Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Film Season: War Films

Clem is an ex soldier with a degree in military history (and an A-Level in film studies). He likes war films. After a discussion in which we discovered that the only war films I (or Sarah and Jess for that matter) have seen are Forrest Gump and Private Benjamin, we thought maybe we should have a season of classics. As Clem very patiently watched all eight Harry Potter films with me from start to finish recently, we settled on the same number. On to the films (none of which would pass the Bechdel Test (that's always going to be likely in a warzone) but it's still interesting to see how women are portrayed):


Released: 1964
Starring: Michael Caine
Set: Battle of Rorke's Drift, 1879, Anglo-Zulu War

To sum up, I will repeat the conversation we had at lunch last week:

Mum "You thought that film was quite boring didn't you?"
Clem "WHAT?!"
Me "erm, I like the idea of having watched it more than I liked actually watching it"

It might have been the old style film making - ten minutes of watching men push wagons over to make a barricade - or that I felt like I wasn't understanding what was going on as I don't know masses of turn of the century Southern Africa military history but I did find it a bit hard going. Looking back now, I feel a bit more fondness for it but then I don't have to watch it again.

What have I learned?: Long films go by very slowly when you don't have any knitting on hand.

Any women in it? Mass Zulu wedding at the beginning feature hundreds of semi naked Zulu women. One missionary's daughter adept at wiping the brows of injured men.

What does Clem think? Classic, much parodied. Shows traditional Victorian army tactics and a famous last stand. Good example of propaganda - always a lot of medals given out when things go wrong.

Kelly's Heroes

Released: 1970
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas
Set: France, 1944, WWII

Donald Sutherland is brilliant in this. Clint Eastwood is brilliant in this. Their relationship is the best part of the film, particularly the 'this is my other dog imitation' scene and 'that's a paintball' as a close second. It's an adventure film and therefore a more familiar story arc to me than Zulu's battle event so I found it a lot easier to watch. I still managed to fall asleep half way through though, and had to watch the second half the next day.

What have I learned?: It is only worth attacking a Tiger tank if it is from behind as that's its weak spot.

Any women in it? Two or three wordless hippies swaying their arms and stroking a soldier. Repeated mention of 'finding some broads'

What does Clem think?: Dark humour and 60s hippies in a 1940s tank unit. Broadly accurate war film as well as a good comedy.

Thin Red Line 

Released: 1998
Starring: Jim Caviezel, Adrien Brody, Sean Penn, Everyone Ever (90s line up)
Set: Guadalcanal 1942-43, Pacific Islands, WWII

According to my research on IMDB, this film is pretty divisive. Some think it shows the futility of war with poetry and beauty while others think it's a pretentious piece of crap. I think it's both, there is more than a touch of noble savage about it, some of the poetry is a bit much (but I recognised bits of it from the samples in UNKLE's Eye For An Eye which helped) and it doesn't really have a story but it does show how nature carries on being beautiful and normal while the men are suffering massive effects from the situation. The scenery is gorgeous, and Jim Caviezel is great. And Vin Diesel is in it! I've never seen him in a film before. He's BIG.

What have I learned?: Adrien Brody looked exactly the same in 1998 as he does now.

Any women in it? One cheating wife (non speaking role bar a short letter), one french wife and daughter in an understandable panic.

What does Clem think?: "I wish Alice would stop saying 'Oh! that's Phoebe's brother from Friends!' and 'That guy was in Game On!' cos it kinda ruins the atmosphere. Beautifully shot and shows how things are still beautiful even in a war zone, which adds to the horror of it. I like that it doesn't have a point to all the action because that's how it is. Uniquely good looking platoon of GIs and quite old for who they are portraying.

Saving Private Ryan 

Released: 1998
Starring: Tom Hanks
Set: D-Day landings and aftermath, Normandy, 1944, WWII

As with the Thin Red Line, it's hard to suspend disbelief and step into the world as being real when the main actors are so famous. Tom Hanks, for chrissakes. Also the premise is weird. Would they really put all these other soldiers at risk to give one mother her son back? What about all the other mothers? All the other soldiers? They are no less important. Oh, and the story is given to us as a reminiscence of Private Ryan when in fact he isn't there for most of it. However, it's pretty watchable and a good demonstration of the sheer numbers of men sacrificed for the objective, which is always the hardest thing for me to comprehend, what with the men who planned the objectives all being well out of the way. There are a lot of military words that I didn't know and discussions of tactics sometimes made it hard to know what was going on.

What have I learned?: Tom Hanks is currently America's most trusted man. (not strictly learned from the film)

Any women in it? One heartbroken mother (non speaking role), a few secretaries (non speaking roles). A wife who has one word to say at the very end.

What does Clem think?: Bit too focussed on visceral horror of it all. Soldiers jargon is gibberish. Circular narrative isn't circular. Sounds effects and special effects very good.

A Bridge Too Far

Released: 1977
Starring: Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Antony Hopkins, Everyone Ever (70s line up)
Set: Operation Market Garden, 1944, WWII

Apart from Kelly's Heroes, this has been my favourite one so far. It's telling the story of Operation Market Garden which my Grandad was involved in as a glider pilot right before he was captured as a POW. There is a shot where you can see out of the glider pilots windscreen as they take off, which would have been exactly what my Grandad saw at the time. The voiceover at the start explained what was going on very clearly so I felt a bit more confident that I'd get what was happening. It also helped that each group was headed up by a very famous actor so I could think 'OK that's Sean Connery so we must be just outside Arnhem' (Sean Connery has a moustache so we don't confuse him for James Bond) or 'That's Michael Caine so we must be the infantry marching on foot'. Without that I don't think I would have known where we are as one 70s actor in uniform looks very much like another. It's quite a funny film, for all the blood and bombs. Lots of gallows humour and feigned incompetence from Michael Caine to keep his men happy.

What have I learned?: You can recognise an American soldier because they never have their helmet straps done up.

Any women in it? The voiceover at the beginning, who I think is the same farmhouse owner who gives up her home to be first a hospital then a bomb site for the cause. One mad old lady (understandable given the circumstances).

What does Clem think?: Yeah, this is excellent, full of stiff upper lip. They have the proper kit. Good at showing blunder but incorporating a bit too much hindsight.

Still to come, the Vietnam section:

Full Metal Jacket
Hamburger Hill


  1. I think your blog has just become the new IMDB. I will now patiently wait for you to review all films and TV shows every made so I can decide whether I'm going to like something before I watch it. xx

  2. Catch22 is a war film, you should watch that.

    1. I've read the book (quite recently) and really liked it. Is the film worthy?