“When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today”
Inscription on the memorial to the dead of the British 2nd Infantry Division at Kohima.
The upcoming Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer, is a time of fun here in the US. However, it should also be a time of memory. Memorial day is derived from the Latin “memoria”, memory, and we are duty bound this weekend to remember those who died in our defense, and who left us with a debt which can never be repaid. One aid to memory can be films, and here are a few suggestions for films to watch this weekend.
1. Sergeant York (1941)-A film biopic of Sergeant Alvin C. York, who, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on October 8, 1918 , took 32 German machine guns, killed 28 German soldiers and captured another 132. Viewers who came to see the movie in 1941 must have been initially puzzled. With a title like Sergeant York, movie goers could have been forgiven for thinking that Sergeant York’s experiences in World War I would be the focus, but such was not the case. Most of the film is focused on York’s life in Tennessee from 1916-1917 before American entry into the war. Like most masterpieces, the film has a strong religious theme as we witness York’s conversion to Christ. The film is full of big questions: How are we to live? Why are we here? What role should religion play in our lives? How does someone gain faith? What should we do if we perceive our duty to God and to Country to be in conflict? It poses possible answers to these questions with a skillful mixture of humor and drama. The entertainment value of Sergeant York conceals the fact that it is a very deep film intellectually as it addresses issues as old as Man.
The film was clearly a message film and made no bones about it. The paper of the film industry Variety noted at the time: “In Sergeant York the screen has spoken for national defense. Not in propaganda, but in theater.”
The film was a huge success upon release in 1941, the top grossing film of the year. Gary Cooper justly earned the Oscar for his stellar performance as Alvin C. York. It was Cooper’s favorite of his pictures. “Sergeant York and I had quite a few things in common, even before I played him in screen. We both were raised in the mountains – Tennessee for him, Montana for me – and learned to ride and shoot as a natural part of growing up. Sergeant York won me an Academy Award, but that’s not why it’s my favorite film. I liked the role because of the background of the picture, and because I was portraying a good, sound American character.”
The film portrays a devout Christian who had to reconcile the command to “Love thy Neighbor” with fighting for his country in a war. This is not an easy question and the film does not give easy answers, although I do find this clip compelling.
2. Saving Private Ryan (1998)- “Earn this….Earn it”. A message for us all to remember this Memorial Day and every day.
3. The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)-This film earned John Wayne his first Oscar nomination as best actor. (Broderick Crawford would win for his stunning performance in All The King’s Men.) Wayne was initially reluctant to take the role, partly because he had not fought in World War II, and partly because he saw script problems and didn’t like the character of Sergeant Stryker as initially written in the screen play. (There is evidence that Wayne, 34 at the time of Pearl Harbor, and with 3 kids, did attempt to volunteer in 1943 for the Marine Corps with assignment to John Ford’s OSS Field Photographic Unit, but was turned down.)
Wayne was convinced to take the role because the film had the enthusiastic backing of the Marine Corps, which viewed it as a fitting tribute to the Marines who fought in the Pacific, and to help combat a move in Congress to abolish the Corps. Marine Commandant Clifton B. Cates went to see Wayne to request that he take the role and Wayne immediately agreed. (Thus began a long association of John Wayne with the Marine Corps, including Wayne narrating a tribute to Marine Lieutenant General Chesty Puller.)
Appearing in the film were several Marine veterans of the Pacific, including Colonel David Shoup, who earned a Medal of Honor for his heroism at Tarawa, and who would later serve as a Commandant of the Corps, and Lieutenant Colonel Henry Crow who led a Marine battalion at Tarawa. The Marine Corp hymn is sung in the film after the death of Wayne’s character, one of ten films in which a Wayne character died, and as the raising of the flag is recreated.
Taking part in the flag raising were Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes and John Bradley, the three survivors of the six flag raisers who survived the battle. (The three men who raised the flag and subsequently died in the battle were Franklin Sousely, Harlon Block and Michael Strank.) (First Lieutenant Harold Schrier, who led the flag raising party that raised the first, smaller, flag on Mount Suribachi, and who was awarded a Navy Cross and a Silver Star for his heroism on Iwo Jima, also appeared in the film.) The flag on top of Mount Suribachi could be seen across the island, and was greeted with cheers by the Marines and blaring horns by the ships of the Navy. A mass was said on Mount Suribachi at the time of the flag raising and I have written about that here. Go here to see the ending of the Sands of Iwo Jima and listen to the Marines’ Hymn.
4. The Horse Soldiers (1959)-In 1959 John Ford and John Wayne, in the last of their “cavalry collaborations”, made The Horse Soldiers, a film based on Harold Sinclair’s novel of the same name published in 1956, which is a wonderful fictionalized account of Grierson’s Raid.
Perhaps the most daring and successful Union cavaly raid of the war, Colonel Benjamin Grierson, a former music teacher and band leader from Jacksonville, Illinois, who, after being bitten by a horse at a young age, hated horses, led from April 17-May 2, 1863 1700 Illinois and Iowa troopers through 600 miles of Confederate territory from southern Tennessee to the Union held Baton Rouge in Louisiana. Grierson and his men ripped up railroads, burned Confederate supplies and tied down many times their number of Confederate troops and succeeded in giving Grant a valuable diversion as he began his movement against Vicksburg. The film is a fine remembrance of the courage of the soldiers North and South who fought in our war without an enemy.
5. American Sniper (2015)- A grand tribute to the late Chris Kyle and to all the other troops who served in Iraq.
7. Twelve Oclock High (1949)-An homage to the men of the Eighth Air Force and the high casulaties they endured as they pioneered precision day-light bombing in the skies over Europe in 1942-1943. The movie was hailed when it premiered for its gritty realism by Army Air Corps veterans. Few films have better illustrated the loneliness and pressure of command in war, as you lead men to their deaths and can do nothing to change that grim reality.
8. Gettysburg (1993)-It is fitting that the greatest movie made about the Civil War deals with the greatest battle of that war. You simply cannot understand the United States without understanding the Civil War.
The Civil War was really one of those watershed things. There was a huge chasm between the beginning and the end of the war. The nation had come face-to-face with a dreadful tragedy… And yet that’s what made us a nation. Before the war, people had a theoretical notion of having a country, but when the war was over, on both sides they knew they had a country. They’d been there. They had walked its hills and tramped its roads… They knew the effort that they had expended and their dead friends had expended to preserve it. It did that. The war made their country an actuality.
9. The Lost Battalion (2001)-A movie on the heroic stand of the 1rst Battalion, 308th Infantry, 77th Division, during the Meuse-Argonne offensive in World War I. The Medal of Honor citation of the commander of the battalion says it all:
Although cut off for 5 days from the remainder of his division, Maj. Whittlesey maintained his position, which he had reached under orders received for an advance, and held his command, consisting originally of 46 officers and men of the 308th Infantry and of Company K of the 307th Infantry, together in the face of superior numbers of the enemy during the 5 days. Maj. Whittlesey and his command were thus cut off, and no rations or other supplies reached him, in spite of determined efforts which were made by his division. On the 4th day Maj. Whittlesey received from the enemy a written proposition to surrender, which he treated with contempt, although he was at the time out of rations and had suffered a loss of about 50 percent in killed and wounded of his command and was surrounded by the enemy.
10. The Caine Mutiny (1954)-Humphrey Bogart gives a superb performance as the commander of the USS Caine who cracks under the strain of war. In one short sequence at the end, shown in the video below, the film is turned on its head and the audience is given an entirely new view of what they have seen. Queeg, portrayed by Bogart, is transformed from a villain to a man who needed help, and who was denied aid by his fellow officers. As a result a mutiny occurred, Queeg is destroyed, Maryk is branded a mutineer, his career probably destroyed despite his acquittal, and Keefer, the true villain of the piece, walks away unscathed, assuming his conscience does not trouble him.
The speech of Greenwald, the defense attorney, is given at greater length in the novel and is much more effective:
“The lawyer’s blues were rumpled and baggy, and his walk was not of the steadiest, but nobody at the table was in a condition to notice. He came to the head of the table and stood stupidly, resting a hand on the empty chair, looking around slack-mouthed. “party’s pretty far along, hey” he said, as wine splashed in a dozen glasses and all the officers shouted greetings. Keefer made his glass ring with a knife.
“All right, quiet, you drunken mutineers. A toast, I say!” He lifted his glass high. “To Lieutenant Barney Greenwald–a Cicero with two stripes–a Darrow with winces–the terror of judge advocates–the rescuer of the oppressed and the downtrodden–the forensic St. George who slew with his redoubtable tongue that most horrible of dragons–Old Yellowstain!”
They all cheered; they all drank; they sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” in bellowing discords. The lawyer stood, pallid and skinny, his mouth foolishly twitching in momentary grins. “Speech! Speech!” said Keefer, clapping his hands and dropping into his chair, and everybody took up the cry and the applause.
“No, no,” Greenwald mumbled, but in a moment he was standing alone, and all the faces at the table were turned to him. The party settled into expectant quiet. “I’m drunker’n any of you,” he said. “I’ve been out drinking with the judge advocate–trying to get him to take back some of the dirty names he called me–finally got him to shake hands on the ninth whisky sour–maybe the tenth–“
“That’s good,” Maryk said. “Challee’s a decent guy–“
“Had to talk loud ‘n’ fast, Steve–I played pretty dirty pool, you know, in court–poor jack, he made a wonderful argument. Multitudes, Multitudes, hey,” He peered blearingly at the cake. “Well, I guess I ought to return the celebrated author’s toast, at that.” He fumbled at a bottle and sloshed wine into a class and all over his hands. “Biblical title of course. Can’t do better for a war book. I assume you gave the Navy a good pasting?”
“I don’t think Public Relations would clear it, at any rate,” the novelist said, grinning.
“Fine. Someone should show up these stodgy, stupid Prussians.”
Greenwald weaved and grabbed at the chair. “I told you I’m pretty far along–I’ll get to my speech yet, don’t worry–Wanna know’ about the book first. Who’s the hero, you?”
“Well, any resemblance, you know, is purely accidental–“
“Course I’m warped,” said Greenwald, “and I’m drunk, but it suddenly seems to me that if I wrote a war novel I’d try to make a hero out of Old Yellowstain.” Jorgensen whooped loudly, but nobody else laughed, and the ensign subsided, goggling around. “No, I’m serious, I would. Tell you why, Tell you how I’m warped. I’m a Jew, guess most of you know that. Name’s Greenwald, kind of look like one, and I sure am one, from way back. Jack Challee said I used smart Jew-lawyer tactics–course he took it back, apologized, after I told him a few things he didn’t know– Well, anyway…The reason I’d make Old Yellowstain a hero is on account of my mother, little gray-headed Jewish lady, fat, looks a lot like Mrs. Maryk here, meaning no offense.”
He actually said “offensh.” His speech was halting and blurry. He was gripping the spilling glass tightly the scars on his hand made red rims around the bluish grafted skin.
“Well, sure, you guys all have mothers, but they wouldn’t be in the same bad shape mine would if we’d of lost this war, which of course we aren’t, we’ve won the damn thing by now. See, the Germans aren’t kidding about the Jew. They’re cooking us down to soap over there. They think we’re vermin and should be terminated and our corpses turned into something useful. Granting the premise–being warped, I don’t, but granting the premise, soap is as good an idea as any. But I just can’t cotton to the idea of my mom melted down into a bar of soap. I had an uncle and an aunt in Cracow, who are soap now, but that’s different, I never saw my uncle and aunt, just saw letters in Jewish from them, ever since I was a kid, but I can’t read Jewish. but never could read them. Jew, but I can’t read Jewish.”
The faces looking up at him were becoming sober and puzzled. ” I’m coming to Old Yellowstain. Coming to him. See, while I was studying law ‘n old Keefer here was writing his play for the Theatre Guild, and Willie here was on the playing fields of Prinshton, all that time these birds we call regulars–these stuffy, stupid Prussians, in the Navy and the Army -were manning guns. Course they weren’t doing it to save my mom from Hitler, they’re doing it for dough, like everybody else does what they do. Question is, in the last analysis–last analysis–what do you do for dough? Old Yellowstain, for dough, was standing guard on this fat dumb and happy country of ours. Meantime me, I was advancing little free non-Prussian life for dough. Of course, we figured in those days, only fools go into armed service. Bad pay, no millionaire future, and you can’t call your mind or body your own. Not for sensitive intellectuals. So when all hell broke loose and the Germans started running out of soap and figured, well it’s time to come over and melt down old Mrs. Greenwald–who’s gonna stop them? Not her boy Barney. Can’t stop a Nazi with a lawbook. So I dropped the lawbooks and ran to learn how to fly. Stout fellow. Meantime, and it took a year and a half before I was any good, who was keeping Mama out of the soap dish? Captain Queeg.”
“Yes, even Queeg, poor sad guy, yes, and most of them not sad at all, fellows, a lot of them sharper boys than any of us, don’t kid yourself, best men I’ve ever seen, you can’t be good in the Army or Navy unless you’re goddamn good. Though maybe not up on Proust ‘n’ Finnegan’s Wake and all.”
Greenwald stopped, and looked from side to side. “Seem to be losing the thread here. Supposed to be toasting the Caine’s favorite author. Well, here goes, I’ll try not to maunder too much. Somebody flap a napkin at me if I get incoherent. Can’t stay for dinner so I’m glad you called on me to make a toast so I can get it over with. I can’t stay because I’m not hungry. Not for this dinner. It would in fact undoubtedly disagree with me.”
He turned to Maryk.
“Steve, the thing is, this dinner is a phony. You’re guilty. I told you at the start that you were. Course you’re only half guilty. F’ that matter, you’ve only been half acquitted. You’re a dead duck. You have no more chance now of transferring to the regular Navy than of running for President. The reviewing authorities’ll call it a miscarriage of justice, which it is, and a nice fat letter of reprimand will show up in your promotion packet–and maybe in mine–and it’s back to the fishing business for Steve Maryk. I got you off by phony, legal tricks–by making clowns out of Queeg, and a Freudian psychiatrist–which was like shooting two tuna fish in a barrel–and by ‘pealing very unethically and irrelevantly to the pride of the Navy. Did everything but whistle Anchors Aweigh. Only time it looked tough was when the Caine’s favorite author testified. Nearly sunk you, boy. I don’t quite understand him, since of course he was the author of the Caine mutiny among his other works. Seems to me he’d of gotten up on the line with you and Willie, and said straight out that he always insisted Queeg was a dangerous paranoiac. See, it would only made things worse to drag Keefer in. You know all about that, so as long as he wanted to run out on you all I could do was let him run–“
“Just a minute–” Keefer made a move to get up.
“‘Scuse me, I’m all finished, Mr. Keefer. I’m up to the toast. Here’s to You. You bowled a perfect score. You went after Queeg, and got him. You kept your own skirts all white and starchy. Steve is finished for good, but you’ll be the next captain of the Caine. You’ll retire old and full of fat fitness reports. You’ll publish your novel proving that the Navy stinks, and you’ll make a million dollars and marry Hedy Lamarr. No letter of reprimand for you, Just royalties on your novel. So you won’t mind a li’l verbal reprimand from me, what does it mean? I defended Steve because I found out the wrong guy was on trial. Only way I could defend him was to sink Queeg for you. I’m sore that I was pushed into that spot, and ashamed of what I did, and thass why I’m drunk. Queeg deserved better at my hands. I owed him a favor, ‘don’t you see? He stopped Hermann Goering from washing his fat behind with my mother.”
“So I’m not going to eat your dinner, Mr. Keefer, or drink your wine, but simply make my toast and go. Here’s to you, Mr. Caine’s favorite author, and here’s to your book.”
He threw the yellow wine in Keefer’s face.
A little splashed on Willie. It happened so fast that the officers at the other end of the table didn’t know what he had done. Maryk started to get up. “For Christ’s sake, Barney–“
The lawyer shoved him back into his chair with a shaking hand. Keefer automatically pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at his face, staring dumfounded at Greenwald. Greenwald said, “If you want to do anything about it, Keefer, I’ll wait in the lobby for you. We can go someplace quiet. We’re both drunk, so it’s a fair fight’ You’ll probably lick me. I’m a lousy fighter.”
The other officers were beginning to mutter to each other agitatedly, glancing sidewise at Keefer. Greenwald strode out of the room, stumbling a little near the door. The novelist stood up. There was a thick, ugly silence, as though someone had just shouted a lot of dirty words. Keefer glanced around and uttered a laugh. No eye met his. He dropped back in his chair. “The hell with it. Poor guy is just crazy drunk. I’m hungry. He’ll be around to apologize in the morning. Willie, tell them to bring on the chow.”