Yesterday was Veteran’s Day, – strangely observed on a Wednesday instead of a Monday – the day in which we celebrate our country’s soldiers and the sacrifice they make to keep us safe, more often than not when our leaders decide to make us obnoxious to other leaders, or when they decide to invade countries that were minding their own business. Their job is especially difficult these days and they don’t really get the respect they deserve. After all, they’re just doing their job like everyone else, only their job happens to be life or death and their doing to to protect us. So I guess what I’m saying is that you should watch a war/solider themed movie to celebrate.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
I know what you’re thinking, but if you’ve ever actually seen the entire 161 minute movie (so worth it) then you’ll know that a bunch of it takes place against the backdrop of the Civil War. The villain Angel Eyes establishes himself as a commander of a POW camp where Blondie and Tuco – in disguise and mistakenly captured as enemy soldiers – are brought to stay. And then later the two come across a ramshackle fort commanded by a cynical soldier whose mission is to capture a bridge from the enemy. Drunk and dying, all he wants is for the conflict to end and to stop sending good men to their deaths over a measly bridge. Blondie and Tuco do a good deed for the commander – and also as a distraction so they can continue their quest – and blow up the bridge.
This black comedy about army doctors during the Vietnam War is much darker and more cynical than its Korean based TV counterpart – which makes sense, considering the difference in popular opinion about the different wars, and the unsustainability of that much black humor and cynicism for a weekly television show. M*A*S *H definitely wouldn’t have lasted eleven seasons if it had been like the discomfiting Robert Altman movie. The sense of despair and hostility underneath the antics of the doctors is palpable and uncomfortable. Their pranks have an edge of malice and insanity to them, a delirium that is barely kept in check by their attempts to relieve their stress. But its kind of fun and funny at the same time, in a twisted and sad sort of way.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
A lot of people think that The Deer Hunter is another early Martin Scorsese movie. It isn’t. Its pretty easy to look up and the writer/director is Michael Cimino. The movie is deeply difficult to watch as it examines the ways in which war affects individual lives and our basic sanity. It stars Robert DeNiro, John Cazale, Meryl Streep, and Christopher Walken who all give amazing performances. You probably know this movie for the climactic Russian Roulette scene in which Christopher Walken, traumatized by his experience in a POW camp being forced to play Russian Roulette against his friends, is still compelled to play it.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
This Francis Ford Coppola Vietnam War set adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has a history of insanity all its own, which definitely helps contribute to the sense of delirium surrounding the production. I find this movie pretty tedious, honestly, but I’ve been meaning to give it another try. Everyone in this movie is fighting some kind of insanity, so their behavior is compulsive and illogical and deeply deranged. The cast is great, though, featuring standards of the time like Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, and Dennis Hopper, but also new younger actors like Laurence Fishburne and an early fame Harrison Ford. I can see why its men as opposed to women who make up the prominent demographic of viewers and fans – not because its a war movie but because there are almost no women in the movie and none of narrative importance.
Tropic Thunder (2008)
Not quite a war movie, but not quite not a war movie, Tropic Thunder follows the ridiculous exploits of a cast of Hollywood actors who are making a war movie and pitfall their way into an actual war zone. Its more a parody of Hollywood than anything else and the actors who think they understand the horrors of war and solider mentality are actually terribly insensitive to it. While not as hilarious as promised, I think I like Tropic Thunder more every time I watch it. It has some layers that are pleasant to dig through and its a wonderful statement about the fakeness of Hollywood and war films in general.
The Hurt Locker (2008)
It seems crazy that a woman hadn’t won an Oscar for best director until 2008, but if it was going to be anyone to break that barrier, than Kathryn Bigelow was certainly the one to do it. The Hurt Locker is a movie about a team of army bomb experts. Bigelow captures the stress and fear of war beautifully, with long, slow and tense bomb scenes, unexpected dangers, and a sense that even your downtime could be brutally interrupted. There isn’t a single scene in which you aren’t afraid. The movie also explores soldier mentalities and coping mechanisms, with the Jeremy Renner character being particularly compelling. He is so consumed by the constant adrenaline of his work that it becomes the only thing he loves.