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 War, 10 War Movies Guaranteed to Make You Cry, America’s First Wars in 10 Movies, 10 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.
Editor’s Note: 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 War, 10 War Movies Guaranteed to Make You Cry, America’s First Wars in 10 Movies.
“We must settle this question now,” Abraham Lincoln warned in 1861. Four years later, Honest Abe declared America had secured “a new birth of freedom.” But it came at dreadful cost. Over 600,000 soldiers died. And civilians, North and South, endured destruction, privation and misery.
Hollywood has had a long relationship with the “Brothers War.” Each of the 10 movies discussed below* present that terrible struggle quite differently, yet together they underscore the sad truism that “freedom isn’t free.”
10. The Battle (1911)
American moviemakers’ obsession with the Civil War predates Hollywood. D. W. Griffith filmed this 19 minute action-romance feature in his studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. While many silent classic films from that period—like The Battle of Gettysburg (1913)—are lost, several film archives still hold copies of The Battle. It’s also available on DVD along with several other films the pioneering Griffith made about the Civil War era, including Birth of a Nation (1915) in which he infamously glorifies the founding of the Ku Klux Klan.
*Two of the best Civil War movies in recent memory—Glory (1989) and Gettysburg (1993)—are omitted from this list. Though richly deserving, they were already included in an earlier list of war movies.
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville concluded that fractious republics were little good when a “nation must defend itself against other nations.” Still, he thought America would get along fine since in the new world, man “has no enemies other than himself. To be happy and free he has only to wish it.”
Boy, did Tocqueville miss the boat on that point! Even on a continent protected by two oceans, Americans have always found it necessary to fight for our freedom.
Most Americans give scant thought to the sacrifices made by the fighters who forged our nation. Filmmakers aren’t much different. But when it saw the chance to make a buck, even Hollywood couldn’t resist cranking out a few film gems that remind us of the heroism of the early republic.
10. The Shot Heard Round the World
Few Americans can name even one serious revolutionary war movie other than The Patriot (2000) with Mel Gibson. But four decades earlier, Hollywood produced a doozy: The Devil’s Disciple (1959). During the Saratoga Campaign, “Gentleman” Johnny Burgoyne (Laurence Olivier), the British general, takes time out from battling the Continental Army to root out revolutionaries in Websterbridge, New Hampshire. A brooding, black-sheep colonial (Kirk Douglas) finds his courage, risks his life, defies the British and puts the American cause above his own.
No matter what the dream, to make it come true takes leadership. Luckily, Hollywood can help. Here are 10 films that teach important lessons for leading in tough times.
10. How to Turn Failing into Winning
Twelve O’Clock High (1949) is set in the early days of the American daylight bombing raids over Nazi Germany. The Allied bombers are getting clobbered. Meet Gen. Frank Savage (Gregory Peck), who has just been put into command of a bomber wing that is falling apart. To make matters worse, the previous commander was well loved by all. Savage has to earn their respect, instill the unit with vision and purpose, and turn his beleaguered bombers into a war-winning machine. Because the film is a realistic portrayal of the dynamics of turning around a failing organization, the U.S. Navy and Air Force still use it in leadership training.
Bill Gates is much more than your run-of-the-mill multi-billionaire. He also recommends books for you to read. BONUS!—his list comes with a cute video.
Gates is, undeniably, a really smart guy. But his summer reading list leaves a lot to be desired. For starters, it’s totally predictable. If the East Coast and West Coast elites have such things as book clubs, there’s not a title on Gates’ list that wouldn’t appeal.
Doubtless everyone in Martha’s Vineyard will be reading what Bill is reading. But the rest of us might care for something other than what passes for orthodoxy with Bill’s crowd. So here is Bill’s list and my “unorthodox” alternative selections.
When it comes to the “land I love,” the movies that move us most happen to be based on the stories of real Americans. They get to the core of what America really means and show why this nation is truly exceptional.
America’s dedication to liberty makes it a nation like no other. That’s why, whether the setting is war, politics, courtrooms, sports, or science, when Hollywood makes movies about exceptional Americans they celebrate the true value and meaning of liberty. And that inspires us.
10. The Patriot
Farmer Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), a peaceful, pastoral father of seven, pretty much winds up winning American independence all by himself. A composite character drawing from the biographies of several historical figures, the farmer Martin has been called “the Wayne Gretzky of the Revolution.” While it might not be a perfect history lesson, The Patriot (2000) is an exciting, moving and inspiring American war film — and easily the most entertaining movie ever made about the fight for independence.
The movies have given us some of the most hateful, horrible paternal role models imaginable. Here are 10 films well worth watching—but not on Father’s Day.
The evil protagonist in a series of Sax Rohmer novels is perhaps fiction’s greatest bad dad that no one remembers. The East’s arch evildoer and his despicable daughter appeared in a number of film adaptations over the years. This 1931 film is easily one of the best, as the deadly pair races against British intelligence in the quest for the source of ultimate power: the mask and sword of Genghis Khan. Come on! What kind of respectable father teaches his daughter that conquering the world is cool? At the time, the film proved controversial. The Chinese government complained the film conveyed a hostile depiction of Asians. They had a point. During the film, Fu Manchu commands: “Kill the white man and take his women!”
“It is well that war is so terrible,” General Robert E. Lee lamented, “otherwise we would grow too fond of it.” On the other side of the Civil War, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman stated more simply that “war is hell.” They knew fighting for a cause always meant good soldiers suffer; some make the ultimate sacrifice; and often innocents get tragically caught in the crossfire. War always comes at a terrible cost.
Here are ten war films to watch this Memorial Day that will make you weep.
#10. Gunga Din
A 1939 adventure film “inspired” by the Rudyard Kipling poem follows the exploits of three British army lieutenants — Cutter (Cary Grant), MacChesney (Victor McLaglen), Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) — on the Indian frontier. The movie is all dash and panache, except for the erstwhile native water carrier, Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe), whose only dream is to be a real soldier. In the end, it’s the regimental “beastie,” shot, bayonetted, but carrying on, who saves the day before he falls. Sob along at the end of the film when the colonel declares over the funeral pyre, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”
The last bobsled had barely finished its run when Vladimir Putin pounced in Ukraine, snatching Crimea and massing troops for his next move. The Russian “reset” was dead, as even its author, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, admitted.
Relations with Moscow look to get worse. That doesn’t necessarily mean that another Cold War will break out. But what if it does? Many Americans aren’t old enough to remember when the Iron Curtain was Moscow’s drapery of choice. It’s time for a refresher course.
Superpower rivalry started almost as soon as the “good” war, World War II, ended. Most Americans were indifferent, until the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. That really brought the Cold War home to Main Street.
Americans were worried that the invasion of South Korea was just the first skirmish in another global conflict. Having just saved the world a few years earlier, they weren’t excited about having to do it again, particularly since this time both sides had the atomic bomb.
The U.S. also had Hollywood, and Tinsel Town cranked up the cameras and marched off to the Cold War. Here are the 10 movies that give a very good feel for what that war was all about.
10. Invasion U.S.A.
This 1952 Cold War classic (not to be confused with the 1985 Chuck Norris epic in which he karate chops his way through transnational terrorists threatening the homeland) was one of the first films from a major studio to exploit emergent war hysteria. Columnist Hedda Hopper declared, “It will scare the pants off you.” At the time, she was probably right. In retrospect, the film, which cuts-and-pastes a lot of stock military footage, is pretty laughable. A great drinking game would be just pointing out all the scenes that don’t make sense, like when “enemy” paratroopers descend on Washington, D.C., jumping out of what are obviously U.S. military planes. Still, the film made its point. Americans couldn’t be indifferent to the menace from Moscow.
The ABC political thriller Scandal debuted in 2012. Nothing on television does a better job of illuminating how progressives think Washington works. That ought to make all of us really worried.
Now in its third season, the show has won favorable reviews, a strong following, and even some awards. But its popularity and longevity may say more about shifts in public sentiments towards politics than the quality of the scripts and the talents of the cast.
Last time, when a Hollywood favorite held the White House their show was West Wing, the NBC series that premiered in 1999. Most of the action focused on the president, a “white hat” named Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), who played by the rules to make sure at the end of the day liberal causes ended up on top.
West Wing mostly focused on the business of government, with the writers making a good-faith effort to at least get the facts right. During one string of episodes, our make-believe president was brokering Middle East peace when terrorists attacked US peacekeepers. A writer from the show called and we went over in great detail what a realistic peace-keeping force would look like. They wanted the show to feel authentic.
This time progressives play by their own rules. Scandal is closer to Game of Thrones than West Wing.
Glenn Greenwald is at it again. His latest releases of classified documents provided by Edward Snowden reveal various spy tradecraft, a litany of “dirty tricks,” that agencies might use to get at an intelligence target. These latest revelations only show how far the un-caped crusaders have drifted from their messianic mission of uncovering “wrongdoing” by those who are supposed to be protecting us from wrongdoing.
In part, Greenwald panders to our dark desire to peer into the ugly side of intelligence work. The staring into the seamy side of spy-craft was a cultural fixture of the Cold War, enshrined in iconic films like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Released in 1965 when the Cold War was at its coldest, the movie told the story of a British secret agent sent to Communist East Germany to discredit a powerful enemy intelligence officer. With the assistance of an unwitting idealistic, pro-communist girlfriend he engineers a disinformation campaign against the East German operative.
The film was based on a 1963 book by the novelist John le Carre. The author’s real name was David John Moore Cornwell, who worked in British spy agencies in the 1950s and 1960s. There was more than a little real-life tradecraft laced throughout his books.
At least one major studio is thinking about bringing the Benghazi tragedy to the big screen.
In the last year Paramount has brought out films as diverse as The Wolf of Wall Street and Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa. Now, Deadline Hollywood reports, the studio is “negotiating with 3 Arts Entertainment to acquire the film rights to the forthcoming book Thirteen Hours: A Firsthand Account Of What Really Happened In Benghazi.
The book, slated for release this spring purportedly offers a play-by-play of the firefight as told by surviving members of the compound security team. An eye-witness account of the slaughter of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans is the very stuff of drama. And how Hollywood chooses to handle this hot topic is sure to spur speculation and controversy.
For starters, the timing of film will be interesting. At least two major characters involved in the Benghazi crisis and its aftermath, Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have been talked-up as future presidential candidates. A film that comes out in the middle of primary season might spice up the race a bit.
This would be far from the first time films and politics made for a wicked cocktail. Concerned that their film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty (2012), would be perceived as a crass commercial for President Obama’s 2011 reelection campaign, the producers made rounds on the Hill explaining to lawmakers that they were just making a movie. Ultimately, they delayed the release of the film until after the election to dodge the controversy.
Coincidentally timed films are nothing new. The 1941 biopic Sergeant York retold the story of America’s most famous World War I combat hero. Though wildly popular, the movie deeply rankled some in Washington. The Senate even held hearings on “Moving-Picture and Radio Propaganda.” At one hearing, isolationist Sen. D. Worth Clark (D-Ida.), who wanted to keep America out of World War II, railed against the film’s producers, declaring “at the present time they have opened those 17,000 theaters to the idea of war, to the glorification of war, to the glorification of England’s imperialism, to the hatred of the people of Germany and now of France, to the hatred of those in America who disagree with them….”
Of course, Warner Brothers loved the attention. Sergeant York was the highest grossing film of the year.
How long till Hollywood hammers out the story of the NSA leaker on the silver screen? Last year the buzz started on several projects, with at least one film slated to come out in the autumn. But what kind of movies will we get? And, will anyone want to see them?
Hollywood’s first problem is this doesn’t seem to be the movie the movie-going public is anticipating. “For all the attention generated by the controversy over Edward Snowden’s disclosures of U.S. spying operations,” The Los Angles Times recently reported, “much of the public has paid little attention to the details of the policy debate over government surveillance, polls have shown.”
For sure it would be a big mistake to open the film opposite the third installment of the Hunger Games franchise.
The second problem for the screenwriters is crafting a film that even those who closely follow the issue will want to sit through. After all stories like this don’t pact much drama. The 2010 film The Social Network (about the founding of Facebook) might have suckered Tinsel Town into thinking it could crank out “geek” hits one after the other. But an almost identical movie, Jobs (2013), sputtered at the box office. Even more worrisome for those anxious to bring Snowden to the big screen is the fate of The Fifth Estate (2013), the biopic of Wikileaks founder Jullian Assange. In many ways a Snowden movie would be the same story–individual leaks US government secrets and lives with the consequences. After the release of the Assange film Bloomberg reported, “[f]inally, we can put a price of a sort on leaking state secrets: $1.7 million. That was the breathtakingly dismal box-office tally this past weekend for The Fifth Estate….”
To make Snowden succeed on the screen, the filmmakers will have to deliver drama. Both The Fifth Estate and Jobs had strong acting and decent scripts–but they lacked a compelling reason for most movie-goers to fill seats–a gripping narrative that most of us cared about.
Three of the most popular “holiday” films share common cause.
In American Hustle, a corrupt FBI agent recruits a corrupt businessman to go after corrupt politicians in a mind-numbing series of acts of betrayal, greed, and lust.
In the Wolf of Wall Street, a corrupt stockbroker enlists his equally corrupt buddies to swindle honest people in order to fuel his company’s depraved, drug-fueled lifestyle.
In Inside Llewyn Davis, a selfish, dead-beat, second-string folk singer meanders around Greenwich Village accomplishing not much of anything other than letting down anyone who cares anything about him.
Each film trumpets the return of the anti-hero.
Nothing signals a shift in popular culture more than the return of one the most time-worn tropes of Western cinema.
The anti-hero is not to be confused with the lead character we love to hate, like the sleazy Gordon Gekko played by hair-slicked-back Michael Douglas in Wall Street (1987). Nor is an anti-hero the noble character with deep flaws such as Llewelyn Moss, the day-old beard, enigmatic welder (Josh Brolin) who runs off with the cartel’s cash in No Country for Old Men. Anti-heroes are not flawed, they are both intentionally amoral and the camera wants us to root for them anyway.
There are times when we love to watch our former bowling buddies snack on small children– or revel as our next door neighbor munches on the mailman.
And, there are times when we would rather not.
Our passion for living-dead cinema waxes and wanes. These modern monster movies tell us more about the state of American politics than just about any other facet of popular culture–the best barometer we have of when society is flashing red.
Zombie movies have been a Hollywood staple for very long time. They were part of the horror movie craze in the 1930s and early 1940s, though back then the dead didn’t eat the living or conform to any other of the rules for appropriate modern zombie-like behavior.
During the depression years, horror films became a way for Americans to wring-out their anxieties over all their troubles, With Frankenstein, Dracula and later the Wolfman, Universal pictures established the monster movie as a theatrical cash cow. Americans wanted so spend their scarce entertainment dollars to be terrified. Looking for more box-office business, studios scrambled for scripts with anything evil. That’s how zombies got enlisted in the campaign at saturday matinees to distract the dwellers in the dust bowl from the reality of soup kitchens and Hoovervilles.
Mostly drawing on zombie-mythology from Caribbean voodoo practices, the original zombies were either living humans bewitched by evil forces or the dead brought back to life to serve their evil masters. They walked like arthritis victims and had no will of their own. Shuffling along in films like White Zombie (1932) or Revolt of the Zombies (1936) they too found their way to the silver screen.
Zombies 1.0 continued to show-up in movies from through the 1960s, but they never really caught on as an established franchise. While Universal’s Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman appeared in movies again and again, there were never zombie sequals.
The living dead were simply second-tier horror.
Zombie movies still appeared occasionally because they were cheap to make, like the other scary staple of the time, the guy in gorilla suit. Zombies were even less expensive than renting a ape suit. No make or special effects required, producers just had had to hire extras to amble around like they were walking. Even then, more often than not, the studio would spring for the gorilla costume, cranking our really bad films like the truly awful Bela Lugosi Meets the Brooklyn Gorilla (1952).
Over time, monster movies in general became less of a box office draw. Americans had real horrors to worry about. With our troops fighting on every front from Germany to New Guinea, the war film became the place where we worked out our darkest fears. In movies like Guadalcanal Dairy (1943), the GI generation, during and after the war, watched the all-American squad with one kid from Jersey, one from New Mexico, and another from some farm in Iowa, topple real-life monsters.
In Kiev, they are partying like it’s 1989. Pro-western protesters even pulled down a statue of Lenin that had stood unmolested for decades.
Moscow’s effort to reassert its influence over its former client state has triggered wide spread public protests. In the process, sledgehammers have reduced leftover symbols of Soviet occupation to rubble.
The chaos in the Ukraine is sharp reminder that Russia has not foresworn its old ways. If the angry protesters jamming the streets of Kiev don’t convince you, flipping through the pages of Disinformation will close the case.
The Soviet Union’s Cold War arsenal bristled with arms from nuclear bombs, tank divisions, and backfire bombers to gulags, spies, terrorists and revolutionaries. But one of Moscow’s most prized, secretive and diabolical weapons was disinformation. Thorough a relentless campaign of political and psychological warfare, the Soviet Union planned to undermine the West with propaganda, rumor and lies. In Disinformation: Former Spy Chief Reveals Secret Strategies for Undermining Freedom, Attacking Religion, and Promoting Terrorism, Ion Pacepa, a former Romanian intelligence officer who defected to the United States in 1978, and Ronald Rychlak, a professor of the University of Mississippi, have collaborated to produce a saga of Soviet disinformation from the Stalinist era to the fall of the wall. Beyond that, they show how these tactics have been revived under the current Russian leader, Vladimir Putin.
Disinformation draws a good deal on the authors’ previous published works including Pacepa’s expose on his former boss, Romanian strongman Nicolae Ceausescu and a book on the Kennedy assassination. Rychlak wrote Hitler, the War, and the Pope, a defense against charges Pope Pius XII was a Nazi-collaborator. Each of these books argued that Moscow played a major role in playing the West–promoting the notions that Ceausescu was the “progressive” face of Communism, that the CIA was behind the killing of President Kennedy, and that the Pope cheer-led for the Holocaust. In this book they pull together these stories and more to produce a sweeping narrative of how the Soviets tried to shape public opinion as one of their chief instruments of dark diplomacy.
Disinformation is a page-turner from beginning to end. Every chapter offers history never heard in high school. Some will snap this book shut and cry “I told you so.” Others will slap their forehead in disbelief. No one will be neutral about Disinformation–and they’ll all have something to point to for arguing they are right.