THE FRENCH AND INDIAN WAR (1757)
You may be surprised I’m starting out with this one, but it pains me to say that there's not really a film (in my opinion) worthy of recommending for the glorious era of the American Revolution. How is this possible? I’ve wondered many times, why no one has been able to tackle the founding of our country in a definitive cinematic fashion (and The Patriot has such bad history in it that it doesn't count), but as of now, we’re still waiting. There is however, a surprisingly decent selection for this earlier skirmish on our homefront.
THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1992) Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe. Dir. Michael Mann
"Stay alive, no matter what occurs! I will find you. No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you!" - Hawkeye to Cora Munroe
You may not think of Daniel Day-Lewis as a heartthrob, but in this movie he gets to be the matinee hero, fighting and running in slow motion with the best of them and carrying the leading lady off to her rescue. This was a big budget remake of a film from 1936, both based on the book by James Fenimore Cooper. Michael Mann harbored an affection for the material, and treated it as a serious but action packed adventure tale, with romance, violence, and sweeping (and I mean GORGEOUS) cinematography that still takes your breath away. Filmed in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, the beauty of the land, the uncharted frontier of America as Mann conveyed it has never looked more spectacular. DDL was Hawkeye, the white man raised in an Indian tribe, who is confronted by the British army, with Madeleine Stowe and Jodhi May as the daughters of the British colonel who get swept into the chaos of the French and Indian War. Wes Studi played Magua, head of the rival tribe the Hurons, in a fierce and brutal performance (the one that most typecast him as the go to actor for Native American portrayals). It’s a lush, old fashioned but realistically violent historical epic, with a haunting climax atop a mountain setting that you’ll never forget. Did I mention the score will very likely associate itself with this movie in your mind forever? It will. Sometimes score and movie merge in ways that are inextricably linked (think Titanic, Jaws, Star Wars, etc.). This is one of those.
Original 1992 Trailer:
THE CIVIL WAR (1861-‘65)
As far as it goes, there are really not that many Civil War movies to choose from either. Or maybe after Gone With the Wind came out, people just threw in the towel on that score, rather than suffer the comparison. There are SOME that tackle it of course, like the 4 hour strategy movie Gettysburg and the soapy 80’s miniseries North and South, but again, excluding a couple of Lincoln biopics, there just aren’t enough great Civil War epics that really handle the era in an appropriate manner. But for the ones that are in existence, here are the best, as far as I’m concerned.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966) Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef. Dir. Sergio Leone
"You see, in this world there's two kinds of people, my friend. Those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig." - Blondie
You may not have known this was a Civil War movie, right? Well, set against the backdrop of the Civil War era, this concluding chapter to the Man With No Name trilogy takes place on the southwestern front, alongside a couple of skirmishes between the Grays and Blues in early 1862. Clint Eastwood is the essence of cool as the man himself in the role that made him a movie star, that strong and silent outlaw (the Good), modeled a bit on the Bogart attitude of indifference, but with decidedly less than a heart of gold. There’s never a real underlying conscience revealed in the final act of his story. Lee Van Cleef is the bounty hunter out for blood (the Bad) and Eli Wallach is the bandit (the Ugly) out for treasure, as the three cross paths on route to the gold. I’d say it’s not necessary to see the previous two installments (A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More) to enjoy this one. They’re good, but you won’t be missing out on any continuity if you skip ‘em, and this is by far the masterpiece of the series. Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns have never been surpassed, and all the elements are there in this one: the awesome score, the action, and most of all, Clint. He dominates the film despite having less dialogue than your average big screen action hero. There’s no one more badass in movie westerns, and that includes you, John Wayne.
Original 1966 Trailer:
GLORY (1989) Denzel Washington, Matthew Broderick. Dir. Edward Zwick
"Give 'em hell, 54!" - 10th Connecticut Soldier
An important but little known chapter in Civil War history, it takes place in 1863 and tells the story of the first all black regiment in the Union Army. Matthew Broderick is the white commanding officer and Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Andre Braugher make up some of the enlisted men. The film takes you through the process of training the soldiers, the camaraderie that develops, and their ultimately tragic yet simultaneously heroic fate charging into battle at Ft. Wagner. It’s a genuinely moving film, and I believe the only one to this day to tell the story of blacks who fought in the Civil War (of whom there were nearly 200,000). Some may be critical of Broderick as the main character, and it is a bit of a screenwriting cliche that it takes a white lead to tell what is essentially an African American story. On the other hand, the script was based on the real life diaries and letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Broderick’s character), who was in fact white, so maybe it would be bad history to discount his experiences and write from what would be a more fictionalized point of view. At any rate, I think the film works, and remains a true testament to the bravery of the 54th regiment and of black servicemen during the war, who are too often overlooked by history.
Original 1989 Trailer:
COLD MOUNTAIN (2003) Nicole Kidman, Jude Law. Dir. Anthony Minghella
"If you are fighting, stop fighting. If you are marching, stop marching. Come back to me. Come back to me is my request." - Ada Monroe
Intended to be a melodramatic historical epic with elements reminiscent of GWTW, it succeeded on that level and did manage to convey a lot more of the particularly gruesome violence that evoked the era among the populace, as well as on the battlefield. Nicole Kidman stars as a southern belle in the backwoods of North Carolina who, when the war breaks out, loses her new love, field hand Jude Law to the services of the Confederacy. At that point, we follow two stories: Nicole’s troubles on the home front and Jude’s struggle to get back to her after deserting the army in 1864. Gorgeous and lyrically filmed (from the late director of The English Patient), Minghella also coaxed wonderful and moving performances from the whole cast, which included many colorful supporting characters who entered and exited the story, crossing paths with Law on his Odyssey-like journey homeward. Well, Jude was particularly good, earning his Best Actor nomination for that year, while Renee Zellweger’s Best Supporting Actress win for the poor white trash country girl is a little too over the top and scenery chewing for my taste (probably more of a reward for being nominated three consecutive years running than actually deserving it). But the film had all the elements of the grand costume drama, including stunning cinematography on locations which were actually the mountains of Romania (not sure exactly why, we know from Last of the Mohicans that NC provides more than adequate mountain beauty). The frequent interludes of brutal violence remind us of the harsh wartime reality the South and its citizens faced on their home territory during that time (including an incredible opening battle sequence recreating the Confederate victory on July 30, 1864). The cast includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Kathy Baker, Brendan Gleeson, Jack White and Donald Sutherland in support. Definitely worth seeing.
GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) Viven Leigh, Clark Gable. Dir. Victor Fleming
"If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!" - Scarlett O'Hara
And here we are. The big one. The epic to end all epics, the Civil War movie to end all Civil War movies, the Hollywood drama to end all…well, you get the idea. Gone With the Wind is STILL, adjusted for inflation, the highest grossing movie of all time, still the most popular movie ever made, and the one more people in the world have ever seen. It really was, and is, that big. At the time it was released, the book itself was the most popular book ever written, and the movie was a worldwide cultural phenomenon, making an immortal out of Vivien Leigh, solidifying Clark Gable’s already immortal status, and sweeping the Oscars, winning 8 of 10. Much of it was the work of legendary producer David O’Selznick, who was determined that his movie be the biggest of all time, and was able to go to his grave knowing he’d accomplished the task. GWTW remains, in my opinion, the ultimate example of Hollywood’s golden age, the studio produced, big star, big budget melodrama that hit every emotion and satisfied the whim of every possible audience member, a soap opera of the highest order, and with such virtuoso performances that it was preordained to succeed. No wonder everyone liked it so much, it represented everything people dreamed that Hollywood stood for: glamour, illicit romance, scandal, epic tragedy, and riches beyond your wildest dreams. Does it hold up today? Largely, yes, I would say. You get caught up in it from the very first scene, and although the running time was 4 hours, it’s the fastest 4 hours I’ve ever experienced, moving at a breathtaking pace. Scarlett O’Hara, that southern belle of spoiled bitchiness, is played by Vivien Leigh in a legendary performance, every bit of which stands the test of time. See it just for that, it’s one of the greatest screen performances ever, for sure the greatest female performance in the history of the movies. Leigh was born to play Scarlett, who captivates the audience and the attention of everyone around her as the spoiled, selfish and intrepid southern belle who plots, manipulates, schemes, and seduces everything she can to get her way, as God as her witness. She meets her match in Rhett Butler, Clark Gable essentially playing himself to perfection (the character was based on his own persona anyway), and the two have some of the most explosive and famous love scenes of all time. It’s an unhealthy, borderline abusive relationship to be sure, but if Scarlett wasn’t so stubborn things could for sure work out, couldn’t they? There was no other female character like Scarlett in the movies, she was decades ahead of her time in temper, ferocity, vanity and egotism, and you suspect women both loved and hated her so much for having the tenacity to posess all those things freely at a time when the women’s movement was still many years in the future. You can’t take your eyes off of her.
SIDEBAR: …and the parts of this movie that do NOT hold up are the stereotypes of the slaves, one dimensional caricatures that created the false image of the "happy slave," (even though Hattie McDaniel did become the first black actress to win an Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy). The whole film presents the superficial glorification of a superior Old South, all its riches decimated by war and ravage, which is of course, not the truth as we know it, but chooses instead to keep with the point of view of the book by Margaret Mitchell. It’s hard to argue though, that the movie was trying to be a realistic portrayal of the underlying issues surrounding the Civil War- it glorifies and fictionalizes a South that never really existed, yes; but it’s mostly the melodramatic story of one individual, Scarlett O’Hara, whose personal journey is far and away the focus of the entire film. She does come from the American Old South, but it could have taken place in another country entirely, substituting her nature for that of an Irish, German, or Russian girl and told close to the exact same story…as indeed, many of them have tried to do.
WORLD WAR I (1914-’18)
Now, here’s where we start getting a wealth of options to choose from. It was difficult to narrow down to five, actually. The topic of the Great War has produced some fine films indeed, particularly from Europe, as far more suffered and died over the course of the war there than in America. All of the following films are worth seeing in full, and three of them would be on my list of great war movies, period.
THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951) Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn. Dir. John Huston
"Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above." - Rose Sayer
Hepburn, Bogie, and legendary director Huston, what could possibly go wrong? Not much did, the collaboration between two of the greatest movie stars of all time and the just as great Huston at the helm produced a wonderful travelogue, a technicolor production filled with adventure, gorgeous scenery and the wilds of Africa. It’s hard to believe Kate and Bogie had never worked together at this point, but it was indeed their first film together. Both were entering the latter half of their career, but it was still an exciting pairing, as they were at the peak of their respective stardom, known the world over. You'd think it would be a somewhat odd couple, Bogart with his tough guy persona and Hepburn her upper class, independent sophisticate, but it worked wonders, much to my surprise. This was actually a different kind of role for Bogie, as a sloppy drunk who meanders through everyday life, but he seemed to be having a ball onscreen (indeed, the story is that both Bogart and Huston remained drunk throughout the whole of filming on location). Hepburn was less different, it was more of a typical role for her persona, but she really matched well with her co-star and the two had delightful chemistry. She’s a missionary in Africa whose brother is killed in the outbreak of WWI, at the hands of German soldiers, and Bogart is the local guide who has to help steer her back to civilization on the river, dodging the Germans every step of the way. Of course, despite the seriousness of the journey, their boat trip turns into a relaxing, romantic getaway, as they start to fall in love and soon spend their days floating leisurely along the river, taking in the sights and sounds of a picturesque African coast. Movie fantasy at its highest, but it’s a delight from beginning to end. Bogie finally won his Oscar for this film (although it was more of a career reward, as he beat out Marlon Brando for A Streetcar Named Desire…ahem), and it was a major hit with audiences, who could marvel for two stress free hours at a couple of their most beloved stars at the top of their game. They’re obviously having a great time, and as result, so do we.
Original 1951 Trailer:
PATHS OF GLORY (1957) Kirk Douglas, Adolphe Menjou. Dir. Stanley Kubrick
"There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die." - General Broulard
Stanley Kubrick’s first masterpiece was a harbinger of things to come. One of the most powerful anti-war films ever made remains absolutely gut wrenching in its impact. At first glance a satire so ridiculous it borders on black comedy, you’re horrified to learn it was largely based on a true story from WWI. Kubrick the eternal pessimist leaves you with harsh, unrelenting lessons that convey his beliefs about the truth of human nature, and it ain’t pretty. Kirk Douglas is Col. Dax, the commander of a French infantry regiment in 1916 that is dug in to the trenches during the stalemate of the war. The higher ups order a suicidal run on the German fortress, which inevitably results in failure and mass casualties. Then, in an even worse display of callousness, an order is made to randomly pick three of the surviving troops to be executed for cowardice as punishment for the humiliation, and to serve as an example to the public. Dax acts as their military counsel, only to discover the court martial is an utter farce and the soldiers’ fate preordained. Paths of Glory was so controversial upon its release that it was banned in France for 18 years, the French government horrified at the depiction of its army. But the film’s power is undeniable, and the final march to the execution destined to haunt your memory. Kubrick shows signs of his developing directorial prowess, unrelenting in his depiction of the destructive cycle of war and wartime actions. The early, doomed run on the German anthill is as brutal and effective a battle sequence as any ever filmed. Not to be missed, under any circumstances.
Original 1957 Trailer:
GRAND ILLUSION (1937) Pierre Fresnay, Jean Gabin. Dir. Jean Renoir
"Frontiers are an invention of men. Nature doesn't give a hoot." - Lieutenant Rosenthal
Jean Renoir was the first great French director of the cinema. His two masterpieces were Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, both well known to obsessed cinephiles everywhere. This film was made during the rise of fascism in the late 30's, and may serve as an analogy to that time period, as it was in fact banned in Germany. It’s about a couple of French fliers in WWI who are taken as prisoners of war behind German lines. While plotting their escape by digging a tunnel underneath the grounds, the film explores the class relationships among the inmates, and discovers that some of the upper class officers from opposing countries relate more to each other than to the common working man enlisted to fight this war for them, on both sides. The film argues for the pointlessness of war due to similar economic interests of all countries, and is a damning indictment of the European class system (that in fact would be destroyed with the dawn of WWII in real life). The fliers are then moved to another prison camp, coming into conflict with the warden who sympathizes with them but must defend his own country’s position. It’s here where they are finally able to stage their escape, in one of the earliest and most thrilling prison breaks ever filmed. Grand Illusion was the first foreign film to be nominated for Best Picture, and was lost for many years when the Germans conquered France in 1940. All prints were destroyed as the film was declared “Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1” for its anti war ideology and criticisms of Germany. Today, it’s been restored and celebrated as one of the greatest films ever made, a claim that I certainly agree with. It hasn’t aged at all, in its message or its impact.
Original 1937 Trailer:
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930) Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres. Dir. Lewis Milestone
"You still think it's beautiful to die for your country. The first bombardment taught us better. When it comes to dying for country, it's better not to die at all." - Paul Baumer
I realize I tend to be throwing around the phrase, “greatest war movie ever made” a lot in this section, but hey, what can I do? These films ARE on that level, and this one in particular, probably rivals Grand Illusion for the title, at least in my view. Another one banned by the Nazis in the 30’s and 40s (Hitler was awfully touchy about his film selections, wasn’t he?), All Quiet on the Western Front has lost virtually none of its power, despite its release more than 80 years ago. It’s still credited with influencing just about every war film made in its wake; Steven Spielberg even gave it its due for being an inspiration on Saving Private Ryan. A lot of films made during the very early sound era (1929-31) were a little stodgy and raw, obviously finding their way in the transition from silent to “talkie.” That goes not just for the audio but the acting as well, as you can see the overly dramatic gestures from actors that weren’t used to conveying newfound subtlety that was needed for the sound era. This however, wasn’t one of them. An American made film, but it was set in Germany, about the German soldiers who gave their lives to their country over the course of the war and one in particular who signed up an eager young patriot in 1914, only to be hardened and disillusioned by the whole experience as he is injured and sees his friends die off, one by one. The horrific trench warfare is depicted as the brutal terror it really was, suffocating the troops in enclosed spaces for months at a time. Their only wish is to go home, but their occasional re-engagements with humanity and the outside world shows how their lifestyle has conditioned them to be cut off from everything BUT what they now despise. It’s a theme stolen many times in later years of course, from Saving Private Ryan to Platoon, The Deer Hunter, In the Valley of Elah and The Hurt Locker, just to name a few. Lew Ayres is outstanding as the young German boy whose nature is permanently altered, and the final shot is a crushing blow to any sense of optimism you might have been hoping for, as long as war exists. Based on the classic novel by Erich Maria Remarque, this is one I can guarantee will remain permanently engraved in your mind.
Original 1930 Trailer:
A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT (2004) Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel. Dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet
"If I don't break the peel, Manech is alive." - Mathilde, peeling an apple
After three straight flicks with the boys on the battlefield, let’s check back in with a report from the homefront, shall we? Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director of Amelie, has an affinity for whimsy and the cosmic connections between people that serve him well in this tale of a young girl who will stop at nothing to find her supposedly killed in action fiancé. She just knows he’s still alive, because if he were dead she would feel it. It’s shortly after the end of the war, and Audrey Tatou is Mathilde, the girl who doesn’t believe in coincidences and feels that there’s got to be more to the story of her missing love than what she’s been told. She travels all over France, putting the pieces of the puzzle together to find him, while we get intermittent flashbacks to the battlefield, where Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) supposedly suffered a mysterious fate, that maybe wasn’t so mysterious after all. Jeunet films in a gold and yellow palette that gives the film a further touch of magical, storybook atmosphere, and we are never less than completely enthralled in Mathilde’s quest to unravel the mystery. Manech’s struggle in the war enraptures us as well, with incredible (and bleakly violent) sequences of the air and trench warfare, and poison gas as weapons used during WWI that crippled surviving veterans for generations. Look for Jodie Foster in an uncredited cameo as a French widow (who knew she was fluent?) who delivers a key clue about Manech’s whereabouts. Brimming with touching romance, intriguing mystery, vivid battle scenes and an air of cosmic fate, A Very Long Engagement is never less than satisfying, right to the final ponderous and bittersweet fade out.