The Red Badge of Courage (1951), Director: John Huston, Running time: 69 minutes.
John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage, like Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, is a heartbreakingly beautiful film mutilated by its studio after a disastrous preview process. You can—and should—read the fascinating production history in Lillian Ross's Picture. Picture is a classic—and so's the movie, even in a 69-minute reduction featuring a climactic Civil War battle that has Stephen Crane's young hero wearing his red badge of courage, then not wearing it, then wearing it again (MGM editor-in-chief Margaret Booth re-cut two different battles into one). Most-decorated-soldier-of-WWII Audie Murphy was chosen to star ("a gentle little killer," Huston mused); the shadow of WWII is also felt in the casting of war-front chronicler Bill Mauldin as Murphy's pal, and in Huston's own experience making his great battlefield documentary San Pietro. The panoramas evoke Mathew Brady, and Huston's close-up framing brings a psychoanalytic intensity to the terrified young soldier's inner turmoil. (Richard T. Jameson for Amazon.com)
Brian De Palma’s ferocious Redacted is one of a number of cinematic protests against the Iraq War and the withholding of information and images about the war from the U.S. public. But it also shares De Palma’s perennial interest in the relationship between film and violence, a relationship that has changed significantly in the real world because of the Internet, cable news, and the ubiquity of camcorders on the ground in Iraq.
In a world more intent than ever on watching everything, De Palma has fashioned Redacted to look like a daisy chain of found footage taken from disparate sources. These include an American soldier’s video journal (which, not insignificantly, is also supposed to be that soldier’s audition piece for film school), a French documentary, a security camera at the edge of an army compound, and streaming video online from insurgents and military families alike. Taken together, Redacted recreates the kind of Iraq War scenes we’ve heard about for years: soldiers kidnapped or felled by booby traps, pregnant women and children shot by American guards at military checkpoints because Iraqi drivers misunderstand orders, etc. With mood and setting firmly established, Redacted then tells the story of an atrocity ripped from headlines in 2006: the rape and murder of an Iraqi teen, as well as the murder of her family, by American soldiers who then proceed to cover up their crime. Meanwhile, other soldiers, well-meaning witnesses to what happened, implode with doubt and uncertainty about what to do.
In a way, Redacted is really about the paralysis of ordinary Americans confronted by the horror of our collective misjudgment about Iraq. It's a work of fiction using actors, meaning that De Palma employs a verisimilitude which sometimes doesn’t sit well with anyone who has seen a lot of Iraq War documentaries featuring real troops and real Iraqis. But De Palma is trying to do something very difficult, i.e., make the case that in war, truth really is the first casualty. (Tom Keogh for Amazon.com)
Roger Ebert called it "perfect," and certainly the timing couldn't have been much better: Rendition was released just as the U.S. was debating anew the issue of "extraordinary rendition," a policy (begun under the Clinton administration, accelerated after September 11, 2001) of handing over suspected terrorists to countries that use torture as an interrogation tool. Alas, the movie only rarely fills in the outlines of a prototypical "issue movie," the kind of thing peopled by cardboard characters tracing the patterns of an important, indeed urgent, subject. The plot kicks into gear when an Egyptian-born man (Omar Metwally) is sent to an unnamed North African country where torture is practiced, with the CIA in approval. The film takes a Crash dive through how this affects various people: his pregnant American wife (Reese Witherspoon), the reluctant CIA agent (Jake Gyllenhaal) on the scene, a severe interrogator (Yigal Naor), all the way up to a U.S. terrorism honcho (Meryl Streep) willing to turn a blind eye to the unpleasantness if it stops a terrorist attack. Things spark briefly when Witherspoon enlists an old beau (Peter Sarsgaard) to plead her case with his boss, a U.S. Senator (Alan Arkin), but for the most part director Gavin Hood (Totsi) can't find a way to color in these line drawings, despite the formidable actors doing spirited work. The issue is fully and lucidly explained, but the movie doesn't come alive. (Robert Horton)
In 2001, four Pakistani Britons, Ruhal Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul and another friend, Monir, travel to Pakistan for a wedding and in a urge of idealism, decide to see the situation of war torn Afganistan which is being bombed by the American forces in retaliation for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Once there, with the loss of Monir in the wartime chaos, they are captured by Northern Alliance fighters. They are then handed over to the American forces who transport them to the prison camps at the Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba. What follows is three years of relentless imprisonment, interrogations and torture to make them submit to blatantly wrong confessions to being terrorists. In the midst of this abuse, the three struggle to keep their spirits up in the face of this grave injustice. (Written by Kenneth Chisholm for IMDb)
One of the landmark films of the 1940s. The screenplay was written by Roberto Rossellini (with Federico Fellini and Sergio Amidei) while Rome was still occupied by German forces in 1943-44. Rossellini began filming in secret, using scavenged film stock without sound equipment, shortly before the city was liberated in June of 1944. Several key members of his creative team had been active in the Italian resistance movement. With its rough, documentary-style look, multi-layered narrative, the film captured the harsh and unforgiving textures of real life as few movies of its time had dared. It set the pace for Italian Neorealism as an influential postwar film style that combined outdoor light and location shooting with non-actors, a focus on simple stories of everyday life, and a concern for the poor and for social problems. It shows the lives of a group of people living in Rome during the Nazi occupation, after the Germans had declared it an "open city." Anna Magnani plays a woman in love with a member of a resistance group; in helping him, she risks not only her own life, but also that of her unborn child. Aldo Fabrizi plays a priest who aids the anti-Nazi cause and pays dearly for his activism. Marcello Pagliero is an outspoken communist who runs afoul of the Nazis. And Harry Feist plays a German officer who has taken an Italian lover, but whose affection for Romans does not run especially deep.
Saving Private Ryan (1999), Director: Steven Spielberg, Running time: 169 minutes.
Director Steven Spielberg's World War II tour de force chronicles the journey of a GI squad on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. Led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), the unit is under orders to track down a soldier, Private Ryan (Matt Damon), so he might return home to his mother in America, where she is grieving the unimaginable loss of her three other sons to the war. The first unforgettable 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan realistically and horrifically depicts the Normandy invasion as Miller, his second-in-command, Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore), and the others in the unit land at Omaha Beach.
The Sand Pebbles (1966), Director: Robert Wise, Running time: 182 minutes.
The Sand Pebbles tells many stories. It's the story of China, a slumbering giant that rouses itself to the cries of its people—and of the Americans who are caught in its blood awakening. It's the story of Frenchy (Richard Attenborough), a crewman on the U.S.S. San Pablo who kidnaps his Chinese bride from the auction block. It's the story of Shirley (Candice Bergen), a teacher and her first unforgettable taste of love. It's the story of Captain Collins (Richard Crenna), ready to defy anyone for his country's defense. Most of all, it's the story of Jake Holman (Steve McQueen), a sailor who has given up trying to make peace with anything - including himself. McQueen gives what is probably the best performance of his career. It's not surprising that he, Mako and the movie were up for Oscars. Portraying a character with conflicting loyalties to friend and flag, McQueen expertly conveys the confusion that leads into his final line: "What the hell happened?" It's to his credit that we already know.
Winner of seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, it also won every major Best Picture Awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Society of Film Critics, the National Board of Review, the Producers Guild, the Los Angeles Film Critics, the Chicago, Boston and Dallas Film Critics; a Christopher Award; and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association Golden Globe Awards. Steven Spielberg was further honored with the Directors Guild of America Award.
The film presents the indelible true story of the enigmatic Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi party, womanizer, and war profiteer who saved the lives of more than 1,100 Jews during the Holocaust. It is the triumph of one man who made a difference, and the drama of those who survived one of the darkest chapters in human history because of what he did. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the film, which also won Academy Awards for Screenplay, Cinematography, Music, Editing, and Art Direction, stars an acclaimed cast headed by Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagalle, and Embeth Davidtz.
A flawless work (The New Yorker) from Oscar winner Ingmar Bergman, Shame probes the atrocities of war both internal and external as a young couple struggles to survive while the world around them crumbles into chaos. On a remote island far removed from a raging civil war, Jan and Eva (Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann) retreat to their apolitical fortress: a small vegetable farm. But their serene existence is shattered when soldiers violently invade their home. Now caught in the crosshairs of a brutal and inhuman conflict, Jan and Eva become survivors with only one concern to endure.
Sir! No Sir! (2006), Director: David Zeiger, Running time: 84 minutes
Easily the most timely and resonant film about the soldiers on the front lines of anti-war resistance, the award-winning breakout theatrical hit Sir! No Sir! tells an almost entirely forgotten story of the military men and women who helped force the U.S. government to end the Vietnam War. Contrary to the popular image of long-haired hippies spitting on returning soldiers, Sir! No Sir! vividly demonstrates that GIs were the heart and soul of the anti-war movement. Poignantly narrated by a diverse cast of veteran GI resisters who recall the ferocious days of peace marches and stiff jail sentences, Sir! No Sir! pulls no punches in its raw depiction of the power of people, especially those in uniform. Directed by David Zeiger, Sir! No Sir! is "powerful stuff, offering us not only a new look at the past, but to the unavoidably relevant insights into the present" (New York Daily News).
Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), Director: George Roy Hill, Running time: 104 minutes.
Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) has a problem with time: he keeps jumping about in his own life, principally between three key scenes. The "present" is a kind of glowing suburban bliss involving a dutiful wife, large house, and presidency of the local Lions; the "past" is being a prisoner of World War II and experiencing the firebombing of Dresden from the wrong side; the "future" takes place in a glass dome on the planet Tralfamadore, to which Billy has been mysteriously spirited along with the woman of his fantasies (Montana Wildhack, played by Valerie Perrine). It isn't meant to make too much sense, since the point is to represent a man (and a century) that has witnessed things too unbearable for a wholly sane person to make sense of. In fact author Kurt Vonnegut's anguished cry on the insanity of war is one of those completely unfilmable books, so director George Roy Hill gets points even for trying. The whole package is thought provoking in a wholly Vonnegutian way. (Richard Farr for Amazon. com)
Soldier Blue (1970), Director: Ralph Nelson, Running time: 112 minutes.
This excessively violent western finds Cresta Marybelle Lee (Candice Bergen) and US Army Private Honus Gant (Peter Strauss) the only survivors of an Indian massacre. The two live with the Cheyennes for two years before they manage to escape. Isaac Cumber (Donald Pleasence) is the white trader who sells guns to the Indians. Cresta tries to warn the tribe that they will be massacred by the soldiers. When the Indians try to surrender, their pleas for mercy are ignored. Women are raped, children are killed and the entire village is burned to the ground. The film tries to draw parallels between the war in Vietnam and the extermination of the Indians a century earlier. There is no middle ground or shades of gray as the Indians are portrayed as good and the soldiers as bad.
Sophie's Choice (1982), Director: Alan J. Pakula, Running time: 150 minutes.
A young would-be writer named Stingo (Peter MacNicol) shares a boarding house with beautiful Polish immigrant Sophie (Meryl Streep) and her tempestuous lover, Nathan (Kevin Kline); their friendship changes his life. This adaptation of the bestselling novel by William Styron is faithful to the point of being reverential, which is not always the right way to make a film come to life. But director Alan J. Pakula (All the President's Men) provides a steady, intelligent path into the harrowing story of Sophie, whose flashback memories of the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp form the backbone of the movie. Streep's exceptional performance—flawless Polish accent and all—won her an Oscar, and effectively raised the standard for American actresses of her generation. No less impressive is Kevin Kline, in his movie debut, capturing the mercurial moods of the dangerously attractive Nathan. The two worlds of Sophie's Choice, nostalgic Brooklyn and monstrous Europe, are beautifully captured by the gifted cinematographer Néstor Almendros, whose work was Oscar-nominated but didn't win. It should have. (Robert Horton for Amazon.com)
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005), Director: Marc Rothemund, Running time: 117 minutes.
2005 Academy Award Nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Sophie Scholl - The Final Days is the true story of Germany's most famous anti-Nazi heroine brought to thrilling, dramatic life. Sophie Scholl stars Julia Jentsch in a luminous performance as the fearless activist of the underground student resistance group, The White Rose. Armed with long-buried historical records of her incarceration, director Marc Rothemund expertly re-creates the last six days of Sophie Scholl's life: a heart-stopping journey from arrest to interrogation, trial and sentence in 1943 Munich. Unwavering in her convictions and loyalty to her comrades, her cross-examination by the Gestapo quickly escalates into a searing test of wills as Scholl delivers a passionate call to freedom and personal responsibility that is both haunting and timeless.
The Sorrow and the Pity (1972), Director: Marcel Ophuls, Running time: 251 minutes.
A chronicle of a French city under the occupation. Director Marcel Ophuls combined interviews and archival film footage to explore the reality of the French occupation in one small industrial city, Clermont-Ferrand. He spoke with resistance fighters, collaborators, spies, farmers, government officials, writers, artists and veterans. The result is a shattering portrait of how ordinary people actually conducted themselves under extraordinary circumstances. By turns gripping, horrifying, and inspiring, Academy Award nominee The Sorrow and the Pity is a triumph of humanist filmmaking and a testament to the power of cinema.
SPIN: The Art of Selling the War (2007), Director: Josh Rushing, Running time: 23 minutes.
Directed by Josh Rushing, a veteran Marine Corps media spokesman, SPIN: The Art of Selling War is an investigative documentary that looks at the standard justification for going to war by the American administrations of past and present.
Stalag 17 (1953), Director: Billy Wilder, Running time: 120 minutes.
Billy Wilder's adaptation of the Broadway hit stars William Holden as the cynical Sefton. Set in the eponymous German prison camp during WWII, the director's broad, black comedy focuses on a group of decidedly unheroic prisoners. While they spend most of their time trying to entertain each other with comedy routines and pin-ups, they also occasionally entertain thoughts of escape. But escape is the last thing on the mind of the hard, calculating Sefton, a wheeler-dealer who's salted away a stash of creature comforts which are the envy of the barracks. When a couple of prisoners are killed while attempting to escape, Sefton collects the money he won by betting against their success, and many believe that it was he who informed the Germans. After a new prisoner, Lt. Dunbar (Don Taylor) talks openly about having bombed a German ammo train, he's immediately subjected to a harsh interrogation by sadistic commandant Oberst von Scherbach (Otto Preminger). Their suspicions confirmed, the prisoners take revenge against Sefton.
It's tempting to call this harrowing picture a World War II version of All Quiet on the Western Front: both films take the perspective of ordinary German soldiers at ground level. Stalingrad surveys the misery of the battle of Stalingrad, the winter siege that cost the lives of almost one and a half million people, Russian defenders and German invaders alike. Not unlike Spielberg's approach to Saving Private Ryan, German director Joseph Vilsmaier rarely steps outside the action to comment on the higher purpose of the war, assuming the audience is aware of the evil of the Nazi regime. Instead, we simply follow a group of soldiers as they endure a series of gut-wrenching episodes, events which have the tang of authenticity and horror. Vilsmaier has a taste for symbolism and surreal touches, which only add to the unsettling sense of insanity this movie conjures up so well. (Robert Horton for Amazon.com)
Streamers (1983), Director: Robert Altman, Running time: 118 minutes.
Four young recruits about to be sent to Vietnam to confront their prejudicial feelings toward one another when it's learned one of them is homosexual. (Written by Humberto Amador for IMDb)
One woman trapped with a crew of desperate men. Winner of two awards at the 1954 Berlin International Film Festival, Submarine Attack stars Lois Maxwell (James Bond's "Miss Moneypenny") and an all-star international cast in a thrilling WWII ocean epic that tells a unique tale of profound humanity. When an Italian U-boat torpedoes a Danish freighter in the treacherous seas of the North Atlantic, the captain of the sub makes the noble decision to bring the ship's survivors onboard. But in order to save the lives of these men, the captain must leave his own vessel exposed to enemy attack and travel above the water line for 700 miles. Under these difficult circumstances, both captors and captives develop a mutual respect and camaraderie that transcends their wartime conflict.
Swing Kids (1993), Director: Thomas Carter II, Running time: 114 minutes.
In 1939 Hamburg, Germany, a group of teenagers express their rebellion against Adolph Hitler's Nazi regime through their affection for American swing music, British fashion, and Harlem slang. American and British big-band jazz records are among those banned by the Fuhrer, but the young men secretly get together with their friends to listen and dance to the music. As their escapades become increasingly bold, they each get into trouble with the authorities. Robert Sean Leonard stars as Peter, who ends up being forced—by a prank—into having to join the Hitler Youth with his friend Thomas (Christian Bale). They are both engineering students at the university, where Thomas' father was taken away for defending his Jewish colleagues. With Arvid (Frank Whaley), they pretend to be Nazi supporters by day while rebelling with the swing music by night. Kenneth Branagh, in an un-credited appearance, is a glib Nazi Gestapo chief who makes matters more difficult. Each of the boys must choose among family, safety, friendship, and freedom as politics impinge on their youthful exuberance, and the Nazis set them against one another. (Michael Betzold, All Movie Guide)