10 War Mini-Series You Must See

When I wrote my post on ANZACS the other day I realized that there are quite a few great war mini-series out there. There are certainly more than 10 but out of all those I’ve seen or heard of, I would say, the 10 that I mention below are the ten you should really not miss. They all cover different wars or different aspects of the same wars. Many of them are better than most movies. My favourites are Band of Brothers, Hornblower, Sharpe and Generation Kill.

Wings (1976) WWI Air Combat. I must admit, I haven’t seen this yet but it has a great reputation among air combat fans and should be a nice companion to the WWII based series Piece of Cake.

Danger UXB (1979) WWII – Bomb disposal unit. I liked this series when I watched it quite a bit. It gives you a good feel for what a bomb disposal unit had to go through during the Blitz. All the different types of bombs. The characters are appealing and we get a good impression of civilian life during the Blitz as well. Here is my review.

Das Boot 1985 – WWII submarine. Das Boot exists in two versions. One is the cinema the other the TV version which was twice as long. I have seen the cinema version which is one of the best war movies there is. Some people prefer the longer TV version. It’s worth checking out.

ANZACS (1985) WWI. Infantry combat. I just reviewed the final episodes of this excellent mini-series that follows the ANZACS from Australia to Gallipoli and from there to the Somme and back home again. Great combat scenes and a nice “band of brothers” feel. It also contrasts British command and Australian insubordination in a funny way. Here is my review.

Piece of Cake (1988) WWII Air Combat. The series follows the men of the Hornet Squadron during the early weeks of WWII. It shows how inexperienced boys become excellent fighter pilots.

Sharpe (1993 – 2008) – Napoleonic wars. Infantry and cavalry. Based on the novels by Bernard Cornwell this is a very elaborate and suspenseful series. In its center is the character Sharpe an enlisted man who is such an excellent soldier that he is soon raised to the rank of officer. This is problematic as he isn’t an aristocrat. He faces injustice and adversity. Sean Bean stars as Sharpe. It’s one of the best roles of his career. Here is my post.

Hornblower (1998 -2003) – Napoleonic wars. Naval combat. This is another extraordinary tale of one man’s ascent. Ioan Gruffud stars as Horatio Hornblower which might explain why I hear this series mentioned quite often by women.  If you like Master & Commander, you will love this. It’s like a very long version with an appealing central character. It is based on the books by C.S. Forester. Here is my post.

Band of Brothers (2001) WWII. Infantry combat. This is one of the most amazing series. Based on the book Band of Brothers it follows the paratroopers of Easy Company from 1941 – 1945, starting in the US until the freeing of the KZ’s. The characters of this tight-knit company are very well depicted and you really care for all of them. Seeing them die or get wounded is harrowing. Some of the episodes, like the one called Bastonge, are so intense, they still overshadow most other WWWII infantry combat scenes I’ve seen before or after.

Generation Kill (2008) Iraq. Special unit. This is a series that is hard to get into, especially when you are used to others. It has a very slow build-up but after two episodes I really appreciated it. It achieves a very authentic depiction of modern warfare and shows how problematic it is to send a generation used to war games into combat. It shows how much is absolutely boring, just standing around and waiting. At the center of the unit is the “Iceman” Sgt Brad Colbert played by Alexander Skrasgard. The Iceman is an amazing character and even more so because he is based on a real person. This guy really always keeps his cool. The series is based on the account of an embedded journalist. Here’s the link to the book. And here is my post on The Iceman.

The Pacific (2010) – WWII. Infantry combat. If you do not compare this series to Band of Brothers, you will like it. It’s less the story a group of people than individual stories. The soldiers are also shown during their leaves and some love stories are incorporated. However the combat scenes are even grittier that those in Band of Brothers. Not pretty at all. My favourite episode is Rain on Cape Gloucester. Here is my Pacific short review.

Obnoxious and Unlikable War Movie Characters

I was thinking today, why shouldn´t  I write a post on the war movie characters I hate most? Obviously I am not talking bad acting here. On the very contrary, it is maybe more difficult to play a truly unlikable and obnoxious character. A true bully or a monster like Hitler. Bruno Ganz who stars as Hitler in The Downfall aka Der Untergang apparently refused the role at first whereas I believe I remember having read, Anthony Hopkins found his role in The Bunker to be particularly challenging and he did enjoy such a challenge.

But apart from  extreme  evil historical people like Hitler, there are numerous mean characters populating war movies. The list I made are those that came to my mind easily, those I will never forget, no matter how many years have passed since I last saw the movie. Often those really evil people are paired with good ones like in Platoon, Casualties of War and Cross of Iron.

Here´s my list of war movie impersonations of meanness or just plain unlikable geeks.

Gny. Sgt Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) in Full Metal Jacket. THE Boot Camp Devil.

Herbert M. Sobel (David Schwimmer) in Band of Brothers. Mean and dumb.

Sgt Barnes (Tom Berenger) in Platoon. How evil and sadistic can you possibly be?

Lt. Bruno Stachel (George Peppard) in The Blue Max. Over ambitious with and inferiority complex. An annoyingly obnoxious arriviste.

Cpt Hauptmann Stransky (Maximilian Schell) in Cross of Iron. A conceited, arrogant upper-class Prussian officer.

Sgt. Tony Meserve (Sean Penn) in Casualties of War. An abusive rapist.

Lance Cpl Harold James Trombley (Billy Lush) in Generation Kill. Total lack of feeling, an empty shell.

I am not sure which one I consider to be the worst. I guess either Sgt. Barnes or Hauptmann Stransky.

I am sure the world of war movies contains many more bad people than those I just mentioned. Who is your most hated character?

Some Actors of The Wire and their Roles in Recent War Movies

I am not the most avid viewer of series but there are some I did or do enjoy a lot. Six Feet Under was just excellent and so is True Blood. I also quite like Dexter. One of the best series however is The Wire, pretty awesome. Maybe you liked The Wire too and were wondering what some of the excellent actors did after  the The Wire has ended.

Set during the British Civil War, The Devil´s Whore is a very convincing historical drama.   Dominic West, Detective Jimmy McNulty in The Wire, stars as Oliver Cromwell. This mini series is a must-see for everybody interested in British history. It does take some liberties with some facts but still it is more than just good.

Idris Elba who played the unlikable baddie Russell “Stringer” Bell in The Wire can be seen in the leading role in Sometimes in April. I have not seen this yet but I read that it is the best movie that has been done on the war in Rwanda. Far better than Hotel Rwanda. It is a TV production, maybe that is  the reason why it is not widely known. Unlike Hotel Rwanda it really looks into the history of Rwanda and the reasons for the conflict.

Last but not least, James Ransone, who played the annoying character Ziggy Sobotka, stars as Cpl. Josh Ray Person at the side of Alexander Skarsgard in Generation Kill. A very good performance.

Ok, it is slightly off topic, but what series do you think are outstanding? Any preferences? Suggestions?

African American Soldiers in War Movies

It is a fact that until recently African American actors were almost nonexistent in war movies. This is quite unfair since they were also fighting for their country. Even though they are not omnipresent in today´s war movies, they seem to get a fairer share.

The makers of Generation Kill faced quite some questioning as to the reasons why there was no African American cast in the series. As fishy as this may have seemed initially there was a very good explanation for this. Generation Kill is based on the true story of the First Recon Company, a highly specialized troop, in which there were actually no African American soldiers, or only one, as we can deduce from the group photo in Evan Wright´s book.

The questioning however was very justified since there is really no war movie on contemporary conflict in which there are no African American actors. Be it Battle for Haditha, Redacted, The Hurt Locker, Stop-Loss, Home of the Brave and many more. There are always African American actors and this is highly justified since many of the troops are of said origin.

How does the situation look regarding other wars? For example Vietnam? When it comes to combat movies – with the exception of We Were Soldiers – black soldiers are very often present. The best example is certainly Hamburger Hill that has a big African American cast. But they are not absent from Platoon or Full Metal Jacket either. Now what about We Were Soldiers? I honestly don´t know. Since it is based on a true story it might be possible that there were no African American soldiers in that company. If anyone knows the reason, tell me please.

WWII is another story altogether. Looking at the massive production of WWII movies it is incredible how absent African American actors are. Sure there are a few exceptions. A Soldier’s Story that I reviewed a while back is a good example. And then we have the Tuskegee Airmen based on the true story of the African-American 332nd Fighter Group of the Army Aircorps (see my movie review). This fine movie illustrates how unjustified the belief was that Blacks were not capable of flying modern fighters. But apart from these two examples? And what about Flags of our Fathers? It´sad to say that there were 900 black troops participating in the battle of Iwo Jima but not one of them is represented in Eastwood´s movie. He has been questioned many times and asked to clarify but he did not reply. This infuriated many people, among them the film director Spike Lee. I think his Miracle at St. Anna might be a direct response to Eastwood´s omission. It is actually incredible but the absence of African American actors in Flags of our Fathers makes Pearl Harbor look good in comparison. At least  Cuba Gooding Jr had quite an important role. Spike Lee´s just mentioned Miracle at St. Anna focuses on the 92nd Infantry Division that fought in Italy. This division was the result of the segregation of the times. It was a purely African-American division, also called Buffalo soldiers  (I must admit that I have not seen Miracle at St. Anna but read many reviews that did NOT appreciate it). I think we are still waiting for a truly good depiction of African American participation in WWII.

And WWI? I am lost. Have no clue if there ever was  a WWI movie with African Americans in it.

Let´s rewind some more: The Civil War. And yes here we finally find an outstanding movie with a largely African American cast. One of my Top 10. Yes, I am talking about Glory. If you haven´t seen it yet, watch it.

Looking at the whole picture again we can say, it is getting somewhat better, but a contemporary movie, based on a conflict younger than the civil war, with an African American main actor is still outstanding. Now, don´t mention Hotel Rwanda (Don Cheadle was actually also in Hamburger Hill). Although it is an impressive movie  there was really no chosing a white main actor. Not even Clint Eastwood would have had the insipidity to do so.

Alexander Skarsgard aka Sgt. Brad “Iceman” Colbert in Generation Kill

Alexander Skarsgard, the Swedish actor nowadays better known as Eric the Vampire, had a life before True Blood. And quite an interesting one, I dare say.

I am not the world’s most patient person and when I started to watch HBO´s Generation Kill this lack of patience almost cost me a great viewing experience. I was really tempted to give up after episode 1 since I found it a bit boring. But since I am also a curious person I did hang on. I watched the whole series until the final episode and when I realised it was over I  thought: I am actually going to miss the series and its characters. It is a great show and if I can belive the many comments I have read on it coming from Marines, it seems to be truly authentic and captures the feel of the real thing. It is not always about combat and action. A lot is pure boredom and killing time. (And don´t forget, those guys cannot fast forward when it gets too slow).

Part of the series´ success is certainly founded in Alexanders Skarsgard´s impersonation of Sgt. Brad “Iceman” Colbert. The guy is so composed and calm, any cooler than him and you´re probably a glacier.

Today I found this really great video post on YouTube in which Alexander, the real Iceman and the Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright on whose book the series is based all get their say.

More on Generation Kill and Alexander Skarsgard will follow soon.

Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) or What would I have done?

I´m not normally sitting there watching a movie and asking myself constantly: What would I have done but I did while watching this film. Michael Winterbottom´s movie Welcome to Sarajevo is one of the very highly acclaimed war movies. It is based on a true story, Michael Henderson´s account of his stay as a war reporter in Sarajevo. Sure, war and journalism is a theme that is likely to be explored and Winterbottom is of course not the only filmmaker to have done so (The Killing Fields, We Were Soldiers, Full Metal Jacket, Generation Kill, Das Boot to name but a few,  deal with it to some extent). His second theme, war and children, has also been the center of many movies (Hope and Glory, Empire of the SunLa vita è bella aka Life is beautiful ). His major theme however is involvement. How much should we get involved? And in this specific context: Can a reporter only watch and stay outside?

Still somehow I didn´t like this much praised work and was glad when reading a comment on imbd from a person who lived through the siege of Sarajevo that he did not really like it since he found the setting unrealistic or rather the filmmakers had taken too many liberties with the setting. Funny enough that is exactly what I sensed and it spoiled a lot for me.

Winterbottom filmed shortly after the war, on site. We see a lot of destroyed buildings.  So much destruction is utterly depressing. Journalists live in abandoned hotels, meet in the evening in bars and discuss the days events and filming. Some pictures are really awful and the journalists  voyeuristic approaching of wounded, dead and dying people is shown in all its tastelessness. Intrusion without involvement.

The British reporter Michael Henderson (Stephane Dillane convincingly disenchanted and thoughtful) and the American Flynn (Woody Harrelson a bit of a sicko role as usual) were two of those vulture like creatures running to every scene whenever they heard a gunshot, firing, a bomb or screams. While Flynn appreciates the adventure quality of it all, Michael gets more and more weary. When they discover an orphanage that is located in one of the most dangerous zones of the city and he realises, even when he films the most realistic documentaries, the world just doesn´t give a damn, he´s had it. All through the movie we see original footage of the world´s then presidents. What they say combined with what we see would make great material for war satire.

Seeing those children, little babies, abandoned toddlers and older children Michael knows he can´t stay out of all of this. He wants to help and he does help. The journey he undertakes together with an American aid worker (Marisa Tomei – she´s such an endearing actress too bad her role is much too short) is the best part of the movie. Together with a few children and especially one girl whom Michael has promised a better life in England the escape the besieged city and try to get to Italy or England respectively. It´s an extremely dangerous and hazardous journey and you wish the whole time that they will make it. People like Michael truly make a difference.

Oh, by the way, what would you have done?