Part 3

War Films
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Korean War Films:

In the 1950s, the Korean War in Northeast Asia served as inspiring content for only a few Hollywood films, including two anti-war films by Samuel Fuller about the madness of war: Fixed Bayonets (1951) and The Steel Helmet (1951). One of the best films about the Korean War was director Joseph H. Lewis' Retreat, Hell (1952), portraying the US Marine Corps' valiant withdrawal from the Changjin Reservoir, with Frank Lovejoy as the Marine Battalion Commander. In Mark Robson's The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), based on James Michener's novel, William Holden played the role of a war-weary Lieutenant - a family man recalled from the Naval Reserve to fly a possibly-fateful bombing mission over Communist-protected bridges in Korea. Lewis Milestone's anti-war masterpiece Pork Chop Hill (1959) starred Gregory Peck as an Army Lieutenant of a platoon (King Company) in a no-win situation - commanded to assault a tactically-unimportant, but well-guarded hill held by the N. Koreans and Chinese Communists in the final days of the war. [Milestone had two previous anti-war films for each of the World Wars, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and A Walk in the Sun (1946).] Peck also starred as the rebel general in Joseph Sargent's war drama MacArthur (1977), told in flashback, including his promise at Corregidor in 1942 ("I shall return"), and his firing by President Truman for defying orders during the Korean conflict. John Frankenheimer's chilling The Manchurian Candidate (1962) brilliantly examined the fearful, sinister consequences of Korean War brainwashing, with Laurence Harvey as Raymond Shaw - a military hero programmed to assassinate, and his power-hungry, manipulative mother Angela Lansbury.

M*A*S*H - 1970Years later, iconoclastic Robert Altman's anti-Korean war, off-beat dark-comedy M*A*S*H (1970), with its ballad 'Suicide is Painless,' was an outrageous satirization about a group of surgeons and nurses stationed at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) along the Korean 38th parallel. The army surgeons retained their sanity by joking, anti-authoritarian and anti-bureaucratic sentiment, and pranks. Although the film was set in Korea, its real focus of attention was the frustrating Vietnam conflict. Only Burghoff of the superb cast (Elliott Gould, Donald Sutherland, Oscar-nominated Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall and Gary Burghoff) went on to reprise his role as Radar in the popular, long-running TV series.

Other 50s and 60s War Films:

Most war films in the 1950s ignored the Korean conflict, however, and instead looked back at both earlier world wars with films mixing entertainment, history, and drama. Top stars Humphrey Bogart (in an Oscar-winning performance as a cynical, alcoholic boat owner) and Katharine Hepburn (as a stubborn, indomitable spinster missionary) starred together in John Huston's exciting World War I adventure film The African Queen (1951), shot on location in Africa. Together, as representatives of the American and British positions, they confronted the Germans on the geographical margins of the major conflict. Graham Greene's 1955 novel was twice adapted for the screen: first by director/writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz as The Quiet American (1958) starring Audie Murphy, featuring a love triangle set amidst political turmoil in 1952 Saigon around the time of the end of the First Indochina War, and second by Phillip Noyce as a more faithful remake - The Quiet American (2002), with Oscar-nominated Michael Caine.

Director Edward Dmytryk's The Caine Mutiny (1954), another film with Bogart and an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Herman Wouk novel, told the story of shipboard conflict and a mutiny aboard a WWII naval vessel (USS Caine), and the subsequent court-martial trial of the paranoid ship's captain. Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 (1952) examined a group of G.I.s (including Best Actor-winning William Holden) who were thrown together in the notorious German WWII prison camp, Stalag 17. Guy Hamilton's The Battle of Britain (1969), with Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer and Robert Shaw as RAF pilots, accurately captured how valiant the British were 'under fire' during the many air battles and bombing raids of the German Luftwaffe in the summer and autumn of 1940. The true, gripping espionage tale The Man Who Never Was (1955) told of how British intelligence agents fooled the Nazis with fake invasion plans planted on an Allied corpse. Stanley Kramer's chilling On the Beach (1959) dramatized the results of global nuclear war for the last survivors in Australia.

Paths of Glory - 1957Another very effective anti-war film of WW I was Stanley Kubrick's Paths Of Glory (1957), a tale of the fate confronting scapegoated, innocent French soldiers wrongfully brought before a court-martial trial before their execution. The insanity and absurdity of war was never better told in its story of corruption in the French High Command, with Kirk Douglas as the commander of the French regiment stationed along the Western Front. Its WWI warfare scenes, with technically-brilliant tracking shots in the trenches, are some of the most realistic ever filmed. [Australian director Bruce Beresford's courtroom drama Breaker Morant (1980), with English actor Edward Woodward, told a similar story of three British soldiers in the Boer War at the turn of the century, as members of the Bushveldt Carboniers, who were scapegoated and placed on trial for court-martial for shooting POW's.] The UK's historical epic Zulu (1964) recreated the 1879 Zulu warrior siege of Rorke's Drift, a South African outpost held by outnumbered British-Welsh soldiers in Natal, Africa.

There were two Civil War era war films in the 50s. The confusion and fear of the wartime experience for a young, recruited Civil War Union soldier was presented in John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage (1951), an adaptation of Stephen Crane's 1894 novel, with real-life war hero Audie Murphy in the anti-heroic lead role. Another Civil War film, John's Ford's The Horse Soldiers (1959) (Ford's only Civil War film), starred John Wayne as the tough leader of a contingent of Union soldiers, sent on a mission into Confederate territory in Louisiana to destroy a railroad line and cut off supplies.

Director David Lean's only pure war film was Columbia's The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), a powerful, award-winning, widescreen action/drama and perceptive character study. Its main focus was the 'madness' of war - exemplified by the clash of wills between two fanatical military leaders: Japanese Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) and British Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness), during the 1943 construction by British POWs of a bridge for the Burma-Siam railway. Robert Wise's The Sand Pebbles (1966), starred Steve McQueen as a naval machinist's mate on board a US naval gunboat (captained by Richard Crenna) on the Yangtze River on the eve of the 1926 Chinese revolution. Its story of tragic warfare and a failed mission (a veiled and subtle comment upon the Vietnam War) was expressed by McQueen's final words: "What the hell happened?"

Black Comedies/War Films:

War films that satirized the insanity of war, known as black comedies, included:

  • Stalag 17 - 1953the Marx Brothers' classic Duck Soup (1933)
  • Billy Wilder's black comedy/drama Stalag 17 (1953) with Best Actor-winning William Holden, perfectly captured the situation of U.S. POW soldiers in a Nazi prison camp during WWII [The setting of the film was later adapted for the TV series Hogan's Heroes]
  • Stanley Kubrick's masterful anti-war film of the nuclear age, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), similar to Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe (1964) about a computer malfunction that triggers a nuclear war, with Peter Sellers playing three roles
  • Mike Nichols' anti-war satire about the absurdities of war, Catch-22 (1970), told about a defiant WWII bomber pilot (Alan Arkin), one of many fliers stationed in the Mediterranean trying to escape the conflict
  • Robert Altman's M*A*S*H (1970), already mentioned
  • Ivan Reitman's irreverent military comedy Stripes (1981) focused on the misadventures of unemployed loser Bill Murray as a misfit volunteer in the Armed Forces
  • Robin Williams starred as an irreverent and antagonistic Air Forces Radio disk jockey who boosted GI morale in Barry Levinson's Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) with manic commentary and straight-forward news, but alienated other superior officers

Epic War Films:

Midway - 1976During the 1960s and 70s, a number of war films returned to WWII as their well-documented backdrop. They were often fact-based, historical or biographical epics, such as the following:

  • producer Darryl F. Zanuck's authentic-looking, 3-hour black and white war epic The Longest Day (1962) (dubbed "Z-Day" when the producer bailed out the film with his own finances) was about the Normandy landing on D-Day (June 6, 1944) (restaged in Corsica); this landmark film was told from four points of view, with four directors (American, English, French, and German) and in three languages; it required 43 major roles and 23,000 extras
  • Ken Annakin's The Battle of the Bulge (1965) portrayed the Cinerama spectacle of the German's last major stand, with Henry Fonda and Robert Shaw
  • Franklin J. Schaffner's complex biopic Patton (1970) starred Oscar-winning George C. Scott (who refused the award) as the legendary, heroically-crazed, and controversial "Old Blood and Guts" military genius, and Karl Malden as the balanced Gen. Omar Bradley
  • the Japanese-American co-produced film Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) was about the Pearl Harbor attack told from the perspective of both sides
  • Jack Smight's Midway (1976), told of the surprise American victory over the Japanese fleet in 1942, with a cast including Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, and Robert Mitchum
  • Roland Joffe's Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) was about The Manhattan Project which tested and manufactured the devastating atomic bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Most of the other war films at this time were all-star World War II buddy films, typically with large groups of stars bonded together in exciting, old-fashioned wartime situations. Films in this category included:

  • J. Lee Thompson's thrilling adventure film The Guns of Navarone (1961) starred Gregory Peck heading a guerrilla mission to destroy a German cave fortress with giant, long-range guns atop a 400 foot cliff on an island in the Aegean Sea
  • John Sturges' star-studded POW prison break film The Great Escape (1963), based on a true story of Allied servicemen during World War II, with Steve McQueen as the "Cooler King"
  • Mark Robson's Von Ryan's Express (1965), with Frank Sinatra as the head of a group of escaped POWs in Italy
  • The Blue Max (1966), with George Peppard in the starring role as Bruno Stachel, a WWI German bi-plane bomber flier
  • The Dirty Dozen - 1967Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen (1967), about a group of a dozen death-row military convicts (including Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Charles Bronson, Robert Ryan, George Kennedy and more) sent on a suicide mission (headed by a tough Lee Marvin) behind Nazi enemy lines to destroy a French chateau
  • Brian G. Hutton's Where Eagles Dare (1969), with Richard Burton as a secret agent leading a team on a mission to prevent D-Day
  • Hutton's Kelly's Heroes (1970) - an offbeat variation on The Dirty Dozen, in which Clint Eastwood (as 'Kelly') and a group of American soldiers decide to steal $16 million of plundered gold bullion behind Nazi enemy lines during WWII
  • Richard Attenborough's big-budget A Bridge Too Far (1977) with an all-star cast, adapted from Cornelius Ryan's epic book, told of a daring and failed 1944 WWII mission behind enemy lines in Holland to capture a series of bridges
  • Guy Hamilton's Force 10 From Navarone (1978), the 'sequel' to the earlier The Guns of Navarone, with another group of Allied commandos (including Robert Shaw and Harrison Ford) attempting to blow up a Nazi bridge in war-torn Yugoslavia

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