“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.