Monday, May 30, 2011

A Memorial Day Salute: Soldiers and War Movies

"A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself."--Joseph Campbell

This post is dedicated to the memory of my uncle, Hubert W. Chesher, Private First Class, U.S. Army, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, who died December 18, 1944. Hubert survived the Normandy Invasion, but died on the second day of fighting during the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium. He was awarded a Purple Heart and is buried in the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium.

This post is also dedicated to my ancestor, Balthazar Leffel, who served our country during the Revolutionary War, survived the war and lived into his seventies. It is dedicated to my son-in-law, Aaron, who served with the United States Army and was deployed twice to Iraq, and to his sister, Ryan, who continues to serve in the United States Coast Guard. It is dedicated to Edward Agnew, my children's grandfather, who, as a Navy Seabee, set a record for years of service. It is dedicated to my daughter-in-law's grandfather, John W. McKenney, who served with the U.S. Army in World War II and died two years ago. It is dedicated to my many friends and coworkers who have served, and continue to serve, in the United States Military. To each and every one of you, thank you.

My children's grandfather takes great pride in his work with the Navy, and he should. The Seabees serve an important and high-risk role in the military. They are among the first soldiers to arrive during fighting as they are the ones who build the bases, roads, and shore facilities. I learned this, of course, as a child watching John Wayne and Susan Hayward in The Fighting Seabees. Released in 1944, The Fighting Seabees takes place on a Japanese island, and although it is also a love story, the film does portray the dangers these soldiers encounter when performing their very important tasks. The film's dedication, posted on IMDb, states: "Proudly and gratefully we dedicate this picture to the Civil Engineer Corps and the Construction Battalions - the Seabees of the United States Navy who have fired the imagination of the world with their colorful exploits throughout the Seven Seas."

I often think of my own ancestor, Balthezar Leffel, when I watch another one of my favorite war movies, which takes place during the Revolutionary War. Released in 1939, at the beginning of World War II, Drums Along the Mohawk stars Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert. This film stars many other Hollywood greats, such as Edna May Oliver, who received an Oscar nomination for the film, and John Carradine, father of the equally famous Carradine brothers--Robert, David and Keith.

I think one of the reasons Drums Along the Mohawk impressed me so deeply is because of the stark realism of the film. Perhaps to those more familiar with the graphic realism of modern war films, Drums Along the Mohawk may seem amateurish, but it is not. The emotional realism in this film is shocking.

In Drums Along the Mohawk, at one point, the men in town all march down the road, leaving for the battleground, proud and determined, waving goodbye to their loved ones. They stumble and crawl back into town, severely injured, some dying, some carrying the bodies of fallen comrades.

Henry Fonda is one of the stragglers. When he sees his wife, impressively portrayed by Claudette Colbert, he collapses at her feet. At this point, Fonda, in my opinion, gives one of the finest performances of his career as he explains the horrific details of the battle to his young wife. He tells her of the death of a young man who stood beside him, and describes the death of another man who Fonda's character killed in battle, Fonda's voice, his facial expressions, his body language--everything he says and does is so convincing that the audience feels the character's pain, terror, and suffering.

Although there are moments of comedy and romance in this film, the stark realism is astounding. The importance of Drums Along the Mohawk is timeless. It speaks to all American soldiers and their families, and will continue to impact many generations to come.

There are many great war movies with plots, scripts, and performances that left me breathless, but they are so realistic that I could never watch them a second time. Cold Mountain is one such movie. Set during the American Civil War, Cold Mountain stars Nicole Kidman, Jude Law, Renee Zellweger, and an endless list of Hollywood greats for a supporting cast.

This movie is also profound in the intensity of its realism. At one point, the character, Mrs. Swanger, portrayed by Kathy Baker, is tortured. The torture, and its consequences, haunted me with nightmares.

For some reason, the scene reminds me of my great+grandfather, David Leffel, who was killed in a mob lynching during the American Civil War when he moved from Ohio to Texas with his family. There were so many tragic moments during the American Civil War.

Renee Zellweger won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for this film, which was nominated for an additional five Oscars. Jude Law was also nominated for an Oscar, but in my opinion, Cold Mountain deserved every honor offered by the Academy Awards in 2003.

Another great war film that I could never watch twice is Saving Private Ryan. Saving Private Ryan, released in 1998, won five Academy Awards and was nominated for six others, including a Best Actor nomination for Tom Hanks. The film stars Tom Hanks as Captain John H. Miller, and again, an impressive list of actors in supporting roles, such as Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Giovanni Ribisi, Dennis Farina, and the great, yet often under-acknowledged, Paul Giamatti. Private Ryan is portrayed by Matt Damon. His role is minor compared to the others in this film, though his character's presence on the battlefield is the basis of the entire plot. Saving Private Ryan was so successful it sparked a mini-revival in World War II films, such as the romantic, and shockingly realistic, Pearl Harbor.

Saving Private Ryan takes place during the Normandy Landings. As soon as I realized this, I immediately made the connection with my Uncle Hubert, eighteen-years-old, fighting desperately for his life and surviving the Normandy landings only to die during street fighting in Belgium. My father, though he was only a young child at the time, clearly remembers the moment my grandmother received the notice from the military that Hubert had died. Some memories last forever.

It was probably wise for me to wait until this movie was out on DVD to watch it at home. I sobbed throughout Saving Private Ryan, and I don't mean a few teary-eyed moments, I literally sobbed. This movie reaches into your heart like fingers, wraps tight around it, and never lets go. It leaves you gasping, speechless, unable to sleep for days, and praying for the safety of all of our soldiers, and for peace, and healing for those who have served, and healing for the families of those who have died in service of our country.

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