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Movie Review: From Here to Eternity (1953)

From Here to Eternity (1953) taps America’s pre-World War 2 anxiety and mixes it with fatalism to produce a seminal movie about war, death and dying. The film, based on James Jones’ 1951 novel, depicts a nation mired in self-doubt.

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Embedding anti-heroism underneath anti-social and anti-war themes begins with a character named after a Confederate war general. Director Fred Zinnemann (Oklahoma!, High Noon) introduces Prewitt, indelibly played by Montgomery Clift (Red River), as he plays pool. Prewitt plays alone, however, and, lest the audience mistake his insolent individualism for a heroic trait, as it was in The Fountainhead, it becomes clear that here, in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1941, being a man of principles out for himself leads to nothing but trouble and worse.

“A man don’t go his own way, he’s nothing,” Prew, as he’s called by friends, says early in the black and white movie. Unlike Roark in The Fountainhead, Prew’s path to his own way seems doomed from the start. This is Pearl Harbor in 1941, after all. Army soldier Prew is the movie’s moral center.

On orders of his new captain (Philip Ober), who’s caught wind of Prew’s renowned boxing ability and wants him back in the boxing ring, Prew’s singled out for hazing. He still refuses to box, and with good reason. It’s Prew’s principled stand which contrasts civilized individualist with barbaric conformist and From Here to Eternity—which I recently saw through Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies’ Big Screen Classics series—makes this point over and over.

Watch what happens to Prew and his scrawny Army buddy, Maggio (Frank Sinatra, The Manchurian Candidate), who spend most of their time getting drunk and getting punished or cavorting with Honolulu’s quasi-prostitutes (Donna Reed, It’s a Wonderful Life). In an unforgettable role as a thug nicknamed Fatso, Ernest Borgnine makes a strong screen presence two years before he played a similar part in Bad Day at Black Rock and the rest of the cast, from supporting soldier types played by Jack Warden and Claude Akins to leading cast members such as Deborah Kerr (The King and I) and Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry, Separate Tables, Seven Days in May) as illicit lovers, also shine. All of them, except for Sinatra’s character, the weakest link, form a cohesive company.

In fast cuts, sharp lines and subtle hints, twists and clues, From Here to Eternity lazily leads up to the Japanese sneak attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and, briefly, its bleak and harrowing aftermath. As it does, with Lancaster and Kerr famously falling on the sands of Kuhio Beach, director Zinnemann plants the dark, cynical marks of postwar American insecurity in Donna Reed’s line about putting herself up for grabs: “I don’t like it, but I don’t mind it.” With drunken, violent outbursts and messy displays of repressed desire, From Here to Eternity manages to dramatize its theme that the good is not possible.

America is not exceptional; it’s as panicked, fake and afraid as everywhere else in the world, From Here to Eternity insists. The sound of bugles is always on guard in this compelling and watchable classic movie with its cast of movie stars—including Clift as the Fifties’ brooding, sensitive and tortured male, which made way for other mumbling, unsettled anti-heroes such as Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford—but, seriously, what good does being American do? Even Burt Lancaster’s imposing physical superiority is useless to protect anyone from Fatso, though his scene confronting Borgnine’s meaty beast in the bar is among the most intense showdowns in cinema.

“I play the bugle well,” mutters the principled individualist whose rogue, solo pool game—Prew takes one more shot after being told to stop—begins From Here to Eternity. That he adds that he’d played taps at Arlington Cemetery for the president on Armistice Day only underscores the fact that, now, he’s powerless. By the end of this bleak exercise in striking down the strong and defiant, he, too, will be reduced to playing another round of soulful taps. As Kerr’s bitter wife tussles with Lancaster’s diminished if determined sergeant, Army, company and paradise get lost.

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This is the real, moral theme of From Here to Eternity; that, no matter what you do—especially if you stand alone, in particular if you do so on principle—there exists something more powerful than yourself, to invoke a common bromide, and it controls you and could easily shoot you down. In 1953, From Here to Eternity, which won Oscar’s Best Picture, might have seemed new, bold and different with its realism and frank sexuality. But it plays like a prelude to America’s predominant self-doubt and its byproduct: hard and begrudging pragmatism pushing everyone to go AWOL, get drunk or get in line to get snuffed out.


TCM Big Screen Classics: From Here to Eternity showed on Sunday, December 11 and Wednesday, December 14 with pre-recorded commentary from Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz.

I saw the screening at Hollywood & Highland’s Chinese Theater complex. Sound, projection, theater and audience were perfect. The winner of eight Academy Awards® in 1953, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Sinatra) and Best Supporting Actress (Reed), was written by Daniel Taradash (Hawaii, Golden Boy, Picnic). The movie’s title, From Here to Eternity, is taken from a line from an 1892 Rudyard Kipling poem in which soldiers are damned “from here to eternity”.

TCM just announced its 2017 schedule to screen a slew of classic movies, so the wonderful and encouraging series, which is a unique opportunity to see the best movies as they were intended to be seen in movie theaters, will happily continue.

Movie Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

billy-lynn-movie-1Director Ang Lee (Life of Pi, The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain) makes interesting movies and this one is no exception. I found it oddly moving, if hollow and flat. This is not Lee’s best picture.

Aside from the striking, new visual technology, he shows and tells the audience something important about today’s American soldier.

Opening with the sound of rapid fire, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk builds a tale within a tale around an appearance on Thanksgiving 2004 at a pro football game. Those appearing include the title character and his fellow Iraq War soldiers.

The Dallas, Texas-set film, made in cooperation with Communist China, follows the wandering unit in two places: Texas and Iraq. So it predictably includes digs at oil, money and hydraulic fracturing and a biting line at the expense of the facts and history of the Alamo. However, the sense of alienation that pervades all of Ang Lee’s films works with these unfortunate bits, adding to the emptiness and aimlessness of being a soldier in the non-war which Americans fight in Iraq, where they’re basically like targets that have been deployed to no end.

As one soldier in the movie puts it, they build schools for students without textbooks.

Flashbacks frame the plot and knowing in advance what will happen, in particular how it impacts blue-eyed Texan William “Billy” Lynn (Joe Alwyn), smuggles an emotional punch into Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. A flat script and agnostic theme trap the movie, which dramatizes in its mid-section the contrast between America’s lifelessness—through its vapid obsession with pro football, pseudo-patriotism and traditionalism—and the soldiers’ passion in battle.

For long stretches, nothing much happens onscreen, until you realize that this may be the movie’s point. The band of young men, perfectly cast ordinary youths who look, sound and talk like typical Americans enlisted in the Army, are forsaken by their countrymen. They are alternately emasculated and overromanticized. The band of men are left, as in Clint Eastwood’s Sully and American Sniper, to drop dead by a nation too busy obsessing about football, Beyonce and other mediocrities and spectacles (Trump drifts into one’s mind). It’s a fact that, for 15 years, the bravest men have been systematically slaughtered, maimed and deeply, horribly damaged by the aimless deployment by the U.S. government with not much success in terms of America’s defense. The vivid picture’s middle alone is worth seeing for the sake of thousands of U.S. veterans of an asinine, badly conceived and waged war in Iraq.

Like today’s vets, who are left to die, mistreated, neglected and forgotten in the horror chambers of government-run health care known as the VA, the men who Billy Lynn helps to lead are both admired under false pretenses and abandoned on passing whims. Billy Lynn doesn’t even get an Advil he’s asked for until near the end of the movie. But, boy, do they ride like show ponies in gussied up Hummers with an agent (Chris Tucker) trying to cash in on their bloody battle in Iraq.

With Vin Diesel (the Fast and Furious movies) as an Army leader, Kristen Stewart (Twilight, The Runaways) as Billy’s soulmate who happens to also be his sister, Garrett Hedlund (Troy, Unbroken) as his superior and Steve Martin (The Jerk, Housesitter) as a conservative businessman, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, based on Ben Fountain’s book, falls short of the high expectations of its 3D/high resolution pedigree. At its best, however, and with great clarity in the middle of the picture, it depicts how vacuous America’s let itself become and the long-lasting harm such nothingness does to men that might have become its greatest defenders.

As an aside, I think I may have sat next to a war veteran during the screening of this film in Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome. During the usher’s movie introduction, the stranger made a sharp, bitter remark to me about starting the movie on time. When I turned, I noticed that he was heavily bearded and much younger than his comment made him seem. I also noticed during the movie that he was quieted as the picture wore on, less anxious, and he slowly slipped lower and lower and lower into his seat, like an abused child feeling smaller and more vulnerable by what’s happening around him. He was rapt. He was all alone and in that short time and exchange it seemed to me that he was alone in more ways than one. This is why I have a hunch, and it is only a hunch, that at some point he may have enlisted in the Armed Forces to fight for America. Whatever its flaws, and apart from my mixed estimate of its value, I think Billy Lynn, which debuted on Veterans Day, is made to depict and drive home the willfully unknown American soldier. If we are ever to get through this civil division and bring an end to the war engulfing us, he ought to be known, recognized and properly honored. And I think he ought to feel like he’s ten feet tall.

Movie Review: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Paramount Pictures’ war movie about the September 11 Islamic attack on America at Benghazi, Libya, is both visceral and powerful. Coincidentally, and I say this because I’m not a fan of the director’s work, it’s the best movie directed by Michael Bay (Transformers: Age of Extinction).

In fact, this gripping account of what exactly happened in those 13 hours does not depict exactly what happened, not in a comprehensive sense, but the character-driven movie is one of the better pictures about the long, unnamed, undeclared, unending military conflict between Islamic jihadists and the West. I can’t speak to the film’s fidelity to what did or did not happen. 13 Hours is based upon a book by the men who were there, the only Americans to defend the U.S. assets and Americans attacked (read what I posted about the 2012 attack here).

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi begins as most of these types of movies do with titles and setup scenes to establish what many already may know about the Libya crisis. During the days of the so-called Arab spring, when American intellectuals became convinced that the West’s meddling in Middle East, Arab and regional affairs would lead to liberalization of Arab and other area dictatorships (it didn’t, hasn’t and won’t), Libya’s longtime dictator was ousted—so was Egypt’s—with tacit or explicit U.S. military support. All of this U.S. military meddling instead destabilized Africa and the Middle East and put Islamists in power. Today, for instance, Libya is in serious peril of falling completely to the Islamic state. But a few years ago no one could convince Washington, DC—from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the left to Ambassador John Bolton, who supported Obama’s attack on Libya, on the right—that removing dictators in countries vulnerable to Islamic jihadist insurgency was a terrible idea.

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Michael Bay’s movie version of the military mens’ book does not delve into that background or context, though it’s surprisingly thoughtful and layered in depicting the film’s unseen villain: the state. Yes, this abstraction is at the plot’s center of what really threatens and endangers the characters, heroes and American interests in 13 Hours; both the unseen, unnamed states that sponsor Islamic acts of war and the elusive American state that enables, appeases and essentially supports states that sponsor Islamic acts of war. While 13 Hours breaks no new ground in storytelling, and needs improvements and edits, this villainy is carefully embedded, probably thanks to the book’s writers and screenwriter Chuck Hogan (The Town).

The world at large is at stake from the start, as Bay offers a view of the globe from space, then a drone’s lens’ view common to this genre before the main character (The Office‘s John Krasinski, excellent in Aloha and also here) sits on a passenger jet bound for post-U.S. intervention Libya. Clearly, his character values life. He is fully facial-haired, too, a common choice among American contractors in Libya, so he’s trying to blend into today’s increasingly unstable world, in this case a society where beards show that one has faith and is not an infidel. After he looks at a fellow passenger—a head-scarved woman of indeterminate designs—the camera cuts to the exterior of the descending plane as it lowers, drifts and blends into Libya’s beige, desolate landscape.

This sets an ominous tone. Tension builds as soon as Krasinski’s soldier meets his fellow soldiers at a secret CIA facility and they’re assigned to accompany an undercover couple in Benghazi. The head honcho (David Costabile, Lincoln) embodying the worst bureaucratic stereotype, represents the left’s mindlessness in practice, spewing forth that the band of bodyguards, because they are strong, military contractors not intellectuals who went to Harvard or Yale, are “not so good at following orders”. Of course, he means this as an insult, even though it affirms that Ivy League schools turn out followers.

Not following orders is precisely what makes the difference in the battle of Benghazi.

It happens on 9/11. The year is 2012. Someone at the CIA compound watches a news clip of the hijacked passenger jet as it veers into the World Trade Center on 9/11 of 2001. Someone says something about an Islamic attack in Cairo. Any but the most daft could have predicted that Benghazi would require serious security precautions and defense.

Enter U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, an altruist and “true believer” in the Obama administration’s policy of sacrificing for the sake of others, an explicit rejection of selfishness as an ethical virtue which Stevens practices to a tee. The ambassador, the men of the security detail are informed, insists, in accordance with the left’s multiculturalist fantasies, upon his own reckless procedures. He chooses to stay at a posh, unsecured open compound. He makes other bad choices, too, some of which are overturned. But he is willful and explicit in his altruism: “America is here for you,” he tells a local Libyan gathering. He means it. America is not there to advance its interest, not even to foster mutual understanding and peace. America—the new America outlined in Obama’s inaugural worldwide apology tour—is there to serve others, period.

It’s the Obama (and Bush, McCain, etc.) way: put others above self.

Time and again in 13 Hours, a heart-pounding tale which comes in waves, altruism and its particular execution through an effete left-wing lunacy is vilified by dramatization. Not as sculpted as the brilliant portrayal of a sacrificed soldier in Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, Krasinski’s posted soldier, too, misses his life at home, strives to be his best, and learns from the devastating attack in Benghazi. While he bonds, leads and pivots around the ambushes, schemes and nuances of these deadly days and hours, his wife and kids gain admittance at Disneyland. It’s the perfectly secular, American contrast to the mindless, faith-based wails in Arabic that “God is great!” And if thoughts of his family at the happiest place on earth bolster his fighting spirit, the reality of his brethren at the most miserable place on earth—where “we got nothin’ and no one”—weighs heavily on his conscience.

“What a shit show”, one of his fellow secret soldiers concludes after the blood spills and Americans are murdered—yet again—with no support from the U.S. military, which never does show up. The brutal 13 Hours, with piercing battle scenes as  Islamists lay siege upon the Americans, shows what happens when those with delusions reign over those with knowledge. One officious character offers a stinging lesson in earned guilt. Others among the soldiers talk and trade stories of life and love on the downtime and this is their story foremost. The cast is suited to the material.

But 13 Hours does not stop at depicting the men who are engaged in today’s constant state of American military altruism. The State Department and Obama administration officials are an unseen, offscreen presence, represented on screen by the intelligence types that buy into Obama’s diplomacy and surveillance state as the total solution to all foreign problems. Decent, pro-Western Arabs are also on screen, fighting for their country and their lives, though they are tiny in number and have a minimal impact.

The most exciting scene involves a Mercedes-Benz that makes a wrong turn. It’s the toughest movie motor car since Patriot Games and it’s a symbol for the audience; a reminder that toughness has limits and can be breached. It is impossible while watching 13 Hours, which I think every American ought to see, to escape thoughts of Islamic terrorist attacks on Americans in Paris, San Bernardino, Boston, Fort Hood, Garland, Beirut, Berlin and countless passenger planes, cruise ships and hotels. It’s been 15 years since the Twin Towers, Pentagon and thousands of lives were breached and destroyed and the enemy looms. The horror of being abandoned to insurgents in an Islamic siege with no hope for U.S. military intervention—in Obama’s America, you’re on your own—is forecast in the faces of the men murdered in the inferno at the U.S. consulate and those slaughtered and maimed in the assault that followed.

Compounding the effect: the men you’re watching are trained for battle. You, the audience, probably are not.

“Watch for different tactics,” one secret soldier says during another siege. But how can the U.S. government—whose primary purpose is to defend America and Americans—watch when they refuse to see? In the end, it’s an oil businessman’s jet—running on the energy source the Obama administration does everything to oppose—that offers safe passage for what’s left of the living. Watch the movie’s sole female operative for a complete arc from mindless automaton to fully functional human and try to appreciate that making this movie is itself a courageous act of defiance against the United States government. Or don’t. But take 13 Hours for what it is—an intense and powerful account of one small battle in the Islamic barbarians’ war against the West—with its cautionary theme and warning that, in the words of one brave soldier, “this isn’t over…’til they’re all dead or we are.”

Civil War Stories

Photo by Matthew Brady, National Archives

Photo by Matthew Brady, National Archives

Part of this year’s American Civil War exhibit, “Empire & Liberty: Civil War and the West”, at the Autry National Center of the American West includes an occasional academic affair and I recently attended such a panel discussion, titled “Invisible Injuries: Civil War Veterans and the Legacies of Violence.” The event was informative and sobering.

Two scholars, Dora Costa, a UCLA professor of economics and author of Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War and Roxane Cohen, a University of California, Irvine psychology and social behavior professor, and moderator William Deverell, director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, examined several aspects of recent studies about Civil War soldiers, including certain demographic and relational breakdowns, injuries and deaths.

They addressed their research into war-related trauma among Civil War veterans and their communities and the long-term psychological consequences of the war. Among their findings, which readers can explore here, are that 19 percent of enlisted soldiers in the study were between the ages of nine and 17 years old. I had known from my education and studies with John David Lewis that those who fought in the war were especially young. I had not known, however, that 95 percent of those enlisted were volunteers, more than any other war since the American Revolution. The presentation gave me a sense of life the United States at the time of the Civil War while demonstrating that the long-term effects of war on communities, states, countries and the culture are serious, devastating and transformative, if realized decades later.

Their resarch shows that unit cohesion, such as how many in the company were related by blood, similar age, community, ethnicity, etc. and/or how closely soldiers related to one another as friends and comrades, enhanced a soldier’s ability to heal and survive. Another positive impact apparently came from strong social network support, such as moral support through picnics and parades, which had measurable improvement on mens’ ability to survive and sustain injury after the war. Even celebrations around Christmastime and Thanksgiving correlate to mens’ higher survival rates and longer lives. Scholars also explained that companies were constructed differently; the Union companies were kept largely intact, while the Confederacy constantly replenished its company troops on the idea that new recruits would motivate the men to learn to fight.

Additionally, Costa attributes the rise of trench warfare to the huge proliferation following the Napoleonic Wars of small arms. When I asked her about survivability rates among abolitionists that enlisted—survivability rates were highest among deserters and free black men in the Union Army who were not assigned to fight in battle as often—Costa said they died in greater numbers because abolitionists were more motivated to fight to win and end the war to abolish slavery, which the Civil War did, in fact, accomplish. This was a fascinating program, part of the Autry’s “Empire & Liberty: Civil War and the West”, which I plan to review in a future post.

September 11 and Saudi Arabia

salargeLast night’s discussion at LA’s Hammer Museum, a Hammer Forum program titled “9/11: the Saudi Connection”, brought an invigorating exchange of ideas and projections and a powerful call to action.

The program, moderated by local public radio’s Ian Masters, who rightly pointed out in his introduction that Islam is not the exclusive source of religious fundamentalism, featured former CIA operative and CNN security analyst Robert Baer and former U.S. Senator and former Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham. Baer and Graham have written books about Islamic terrorism, the September 11, 2001 attack and Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of acts of war against the West.

Baer, who has been to Saudi Arabia, called the dictatorship—which everyone kept calling a “kingdom”—”a country in peril.” As he does on cable news shows, Baer sees Saudi Arabia’s demise as imminent due to a “herd mentality” which has become embedded in the country, which, he added and emphasized, “cannot stand for long”. In a short speech, Baer made reference to the fact that, for all practical purposes, Syria and Iraq no longer exist as functional states run by governments (as I recognized about Iraq earlier this year). For the same reasons, he explained, Saudi Arabia’s origins as an artificial country formed in tribes in 1932 preclude its continued existence.

Baer contends that the Middle East is driven by tribalism, not ideology. He sees tribalism as the larger threat to the West. In the contest between Shiite and Sunni Moslems, Baer counts four Sunni-dominated Mideast capitals which have recently been lost to Shiite Moslems: Baghdad, Beirut, Sunna and Damascus, which he sees as fueling discord and war in the region, leading to the fall of Saudi Arabia and displacement of as many as 120 million Arabs fleeing into the West.

Baer’s assessment is sobering. But Baer adds that he thinks Islamic terrorists are neither evil—he thinks modern Middle East problems are caused by Western “imperialism”—nor moved by ideology, i.e., fundamentalist, radical or jihadist Islam, terms he declined to use throughout the evening. In fact, he kept insisting that he’s not an apologist for Islamic jihad but, by denying the role of ideas and rationalizing Islamic terrorism, he is.

Despite this moral error, Baer’s practical and historical observations, forecasts and accounts should be taken seriously. He argues that, because Saudi Arabia depends on subsidies and being the West’s sole, main supplier of oil, the dictatorship wants the oil industry’s fracking to stop. His comments on how fracking has hurt Saudi Arabia did not go over well with the left-wing, west Los Angeles audience, but he explained why fracking—and America’s decreased dependency on Saudi oil—is relevant to the region’s stability. Additionally, during Q & A, Baer added when asked that he regards Edward Snowden as an annoyance, though he admits that indiscriminate mass surveillance does not protect the United States. In short, Baer’s projection that Saudi Arabia’s days are numbered is cogent where his causal connection is not.

On the other hand, Florida’s former Sen. Bob Graham displayed full moral clarity.

Sen. Graham, acting in this capacity as an American statesman in the best sense, called upon his memory of the 9/11 Commission’s first witness, a woman named Kristen Breitweiser, who had lost her husband Bob in the attack. He reminded the audience that Americans have an obligation to answer why? And: Did the hijackers act alone? He told the Los Angeles audience that the first two hijackers entered the United States through Los Angeles International Airport and detailed specific meetings implicating Saudi Arabia (as does my own research, first posted here). He spoke about the San Diego connection and how $50,000 for the hijackers was dispatched from the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC to a woman. He mentioned the prominent Sarasota, Florida, family and their connection to three Florida-based 9/11 hijackers and explained how the family returned to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Graham spoke of discrepancies in the FBI investigation and, once again, urged the audience to press the U.S. government to declassify and release the 9/11 report’s 28 classified pages (which he has read) detailing the attack’s financing by Saudi Arabia.

Sen. Graham named President Lincoln as a great president for insisting upon transparency in government during the Civil War, knowing it would make U.S. allies look bad and he praised Lincoln for putting the enlightenment of the American people above sparing an ally’s embarrassment. The Democrat singled out the Obama administration for criticism. He denounced American “passivity” about this 14-year-old Islamic act of war. When asked to name the best presidential candidate in terms of disclosure about the attack on September 11, 2001, Graham answered succinctly and without pause: “Rand Paul”, who supports releasing the 28 classified pages.

In a moment of rare, bipartisan unity around an intelligent idea to advance national defense, Baer agreed with Rand Paul and Bob Graham about declassifying the 28 pages and said that he, too, thinks the pages should be released. Judging by audience response, by the program’s end, most in the audience seemed to agree. Finally, Baer, whatever his flaws, expressed the perfect afterthought to Sen. Graham’s crusade to illuminate the facts of the September 11, 2001 mass murder: “Rational people must [be free to] make up their minds.”

With Saudi Arabia proposing to build 200 mosques in Germany as a “response” to the exodus from Arab states to Western Europe (reported here during the presentation), let me add: rational people haven’t much time.