Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day Memories and Musings

In making lists of films, placing them in context as cinematic messages is arguably more important than attempting to grade them according to strict guidelines determined by "quality." Since it's Memorial Day, why not discuss war films under the rubric of their merits as the best representations of "antiwar," "pro-war" and "both"? It's an idea my dad had, and he composed a list for each category, to which I added a number of suggestions. A number of the films that top each respective list are considered to be classics, and some among the greatest films ever made. While there are some films that aren't considered particularly great or possibly even good on the lists, they are perhaps among the list of films that best represent their own ideals. This is meant to spur some debate and conversation about the films--good, bad and indifferent. Remember, these lists are more about how these films represent their ostensible messages--over which people can argue, in any event. (My dad also gives his opinion on the worst/most overrated films each category.) So, here goes...

Best Antiwar

La Grande Illusion
Paths of Glory
All Quiet on the Western Front
The Burmese Harp
Das Boot
Apocalypse Now
Fires on the Plain
A Very Long Engagement
Gone With the Wind
Dr. Strangelove
Breaker Morant
Full Metal Jacket
The Americanization of Emily
The Rack
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The Thin Red Line
Jacob's Ladder
The Night of the Generals

Most Overrated/Worst Among Highly Regarded

The Deer Hunter

Best Pro-War

From Here to Eternity
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Run Silent, Run Deep
Why We Fight

Most Overrated/Worst Among Highly Rated

Sands of Iwo Jima

Best Representations of "Both"

Saving Private Ryan
They Were Expendable
Fort Apache
Tora, Tora, Tora
The Quiet American (2002)
First Blood (Rambo I)
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Letters from Iwo Jima
A Walk in the Sun
Home of the Brave (1949)
Flags of Our Fathers

The Worst

Pearl Harbor


sartre said...

I’d add Full Metal Jacket and The Thin Red Line to the best of anti-war list. At the risk of nit-picking, I don’t think Casablanca is fairly characterized as pro-war. That’s a tricky category in general. Pro-war to my mind is something that glorifies or legitimizes the value of war. Most films in your pro list do present the sacrifice, courage, and other fine qualities of individuals in the context of war, which doesn't necessarily imply the audience should judge war as "good". The heroes of Casablanca are working to preserve the life and active involvement of a resistance leader. Is that a pro-war message per se?

Alexander Coleman said...

Sartre, I'm glad you picked up on the missing Full Metal Jacket and Thin Red Line, as for some reason they were both lost in translation from binder paper list to blog and I was hoping to correct that. That's fixed.

And I do fundamentally agree with you about Casablanca, and really all the other films, that, for the sake of simplicity, fall under "pro-war" in this little three-part list. They aren't hawkish so much as primarily exhibiting the best aspects of human behavior, which you detail, such as sacrifice, courage, etceteras.

cjKennedy said...

For starters, I'd yank Platoon out of Best Antiwar and put it into the most overrated.

It's a personal thing not shared by many people I know, but I thought that movie was overwrought, obvious and irritating.

I am not a fan of Oliver Stone. He maybe be a technically brilliant filmmaker in his own way, but his particular flaws rub me the wrong way and counteract what I'd otherwise like about his movies.

I'm also comfortable with categorizing Casablanca as pro-war in that the subtext of it is a call to war for the United States. Granted, it's nearly universally accepted that WWII was a 'good' fight, it's still a fight and I think it's dangerous to start distinguishing good wars from bad wars. No one gets involved in a war thinking it's the wrong thing to do. Only history can say who was right and wrong.

Oops, I'm rambling again.

sartre said...

Fair point, Craig. But for me the term pro-war transcends the issue of the relative merits of given warfare. At one level Casablanca was indeed a call to arms. But there is a difference between seeing war as necessary and seeing it as something to celebrate, and frame as noble or glorious. The testaments of most veterans and the terrible legacies they take from their involvement suggest its hell.

Alexander Coleman said...

I actually completely agree with you regarding Platoon, Craig. I also find it remarkably shrill and overwrought. The Dafoe-as-Christ bit fails to engage me on just about every level. So, yeah, I was tempted to push it into the most overrated, and, you know what? It's my blog, my rules, so it's going there.

I like the discussion of what constitutes a pro-war film vis-a-vis Casablanca. The morality is ultimately about sacrifice; whether one interprets it as completely tied to the concept of interventionism is up for debate, I suppose.

Daniel G. said...

Just curious - how did you and your dad define "war film"?

I only ask because Craig's comment reminded me of something like Born on the Fourth of July, which I notice is missing. I guess it (and others) could be considered bad enough to be excluded, but just wondering.

sartre said...

Another effective antiwar film is Birdy. The swooping shot towards the film's end that haphazardly takes in torn apart soldiers on the battlefield before finally settling on the screaming, anguished to the depths of his soul Birdy is very powerful.

Alexander Coleman said...

Sounds like I need to see Birdy, Sartre. Thanks!

Daniel, your point about Born on the Fourth of July is certainly valid. Definitely an antiwar film. I prefer it to Platoon, honestly; I'd be much more inclined see it again in the near future than Stone's first Vietnam movie. Which reminds me that Stone was going to make Pinkville, another Vietnam film, before he went to W.

My dad was just sort of thinking about films that nebulously fall under each label, and tried to think of the better examples from each and I offered some suggestions.

Daniel G. said...

I see. Yeah Born on the Fourth of July doesn't really come up much these days, which only surprises me because of the huge flood of vets we're having and will continue to have.

Plus, as a Tom Cruise (the actor, not the man) apologetic, it serves as decent evidence that the guy could carry a movie at one point in his career.

Alexander Coleman said...

I like Cruise a lot in that film, but I actually prefer his largely subtler, more manly turns, such as Vanilla Sky, Minority Report, Collateral and War of the Worlds. I think he became a better actor just as he was becoming less and less popular. Go figure.

Still, you're right. It's one of his very best and serves as solid evidence that even back then he wasn't just a pretty face. (Rain Man, a movie I borderline abhor, is actually useful in this one aspect as well.)

Evan Derrick said...

I would place "The Battle for Algiers" and "The Mission" in the 'Best of Both' category. Those two films are masterful in their ambiguity. "Algiers" simultaneously justifies and condemns terrorism as a means of revolution, and "The Mission" begs the question, is angry resistance or peaceful protest the way to truly fight?

Also, I would chuck Errol Morris' "Fog of War" into 'Best Anti-war' as well.

Fun list, Alexander.

cjKennedy said...

Hahah Alexander, I wasn't trying to strong arm you into changing your list, just airing out my strident Ollie Stone opinions.

I think I see your distinction Sartre. Casablanca is definitely not glorifying war.

Yet I'm still ambivalent about its politics. Mind you it's one of my favorite movies...

Alexander Coleman said...

To further clarify the thinking behind the war list: to be considered "pro-war" or "antiwar" the majority of the content in the film--that dealt with war--had to be fairly heavily weighted toward one or the other. We both thought a third category of "both" to be interesting and useful, and are not aware of such a concept elsewhere. This category required a clear substantial balance of the war material, even if for example 60/40 or 70/30, and a more even balance rated higher, like Saving Private Ryan.

Being representations of such, "pro-war" does not require "hawkish, gung-ho or glorifiying war" points of view. In this aspect, The Quiet American offered an early (1952) case for increased American intervention in Vietnam in geopolitical terms, as well as in human terms. Most Vietnam films do not air this out. Even Platoon demonstrated how and why on occasion American soldiers killed innocent civilians. To explain something is not to agree with it, or condone it. As you may know Oliver Stone served in Vietnam, and we're unaware of another Vietnam film that looked at this element of the war.

We also found interesting the concept of including films not usually considered "war films" though containing heavy war content, such as Casablanca and Gone With the Wind. Perhaps because they're not so frontally "war films," they have had more of an impact as a result.

Whether being a call for American involvement in World War II or not, Casablanca certainly didn't glorify war, and like the recent The Quiet American, approaches war on an individual level, a romantic triangle of one involved, one trying to remain uninvolved and a woman in the middle. For most the issue of involvement is moot--the Nazis are occupying French Morocco. The issues besides survival and freedom is personal and national pride, as illustrated when Rick allows the band to play "La Marseillaise," the French national anthem to drown out the Germans. In the end the lesson is personal self-sacrifice, and like Sartre says, about working to preserve the life and active involvement of a French Resistance leader. As Rick learns, and it's said towards the end of The Quiet American, "Sooner or later, one has to take sides--if one is to remain human."

Alexander Coleman said...

Evan, thanks very much for those offerings. I like them and appreciate them all. Definitely going to put them on the list, as they all contribute something different from most films on similar topics.

Alison Flynn said...

TCM had Japanese films playing all evening tonight. Just watched the amazing and moving The Burmese Harp. Such a beautiful film and a worthy inclusion in the top anti-war films.