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A 10-Film Introduction to America’s Turn-of-the-Century ‘Small Wars’

Between the Civil War and World War II the United States fought in a number of conflicts, some memorialized on film.

James Jay Carafano


August 27, 2014 - 7:30 am
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Check out the previous installments in James Jay Carafano’s ongoing series exploring war films: The 10 Best Movies to Watch to Understand the Cold War10 War Movies Guaranteed to Make You CryAmerica’s First Wars in 10 Movies10 Movies For Understanding the Civil War.

“Is America a weakling, to shrink from the work of the great world powers?”

Having asked the question, Teddy Roosevelt proceeded to answer it: “No! The young giant of the West stands on a continent and clasps the crest of an ocean in either hand. Our nation, glorious in youth and strength, looks into the future with eager eyes and rejoices as a strong man to run a race.”

Teddy was chomping at the bit for America to go out into the world. But not everyone was “bully” about it. Between the Civil War and World War II, the U.S. had been involved in more than a few scraps.  Often called “small wars,” few Americans were itching for bigger ones.

Hollywood hasn’t paid much attention to the Small Wars Era, a largely forgotten part of American military history. Finding 10 films was tough. Still, there is a cinematic and martial legacy worth noting.

10. The Wild West

Not all of America’s small wars occurred overseas. The U.S. military spent a good deal of its days after the Civil War conducting constabulary duties in the western territories. As military historian Andrew Birtle notes, “The Army has spent the majority of its time not on the conventional battlefield.”

Perhaps the most iconic movie of the “Indian Wars” period is Fort Apache (1947).  This John Ford film stars John Wayne and Henry Fonda in a fictional story that borrows from historical events, including the Fetterman Massacre (1866) and Custer’s Last Stand (1876). An American classic, this film should not be missed.

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The original novel The Sand Pebbles was written by a guy who'd been there, done that. Richard McKenna actually served aboard a Yangtse Patrol gunboat, as an enlisted engineer and eventually retired as a Chief Machinist's Mate after the Korean War. Well worth reading if only for the wealth of authentic detail in it.

Plus, it's one hell of a yarn. I won't get into the "book better than the film" argument, but the novel has much more detail and action than can be fit into any film, even one as long as The Sand Pebbles.
25 weeks ago
25 weeks ago Link To Comment
Rio Grande Fort Apache its a toss up
25 weeks ago
25 weeks ago Link To Comment
The Sand Pebbles was a pretty decent movie but a much better book. Attenborough was busy being all pacifist , like in a Bridge to Far but failed .

55 Days at Peking is on my list. They came to Codura really a great movie, lots of thoughtful portraits of human beings, having done super human acts ,returning to being ordinary men.
25 weeks ago
25 weeks ago Link To Comment
Rough Riders is an underrated film with an underrated actor. Berenger is amazing as Teddy.

Brian Keith is great as Teddy too and The Wind and the Lion is one of my favorite films. It is a smart and witty screen play and script.

The Sand Pebbles is another all-time favorite of mine. When you read about how McQueen's scenes were cobbled because he didn't like this or that it's surprising how polished and thought out those scenes seem. Somebody's instincts were right on the money.

The three make a nice balance. The first is unapologetic about America. The second shows both sides of that coin in wonderful satire.

The third is apologetic.
25 weeks ago
25 weeks ago Link To Comment
Good choices. Sand Pebbles was the first thing I thought of when I saw the subject.

Liked Fort Apache not only for its suggestive historical context (you can get that in Stagecoach or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) but for how it depicted military family life and the legal social schism between officers and enlisteds -- something very real to audiences from 1947 through today. Regarding that schism and how enlisteds are frequently underestimated:

Lt. Col. Thursday: Sergeant Major, are you by chance related to Lt. O'Rourke?
RSM Michael O'Rourke: Not by chance, sir, by blood. He is my son.
Thursday: Are you a former officer, Sergeant Major?
O'Rourke: Yes, sir. During the war I was a major with the 69th New York; The Irish Brigade.
Thursday: Still; how did your son get into West Point?
O'Rourke: It was by presidential appointment, sir.
Thursday: I was under the impression that presidential appointments were reserved for the sons of men who had won the Congressional Medal of Honor.
O'Rourke: That is my impression as well, sir. Anything else, sir?
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
A brilliant bit of dialog, highlighting the stiff necked Colonel's inability to accept that his subordinates, both commissioned and enlisted, might have greater knowledge and experience than he in the environment of the West.
25 weeks ago
25 weeks ago Link To Comment

I much prefer John Ford's "Rio Grande" to his "Fort Apache". I'm afraid that Henry Fonda's martinet character, though well acted, was a bit of a turn off for me.

The former follows the history of Ranald Slidell MacKenzie, a personal military hero of mine and, if you can handle a contemporary reference, a man who understood "asymmetric" warfare. John Wayne's character being a family man of sorts and his relationship with Maureen O'Hara were a bit out of his ordinary.

Oh, did I mention Maureen O'Hara was in it ???

26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
The Peking action was where Sgt Dan Daly USMC won the 1st of his 2 Medals of Honor
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
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