Each individual war has generated numerous movies. And every war has its aficionados and this for very good reasons, because every war has its own topics and themes that are very specific for this special war and for this one only. Some of these topics are directly linked to historical facts (there will always only be one D-Day. Gallipoli stands for WWI and there was no more Gettysburg since the Civil War etc.). So if you are interested in one or the other of these events, then, obviously, you will be more into one or the other movie portraying that war. But there are of course themes beyond the historical details, facts, dates and battles….
The trenches, although still know in WWII, are essentially a theme of WWI. Hence the name “war of the trenches”, of course. Submarines are linked to WWII. Jungle combat mostly took place during the Vietnam war (and to a lesser extent during WWII in the Pacific). Road blocks and suicide bombings are typical for the Iraq war. Close range firing is a trait of the Civil War and other pre-technological wars.
I was always fascinated and horrified by the WWI trenches. To imagine that all the soldiers saw for days was just the heaven above them… The naming and characteristics of all those different trenches. Apparently English trenches were rather muddy whereas the French saw to their kitchen areas and the Germans managed to have theirs equipped like comfortable houses (Paul Fussels book “The Great War and Modern Memory” gives some astounding accounts).
One of my very favourite movies, Merry Christmas (Joyeux Noel) is a fine example of a WWI movie located to a large extent in the trenches. Sure, this movie goes far beyond the depiction of the life in the trenches. I will write about this at a later date.
But what was especially horrifying was the way those young soldiers had to get out of the trenches and run towards extinction on the field in front of them. They ran and fell and died, row after, row after row. Nowhere was this more drastically shown as in Gallipoli.
People did talk about Saving Private Ryan. They talk about it and they will continue to talk about. Occasionally it seems that it is the only war movie that has ever been made. At least the only one the general public is aware of – until, of course The Hurt Locker got the Oscar – but that is another story and if I believe it deserved it…). It is a fact that even the most war movie illiterate seems to know Saving Private Ryan or has at least heard of it. One could almost go as far as to talk about a before and after era. Occasionally this can become slightly annoying especially considering that this movie overshadows some very well done other movies that would be talked about, appreciated and mentioned if it wasn’t for mean old Private Ryan. On top of that it led to my worst Popcorn moment ever, something that up to that point in time I wouldn’t even have thought possible and , by the way, was never repeated since. I was on holiday in some southern English town. Salisbury or Bournemouth. At the beginning of the movie I was actually sitting in one of the rows in the middle munching Popcorn. Shamefully I must admit that I was not aware of the nature of the movie that would be shown (How could that happen? Living in Switzerland which I did at the time and am doing again now doesn’t really put you in the position to talk about the latest releases of the film industry. US movies are usually already classics by the time Swiss movie theaters start to show the previews). Fifteen minutes into the beginning of the movie it dawned on me: Popcorn was the least appropriate thing when watching a movie like this. And everybody knows what I’m talking about when referring to the first 15 minutes of Private Ryan. This is probably one of the most hellish moments in the history of war movies (put aside the episode Bastogne in Band of Brothers) and what’s even worse: There is no escaping it. You don’t watch it , you’re literally in it. These 23 minutes are very probably part of its success story. They lead to an extremely close and maybe for some spectators totally unwanted identification with those poor unfortunate soldiers landing on Omaha Beach. A nightmare and absolutely not encouraging popcorn eating. I almost threw up.
After having said all this, adorned with some little anecdote of the life of a moviegoer, I’d like to put this straight: I do appreciate Saving Private Ryan. It is one of the best WWII infantry combat movies, no doubt about that, but it is just unfair it gets all the credit when The Thin Red Line is so much more emotional and poetic, and When trumpets fade so much more moving. Ahh… I hear some of you wonder …When trumpets fade… ?What the heck is she talking about?…See? Overshadowed by Saving Private Ryan. 1998. What a year for war movies.