Bringing the war back home: A Top 10 list

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 14, 2020)

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Dress me up for battle
When all I want is peace
Those of us who pay the price
Come home with the least

–from “Harvest for the World”, by the Isley Brothers

Veteran’s Day was November 11th; but every day is Veteran’s Day for those who have been there and back. Here are my top picks for films dealing with the aftermath of war.

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Americana – David Carradine and Barabara Hershey star in this unique, no-budget 1973 character study (released in 1981). Carradine, who also directed and co-produced, plays a Vietnam vet who drifts into a small Kansas town, and for his own enigmatic reasons, decides to restore an abandoned merry-go-round. The reaction from the clannish townsfolk ranges from bemused to spiteful.

It’s part Rambo, part Billy Jack (although nowhere near as violent), and a genre curio in the sense that none of the violence depicted is perpetrated by its war-damaged protagonist. Carradine also composed and performed the song that plays in the closing credits. It’s worth noting that Americana predates Deer Hunter and Coming Home, which are generally considered the “first” narrative films to deal with Vietnam vets.

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The Best Years of Our Lives – William Wyler’s 1946 drama pretty much set the standard for the “coming home” genre. Robert E. Sherwood adapted the screenplay from a novella by former war correspondent MacKinlay Kantor.

The story centers on three WW2 vets (Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell), each from a different branch of military service who meet while returning home to the same small Midwestern town. While they all came from different social stratum in civilian life, the film demonstrates how war is the great equalizer, as we observe how the three men face similar difficulties in returning to normalcy.

Well-written and directed, and wonderfully acted. Real-life WW 2 vet Russell (the only non-actor in the cast) picked up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar; one of 7 the film earned that year. Also starring Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, and Virginia Mayo.

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Coming Home – Hal Ashby’s 1978 drama was one of the first major studio films to tackle the plight of Vietnam vets. Jane Fonda stars as a Marine wife whose husband (Bruce Dern) has deployed to Vietnam. She volunteers at a VA hospital, where she is surprised to recognize a former high-school acquaintance (Jon Voight) who is now an embittered, paraplegic war vet.

While they have opposing political views on the war, Fonda and Voight form a friendship, which blossoms into a romantic relationship once the wheelchair-bound vet is released from assisted care and begins the laborious transition to becoming self-reliant.

The film’s penultimate scene, involving a confrontation between Dern (who has returned from his tour of duty with severe PTSD), Fonda and Voight is one of the most affecting and emotionally shattering pieces of ensemble acting I have seen in any film; Voight’s moving monologue in the denouement is on an equal par. Voight and Fonda each won an Oscar (Dern was nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category), as did co-writers Waldo Salt, Robert C. Jones and Nancy Dowd for their screenplay.

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The Deer Hunter – “If anything happens…don’t leave me over there. You gotta promise me that, Mike.” 1978 was a pivotal year for American films dealing head on with the country’s deep scars (social, political and emotional) from the nightmare of the war in Vietnam; that one year alone saw the release of The Boys in Company C, Go Tell the Spartans, Coming Home, and writer-director Michael Cimino’s shattering drama.

Cimino’s sprawling 3 hour film is a character study about three blue collar buddies (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Jon Savage) hailing from a Pennsylvania steel town who enlist in the military, share a harrowing POW experience in Vietnam, and suffer through PTSD (each in their own fashion).

Uniformly excellent performances from the entire cast, which includes Meryl Streep, John Cazale, Chuck Aspegren and George Dzundza. I remember the first time I saw this film in a theater. I sat all the way through the end credits, and continued sitting for at least five minutes, absolutely stunned. I literally had to “collect myself”.  No film has ever affected me like that, before or since.

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The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – John Frankenheimer’s 1962 Cold War thriller (with a screenplay adapted from Richard Condon’s novel by George Axelrod) stars Frank Sinatra as Korean War veteran and former POW Major Bennett Marco. Marco and his platoon were captured by the Soviets and transported to Manchuria for a period, then released. Consequently, Marco suffers PTSD, in the form of recurring nightmares.

Marco’s memories of the captivity are hazy; but he suspects his dreams hold the key. His suspicions are confirmed when he hears from several fellow POWs, who all share very specific and disconcerting details in their dreams involving the platoon’s sergeant, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey, in a great performance). As the mystery unfolds, a byzantine conspiracy is uncovered, involving brainwashing, subterfuge and assassination.

I’ve watched this film maybe 15 or 20 times over the years, and I must say that it has held up remarkably well, despite a few dated trappings. It works on a number of levels; as a conspiracy thriller, political satire, and a perverse family melodrama. Interestingly, each time I revisit, it strikes me more and more as a black comedy; which could be attributable to its prescient nature (perhaps the political reality has finally caught up with its more far-fetched elements…which now makes it a closer cousin to Dr. Strangelove and Network). (Full review)

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Sir! No Sir! – Most people who have seen Oliver Stone’s Born On The Fourth Of July were likely left with the impression that paralyzed Vietnam vet and activist Ron Kovic was the main impetus and focus of the G.I. veterans and active-duty anti-war movement, but Kovic’s story was in fact only one of thousands. Director David Zeigler combines present-day interviews with archival footage to good effect in this well-paced documentary about members of the armed forces who openly opposed the Vietnam war.

While the aforementioned Kovic received a certain amount of media attention at the time, the full extent and history of the involvement by military personnel has been suppressed from public knowledge for a number of years, and that is the focus of Zeigler’s 2006 film.

All the present-day interviewees (military vets) have interesting (and at times emotionally wrenching) stories to share. Jane Fonda speaks candidly about her infamous “FTA” (“Fuck the Army”) shows that she organized for troops as an alternative to the more traditionally gung-ho Bob Hope U.S.O. tours. Eye-opening and well worth your time.

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Slaughterhouse-Five – Film adaptations of Kurt Vonnegut stories have a checkered history; from downright awful (Slapstick of Another Kind) or campy misfires (Breakfast of Champions) to passable time killers (Happy Birthday, Wanda June and Mother Night). For my money, your best bets are Jonathan Demme’s 1982 PBS American Playhouse short Who Am I This Time? and this 1974 feature film  by director George Roy Hill.

Michael Sacks stars as milquetoast daydreamer Billy Pilgrim, a WW2 vet who weathers the devastating Allied firebombing of Dresden as a POW. After the war, he marries his sweetheart, fathers a son and daughter and settles into a comfortable middle-class life, making a living as an optometrist.

So far, that’s a standard all-American postwar scenario, nu? Except for the part where a UFO lands on his nice manicured lawn one night and spirits him off to the planet Tralfamadore, after which he becomes permanently “unstuck” in time; i.e., begins living (and re-living) his life in random order. Great performances from Valerie Perrine and Ron Leibman. Stephen Geller adapted the script.

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Stop-Loss – This powerful and heartfelt 2008 drama is from Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce. Co-written by the director along with Mark Richard, it was one of the first substantive films to address the plight of Iraq war vets.

As the film opens, we meet Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), an infantry squad leader leading his men in hot pursuit of a carload of heavily armed insurgents through the streets of Tikrit. The chase ends in a harrowing ambush, with the squad suffering heavy casualties.

Brandon is wounded in the skirmish, as are two of his lifelong buddies, Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). They return to their small Texas hometown to receive Purple Hearts and a hero’s welcome, infusing the battle-weary vets with a brief euphoria that inevitably gives way to varying degrees of PTSD for the trio. A road trip that drives the film’s third act becomes a metaphorical journey through the zeitgeist of the modern-day American veteran.

Peirce and her co-writer (largely) avoid clichés and remain low-key on political subtext; this is ultimately a soldier’s story. Regardless of your political stance on the Iraq War(s), anyone with an ounce of compassion will find this film both heart wrenching and moving. (Full review)

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Waltz With Bashir – In this animated film, writer-director Ari Forman mixes the hallucinatory expressionism of Apocalypse Now with personal sense memories of his own experiences as an Israeli soldier serving in the 1982 conflict in Lebanon to paint a searing portrait of the horrors of war and its devastating psychic aftermath. A true visual wonder, the film is comprised of equal parts documentary, war diary and bad acid trip.

The director generally steers clear of heavy-handed polemics; this is more of a “soldier’s story”, a universal grunt’s-eye view of the confusion and madness of war, in which none are really to blame, yet all remain complicit. This eternal dichotomy, I think, lies at the heart of the matter in trying to understand what it is that snaps inside the mind of the walking wounded who carry their war experiences home with them.

The film begs a question or two that knows no borders: How do we help them? How do we help them help themselves? I think these questions are more important than ever, for a whole new generation of psychically damaged men and women all over the world.  (Full review)

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A War – This powerful 2015 Oscar-nominated drama is from writer-director Tobias Lindholm. Pilou Aesbaek stars as a Danish military company commander serving in the Afghanistan War. After one of his units is demoralized by the loss of a man to a Taliban sniper while on recon, the commander bolsters morale by personally leading a patrol, which becomes hopelessly pinned down during an intense firefight. Faced with a split-second decision, the commander requests air support, resulting in a “fog of war” misstep. The commander is ordered back home, facing charges of murdering civilians.

For the first two-thirds of the film Lindholm intersperses the commander’s front line travails with those of his family back home, as his wife (Yuva Novotny) struggles to keep life and soul together while maintaining as much of a sense of “normalcy” as she can muster for the sake their three kids. The home front and the war front are both played “for real” (aside from the obvious fact that it’s a Danish production, this is a refreshingly “un-Hollywoodized” war movie).

Some may be dismayed by the moral and ethical ambivalence of the denouement. Then again, there are few tidy endings in life…particularly in war, which (to quote Bertrand Russell) never determines who is “right”, but who is left. Is that a tired trope? Perhaps; but it’s one that bears repeating…until that very last bullet on Earth gets fired in anger. (Full review)

Learn how you can help vets at the Department of Veteran’s Affairs site.

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For my father: Robert A. Hartley 1933-2018 (Served in Vietnam 1969-1970)

 

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