Enduring memorials and sharp critiques: A century of war films (Book Review)

Title: Fifty Great War Films; Author: Tim Newark; Publisher: Osprey Publishing/Bloomsbury; Pages: 208; Price: Rs 599

Do you know which war film earned the ire of Winston Churchill, who felt it cariacatured him and tried to get it banned? Which one was used by the US Air Force for training its officers in leadership? Or which ones inspired George Lucas for that iconic, heart-stopping action scene in the first Star War film (now numbered IV) where Luke Skywalker takes on the Death Star?

Military historian Tim Newark provides answers to these questions, while furnishing other tidbits galore in this compilation of a century of war movies and also shows how these, which have been for millions all around the world, their first – and perhaps only – introduction, to various battles and wars, have a wider, enduring significance beyond the bounds of cinema – and history.

He makes a strong case that these are enduring war memorials – but not always of the sort that jingoists would like, for some have propaganda value or celebrate their people’s valour and resolve during conflict, many also focus on tricky moral questions in war as well as its negative aspects and effects.

“Today, alongside days of remembrance and the erection of new memorials, we most frequently and widely commemorate our battles and soldiers through war movies,” says Newark, who has earlier author of several critically acclaimed military history books, including “Highlander”, “The Fighting Irish”, and “Camouflage”.

He notes that while they present “the individual courage, camaraderie and professionalism of soldiers” but “as befits a free society, these films are often critical of the conduct of past battles and question the value of so much loss”.

And in his odyssey spanning “The Battle of the Somme” (1916) to “American Sniper” (2014), including acknowledged classics of the genre like “Lawrence of Arabia”, “The Longest Day”, “The Great Escape”, “The Dirty Dozen”, “The Battle of Britain” and “Tora!Tora!Tora!”, but also “All Quiet on the Western Front”, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, “The Deer Hunter”, “Apocalypse Now”, “Platoon”, and “Enemy at the Gates” with less than a flattering view of wars and soldiers, both views come across.

Newark provides a concise synopsis and analysis, images and original posters but while his account is incisive and informative, at four pages per entry, it is sometimes too brief, and he doesn’t list the cast – which however given some of the star-studded films could have hogged more space.

But where he does a signal service is in resurrecting some forgotten classics that even some avid war movie buffs might not have been aware of.

Among them are tense desert survival tale “Ice Cold in Alex” (1958), starring John Mills and Anthony Quayle and directed by J Lee Thompson (who would go on later to helm “The Guns of Navarone”, with its name derived from the beer Mills plans to down in a bar when they reach Alexandria, “Hell in the Pacific” (1969), with Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune, which Newark terms “Robinson Crusoe in a war setting”, and Samuel Fuller “The Big Red One”, also starring Marvin, as a veteran soldier still haunted about the fact that he killed an enemy, hours after the armistice.

Then there is also Fuller’s “The Steel Helmet” (1951) dealing with the Korean conflict but used “as a platform to criticise the racism endemic in 1950s America and to explore the brutality of war, all of which deeply angered the Pentagon and the FBI”. Made on a shoe-string budget with the director eschewing use of famous actors, using student extras and a plywood tank, it went to become a box office success.

With most of the films featured are about World Wars I and II or the Vietnam War and are British or American productions, including some other conflicts or other film-making traditions could have been worthwhile. There some will quibble over the selection – for me, “Gettysburg”, “Night of the Generals” would have been welcome while plugging for “Kelly’s Heroes” over “Three Kings”, but it is still a book every war film aficionado will treasure.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

–IANS

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