Tag Archives: Movies

Vietnam War Movies Ranked

PracticallyHistorical ranks the Five Best films set during the Vietnam War….

5.  We Were Soldiers…2002–  Randall Wallace brings General Hal Moore’s heartbreaking account of the Battle of Ia Drang Valley to the screen with heart wrenching realism.  Wallace’s script captures Moore’s tactical knowledge as well as the commendable balance of the book.  Sam Elliot shines as the grizzled veteran, Sgt. Major Basil Plumley.  Bottom line- Hyper realistic battle sequences highlight  even-handed depiction of early battle in Vietnam conflict.

4.  Full Metal Jacket… 1987– Gustav Hasford’s harrowing novel depicting a Marine’s service during Vietnam, from training to combat, is faithfully recounted in Stanley Kubrick’s stark film.  R. Lee Ermey’s performance, mostly improvised, is one of the most haunting ever filmed.  Bottom Line- Kubrick’s Vietnam movie brought to reality by a real gunnery sergeant.

3.  Apocalypse Now… 1979– Francis Ford Coppola nearly lost his career and his mind bringing Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to the big screen as a Vietnam epic.  Marlon Brando portrays Kurtz as a rogue Special Forces officer hunted by Martin Sheen.  Robert Duvall steals the show as Colonel Bill Kilgore, 1st Cavalry’s resident surfer.  Bottom line- Deep, dark, but visionary.

2.  The Deer Hunter… 1978– Epic in scope, Michael Cimino’s masterpiece is also a humanistic portrayal of how the madness of war can tear apart a tight-knit community.  Powerful performances by Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken reach out to the viewers with unrelenting sadness.  Critics still debate the coda of the film, the cast singing “God Bless America.”   Bottom line- Epics are never short, but this powerful film still resonates today.

1.  Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam… 1987– Bill Couturie’s documentary utilizing actual letters sent home by soldiers during the war is everything a war movie should be:  realistic, moving, funny, frightening, and most of all, powerful.  Actors like Robin Williams, Tom Berenger, Matt Dillon, Michael J. Fox, Kathleen Turner, and Willem Dafoe bring the words of the men and women to life.  Couturie combines home movie footage from in- country with news coverage of the day all set to a soundtrack of the popular hits of the time.  Nothing in the film is staged or recreated providing realism that will leave emotions raw.  Bottom line- The perfect way to end any filmography detailing the Vietnam war.  Unforgettable.

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Ranking the Movie Custers

Hollywood has attempted to tell the Custer story…in no fewer than 25 films, and dozens of portrayals in television programs.  In the eyes of the movie industry, Custer must be portrayed as either a hero or villain.  Custer’s death at Little Big Horn is such a considerable part of the American story, his true character has been lost in competing cultural and political debates about the plight of American Indians.  With little concern for accuracy, filmmakers have used these two-dimensional images of Custer to help shape cultural opinions.  Here are the best (and worst) portrayals of Custer on film:

More Mel Brooks than history….

5. Richard Mulligan, Little Big Man- 1970:  The worst portrayal of Custer in cinematic history.  The first of the big-budget revisionist westerns, Arthur Penn’s film shows all soldiers as villains and Indians as noble freedom fighters.  Mulligan’s Custer is the epitome of American wickedness; racist, homicidal, inept – the actor smirks and mugs his way through what amounts to a libelous piece of character assassination.

4. Robert Shaw, Custer of the West- 1967:  The typically reliable Shaw is badly miscast in a poorly made movie.  The lanky red-head from history appears as a pudgy blonde in faux buckskin.  The battle scenes bear almost no resemblance to historical accounts and Shaw’s Custer looks like a bad Halloween costume.

Dashing Errol in buckskin

3. Errol Flynn, They Died with Their Boots On- 1941:  Flynn is a dashing yet rowdy Custer in full heroic form.  The film is not historically accurate, but like John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, many envision this film as “the way it should have been.”  The film is ridiculed today for being culturally insensitive because of the negative portrayal of Crazy Horse(Anthony Quinn) and other Indians.

2. Henry Fonda, Fort Apache- 1948:  John Ford’s film is loosely based on Custer and Little Big Horn.  Fonda’s Owen Thursday is a stern disciplinarian whose ambition becomes his downfall.  This common interpretation of Custer’s character is captured perfectly by Fonda’s dour performance.  Custer’s Last Stand is replaced with Thursday’s Charge, but the rich detail and fair depiction of the Indian wars makes this film a classic.

Heads up to Gary Cole Archives

1. Gary Cole, Son of the Morning Star- 1991:  Cole seemed an unlikely choice, but he brilliantly rises to the occasion.  He gives a performance that captures all the facets of the complex man.  Loving husband, rowdy older brother, stern commander, ambitious soldier, curious frontiersman- Cole’s Custer is all these in an epic mini-series worthy of its topic.  Like Evan Connell’s definitive book, the film gives a balanced account of Custer and his career on the frontier.

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Really, Really Bad History Movies…

Hollywood walks a fine line with… movies about history.  Making a film that is both entertaining and historically accurate is not easily done. Too often, filmmakers sacrifice historic detail for cheap thrills or romance.  In no particular order, here are some of the worst offenders:

Strong cast, weak result…

Midway 1976– With a cast like this: Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, Robert Mitchum…this should have been a sure-fire hit;  Instead, we get a convoluted mess of a film.  To trim costs, filmmakers reused miniature footage from the superior Tora!Tora!Tora!, spliced in documentary footage from Victory at Sea, and shot almost exclusively off the coast of California.  Fonda is wasted in the role of Chester Nimitz, who was not a central figure in the Battle of Midway.  Heston overacts nicely, but even his considerable emoting skills can’t rescue this dud.  Toss in the “forbidden” cross-culture love story and you’re left with one forgettable film.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

The Duke says “Support the War”

The Green Berets  1968—  Filmed and released at the peak of America’s involvement in the Vietnam war, this is nothing more than a piece of hastily made propaganda.   Shot almost entirely at Fort Benning, Georgia, viewers have to excuse the evergreen trees seen throughout the jungle sequences.  Made with full support of the US Army, the equipment, uniforms, and weapons are all relatively accurate; however, the characterization and politics are clearly right-wing.  John Wayne had grown frustrated with the turn in public opinion and wanted to counter the growing antiwar movement.  The NVA/VC are murderers, the South Vietnamese are helpless, and the press is subversive.  Along the way brave American soldiers battle the bad guys, care for refugees, and give an education to the pinko-commie media.  The irony is, the film’s release was too late to make a serious impact on public opinion already turned south by the Tet Offensive.  And to think Star Trek fans, George Takei missed filming Trouble with Tribles , to make this inept clunker.

 

A badly staged video game

Pearl Harbor  2001–  Definitive proof that formulaic movies are doomed, this bloated laugher fails to capitalize on the model set in Titanic:  Choose a romanticized historical period, wrap it around a love story, and use enough CGI to fool the crowd.  Jack and Rose provided a believable if clichéd romantic tale,  this film seems to mock James Cameron’s masterpiece.  Fearing his best friend dead in the battle of Britain, Danny promptly impregnates his buddy’s girl (what are friends for, right?)  The audience is supposed to be drawn to these nitwits as the scenery shifts to Pearl Harbor and the events of December 7, 1941  unfold.  Surprise, Rafe is quite alive (Rafe, really?)  and the two pals must put their salacious past aside and battle the Japanese in a badly staged CGI recreation.  Tora!Tora!Tora! got  much of this history right, utilizing real planes, ships and properly photographed miniatures.  All viewers are shown here is an elaborate video game.  Danny bites it in the final battle and Rafe agrees to raise his friend’s child….does anyone really care?  Thankfully, the film sank most of those involved.

Mel in a rage

 

The Patriot  2000– …. This  could have been a historically accurate and moving depiction of the American Revolutionary War. Sad to say, it’s far from that….  Filmmakers were afraid to allow history to speak for itself; instead, there are free blacks working on South Carolina plantations, women castigating men in public, and British soldiers committing mass murder.  Mel Gibson flies into a rage, about the limit of his range, and Heath Ledger looks cute for the cameras; only British bad boy Jason Isaacs gives a noteworthy performance.  German filmmaker Roland Emmerich misplaces atrocities committed by his countrymen during WW2 in an attempt to vilify the British antagonist.  Battles are never identified, historical figures are combined into politically correct caricatures, and the script labors on and on and on and on….until Yorktown! The end of the war !    Once conceived as a biopic of Revolutionary hero Frances Marion, filmmakers scrapped that plan when they learned Marion was a slave owner (they can never be good guys, right?)  The sanitized product is slick, violent, and easy to look at, but far from  historically accurate….

Longer than ‘Gone with the Wind’

Gods and Generals  2003–  This movie is 50 minutes longer than Gone with the Wind.  That is really all the casual viewer needs to know, in other words, skip it.  What the film really needed was a script.  The filmmakers try to thrust every internal monologue from the novel onto the screen and the result is a ceaseless string of speeches, mostly about the Confederate cause.  ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, one of the more disagreeable personalities from the war, is our hero.  He tells us repeatedly the Civil War was not about slavery, it was  about states rights, prayer, Christmas carols (two full renditions!), prayer, Pro-secession songs, prayer…..you get the idea.   Confused viewers ask, “Did they really talk like that?”  No, people did not communicate in 5 minute soliloquies.  The battle sequences are competent if not understated, clearly the result of the film’s limited budget.  Novelist Jeff Shaara was disappointed with the film, as were most Civil War buffs.  Jackson’s death sequence is so long, one wonders if the filmmakers were tinkering with the idea of a Civil War/zombie cross over.

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History Wishes for the New Year

A few things this historian wants to see in 2015….

  • The 150th anniversary Grand Review of the Union Armies- following the same route through the nation’s capitol.  Calling all Federal reenactors!  Ken Burns documents the entire event- a fitting end to the sesquicentennial of America’s Civil War.
  • An authentic, realistic, and gritty film made about the fighting men of the American Civil War.  All politically correct platitudes about slavery, secession, and racism must be left out of the script… tell the story of the men who fought the war, not the academics who  steal the narrative. 
  • A spirited talk show on the History Channel where controversial historical topics can be debated.  False consensus and authoritative conjecture pass for the final word far too often in historical scholarship today- let the “experts” fight it out, for the record. 
  • George Washington returns to the top of the list of most “influential” Americans
  • The National Park Service continuing to work with the Preservation Trust and other private groups to help preserve America’s heritage. 
1865-2015

1865-2015

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Much Better Historical Movies

An earlier post pilloried poor historical dramas…this list contains superior efforts.

 

31 seconds to infamy

     Tombstone-1993:  No movie will ever accurately portray the life and character of Wyatt Earp, he’s not nearly likable enough; but Tombstone comes close to capturing the tumultuous two-year period the Earp clan resided in Southern Arizona.  Kevin Jarre crafted a remarkably accurate and detailed script and was granted permission to direct the film.  Shortly after filming began, studio hatchet men fired Jarre and stripped much of his work from the final product.  The production values remained high featuring authentic costuming, gun play, and a detailed recreation of Arizona’s biggest boom town.  Enough of Jarre’s script remains giving Val Kilmer’s sly Doc Holliday plenty of saucy one liners to balance Kurt Russell’s conflicted Earp.  Put Sam Elliot on a dusty street with a gun and a Stetson, good things will happen.  The film takes liberties with history (Holliday was a dentist and did not kill John Ringo,) but the production  design and spirited performances make up for the hooey.

 

 

All the President’s Men-1976: Rarely do films capture a time period as well as Alan Pakula’s political pot-boiler.   Based on Woodward and Bernstein’s 1974 best seller,

Follow the money…

Pakula and Robert Redford went to great lengths to recreate the tensions in the Washington Post press room during the Watergate scandal (even purchasing the desks that were used by the newsroom staff.)  The film focuses on the first seven months of the scandal, narrowing the scope covered in the book.  Tension is created by the performances and the writing, not through gimmicks and violence.  Made during the peak of political thrillers, this film stands the test of time (despite the hideous mid-70’s clothing.)

Lucky Jack comes Alive!

     Master and Commander; The Far Side of the World- 2003:  Leave it to Peter Weir to bring Patrick O’Brian’s ‘Lucky Jack’ Aubrey series to the big screen.   Master and Commander drops viewers onto a British frigate during the Napoleonic wars exposes them to the brutal life the sailors endured.  Weir spent months in preproduction to guarantee period authenticity, also utilizing computer effects and functioning rigged sailing vessels.  The actors were put through a rigorous training program to ‘learn the ropes’ just like midshipmen in the 19th century.  With an intelligent script, plenty of high seas action, and rollicking performances, Master and Commander rises above ordinary costume dramas.  Weir has denied plans for a sequel, but star Russell Crowe is more than willing to reprise his role.

Son of the Morning Star-1991:  A rare example of a historical film that presents an even-handed portrayal of a controversal figure.  Gary Cole rises to the challenge of

Does the band know ‘Garry Owen?’

portraying Custer during his career on the frontier.  Based on Evan Connel’s best seller, the made for TV film is epic in its scope and accurate with its history.  Custer is neither hero nor villain, but presented as a conflicted soldier, ambitious but flawed.  Part frontier epic, part love story, part biography, Son of the Morning Star succeeds on all levels of storytelling.  Western fans will applaud the authentic cavalry action, while socially conscious viewers will appreciate the fair portrayal of American Indian concerns.

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Ranking the Movie Custers

Hollywood has attempted to tell the Custer story…in no fewer than 25 films, and dozens of portrayals in television programs.  In the eyes of the movie industry, Custer must be portrayed as either a hero or villain.  Custer’s death at Little Big Horn is such a considerable part of the American story, his true character has been lost in competing cultural and political debates about the plight of American Indians.  With little concern for accuracy, filmmakers have used these two-dimensional images of Custer to help shape cultural opinions.  Here are the best (and worst) portrayals of Custer on film:

More Mel Brooks than history….

5. Richard Mulligan, Little Big Man- 1970:  The worst portrayal of Custer in cinematic history.  The first of the big-budget revisionist westerns, Arthur Penn’s film shows all soldiers as villains and Indians as noble freedom fighters.  Mulligan’s Custer is the epitome of American wickedness; racist, homicidal, inept – the actor smirks and mugs his way through what amounts to a libelous piece of character assassination.

4. Robert Shaw, Custer of the West- 1967:  The typically reliable Shaw is badly miscast in a poorly made movie.  The lanky red-head from history appears as a pudgy blonde in faux buckskin.  The battle scenes bear almost no resemblance to historical accounts and Shaw’s Custer looks like a bad Halloween costume.

Dashing Errol in buckskin

3. Errol Flynn, They Died with Their Boots On- 1941:  Flynn is a dashing yet rowdy Custer in full heroic form.  The film is not historically accurate, but like John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, many envision this film as “the way it should have been.”  The film is ridiculed today for being culturally insensitive because of the negative portrayal of Crazy Horse(Anthony Quinn) and other Indians.

2. Henry Fonda, Fort Apache- 1948:  JohnFord’s film is loosely based on Custer and Little Big Horn.  Fonda’s Owen Thursday is a stern disciplinarian whose ambition becomes his downfall.  This common interpretation of Custer’s character is captured perfectly by Fonda’s dour performance.  Custer’s Last Stand is replaced with Thursday’s Charge, but the rich detail and fair depiction of the Indian wars makes this film a classic.

Heads up to Gary Cole Archives

1. Gary Cole, Son of the Morning Star- 1991:  Cole seemed an unlikely choice, but he brilliantly rises to the occasion.  He gives a performance that captures all the facets of the complex man.  Loving husband, rowdy older brother, stern commander, ambitious soldier, curious frontiersman- Cole’s Custer is all these in an epic mini-series worthy of its topic.  Like Evan Connell’s definitive book, the film gives a balanced account of Custer and his career on the frontier.

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Ranking the Movie Wyatts

Wyatt Earp has been the subject of 13 major feature films…and has appeared in dozens of television shows.  Which portrayals stand up to the scrutiny of history?

All business

  1. James GarnerHour of the Gun :   Dark, torn, repressed…Earp at his most troubled.  Garner is the real deal in this John Sturges classic.
  2. Kurt Russell- Tombstone :  A good mix of Earp the capitalist and Earp the lawman, Russell is workman-like in his performance.  Unfortunately, Val Kilmer steals the show as Holliday.
  3. Henry Fonda- My Darling Clementine :  Fonda portrays a humorless Earp?  Who would have guessed?  John Ford’s masterpiece is short on history, long on drama.
  4. Hugh O’Brian- The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp : Dapper dresser, serious lawman, frontier justice personafide….O’Brian brought a believable Earp to the small screen.
  5. Kevin Costner – Wyatt Earp :  Properly displaying Earp’s stern disposition, Costner is almost too dour in his 1994 performance.  Wyatt didn’t overpower his brothers like a misguided patriarch.

    No smiles in an Earp movie

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