Memorial Day …

… Is almost over. I whiled away part of the patriotic three-day weekend watching some of the Turner Classic Movies “all war flicks, all the time” marathon. Saw almost all of “A Bridge Too Far,” which is extraordinary for its overuse of big-name actors and big-time pyrotechnics in the service of perhaps the last romantic World War II feature. Saw parts of “M*A*S*H,” which has aged amazingly well. Saw parts of “Patton,” which seems ludicrous to me now. Beyond my personal political leanings, I think the war-themed movies just look different in the post-“Saving Private Ryan”/”Band of Brothers” era, when there’s been an effort to bring something like combat verity into the movies and television.

For a film about such a famously hard-nosed character, “Patton” comes off as little more than a romantic caricature in which one great man spends a couple hours strutting around in front of a bunch of cardboard cutouts. That’s the way it looks now. Then — it came out the same year as “M*A*S*H,” 1970 — it was enormously popular and a big winner at the 1971 Oscars. It’s hard to say why looking at it now, though of course the period is suggestive: Vietnam was unpopular but not yet recorded in the “not-won” column, and the movie features a hero who built a reputation for driving tanks through any opposition, damn subtlety or consequences. “M*A*S*H” spoke a lot more directly to the anti-war audience then, and because of its grim humor, frankness about the business at a combat hospital, and Robert Altman’s handling of a great ensemble of actors, it still seems fresh.

That leaves “A Bridge Too Far,” which is almost embarrassing to watch. The stock upbeat theme music. The star-studded cast. The stiff upper lip in the face of insuperable odds. The impassive, smugly superior Nazis (this time with a reason to be smug and superior). The nobility of defeat and massive casualties. It’s good that Hollywood has almost quit making this movie, or this kind of movie (from the trailers, Mel Gibson’s “We Were Soldiers Once,” looks like an attempt to give Vietnam the same heroic treatment).

But it makes you wonder, a little, how Iraq will be turned into a big-screen treat. (The best clue: Go rent “Three Kings.” More pleasingly flashy entertainment, less reality — but we’re OK with that.)

3 Replies to “Memorial Day …”

  1. Patton did nothing for me. Then, or now.
    First saw M*A*S*H at the drive-in. Love the movie. Love the TV series.
    A Bridge Too Far. Saw it then. Didn’t particularly care for it. Probably because I didn’t have any appreciation for the European part of WWII. But, probably won’t see it again.
    We Were Soldiers. Saw it twice in the last year on TNT. It’s a true story. There were a couple times I got a a lump in my throat watching this.
    Three Kings. Also saw it on TV. Sat there wide-eyed and agape the whole time thinking, this could have really happened.
    If they do make a movie about Iraq, who will they make it for? I mean, do kids today even care about war movies?

  2. We Were Soldiers is based on a book that I read some years ago about the first large scale deployment of US airborne (helicopter) cavalry in Vietnam. Their first big battle against North Vietnamese regulars took place in the Ia Drang valley in the central highlands of what used to be called South Vietnam. It (the book) was a riveting account of a terribly brutal encounter that Mel Gibson turned into a tear-jerky story of over-blown heroism. I hated the movie. Right up there with Mels’ overwrought story of the American Revolution, The Patriot.

  3. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for two WWII movies that have a lot of good stuff layered over standard Hollywood crap: The Longest Day and The Young Lions. The first includes a lot of the absolute absurdity and luck that make war what it is, including a decent depiction of the Germans as human beings. The latter is notable mostly for the portions depicting the Germans throughout the spectrum of early in the war obliviousness/optimism to end of the war horror and regret.
    For black humor in war, The Americanization of Emily has always been one of my favorites, except for the last 3 minutes of happy ending, which I suspect the studio insisted on (I’d bet Blake Edwards got drunk every time he thought about that ending).

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