American History: Memorial Day Weekend Movies

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“When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today”

              Inscription on the memorial to the dead of the British 2nd Infantry Division at Kohima.

A few films to help remember that there is much greater significance to Memorial Day than sun and fun:

 

1.  American Sniper (2015)- A grand tribute to the late Chris Kyle and to all the other troops who served in Iraq.

“I am a strong Christian. Not a perfect one—not close. But I strongly believe in God, Jesus, and the Bible. When I die, God is going to hold me accountable for everything I’ve done on earth. He may hold me back until last and run everybody else through the line, because it will take so long to go over all my sins. “Mr. Kyle, let’s go into the backroom. . . .” Honestly, I don’t know what will really happen on Judgment Day. But what I lean toward is that you know all of your sins, and God knows them all, and shame comes over you at the reality that He knows. I believe the fact that I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior will be my salvation. But in that backroom or whatever it is when God confronts me with my sins, I do not believe any of the kills I had during the war will be among them. Everyone I shot was evil. I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die.”
Chis Kyle

2.   Hamburger Hill (1987)- A moving film about our troops in Vietnam who served their nation far better than their too often ungrateful nation served them.

3.  Porkchop Hill (1959)-Korea has become to too many Americans The Forgotten War, lost between World War II and Vietnam.  There is nothing forgotten about it by the Americans who served over there,  including my Uncle Ralph McClarey who died a few years ago, and gained a hard won victory for the US in one of the major hot conflicts of the Cold War.  This film tells the story of the small American force on Porkchop Hill, who held it in the face of repeated assaults by superior forces of the Chinese and North Koreans.  As the above clip indicates it also highlights the surreal element that accompanies every war and the grim humor that aspect often brings.

4.   Hacksaw Ridge (2016):  Mel Gibson fully redeemed his career as a director with this masterpiece.  A film that goes far beyond mere entertainment and illustrates what a man of faith can accomplish when he stays true to his beliefs and cares so much more about helping others than he does about his own mortal life.  Incredibly, the movie does justice to Desmond Doss, a true American hero.

 

 5.   Sergeant York (1941)-A film biopic of Sergeant Alvin C. York, who, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive  on October 8,  1918, took 32 German machine guns, killed 28 German soldiers and captured another 132.  Viewers who came to see the movie in 1941 must have been initially puzzled.  With a title like Sergeant York, movie goers could have been forgiven for thinking that Sergeant York’s experiences in World War I would be the focus, but such was not the case.  Most of the film is focused on York’s life in Tennessee from 1916-1917 before American entry into the war.  Like most masterpieces, the film has a strong religious theme as we witness York’s conversion to Christ.  The film is full of big questions:  How are we to live?  Why are we here?  What role should religion play in our lives?  How does someone gain faith?  What should we do if we perceive our duty to God and to Country to be in conflict?  It poses possible answers to these questions with a skillful mixture of humor and drama.  The entertainment value of Sergeant York conceals the fact that it is a very deep film intellectually as it addresses issues as old as Man.

The film was clearly a message film and made no bones about it.  The paper of the film industry Variety noted at the time:  “In Sergeant York the screen has spoken for national defense. Not in propaganda, but in theater.”

The film was a huge success upon release in 1941, the top grossing film of the year.  Gary Cooper justly earned the Oscar for his stellar performance as Alvin C. York.  It was Cooper’s favorite of his pictures.  “Sergeant York and I had quite a few things in common, even before I played him in screen. We both were raised in the mountains – Tennessee for him, Montana for me – and learned to ride and shoot as a natural part of growing up. Sergeant York won me an Academy Award, but that’s not why it’s my favorite film. I liked the role because of the background of the picture, and because I was portraying a good, sound American character.”

The film portrays a devout Christian who had to reconcile the command to “Love thy Neighbor” with fighting for his country in a war.  This is not an easy question and the film does not give easy answers, although I do find the clip above compelling.

6.  The Rough Riders (1997)-  A superb recreation of the time and the place, the film is a fitting tribute to the valor of the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War.  Tom Berenger gives an uncannily on target performance as Theodore Roosevelt.

7.    Fort Apache (1948)- The beginning of the John Ford-John Wayne cavalry trilogy, I have always loved the speech of John Wayne at the end of the film, a tribute to the small Regular Army that fought the Indian Wars after the Civil War.  John Ford put it well at the end of the second film in the trilogy, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon:  So here they are, the dog-faced soldiers, the regulars, the fifty-cents-a-day professionals riding the outposts of the nation, from Fort Reno to Fort Apache, from Sheridan to Stark. They were all the same. Men in dirty-shirt blue and only a cold page in the history books to mark their passing. But wherever they rode and whatever they fought for, that place became the United States.

 

 

 

 

 8.  Gettysburg (1993)- It is fitting that the greatest movie made about the Civil War deals with the greatest battle of that war.  You simply cannot understand the United States without understanding the Civil War.

The Civil War was really one of those watershed things. There was a huge chasm between the beginning and the end of the war. The nation had come face-to-face with a dreadful tragedy… And yet that’s what made us a nation. Before the war, people had a theoretical notion of having a country, but when the war was over, on both sides they knew they had a country. They’d been there. They had walked its hills and tramped its roads… They knew the effort that they had expended and their dead friends had expended to preserve it. It did that. The war made their country an actuality.

9.   The Alamo (1960)-The story of the Texan Thermopylae and John Wayne’s love note to America.

 

10.  The Buccaneer (1958)-Cecil B. DeMille’s second film salute to Jean Lafitte, Andrew Jackson and their heroic stand at New Orleans.  Charlton Heston was perfect as Old Hickory.

11.  The Patriot (2001)-There is a lot wrong historically with Mel Gibson’s Revolutionary War opus, but he captures well the war to the knife fighting in the Southern theater of the War and the desperate courage of Patriot partisans who turned the tide.

 

 

Have fun this weekend, and think about the silent victors who allow us to enjoy ourselves in freedom.

 

 

Honorable mention films:

 

 

Northwest Passage (1940)-The story of the long distance raid of Rogers’ Rangers in 1759 on Saint Francis that ended generations of French sponsored Indian raids on New England.  This raid established the penchant of Americans for long distance raids on enemy targets.

John Paul Jones (1959)-Robert Stack, just before he rose to fame in the Untouchables, is grand in the role of the archetypal American sea hero.  Bette Davis is absolutely unforgettable as Catherine the Great.  The climactic sea battle with the Serapis is well done, especially for those pre-CGI days.  The only problem with the film is that many of the details are wrong.  This is forgivable to a certain extent since scholarship on Jones was badly skewed by Augustus Buell in a two-volume “scholarly biography” which appeared in 1900.  Buell was a charlatan who made up many incidents about Jones and then invented sources to support his fabrications.  Buell was not completely exposed until Samuel Eliot Morison, Harvard professor of history, and an Admiral in the Navy, wrote his definitive biography of Jones. Here is a list of the fabrications of Buell compiled by Morison.  Morison’s book appeared after the movie, which is to be regretted.

The Buccaneer (1938)-Cecil B. DeMille’s second film salute to Jean Lafitte, Andrew Jackson and their heroic stand at New Orleans.  Frederic March gave the performance of his career as Lafitte.

 

The Alamo (2004)-Some people say this version is superior to Wayne’s paean to the men of the Texas Thermopylae.

 

The Red Badge of Courage, (1951)-I am struck by what a forgotten masterpiece it is.  Filmed in stark black and white, the film has almost a documentary feel to it, as if a World War II era newsreel camera had magically transplanted itself to the Civil War.  The combat scenes are highly realistic depictions of Civil War combat, and the actors speak and act like Civil War soldiers and not like 1951 actors dressed up in Civil War costumes.

As one critic said at the time, watching the film is like watching a Matthew Brady photograph of the Civil War come to life.

It was a stroke of genius for director John Huston to have as star of his film Audie Murphy, as the youth who, in Stephen Crane’s unforgettable novel, has his first taste of combat in the Civil War.  Murphy looked like a typical Hollywood “pretty boy” but he was anything but.  From a family of 12 in Texas, Murphy had dropped out of school in the fifth grade to support his family after his father ran off.    His mother died in 1941.  In 1942 he enlisted in the Army at 16, lying about his birthday, partially to support his family and partially because he dreamed of a military career.  By the end of the war, before his 19th birthday, he was a second lieutenant and had earned in hellish combat a Medal of Honor, a Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, a Legion of Merit, a French Legion of Honor, a French Croix de Guerre, a Belgian Croix de Guerre, two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts.  He was the most decorated soldier of the US Army in World War 2.

Murphy’s co-star in the film was also an Army combat veteran, Bill Mauldin, the famed cartoonist who drew the Willie and Joe cartoons in Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper, during World War II.

The film is absolutely stunning to watch, especially when we recall that Huston was forced to cut the film to 70 minutes and to add a narration, both decisions taken over his bitter protests.   The making of the film, and the conflicts that ensued, are given masterly treatment in Lillian Ross’ book on the making of the film, Picture (1952).  The film was a box office failure, but critics hailed it.  I think audiences are often right and critics usually wrong, but in this case I side with the critics.

 

Major Dundee (1965)-Sam Pekinpah’s flawed, unfinished masterpiece, the film tells the fictional account of a mixed force of Union soldiers and Confederate prisoners who join forces to hunt and ultimately defeat an Apache raider, Sierra Charriba, in 1864-65.  Charlton Heston gives an outstanding performance as Major Amos Dundee, a man battling his own personal demons of a failed military career, as he commands this Union-Confederate force through northern Mexico on the trail of the Apache, with fighting often threatening to break out between the Union and Confederate soldiers.  Use of Confederate prisoners as Union soldiers in the West was not uncommon.  Six Union infantry regiments of Confederate prisoners, called “Galvanized Yankees”, served in the West.   The final section of the film involving a battle between Major Dundee’s force and French Lancers, the French occupying Mexico at the time, has always struck me as one of the best filmed combat sequences in any movie.

 

 

The Lost Battalion (2001)-Chronicles the story of Maj. Charles W. Whittlesey and his men who held out from October 2-October8, 1918, completely surrounded, until they were relieved by American forces.  I have always treasured this bit of dialogue from the film:

 

Maj. Prinz: You Americans, you always have so much of everything. No matter. Eventually you have to surrender.

Lt. Leak: I don’t think so.

Maj. Prinz: Are you officers so callous? You’re surrounded. You have no chance of relief. Every night you send out patrols, and every night we kill them. We can hear the cries of your wounded Lieutenant. There is no dishonor in surrender.

Lt. Leak: Maybe for you, but my guys are different.

Maj. Prinz: What do you mean?

Lt. Leak: What you’re up against Major, is a bunch of Mick, Pollack, Dago, and Jew boy gangsters from New York City. They’ll never surrender. Never.

 

Patton (1970)-The classic movie biography, Patton (1970) has become so closely associated with General George S. Patton, that we are sometimes in danger of forgetting that Patton sounded nothing like George C. Scott.  A more accurate portrayal, considering Patton’s high-pitched voice, would have been to have the voice of Patton voice acted by the late Truman Capote!   Patton had the gift of demanding instant attention when he spoke, and keeping that attention skillfully by mixing drama, humor, theatrical poses and raw force of personality.  All these elements are skillfully captured in the Patton film.  Here is the unforgettable opening to the film where the Patton personae is firmly fixed in our minds from the outset of the film:

Like any truly great work of art, the Patton film gets some of the details wrong, but captures the spirit of the person depicted completely.

 

 

Retreat Hell! (1952)The epic fighting march of the 1rst Marine division to the Sea during the Korean War, over the course of which they wrecked eight Chinese Communist divisions.  Most Americans are woefully ignorant of the military miracle that the outnumbered Marines accomplished, in atrocious blizzard conditions and over some of the roughest terrain in the world.

 

The Green Berets (1968)-Critics loathed it;  audiences loved it.  One of the most profitable films that Wayne ever made.  The sun setting in the east at the end of the film was one of several errors that critics used to tear into the film which gave a fairly accurate overall assessment of what America was up against in Vietnam.

 

12 Strong (2017)-The tale of the special forces “operators” who helped topple the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 after 9-11.

More to explorer

Trump and the Art of Politics

  Confederates often said during the War that Nathan Bedford Forrest’s commission as general was signed by Jefferson Davis and the Lord

The Bishop’s Wife

Dudley: All right. Let me think. This happened many, many years ago. Debby: That’s not the way to begin. Stories start “Once

Peter Vlaming Go Fund Me

A Go Fund Me page has been set up for Peter Vlaming.  Go here to view it.  He is the French teacher

9 Comments

  1. If you have not studied her, I commend to you the life and incredible courage and selflessness of Nancy Wake, the “white mouse.” Most wanted person by the Gestapo in Europe. There are some documentaries about her on YouTube and other channels. My favorite quote from her: “I was never afraid.” Note-some graphic-she killed Nazis with her own hands, much like Sigrid Unset. Some of the things Nancy did are way way beyond belief. Happy Memorial Day, all. Guy McClung, Texas

  2. Regarding “Sergeant York” and “The Lost Battalion,” Laurence Stallings in his book, The Doughboys, gives well-written accounts of both actions.
    One of my favorite quotes, “Greet them ever with grateful hearts.” is a chapter heading in Stallings’ Doughboys.

  3. Guy McClung.
    Yes, Nancy Wake is a true legend in this part of the world. Born in Wellington NZ, spent much of her early life in Australia, then moved to Europe. There was a recent TV tribute to her a few years ago when she died in 2011.

  4. The picture of the woman with her beloved, that hit me right in the kisser. Wow. Such love. There is no finer tribute to our fallen heroes than that. God bless her. And God rest this soul, buried there, and all others like him. Thank you.

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