I call myself a pacifist. I’m pretty sure that there isn’t a time when killing swaths of your fellow humans could be justified. I can’t think of a war that 1) couldn’t have been avoided if the right people were in charge, 2) didn’t go terribly wrong in terms of casualties, civilian and military and 3) bring out the worst in human behaviour. But I have a dark, dirty secret (that isn’t so secret to those who know me well)…I LOVE war movies. I don’t just mean the anti-war classics like All Quiet On the Western Front and Paths Of Glory. I mean good old-fashioned jingoistic flag-wavers with John Wayne and Van Johnson. I mean modern classics like Saving Private Ryan and Platoon. I know this seems like a disparity and I suppose it is, in a way. But in war movies, I often see men (and women) rising to humanitarian heights, overcoming physical limitations and demonstrating partisanship and cooperation, bringing out the man’s best in the worst of circumstances. This week is Remembrance Day here in Canada and in Britain and Veteran’s Day in the United States and at this time, I always feel led to watch a few of my favourites as well finding one or two I may have overlooked. As I grow older however, I become more aware of my mortality and more appreciative of the sacrifices made by others who chose to go into harm’s way for the ideal of freedom and this year in particular, I have been thinking of people I have known who were connected to war in some way and of course, the movies their situation brings to mind.
Although my dad was a couple of months shy of active service in World War 2 (he joined up on his 18th birthday but all he saw was basic training outside Toronto and weekend furloughs in Toronto), I have several uncles who saw a great deal of action. My uncle Mike was shot down behind German lines early in the war and sat through the war in a POW camp. As a child, when he and my aunt Kaye would come over for a swim and he would take off his shirt, I would marvel at the foot long scar rippling across his left shoulder from stray bullets during his capture. The Canadian military was ultimately very generous, providing him with a pension and a cushy job chauffeuring military types around Southern Ontario until his retirement but that would be a small price for the indignities he must have suffered and horrific sights he must have been privy to in those years in the German camp, as in the quintessential POW movie, The Great Escape. Although this rollicking and exciting adventure strays sometimes from the source material, the book by Paul Brickhill that outlines his own experiences as a prisoner at the infamous Stalag Luft II, the truly amazing thing is that the most unbelievable parts in the film are those that actually happened with Steve McQueen’s unpredictable behaviour and demands accounting for the bulk of the changes from the book. Another great movie (and book) from this same event is the British classic, The Wooden Horse, the true-life story of how an escape tunnel was dug essentially using only a wooden gymnastic horse and the ingenuity of dozens of prisoners.
My uncle Harry was one of the 76,000 Canadian troops that participated in the invasion of Sicily and ultimately Italy and spent many long months working his way north to free Italy from the fascist grip of Mussolini. On a recent trip to Italy, we were in Salerno, where the disembarkation of the Allied invasion of Italy took place and and as I walked on the boardwalk next to the Mediterranean, I couldn’t help but think of the thousands of young men who lost their lives where I was walking. The invasion of Sicily brings to mind the Oscar-winning film about the man who led the great invasion, Patton. General George Patton was an imposing, brash, egotistical man but a brilliant tactician and the ideal fodder for a movie biography. Francis Coppola and former military man Edmund North wrote a terrific script that perfectly captured the enigma that was Patton. George C. Scott would not give a better performance, even if he felt it necessary to turn down the Oscar that came with it and the movie would famously become Richard Nixon’s favourite.
Many years ago, I watched what was essentially another rip-off of The Dirty Dozen, The Devil’s Brigade. An entertaining romp, this one held a place of importance and pride to me though because it concerned a ragtag U.S. commando unit drummed into shape by Canadian Special Forces officers, led by Cliff Robertson. For once, the Canadians were the real heroes. It was many years later that my dad informed that not only was the Devil’s Brigade a real World War 2 unit, but the best man at my parent’s wedding, George Stocking, was a former member of the Devil’s Brigade. I promptly rushed home and watched it again and got a copy for my dad, who had never seen the movie.
My favourite war sub-genre is the submarine movie. The idea that a small group of men from every background works together for the greater good (and their own safety) inside a giant tube, constantly facing stress and danger is a formula that never gets old for me. Purists will list Das Boot and Run Silent Run Deep as the classics of the genre but my favourite is a propaganda piece that may lack in realism, but more than makes up for it in heart, Destination Tokyo. Released at the start of the Second World War to give audiences a glimpse into the heretofore unknown world of the silent service, it stars Cary Grant as the skipper of a sub that has the unenviable task of sneaking into Tokyo Bay on an espionage mission, providing us with humour, pathos, excitement, and sheer bravado in spades. Yeah, it’s old-fashioned but it’s old-fashioned fun.
Many may feel, even with the advent of ultra-realistic movies like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, that war movies diminish the great sacrifices the men and women who have served have made but I know that during virtually every war movie I watch, I have at least a moment of reflection when I’m thankful uncles Mike and Harry and all the other uncles, fathers, brothers, sisters, wives and aunts were willing to make the decision to serve their country so that pacifists like myself can enjoy the freedom they fought for.