Monday, May 31, 2021

My Ten Favorite Movies Featuring Fallen Heroes

Today is Memorial Day here in the USA, which means I'm taking some time to thank God for all the brave people who have laid down their lives in defense of our country and our freedom.  It's the sort of day when I'd like to pull a movie off my shelves that honors and memorializes such sacrifices.  I've put together a list of my ten favorite movies that feature an American soldier paying the ultimate price, just in case you're looking for ideas of something to watch today.

None of these films glorify war.  Instead, they show the terrible price paid by so many men and women to ensure that our freedom is kept safe, and to help free others around the world.

1.  Midway (2019)  

Historically accurate, dazzling, elegant presentation of the early Pacific Theater of Operations during WWII, from the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, through the Battle of Midway June 4-7, 1942.   One of the best movies I have ever seen.

2.  Hell is for Heroes (1962)

One small American squad (Bobby Darin, Steve McQueen, Fess Parker, James Coburn, Bob Newhart...) holds off a Nazi attack thanks to lots of clever ruses and some spectacular sacrifices. This was written by Robert Pirosh, who also created my beloved Combat!, and this whole movie almost feels like a long episode of the show.

3.  Operation Pacific (1951)

Commander Duke Gifford (John Wayne) leads a submarine crew on a bunch of adventures (most of them based on actual WWII events) and tries to win back his ex-wife (Patricia Neal).  This was my son's favorite movie when he was six.

4.  Captain Newman, MD (1963) 

Darkly tragicomic story of Captain Newman (Gregory Peck), an Army psychiatrist trying to help American soldiers deal with and overcome mental and emotional trauma they've sustained during the war.  Some, he helps.  Some, he can't reach.  Angie Dickinson and Tony Curtis play a nurse and an aid, while the troubled soldiers are played by people like Bobby Darin, Robert Duvall, and Eddie Albert.  Although there are no actual battle scenes, at least one soldier who is healed enough to return to combat is later killed, which lends a lot of gravitas to the story.  Important note: Bobby Darin received an Oscar nod for his role in this.

5.  The Longest Day (1962) 

The story of the D-Day invasion, told from many viewpoints, with one of the most impressive casts ever assembled: John Wayne, Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Sal Mineo, Richard Todd, and a very young Sean Connery, to name a very few. Until we had kids and lost our big chunks of movie-watching time, Cowboy and I used to watch this together every D-Day.

6.  Gettysburg (1993)

The story of the battle that tipped the balance of the American Civil War in favor of the Union Army.  It's loaded with wonderful actors like Martin Sheen, Sam Elliott, C. Thomas Howell, and Tom Berenger.  This movie introduced me to one of my personal heroes, Colonel (at the time) Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels).

7.  The Patriot (2000)

A widower (Mel Gibson) refuses to take up arms in the American Revolution for a long time, but his son (Heath ledger) fights valiantly for the Patriot cause, and his father eventually realizes he must take his own stand for freedom.  I haven't been able to watch this since we lost Heath Ledger in 2008, but I'm hoping I'll be able to again one day.

8.  Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)

We get to know a squad of Marine recruits, led by Sgt. Stryker (John Wayne), as they prepare for the assault on Iwo Jima.  The recruits view Stryker as a cold-blooded bully, but when they actually hit the beach, they understand at last what he was trying to teach them.

9.  Mister Roberts (1955)

Mister Roberts (Henry Fonda) wants to get off the Navy cargo ship where he's assigned and onto a battleship so he can take part in WWII before it's over.  But his cruel captain (James Cagney) refuses to sign his transfer papers.  Other sailors, including Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon) and Doc (William Powell), have their own agendas.  This is kind of a dark comedy.  Lemmon won an Oscar for his supporting role.

10.  We Were Soldiers (2002)

The story of American forces preparing for and enduring their first major battle in Vietnam.  Mel Gibson, Sam Elliott, Greg Kinnear, and Barry Pepper all turn in unforgettable performances.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Happy 114th, John Wayne!

John Wayne has been my favorite actor since my early teens.  I had the great joy of actually visiting his birthplace in Winterset, Iowa, when I was like fifteen.  I'd love to go back one day.  It's always been a source of great satisfaction to me that I was born in the same state he was.  Nowadays, I'm also really pleased that we probably shared the same Meyers-Briggs personality type too: ISFJ.  

I've reviewed a few of John Wayne's movies here over the years, so today I've collected those up here for you to peruse if you haven't had the chance to read them yet:

Stagecoach (1939)

Angel and the Badman (1947)

Operation Pacific (1951)

The Quiet Man (1952)

The High and the Mighty (1954)

The Searchers (1956)

Rio Bravo (1959)

I hope you've enjoyed this little stroll down blogging-memory lane :-)  I'm hoping/planning to watch Rio Bravo with my kids on Friday for our new little summertime tradition of Friday Movie Lunches.  They haven't seen it before, and since it's one of my absolute favorites, I'm really looking forward to sharing it with them!

What's your favorite John Wayne movie?  Mine's actually The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), which I've never properly reviewed here, so maybe I'll get around to that later this summer, especially if I decide to show it to my kids in a few weeks!

Monday, May 24, 2021

"The Light of Western Stars" (1940)

The Light of Western Stars (1940) tells the sad tale of a handsome young cowhand named Danny (Alan Ladd) and his short-lived marriage to the lovely girl Bonita (Esther Estrella).

Danny has a good, steady job on a ranch, and his favorite way to spend an evening is by going to town and dancing with Bonita.  

I've long maintained that it's a crime we don't get to see Alan Ladd dance in more movies because he's got such athletic grace that he must have been a fine dancer.  The Light of Western Stars does give us several nice, longish moments of Danny and Bonita dancing together, and his easy smoothness totally matches my expectations.

Unfortunately, the crooked lawman Tom Hawes (Tom Tyler) takes a shine to Bonita himself.  He orders one of his deputies to go "take care of" Danny so Bonita will be free to dance with Sheriff Hawes.

Because this is a fairly early Ladd role, the filmmakers actually accentuate his shorter height, making him appear young and small, an easy target for the older and heftier baddies who slap Danny around and threaten him.

Luckily for Danny, his fellow ranch hand Gene Stewart (Victor Jory) stops the sheriff and deputy before anything truly awful can happen. 

Stewart tells them to pick on someone their own size next time, meaning himself, I suppose.  

This is the only really clear shot I was able to capture of Alan Ladd -- my DVD copy of this refuses to play in either of my computers even though it plays in my DVD player okay, so I had to grab shots from this online copy, which is even less clear than my none-too-spiffy DVD.  Which is why there are only a handful of screencaps here, and why they're so grainy and blurry.

Next thing we know, there's all kinds of shooting going on in the saloon, and Danny and Bonita come flying out, Danny still firing at unseen-by-us enemies.  Bonita urges him to get on his horse and ride across the border, where he'll be safe in Mexico.

Danny agrees that's the best plan, kisses Bonita, and rides away, shooting at his still-unseen-by-us enemies as he goes.  Bonita borrows a horse from Gene Stewart and rides after Danny, and they both make it safely to Mexico.  There, they get married and live in relative safety until that crooked sheriff and his crooked friends find them.

Alas, the last we actually see of Danny is his panicked flight from that gunfight because this movie isn't actually about Danny, it's about Gene Stewart and his secret marriage to Eastern gal Madeline "Majesty" Hammond (Jo Ann Sayers), plus some gun-runners selling defective rifles to insurgents in Mexico, and Stewart's own personal battle with alcohol.  All of which gets crammed into 64 minutes, so I guess it's not surprising that Danny and Bonita are sidelined so swiftly.  

Still, Danny plays an important role in the plot because (SPOILER ALERT) he gets killed by the gun-runners, which spurs Stewart into fighting them once and for all.  Or something. (END SPOILER)  The plot is so fast-paced that I've watched this twice and still don't really know what happens at the end, except a lot of shooting and riding around on very fast horses.  

This is loosely based on Zane Grey's novel by the same name, which I read a few years ago and reviewed here on my book blog.  It has a rather different plot.  This was actually the fourth movie adaptation of that novel!  There were also film versions made in 1918, 1925, and 1930.  

Interestingly, Noah Beery Jr. plays Stewart's dim-witted sidekick Poco in this film, and his father Noah Beery had a role in the 1925 version.

Is this movie family friendly?  Totally.  Do I recommend it?  Only if you love someone in it enough to sit through 64 minutes of very murky plot.  Also, it basically has no conclusion, it just ends.

Friday, May 14, 2021

"Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" (2003)

I can't watch this movie without grinning.  And by that, I mean grinning through about 90% of it, and clasping my hands in mute, loving anxiety for the other 10%.

I grin because I absolutely adore the two main characters, love four or five others, and am exceedingly fond of most of the rest.  Hence the anxiety whenever they're in Terrible Danger, which they are pretty often since this is a tale of daring deeds and derring-do on the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars.  

I also grin because I've read all 20 of the books in the series this is based on, the Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian, and the filmmakers captured them absolutely perfectly.  I'd actually read most/all of the books before this came out in 2003, and I remember taking my brother to see it on his first Thanksgiving break from college and just reveling in how exactly right they got every single thing.  Every character, every personality quirk, every nuance.  Completely and absolutely true to the books.  (He probably got really tired of me leaning over and whispering my glee at how perfectly they had captured yet another tiny detail.)

Well, everything except the plot, which actually cobbles together a series of adventures from several of the books.  People who read the book Master and Commander and then hear me say this is the most perfect book-to-movie adaptation I have ever seen... usually growl at me.  Because the plot doesn't come from that book, which is the first in the series.  A lot of it comes from a much later book in the series, The Far Side of the World.  Which is why the title includes that as well, but people seem to miss that?  I guess?  Whatever.  They absolutely, positively, indisputably captured the characters and the world and the essence of the series.  

First of all, you have Russell Crowe playing Captain Jack Aubrey, a bulldog of a naval officer who unswervingly pursues his enemies in pursuit of... well, in pursuit of glory and riches as well as the good of the British Empire, it must be admitted.  That's what keeps him from being a one-note, cardboard cutout of a hero.  He's Lucky Jack, hero of many an engagement with long odds and high rewards.  But he's also very human and feels the loss of crewmembers keenly.  He's like a benevolent but steely-eyed father for everyone on his crew, basically.

And then you have Paul Bettany playing his best friend in all the world, Dr. Stephen Maturin.  Stephen is a real physician who has been to real medical school, not a mere surgeon, aka some guy who knows how to sew up wounds and dig out bullets and amputate limbs.  (His role/rank aboard ship is technically Ships' Surgeon, though.)  This makes him something of a celebrity to the crew because if they get wounded, they get to be operated on a guy who has at least a reasonable chance of knowing how to put you back together properly and isn't just guessing.  He has a quick Irish temper and tends to try to play Jiminy Cricket to his friend Jack whenever he displays what Stephen considers to be dangerously high hubris.  Stephen is an amateur naturalist and also (though this doesn't play into the movie at all) often a spy for the British government.  

In the books, Jack and Stephen met at a concert in London, where they annoy each other so much, they end up almost fighting a duel over their differing ideas of how to enjoy fine music.  I wrote a Femnista article last year (read it here) about their meeting, it tickles me so much.  Anyway, it turns out that Stephen plays the cello and Jack plays the violin, and they spend their evenings aboard ship playing duets because they think it's fun.  And eating toasted cheese, because who doesn't like toasted cheese?  (Well, aside from my ridiculous 11-yr-old daughter...)  The movie has multiple scenes of them enjoying music together, and the soundtrack is just marvelous as a result.  Russell Crowe actually learned to play the violin just for this movie, and I assume Paul Bettany took some sort of cello lessons too, since they both look pretty credible.  I do know that Bettany learned how to use 1800s surgeon's tools so he'd look credible doing bits of surgery.

Anyway, the plot revolves around Aubrey's ship, the HMS Surprise, pursuing a French ship, the Acheron, which is trying to get around Cape Horn and into the Pacific Ocean so it can harass English ships there and disrupt their trading.  Along the way, various adventures occur.  Stephen gets to visit the Galapagos Islands, which delights him because he can collect lots of rare specimens there.  (They actually filmed most of that part on the Galapagos Islands, too!)  There are multiple naval battles, with lots of cannoneering and hand-to-hand fighting and tricky nautical maneuvering.  It's very thrilling and fun to watch, though my m-i-l found the battles really hard to follow when we watched this with her years ago, so your mileage may vary. 

Besides Jack and Stephen, I also love Barrett Bonden (Billy Boyd), Lt. Tom Pullings (James D'Arcy), and Midshipman Blakeney (Max Pirkis).  And Jack's steward, Killick (David Threlfall), who's always grumpy and hates the music that Jack and Stephen play, and is so fiercely loyal to his captain that I want to hug him.  Plus, he's the one making the toasted cheese, and if you've ever had toasted cheese, well, you understand how that could make you love a guy.

If you like the Horatio Hornblower movies or just love stories of heroic deeds done by ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, definitely give this movie a try.

Is this movie family friendly?  Well, it's rated PG-13 for "intense battle sequences, related images, and brief language."  There's a LOT of violence because it IS a war movie.  Characters you care about get hurt.  Surgical things get not-entirely-graphically portrayed, such as an arm getting amputated just out of shot, or a guy getting his brain operated on.  And there's a very tense scene involving extracting a bullet from someone's abdomen.  The language is overall pretty mild, but there's one F-bomb.  There's a drowning and a suicide, and a pretty intense storm sequence.  I would say it's fine for older teens.  There's no innuendo or steamy scenes because there aren't any female characters at all, aside from a couple of native women briefly seen selling fruit and parrots from canoes.  They're all decently clad.

This has been my final contribution for the Epic Story Event hosted by Heidi at Along the Brandywine, which has been going for weeks now and ends today.  Nothing like squeaking in at the last minute with one last post, eh?

Friday, May 07, 2021

Happy Birthday, Rudolph Valentino!

Yesterday would have been Rudy's 126th birthday.  I thought I'd just share a few of my favorite photos of him, even though it's a day late, and links to the films of his I've reviewed.  It's been a while since I reviewed any of his, so maybe I can make time to rewatch one and review it soon.  I'd like to do a proper review for The Sheik sometime, maybe even do a double feature with The Son of the Sheik?  Mmm, I like that idea.

I've been a Valentino fan since early 2004.  He's long been one of my ten favorite actors, in fact.  He projects this amazing blend of playfulness and smolder and vulnerability that's just... entrancing.  It's hard to explain how magnetic he is with just words and pictures -- you have to see him in action.  I found this cute video of Rudy that's kind of summer-themed, him in a bathing suit and romping around on the beach, bits of movies where he swims and so on.  I hadn't seen it before, and it made me grin (even though the song is annoying), so I'm sharing it here:

Anyway, here are the four reviews I've done of Valentino's movies.  Well, The Sheik post is kind of a mini-review, but better than nothing.

The Sheik (1921)

Beyond the Rocks (1922)

The Eagle (1925)

Moran of the Lady Letty (1922)

Happy (slightly belated) birthday, sweet Rudy!  Thanks for all the joy you've brought me :-)