Hail The Conquering Hero (1944)

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I have long sought out this picture and all I can say is all hail the conquering hero! It’s everything that could have been hoped for in a Preston Sturges wartime comedy. But in order for the laughs to come along with a great deal more, there must be a setup — a watering hole for our main players to familiarize themselves.

Sure enough, we are introduced to a fairly somber nightclub scene or maybe it’s simply the face of the one man the camera chooses to focus on, sitting dejectedly at the bar. There slumps Eddie Bracken, slightly pudgy and round-faced. By no means classically handsome but he and Preston Sturges had quite a thing going for a couple years.

He got sent home from the Marines for chronic hayfever. I’m extremely empathetic to his condition as I’m sure innumerable others are as well. Anyway, he’s too embarrassed to go home and it’s been a year now and he’s still not returned. However, he has nothing except the highest regard for the Marines as his father gave his life serving his country. In fact, it was the very day our boy was born.

He pays it forward to a group of Marines on leave with no dough, thanks to the gambling habits of one of their pack. The act of charity isn’t lost on them and they get acquainted. Soon they find out the name of their benefactor. It has the be the most patriotic names ever invented: Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (sans the Truesmith).

Soon they are regaled with his story and stunned by his encyclopedic knowledge of the exploits of the Marines out on the battlefields. Their leader Sergeant (William Demarest) even finds out they have a lot more in common as he knew the elder Truesmith — Winky Dinky for short — before he perished.

The only place for the film to go from here is back to Woodrow’s roots and so without his consent, his mother gets called up and it’s announced that he’s getting sent home. Woodrow’s against it from the beginning but his new pals say there’s nothing to it. He’ll wear a uniform for a day, give his mother a hug, and take off the uniform soon after, completely forgotten. Of course, as they ride the train into town, they have no idea what’s been stirred up in preparation.

A homecoming like you’ve never witnessed has been hurriedly assembled by the local committee chairman (the frantically hilarious Franklin Pangborn) and it’s the true essence of cacophony with unrehearsed dueling brass bands; the mayor and any number of folks milling about in expectant anticipation. The show is just beginning to warm up now.

What many will find astounding is just how perfectly Hail the Conquering Hero has been constructed by Sturges, at least in the way it skirts its topics with simultaneous delicacy and verve. Here is a film striking an impeccable course between that very same comedy and then admiration for the armed forces because no one can forget WWII was still blasting away across the world.

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Likewise, the church service far from belittling the faith is a lingering visual gag as we watch the dueling reactions of the two sides of the pews. First through the hymns and then a very sincere homily from the preacher culminating in yet another rousing display of goodwill. By now Woodrow has little hope to derail any of the fanfare with the erection of a commemorative statue christened “Like Father, Like Son” soon in the works. All his newfound Marine buddies are good for is stoking the fires and applauding the sentiment.

The next great sequence is cued by the music and Mother answers the door and mentions that the Judge (Jimmy Conlin) and some other civic leaders want to see Woodrow. Immediately his mind leaps to the worst possible scenario. The game must be up and all his Marine buddies inconspicuously grab household items in case of a tustle that might take place in the drawing room. Of course, their intentions are nothing of the sort. Far from it. The lead up makes the outcome into yet another outrageous reveal.

Just around this juncture, it becomes increasingly apparent that all the characters appear to move in packs and Sturges crams the frame gladly with bodies and faces and more appendages. Woodrow does his best to avoid the spotlight, flubbing his speech to the masses, and trying to downplay the bid for mayor thrust upon him only to be thwarted at every turn by a cheering crowd of well-wishers. One man even proclaims his was the greatest speech since William Jennings Bryan’s “Crown of Thorns!” Already we have the swellest giggle-fit inducer I’ve encountered in some time.

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I wracked my brain only to realize I’d never seen Ella Raines in a comedy before and for much of this picture she’s in the periphery, her comely smiling features on the screen with a whole host of others. But there are a few moments that, far from playing merely humorously, prove deeply moving as she is split between the man she is betrothed to marry and the one she truly loves.

The family she’s caught up in includes a quibbling father and son. The incumbent mayor (Raymond Walburn), who ponificates incessantly, attempts to dictate his speech in his latest bid for reelection only to get annoyed by his dim-witted boy (Bill Edwards) who nevertheless corrects his grammatical blunders. She’d do well to get out of there. Nevertheless, they are a bounty for humorous dialogue.

The stakes are set for a reversal of fortune with a number of parties having a chance to oust our hero. One man who’s buddy-buddy with the Mayor, the cool and collected Jake (Al Bridge) is mighty curious about Woodrow’s service record and he sends a wire to the Marine Base in San Diego. He gets the incriminating news shortly.

But ultimately it comes down to Woodrow himself and Sturges puts the perfect words in his mouth that Eddie Bracken then utters with an assured conviction. Riffing off the Biblical epithet he notes, “My cup runneth over with gall” and proceeds to pour out with veracious intent all the lies and masquerades he’s been too scared to admit to his own town. His guts are laid out right in front of him. Yes, his mother cries. The townspeople look on somberly and his Marine buddies can do nothing to dispel any of it. Even the words of the Mayor and his pal mean nothing now.

With such a showing you would think it was all over for Woodrow and he tells his mama that he’s going to leave again. He cannot stay. Not like this at least. But his girl comes back to him because she at least loves him unconditionally.

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At the train station the parlor games look like they might commence again but this time the whole town is involved, a lynching all but imminent. The Marines this time wrap up their belts inconspicuously to prepare for combat once more. Of course, the mob is there for a very different reason altogether.

The film has the foresight to see what so many of its contemporary war movies were, only made plainly obvious with the luxury hindsight: Light-hearted and good-intentioned yet still mawkish propaganda pieces. So Sturges took up his pen and tackled such hero worship and smalltime jingoism and yet settles on a resolution proving to be as venerating as it is satisfying.

Hail The Conquering Hero is a miracle assemblage of poignancy and humor; I don’t know how it comes away still intact and with my heartfelt laughter and deepest respect no less. It’s not an easy road to traverse by any means. Only a few have managed it. Chaplain in The Great Dictator (1940) distinctly comes to mind and Preston Sturges here.

4.5/5 Stars

The Burmese Harp (1956)

The_Burmese_Harp_Nikkatsu_1956_poster.jpgPut in juxtaposition with Kon Ichikawa’s later rumination on WWII, The Burmese Harp is a romanticized even simplistic account of the Japanese perspective of the war. However,  this is not to discount the mesmerizing nature of the story that is woven nor the overarching truth that seems to linger over its frames.

If anything, it humanizes the Japanese point of view and, rather remarkably, it does this so soon after the war’s conclusion. They were a nation deeply concerned with honor and the only way to get past such an egregious defeat was to frame it in such a way that empowered them for the future.

Because the men who came out of the war unscathed would be the shoulders on which to build a new democracy. You see that even in Ichikawa’s portrayal of the “enemy,” in this case, the English. There is no obvious ill-will. In fact, you could even consider it surprisingly laudatory. Because The Burmese Harp is not concerned with any types of residual politics or long-harbored injustices.

One could make the case it’s a far more universal and a far more moving portrait of the wartime landscape. The story, adapted from a Japanese children’s tale, plays out rather like a parable.

In the waning days of the Burma campaigns, a Japanese Captain named Inouye (Rentaro Mikuni), with a background in music teaches his group of men chorale arrangements which they sing to maintain their morale while they march and during their idle hours. One of their company, Private Mizushima (Shoji Yasui), quickly picks it up and becomes especially skilled at playing the harp to accompany their songs.

One evening they find their position in a local village surrounded by British soldiers in the night. The tense scene is diffused by music in a mutual connection reminiscent of the Christmas cheer in Joyeux Noel.

They learn that Japan has officially surrendered and so they lay down their arms peaceably. Although fearful and demoralized by months of struggle, they resolve to weather it all together. But one of their members is called upon to try and get some of their comrades to stand down before the British blast them to smithereens.

Mizushima volunteers to be the one to undertake this initial task as a liaison to try and avoid the needless loss of more countrymen. It is not to be. Even as the war is already over, it’s this event that proves to be galvanizing in the private’s new position as a missionary of mercy.  After being rehabilitated by a monk, he takes on their dress and shaves his head compelled to give a decent burial to all his fallen comrades.

Moved by the memorial hymn sung over the dead Japanese soldiers at the British Hospital, he realizes what his final calling must be. It’s easy to wager that the film’s most poignant moments occur in conjunction with song. In many of the best interludes, we hear the voices ringing out amid nature whether it’s the shade of the forest or the cleared terrain of a military encampment you can sense the notes rising up into the heavens with the strains of angelic melodiousness.

The same songs lift the spirits of our characters, comforts their souls,  and gives them the resolve to push onward for the greater good.  It has to do with an unswerving belief that each individual life holds dignity. Despite their many spiritual differences, there’s no doubt that this is a conclusion arrived at by both Buddhism and Christianity. Yes, the ugliness is unavoidable. But just as prevalent are immense reservoirs of beauty.

Mizushima is compelled in the inter most catacombs of his being to rescue the bodies of his brothers-in-arms that their spirits might rest in peace for posterity. It seems like such a small even insignificant act especially in response to such a cataclysmic war. But it’s one man’s calling. It is not for a mere man to know the answers to all the plaguing questions. All we can do is ease the suffering. For him, it is something. For him, it is enough.

What lends urgency to the story is the very fact that Mizushima’s entire company is frantically trying to obtain news of his whereabouts as they are getting ready to be shipped home. One of their most faithful messengers is a kindly old lady who learned some Japanese dialect. She can only give them small morsels but they cling to some hope. First, they think he’s been killed. Then, they think they’ve passed him on a bridge. Finally, they get their closure.

The candor is nearly startling especially put in relief with Ichikawa’s later work Fires on The Plain which paints a starkly different picture (or a very different side of the same picture). Likewise, this movie is aided by a script penned by his wife and close collaborator Natto Wada.

What we are left with are clear resounding strains of pacifism but by no means does it feel belligerent. What is conveyed is the sheer meaninglessness of war. However, it’s done through different avenues than his later work.

The film is bookended by the phrase, “The soil of Burma is red and so are its rocks.” The mind quickly flies to the pints of blood that were spilled across this terrain. It’s a grim reminder and yet The Burmese Harp, despite being a bittersweet tale, does boast hope. In the wake of war, such hopefulness is indispensable. You cannot progress without it.

4/5 Stars

Fires on the Plain (1959)

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The opening images of Fires on the Plain nearly catch you off guard. Not only are we thrown into a dialogue sequence that we have yet to grasp but much like Ozu would have a penchant for doing, director Kon Ichikawa photographs two Japanese soldiers head on so their conversation and reactions face the camera directly. It’s the first of numerous times where the film messes around with visual convention. But that’s not the half of it.

Fires on the Plain proves to be a repeatedly idiosyncratic war film while subsequently becoming one of the most appalling. As an audience, we are privy to one Japanese soldier’s listless pilgrimage across the bleak and generally decimated terrain. There’s no goal in sight. No reason even to stay alive. He is stricken with tuberculosis but the hospital, drowning in casualties already, won’t take him because he’s not fatal enough.

His commanding officer, who berated him in the opening minutes for returning to his starving unit, told him to try the hospital again or else use his grenade to kill himself and uphold his duty.

Ichikawa frames his pointless journey with unconventional camera setups that are considerably jarring if not completely detached. Private Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) lumbers up each hill mechanically. Hacks his way through the underbrush. There’s little meaning to his movements. Any incoming threat seems inconsequential in spite of hikes in dramatic scoring. Still, he wanders through ghost towns and fresh graveyards. Rather haphazardly skewers a stray mutt with his bayonet. Guns down a local inside a hut as part of his constant search for food. Another villager gets away in a boat.

By this point, Tamura hardly cares anymore and proceeds to drop his useless firearm into a river; there are no bullets left. When he’s not alone he joins the most beleaguered band of squatters as they blindly wander toward their evacuation point together but no less pitiful.

It’s not a film to shie away from the stomach-churning, grotesque, forlorn, utterly hopeless realities of what war really is. Fields strewn with dead bodies. Heaps of skeletal remains. Hospitals with abhorrent conditions. Wild tales of men eating human flesh just to stay alive in New Guinea. Wading through mud. Playing dead with incoming enemy fighters. There’s little respite from this onslaught.

It becomes so absurdly hopeless it’s almost funny. What else is there to resort to? In the rain, trampling through the underbrush, first, one soldier sees a pair of discarded boots and switches his worn pair with these. This swapping continues with another man. The first man’s trash is his treasure. By the time our protagonist gets there, the boots left over are completely worn through but his boots have no soles either so he just tosses them on the ground and resigns himself to walking barefoot.

This is insanity. It’s cruddy. Absolutely dreadful imagery again and again and again. There’s a certain point where it simply becomes an act of survival — nearly monotonous in its never-ending, never ceasing plodding toward an ultimatum. We must begin to ask questions. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why must we go through this suffering and inflict pain and injury on our fellow man? We even resort to infighting just to survive.

If you came in with any idealized visions of warfare still intact, Ichikawa’s intent is to rip those preconceptions away limb from limb. There is no good in war. Only vile, putrid, horrible, unthinkable things that extinguish life and crush the human spirit.

Such moments prove to make Fires on the Plain a perfect counterpoint to Hollywood’s Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) going far beyond their choices in palette. Because Ichikawa’s film takes it’s black and white cinematography and carries it into all aspects of the production. It’s the nitty-gritty, the somber, the absolute disgusting side of war dolled out without much hesitation.

It fits nicely into the world developed in pictures such as The Steel Helmet (1951) and Red Badge of Courage (1951), except one can contend that Ichikawa takes it even further into the abyss. In fact, it would also serve as a fine companion piece for the provocative docu-drama The General’s Naked Army Marches On (1987).

However, not for a moment would I bash David Lean’s landmark epic nor the performances of such titans as Alec Guinness and William Holden. The pictures succeed in their portrayals in part because of their contrasting approaches to the same futility of war. That statement is made in both but the mode of expression is radically different.

If my recollections are correct we never hear explicitly where the action takes place though we can make many educated assumptions. Fittingly, in the last frame, we are told. The Philippine Front, 1945. Not that it matters. It could have been any war in any place.

There are anti-war statements and there are absolute anti-war immersions, arguably none more devastating than Kon Ichikawa’s effort here. Because to be trapped knee deep in this hell hole you know there is no way that such a world should exist. And yet we cannot be so naive to believe that such a shocking scenario is only of the imagination. It’s a troubling film to watch because we can’t help but be assaulted with the truth even as we would like nothing better than to bury it.

How can life get to such an intolerable point where death is perceived to be a greater gift than life? In not so flippant terms, maybe war is hell. Man turned against man. There is no harmony. There is no peace,  only chaos and destruction waiting for us around every corner.

The novel on which the film was based purportedly ends with our narrator taking on a Christian perspective and gaining a more optimistic outlook on Man and life after the war. However, I have few qualms with Ichikawa’s interpretation, though more downbeat, it makes the equally frank assertion that Man is prone to evil and violence. If Man was wholly good there would be no war. But something quakes within us that makes us belligerent. The age-old question remains what or who can save us from this world of death?

4/5 Stars

So Proudly We Hail! (1943)

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There were three reasons to watch this film. Their names are Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, and Veronica Lake. Yes, this picture directed by Mark Sandrich was fairly groundbreaking in its day for telling a story about nurses during WWII but there might be mixed feelings across the board about how the story unfolds.

While I still try and organize my own perceptions, a moment can be allotted to take stock of our stars. Claudette Colbert strays quite far away from her comedic sweet spot in a dramatic role as Lt. “Davy” Davison that she nevertheless conducts with a compelling fortitude.

The studio also all but got rid of the iconic peekaboo bangs of Lake and exchanges any of her many noir gals opposite Alan Ladd for a vengeful nurse Olivia D’Arcy traumatized by Pearl Harbor and the dirty Japs who ruined her life forever. She’s practically a different person.

Although Paulette Goddard hardly ever appears in a sweater, the boys are still enthralled by her like always but even she is given a major reality check about the hardships of war. And that’s part of what this film was meant to reflect — that it wasn’t just the brave soldiers who were putting their lives on the line — but there were legions of women too sacrificing and giving their all.

Paramount also did a very commendable thing in trying to de-glamorize their biggest stars in deference to delivering this stirring patriotic drama as a eulogy to all of those at Bataan and other South Pacific battlegrounds. But while the intentions are admirable, there’s this underlying feeling that Hollywood still creeps into the story far too often, which makes sense, since this is a Hollywood picture.

It all begins with an extended flashback as the film follows the nurses through their deployment. First, there are the tearful send-offs leaving families for the first time or gals leaving their best guys. In the case of Joan (Goddard) she gets away from two of them and by the time she’s onboard, it looks like she’s already landed a new one (Sonny Tufts).

In the wake of the hysteria following Pearl Harbor, the nurses are for the most part caught in a fog of war without any knowledge of what is going on and the Japs have all but jammed their communications. They continue floating around listlessly just waiting for some definitive plan of action.

When it comes and they are brought in as reinforcements to the Bataan peninsula. Here finally it seems we get our first look at the front lines. What reality really looked like. The mayhem that overtakes any war zone. It’s pure insanity. By the film’s midpoint, they are being pushed back and the evacuation becomes a life or death ordeal. We finally begin to see the casualties.

What follows is a single moment that comes like a kick in the gut and it’s a segment in the picture that we cannot criticize for being hammy or over-sentimental, delivering a visceral shock that’s a painful reminder of how abhorrent and horrible war truly is. Lake is allowed to let her hair down for a final instant as she leaves the picture in searing fashion. It burns but there is another inkling that suggests that this might really be emotional manipulation.

My main qualm is that the picture feels fake in a theatrical sense. If it’s true that film puts a mirror to reality, it also seems equally true that we often only care to see what we want to in that reflection. We document that and then do a little touch up afterward. James Agee harshly likened So Proudly We Hail to war through the lens of a housewife’s magazine romance.

My own feelings are perhaps more nuanced. It’s propaganda to be taken with a grain of salt. In one sense it couldn’t be more realistic as a document because it comes out of that time and place as a timely film while the war was still raging abroad. But the narrative is still so wrapped up in romance and melodrama built out of said love stories or personal torment. And yet it indubitably has its affecting moments that are difficult to brush off.

What I really appreciated was that its intentions were honorable. To give a spotlight to women and it also depicted a number of Asian allies in a positive light whether they be Chinese (Hugh Ho Chang) or Filipino children dreaming that Superman will come to save the day.

All this is to say in convoluted terms that So Proudly Hail cannot be condemned as an awful picture outright. It does some things well and others with a level of mediocrity but what do my words matter now nearly 75 years after the film came out?

Hopefully, contemporary audiences were uplifted by its intentions. I’m inclined to recommend another picture taking place during the same time. They Were Expendable (1945) directed by John Ford and starring the trio of Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, and Donna Reed is another title worth considering.

3.5/5 Stars

“I’m a Chinese madame, not an Indian.” Hugh Ho Chang as Ling Chee

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Grave_of_the_Fireflies_Japanese_poster.jpgAnime is very much a Japanese art form denoted by its style, the visuals, and even the depiction of its characters with wide eyes all the better to convey emotions. Oftentimes the images onscreen are a great deal more stagnant than the real-time action that American animators try and replicate with a greater frame rate.

Maybe American animation is more “realistic” but what the Japanese films have is an unrivaled beauty almost like watercolors or as if canvases of actual paintings are making up the backdrop for our characters to reside in. There’s even a line of inspiration that can undoubtedly be drawn from Japan’s own rich tradition of vibrant scroll and woodblock paintings.  Far from being derided as childish fare, cartoons are given a platform as art and they are executed as such.

Thus, it’s fitting that Grave of the Fireflies brought to us by renowned Ghibli Studios and the acclaimed director Isao Takahata would utilize this very Japanese style to tell a native story full of pain, suffering, chaos, and survival. His canvas includes exquisite landscapes that glorify the Japanese countryside but more often than not provide a muted even sobering lens to view the ashes and destitution that war sows. The wounds and the scars. The dead bodies left in the streets and the dirtiness that pervades daily life. It’s offensive to the eyes. All of this because American planes drop fire bombs to break the will of the enemy.

In western minds, it almost seems like an incongruity that a film can be both a stark war-torn drama and an animated picture but Grave of the Fireflies proves emphatically that this simply is not the case.

There are very few films brimming with so much emotion, so powerful and evocative and so fully invested in the human experience. There is an innate understanding of the pure destructiveness in the totality of war. It breeds very little that is good. Ripping families apart, causing children to grow up too fast, and subjecting mankind to excruciating loss and indignity.

But in my estimation, it remains far too simplistic to simply state that Grave of the Fireflies is an indictment of the carnage of war or that it is an anti-war picture because its scope is so much greater than that.

Notice what Takahata doesn’t do. He doesn’t make the Americans into dehumanized monsters or anything else. They are just absent, faceless individuals that we will never know. However, he does give us a front row seat to the events through the eyes of two other people.

I think it’s an especially uncomfortable and maybe an important perspective for Americans because instead of seeing ourselves front and center of this epic story of WWII amid both its victories and tragedies, we are only a distant force. This film causes us to take on the viewpoint of those on the other side of the Pacific. This wasn’t just an emblematic figure like Tojo or some crazed, inhuman killer that we were looking to take down.

It becomes clear from the outset that the people being displaced from their homes by firebombs and struggling with rationing and families getting split apart by conflict are not so unlike us.

Takahata brilliantly gears us up for a story that could not be more universal. It doesn’t take place on a battlefield. It doesn’t involve war rooms or army barracks. It’s about two siblings. An older brother Seita and his little baby sister Setsuko.

Together they provide the core of the film. Because Setsuko is one of those precocious little kids who undoubtedly does not comprehend the gravity of all the chaos that swirls around her. All she knows is that she wants to see her mother or that she’s hungry or that she wants her favorite Sakura fruit drops. And her brother provides for her and sticks to her closely with fortitude and faithfulness that makes their bond one of the most affecting connections between cinematic siblings.

I would be hardpressed to guess how old Seita is but there’s no doubt that he’s forced to act quite a lot older than should be necessary under normal circumstances. His father is gone in the navy. His mother is debilitated. He must be his sister’s keeper and everything else for her. Her friend, her playmate, and her protector from a traumatic world that she cannot begin to understand. Since they only have each other and as they skrimp by, as an audience we realize just how abhorrent their conditions are and how no child should ever have to know a life of malnutrition or obliteration.

It’s easy to marvel at the animation because whereas normally we would probably take care in depicting actions of great consequence, a picture such as this finds time to articulate the little things that feel so human. Fiddling with a piece of clothing, scratching an itchy mosquito bite, or simply frolicking along the shoreline for the sheer relish of the moment.

It’s these smaller interludes and touches that give even greater import to the larger ones. A childhood home burning down with a whole host of others so that an entire town looks drastically different. A brother and sister who are forced to live on their own thanks to the glacial welcome they receive from distant relatives. And ultimately the inevitable comes knocking: death.

But just as the titular fireflies fill young Setsuko with a certain awe and wide-eyed wonderment, even in death there seems to be some distant even elusive sense of hope. In a world that can hardly be fathomed, Seita and Setsuko are reunited; no longer plagued by their suffering, their path illuminated once more by nature’s shining beacons of light. While we might have slightly different views about the afterlife, there’s no doubt that we share a desire for such an outcome after death.

Where graves will be emptied. Death will be no more. Pain will have ended. War will be over. Families will be restored. Wounds will be healed and peace will be the final resounding note. Do not let your flame be extinguished by hate, burdens, or dissatisfaction but know that there is so much more to life. In their enduring innocence in the face of such devastation, Seita and Setsuko are a stirring reminder.

Because life is not simply upended by tragedy. It is also fortified by hope. That’s part of what makes it worth living. As Dylan Thomas once eulogized, “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Do not let your youth be quelled. Do not let your optimism be forfeited. Do not give up your capacity for love. It’s well worth the fight.

5/5 Stars

Hollywood Canteen (1944)

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This propaganda extravaganza showcases Hollywood in all its glory from the Brown Derby to the Hollywoodland sign and of course the pride and joy of wartime morale-boosting, the Hollywood Canteen.  It’s a bit of a faux reality, Hollywood’s rendition of what real life might actually be like since the Hollywood Canteen did in fact exist.

Historically, it began as an effort by John Garfield and Bette Davis of all people to support the troops and give them quality entertainment from the entertainment capital of the world. Though newsreel footage might serve as a better historical marker (albeit still biased), there’s no questioning the patriotic waves flooding through this picture.

True, even in this film there are anecdotes that point to a slightly different reality. Namely the fact that this was meant to be a Hollywood wide endeavor but all other studios balked and so the lineup is filled out by Warner Bros. catalog of stars and them alone.

Furthermore, it’s easy to surmise that far from being overcome by patriotic fervor, Joan Crawford probably took her role because the alphabetical billing conveniently put her above a couple perennial rivals in Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck.

Even with its authenticity in question, there’s no doubt that the film boasts talent. There’s an inexhaustible array of song & dance from the likes of the Andrew Sisters, Roy Rogers (with Trigger) and Jimmy Dorsey.  The stars also come out in full force with cameos from everyone conceivably under contract to Warner Bros from Kitty Carlisle, Jack Carson, Joe E. Brown, Ida Lupino, Jack Benny, and of course Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet staying in character. Each one provides enough star power to fill in the idle moments around our main love story.

Still, there’s no doubt that Joan Leslie was one of America’s sweethearts and it’s no coincidence that our protagonist falls head over heels for her all the way in the South Pacific. The pair of lovebirds represents all that is seemingly good and upright about American ideals even if she is a movie star and he is only a common soldier.

That makes the prospect of actually meeting her beyond his wildest dreams, but Hollywood purportedly is in the dream making business and so Slim gets his wishes granted. A date with his dream girl is soon arranged by those tactful matchmakers Davis and Garfield.

Robert Hutton is almost uncannily reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart who was at the time leading bombing raids over Germany. It seems little coincidence that he would then land the crucial role as the universal soldier Slim — a man who saw his share of action and is home for a short spell — before heading out on his next tour of duty.

He represents all the boys fighting for not just the Red, White, and Blue but every color and creed. In his very starry-eyed and candid way, he mentions each one as the camera picks each out of the crowd. Curious the only group not mentioned were members of the Japanese-American infantry. Yet another incongruity with the world at large. But the red carpet that is rolled out for him at the Hollywood Canteen is meant to be only a small recompense for all his service to his country.

Delmer Daves’s picture much like Stage Door Canteen (1943) fits the realm of saccharine propaganda, even blatantly so, but if you allow yourself to be carried away by the historical moment it has its certain charms.

True, the Home Front or the Allied cause isn’t quite as unified and squeaky clean as it claims to be just as humanity on the whole and the stars behind Hollywood rarely could hold up to scrutiny. However, there’s still something here that can make you smile. Publicity stunt or not. Maybe it’s the romantic in me that likes to believe there’s at least a kernel of truth in here and if nothing else there’s honest to goodness sincerity.

3.5/5 Stars

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Hacksaw_Ridge_poster.pngHacksaw Ridge is not for the squeamish, its greatest irony being that for a film about a man who took on the mantle of a conscientious objector and would not brandish firearms, it is a very violent film, even aggressively so. But Mel Gibson, after all, is the man who brought us Braveheart (1995) and The Passion of the Christ (2004) while starring in The Mad Max and Lethal Weapon franchises.

Like its predecessors, this picture does not shy away from any depiction of violence but you can make the case that it is not violence for violence sake. There is a broader and some would say even a spiritual message behind it. Still, the chaos, the images of war, the killing, and the suffering are all there on the screen. No doubt about it.

Thus, Mel Gibson’s war biopic on Desmond Doss will not be a film for everyone. Perhaps it was not even a film that I truly needed to see (as I briefly skipped over some of the gorier sequences). Because the truth is I have some idea of what war can do to a man’s body. It was not something I needed to be reminded of.

However, this story is nevertheless an uplifting one and if nothing else it was a story I needed to unearth. Because as is usually customary, something as volatile and pernicious as war always seems to bring out not only the very worst in people but in others, the very best and those individuals take on the banner of heroes.

In the case of the unassuming Desmond Doss, it meant giving life instead of taking it away. And without a doubt, it’s a noble ideal and as a Seventh Day Adventist, he held ardently to that belief. Still, a major component of war is taking the life of your enemy. Some would say even that there is a time of killing especially going up against certain foes.

But Doss would not budge on the tenets of his beliefs and I think any person can laud him for that. There’s no hint of hypocrisy or contempt in him only an unswerving adherence to what he deemed to be right.

For these very reasons, it’s quite easy to draw parallels between Doss and Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire (1981) who was another man of faith who would not compromise his belief in keeping the Sabbath either. What further connects these stories is how these men took those circumstances and made a name for themselves beyond them. For Liddell, it was winning gold during the Olympics and for Doss it meant saving countless men on the battlefield.

However, Hacksaw Ridge’s closest and most obvious predecessor might be Sergeant York (1941) which while being about a similar figure who held to his convictions, was nevertheless a great deal tamer and felt more focused on its hero in light of American’s imminent involvement in WWII. It was a patriotic propaganda picture starring one of the era’s icons in Gary Cooper and one of its up and coming girls-next-door Joan Leslie.

In fact, Hacksaw Ridge is carried by a romance of its own and while not a substantial portion of the narrative, the romance between Doss and a local nurse is one that does tug at the heartstrings for the very fact that we know a version of this meet-cute probably existed in real life.

There’s also something deeply moving when the camera dies and we first see Mr. Doss himself looking back on his earlier exploits. His humility stands front and center. Dare I say, he seems an ordinary fellow but sometimes it’s those very fellows who prove just what extraordinary things men can be capable of in the midst of tremendous duress. The numbers speak for themselves. He saved 75 soldiers in one day’s work. There are few words applicable except Awesome.

Andrew Garfield once again proves his seriousness as an “actor” and his joint performances in Hacksaw Ridge as well as Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016) make for an extraordinary one-two showing on the year. Meanwhile, both Vince Vaughan and Hugo Weaving inhabit roles that you would not initially peg them for. But all and all, if you can tolerate Hacksaw Ridge’s gore, there is a great deal that can be gleaned from this story of unassuming heroism.

3.5/5 Stars

Review Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

James_Cagney_in_Yankee_Doodle_Dandy_trailer“My father thanks you, My Mother Thanks you, My Sister Thanks you, and I Thank you.” – James Cagney as George M. Cohan

I write this on Yankee Doodle Dandy’s 75 Anniversary on Memorial Day and I can say with much regret in my heart that it’s probably not nearly as resonant now as it was back in 1942. Perhaps, as it should be, because we are not living in the thick of WWII in a recently post-Pearl Harbor society. This was a film meant for a very particular cultural moment and it functions as such.

We look at the musical numbers and some are impressive routines with a full array of song and dance sprinkled throughout but there’s nothing outstandingly eye-popping about any of it. It’s true that this musical biography does suffer from a bit of Biopic Syndrome. By now we have been inundated with so many renditions that this version of George M. Cohan’s life is hardly revolutionary.

At best it’s a beaming tribute to an American icon with a bit of palatable wartime propaganda that never does anything unusual nor does it attempt to. At worst you could call Yankee Doodle Dandy overlong with a stiff script that lacks a lot of invention and shows more and more chinks in its armor over the excessive run time. But like Cohan himself, it’s an unabashed flag-waver and in that arena alone it does do some justice to its hero.

Certainly, none of these initial assessments can take away from the great appeal of the main players. More on James Cagney later but for now let’s just say he is incomparable and leave it at that. But we also have the estimable Walter Huston who had a notable career in his own right before being slightly overshadowed by his son John. In Yankee Doodle Dandy he plays the patriarch of the Cohan family, married to a lovely and talented woman (Rosemary De Camp) who is his partner and equal in both wedded life and on the stage. They are loyal All-Americans and they raise up their son and daughter to love their line of work and their country just as they do.

Thus, the Cohans are born as a collective entity, precocious Josie (Jeanne Cagney) and her ever cocksure brother George (James Cagney) who has a big head to go along with a load of talent. While his attitude gets him ostracized, his persistence as a songwriter ultimately earns him success after he unwittingly joins forces with another struggling writer Sam Harris (Richard Whorf). Somehow together they find a winning formula that for decades thenceforth makes George M. Cohan into a household name and subsequently an American legend. He is the undisputed king of unabashed, feel-good, good old-fashioned entertainment.

America’s favorite wartime ingenue Joan Leslie falls easily into the role of the love of George’s life, Mary, the impressionable young gal who fell for him at an early age and stayed by his side as the years rolled ever onward. Everything else changed but her love and faithfulness remained steadfast. With Mary by his side, she sees him through a string of successes, a few minor failures, the birth of WWI with the sinking of the Lusitania, and even the inevitable deaths of his kin. When it’s all said and done, he’s christened by FDR himself with a Congressional Medal as one of the great patriots capable of catalyzing the American Public with nationalistic fervor. So he serves a very important purpose on the Homefront.

The fact that Cohan’s life was practically born and lived out on the stage makes it perfectly suited for a musical adaptation allowing Michael Curtiz to seamlessly segue between vaudeville and Broadway routines and the formative moments that make up George’s life. They all fit together in a fairly straightforward manner that nevertheless is bolstered above all by the talent.

But the opening and closing framing device is unforgivably corny and is probably hampered most by a President Roosevelt lookalike who is so artificial it makes the genuine vivacity of James Cagney all the more disarming. It works the other way too. Cagney feels like he’s acting opposite a lifeless mannequin. And it’s true that as he always seemed to have the habit of doing Jimmy Cagney steals the whole picture.

He had left the gangster fare that had made him famous behind and in pictures such as Strawberry Blonde (1941) and Yankee Doodle Dandy he was given a true chance to strut his stuff and what dynamic stuff it is. Now I’m not much of a dance connoisseur so I have no reference point on where Cagney’s dancing could possibly begin to stack up to the likes of Astaire or Kelly, men who also performed their own choreography. Still, if anything, Cagney’s feet are constantly lively and self-assured as is his entire performance.

He seems like the perfect man to embody Cohan himself an Irish-American who started out as a song and dance man on the stage and whose blood ran red, white, and blue. First and foremost, he is a performer and his performance turns Yankee Doodle into something special, despite its various shortcomings.

Curtiz is a highly capable director but Cagney is the one we have to thank. Because while the film is never daring he always is and my estimation of him grows exponentially every time I see him act. Some performers have the knack of making every scene they’re in better by doing something exceptional that you remember — something that really catches your eye whether minor or grandiose. You only have to watch him tap his way down the White House stairwell to know James Cagney is one of the special ones, no question.

4/5 Stars

Dunkirk (2017)

Dunkirk_Film_poster.jpgUpon being thrown headlong into Christopher Nolan’s immersive wartime drama Dunkirk, it becomes obvious that it is hardly a narrative film like any of the director’s previous efforts because it has a singular objective set out.

It’s economical (shorter than many of most recent efforts) and the dialogue is sparse, sprinkled sparingly throughout his picture. After all, the main goal of this film is not so much to tell us a story — drawing up the lines as they might have been — but actually immersing us in that moment that was so crucial to British morale and ultimately the outcome of WWII.

As such, this is visual storytelling to the utmost degree and it comes off splendidly for the precise reason that film has always been a visual medium as much as we try and make it about dialogue. Because invariably dialogue is often used as a crutch while Nolan’s film relies almost solely on its images to tell its story and that’s a quality of filmmaking that is often lacking in the contemporary industry.

Backstories are all but left to the imagination and there’s immense power in that. Too often storytellers feel a need to spell everything out, providing all the perfect cookie cutter moments in order to hold the audience member’s hand so they comprehend it all. But has something as volatile as war ever been like that? I’m sure we can all answer with an emphatic “NO,” so why would a film be any different? Make people use their brains. Make them feel something viscerally. Leave them in the dark. Keep the outcomes ambiguous.

Likewise, there are no imagined interactions between the major figures at play whether Winston Churchill or Adolf Hitler. In fact, we never see a German’s face. We only see the results of their efforts to deter the British and cut off their escape route. As for Churchill, we never see the great English bulldog but his spirit wafts over the picture — certainly his words too — but it’s that spirit of resilience, that never say die attitude that speaks to his own character. That is enough.

Normally these type of decisions would signal a death wish but Nolan has been rewarded for his brazenness offering up a summer blockbuster that’s all but necessary. Because it tramples over much of the conventional wisdom that the industry has tried to impose on itself to reel in success. If there was any man to do it, Christopher Nolan certainly fits the bill.

There’s still very purposeful action playing out on three fronts. You have the soldiers actually stuck on the beach and in this case, we end up following a group of soldiers. Boys really. First, one who flees back to the beach after his compatriots are gunned down then joins with another boy to try and get aboard a battleship with a man on a stretcher. Finally, they get their chance only to get torpedoed out of the water. Treading in the oil-soaked ocean until someone can save them.

Then, there’s a trifecta of British Spitfires (led by Tom Hardy) traveling across the English Channel to provide coverage to their boys down below. Their exploits are documented with engrossing aerial shots that bring us right into their cockpits as they sit behind the controls looking to evade and vanquish their enemy.

Finally, we have the men of the home guard namely a father (Mark Rylance) and his two sons who answer the call to come to the aid of their young men stranded across the channel. You get the sense that they are riding into the valley of the shadow of death except that the valley of death is the sea and German U-Boats are waiting for them. Still, they push onward to rescue men coming by sea and by air. It too requires costly sacrifice.

Dunkirk’s soundtrack is magnified by ticking clocks and Hans Zimmer’s selection of screeching strings but it’s not necessarily developing the drama for drama’s sake. Again, there’s this underlying striving for authenticity.

One scene stands out in particular when the shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) asks if the boy he accidentally harmed is okay. He’s sorry now but doesn’t know the irreparable damage he has done. Still, the young man’s brother could lash out in anger. Instead, he takes the high road and tells him the boy is fine. His father grimly gives him a nod. He has made the most merciful decision for all parties involved.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the moment and you begin to understand to what extent these British soldiers were sitting ducks on the beaches of Dunkirk.  Because you are right beside them in every waking moment. And if we understand the horrors and the selfishness that begins to breed as survival instincts set in then just as easily we comprehend the pure euphoria that comes over the men when the flotilla from home comes to their rescue.

Even in these moments what is striking is not so much that Dunkirk is a grand epic but it feels surprisingly intimate. Despite the anonymity that runs through a great deal of this film Nolan still gives us characters that we can attach ourselves to and they begin to resonate not because we know their person inside and out necessarily but we start to empathize with their positions first hand.  When you begin to see the world as someone else sees it, it’s difficult not to connect. And that goes for everyone.

Because this was not just a war of soldiers from the army, navy, and air force. This was a war that involved nurses and the home guard and every other man, woman, and child who rationed their supplies and blacked out their windows all because of the collective war effort.

It’s often the most trying circumstances that bring us together so that we are no longer individuals but we become one. Dunkirk seems like precisely one of those galvanizing events that can forever be looked back on with pride. It personifies bravery, resilience, a stiff upper lip if you want to put it that way. And the significance in survival is that they lived to fight another day and ultimately with the other Allied powers they were able to quell the Nazis.

Some might come out of Dunkirk hailing it as one of the great war pictures of our generation, but truthfully it’s more so a survival story and a tribute to the fighting spirit that often dwells in the souls of men. In an age so often lacking in courage, fortitude, and honor those are the very attributes that rise to the surface and become most evident. Dunkirk is a striking reminder, not simply for the British people, but for us all.

4.5/5 Stars

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

saving-private-ryan-1There’s something remarkably moving about the beginning of Saving Private Ryan. I’ve only felt it a few times in my own lifetime whether it was family members recognizing names on the Vietnam Memorial tears in their eyes or walking over the sunken remains of the U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor.  It’s these types of memories that don’t leave us — even as outsiders — people who cannot understand these historical moments firsthand.

And that’s why Saving Private Ryan is a truly breathtaking, at times horrifying, and wholly visceral experience. Words cannot actually describe the visuals on the beaches of  Normandy at Omaha. The utter chaos, death, and tumult engulfing the scene — above and below the surface of the water.

The cast includes a number of memorable players including Tom Hanks, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Paul Giamatti, Matt Damon, and even Nathan Fillion. And yet it’s not about any one man or even a singular act of valor. Even Private Ryan is only a starting point of a far more universal tale.

It’s also easy to say that this is a film cheapens life in the number of bodies that are blown to bits and slaughtered seemingly needlessly on screen. However, it’s even more difficult to acknowledge that in one sense life is cheap — transient to the extent that our bodies are not indestructible. We are fallible beings and breath so easily leaves our lungs and no time is this more evident than in the wake of war.

One sequence that springs to mind involves two surrendering men who, on first inspection, look German and sound German. The men under Captain Miller’s (Tom Hanks) command gun them down and they do it with smiles on their faces. This, after all, is the enemy, pure and simple. Except they were not “Nazis.” They weren’t even Germans, but Czechs (based on what they say). Men who historically had been captured by the Nazis and press-ganged into military service. And in the end, they get shot by Americans. Even the undertones of this scene point to the fact that their lives were so easily snuffed out, without even a second thought.

So, yes, life seems cheap in this film in the physical sense, even from just one example. But it is granted a great deal of depth and richness in many other ways. Families and brothers. Comrades and compatriots. Personal convictions and disillusionment in war revealed through the many characters we come to know. All of that bleeds out of this film along with the blood from the bodies.

In that sense, it’s all difficult to watch and Spielberg never intended this to be easy going.  I cannot speak for others but within the intense moments of bloodshed, the lulls in the action, and unrest within the ranks, there’s a solemnity developed.

War is at times the everyday. It’s indescribable and inscrutable. But Saving Private Ryan’s suggests that there are certain things that we hold onto. High and lofty things such as liberty and freedom that are often so easy to discount. They seem easily besmirched, dragged through the mud by all of our human inadequacies and evil. But perhaps that makes them even more important to hang on to, because just like life, these ideals are worth the fight, though they might so easily be lost. It doesn’t make the wrong right or cover up all the pain, even found within this film, but it latches on a tiny bit of good within a whole lot of messiness.

It goes back to the basic implications of the film’s main conceit — the task of saving one man — Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon). It’s  representative of not only the entire war but each and every one of us as we traverse roads of tribulation. Every story, whether wartime or our own, deserves an ending with some type of salvation. Because Saving Private Ryan is imbued with so much more meaning. Our human experience is wrapped up in it. There is no greater love than a man giving his life for his friends. But imagine if you are dying for the freedom of others or even the preservation of someone who you hardly know? That’s what happens in this story.

That’s why when elderly James Ryan comes back to Normandy so many years later, there’s a gravity to the situation. This is by no means a corny piece of Hollywood drama. It’s the ultimate act of love that he has received and he can hardly comprehend it, just as we as an audience must grapple with it too. In that way, Saving Private Ryan is indubitably affecting not simply as a war drama but an epic human narrative. It pertains to all of us.

The profound and terrifying thing about this gift that he has received through the sacrifice of so many others is that he cannot “earn it.” Because, in this sense, life proves to be far from cheap. There is no way to earn that back. There is no way for us to live a wholly “good” life or be completely “good” people. The whole entirety of the film tells us otherwise. Still, we can live our life with a sense of freedom knowing that cannot be expected of us. A life of purpose is all that can be asked of us. It’s that kind of purpose that makes Saving Private Ryan continuously compelling.

5/5 Stars