Invariably, movies that center on or in the proximity of war tend to kick far more ass than those that stay away from this glorious genre. True, there are films that pull off the amazing feat of avoiding war as a subject altogether while still pulling together a decent picture, yet this is difficult, tedious work, and best left to the most salty of professionals. Some movies grasped this concept all too well, and gave this world of ours worthy cinematic offerings that appropriately harnessed the awesome possibilities afforded to an old-fashioned war epic. For example, there was Rambo IV, 300, Blackhawk Down, Gettysburg, Saving Private Ryan, Letters From Iwo Jima, and Braveheart. These films and the people behind them understood that if you’re going to make a war movie, or even a film nominally related to war, the action needs to keep coming, and in furious doses. Sure, if you’re going to get distribution and any kind of a worthy review, some plot-background and character exposition is needed, but in the end, these films understood that the picture’s anchor needed to remain in war. It is a disgusting travesty that certain films flirt with the overwhelming promise of war yet fail to harness the full capacity given to the endless variations available to make the concept work. To appear in the ranking below, the picture in question had to operate in a manner that allowed for a significant military event to drive the major components of the plot forward, yet did so in a way that put unforgiveable war-substitutes like love, God, or family before the action. Yes, all these films sat squarely in the breadbasket of some serious action possibilities, and either failed to address the colossally righteous action/battle scenes sitting before them, or did so in a way that brushed the fighting and death aside to deal with other stupid, pointless, non-war related issues. Honorable mentions should go to Dances With Wolves and Cold Mountain, both of which nearly appeared in the rankings below…
This film made it onto the list, but only by the skin of its teeth, as it was less about war and more about Montana, a chick, and a bunch of whiney pussies that couldn’t possibly have been sired by the prodigious Sir Anthony Hopkins. True, this movie was a book first, but the set up was outstanding! We got an early 20th century family of three brothers raised by a war-hardened patriarch who was so freakin’ masculine that his wife couldn’t bear him or the equally steadfast and unforgiving land surrounding them. The mother was off-screen early to leave the boys time to get hard living with Natives and fighting fucking bears. Another woman was introduced after the boys grew up a little, and came into the story just before the three young sons went off to fight in WWI. This, of course, was the major catalyst for the events to unfold in the plot thereafter.
What happened next was putrid and obscene, as a movie that might have been kick-ass was instead dressed in heels and a skirt: all possibilities afforded to a film with disposable trench-warfare sub-plots thoughtlessly discarded. The 10rant didn’t even take issue with the introduction of Julia Ormond’s ‘Susannah,’ for if the plot had been centered on the European front, the film could have still gotten by with quick shots of the fiancé at home going to pieces (if only to maintain some domestic footing). Why didn’t Legends of the Fall keep the story focused on the three brothers at war in 1915 France? It could have developed a plot thread that tracked the deteriorating sanity of the youngest sibling, Samuel, who horrified his delicate fiancé with regular letters from the front bearing souvenir ears. The film could have kept Hopkins around for the finale, when each son returned home only to be humbled by the battle scars of an older warrior; it might have even closed with a tribal fight between the four to determine the new leader of the family pack. Christ, this thing practically writes itself…
This is a wretchedly underdeveloped period in war-cinema, and probably will not be re-visited anytime soon as a result of this woefully over-directed crap-storm. To watch The Patriot and know nothing about the historical events at play would indicate that there was no American Revolution, just a bunch of ambushes, civilian bonfires lit by comic-book-level British villains, and one major battle that decided the entire war (which was single-handedly won by a solitary dude). And all this would have been forgivable if the movie had simply indulged in a senseless orgy of violence, blood, and mayhem that showcased all the wicked nuances of late-18th century colonial warfare. What nuances? How about the twelve-dozen or so battles that were fought in the southern colonies alone (only one of them was really showcased), Native American involvement on the British side as it pertained to colonial slaughter on whole-sale levels, naval engagements off the Carolinas, or even George friggin’ Washington?
Any of these readily available sub-plot possibilities could have plugged the holes drilled from endless scenes about Mel Gibson’s family, or the attempts of his family to have families (what the crap, Mel?). In fact, with the exception of about 25, maybe 30 minutes, this entire movie was a spoken-word love-song about a man and his brood, only occasionally dipping into the revolt against King George III. Had the film killed Gibson’s family off after about fifteen minutes, and let him go Charlie Bronson on His Majesty’s loyal stooges, axe in hand, blood of the fallen smeared across brow, they could have trimmed about half an hour and kept Braveheart doing what he does best: killing the shit out of the British.
This guy! Spike made a “based on a true story” movie about four Americans and a gaggle of Italians in an Italian town during the Italian theatre of WWII. And when criticized about his inappropriate use of historical liberties to transform a treasured European story into an American-centered film, he lashed out at an entire country for daring to question him. Indeed, having refused to apologize for amputating the contributions and cultural significance of a revered piece of Italian history, Lee instead said to that country’s critics, “a lot about your history you have yet to come to grips with. This film is our interpretation, and I stand behind it.” And why not, Spike? I mean, who cares that you twisted the historical events of the film to better color in the background of your piece? Who really gives a shit about your total disregard for the feelings of one culture so that you could elevate yours in their place?
And this was all aside from the fact that Miracle at St. Anna was a jangled, disjointed catastrophe from the word ‘go,’ and presented laughably simple characters in a plot that couldn’t seem to keep up with itself, or recognize that it was indeed a war movie. One somewhat decent battle aside, Spike’s insulting attempt to appropriate another culture’s treasured past never came off as anything even remotely watchable. The paint-by-number characters he presented to his audience were so blatantly symbolic in their function for the plot that the movie felt less like a cinematic experience, and more like an erratic sketch of a film-school textbook concerning the construction of a narrative. Why he chose to make this film in the first place is an interesting question all to itself. Why he chose to make a war movie without giving his audience much more than two scenes of actual war is a query we must sadly pose another seven times.
This one almost didn’t make the list because the war-incident in question was from the first Gulf War, a conflict so lop-sidedly won by Coalition forces that it can hardly be termed a war. Indeed, that particular conflict snuck into the history books as more of an international ass-spanking. Yet as part of the winning side with relatively few casualties, it is easy to forget that in the years leading up to actual combat operations, and in the months to follow the cease-fire, all sorts of other absolutely filmable events transpired. Hell, some of these events even involved American forces, that is, depending on the shade of classification encountered when researching the details. Courage Under Fire film operated in the sweet-spot of the first Gulf War, and even came with some serious man-talent with names such as Denzel Washington, Scott Glenn, Matt Damon, and Lou Diamond Philips on the bill. Hell, even Meg Ryan’s portrayal of a female pilot behind enemy lines came off as mostly rock-solid both in proposed toughness and phlegm.
Yet she was never given anything more than a single night with the enemy to prove her mettle. As a whole, the entire movie pulled its war scenes from a quick five minute tank battle at the beginning (yeah, that was Samwise Gamgee on the big stick), and a painful reconstruction of an evening’s battle after a chopper crash. Instead of keeping the film on some heavy-handed American ass-kicking scenes in the desert, or even some ethnic Iraqi battles before or after the official war, the film took the intensity of the fight back home, and rehashed thematic ground that was tired when The Deer Hunter clopped through the same terrain two decades previous. The audience was thus forced to watch tender explorations of self through the lens of “other” so that resolution could be found for all protagonists involved. Oh, and there also had to be lead-up enough so that the hero’s daughter could get a medal from the President at the end. It was the audience, however, that deserved decoration, as the trauma and daring required to suffer through this picture was almost as heroic as any battlefield action.
Everything was in place for this one to kick ass on a colossal scale, yet instead it took a left off the pier and went straight to the bottom of the drink. How do you screw up a movie about the siege of Stalingrad, especially with a respectable cast and special effects budget? The first twenty minutes of the film are especially depressing in retrospect, as we got a delicious taste of how cool the movie could have been if they had kept the camera focused through Vasily’s scope, and the virtual slaughterhouse that was the 6 month siege and breakout (roughly 1 million killed). The film wasted little time thrusting its audience into some serious shit, the re-creation of the attempted Soviet reinforcement push via water taxis absolutely breathtaking. Early on, the audience watched with fitting horror. The brutality of the fight and the desperation of the situation inside Stalingrad were ably-portrayed during this first act, yet a funny thing happened: a woman was introduced and a love triangle ensued.
If you haven’t seen the film, you can probably guess where it went from here (nose-first into a latrine pit), eternal possibilities lost so that the protagonist, his friend, and some vapid and lifeless dame could sort their feelings out. Despite the fact that the historical record gave leeway to the film to allow their main character to rack up Rambo-level kill-counts, we only got a handful of on-screen deaths after the first third of the picture. Sometimes, your humble author gets the feeling that this wasn’t a movie at all, but rather a bet between the studio and the director to see if it was possible to turn a bloodbath into a love-story. I don’t know who won that bet, but something tells me that the proceeds went to finance another experiment in tedium and lost promises, yet this time with a Japanese angle…
Japan has only stopped killing the shit out of itself over the last sixty or so years, for the entire island’s history prior to that is practically one long story of rival war-lords, clans, and usurpations. Most fans of Japanese cinema know this, as there’s an inexhaustible crop of story lines out there to draw out some serious action, and what’s more, these films are traditionally among of the most violent movies of all time (for any country). It’s probably best to keep Americans out of this genre of cinema, as the complex historical fabric of Japanese culture and their customs are often lost on us. Indeed, while we do alright with action, we have a tendency to chase the dollar so that what once may have started as a kill-crazy bloodbath accidentally turns into a rom-com. to pad the over-seas gross figures. Yet Tom Cruise just couldn’t keep from dipping his balls into this. Yet this isn’t a list about films that display embarrassing anachronisms or historical misrepresentations.
Almost any amount of culture-stomping is forgivable so long as the audience is given sword and spear deaths by the barrel-full, along with some hard-ass decapitations sprinkled in for flavor here and there (300 proved this). Yet the majority of The Last Samurai is set-up and character development, which left only three decent battle scenes that amounted to scarcely more than 20% of the picture. Why? What happened here? Isn’t it conceivable that a film could have been made about late 19th century Japan that actually showcased more than twenty five minutes of battle screen-time? Why did the movie delve into the relationships Cruise formed with his captor, his enemy’s wife, and her children when it could have kept the him with pistol and sword in hand, fighting for the noble (however misogynistic) samurai after turning to their cause? Why not give us a montage that quickly filled in the gaps surrounding this transformation and his training, quick-cutting to the Cruiser gutting a hapless British diplomat for failing to bow low enough? No, instead, we got a rounded, sensitive picture about a man finding his soul, almost certainly so he could immediately blacken it via association with an ominous celebrity cult.
It doesn’t matter what your name is, where you went to film school, or what poison has been dripped into your ear, but this is decidedly NOT a good movie. The Thin Red Line dealt with one of the most savage fights in the Pacific Theatre during WWII, and it had all of maybe thirty minutes of actual battle time! This film was a perfect example of a director out-growing his trousers: Malick’s low-budget instincts and editing brutality lost in two decades of critic dick-sucking and unexplained Hollywood admiration. Instead of getting down to brass tacks and giving the audience unrelenting scenes of savage jungle warfare, the film got lost in its seemingly indistinguishable cast, each of whom had the same bewildered “are we rolling?” look on their face. And while the deeper concept of faceless brutality and the anonymity of a soldier during war is compelling on paper, in a film it is troublesome if for no other reason than the practical problem of never being sure which character is which.
The pacing of this film was brutal, for it slogged through a shapeless plot with no structure or seeming desire to get anywhere in particular (again, interesting as metaphor, yet tedious in cinematic execution). It didn’t help that the director couldn’t seem to make up his mind about the picture, for he shot a movie so long, rambling, and misguided that he was later forced to cut entire performances involving (seriously) Gary Oldman, Mickey Rourke, Martin Sheen, Billy Bob Thornton and Viggo Mortensen. That Malick gutted the film of such fine stock and still couldn’t keep the movie focused on the action so generously provided by the historical record is amazing! Seriously, that’s like writing a song about Christopher Columbus and removing any mention of the whole America thing. This movie showcased a director who forgot (somehow) that he was making a war film, and decided instead to delve into the psychological dilemmas of the soldiers involved, (though never actually explaining or peeling back any of this either). Yikes.
It should be pointed out that this film was doomed from the beginning, for the planet lacks any director capable of transforming more than a month of the American Civil War into a publically consumable film. The nuances involved in properly explaining the varied causes and historical components at play prior to the event go beyond even the American Revolution, and could constitute a film all to itself. The characters involved could all, likewise, carry the weight of an entire picture – men like U.S. Grant, Sherman, Forrest, John Mosby, and Abraham Lincoln all important players in the historical drama with hours of possible plot-lines to develop so as to bring out the deeper meaning of the conflict. None of these men where so much as seen on-screen during Gods and Generals, however, nor was there much in the way of actual ‘war’ in a film that pretty much hinged on the concept. Instead of a movie that covered the first half of the Civil War with any consistency or discernable detail, we instead got a film that dealt primarily with Stonewall Jackson, who did disgustingly little warring when on-screen. The movie split this time with Joshua L. Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), who spent most of the movie drilling, only to get to Fredericksburg where the film accurately portrayed the historical reality of Chamberlain’s experience there (his unit fighting little, yet dying a lot).
Funny thing is, as accurate as the film was at times (seemingly their excuse for blowing so much), at other points it completely side-stepped huge details. For instance, what about the fact that Lee didn’t take full command of eastern Confederate forces until the Peninsula Campaign? This is ignored here, as Lee is somehow in command both before and after the event. Still, all of this would have been okay if the film simply indulged in an orgy of high-caliber 19th century killings, and give the audience scene after scene of battles that sported fatalities in excess of 10,000 a day in some cases. And as buffers between the battles, it could swooped in and focused on all the fun surgical technologies wildly obsolete against cutting edge killing technology. The picture could have then spiced this up with cut scenes about fugitive slaves making their way north, killing hounds and slave-poachers using ancient African martial arts techniques (just spit-ballin’ here). Instead of these outstanding possibilities, this film focused instead on Stonewall, Chamberlain, and their love of God and their wives. This might be a film in the technical sense of the word, but it is certainly NOT a war movie.
Granted, you’re not looking for quality when walking into a movie fashioned from the Bruckheimer/Bay combine, but at the very least one might expect to get knee-deep in bullet-shot limbs and clips of rocket launches in slow motion in front of an American flag. The very name of the film is a battle, yet somehow they worked in a tedious love story and homo-erotic bust-up. Sure, they threw Tom Sizemore into the background in a desperate attempt to give the movie some badly needed grizzle, yet it wasn’t enough. At an un-Godly 183 minutes, the audience was often left wondering why they came to this film in the first place, and rightly questioned the decisions that locked in together to bring them into a touching, three-way love drama. After two hours of this nonsense, the promised battle did finally come, and with appropriate gusto, yet the result on viewer morale was the equivalent of shooting a two-day-dead corpse full of adrenaline.
What’s worse, if you were to chop the brief Battle of Britain scene near the beginning together with the final Pearl Harbor and bomber climaxes, mixing in a dash of quick character set-up and historical exposition, you’d have about 90-110 minutes of teeth-whitening, hair-straightening action. That the filmmakers had a worthy picture here at one point, and found a way to tie both shoelaces together and knock itself cold is unforgiveable (and some might argue unpatriotic!). If they had removed the female sub-plots and focused entirely on the action it might have catapulted the film into instant-classic status rather than relegate it into eternal disgrace. Yet while love is often the downfall of a promising film, sometimes, every once in a while, a movie comes along that shits the bed so thoroughly that all the poon-exclusion in the world couldn’t save it. Thus, the 10rant presents…
A Vietnam movie produced and released by Disney doesn’t look very good on paper, and what ensued through this nightmare of a picture did justice to the fears of honest, re-blooded movie-goers everywhere. While it’s certainly okay to make a kids movie, or a feel-good story to drop in theatres during the winter slump-months, to do so against the backdrop of the ‘Nam is inexcusable. At practically every turn, the movie refused to kill anybody. Sure, it got tantalizingly close at a number of points, but it never actually went for the throat. What’s worse, the implements of death were all there at their finest, yet they rot unused and wasted. You got a pack of explosives and talk of rigging a truck to blow, yet nothing happened and no one died! Hell, we even got a V.C. manning an anti-aircraft pod, yet he failed to kill an elephant parachuting into a village that openly supported American combat personnel. And let’s not even get too deep into the casting tragedies here. Rather than allow Danny Glover and Ray Liotta to un-case their shit and plow mercilessly through the jungles of South-east Asia, slaughtering men, women and creatures with indiscriminate prejudice, the film kept its two leads locked up with a bar of soap in their mouths and compassion in their hearts.
While both men have been known to make a softer picture from time to time, pairing Liotta and D-Glove up in Vietnam and keeping their combined scalp totals below fourteen dozen was criminal. The basic premise of the movie was ludicrous, yet not exclusive to shit in a way that would force the film to abandon all pretenses of good action. This author is willing to go along with the notion that the U.S. forces needed to get an elephant to a village that was providing valuable intel. and tactical support. Indeed, there’s nothing in that synopsis that necessitates the castration of the film into PG territory, for all sorts of trouble could get kicked up when a squad has to roll with a nine-foot-tall beast of burden through Charlie-country. Yet we were left with another cinematic disgrace, waiting for a slaughter-party that never materializes, and two hours of our lives which will never again return. Pity.
Copyright – Warren J. Cantrell