War Movies, Old And New

I’m trying to decide whether to go see 1917 this coming weekend.

From the reviews I’ve read, 1917 sounds like a a powerful, well-made movie, with an intriguing dash of extended take technical wizardry thrown in, so it’s not that I’m afraid I’d be shelling out the money to see a clinker.  No, it’s all about the fact that the reviews of the film emphasize that it fully and very effectively exposes the brutal horror of war generally, and World War I specifically.  I’m not sure that I’m ready for that.


Growing up, “war movies” were a pretty simple genre.  The Americans were the good guys, and the countries we were fighting — especially the Nazis — were the bad guys.  War movies inevitably involved some barracks hijinks and basic training footage showing the tough drill sergeant and the camaraderie of soldiers coming together to fight for a noble cause, and the soldiers who died did so heroically in pursuit of a clear, greater good.  War movies really weren’t really all that bloody, either.  Soldiers who were killed after taking some courageous and selfless action tended to get shot in the gut and die grimacing and clutching their midsections, like Jim Brown’s character in The Dirty Dozen.

Of course, everyone — especially veterans — knew that the movies were a totally sanitized depiction of war, and eventually filmmakers began striving for more realism, first gradually and then more and more extensively.  With Saving Private Ryan and its groundbreaking treatment of storming of the Normandy beaches on D Day — showing men shot through the head, blown apart, searching for lost limbs, dying horrific deaths covered with gore and entrails on a faraway beach — the old war movies were officially gone and a new form of war movie had taken their place.  When I saw Saving Private Ryan, I found it to be a powerful and brilliant movie .  . . but boy, it was tough to watch and hard to take.  1917 sounds like more of the same, and I’m not sure I want to see it.

This sounds like a wussy reaction, and no doubt it is.  And I also think that it’s a positive that the old form of war movie, with its naive treatment of good guys and bad guys and bloodless heroism, isn’t being made to deceive people about what war is really like.  In fact, I feel somewhat guilty about feeling reluctant to go to movies like 1917 for a refresher course on how terrible war actually is.  But is it really how I want to spend a Friday night or a Saturday afternoon?

Ernest Borgnine

Ernest Borgnine died over the weekend.  He was 95, and he was one of those actors who just made Hollywood work.

Borgnine won a best actor Oscar for Marty in 1955, but was equally comfortable in supporting roles.  He was featured prominently in four iconic movies that I’ll gladly stop and watch whenever I see them on TV:  as the secretly delighted general in The Dirty Dozen, as the awesome Dutch Engstrom in The Wild Bunch, as the exasperated, then devastated, and ultimately heroic Rogo in The Poseidon Adventure, and as the cabbie in Escape From New York.  In each role — and in the many others he played during an acting career that spanned 60 years — Borgnine always brought something special and memorable to his characters.  Rogo’s intense, fuming responses to the constant chiding of Gene Hackman’s irreligious preacher and the whining of Red Buttons in The Poseidon Adventure are classic examples of an actor whose work can make a marginal plot more believable and a one-dimensional character much more intriguing.

In an era where there was a strict dividing line between movies and TV, Borgnine was equally comfortable on the big screen and the small screen.  His starring role in McHale’s Navy, and his work in countless other TV series, helped to break down that barrier.  Current stars who work regularly in both TV and film owe a tip of the cap to Ernest Borgnine.