100 Exceptional American Movies in 10 Genres: Veterans of Foreign Wars, 5-1

You can read up on the basis for this series here, and also find links to other posts in the series.

Movies I’ve reviewed on this site have a link in the title which you can follow to read my full review.

5) The Great Escape (1963), directed by John Sturges

It all goes bad so quickly in The Great Escape, a movie of nearly three hours which hinges the fates of its characters on frighteningly small moments. The most famous slip-up is doubtless the failure of one escapee to remember to speak German in front of the Germans, but there are other times when everything goes wrong just long enough for the prisoners to be retaken and, in all likelihood, killed. It begins when the tunnel they use to escape, “Harry,” fails to reach all the way into the woods. Even then, it might not necessarily be an issue given the timing system they’ve worked out, but one man loses his cool and goes in clear view of the German guards. Perhaps it even has less to do with “Harry” and more to do with “Tom,” the superior tunnel which is masterfully hidden but still discovered while the prisoners are drinking Hendley and Hilts’ potent potato hooch. For as much as the prisoners manage to accomplish with the most limited resources, in the end the only ones able to escape need significant help from local resistance, as Sedgwick is lucky enough to receive. Any ounce of pushback seems enough to fetter the men once again; Hilts’ stolen motorcycle is insufficient compared to the number of Germans combing the countryside for him, just as Hendley and Blythe’s airplane gives up the ghost not far from the Swiss border.

This movie would probably be improved significantly if it were pared down, and those last three men are probably the most interesting of the bunch. Hilts, of course, comes with the Steve McQueen machismo that is infectious and exciting, so cool that he can bring a baseball and a mitt into his prison cell. He is one of the rare prisoners whose escape is sufficiently interesting to follow on its own merits, largely because he steals a motorcycle and does Steve McQueen things with it, but as a person is nothing more than a tough exterior. It’s Hendley and Blythe having their own buddy picture that appeals to me, largely because they make an odd couple. Hendley, who is practically seductive when he wants to be in order to scrounge hard-to-find equipment, takes a genuine liking to his bunkmate, an Englishman with odd features and drastically failing eyesight. Once again, the idea that war is fought for one another comes to the forefront as Hendley volunteers to take Blythe with him through enemy territory, a job that no one would ever ask him to do. Blythe, for his part, is grateful without being too falsely retiring: it would be safer to stay in the POW camp, but certainly he wants to take his chances.

4) The Deer Hunter (1978), directed by Michael Cimino

The Deer Hunter is not as good a movie about coming home from war as Coming Home, the movie which it will always be compared to, but its best scenes are indisputably in Pennsylvania rather than Vietnam. Much of this is the fault of the movie’s Russian roulette scenes. The kindest thing we can say about them is that they are overdramatic; the most accurate thing we can say about them is that they’re racist. Even the scenes where Michael returns to Vietnam to find Nick are emblematic of a national consciousness where “gook” was an acceptable word, playing into the imperialist stereotype of tall, proud white men surrounded by the infinite scurrying of little yellow ones. (Am I also allowed to think that most of the scenes after the initial Russian roulette games are pretty forgettable? Is that bad?) I don’t particularly care for that game as a metaphor for senseless violence because it places far too much responsibility at the individual level. War is not about specimens, as we’ll see in a minute, and Russian roulette is a game about a specific bullet in a specific place. Nor does the depiction thereof (men threatened at gunpoint by the Vietcong to point the guns at themselves) seem to fit what war is. It’s not the enemy who forces you into random situations of violence, but your leaders inside the military and out. Even when we take what those scenes are good for, there are other films which are superior. The Hurt Locker probably does a better job than The Deer Hunter at depicting the addiction to the violent head rush which explosions and weapons fire can create. Just as Michael and Nick return to the sadism of Russian roulette, hypnotized by the moment before the trigger is pulled, James makes a career out of waiting for the last moment before the ticking bomb becomes an exploding one.

If there is a greatness in this movie—which, for all of its obvious flaws, is still an essentially canonical opinion of The Deer Hunter—it remains stateside, in a little industrial town which might accurately be called a dead end if so many people weren’t dying in Vietnam already. This movie needs the Russian Orthodox wedding and the rowdy reception more than it needs its Russian roulette or its fall of Saigon. Without them, the film would lose the strength of Michael’s return home and the way he dodges a party, or how he connects with Linda in Nick’s absence, or how he refuses to shoot down a deer he’s hunting. Most of all it would fail to anchor the movie’s ambiguous-but-not-really ending, where a few survivors sit around a formerly raucous bar and sing “God Bless America” together. One of the most frequently reported reactions to this movie is a sort of stunned silence which can last some time, and it’s the one I remember having the first time I saw the movie. It leaves you with a great stillness, amplified by Vilmos Zsigmond’s photography and Stanley Myers’ “Cavatina,” and it lingers on for a while, keeping the viewer somnambulistic as s/he wanders on to the next task of the day. War movies are frequently mental exercises, calling upon our reason to deny the justice or efficacy of combat. The Deer Hunter is something else altogether, less interested in the injustice of the war than the feeling of emptiness that it bestows.

3) Patton (1970), directed by Franklin J. Schaffner

Much is made in Patton of the general’s old-fashioned mindset, old-fashioned stretching back to ancient times as opposed to merely “Civil War” or “World War I” vintage. If the man could fight every battle himself against his nemesis—frequently Rommel, but perhaps more accurately Montgomery in this film—then he would do so. It pains him that the old ways of swords and shields have disappeared entirely, replaced by the tank warfare which he is particularly skilled at but sees distastefully. If he had his ‘druthers, war would be different and the world would function differently. Of course, if he had his way, the movie argues, he might have ridden a nuclear warhead into Moscow and wreathed the world in flames; he certainly would not have found it sporting to let the rocket or the bomb fly without a person to direct it. Patton is, with the possible exception of MacArthur, the last American field commander who has captured the public imagination with so much gusto. (We may have elected Eisenhower president twice, but no studio executive in his right mind would green light a movie about him.) His death almost immediately after the war, resulting from a car accident, has added to the mythos of a man who might have been a marvelous Cold Warrior. Only Norman Schwarzkopf can lay claim to the kind of popularity which Patton enjoyed, and even that hardly matches the man who defeated the Nazis for good. As a biopic, Patton is particularly strong because of its willingness to disagree with its subject just as it is willing to praise him for what was laudable. As a war movie, it finds significantly less to disagree with because his instincts as a soldier were, in the field, basically impeccable. He may not understand why he should have to give up a second of glory or a decibel of cheering, but he does understand that he can move his tanks faster and more effectively than anyone else will dare to do.

Where many war movies consider what makes a good soldier in the ranks, Patton has its eye on what makes a good general. A good soldier is one who does precisely what he is told to do at a moment’s notice, but generals are not soldiers; they bear no such responsibility to men in a unit or to some lengthy string of commanding officers, and so the rules are less obvious. Patton spends most of the movie figuring out where the lines he cannot cross are lying through trial-and-error. He finds out that he can’t slap a soldier with PTSD because Eisenhower lowers the boom on him. He finds out that he can’t prefer the Germans to the Soviets when he makes some foolish comments to the newspapers. He finds out that Bradley is a better leader than him when he is passed over for the promotion he desperately wants. And the movie makes the case that Bradley is the Good General in a way that Patton could never be. Bradley can administrate. Bradley can build bridges to other commanders. Bradley can organize campaigns. None of these things make him flashy, but they make him effective and safe, where Patton himself can only be the former in brilliant stints cut short by stupid gaffes.

2) Inglourious Basterds (2009), directed by Quentin Tarantino

Let’s say Quentin Tarantino dies tomorrow (“White Director Dies of Shame When He Discovers He Is Not Cool Enough to Say the ‘N-Word’ in Casual Conversation – Details at Eleven”) and the retrospectives begin. You click on an article which, beyond its clickbait headline, argues for Tarantino’s top ten scenes. There are a dozen competitors I would consider, but for me, even more than Jules changing his life over a pig-free breakfast, it’s that long roller coaster ride in a basement bar from Inglourious Basterds, which begins with German soldiers celebrating the recent fatherhood of one of their own and which ends with him being gunned down after a two-story Mexican standoff. As is Tarantino’s wont, it’s maybe a little overlong. There are also moments which are felt like stomach cramps relieved and then returned in a deeply uncomfortable cycle. Several times, a new wrinkle is added into what should have been a fairly straightforward plan; even before the scene begins, Aldo protests the location of the meetup between the glamorous German screen star Bridget von Hammersmark and British intelligence agent Archie Hicox. Fighting in a basement is a losing strategy, he says, which Hicox replies to by saying they’re not there to fight. They’re both right, and both men see their hunches proved within twenty minutes of film time. The innocuous (Hicox tells a drunk German private to buzz off) turns into the threatening (a hidden German officer questions Hicox’s strange accent). The threatening (Hellstrom gets snippy about leaving von Hammersmark’s table) becomes the innocuous (Hicox orders three glasses of Scotch) becomes the threatening once more. Such is the lot of those undercover agents, and they showcase the razor’s edge that we often take for a much wider and safer one in war movies. Inglourious Basterds proves that it’s willing to kill all and all alike, eliminating characters like Hugo Stiglitz and Archie Hicox who we might have expected to play a larger role in the denouement.

Much has been made, in the intervening decade or so since the film was released, of the brutality of Aldo and the Basterds; there is a particularly centrist argument which implies that by adding some level of torture and mutilation to what the Jewish Basterds do, the movie creates pseudo-Nazis out of Jews. It’s a strange critique which is borne out of cartoonish assumptions about the unqualified heroism of American soldiers, I think, or believing that filling a German soldier with bullets is somehow more humane than scalping a dead one. Likewise, it ignores the postulations of Aldo early on in the film, from the speech which includes the peroration “And I want my scalps!”

Nazi ain’t got no humanity. They’re the foot soldiers of a Jew-hatin’, mass murderin’ maniac, and they need to be destroyed. That’s why any and every sonbitch we find wearin’ a Nazi uniform, they’re gonna die.

American propaganda always emphasized Hitler and the highest reaches of his Nazi Party as the true evildoers in Germany, rarely indicting the German people. Indeed, Germans were characterized as brainwashed, misinformed, hoodwinked by the potent schemes of the Nazis. Tarantino punctures an enormous hole in this sentiment sixty-five years and more after the war. The German soldier who refuses to give away the position of artillery in the distance is beaten to death with a baseball bat; the wielder of the bat is summoned with the words, “Got a German here who wants to die for country!” The Nazis, great and small, are all complicit in the atrocities of the war Inglourious Basterds depicts; nor, as Hans Landa and some number of other soldiers can testify with their foreheads, does that complicity wash off. It may not be a nuanced view, but it certainly is compelling.

1) The Thin Red Line (1998), directed by Terrence Malick

Other movies I’ve written about for my 100 Top 10 project—Silence, Meek’s CutoffEraserhead, Elephant, and Before Sunset all come to mind—have strong cases to be considered among the best one hundred American movies ever made. The Thin Red Line remains the single movie whose omission I regret most, though, because it might genuinely be one of the hundred best movies ever made, period. On the Mount Rushmore of war movies (I already resent this sentence), it’s there with Apocalypse NowThe Grand Illusion, and Come and See. Its representation of the home front, via the Bells, is as moving as any other. Its battles are frightening and explosive and beautiful and moving.

The Thin Red Line understands the way that men are expendable in war, and makes that brutal wisdom its creed. It recognizes that soldiers are not men. Men do not suffer the indignity of dying thousands of miles from home, surrounded by pseudo-strangers trying to kill other men. And so it is that soldiers do not really have character arcs; they have been stripped of that most basic human right, which is to preserve the soul by preserving other human life. A man who has been made to kill has lost his personhood—this we understand in virtually every other genre except in stories about war. Few movies have really comprehended what the role of a soldier is. Before anything else, he is part of a unit. And the unit exists for whatever purpose the military deigns to give it. If the unit is meant to be cut to pieces, sacrificed for the sake of time or expediency or some tactical advantage, then it is to be cut to pieces. The deaths of many men happen not because they were especially foolish or wrong or bad but because they were ordered to die. And that’s why it’s silly to criticize The Thin Red Line as lacking character development. There are no characters to develop. There are only the hazy outlines of human beings who appear more real to us (like the characters Elias Koteas and Jim Caviezel play) the more they try to attain that humanity again, and too much humanity is punished. Staros is sent back to Washington after he refuses to send his men on a suicide mission, and Witt is killed when he successfully buys a little time for his unit.

Something I’ve written about before concerning The Thin Red Line is its sharp eye for its natural surroundings, seamlessly integrating the place into the story while simultaneously understanding that the place will remain for billions of years after the battle ends; likewise, the place existed for billions of years before Japanese and American troops fought over it. How very quixotic this fight seems in the context of its geological time, to know that in a few years it will be hard to know that thousands died here, that in a few hundred there will be no traces of it, that in a few thousand even the greater conflict itself might be reduced to a few bullet points. None of this makes the fighting on Guadalcanal pointless, but it does problematize it by refusing to assume that it’s important. In the end, what men fight for is other men: it’s the same message from nearly seventy-five years earlier in The Big Parade, but altered for a bloodier and vaster fight. What men like Staros and Welsh and Witt and Gaff are fighting for is not to honor them or to show solidarity, but to keep them alive as long as they can.

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