My Favourite War Movie All-star Cast: The Thin Red Line (1998)

Due to its nature the war movie genre is rich in movies with all-star casts. There are many that I like. I was looking through the casts of quite a few and in the end I was not sure if I did prefer the cast of Black Hawk Down or the one of  The Thin Red Line. Finally, making a very thorough comparison, including also minor roles, my winner  is The Thin Red Line. There is only one actor I am not keen one and he may very well be the reason why some people do not appreciate The Thin Red Line. I am talking about the fanatic pro-lifer James Caviezel.  But look at all the others and then tell me that you do not think this is an astonishing group of actors that has come together in one movie.

James Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ)

Nick Nolte (The Prince of Tides, Cape Fear)

Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking, Mystic River)

John Cusack (High Fidelity, 2012)

Elias Koteas (Shooter, Shutter Island)

Adrien Brody (The Pianist, King Kong)

Nick Stahl (Sin City, In the Bedroom)

John. C. Reilly (Gangs of New York, Magnolia)

Woody Harrelson (Natural Born  Killers, The Messenger)

John Travolta (Pulp Fiction,Love Song for Bobby Long)

Ben Chaplin (Murder by Numbers, The Remains of the Day)

George Clooney (Oceans Eleven, O Brother, Where Art Thou?)

Jared Leto (Requiem for a Dream, Alexander, The Fight Club)

Miranda Otto (Lord of The Rings, War of the Worlds)

and many , many more.

Which is your favourite all-star cast? The Longest Day? A Bridge Too Far? The Great Escape or The Dirty Dozen?

Remembering The Deer Hunter (1978)

Isn´t it weird sometimes what we remember about certain movies? I don´t know when it was, but I think it must have been a very long time ago, that I watched The Deer Hunter for the first time. Looking back the only thing I did remember was the Russian roulette scene and the cage that was submersed in water. I didn’t remember any combat scenes and nothing that went on before they volunteered or after they returned from the  war. What actually happened is that  my memory turned The Deer Hunter into a pure POW movie.

I finally watched it again and was surprised. I saw a totally new movie. Powerful is the best word to describe it, even though this does it little justice. Sure, what I remembered was still there but it shrank considerably and took up less than a tenth of the whole movie. Strange I think,  because since I have seen it again I must say, yes, the roulette scene, the whole POW part is maybe the most impressive but it is not the most important. And it is totally fictious. It is as if Michael Cimino had chosen to show the war in this way because he thought facts would not be drastic enough. Looking at all the other Vietnam war movies that have been done since I must say that especially because of these scenes The Deer Hunter is not the best Vietnam war movie there is but it is one of the more original ones. And it is an extraordinarily good movie about a certain type of people and how they were affected by the war.

What I will remember from now on is young men who live in a grim industrial town. They are second generation  Russian immigrants who are enthusiastic and idealistic and want to fight for their country not knowing what they get themselves into. A bunch of friends for whom life only just begun and whose dreams will be shattered for ever. Who return having left the easy-going, careless “Deer Hunter”-personality behind. They are completely changed and broken and we ask ourselves at the end : is there still enough left of them to begin a new life?

It is not my favourite Vietnam movie but it  ranks high up among the 10 best as I stated before (see my list 10 Vietnam War Movies You Must See Before You Die ).

What about you? Which is the part you like best about The Deer Hunter. Would it have been possible to leave the roulette part out altogether? How high would you rank it within the 10 best Vietnam war movies and how high within the best including every war/subgenre?

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?

Do Women prefer The Pacific to Band of Brothers?

In an interview Dale Dye, a military advisor for many war  movies, was asked why The Pacific had many female viewers and here is his explanation for that fact.

“By telling a story that reflects the thousands of whirlwind wartime romances that happened during World War II. There’s this great desperation element—I might get killed in the next six weeks, we’ve got to get married now—and females really identify with that. They get it.” (Dale Dye in The Atlantic)

He also believes that the love story between the two soldiers John Basilone and Lena Riggi made women like it.

Aha? So it is only the romance that makes women appreciate The Pacific? Could it not be that it has more to do with the fact that there are simply more women in The Pacific than in Band of Brothers?And that there is a whole psychological dimension in The Pacific, with all its tales of post-traumatic stress, that might appeal to women?

I would love some comments. Do women like The Pacific? Do they prefer it to Band of  Brothers? Or did they even like both?

Some Reflections on Nigerian History and Why I think Tears of the Sun (2003) is Problematic

Tears of the Sun shows a Navy Seal Commander Lieutenant Waters (Bruce Willis) struggle with his conscience. During the outbreak of a war in Nigeria he is sent to rescue an American doctor (Monica Belucci). However the doctor refuses to leave without the villagers who are surely killed if no one cares to bring them to a refugee camp. The question is now, will the callous, hardened Lt help those civilians or will he merely follow orders? His conversion towards an emphatic being is not completely convincing but that is not the main problem.

The action, fighting, emotions are very intense and in so far it is good entertainment for action buffs. My problem starts when this is called a war movie. We should only call a movie a war movie when the action is based on a known conflict. The war that we  are shown in Tears of the Sun did not take place, it is purely fictitious. Furthermore why invent a war? I think this is highly questionable. And why invent a Nigerian war? One film critic, A.O. Scott, even stated that Nigeria was a bad choice since it had been spared such a civil war unlike other surrounding countries. Don´t get me wrong, Scott does not defend this movie, but he only criticised the choice of inventing a war while his misconception of the existence of a Nigerian Civil War shows the core problem. The whole story reveals how very problematic it is to invent wars when even people as well-informed as A.O Scott haven totally forgotten that Nigeria was once the place of one of the most cruel and horrible civil wars, namely the Nigerian-Biafran War. To me it seems as if in inventing such a war we erase the memory of the actual war.

But even if we have forgotten this war, we have not forgotten the pictures of the starving Biafran children.

I just would like to take the opportunity to show some respect for the people who suffered in those wars we may have forgotten.

Should you be interested in reading a novel about the war in Biafra I would recommend Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie´s novel Half of a Yellow Sun or her shorty story with the same name that you can read here  Half of a Yellow Sun Short Story.

What are your thoughts? Do you think it is not problematic to invent a war?

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.

History versus Story or Platoon versus Hamburger Hill

I named both these infantry combat movies among my Top 10 favourite war movies (of course, since this list ist out there for everybody to see I doubt its content. Typical.). Apart from thinking that these are great representatives of the genre I think they illustrate wonderfully the topic “history versus story” and why critics often rate the second as the better movie, whereas the general public will be more likely to prefer the first one.

Hamburger Hill is foremost based on a historical event, namely one squad´s  battle for Hill 937 in the A Shau Valley of Vietnam from May 11- 20, 1969. The squad consisted of 14  U.S. Army soldiers of B Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. The battle was later called Hamburger Hill since the losses were so high and the American soldiers literally shredded to minced meat.

You can not be more precise than this when chosing to tell a story in a movie. That is the theme, and that is what is shown. No niceties, no made up story, no sugar coating to make the bitter pill go down any better. War movies don´t get any more visceral than that.

And then there is Platoon. We know the year and that some events resemble other events that happened but apart from that this is purely fictional. Especially the whole good and bad officers theme and a young soldier´s loss of innocence. All these roles are played by famous actors which is not the case for Hamburger Hill.

As I said before many critics rate Hamburger Hill higher than Platoon and from an intellectual point of view I can´t blame them. But I don´t agree. They think it is more realistic. Somehow morally superior. There is not a tiny spark of beauty in that movie. OK, I agree. But… If we really wanted pure unadulated realism, authenticity, moral education, unambiguity, shouldn´t we stick to documentaries? (And even those can show us whatever  they want to make us believe has happened. But this is not the subject here).

I´m afraid but I like a  bit of symbolism and an interesting story. And I also judge movies by the criterion whether their pictures stay in my memory or not.

For many of these reasons  if been considering lately to kick out Hamburger Hill of my Top 10 list and integrate one of the most artistic Vietnam war movies ever: Full Metal Jacket.

Yes, right, why wouldn´t I?

Women in War Movies

War movies are a genre in which women will rarely if ever play major roles.

However there are a few that come to mind immediately.

Nurses

Mothers

Wives

Girl friends

Resistance fighters

Soldiers

Officers

Victims

The nurse is by far the most common role. In many movies they are very prominent. Especially in the sub genre of the war romance they get more than just small roles. (Yes, Pearl Harbor (2001) comes to mind, but…)

Some fine examples of nurses can be found in The Lighthorsemen (1987), In Love and War (1996), The English Patient (1996).

Mothers, wives, fiancées are often found at the very beginning of a movie, when the soldiers leave their homes like in Dark Blue World aka Tmavomodry svet (2001). We often see them again, reading a letter arriving from the field as in The Thin Red Line (1998).  They serve as a sort of counterpoint to make the contrast between those who fight and those who stayed home even bigger. Then, you may find them once more at the very end, when the soldiers return home. One of the most poignant and touching wives is Madeleine Stowe in We Were Soldiers (2002). The story moves back and forth between the battle field and the home front depicting the agony the soldier´s wives went through when the telegrams arrived telling them one of their husbands had been killed.

Nurses become very often soldiers’ girl-friends which makes the two roles blend into each other. But many of the classic girl friends in movies depicting the second WW are the girls the men encounter in the countries they are shipped to. The American soldiers in The Pacific for example have Australian girl friends.

The role of the resistance fighter is quite a noble one. Not very frequent but appealing. Cate Blanchett as Charlotte Gray (2001) comes to mind. Or the women in Uprising (2001). And definitely Sophie Scholl (2005). The latest example of this kind is Carice van Houten as the jewish woman Rachel Stein who joins the Dutch resistance after having survived a massacre in the brilliant Black Book aka Zwartboek (2006).

Female soldiers that are even involved in combat are not very frequent. The most remarkable one I remember is the Vietnamese sniper in Full Metal Jacket (1987). A further female soldier  is played by Demi Moore in G.I. Jane (1997) where she is said to be the first woman  to have  been granted access to the navy SEALS.

Women as officers is by far more common. Again Demi Moore played a role in the excellent legal drama A Few Good Men (1992). And then there is Meg Ryan as medevac chopper pilot Capt. Karen Walden in Courage under Fire (1996).

Unfortunately some of the above mentioned portraits of women in war movies are quite questionable and have been criticised repeatedly (especially G.I. Jane).

I almost forgot the victims. Inexcusable. There are as innumerable female victims in real wars as there are high numbers in movies. One of the saddest are the victims in Vietnam war movies. I think of  Platoon (1986) and Casualties of War (1989). They are not the only ones. Of course not.

My favourite heroines are Cate Blanchett as Charlotte Gray, the wonderful Juliette Binoche as nurse  in The English Patient and, another nurse, Sandra Bullock in In Love and War, and the outstanding Julia Jentsch as Sophie Scholl. The first two are based on novels, the other two on historical facts. Sandra Bullock plays the nurse Ernest Hemingway fell in love with when he fought in Italy during WWI.

The Pacific 4 (2010): Rain on Cape Gloucester or The Weather in War Movies

Since I saw Stalingrad in which soldiers die in the snow or the episode Bastogne in Band of Brothers I consider the weather to be one of the key elements not only in the actual war but also in transmitting a sense of reality to the audience of war movies.

I have only seen five episodes of  The Pacific so far. Episode 4 was the first to really grip me. It’s raining and raining endlessly. The morale of the soldiers gets lower and lower. There is no escaping this torrential downpour. Whoever has been in the tropics knows that this is not the kind of rain we Europeans or Americans are used to. There is the humidity, the violence and the noise. Yes, this kind of rain is as noisy as a constant shower open at full blast and as violent. If you are in a solid house maybe you could ignore it but in a hut or a tent…No way.

Incredible somehow that after all the heavy fighting the soldiers have been through at Guadalcanal it is the rain that finishes some of them off.

Rain on Cape Gloucester

With all the natural disasters and extreme weather conditions that have always been taking their toll  it is amazing we humans are not more humble. Or is this one of our well-kept secrets that fighting each other and subduing one another helps us fool ourselves into believing we are stronger than we are.

Hooked

Which war movie was it that did it? Which was the first to catch my interest to such an extent that it would become a passion? Is it the same that I would call my all time favourite war movie or has it meanwhile become one amongst many?

Which one is it for you? Or is it more than just one, maybe a whole category? Was it the day you discovered that there is actually more than just one Vietnam movie but a whole bunch of them?  Or do you go for combat movies in general and the actual war isn’t even that important to you?  It could also be about the camaraderie. Or the weapons. Or machines. You could love sniper movies or those with subs in them. Maybe you are obsessed with panzers.

See? A lot of things could get you hooked.

In my case it was a very specific movie. The war: Second world war. Location: The Pacific. Genre: Infantry combat. You know which one? Take a guess.

Yes, the other one, the one that didn’t get all the credit it deserved cause Saving Private Ryan was out there at the same time.  Yeah, I’m talking the Thin Red Line here.

That was the first one that moved me so much it got me thinking. And looking back. There had been others before and there would be many more afterwards but this one  was the first that got me hooked. Followed closely by Stalingrad, Black Hawk Down and Band of Brothers. Ok, I admit, it is not a very old passion but notwithstanding it is a profound one. These  movies convinced me that there was more about war movies than the general public would ever see,it showed me a huge terrain full of astonishingly original, moving, interesting and fascinating movies.    A world full of variety. There are so many war movies out there and so many different genres and subgenres that probably no one, and I mean it, absolutely no one would not name the one or the other among some of their all time favourites (it just depends on how inclusive the borders of the category are to you.  Combat movies are just a genre among many and even though, admittedly, it might be what I prefer, they are not to everybody’s liking. But think: Last of the Mohicans, Enigma, The Pianist…..  There’s quite a wide range.)