The purple testament: Five 4-star films for Veteran’s Day By Dennis Hartley @denofcinema

Saturday Night at the Movies

The purple testament: Five 4-star films for Veteran’s Day

By Dennis Hartley

He is come to open
The purple testament of bleeding war.

-from Richard II, by William Shakespeare

In honor of Veteran’s Day, here are my picks for five of the finest war films ever made.

Breaker Morant – Few films have conveyed the madness of war more succinctly than Bruce Bereford’s moving 1980 drama. Based on a true story, it recounts the courts martial of three Australian officers (Edward Woodard, Bryan Brown and Lewis Fitz-gerald) by their British higher-ups during the Boer War. The three are accused of shooting enemy prisoners (even though they did so under orders from superior officers). They are hastily assigned a military lawyer (a fellow Australian) with no previous experience in criminal defense (Jack Thompson, in a star-making performance), who surprises even himself with his passion and resourcefulness in the face of stacked odds. Marvelously acted and tightly directed, with an intelligent script by Beresford, Jonathan Hardy and David Stevens (from Kenneth G. Ross’ play). It’s a perfect film in every way.

Casablanca – It certainly could be argued that Michael Curtiz’s 1942 treatise on love, war and character, did not necessarily achieve its exalted status by design, but rather via a series of happy accidents. Warner Brothers bought the rights to a play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s (written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison) for $20,000, which at the time was considered an exorbitant investment for such an untested commodity (no one had yet staged a production). The script went through a disparate team of writers.

Brothers Julius and Philip Epstein initially dropped out to work on another project, eventually returning to resume primary authorship (after much of replacement Howard Koch’s work was excised) and then they were joined by (non-credited) Casey Robinson for daily rewrites. Even producer Hal Wallis put his two cents worth in with last-minute lines (most notably, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”).

And would it have been the same film without the screen chemistry between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as the star-crossed lovers at the heart of the story? Bogart, while certainly a rising star at the time, had not been previously considered as a romantic lead in Hollywood; the studio had trepidation about his casting. Also, Curtiz was not the first choice as director (Wallis originally wanted William Wyler). Most significantly, the film did not set the world on fire upon initial release; no one was touting it as a “classic”.

And yet, for whatever the reason(s) may be, it is now considered as such. For me, it’s a true “movie movie”…cinematic comfort food. In other words, it doesn’t have to make sense on every level to be entertaining. Whether 100% believable as a World War II adventure, or whether the characters are cardboard archetypes, or whether it looks like it was all filmed on a sound stage...ultimately become moot issues in a true “movie movie”.

What matters to me is the romance, intrigue, selfless sacrifice, Bogie, Bergman, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Rick’s Café, Claude Rains rounding up the usual suspects, Dooley singing “As Time Goes By”, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, the most rousing rendition of “La Marseille” ever, that goodbye at the airfield, and a timeless message (if you love someone, set them free). What’s not to love about it?

The Deer Hunter – “If anything happens…don’t leave me over there. You gotta promise me that, Mike.” 1978 was a pivotal year for American films dealing head on with the country’s deep scars (social, political and emotional) from the nightmare of the war in Vietnam; that one year alone saw the release of The Boys in Company C, Go Tell the Spartans, Coming Home, and writer-director Michael Cimino’s shattering drama.

Cimino’s sprawling 3 hour film is a character study about three blue collar buddies (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Jon Savage) hailing from a Pennsylvania steel town who enlist in the military, share a harrowing P.O.W. experience in Vietnam, and suffer through P.T.S.D. (each in their own fashion). Uniformly excellent performances from the entire cast, which includes Meryl Streep, John Cazale, Chuck Aspegren and George Dzundza. I remember the first time I saw this film in a theater. I sat all the way through the end credits, and continued sitting for at least five minutes, absolutely stunned. I literally had to “collect myself”. No film has ever affected me like that, before or since.

Le Grande Illusion
– While it may be hard for some to fathom in this oh so cynical age we live in, there was a time when there were these thingies called honor, loyalty, sacrifice, faith in your fellow man, and (what’s that other one?) basic human decency. While ostensibly an anti-war film, Jean Renoir’s 1937 classic is at its heart a timeless treatise about the aforementioned attributes. Erich von Stroheim nearly steals the movie (no small feat, considering all the formidable acting talent on board) as an aristocratic WWI German POW camp commandant. Jean Gabin and Pierre Fresnay are also outstanding as French POWs of disparate class backgrounds. The narrative follows the prisoners’ attempt to escape, and the fateful paths that await each. Rich and rewarding.

Paths of Glory – Stanley Kubrick really came into his own with his third film (fourth, if you include his never-officially-released “lost film”, Fear and Desire). Kirk Douglas is in top form as a WWI French regiment commander caught between the political machinations of his superiors and the empathy he feels for his battle-weary soldiers, who are little more than cannon-fodder to the paper-pushing top brass. After an artillery unit serving under Douglas refuses to execute an insane directive from a glory-hungry field general to lay a barrage into their own forward positions, the commanding generals decide that the best way to ensure against any such future “mutiny” is to select three scapegoats from the rank and file to be court-martialed and shot.

Despite all the technical innovations in film making that have evolved in the 50+ years since this film was released, the battle sequences still make you scratch your head in wonder as to how Kubrick was able to render them with such verisimilitude. The insanity of conflict has rarely been parsed onscreen with such economy and clarity. A true classic.

And I’ll leave you with this clip from The Deer Hunter; one of the most affecting scenes in the history of the American cinema. Direct, powerful, eloquent, and timeless.

More reviews at Den of Cinema

Previous posts with related themes:

The Kill Team

The Messenger
The Monuments Men
Inglourious Basterds
The Wind Rises & Generation War
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence
City of Life and Death
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--Dennis Hartley