Category Archives: War Films

Dunkirk (2017): A Story of Heroism, Desperation and the Cost of War

   I have to put my bias up front, but war movies generally aren’t my thing, not unless they are fantasy, sci. fi. or some sort of thriller (think “Inglorious Bastards, “The Hunt for the Red October” etc.). Given this bias, this is a great film that I highly recommend. It isn’t in the Top 3 Nolan films for me (those are still “Dark Knight,” “Dark Knight Rises” and “Inception”) but it is one of the best films this summer, even though it won’t make my Top 5 Films of 2017. The reason for this is at times it drags and the time skips don’t flow all that well, which kept the story from the truly masterful execution it could have been. This is still a film worth checking out though.

“Dunkirk” was directed and written by Christopher Nolan who co-produced it with Emma Thomas.

The story takes place during the British retreat from the Nazi Conquest of France and Belgium from the city of Dunkirk during World War 2, as they are pinned and must hold out as the limited air force fights in the air, the civilian fleet makes it’s journey to help and the soldiers seek their escape. These are the 3 narratives that drive the story.

Slight SPOILERS

The Pros: Music as Story – One of the best things this film does is give us communication through music as Zimmer’s score increases tension and remains quiet as it needs to, as the soldier barely speak and we see them react to the desperate situation they are in being trapped and under siege. It is powerful and truly, the music mixed with the human story on display is the core reason to see this film. It truly is masterful and brilliant.

Heroism in Conflict – One of the major themes is heroism in conflict, from the civilians risking their lives to save the soldiers trapped at Dunkirk, the soldiers who stay to help the French and those who risk their lives to protect the wounded. There are countless examples of this through the film that give the human connection with the greatest ones being Tom Hardy’s fighter pilot fighting to last of his fuel to take out the bombers so that at least some can escape Dunkirk and Mark Rylance’s civilian captain who risks everything to save as many soldiers as possible.

The Cost of War – Whether it is Cillian Murphy’s shell shocked soldiers or the two men at the beginning just trying to escape from using injured soldiers as a reason to get on a ship or hiding in the piers to sneak on…we see the cost of being put in a life and death situation does to people. People’s worst and best instincts come out because people are maimed and dying and it is hard to know what anyone will do when they are given the choice, knowing they could be the maimed or dead soldier who will never return home.

The Cons: Structure Issues – The film jumps between the fight in the air, that is an hour, the soldiers on the beach, which is a day and the civilians coming to help, which is over a week. It sort of comes together at the end but lead to dragging and a lot of repeat scenes that the added perspective didn’t help in any way, given we’d already gotten the human story at that point.

Drags Near End – The film drags near the end and really could have ended at a few points, given the narratives are completed before the final ending we get. If it hadn’t dragged and had the structure issues I would consider it a near perfect film though, given how well everything else is executed.

This is a film that I highly recommend. If you want to see a great war story that explores the cost of war and both the courage and fear that can overwhelm people and force them to make drastic choices, this is the film for you. It is another great film from Christopher Nolan and is easily one of the best war films I have watched. If you are fan of Nolan, chances are you will really enjoy this film, and same goes if you are fan of war films, specifically those that take place during World War 2. See it on the big screen if you can and I sincerely doubt you will be disappointed.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10

 

Full Metal Jacket (1987): A Kubrick Masterpiece Exploring the Trauma of War

Full Metal Jacket Poster

    Stanley Kubrick is one of my favorite directors and this film really highlights why. I haven’t seen a better film explore the trauma that can come from war so in depth as this film does where the characters are fully realized flawed human beings and each choice has consequences that echo through the film. This film is a masterpiece and before I get into the details of what makes it so great, it is well worth checking out.

     The film was directed, produced and written by Stanley Kubrick with the other writers being Michael Herr and Gustav Hasford. The film is also based off the story “The Short-Timers” by Gustav Hasford.

    The story is told from the perspective of Private Joker. From his time in boot camp to being a military reporter in Vietnam and all the trauma and trials that unfold in both locations where he is.

The Pros: The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is powerful and some great rock songs were chosen to contrast some really terrible scenes. This rather than making scenes light lends power and irony to the images on the screen. Abigail Mead did a great job.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is stunning as we get some gruesome closeups of when characters are shot (showing just how horrifying this loss of life is) as well as the mystery of being under fire and losing friends, as we get at the end of the film. Douglas Milsome did a great job.

The Writing – The writing is amazing! I think the fact that Kubrick wrote the screenplay with Hasford, who wrote the original story is part of what makes it so good. It is a collaboration as each clearly had input in how the book went to screen. After this film I can’t wait to read the book.

The Characters – The characters are what drive the story as in in them we see the worst of humanity. From a gunner shooting running civilians and keeping track of all the people he kills for sport, to the Sergeant dehumanizing Pyle and later the other trainees doing the same…the world is shown in all it’s cruelty and just how bad people can be.

Eightball – Eightball is a side character who gets along well with the hot head Animal Mother. He’s a character who see isn’t afraid to talk down about himself or up as at one point he shows his dick to a Vietnamese prostitute (and the platoon) to show it is not too big. He ends up being used as bate by a sniper once he gets shot which pulls us into the final action of the film. Dorian Harewood does a good job.

Gomer Pyle – Pyle is the big guy who gets bullied in boot camp by the Sergeant and later his fellow trainees to the point that he snaps at the end. The guy we see is an awkward sensitive guy who loses his mind and starts talking to his gun and finally killing Hartman and himself. his story is the first tragedy we get as even though he made it into the army he lost himself completely in the process. Vincent D’Onofrio does an amazing job in this role.

Cowboy – Cowboy is the squad commander who seems to be in over his head. He does the best he can but you see he is just as young as all of them and powerless as his call for tank doesn’t go anywhere and it takes Animal Mother taking action for any actions to be resolved.

Animal Mother – Adam Baldwin (Jayne from “Firefly”) is great in this as the racist soldier full of bloodlust who just doesn’t care anymore. He reminds me a lot of The Comedian from “Watchmen,” as he is a nihilist who knows how stupid the situation he is in is so is only after pleasure and power. Though he does have some semblance of honor as he is the one who tries to rescue Eightball and the Medic showing that there is more to his character even though he has become so broken from everything.

Sergeant Hartman – Hartman is a bully and does a good job of turning the recruits into soldiers. He mocks everyone and is strict and goes to greater and greater lengths to turn all of them into soldiers, even if it means loss of humanity as it does for Pyle. He dies in the end though as the first thing Pyle does when he goes insane is to shoot him. R. Lee Ermey created and unforgettable character in this role and pretty much got typcast after this. He does the strict, no-nonsense military guy really well.

Private Joker – Matthew Modine plays Private Joker and it is through his eyes the story is told. In him we see a man who tries to embrace the duality of man as he is really supportive of Pyle but in the end joins in on the bullying which leads to Pyle’s mind breaking. We see this in wartime too as he has “Born to Kill” on his helmet, but a peace sign on his jacket. It is in this we see someone trying to do right in a world where that is punished and Joker isn’t courageous overall, he’s a coward and only really rises to the challenge when he has no other option. He is a good description and stand in for humanity, which makes him work really well. He is the tragedy of our darker nature and failure to stand up to bullies and wrong conflicts.

Boot Camp – Book camp is rough as Hartman starts things out dehumanizing the men and over the course of the film breaks them down into weapons to be used. This leads to Gomer breaking and killing him but he succeeds in that all the recruits got taken in to different branches of the military because of his success as weaponizing them.

Vietnam and the Interviews – Joker interviews the soldiers and we see how much they don’t care about the people they are supposed to be fighting for. From one posing with a dead Viet Cong soldier, to all the slurs towards the Vietnamese and the general apathy they all feel as each feels like their country has abandoned them to somewhere they never wanted to be.

The Finale – The finale is powerful as we have a Vietnamese girl take out Eightball, the medic and Cowboy before Joker helps take her out and in the end is the one to finish her off and speak to her wish of death being granted when Animal Mother just wants to let her suffer and get eaten by the rats. In this we get a glimpse of humanity just as our broken brotherhood of soldiers marching in the firey landscape is the closest thing to good that they have in the hell of war.

War is Hell – War is hell is another theme and we see this starkly in the finale where there is no one to help the troops as the sniper kills a bunch of them, and in the end they find the sniper is just a young girl who just wants to be finished off and shot as she’s suffering from being shot. Besides this you see it in how the soldiers smack talk the Vietnamese allies and how no one trusts anyone. The only thing people know is to kill so there isn’t a clear goal.

The Consequences of Dehumanization – We see the consequences of dehumanization countless time throughout the film. From the burning landscape of Vietnam, to Pyle losing his mind and in how our heroes treat the Vietnamese and to some degree one another. Everyone is out for themselves and is using others as they feel used. Each has been through trauma and been changed for the worse in the process.

    There aren’t any cons that I can really describe for this film. It shows what abuse can do to the human mind and what war can do and it doesn’t let up. Our characters are human and flawed and we see them make choices that cost them their soul in different ways and we see our protagonist try to hold onto what little humanity he has left. The story is a powerful, drama and tragedy and once again Kubrick has created gold.

Final Score: 10 / 10

Hell’s Angels (1930): Great Action, Decent Leads But Uneven

Hells Angels poster

     The film “The Aviator” lead me to check out “Hell’s Angels” as the first part of the film is Howard Hughes making this film. I got to say, it is a great film but it isn’t a favorite. It has some character issues that keep it from perfection, though visually it’s stunning and the ending is powerful. This is a film, like any good war film that explores the cost of war and what it means to be a person having to make though choices within it.

     The film was directed by Howard Hughes who also produced it with uncredited directorial help from James Whale, Edmund Goulding and Fred Fleck. and was written by Harry Behn, Howard Estabrook and Joseph Moncure March.

     The story involves brothers Roy (James Hall) and Monte (Ben Lyon) who are pulled into World War I as pilots and called upon a special bombing run they may not come back from. As each has his own reasons for taking the suicide mission.

The Pros: The Cinematography – Tony Gaudio and Harry Perry did a great job with the cinematography. There is great use of color to show conflict as well as great use of clouds for the shadows of war. The cinematography is easily the strongest part of this film.

The Three Leads – The three leads are the strongest part as each of them feels fully defined and should have received more development. Their interactions are what really made the film for me outside of the actions.

Karl – Karl is a German student going to Oxford who ends up becoming part of the German Army during the war. He ends up being sacrificed by his commanding officer after he bombs England when his Captain is trying to escape. His story is a tragedy as he described himself as more English than anything else and you could see how his duty was killing him before his Captain finally did. John Darrow does a good job.

Roy – Roy is the womanizer who doesn’t see anything deeper beyond experiencing the now. He only cares about Monte but even that only goes so far as at his base he just wants to live. We see him experiment with anarchy at one point before he joins the suicide mission to destroy the German Munitions factory. In the end Monte kills him when he is about to confess the military plans to the German Captain who has them captured. James Hall does a good job.

Monte – Monte is the hero who is the way he is because he needs surety. That is destroyed when he finds out that Helen’s been cheating on him but he comes back for the mission and is so by the book he kills Roy when Roy is about to confess the plans. In the end he dies alone calling out his brothers name though his sacrifice made England assaulting German headquarters possible. Ben Lyon is the best actor in this.

The Cost of a Mission – We see the human cost through everything that goes down. From Roy giving up, Karl being sacrificed and all the folks who die in the battles we see through the war. The cost is always there even when victory happens.

Loss – The three leads die and show the tragedy of war and how the three friends who could have grown old together had it cut short when they became tools of something bigger them.

The Cons: Helen – She sleeps around and cheats on Monte and that is the extent of her character. She’s a plot device that is never allowed to come into her own and have her own motivations.

Lack of Focus – This mostly applies to the battles which often times go on way too long. This film could have been cut if the battles had been cut in half, they purposes are achieved and when we get back to the characters the story is back in focus, but before that the story takes a lot of side detours for action.

   This is a great film that is worth checking out, though I wouldn’t call it a favorite or perfect. It explores a lot of themes that give it a lot of power, but the romantic lead just being selfish and given no depth hurt the story as did the fact that some fight scenes kept going on and took us away from the human drama of the brothers and their friend Karl.

Final Score: 8.5 / 10

Beasts of No Nation (2015): The Horrors of War and the Life of a Child Soldier

Beasts of No Nation

   “Beasts of No Nation,” is a great film that continues Netflix’s streak of putting out quality productions. It’s a favorite though it does have some issues, largely related to how it handles some of the things in it’s narrative, which maybe problems the book it is based on may have as well. These issues do not change how powerful the film is though.

    The film was written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga who was also one of the producers. The other producers were Amy Kaufman, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Riva Marker, Jeffrey Skoll, Daniel Crown, Idris Elba and Uzodinma Iweala who also wrote the novel of the same name.

   The story involves Agu (Abraham Attah) a villager who loses his brother and father to corrupt government forces and finds himself a part of the rebel NDF movement as he is conscripted as a soldier by the Commandant (Idris Elba). His life as a child soldier is explored as well as the politics of his country.

The Pros: The Premise – The premise of exploring war torn Central Africa is a really good idea as well as taking it from a novel from a man from the region. It gives power to the story and shows just how aware the author is of his subject material.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful! Fukunaga did an amazing job on the screenplay as well as directing. This truly was his project.

The Soundtrack – Dan Romer did a fantastic job on the soundtrack. It has a very raw and reflective to feel to it and really lets you get into Agu’s head and the isolation of the child soldiers.

The Acting – The acting is amazing, though sadly the script doesn’t give a lot of the characters the justice they deserve. We never get to know most of them, even though they are presented really well by the actors.

The Commandant – Idris Elba makes a very good bad guy. In this he is the Warlord and Commandant of the Supreme Leader and we see how twisted he is as molests his soldiers (including Agu) and takes advantage of their need for revenge and makes them his weapons with a near worship of him. In the end his second-in-command leaves him though when he turns on the Supreme Commander Dada Goodblood turning them into beasts of no nation. He promises that he’ll call upon Agu later at the end as he is left isolated and alone with only his ego.

Agu – This is Agu’s story as we see him turn to revenge that the Commandant offers him as he feels only hate for the corrupt government soldiers who killed his brother and father. He never finds his mother and his arc is leaving the Commandant when I-C gives him the chance as we see him realize that he is alone and needs to be cared for after his friend Strika (another soldier molested by the Commandant) dies when they are on the run from the Supreme Commander and government forces. Abraham Attah does a fantastic job.

Okay: The Minor Characters – Whether it is Agu’s mother or the Supreme Commander or any of the other child soldiers…we never get their motivation or why they do what they do. This is a shame as they are all acted really well and that’s why I’m not putting them down as a con, they just weren’t given much to work with.

The Con: Lack of Arc Payoff – The ending is Agu as a camp for recovering child soldiers saying he just wants to forget about the horrible things he’s done and his being a monster but we never have the Commandant call upon any of them again and we never see Agu’s mother…when so much of his original arc was finding his way back to her.

  This was a great film and even though the character payoff isn’t all that great in the end, the journey of it all and seeing Agu face everything he goes through and find agency again is powerful in it’s own right. This was a story that needed to be told and I look forward to reading the book and learning more about these conflicts.

Final Score: 9.2 / 10