Courage Under Fire (1996)

I have seen at least six of Edward Zwick’s movies (Glory, Legends of the Fall, Last SamuraiBlood Diamond and Defiance) and was only disappointed once when I watched Defiance. Courage Under Fire may not be the best but I still liked watching and re-watching it. For one it’s one of the very rare war movies with a female main character but it also tells a suspenseful and quite complex story. It may not be anti-war as such but manages to make us understand a few things. Last but not least I tend to watch every movie with Denzel Washington. Zwick has worked with him before, notably in Glory which is one of the most outstanding war movies you can watch.

Colonel Sterling (Denzel Washington) is asked to investigate whether chopper pilot K. Walden (Meg Ryan) who was killed in action was worthy of a medal of honour. The assignment is Sterling’s second chance, an opportunity to rehabilitate himself. Ever since he came back from Iraq where he took part in Desert Storm, he has changed. He is drinking, withdrawn and slowly unraveling. He cannot forgive himself that due to his order a friendly tank was blown up. Far less can he accept that the event is not called what it was and that he had to lie to the parents of one of the crew and tell them their son died as a hero under enemy fire.

As a first step in the investigation of officer Walden’s worthiness he questions the crew her chopper came to rescue before it was shot down. The men tell what they heard, they didn’t see a lot. Walden’s huey and her crew went down between those they came to rescue and the enemy. They took all of the fire during the night and in the early morning.  The men remember having heard a M16 until just before both parties were rescued by another chopper.

At this point in time, Sterling doesn’t know that Walden is not only a heroic soldier but that Walden is a woman and would be the first woman to ever receive a medal of honour. After having questioned the rescued crew he has to interrogate Walden’s crew members one by one. Her co-pilot is in a wheel chair, he was seriously wounded and cannot remember what happened on the ground. Ilario the medic (Matt Damon), parises Karen and her decision making but Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips), an angry, aggressive soldier, tells him that Walden was a coward.

The whole story is revealed layer by layer and in flash backs. We see what happened from different points of view and after a while it is clear someone is lying. It will be Sterling’s duty to find out whether she was a coward as some say or a hero deserving of the highest decoration.

The movie interweaves two stories, the investigation of Karen Walden and Sterling’s fight to come to terms with what happened in Iraq.

I liked the way the movie showed how different points of view change a story, how there may be more than one truth. Despite the fact that some of her crew lied, they still all saw different aspects of how it happened. It’s not a court-room drama but it has elements of it and is quite suspenseful.

One of the main topics however is women in the military. When Sterling hears that the medal of honour is destined for a woman we see that he has a problem. The idea is so new and strange to him that he has a hard time to absorb it at first. On the other hand, because the medal is destined for a woman, his superiors hope this is an opportunity to get as much positive media coverage as possible and would give it to her whether she deserved it or not.

The actors are good but that is to a large extent due to the characters. They are all interesting, very well-developed characters. What I liked a lot is the way the movie is structured. The changing between action- and dialogue sequences and more introspective moments. It’s a very balanced movie. The message is another story. It’s not an anti-war film. It is about people who love being in the military, who find the life as a soldier or pilot the most fascinating there is. People who put duty and honor before their family but still struggle to find a balance.

I think it’s very well done, entertaining and certainly a must for all the Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan and Matt Damon fans and those who appreciate the solid work of Edward Zwick.

Here are some of my reviews of other movies by Edward Zwick

Glory

Last Samurai

Defiance

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Green Zone (2010)

Wouldn’t it be merciful to be among those who regularly fall asleep when watching a movie? I would have been so lucky if it had happened while watching this.

Green Zone is a hybrid movie that want’s to be war and action drama and most of all aims at a political statement. That’s just like decaffeinated coffee. If you can’t handle the real deal, just stick with something else. Some of my readers know that I do occasionally have strong reactions when I don’t like an actor. This isn’t case here. While not Matt Damon‘s most ardent fan, I enjoyed the Bourne movies. But that isn’t what you will get here.

The major problem is that the topic is really old news. By the time this movie was made everyone knew that there hadn’t been any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. To sell a story like that as if it was really a discovery can only work on people who have spent the last 10 years in a TV free dungeon.

Now, what is the story? Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) is in charge of a group of soldiers who are to discover the mass destruction weapons in Iraq. Every time they arrive at one of the places indicated on their maps that they got from intelligence, they find nothing. Miller starts to suspect that the information is wrong. He tries to talk to people in charge but they don’t want to listen. He talks to experts and a journalist and all pretend, that the intelligence is solid.

Frustrated and disgusted he tries to solve the riddle on his own. What follows is an initially action-packed hunt. What is important in my last statement is the bit about the “initially action-packed”. The action – and that is deadly for an action movie – slows down considerably during the last third. On top of that it gets confusing and, as said, the main topic isn’t gripping.

It’s an OK movie if you have nothing else to watch and are a huge Matt Damon fan anyway. I’d rate it 2/5.

Movies on American Indian Wars: A List Part II

A few days ago I posted a list on movies on the American Indian Wars knowing very well that I was on slippery terrain since I am not an expert. The War Movie Buff has been kind enough to add and comment on the list and I would say it needed serious amending. Seemingly very good movies had been left out. I am glad that, thanks to his input, I can present you with a very good new list. Not in alphabetical order this time but in rated order. Thanks, Kevin.

Not yet rated (probaly good)
Custer’s Last Stand (1936, USA) by Elmer Clifton, starring Rex Lease, Lona Andre, William Farnum
Geronimo (1939, USA) by Paul Sloane,  starring Preston Foster, Gene Lockhart
Custer of the West (1967, USA) by Robert Siodmak, starring Robert Shaw, Mary Ure, Ty Hardin
Soldier Blue (1970, USA) by Ralph Nelson, starring Candice Bergen, Peter Strauss, Donald Pleasence, Dana Elcar
Good Movies
Geronimo: An American Legend (1993, USA) by Walter Hill, starring Jason Patric, Wes Studi, Gene Hackman, Matt Damon
Crazy Horse (1996, USA, TV) , by John Irvin, starring mit Michael Greyeyes, Ned Beatty, August Schellenberg
Buffalo Soldiers (1997, USA, TV) by Charles Haid, staring Lamont Bentley, Tom Bower, Danny Glover
Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee (2007, USA, TV), by Yves Simoneau, starring Anna Paquin, Aidan Quinn, August Schellenberg, Adam Beach
Very Good Movies
Fort Apache (1948, USA) by John Ford, starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple
Rio Grande (1950, USA), by John Ford, starring John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Ben Johnson, Victor McLaglen
Major Dundee (1965, USA) by Sam Peckinpah, starring Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, James Coburn, Senta Berger
Duel at Diablo (1966, USA) by Ralph Nelson, starring James Garner, Sidney Poitier, Bibi Andersson, Dennis Weaver
Cheyenne Autumn (1964, USA) by John Ford, starring Richard Widmark, Carol Baker, Karl Malden, Sal Mineo
I Will Fight No More Forever (1975, USA TV), by Richard T. Heffron, starring James Whitmore, Sam Elliott, Ned Romero
Great Movies
Little Big Man (1970, USA) by Arthur Penn, starring Dustin Hoffman, Martin Balsam, Faye Dunaway
Dances with Wolves (1990, USA) , by Kevin Costner, starring Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene
Son of the Morning Star (1991, USA, TV ) starring Gary Cole, Rosanna Arquette
Top 100 according to Military History Magazine
They Died with Their Boots On (1941, USA) by Raoul Walsh, starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Arthur Kennedy, Anthony Quinn, Gene Lockhart
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949, USA) by John Ford, starring John Wayne, Joanne Dru, John Agar
The Searchers (1956, USA) by John Ford, starring John Wayne, Jeffery Hunter, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood
Ulzana’s Raid (1972, USA), by Robert Aldrich, staring Burt Lancaster, Bruce Davison, Joaquin Martine

Maybe this is still not a definite list but we are getting closer.

The first part of Son of the Morning Star is the only thing I found in lieu of a trailer. Enjoy.

Movies on American Indian Wars: A List

I recently came across a German website that went through every possible conflict, since the days of the Roman Empire and listed some of the movies depicting these wars. I can tell you, that was a huge list. There were conflicts I had never heard of and loads of movies I had never heard of either. One chapter struck me as being of interest, namely the American Indian wars. I studied cultural anthropology with one of my  specializations being American Indians. Logically I am interested in those movies. I have seen some but not many. I remember Geronimo very well and found it very good. I also remember Dances with Wolves but I think it is by far too long. Rio Grande and Little Big Man are classics, of course. Hidalgo is the one I would like to watch and Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee is one I will watch very soon. You will find a list below. Feel free to comment and add others. I did amend and add as well. Many of those movies are probably labelled western normally.

1. Custer’s Last Stand (1936, USA) by Elmer Clifton, starring Rex Lease, Lona Andre, William Farnum
2. Geronimo (1939, USA) by Paul Sloane,  starring Preston Foster, Gene Lockhart
3. They Died with Their Boots On (1941, USA) by Raoul Walsh, starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Arthur Kennedy, Anthony Quinn, Gene Lockhart
4. Fort Apache (1948, USA) by John Ford, starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple
5. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949, USA) by John Ford, starring John Wayne, Joanne Dru, John Agar
6. Rio Grande (1950, USA), by John Ford, starring John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Ben Johnson, Victor McLaglen
7. Major Dundee (1965, USA) by Sam Peckinpah, starring Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, James Coburn, Senta Berger
8. Custer of the West (1967, USA) by Robert Siodmak, starring Robert Shaw, Mary Ure, Ty Hardin
9. Little Big Man (1970, USA) by Arthur Penn, starring Dustin Hoffman, Martin Balsam, Faye Dunaway
10. Soldier Blue (1970, USA) by Ralph Nelson, starring Candice Bergen, Peter Strauss, Donald Pleasence, Dana Elcar
11. Ulzana’s Raid (1972, USA), by Robert Aldrich, staring Burt Lancaster, Bruce Davison, Joaquin Martine
12. Dances with Wolves (1990, USA) , by Kevin Costner, starring Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene
13. Son of the Morning Star (1991, USA, TV ) starring Gary Cole, Rosanna Arquette
14. Geronimo: An American Legend (1993, USA) by Walter Hill, starring Jason Patric, Wes Studi, Gene Hackman, Matt Damon
15. Crazy Horse (1996, USA, TV) , by John Irvin, starring mit Michael Greyeyes, Ned Beatty, August Schellenberg
16. Buffalo Soldiers (1997, USA, TV) by Charles Haid, staring Lamont Bentley, Tom Bower, Danny Glover
17. Hidalgo (2004, USA) by Joe Johnston  starring Viggo Mortensen, Zuleikha Robinson, Omar Sharif
18. Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee (2007, USA, TV), by Yves Simoneau, starring Anna Paquin, Aidan Quinn, August Schellenberg, Adam Beach

Is there any movie anyone can recommend? How are they to be rated?

Added on November 27: see amended list

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