Podcast #76: War is Madness, But So is March

Ben and I talk about the merits of sports in the midst of March Madness, and with the debut of HBO’s The Pacific, ruminate on why exactly it is that men so love war films. Plus, the return of the top 5 with our top 5 war films!

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  • I’m going to divide my comments into two since the part where I talk about war films will take a while to put together. So here, I’ll talk about two things: 1) Rich’s misreading of Say Anything…, and 2) my Top 5 tv miniseries.

    1) First of all, Say Anything… is not a chick-flick. It’s bildungsroman about Lloyd Dobler and how his abortive relationship with Diane helps shape and solidify him. It’s told from Lloyd’s perspective and Diane is just the foil by which we see Lloyd grow (it’s a spiritual ancestor to High Fidelity which travels a similar path).

    In the “In Your Eyes” scene, Lloyd knows exactly what he’s doing. The one who is confused is Diane. Lloyd is expressing through song the holiness and sacredness he feels that Diane represents. He does this through, as the lyrics suggest, a complete sloughing off of pride. He does this as much for his own self as he does it for Diane, who cannot reciprocate because she has her own journey to complete (largely offscreen).

    Now that we have that out of the way…

    2) Band of Brothers is not my favourite tv miniseries. Shocking, I know. It’s actually not even in my Top 5. But if not, what on earth could be? I’m glad you asked.

    1. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
    This adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel is masterful. The most solid exploration of the espionage trade since the film The Spy Who came in from the Cold. Complex, weaving, and real. Netflix this.

    2. Pride and Prejudice
    A phenomenal adaptation of the Austen novel. My only gripe is the lack of subtitles. Otherwise pitch-perfect, note for note.

    3. Smiley’s People
    The follow-up to Tinker, Tailor boasts Alec Guinness reprising the role of George Smiley as he continues to pursue his lifelong adversary Karla (played by Jean-Luc Picard). This combined with Tinker, Tailor makes 10 1/2 hours of the most riveting television ever produced.

    4. Ken Burns Jazz
    Just a fantastic documentary series, briskly covering the history of jazz. Absolutely fascinating, heartbreaking, and historically significant.

    5. Das Boot
    While most of us are familiar with Das Boot as a theatrical release (I actually saw the “Director’s Cut” at Big Newport about ten years ago), the 1981 film found anouther avenue as a much longer television miniseries. This is stirling work and may be the only truly great thing Wolfgang Petersen contributed to television and cinema.

    Note: I realize it may be cheating to count a documentary series, so if I can’t count Ken Burns Jazz, I’ll replace it either with Shaka Zulu or the original V.

    Also, it may be fair to note that I have never seen the following miniseries that are typically mentioned when people talk about the best of the best: Roots, the original Lonesome Dove (though I’ve seen the sequel), I Claudius, and North & South.

  • Here’s the thing. I don’t like war movies. I also don’t like westerns, romances, sci-fi thrillers, or comedies. Instead: I like movies that are good.

    I know that sounds one-upsmanlike, but in this case, it’s really the best way for me to talk about my relationship with movies. I like some movies that intersect with both the theme and genre-brand of War Movie, but I don’t bear any great affection for the genre itself. There are some great war movies and some awful ones. As far as war movies are concerned, I definitely prefer those that capitalize less on the cultural understanding of what I as a Y-chromosomed American should like (e.g., explosions, glory, honour, and bullets) and more on story, character, insight, and purpose.

    I say this mostly to counter the view that I, as a male should like (as an expression of my maleness) war movies. I find the view repugnant and believe it based less on a proper view of maleness than it is on some culturally-crafted perception that all red-blooded American men should (not do or might) prefer war movies and find their themes of explosive action and dying for queen and country especially laudable. I also mention it to offer insight into the reason I chose the 30 films I’m about to mention.

    And so…

    My Top 10 War Films
    Das Boot
    This 1981 German film was a revelation to me when I first saw it a little less than two decades ago. At that point I had yet to see a war film from the perspective of our opposition. I had also not yet experienced the extreme amount of viewer tension that a well crafted submarine film can generate. Das Boot‘s protagonists are the captain and officers of a German U-boat tasked with sinking Allied vessels and making its way under the seas to an Axis port (in Italy, if I recall?). The film is fraught with tense, edge-of-the-seat moments and is a triumph for it, but what really pushes Das Boot into the realm of greatness is its ability to make American viewers sympathetic to men who are even today the hated enemies in films such as the trifling Inglourius Basterds. And as we settle in to the film, we come to gradually recognize it as a statement on the futility of human wars. A tremendous film.

    Grave of the Fireflies
    It’s plain that there are not enough films out there that depict the civilian suffering in nations under assault; if there were, the American public would be far less likely to gleefully approach the invasion (and subsequent gift of democracy) of foreign soils. Films like Grave of the Fireflies are important because they remove the dulling barrier of statistics and allow the honesty of the cost to breach our defenses of conditioned desensitization. We hear statistics like <5000 Americans have died in the current Iraqi theater while upwards of 1,000,000 Iraqis have died. And while it’s possible to hear numbers like that and be horrified by the numbers, it’s much easier to glaze over and just say, Huh. That’s too bad. Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies refuses to allow that to occur. As the viewer follows the two young, sibling protagonists through the months following the firebombing of their city and death of their parents, the film doggedly confronts the audience with the cost of war. This kind of thing is essential viewing for young people. If more of us were traumatized by such faithful representations of war when we were young, perhaps those scars would prevent us from so glibly entering into it when we grew to our majority.

    Twelve O’Clock High
    Gregory Peck is phenomenal in this exploration of the toll of command. He stars as an airman who takes command of a bomber group that has suffered heavy losses due to the high dangers of daylight bombing raids. Twelve O’Clock high is powerful for its exploration of the human drama and psyche.

    Fog of War
    Fog of War is the only documentary on my list and it’s every bit as fascinating as the fictions it keeps pace with. Listening to Robert McNamara relive his involvement in the firebombing of Japan, his involvement in the Cuban crisis, his involvement in Vietnam, one is verily confronted with the surpassing difficulties of the decisions those in decision-making positions must be haunted by. The lessons he enumerates are powerful and mostly worthwhile; chief amongst these is the demand for empathy for one’s opposition.

    I don’t have any particular affection for Civil Wars studies. The politics, tactics, and era simply do not excite me. It says something marvelous that Gettysburg was able to make me care for a full four-and-a-half hours about a single military endeavor. Maxwell’s film is well and lovingly crafted and draws the viewer in deeply. Its characters move and breath, even as many of them are expiring.

    Akira Kurosawa adapted several Western stories into Samurai epics, but Ran‘s adaptation of King Lear is haunting in the cacophony of violence that is stirs up. The film’s title means “chaos” and it’s easy to see why this is so appropriate to the film. Everyone is destroyed. The lust for power is never satisfied, only quenched by the grave.

    A Very Long Engagement
    While primarily a post-war investigation into the life or death of Mathilde’s fiance with all the clues and red herrings that such detective stories typically feature, A Very Long Engagement spends a lot of time in the French trenches during WWI, presenting a perspective on war that crops up from time to time, but rarely so artfully: that there is no glory in war and that such political maneuverings between nations do little but destroy the lives, hearts, and minds of soldiers. And moreso the ones those soldiers leave behind.

    Apocalypse Now
    This is Vietnam as I imagine it to be. Chaos, destruction, and the inevitability of insanity. Overlaying Conrad’s Heart of Darkness atop the morass of 1970s Cold War escalation presents apt allegory for the state of the American politic. Sheen is powerful and broken and Copolla’s insane film effortlessly eviscerates the Vietnam action through its darkened Wonderland aesthetic.

    Snow Falling on Cedars
    In the category of the war at home, no film in my mind surpasses Snow Falling on Cedars. When asked what I think is the best film of all time, more frequently than not, I give that honour to this film. Gorgeously framed, Snow Falling addresses the human difficulty of white American having no way of conceiving of their Japanese opponents in WWII than to see them through the lens of racism and blind hatred. I will never cease to love watching this movie and I will likewise never cease to feel nauseated at the history of our nation and the atrocities we have been compelled to commit in order to protect our security from that which we fail to understand. A dreadfully powerful film.

    The Thin Red Line
    It’s the human element that does it for me. The film is beautifully composed, but the spectrum of humanity on display makes this one worthwhile.

    And here are twenty other war movies that made my runners-up list:

    Kelly’s Heroes
    Duck Soup
    Dr. Strangelove

    The War and “Non-Combatants”
    The Third Man
    The Edge of Darkness – the movie’s theme song was “A Mighty Fortress”
    The Devil’s Backbone – the director of Pan’s Labyrinth‘s earlier film during the Spanish Civil War

    Stalag 17 – the better Great Escape (sadly minus the Cooler King)
    The Bridge on the River Kwai
    The Great Escape
    Empire of the Sun – Spielberg’s best war movie.

    Wartime Ethics
    Casualties of War – Michael Keaton plays against type and won’t rape and murder the natives
    Courage under Fire – Rashomon in Iraq
    Dawn Patrol – Twelve O’Clock High with Errol Flynn

    Enemy at the Gates
    Last of the Mohicans
    Richard III – A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!
    Saving Private Ryan
    Where Eagles Dare – the quietest Nazi-killing movie ever

  • Oh yeah, I just rewatched some of Howl’s Moving Castle over the weekend so that my daughter could start picking up non-English verbal sounds and that should really be on my list somewhere because it’s a fantastic war movie. (Not in the Top 10, but definitely in the 20 below. Maybe I’d drop off Enemy at the Gates or Dawn Patrol or The Great Escape.)

    It really is impressive how Miyazaki makes a kids movie and posits the terrors of war as a second-tier theme. Watching Howl grin tightly as a passing battleship flies by and hear him mutter good-naturedly “Stupid murderers” was a great moment. The level of resignation toward human nature present in that moment as well as his determination to halt that nature’s vector is rewarding for those with ears to hear (i.e., probably not the children watching the film).

  • Time for a throw-down me thinks!

    I enjoy good movies to and i’ve found more than a few in the war movie genre that I could watch again…..(smile).

    Your top 10 has challenged me to go and see the 8 i haven’t seen (and i thought I’d seen alot already) and i was going to be all complimentary about the list!

    But, (tongue in cheek) I just can’t do it….Thin Red Line…man, what are you thinking. Please justify said inclusion further.

    Because…if i were to put together a top ten list of the wordst wat movies of all time, The Thin Red Line would be on it (Private Ryan probably would too…for the record). The red robin was so fay. It just reeked of “nomination hunter.” That and its historicity is way off and that bugs me. The final point can partly be explained by the fact that I know my australian military history and most american-made war movie ignore everyone else and present a picture that is more about patriotic imperialism than foregrounding story…

    /rant over.

    I’ll come back on this again (might even write my own post about it) when i’ve finished this (blessed) chapter. Have a great day all.

  • that was meant to be worst…and sorry about the typos. Said chapter has my brain as mush

  • Hey GT, here’s my justification&though it may only serve to illuminate the difference in our tastes. Also, caveat: it’s been over a decade since I saw the movie so I’m mostly going on impressions at this point.

    For me, historicity was not an object because it wasn’t an object of the film to present a historical situation. The Thin Red Line could have been an invasion of any Pacific island by any army at any time during the modern era. The point, then, was something outside of its particulars.

    As I recall, the film was about the kinds of people who get sucked into such endeavors and their motivations, dreams, etc. But more than that, The Thin Red Line was about how even outside of war, the human horror that drives wars to come to reality exists and motivates. It was a movie about the inadequacies of the human soul and how even paradise can be diminished by human presence. That seemed to be the whole point to the AWOL guy’s story to me. And that seems a worthwhile observation.

    As for the rest of it, it was beautifully filmed (if memory serves), which is a nice bonus—especially in our era of desaturation, quick cuts, and shakey cams.

    Honestly, The Thin Red Line is the only one I wasn’t sure about including on the list (mostly because I don’t really remember it) so I don’t take any umbrage for your disdain for the film.

    If I had to recommend three of my ten for must-see status, they would be Das Boot, Grave of the Fireflies, and Snow Falling on Cedars. If I were to recommend two more? Fog of War for its treatment of 20th century military endeavors and Twelve O’Clock High for being an older war film that actually has something to say and isn’t just mere propaganda.