We all watch for fire
for all the fallen dead to return
and teach us a language so terrible
it could resurrect us all.
— Joy Harjo, In Mad Love And War
So a colleague says, “You’re a veteran. What are your favorite war movies?”
I am alternately drawn to, and disturbed by, war movies. But it’s not for the reasons a lot of people think. A lot of folks think that a war movie, verisimilitude notwithstanding, can never depict war. I’m an artist. I don’t ask the artifact to be the war. I just ask the art to give meaning to witness.
I don’t like most war movies, because there is nothing transcendent. All they do is remind me that, when I was a soldier, I was violent. On the other hand, I find the violent fantasy arousing. I miss my M-16. There’s nothing transcendent about that. It’s disturbing.
Here’s what I like. Some of the best war movies are not about war. They are about coming home from war. They are about finding meaning in witness. That’s what I like.
What follows is personal, my likes, my dislikes. I will illustrate this not by talking about whole movies, but by centering upon great scenes.
When this movie came out in 1986, I saw it six times. It was the first time I saw a movie that looked and sounded like Vietnam. Oliver Stone is a Vietnam veteran.
In The Nam, he also learned something about the meaning of evil. Stone ends the movie with Chris Taylor, the central character, saying, “I think now, looking back on it, that we did not fight the enemy. We fought ourselves. And the enemy was in us.” The movie was, in some quarters, criticized for what was perceived as moral ambiguity. Taylor, however, learns that there is nothing morally ambiguous about the fact he, the soldier, has to kill – and I mean to kill anyone at all. Taylor finishes by saying that we need “to teach to others what we know, and to try, with what’s left of our lives, to find a goodness and meaning to this life.”
There is the one other scene that I love. That’s the scene where The Heads are in a bunker smoking dope. My war buddies and I had such a bunker. There is a camaraderie known to those who have shared danger,. Too much can be made of that comradeship, and too often in movies it is clichéd. Stone spares us the sentimental. So, when I see this scene, hear that music, I think of our bunker and The Heads I knew.
The Best Years Of Our Lives
Here’s your trivia question. What movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1946? It’s A Wonderful Life? Lawrence Olivier’s Henry V? Darryl F. Zanuck’s The Razor’s Edge, based on the 1944 Somerset Maugham novel?
No. The movie that won is the movie that 16 million returning veterans wanted to see, The Best Years Of Our Lives, the movie about three guys readjusting to civilian life.
Harold Russell won two Academy Awards for the same role. Russell plays Homer Parrish, a disabled ex-sailor. While serving as a paratrooper, Russell in fact lost both hands.
In what could be called a reverse bedroom scene, Homer’s fiancée, Wilma, played by Cathy O’Donnell, comes by to break their engagement. Wilma is reluctant to leave Homer, but her parents want to send her away. “I want you to be free, Wilma, to live your own life. I don’t want you tied down forever just because you’ve got a kind heart,” Homer tells her.
He tells her further that she really doesn’t know what she’s getting into. “I’m going upstairs to bed. I wantcha — I want ya to come up and see for yourself what happens.”
She follows Homer to his bedroom. He takes off his pajama top with surprising dexterity. Then he stands before her, his harness and hooks displayed. He wiggles out of the harness, and tosses it on the bed. With his left stub, he points to the harness and says, “This is when I know I’m helpless. My hands are down there on the bed. I can’t put them on again without calling to somebody for help. I can’t smoke a cigarette or read a book. If that door should blow shut, I can’t open it and get out of this room. I’m as dependent as a baby that doesn’t know how to get anything except to cry for it.” To her credit, she marries him.
There are a couple of things that make this scene powerful. Russell, in a sense, isn’t acting. “This is when I know I’m helpless.” He speaks for almost all war veterans, the wounded and the whole. Why? Almost all war veterans, the occasional sociopath notwithstanding, are psychically wounded. This woundedness is compounded frequently by a feeling of isolation. Homer is luckier than most. He is able to share his pain with Wilma.
A seemingly odd choice. But there’s this old joke among war vets. Do you know the difference between a war story and a fairy tale? A fairy tale starts, “Once upon a time,” and a war story starts, “Now this here ain’t no bullshit.”
I love a great story. And every war vet has at least one story that, as the bard says, “would harrow up thy soul.”
I mention this movie because of one scene only, a great scene, a story told by Quint, the captain of the ship that chases the shark. Amid much drinking aboard his vessel, Quint recalls the 1945 sinking of his cruiser, the U. S. S. Indianapolis. Quint spent four days in the water waiting for rescue. Hundreds around him were eaten by sharks. For Quint, hunting sharks is all about his war. It is his way to revisit his trauma, and this time, hopefully, fix it.
Quint’s mesmerizing tale is based upon a true story. Of 1,196 folks aboard the cruiser, only 316 survived. And, yes, hundreds, by sharks. And this here ain’t no bullshit.
Robert Shaw, who played Quint, completely rewrote the monologue, which director Steven Spielberg came to regard as one of the the best scenes he ever shot. Originally, mention of the Indianapolis was just a passing reference to Quint’s familiarity with sharks.
Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
I love Peter Sellers. But, when it comes to this movie, I’m a Slim Pickens fan. As Air Force Major T. J. “King” Kong, Pickens rides a hydrogen bomb like some nuclear bronco, smacking it with his cowboy hat until the scene flashes to stark white.
There is an absurdity to war that this scene captures. A war buddy of mine, Dick Bittner, used to talk about “a cartoon”, some absurd scene going on right in the middle of a war. Like the time my buddies were asked to paint artillery shells as they were being fired. The artillery guys kept objecting that paint was getting all over their hands and the howitzer, but, hey, orders are orders. Then there was the time an army band was sent into the field to play “Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines”, this while dignitaries, generals and such, ate finger sandwiches, drank wine, and watched an air strike kill Viet Cong. It is as if, in the search for meaning, existential absurdity itself reminds us that it’s one option.
All Quiet On The Western Front – any version
In the most painfully stark scene of a painfully stark film, the German soldier Paul, the main character, stabs a French soldier. He dies slowly. Because of the fire overhead, Paul is then trapped in a shell hole while his mortally wounded enemy groans — all night.
Paul learns the identity of the man. Gerard Duval. A printer. Paul even learns his address, and vows to write Duval’s wife and child. It’s personal.
War is personal Perhaps the greatest lie of any war is that the enemy is not human, that the enemy is not like us. War is always personal. A North Vietnamese war poet once said that, when he aimed his rifle, he aimed first at the heart of that soldier’s mother.
Paths Of Glory
Platoon begins with a quote from Ecclesiastes. “Rejoice, oh young man, in thy youth.” When I was in Nam, Chuck Willis’ nickname was “Pop”. He was 24. With all respect to the professional soldier, and the occasional old coot, war is associated with youth. And old veterans looking back on what they were, and what they’ve become because of war.
Paths of Glory, a 1957 film by Stanley Kubrick, takes place during World War I. Kirk Douglas stars as Colonel Dax, the French commanding officer of three brave soldiers, who refused to continue a suicidal attack. Dax defends them against a charge of cowardice. They are court-martialed and executed. Their own comrades are forced to shoot them.
In the final scene of the movie, a young woman in a tavern begins to sing a German folk song. The soldiers are at first hostile, and the viewer can easily anticipate rape. But the hardened troops instead end up humming along, some openly weeping, as she sings “The Faithful Hussar”. They weep for what they have become.
“For he today that sheds his blood with me, shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile…” Wasn’t that what Henry V said? I used to wonder about this good old boy I used to see at a V. F. W. hall. He was a physician at the St. Louis University hospital. But, during World War II, he was a pharmacist’s mate on a submarine. Once a month, he’d meet-up with his old shipmates. Working men. I used to wonder about that. The physician and the plumber.
I went to a reunion of my Nam unit, the 4th Infantry Division. I always avoided these things, but this time the 4th was meeting here, my hometown. I spent the evening talking to a guy who, today, is a crane operator. The Ph. D. and the high school dropout.
And what draws us together? Memories. A few laughs. A terrible knowledge. And while art cannot replicate the experience, it can, in fact, give that knowledge meaning. As for the experience per se, that’s what reunions are for.
As for the movies. Why are so many good war movies really coming home movies?
There are a lot of other movies I could mention. Born On The 4th Of July. The Deer Hunter. The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit. Coming Home. Or, for that matter, Rambo. My point is this. It took me a lot of therapy to learn a simple truth. I will never recall The Nam and not be sad. But I don’t hate the army. I hate what I became because of war. Sometimes art, for an hour or two, gives that a meaning.