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The Memorial Day Special

May 30, 2011
Being a big fan of the war movie genre, I had been wanting from long to day a Memorial Day special post on my blog. I did not want to do a Top 10,20 kind of post, the last thing I want is people squabbling over what should be there, what should not be there. So what I decided to do is to publish in a single post, the reviews of the war movies I had posted over the years on my blog.
So here is a compilation of war movie reviews on my blog, and it includes even reviews posted by others as part of blogathons I had organized on my blog. Most of the movie reviews  I have compiled are of World War II movies  with  couple of Vietnam and Civil War movies too. 

There have been movies on the Holocaust, in recent times, most  notable  Spielberg’s Schindlers List, Roman Polanski’s  The Pianist  and The Boy in Striped Pyjamas. A vast majority of these movies, generally look at the period through the view point of the victims, the ones who were sent to the gas chambers and concentration camps. But what of the men, who  actually  signed the orders? The judges who ran those Kangaroo courts? The ones who ordered the Jewish deportations? Were they merely doing  their “duty”  or  did they felt  anything  was fine in the name of the country.
While I did hear of the U Boats, and the famous Wolf Packs, that traveled the Atlantic, my first exposure to them, was Alistair Maclean’s novel HMS Ulysses( his first and to date his best one too). The book deals with the story of a British naval convoy and how it has to fight its way through the U Boats. And that’s when I could manage to get some more material on U Boats. U Boat is the short form of Unterseeboot, meaning “Under Sea Boat” in German. Though used for military operations, their main aim was to cause economic blockades of the allied nations, by sinking merchant ships. U-Boats gained fame with the sinking of the commercial liner Lusitania in 1920, and they would be a part of military folklore during the Battle of Atlantic in the Second World War.
Though the Americans ultimately won the battle, they had to overcome 35 days of fierce resistance from Japanese, and loss of more than 6000 soldiers. The movie starts off with Japanese archaelogists exploring the tunnels built on island of Iwo Jima and finding a series of letters. And cuts into flashback mode to the year 1944. The movie tells the battle from perspective of Private Saigo( Japanese pop music star Kazunari Ninomiya ), a baker who has been conscripted into the Japanese Imperial Army, and he is grudgingly digging trenches on the island. As he curses for digging the trenches, and wonders why they dont hand it over to the Americans, he is beaten up by his overseer for making unpatriotic speeches. Fortunately the arrival of Lt.Gen Tadamichi Kuribayashi( Ken Watanabe), who fortunately does not believe in the rough neck methods of his fellow Japanese officers saves his life.

On Feb 23,1945, 5 US Marines and a Navy corpsman, raised the American flag on Mt.Suribachi, on the island of Iwo Jima, in the pacific. The photograph of this event, taken by Joe Rosenthal, an American photographer, who later won the Pulitzer Prize for this, would become an iconic image among American public.This photograph would take its place among other photographs like that of Che Guevera, and the Vietnam War survivor, as one of the most famous 20th century pictures. It became a symbol of American victory during the War. And this photograph would also be the basis for the USMC War Memorial sculpture in Washington DC.

But even in the middle of such inhumanity, 1100 Jews were saved by one man. He was a German industrialist, a profiteer, a womanizer and a wheeler dealer, a very unlikely hero. But history would record the fact that when people choose to look the other way, he put everything on the line to save people whose only fault was that they did not conform to the perfect vision of a megalomaniac dictator. The man was Oskar Schindler. Based on the book Schindlers Ark by Thomas Kennealy, Schindlers List directed by Steven Spielberg is one of the most powerful and disturbing movies made on the Holocaust.

And in that line comes the 1970 movie Patton , a true story of Gen George Patton , one of the most controversial and remarkable characters of World War II . Along with Douglas Mc Arthur, James Doolittle he would be regarded as one of the greatest American war heroes. Making a movie on Patton would never be an easy task. For he was one of the most complex, controversial, larger than life character in real life. As a war hero, he was one of the greatest, he led the Allied Forces to victory in key battles in N.Africa, Sicily and Germany . Yet this man was a bundle of contradictions. He was a scholar, and well versed in military history, he devoured books on Napoleon, Julius Caesar, Alexander , and studied their battles in depth.
Well many questions still left unanswered, and there have been many attempts to answer them. Not many movies are there on this event. Spielberg’s 1941 , was more of a comedy about the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, while the 1953 classic From Here to Eternity was about the relationships between characters at that place. But if you want to really know the reasons behind Pearl Harbor , and the assault, then the best movie I would recommend is the 1970 movie Tora, Tora, Tora. Though Tora means tiger in Japanese, in reality, the words are derived from the Japanese code word totsugeki raigeki , which means a torpedo attack. “Climb Mt. Nitaka” the title of my review, is the Japanese code for this operation. Now coming to some of the questions, this movie, does provide some very clear and plausible answers.
 With the advent of D-Day, the US Army has come up with a plan to interrupt German chain of command. Raid a secluded mansion where most of the high ranking Nazi officers come to party with their mistresses and kill every one there. It’s a suicidal operation, and so the army decides to make use of convicted criminals who are either on death row or facing life imprisonment. It’s a win win situation, if they die, they would have the honour of dying on the battle field, it they survive, their life sentence would be commuted.Gen Worden( Ernest Borgine) the operation in charge chooses Maj John Reisman( Lee Marvin) for this thankless job. There is a hidden agenda here, Reisman has never been liked in the Army for his I care a damn attitude, and he is assigned this job, ostensibly to get rid of him.
One of the best war movies to come out has been the 1960’s movie The Guns of Navaronne. Now hold it, Guns is not a WW2 classic in the league of Bridge on River Kwai, Saving Private Ryan and Paths of Glory. Nor is it a holocaust epic like Schindlers List or The Pianist. The Guns is more a straight forward tale of “guys lets get together and conduct an operation”. It was a very popular genre in the 60’s especially, when you had movies like Where Eagles Dare, The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes, The Train to name a few. The formula was simple, get in some big shot names, come up with a story of a derring do plot on a Nazi base, show them as idiotic, brainless goofs and add in the obligatory female company. In that aspect The Guns of Navaronne is no different, but where it strikes out, is the movie has a sensible script, good enough twists, strong character development and enthralling action sequences.
Quite often when i go through some of the best anti war movies that have been made, i can’t help noticing one thing, in a vast majority of the cases, the anti war movies come out after the actual war is over. I take a look at some of the more well known anti Vietnam war flicks, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and then i see that all these movies have been released after the end of the war, post 1975. Even when anti Vietnam war protests were raging across the US, and many Hollywood stars voiced their opposition to the war, there were actually no significant anti Vietnam war dramas comming out from Hollywood. The only Vietnam war drama released around the time was John Wayne’s propagandist The Green Berets, which tried to drum up public support in favor of the war. Is it due to the fact that Hollywood was afraid of adverse audience reactions, some kinda backlash? 
The Civil War in the US was fought between the Union( comprising the Northern and Midwest) and the Confederates(South and Southwest) over the issue of slavery. The Civil War had its own heroes like Gen Thomas Stonewall Jackson, Gen Robert Lee( Confederate) and Ulysees Grant, William Sherman(Union). However one of the most significant features of the Civil War was the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment. Along with the Ist South Carolina Volunteers Regiment, this was one of the first professional Army Regiment made up entirely of Black Soldiers. And this regiment gained prominence when it mounted an attack on the strategic Fort Wagner located in South Carolina. This was also the first instance of Black Soldiers taking part in full scale combat.The Great Escape 

One such all time favorite of mine is 1963’s The Great Escape, based on the real life story of the escape of Allied Air Force Prisoners from Stalag Luft III in 1944, a high security POW Camp  built in such a way, that tunnels could not be built easily n.The movie begins with the prisoners arriving at the camp to the tune of  Elmer Bernstein’s wonderful background score. The camp is manned by Col Von Luger( Hannes Messemer) which he claims to be escape proof and that none can escape from there. Most of these POW’s have a reputation of being escape artists, and the most dangerous of them all is Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett( Sir Richard Attenborough), on whom the Gestapo have put a shoot to kill, if he is found escaping

The Pianist

As the world observes the 60th anniversary of the release of Auschwitz,I thought it to be appropriate to review one of the finest movies related to the Holocaust, The Pianist . I think along with Schindlers List this is one of the best movies related to that topic. But there are differences while Schindlers List dealt with the attempts of one man to save Jews from extermination, The Pianist deals with the struggle for survival of a Jewish man in Warsaw.The movie is the real life story of celebrated Polish pianist Wladsylaw Spilzman who recorded his experiences of survival during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw.

  1. Awesome write-up. I'd add Alain Resnais' 1955 film Night and Fog and tentatively add a made-for-television film Escape from Sobibor to this comprehensive list.

  2. This is a great post. i truly enjoyed reading it, also some of my favorite movies are on this list.

  3. Excellent post Ratnakar. Have a lot of viewing to do now. Your blog is a 'Go to' for me when it comes to movies.

  4. As usual an intriguing read like your other blog posts. While I am not a war movie buff, I am interested in the periods of both the World Wars and as a strange co-incidence was just watching 'Japan's War in Colour' moments before I received your tweet.I am yet to read all the separate reviews, but I resolve to do as I'm sure it will be a very rich reading experience.Cheers, Shweta

  5. One word. Awesome.War movies are one of the most successful genre. As I have told you via twitter. Several missing like Machurian ..old.. Candidate :), Valkyrie, Black Hawk Down, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now (though not such a wonderful movie) and so many others …. but yes, I completely understand limitations of human beings :DBut my few cents on movies listed hereGreat Escape, Das Boot, Letter from Iwo Jima, Flags of our Fathers, Judgement at Nuremberg, Pianist, Schindler's List – Awesomeness.When I first watched

  6. An interesting mix of choices & reviews. As for your comments regarding the Holocaust related films there is a very interesting Drama made by Kenneth Brannagh & the BBC which is based on a factual meeting to discuss the extermination of the Jews & portrays the personalities involved. The Drama is called 'Conspiracy' & is award winning. I have a great of respect for those war films that do not romanticise the subject such as Glory & show war for what it is…….often a pointless waste of life.Das Boot is something I grew up with as a youth and along with Downfall its proves not all great war films have to be in English.The Great Escape was factually inaccurate but that's Hollywood for you. What's you view on films that have, more recently, tried to shock with the power of war? I am of course referring to Saving Private Ryan, Enemy at the Gates, We Were Soldiers etc.Patton & Waterloo are among my favourites due to their powerful leading actors.Thanks for this great piece.

  7. James, thanks for the detailed comments as usual. Not sure how accurate Great Escape was, but as an entertainer it worked well.Saving Pvt Ryan, remains one of my favorites, somehow never really liked Enemy at the Gates, the Russo-German collaboration Stalingrad was a much better movie. — Ratnakar

  8. CodeNameV, I did review the Manchurian Candidate, but again that was more of a Spy Thriller,Conspiracy movie than a War movie,IMO. Yeah as I told earlier, have a whole backlog of movie reviews, there.–Ratnakar

  9. Enemy at the Gates was, in my opinion, an attempt to make a shocking introduction to rival saving private Ryan. As a film I think it was lacking in depth. I agree about your comments regarding Stalingrad though.The Manchurian Candidate is a very good film, which do you prefer? Original vs remake?James

  10. James, I liked the original Manchurian Candidate, it had that topicality, the remake was too confused, not knowing where to place it exactly.– Ratnakar

  11. took a course at university called propaganda of war in film. have appreciated since then the manipulation of not just propaganda but of the medium of film as a means of either warning against or glorifying war, and of course of putting the desired spin on history of the conflict. nice to have found your film blog

  12. Ratnakar Ji. Quite an informative post for the war movie lovers. However, I feel that Haqeeqat (1964) should be added to this list.Jitendra Mathur

  13. Ratanakar, yes. I remember reading your review on Manchurian and comparing old and new … yeah probably as you said it doesnt make it to War genre as there is no war portrayed…I was also wondering, if you can write a piece comparing how Indian Movie makers deal with their wars and how American counterparts deal with their wars. It would be insightful I feel because I think Indian Movie makers more often than not take the narrative into Humanity Vs War rather than sticking to facts while many American movie makers stick to facts. Not that American movie makers dont move to Humanity and War narrative but in many movies like Black Hawk Down or The Hurt Locker or Great Escape stick to facts. But that is IMO.

  14. CodeNameV, somehow to be honest, the movies made in this genre in India, are really not very much, at least the noteworthy ones. And its not about facts, but most of the movies I have seen with a military background, were absolutely cartoonish. I am not expecting documentary style realism, but at least give respect to the institutions, the soldiers, most of the "war" movies I have seen in India, try to glorify, the hero, as a superhero sort, which is not the case in a real battle. In fact I would say for a country, that has been involved in around 5 wars in the past, and is continually engaged in military operations both inside and outside India, the movies representing them are pretty much a handful, the worthwhile ones that is. Many reasons i feel from my side, but thats another topic.– Ratnakar

  15. Watched few of above. Pianist is a big miss, want to watch it sometime in future… Also Decision of Speilberg to shoot Shinders list in B/W and keeping color for girl's dress was heart wrenching scene… Creation of Israel due to such massacres during WW2 and then continuation of conflict due to this till date is something very-very sad. honestly I feel we have not overcome -ve of WW-2 and we will never.

  16. I agree but most of PVC stories are like that. For example, the story of Yogendra Singh Yadav is incredible and to some it is incredulous too but thats what Army people cite. You might have read this before agree with the author that it is really not possible to believe this story. But then, Army cites this for awarding PVC so I believe it.But fundamentally I agree with you. Main Stream cinema didnt do much. At least movies made by J P Dutta dont do any justice. But then, let me please bring to your notice this movie called "Vijeta" by Govind Nihalani a rare one by Govind Nihalani where he doenst take a biased pov… thats again IMO.But yeah very few like this one. Vijeta is very good one though. If you didnt watch it, a recommendation from my side 🙂

  17. About Indian movie on war, I think I should also watch "Haqeeqat", and old movie one I like most in recent history is Border. and character of Major Chandpuri played by sunny deol. Though sad to see very-very few such authentic work in Indian Movie industry

  18. @CodeNameV Again I not with the super heroism per se, I have an issue. I myself am aware of such acts, being a keen student of military history. What i resent is the way, it degenerates into a caricature. It is like showing the hero as the only capable one, and others around him as jokers. U cud as well put that in any other story, and it would make no difference.Yes I had seen Vijeta, one of my favorite movies, actually my Mom made me watch that movie, she loved it a lot. I thought Lakshya was fine, at least it did not show the hero as a superman, but a real Army unit. Again some other good ones i have seen Tango Charlie, 1971 in recent times, but again does not do justice to our military history and tradition.Just let me give one example, we had the Battle of Reazang La, when a determined Indian force, held off a much more larger, numerically superior Chinese force.It was not just the bravery, their action actually slowed down the Chinese advance towards Ladakh, and helped the Indian army secure it. Without that, Ladakh wud have been another Tibet for us. That is something calling out to be shown on a movie screen, and not a single one on it.– Ratnakar

  19. Very interesting read… compiled on a single page.It reminded me not of another movie, but of a book : The Fall Of Giants by Ken Follett. It's fairly historical, vivid, expansive and epic in nature.

  20. Yeah. I feel Manishankar should have planned Tango Charlie out properly by pooling some resources and money. The story is woven brilliantly. Presentation was bad. Same goes with December 16. Both were potent movies to be biggies. Unfortunately, both failed simply because of bad presentation.I feel Lakshya failed because of lack of touch of emotion. It is really doesnt provoke amazement that lead char chooses Peak 5179 as his Lakshya and the desperation in the camp to capture the peak doesnt really show up on screen!Several stories like Battle of Reazang La. Why, even in WWI and WWII we have several stories to tell. Also there are no experts in War genre. J P Dutta doesnt really make it to even novice list if you ask me.Well, I hope our fellows buck up and start making sensible movies.

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