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?

How to Kill the Reputation of a Genre or Rambo: First Blood Part II

I have gotten many negative reactions when I have told people that I am interested in war movies. There are many people who think a war movie will always glorify violence and favour supermacho heroes that are close to brainless machines using guns for fun and sport.

I was always reluctant to watch Rambo until I finally gave in. I don´t think that First Blood Part I is that bad. The depiction of a Vietnam vet with post-traumatic stress syndrome is quite OK. However, I don´t like Stallone. His facial expressions are far too limited.

But when it comes to First Blood Part II… That is another story. I truly believe that this movie damaged the reputation of the whole genre.

“Do we get to win this time…?” Now seriously… Do you not consider this to be totally tasteless?

Here is what the journalist James Mottram has to add:

If the original film suggests men like Rambo are still fighting the war back home, be it on the inside or in a mountain-town, its sequel took far greater liberties. By the early 1980s, after the dust had settled on grandiose epics like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, Hollywood saw the opportunity to rewrite the history of the Vietnam War. A film so guilty of this it should be court-martialled, Rambo: First Blood Part II recast its embittered lead –  jailed in a civilian maximum-security prison between the first two films – as a one-man wager of war. A pure “fighting machine”, as his mentor and father-figure Col. Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) dubs him, he is a nostalgic reflection of what Philip Caputo, in his 1977 book A Rumor of War , called “that savage, heroic time… before America became a land of salesmen and shopping-centres. (James Mottram in Under Fire: A Century of War Movies, p. 155)

What do you think? Did Rambo: First Blood Part II not have its part in killing the reputation of war movies?

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.

True Blood and The Vietnam Vet

I read a lot. All sorts of things. Classics, literature, prize winners, pure entertainment, crime and thriller, some Fantasy… I am curious when I hear people enthuse about a book. That´s how I got lured into reading the first two in the Southern Vampire Series, Dead Until Dark and Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris. I do not really want to go into this reading experience here (I do understand why the series is succesful), nor is this the place to analyse women´s obsession with vampires (…. maybe…or,…..no, I don´t even go there…), what caught my attention early on was the character Terry Bellefleur. I felt he was very intense and with very few words Charlaine Harris captured the personality of a truly traumatized person. Without elaborating this character much she added another dimension to the already multi-faceted people swarming these books. Like in many Vampire novels before the Sookie Stackhouse series, one of the major themes is the outsider, someone who has lost contact with the society or was never part of it. And since the Southern Vampire books are populated with so many different types of fictitious and real outsiders like vampires, shape-shifters, homosexuals, Afro-Americans, addicts, the addition of a Vietnam vet seems of almost stringent logic.

I had read the books before even hearing of the series but was very curious to watch it. Six Feet Under will always be my favourite series so it was only logical I would at least have a look at what magic Alan Ball would be weaving  in True Blood. I was not disappointed. This series is just great fun. Very sexy and daring. Great cast, great stories, greatest intro song to any series ever (sure, it is only my humble opinion).

Writers and director took quite a few liberties especially with the cast. Many characters are much more developed than those in the book. Some are totally different, like Tara. Other types of outsiders are added, like alcoholics.

And what about our Vietnam vet? Miraculously transformed into an Iraq veteran to offer identification to the younger audience and to raise the awareness and understanding of and for those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. This is more or less the explanation given by the producers. Quite nice, only it does not work for me. It does not feel right. I cannot explain it, but to me he is and will always be a Vietnam vet. No matter how much rationalization they put into his “transformation”.

When the actor Todd Lowe, whom many know from Gilmore Girls, was asked how he did prepare for the role, he explained he pictured a Vietnam vet that he had known as a young man. A homeless guy that talked him into giving him his cigarettes.

I wonder if there is not another reason to switch from Vietnam to Iraq. Maybe the age? Would a Vietnam vet not be much older than a guy returning from Iraq and Afghanistan? Of course this is a rhetorical question. Maybe the producers, even though they are extremely inclusive of marginal groups did not want to embrace the elderly? Now, don´t tell me this is not food for thought. Aren´t we living in a society that is ever so obsessed with age? Aren´t the vampires  ageless…always young, always beautiful? There is a certain logic in ostracizing the elderly from a vampire movie, right?

Or – which is not much better – did they think it was too hard to believe that someone could still suffer from PTSD after having come back such a long time ago? If so, what do they know?

I think they should have let this be. And I don´t buy the explanations. I would have preferred Terry Bellefleur to be an elderly Vietnam vet.

What about you?

I have to post the opening credits here for you, they are just too good to be missed and, let´s be honest, when will I ever get another chance to do this in a blog on war movies? Although…Come to think of it… what about a post dedicated to Generation Kill and  Alexander Skarsgard….

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?