Documentary: Capturing the Human Experience of War

There is no shortage of documentaries on war. The subject fascinates us as history, as sociology, and as drama. Some documentaries chronicle history in great detail, some grapple with the issues and forces behind the conflicts, and some flat-out propagandize. But very few of those documentaries actually engage with the human experience. So for Memorial Day we look at films about the diverse group of men (and in some cases the women) in war—not just why they fight but what they saw, heard, and endured, and how it changed them.

The Battle of Midway (1942)

American director John Ford (The Quiet Man, The Searchers) served his country by offering his talents as a filmmaker to the Armed Services. His first assignment was to photograph what turned out to be the first major American victory in the war against Japan. “Yes, this really happened,” informs one of the film’s four narrators during the combat section of the film, but audiences didn’t need to be reminded. The authenticity was evident. One bomb landed so close to the camera that it knocked both Ford and his camera assistant off their feet.

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Hollywood Goes to War

When America entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hollywood was also drafted into the effort — not just to support the cause but also to beat the drums of patriotism and duty. America was going to war and with it, so did the entire country. The men enlisted, the women took jobs in the factories, families tightened their belts and pitched in on civil defense and scrap drives, and the studios were expected not just to reflect the new paradigm, but to set the tone.

It was a sudden, dramatic shift. Before the war, studios were wary of merely hinting at politics in its films, let alone being blatantly partisan. Germany was a major market for American movies and, disgust for Hitler’s European aggression and nationalistic bigotry aside, business was business. Only Warner Bros. defied Hitler, giving up the German market to publicly support the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League.

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The Big Red One – A Grunt-Eye View of War

[Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.]

Saving Private Ryan has the budget and the production values, but if you want a World War II story from a real vet’s perspective, Sam Fuller is still the man and The Big Red One, drawn from his own war experiences, is the film.

Robert Carradine (standing in for the cigar-chomping, pulp-fiction-writing Fuller), Mark Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco and Kelly Ward are the green recruits who become hardened survivors under the gruff tutelage of Lee Marvin’s tough, taciturn Sergeant. We never learn his name — this World War I retread is simply Sarge, and Sarge teaches these raw recruits that in war you don’t murder, you kill. The only glory in war is surviving, in Fuller’s clear-eyed portrait of combat, and this quartet of survivors becomes Sarge’s “Four Horsemen,” the eternal figures in a rifle squad filled out by a couple hundred replacements whose names they finally give up trying to learn.

Lee Marvin is Sarge
Lee Marvin is Sarge

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