here we witness bloody, graphic battle scenes which communicate the immediacy of combat.  Throughout all of this, Corporal Doss (played by Andrew Garfield) wends his way among the debris and dead to pick up one soldier after another.

My primary quibble about this movie is that director Gibson does not spend enough time in the first half establishing what enables the main character to do what he does in the battle scenes.  Specifically, Gibson references but does not discuss at length two qualities which explain Doss’ heroism:  His profound religious faith, and his dogged determination and stubbornness in adhering to his principles, regardless of pressure from those who would prefer that he do otherwise.

These issues are satisfactorily addressed in a wonderful 2007 documentary about Doss, The Conscientious Objector, directed by Terry Benedict.  The film tells the story of Hacksaw Ridge through interviews with the elderly Doss and other veterans who served with him.  As one listens to Doss, one gets the impression of a simple, sincere man who is profoundly grounded in his faith.  Other veterans, many of whom spent time with Doss in basic training, paint a picture of a stubborn nonconformist who refuses time after time to let his peers and superiors force him to use firearms or forfeit worship on Saturdays (Seventh-Day Adventists do not worship on Sunday).  Many of these interviewees served with Doss in the Pacific theatre, and were saved by his heroic actions.

In summary, Hacksaw Ridge is a fairly solid war movie.  However, I would strongly suggest watching The Conscientious Objector, so that you can hear from Doss himself and other veterans.  You can rent or buy The Conscientious Objector at amazon.com at the following link:

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Pluses:  Good battle scenes

Minus:  Plodding first half; beware of extreme violence in second half of film.

Cast:  Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving

Director:  Mel Gibson

Rating:  R for extreme violence

Length:  2 hour, 11 minutes

 

 

 

 

One of the Greats: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

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All Quiet on the Western Front is based on a novel by World War I veteran Erich Maria Remarque.  The story concerns a group of German students who are persuaded by their elderly professor to sign up as soldiers for the Great War.  Their initial excitement and patriotic ardor quickly turn into disillusionment as they are exposed to one horror after another.

The movie is gritty and realistic, even by today’s film making standards.   We see soldiers who always appear filthy and disheveled from the effects of trench warfare.  They spend most of their down time scrounging for food to supplement their meager rations, and passing stories among themselves while in the trenches.

One sequence is especially memorable.  It begins with the students and other soldiers sitting in bunkers, coping with aboveground shelling by playing a game of cards.  The real game here is waiting for combat, and it proves too much for some of them.  One soldier yells, “Why don’t we fight?  Why don’t we go over?!  Let’s do something!!”  Another soldier, overcome by claustrophobia and panic, starts screaming and runs out of the bunker, only to be taken down by enemy fire.

Finally, the soldiers are signaled to go up into the trenches; enemy troops are advancing.  A panning shot shows each German’s face as he waits for the onslaught.  Silence.  Then more shelling, and we see a long shot of allied soldiers advancing.  Suddenly, another panning shot shows the allies from the Germans’ point of view as they leap towards the camera and into the German trenches.  Following this is a melange of close ups and medium shots as men wildly shoot and stab at each other.  The viewer is left feeling as if he/she were right in the thick of battle.

This entire sequence is unaccompanied by film scoring (film-length music scores were not routine until later in the 1930’s), which makes it even more harrowing to watch.

At a later point in the story, the soldiers have a discussion about their purpose in fighting.  No one seems to know who started the war, or why.  Given the labyrinthine history of events that set World War I into motion, it is likely that many people in higher places were also scratching their heads.

All Quiet on the Western Front was a product of profound disillusionment with war.  There is no esprit de corps here, no stirring battle hymns or patriotic sentiment.  All we see are people who are systematically dehumanized by a conflict they cannot understand.  And by the end, we see characters whose bodies are killed long after their souls have already been destroyed.

This excellent movie is a must-see for anyone interested in film history.  It is listed by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 greatest films in the first 100 years of film making.   All Quiet on the Western Front can be found at amazon.com, and is periodically shown on Turner Classic Movies.

Note:  Director Lewis Milestone was known for his skill in making war movies so realistic that the viewer feels as if they were in the middle of combat.  Steven Spielberg cites Milestone as an inspiration for his film Saving Private Ryan.

Pluses:  Fine adaptation of a classic novel (read the book; it’s grittier than the film), great battle scenes.

Minus:  Occasionally stagey acting.

Cast:  Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, Slim Summerville

Director:  Lewis Milestone

Rating:  Unrated

Black and White

Length:  133 minutes.

Source:

“All Quiet on the Western Front (1930 film)”  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.  13 October 2016.  Web.  5 November 2016.

November Movie Reviews: War and Feasting

This month, I’m going to look at movies that reference two November holidays:  Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving.  Expect to see reviews of war films and films about food.

Veteran’s Day, which we celebrate on November 11th this year, coincides with Armistice Day and Remembrance Day.  The latter holidays are celebrated in countries outside of the US.; they mark the anniversary of the end of World War I.  Specifically, Veteran’s Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans.  Memorial Day, which is celebrated in May, honors those who died while in military service.

Although my offering today is not specifically about U.S. troops, the spirit of this movie reminds us of people who are veterans of their own personal battles and who achieved victory.

The King’s Speech (2010) is a moving testament to the strength and will of King George VI of England, who reluctantly took over the British monarchy in 1936 when his older brother, Edward VIII, abdicated in order to marry Wallis Simpson, an American commoner.  Why so reluctant?  Because among other things, King George (played by Colin Firth) suffered from a speech impediment so severe that he could barely communicate with friends and family, let alone strangers.  Kings must of course make speeches, and it was imperative for George to do so in 1939, when Hitler declared war against Europe.  Enter Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian actor and gifted speech therapist, who guided the King to his ultimate test:  An edifying speech to his countrymen concerning the nation’s entry into war.

Below is an excerpt from the movie, accompanied by the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.  You will observe that Logue gives the King ongoing non-verbal cues in order to get him through the five most terrifying minutes of his life.  As King George struggles through the speech, the camera cuts to shots of Brits throughout the United Kingdom hanging onto every word as they listen to their monarch on the radio.  Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth, King George’s wife (played by Helena Bonham Carter), is seen agonizing over every word, desperate for her husband to succeed in his endeavor–which he does.

 

This movie deservedly won the 2011 Academy Award for Best Picture.  I dare you to watch the entire film, especially the last section, without getting tears in your eyes.

Note:  Beethoven’s beautiful, intense Allegretto has been used in several films throughout the decades.  It is particularly appropriate here.  The Seventh Symphony, as well as another composition entitled Wellington’s Victory, was first performed to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon in 1813 by Wellington’s forces at the battle of Vitoria.  The aim of the performance was to benefit Austrian and Bavarian veterans wounded at the Battle of Hanau.  Although Wellington’s Victory was a great hit when first presented, it is the Seventh Symphony which has persevered throughout time.

Sources:

The King’s SpeechProd.  Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Gareth Unwin.  Dir. Tom Hooper.  Perf. Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Derek Jacobi, Jennifer Ehle, Michael Gambon.  UK Film Council, See-Saw Films, Bedlam Productions.  Film.  Released 6 September 2010.

“Wellington’s Victory.”  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.   .  August 2016.  Web.  02 November 2016.

“Symphony No. 7 (Beethoven)”  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.  23 October 2016.