Most Memorable Vietnam Vet in War Movies

I actually had a discussion yesterday about this topic. Which is the most memorable Vietnam vet in any movie? De Niro in Taxi Driver? Ron Kovic in Born on the 4th of July? Or even Rambo? The one I prefer is Jacknife. He is the most touching and likable. But I think not necessarily the most memorable. The most memorable for me is de Niro in Taxi Driver. Anyway, I want to hear what you think, which is the most memorable and which one did you like the most?

Here are a few to refresh your memory (and yes, indeed, Robert de Niro is certainly THE Vietnam vet actor)

Robert de Niro in Jacknife

Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver

Robert de Niro in The Deer Hunter

Sylvester Stallone as Rambo: First Blood

Tom Cruise (in one of his best roles) in Born on the 4th of July

Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage in Birdy

James Cann in Gardens of Stone

Jack Dunne in Heroes

Tom Laughlin in Billy Jack

James Woods in The Visitors

Bruce Willis in In Country

John Lithgow in Distant Thunder

One little confession, I haven’t seen the last four… Did I miss something?

Stalingrad (1993) The German Movie That is One of the Best War Movies Ever

Joseph Vilsmaier’s Stalingrad is one of the most powerful war movies I have ever seen. It bears testimony to Germany’s outstanding filmmaking capacities. It is also one of the rare that I have watched at least three times and every time I discovered something new. That’s why it is difficult to write a decent review and not one that is so long that you jump to the next post without even finishing the introduction.

Stalingrad focuses closely on five characters, four of which have been together since they fought at El Alamein.  We first see them on leave in Italy  from where they board a train to the Eastern Front. They don’t really have a clue where they are going or what for. They know the Führer says it is crucial and they have to trust him on that but first voices can be heard that doubt the decision-making of their command. During their train trip they meet their new Lieutenant, Witzlan (Thomas Kretschmann), for the first time. He isn’t battle hardened like the others are, in fact he has never fought at all and there is immediately a lot of friction.

When they get off the train in Stalingrad they face total chaos. There are heavily wounded soldiers everywhere, fighting is extremely heavy and they are in the midst of it all right away. The German officers in Stalingrad are mostly cruel Nazis, the treatment of Russian prisoners is harrowing. Witzlan is, as the privates discover now, a very humane person. He will not tolerate abuse and cruelty and comes into conflict with superiors on that subject. He may be inexperienced but he has a great character and his decision making isn’t all that bad, as we soon see.  As a matter of fact his subordinates learn to respect him a lot. One of the majors however is one of the most obnoxious characters of war movie history, a real jerk.

Stalingrad consists more or less of seven very distinct parts, the first one is the leave in Italy, followed by a heavy infantry combat one, then a sequence in which they are doing forced labour, next is the so-called “tank episode”, then they escape, meet again later with a part of their original group and finally try again to escape, out of Russia and back to Germany.

Because Stalingrad focuses practically only on five people it is a very intimate and emotional movie You have the feeling to know these people, you care for them, they are really humans with all their strengths and flaws. They are no heroes, they are normal people caught in what was one of the biggest tragedies of WWII, one of the battles that cost the most lives.

And there is the setting and seasonal implications. Russia in winter is one of the coldest places on earth. This really is a winter movie. Snow, ice, freezing and the total hopelessness of the people involved makes it unforgettable. Most of those who survived the battles froze to death later.

I have often wondered, if I had to choose, which climate I would choose. Fighting in the desert, in the jungle or in the icy cold planes of Russia? All three settings bear their own horrors as did the war soaked trenches of France and Belgium. My father fought in the desert, where you fight exhaustion, thirst, Fata Morgana and hallucinations from the heat and have to endure long walks through arid barren country where you can’t hide and are an easy target.

From my own personal point of view, I tink that icy Russia would be the worst. Stalingrad is for me the worst battle that ever took place. The battle and its aftermath are horrible.

I haven’t seen the Finnish movie Talvisota aka The Winter War yet, this might be similar, also a winter movie, but apart from that I think the extreme that is depicted in Stalingrad is unique. No other war movie achieves to convey such a powerful anti-war statement.

It think it safe to say that it is not only one of my Top 10 but it is also generally acknowledged as one of the best ever.  It manages to combine very intimate portraits of five soldiers, intense infantry combat, the depiction of a grueling climate and one of the biggest miscalculations of Hitler. 5/5 is an absolute understatement.

Ridiculous War Movie Characters

Maybe I am going to hurt a few feelings here, I am sorry, but I can’t help it. I discussed war movie characters I liked, some that I found obnoxious and now it’s the turn of those I think ridiculous. There are not that many  (I certainly forgot quite a few). The question is probably also, what do I consider to be ridiculous.  Let me explain my choices.

4. David Schwimmer as Herbert M. Sobel in Band of Brothers. This is really a ridiculous character. He is insufferable and makes himself look ridiculous by misjudging his own capabilities.

3. Blackburn in Black Hawk Down. I do have my problems with Orlando Bloom outside of Lord of the Rings. Occasionally I do believe he shouldn’t have done anything else than Lord of the Rings. When I spotted him in Black Hawk Down I couldn’t help sniggering. On top of looking silly the poor guy has one of the most ridiculous accidents in war movie history. He falls out of the chopper before the action even begins.

2. Nicolas Cage as Sgt. Joe Enders in Windtalkers. I have spoken at length about Windtalkers in an earlier post. A lot of my criticism is linked to Nicolas Cage being just so outrageously ridiculous in this movie. Bad, bad acting. If you suffer from post-traumatic stress, please, don’t look as if you were  having indigestion. It is not becoming.

1. Mel Gibson in Braveheart. This simply beats it. Is anyone allowed to look this  ridiculous? He was just the wrong man for this role. No amount of kilt-wearing, long hair or war paint can make this guy look like some pre 20th century warrior. This cast was a total no-go. I can not even remember the movie anymore, I was so entranced by his appearance. Mel Gibson on his worst hair day. My absolute no 1. ridiculous war movie character. (Don’t get me wrong, I think he did a lot of very good movies, but this one was not for him). Actually, they should have let him ride a bike in it.

Any other suggestions?

The Great Escape (1963) Tells Actually the Story of a War Crime

Maybe 90% of my readers are yawning now. I am very sorry but since I have seen The Great Escape for the first time only recently I had no clue. I thought it was basically the story of an escape, which it is, of course. The scene of Steve McQueen on a bike was very familiar as well (one of those memorable movie scenes), but apart from that: zero. I never heard it mentioned anywhere that it is based on the true story of a war crime. Are there any others out there like me who haven’t seen it yet? Maybe. For their sake I am not going to reveal why it is the story of a war crime. Just telling you, that it is.

Apart from that? Did I like it? Obviously when everybody tells you how great a movie is you start to expect something and if that is not what you get then you are slightly disappointed. So I was slightly disappointed. I didn’t expect such a summer camp like joyousness in the beginning. I rather expected something in the vein of The Colditz Story. Something a tad bleaker and grimmer. The feel of The Great Escape is much more adventure story than war movie. Plus English actors who play Englishmen  who pretend to be Germans and get away with it despite their heavy accents are not the height of realism.

What is my final conclusion? No, you are wrong, I don’t write it off but I will have to watch it again without the weird expectations that are never going to be fulfilled. A proper review will be due by the time I have watched it for the second time. After all its a classic, with a fabulous all-star cast and it’s just bad luck  I never watched it as a kid when it was on TV cause everyone who watched it then has the fondest memories. It’s definitely nice to have fond childhood movie memories. My only childhood war movie memory is A Bridge Too Far. Yeah well, not a bad one either, right?

Why Saving Private Ryan (1998) is not in my Top 10 of Favourite War Movies but in my Top 5 of most Influential War Movies

I have seen Saving Private Ryan for the first time in cinema when in came out. At the time it was like a fist in the gut. The Omaha Beach landing was nothing I had ever seen before and this was very probably the beginning of my fascination with war movies. Since then I have seen many more but when I ended up doing my Top 10 it wasn’t in it. I watched it again, like it a lot but didn’t want to add it to the list. Still it is important to say in advance, no matter what my personal reasons are,  the genre has been marked by Saving Private Ryan to a very large extent. There really is a time before and a time after Saving Private Ryan. Especially when it comes to WWII movies. The depiction of war has fundamentally changed with and through Saving Private Ryan. Never before did those who watched get the feeling they were in the battle like in Saving Private Ryan. Therefore, if I should make a Top 10 of most influential War Films, Saving Private Ryan would even be among the top 5.

I guess the second viewing was a distracted so I felt I had to re-watch it. I am sorry to say but this third viewing has made it clear to me. Saving Private Ryan is never going to be among my top ten unless I would have to choose movie scenes. It has some of the very best scenes that you can find in any war movie but unfortunately it has way too many really corny moments. As a matter of fact I hadn’t even remembered such a lot of corny moments. Maybe that is why I love Band of Brothers which is certainly the closest you can get to Saving Private Ryan. To me this is like a purified version of it. But still, it is excellent.

For those who have never watched it I’ll summarize the story. An old man stands at the grave of someone and looks back on his life. Rewind some 50 years. D-Day. We are in the middle of the Omaha Beach landing. Horrible scenes are shown. All filmed with a shaky hand-held camera to heighten the authentic feel. People’s guts spilling out. Bodies ripped apart. Heads blown off. Arms ripped out. Men crying, screaming and praying until the worst is over, the noise dies down and the only thing that stays is a beach full of dead bodies and body parts. After this horror Capt. Miller gets a new assignment. We will follow him and his group well into France and behind enemy lines. He has to look for one James Francis Ryan. All three of his brothers were killed in action so people in Washington decided to get him out and back to the States. The group around Capt. Miller are reluctant to go on such a seemingly futile mission. They don’t understand why they have to endanger their lives for the sake of one soldier. This is a very tight-knit group of soldiers and that is part of the appeal of this movie. The sense of camaraderie and friendship has rarely been depicted this touchingly. There are very moving moments especially between Miller and Horvath. There is one in which they talk to each other in an empty church at night. Their closeness is palpable. Strangely it almost makes you want to be there. There are much more tragic moments however. One after the other of the men gets killed until they find James Ryan. When finally discovering him they face the biggest problem. He doesn’t want to leave. He feels he owes it to his comrades to stay. His highly decimated group must defend a bridge against a majority of Germans. This is one of the many famous bridge scenes that we encounter in war movies. Bridges being strategically as relevant as hills, it is a frequent theme. As I don’t know if every reader knows the story I will stop here.

Saving Private Ryan has some of the most memorable war movie characters. I like Capt. Miller as much as Sgt. Horvath, the Privates Reiben, Jackson, Caparzo and Mellish and of course the Medic Wade. As we follow the little group for a long time we get to know them very well. It has also one of the most annoying war movie characters in it. Upham is a revolting person. And there is of course a very mean German. In any case, kudos to the actors. Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Matt Damon.

Saving Private Ryan is infantry combat at its best. A lot of intense fighting. Incredible settings. Unfortunately it has moments that are way too sentimental for my taste. I will always prefer Band of Brothers.

Now it’s your turn to rank it. 1. In your Top Favourite List 2. In a Best of List and  3. Most Influential ones.

Another of my posts on Saving Private Ryan: Mean Old Private Ryan