In Harm’s Way (1965) or John Wayne, Pearl Harbor and Some Decent Naval Combat in the Pacific

I don’t know how many war movies John Wayne did. The only thing I know, he did a lot. I’ve seen The Longest Day but apart from that Otto Preminger‘s black and white movie  In Harm’s Way was my first. I actually quite liked it. It’s a decent movie with some interesting female leads and a love story between John Wayne and Patricia Neal’s character that resembles a real relationship and not some ridiculously soppy romance.

I already mentioned it in my post on Pearl Harbor as it starts on the night before the attack of Pearl Harbor. At the center of the movie is Admiral Torrey who is first demoted and then promoted again. The movie analyses what is going on outside of the actual battles; the planning, the men’s love and private lives. Torrey meets his son who is in the Navy for the first time after several years. Their relationship is very conflict-laden but evolves during the movie. Torry gets to know the nurse Lt. Maggie Haynes (Patricia Neal) who is probably one of the greatest nurses in any war movie. Kirk Douglas plays a real asshole, Commander Eddington. We see a few decent battle scenes but nothing too exciting.

Too cut  a long story short, In Harm’s Way is a movie for John Wayne fans, for people who want to watch something older about the war in the Pacific, for those who like a well-told story that focuses on relationships and for those who can overlook a few gender related oddities (Two things struck me. One was the “tea scene” and the other the way people react to Eddington’s crime). As a war movie I would rate it 3.5-4/5.

Don’t miss the trailer. I have never seen a trailer like this. I first thought it was a parody and then I realised it was just unreflected promotion. It has real historical value. Just watch it and thank God that trailers have evolved through the years.

The Pacific versus Band of Brothers: Should we compare?

I finally got to watch the last episode of The Pacific. Even though I had an entry on it a while back I didn´t feel like writing about it before I had seen the whole series. It proved to be  a good decision since I couldn´t really appreciate it at first. I couldn´t help myself, like so many others, and compare it constantly to Band of Brothers. Apart from being a HBO miniseries produced by Spielberg and Tom Hanks, opening with men who were there talking about their experiences, those two series have nothing in common. Sure they both show a lot of very intense and gruesome infantry combat scenes but that is that.

Band of Brothers, as the title eloquently indicates, was about a close-knit group of men, one Army Infantry Company. This is not the case in The Pacific. The Pacific focuses on three main characters, the three marines Sgt. John Basilone, PFC Robert Leckie and Eugene B. Sledge. The last two wrote books about their experiences. The first episodes focus on Leckie, whereas the last ones tell Eugene aka Sledgehammer´s story. This last detail is based on the fact that Eugene went to war much later than the others. He missed Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester, one main battle and one major experience of the war in the Pacific.

The mini series shows a lot of off the battle ground episodes. Soldiers on leave in Australia, Leckie´s stay at different hospitals and later we see Sledge back home. Many of this off the battleground parts look at the symptoms of post-traumatic stress of which both Leckie (in a very physical way-peeing himself-) and Sledge (more psychological-he´s depressed and has endless nightmares) suffer intensely.

The series has  many crucial moments. Truly gory battle scenes.  Endless rain on Cape Gloucester that grinds down the morale. The realization that all they learn is “killing Japs”.

There is one key scene, the moment when the two friends Sidney and Sledge meet as one leaves and the other arrives in the Pacific. Sledge wants to know from Sidney how it is to be fighting but he doesn´t get an answer. This is actually a recurring theme in war movies (there is a scene like that in The Deer Hunter and in many others): the inability of those who have experienced it to tell those who are about to experience it what it is like to be in combat. Or maybe it is not so much an inability as a refusal. They have been there, they know it´s no use. You cannot talk about something that is so completely different from anything you imagine. No one who hasn´t been there will ever know what it is like and there are no words to really convey this, nothing that equals the experience. All you have got in the face of the innocent and ignorant is silence. The Pacific shows this very well.

I would like  to point out specifically one further scene. It is related to one of my major points of interest namely Death. In The Pacific we see one of the most touching deaths in the history of war movies. I don´t want to spoil anything so I´m not going to tell you who is dying. What makes this scene so different is the way it is shown. We do not see the actual dying, we hear that the person died and then the corpse is being carried  by some soldiers and transported through the lines of men standing there paying tribute and crying. This is a genuinely heartfelt and sad moment. A display of utter futility.

Something else is very different from Band of Brothers. Even though it was WWII, this wasn´t the same war. This is not about a bunch of soldiers freeing occupied countries and captives. We have no rewarding moments like the one in Band of Brothers when they liberate people in a concentration camp. The war in the Pacific seems much more futile at moments. And senseless. And it lasted longer. The war in Europe was already over, Germany had surrendered but Japan had not. Only after Little Boy and Fat Man did this war stop. This must have been some sort of an anticlimax. By the time those soldiers came home, the whole world had already been celebrating the end of the war. The party was over and they had missed it.

Needless to say that this influences the tone of the movie.

For all these reasons I do not think it is doing The Pacific any justice to compare it to its older brother.  It really has its moments this series.

One last thing needs mentioning though and it is something I did not enjoy much. The Japanese are never ever shown in a positive light. You truly get the impression that they were a bunch of murderous automatons. If anyone wants to see a more honest depiction I suggest you watch Tora Tora Tora (1970) or Letters from Iwo Jima (2006). They both try to and  succeed in doing the Japanese justice.

amazon.com

Kokoda, 39th Battalion (2006) or The Australians´ Fight in the Pacific

Kokoda 39th Battalion is an Australian movie by Alister Grierson and tells another story that took place in the Pacific during WWII. Only this time we don´t watch Americans fight for the Australians (as they do, amongst oher things, in the miniseries The Pacific), but the Australians themselves. The Kokoda trail on Papua New Guinea is the main trail that leads directly to Port Moresby. By means of this trail the Japanese were planning to arrive at Port Moresby and from there an invasion of Australia would have been easy.

Obviously the Australians did everything to prevent this. The 39th battalion who is in the center of this movie was essentially a battalion of untrained volunteers. The central story focuses on two brothers who joined this battalion together.

The opening of the movie shows us a sequence of still lives that are very beautiful. Pictures of fauna and flora of the island. After that we see what has to be interpreted as premonition like dream of  Jack, one of the two brothers. This is somewhat an exaggeration of what the terrain was like. Same as in episode 4 of The Pacific there is a constant rain, and the terrain gets muddier and muddier. Jack slips and is almost drowning in mud. In the end he looks like some almost amphibian prehistoric creature. Those first ten minutes make you believe you might watch a film like The Thin Red Line with a lot of flashback elements, daydreams but that is, as you soon realise, not the case. From that moment on Kokoda turns into Hamburger Hill, meaning heavy jungle infantry combat.

The men are surrounded by Japanese soldiers whose camouflage is so much more efficient than their own, whose fighting experience is outstanding, and whose cruelty, as the movie wants to make us believe, is beyond imagination.

This was one of the movies that made me think again and again: Why war? Why did that happen? Why did it have to happen. The efforts of the Australians seem so futile, that even though they won in the end, there is nothing noble in all this. It´s just horrible and hard to watch.

I first thought that this was an average movie but the overall atmosphere is so intense, the desperate fight of these badly trained men is so well depicted that I think it´s quite a good movie that I would recommend you´d watch. And, most important, the pictures of the dense forest and the instances of cruelty in the middle of the jungle aren´t easily forgotten and stay in your mind long after you´ve watched it.

Yes, it´s biased, the Japanese are shown as beastly monsters but still.

Furthermore it tells a quite soulful story of the deep bond between brothers.

DVD on Amazon

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.

Is There Such A Thing as a Bad War Movie? Windtalkers (2002)

 

This is one of my worst war movie experiences and probably even one of the worst movies in general. Already under normal circumstances (meaning when he does some decent acting of which he is capable) I’m not really a Nicolas Cage fan but in this movie his acting is frankly ridiculous. This is a parody of suffering and you don’t believe one second that his character is in pain. Definitely not from shell shock. Maybe one would believe it if someone informed you he had a bad case of piles. I had been told that this is not a good movie, although it has his followers, but I didn’t imagine it could be this flawed. There’s bad acting, a lot of explosions that seem to happen for no reason and a stupid plot twist when the Indian code talker plays a Japanese and enters the Japanese  dugout with Nicolas Cage’s character in tow. Unconvincing? Embarrassing!

Enough slagging off. What is it about and why did I not listen to the ones who told me? Purely because I’m interested in the history of the North American Indians. Apparently they had successfully been used as code talkers during WWII. A valuable asset to the American Army. Codes and code breakers  are a vital element in any war (nicely shown in Enigma). Windtalkers tells the story of two Indian code talkers and their counterparts or body guards so to say during the battle of Saipan in the Pacific. But this is only what the Indians are told they are. On a deeper level those two men (one the insufferable Nicolas Cage and the other the convincing  – as always- Christian Slater) are not only guardians  but ultimately they could become executors. Since it would be fatal should the code get into the hands of the enemy,  the men must see that those Indians are not taken prisoners under any circumstances and are  killed in the event of  imminent capture.  This creates a lot of moral tensions. Would they really do it?

The only good bit was the rites you see the Indians perform. What a pity. Had John Woo  managed to tell us something like Glory does about the African-American soldiers’ participation in the Civil War… What a movie this would have been…well…he didn’t.