I like the idea of contests, but I’m terrible at administrating them.
See, I would be the first to admit that one of the benefits of being a DVD or Blu-ray reviewer is that you can end up getting some big titles for free, and that’s great. I still end up spending hundreds of dollars a month on titles that aren’t sent to me, and when I talk about what was sent to the house, I don’t intend to make you guys, the readers, feel bad. If anything, I wish I had free copies for all of you, because I love to share film.
That’s exactly why contests are great. I get to share free copies with at least a few of you, and it seems fair that if I write a review for my copy, you should write a review for yours.
When I announced a contest that would let five of you win copies of the new “Apocalypse Now” Blu-ray, I had no idea how many of you would enter, or how good most of the entries would be. You’re an articulate, eclectic bunch, and there were a wide range of answers to the question I asked, which was, “What is your favorite war movie besides ‘Apocalypse Now’?”
I’m going to run all five of the answers here today, and if you entered and you didn’t win, it doesn’t mean I didn’t like your entry. There were just so many of them that I had to make a choice and whittle it down. I’ll be running two more contests this evening, so if you didn’t win here, please enter the other contests, and keep trying.
First, here’s a guy who offered up a fairly recognizable recent title as his answer, and it’s a film that I both really like on a technical level and really struggle with on a content level. I’m intrigued enough by it to have revisited it a few times, and I can certainly see why someone would be overwhelmed by it.
Here, then, is a defense of Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down”:
My favorite war film is Black Hawk Down. When I hear or even say the phrase “I support the troops” (and it’s a statement I stand by), this film provides the cinematic backbone for that message. The men and women of the U.S. military have the unenviable task of being placed in the harshest territories to operate and achieve whatever goal, mission or initiative is given to them. In the events of this film, the soldiers involved experienced hell on earth when a seemingly simple extraction mission turned into an ambush by city militia that left these poor souls under fire for almost a day. The film displays in detail how these soldiers work together and communicate, adapt to their surroundings and find ways to work around major obstacles.
I admire the goal by Ridley Scott and his crew to keep the narrative focused on how the mission was successful but how the evacuation of military personnel became a logistical nightmare, one that became worse for each unit every hour. These men were highly trained but they were on someone else’s turf. The militia, despite their casualties, used the city and their numbers to effective use. The soldiers had many dilemmas but upon watching it again recently I forgot about one in particular: they had to take caution with firing into gun-toting crowds, which contained women and children.
The film is full of anecdotes about the soldiers, before and during the conflict. The script avoids the obvious approach about focusing on a main character although a handful get more screen time than others. I think the choices made about what info on certain characters were kept in the final cut were well-made: these men had lives and interests outside of service and for some, those connections would soon be severed. There are moments here that are heart-breaking in repeat views: the two Delta snipers that go in to save downed pilot Michael Durant (Ron Eldard) when the outcome is surely death; the narrow escape Tom Guiry’s Ed Yurek makes from the armed father-son patrol, with devastating results for the father and son; the sheer difficulties of the Humvee convoy trying to find an exit with people and roadblocks in every possible path and passengers taking gunfire.
Pietro Scalia’s editing is admirable. Groups of soldiers are positioned in different parts of the city: where they are, where they go and why is never incomprehensible. The battle scenes are almost nonstop past that first RPG rocket that makes Orlando Bloom the first casualty. I recall criticisms of the violence as “pornographic” but there’s nothing alluring here: it’s disgusting but responsible.
The film contains great stretches of violence and intensity, scenes of calm and some doses of humor. While the film can be considered from political viewpoints, those don’t interest me as much as the human element. It doesn’t glorify war or conflict or the ugly exchange of bullets, bombs and shrapnel in general. And it isn’t perfect either: the Somali opposition lacks equal characterization and depth. Most of them are nothing more but extras who get shot or fire back. The film is simple minded, almost to a fault. However, the thing I always take away from it is this: the plight of the soldier and how these men need each other to survive and succeed in a scenario I’d want nothing to do with.
Well-said, Adam. There were a lot of “Black Hawk Down” entries, just as there were a ton of “Saving Private Ryan” entries. I must admit a bias here, because there was another 1998 WWII film that I love much more than “Ryan,” and so when I read an entry as well-written as the following that celebrates Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line,” then I’m powerless. Of course this guy wins:
“‘In this world a man, himself, is nothing. And there ain’t no world but this one.’
‘You’re wrong there, Top. I seen another world.’
As a rule, I typically don’t enter contests because I accept the fact that the odds are against me, but damn it, I don’t really care if I get that beautiful Blu-ray set or not because you have given me an opportunity to write about something I love. And that, I just can’t pass up.
When I look at my shelf I see a lot of options. A Very Long Engagement, Lawrence of Arabia (I could play to my audience here, but I’m not, I’m not), The Big Red One: The Reconstruction, The Great Escape (tempting), Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War, Letters From Iwo Jima, Little Dieter Needs to Fly (oh, another good one).
But there really is no contest for me. It’s The Thin Red Line. This is my favorite war movie for a number of reasons, but I’m am going to try really really hard to be brief.
1. It introduced me to the works of Terrence Malick. I bought a cheap, beaten up, used DVD of The Thin Red Line because I vaguely remembered it had gotten some Oscar nominations several years before. From the first shot of the alligator and the accompanying voice-over, I could feel myself being rewired. You know that feeling that you get when you watch a movie for the first time and you are certain it won’t be the last? When know you are going to make it a part of who you are? I had that feeling right from the beginning. Now I own all of Malick’s films. I’ve have probably watched Days of Heaven more often now, but I wouldn’t have known it existed if not for The Thin Red Line.
2. I am lucky enough never to have experienced war, but all the movies I mentioned above reveal aspects of what it is really like. In one close-up of a dead Japanese soldier’s face covered by dirt, and a voice saying “Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too.” Malick puts truth on screen, naked and raw and beautiful.
3. The cast of this movie is insane. This is how I usually sell it to people when I’m trying to get them to watch it. Nick Stahl, Tom Jane, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, John Travolta, Jared Leto, Adrien Brody, John C. Reilly, Dash Mihok, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, Jim Caviezel, George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson, and last but not least Elias Koteas (freakin’ Casey Jones, makin’ me tear up with his prayer). And have you read the crazy stuff about everything that didn’t make it in? Malick’s habit of shooting everything and then “finding the film” in the editing stage caused material with Gary Oldman, Martin Sheen, Viggo Mortensen, Mickey Rourke, and Billy Bob Thorton to be cut out completely.
4. In the commentary for another one of my favorite films, David Gordon Green’s George Washington, Green credits this film as a source of inspiration. He says when the movie started out with that alligator he freaked out in the theatre because it was exactly the kind of movie he wanted to make. You can see it too, in George Washington and Undertow. Who knows if he would be the same filmmaker he is now without The Thin Red Line.
Listen, I really could go on, but I’ll end with this. From that first shot of the alligator, as Hans Zimmer’s absolutely transcendant score starts to rise, to the last shot that always reminds me of the last shot of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, The Thin Red Line astounds me every time I am lucky enough to watch it. It is my favorite war movie. Thank you for this chance to write about it.
‘Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? Walked with? The brother? The friend? Darkness from light. Strife from love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? Oh, my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes, look out at the things you’ve made. All things shining.’
William Tobey Mitchel”
Great one. See what I mean? What great readers. You keep it up, and I’ll have to do more contests just to read your letters.
I like that this next guy picked a film that no one else picked, and he’s able to defend it passionately:
Sam Peckinpah’s “Cross of Iron” will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s all written on the haggard visage of James Coburn’s battle-weary Sgt. Steiner, as he helps his men sift through the agony of defeat on the frozen fields of the Russian front. It’s a defining performance of Coburn, one of those men who looks like he was born in his forties, with mud on his cheeks. Antiauthoriatian, he allows us to empathize with the retreating German(most of them conscripts) who are a great distance from the heart of national socialism, and who just want live through the blood and the shrapnel and the damp, just so they can see tomorrow. Steiner finds his parallel in the form of Stransky, a slimy, conniving aristocrat played by Maximillian Schell(a man born to play slimy, conniving aristocrats), who is obsessed with sneaking in the war at the last minute to grab the titular prize. Steiner could give a fuck. And that is where rests the great divide.
Peckininpah’s balletic violence draws out the pain of watching young men(and in one case, a child) get cut down before their time. Yes, it beautiful in a way, but the pretty violence of Peckinpah lends a certain to the fallen.
It was adapted by Julius Epstein from Willi Heinrich’s novel and has an acrid, abrasive wit that one would not associate with the writer of “Casablanca”.
This culminates in a final, bitter exchange, as Stransky and Steiner find themselves alone and outnumbered:
Stransky: I will show you how a true Prussian officer fights.
Steiner: And I will show you where the Iron Crosses grow.
Peckinpah’s last great film was, at the time, to quote none other than Orson Welles, “the greatest anti-war film since ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’.
Mike De Luca”
And, no, it’s not that Mike De Luca. I’m sure he can afford his own Blu-ray.
I like that this next winner wisely included “The Cold War” under the list of wars that film could depict, and his choice is not only one of my favorite films, but a great piece about why that film is so wonderful:
“‘Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!’
My favorite war movie doesn’t feature much combat footage, but it’s the definitive movie about the Cold War. The first Kubrick war movie I saw was Full Metal Jacket, which led me to seek out the rest of his work. I was blown away by the audacity of Dr. Strangelove. It’s my favorite movie to this day.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have seen Dr. Strangelove in a movie theater in 1964, when nuclear annihilation was a genuine fear and possibility. The Cuban Missile Crisis had just recently taken place less than 2 years earlier and along came Kubrick to make a broad comedy about the bomb. How would Americans react to a slapstick comedy about 9/11 today (imagine United 93 as directed by the Farrelly brothers)? How would we have reacted to it in 2003? I was watching the UK show Skins recently and in one episode some high school kids are putting on a horribly misguided musical about 9/11 called Osama. I thought it was pretty funny, but there’s no way an American show would have put that on the air today and we’re nearly a decade removed from 9/11. (I’m curious to see how Americans react to Four Lions when it’s released.) George Carlin was right, nothing should be off limits. You can make fun of any topic. One of the
things great art should do is make the audience uncomfortable and make the audience think.
Kubrick had gigantic balls making this movie when he did. And in a post 9/11 environment, Dr. Strangelove is just as relevant today as it was back in the early 60s. The paranoia surrounding the so-called Ground Zero Mosque has led guys like Bill O’Reilly and Brian Kilmeade to say some tremendously stupid things in recent days that would be right at home coming out of the mouth of Buck Turgeson. The overall fear of the “commies” is just like the fear these Tea Party people have of Muslims today. George C. Scott is so great in Strangelove. I always enjoy seeing big time dramatic actors kill comedic roles and Scott kills this one. “He’ll see everything! He’ll see the big board.” Buck Turgeson would have been right at home planning the Iraq war with Rumsfeld. As an actor I steal from Scott’s performance in this movie — whenever I play a buffoon or a blowhard I always chew gum. If they’ll let me.
Peter Sellers’ work here is among the best screen performances of all time. He pulls off the ultimate in multiple role playing — if you didn’t know he was Muffly, Mandrake and Strangelove you could never tell. They are all three vastly distinctive characters. He’s never winking at the camera. Mike Meyers winks at the camera when he does this as if to say “Look at me! I’m playing more than one role!” We throw the word “genius” around way too much. Sellers was a genius. The phone conversation between President Muffly and Premiere Kissoff is for my money the single funniest scene in movie history. “Well, now, what happened is one of our base commanders, he had a sort of — well, he went a little funny in the head. You know, just a little… funny.” I have no idea how many times I’ve seen it, but it always makes me laugh. It’s too bad he was injured and couldn’t play Kong for a fourth role, but holy shit does Slim Pickens knock that out of the park. His riding the bomb like a bronco is one of the greatest images in movie history. It’s funny and bone chilling at the same time.
It’s always amazes me that Billy Wilder’s brain was able to conceive of both Some Like It Hot and Sunset Blvd. In the same way, it amazes me that Kubrick made both A Clockwork Orange and Dr. Strangelove. The great filmmakers always have that kind of versatility in them. As much as I respect James Cameron, I don’t think he could make The Hangover. From the opening credits sequence which essentially show airplanes fucking to the closing montage of hydrogen bombs exploding to “We’ll Meet Again,” Dr. Strangelove is my favorite war movie of all time. And my favorite movie of all time.
‘Mein fuhrer! I can walk!’
I have the Slim Pickens howl as he rides the bomb down at the end of “Strangelove” as my ring tone, and one of the things I love most about it is the look of abject terror it gets from many people the first time my phone rings, as if Evil Incarnate is about to erupt from my pocket.
And our final winner? He gets points for sticking to his own personal guns and not picking something that is often called a “masterpiece,” but that speaks to him:
“My favorite war film is not considered a classic cinema.
It”s not as deep as say, PATHS OF GLORY, or as visceral as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, or as a revelatory as PLATOON. It”s not a jingoistic screed like SANDS OF IWO JIMA or a “through the eyes of a enemy” snapshot such as LETTERS TO IWO JIMA, or even a heartfelt anti-war argument like COMING HOME. In fact, my favorite war film is a actually the type of film that those above were made in response towards, ones whose clichés were knowingly and gleefully upended by both time and technology. So what could this unheralded masterpiece be? Why it could only be Darryl Zanuck”s 1962 production of THE LONGEST DAY.
Go ahead, snicker if you will. The overly-splayed arms upon death, pure backyard dramatics. John Wayne gnashing — His – Every –Line – Delivery. The shameless pandering of Richard Beymer”s casting for the teen demo. The way-too-on-the-nose dialogue at times (“Maybe it”s us that”s changed”)
And yet, there”s something hugely ambitious to the entire enterprise, a glorious kitchen sink approach that works in spite of itself. Wayne aside, I love watching Mitchum, Fonda, a pre-Bond Connery, and countless other stars of one of the last truly golden eras of acting strut their stuff. I love that it”s Cinemascope black-and-white, made in the dawning days of monochromatic releases. I love that it is indeed a fair “through the eyes of the enemy” film, with ample material and development given to the German, French and British sides of the war, and not just the Americans by default. I love the defiant use of subtitles and that each of the three official directors mirrored the nationality of their assignment.
I love all the little historical details thrown in there, from the bagpipers on the beach, Hitler”s sleeping pill defining the fate of the world, that thwong noise the grappling hooks make when fired on the cliffs, the solider hung up on the cathedral helplessly watching his compatriots dying, “Ruperts”, the payoff to the “two clicks” gag, and so many other factoids pulled from Cornelius Ryan”s account. I love that it”s technically jaw dropping filmmaking for the time, with a storytelling scope to rival many “A-list” pics of today, with a stunning amount of practical stunt / set design / camera work (as if there was any alternative). I have just one word: Ouistreham. When I think about the choreography and the time it must have taken to set up each take…. shivers. (and yes, I recognized and applauded the homage to that shot in “Landing At Point Rain” from Season 2 of THE CLONE WARS).
The LONGEST DAY is old school, shameless, guileless Hollywood moviemaking the likes of which we don”t see very much of anymore, the type where thousands of real extras and equipment (instead of Massive polygons) were being used as backdrops, and ambition trumped cupidity, and a three hour running time was actually justified. The Vietnam War hadn”t yet altered the psychological make up of the country and its artists, and for now the Good War was still just seen as such. It”s expansive, documentary-like snapshot of the Day of Days remains a high water mark in the annals of old school war films, one I”ve rarely seen eclipsed — even if it is a little black and white at times.
Special thanks to everyone who entered, as well as to Lionsgate for providing the discs and to Emily Lu and Brigade Marketing for handling the details of the contest.
Stay tuned here tonight for two more contests… one for “Scott Pilgrim” and the other for Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy”. And we’ll also have a brand-new podcast for you. Lots of good stuff ahead.