War, War, War: TCM Memorial Weekend Marathon

As we head into Memorial Day, TCM airs some of the greatest war movies ever made, one after another, for the whole weekend.  That means today will have plenty of great ones on hand, many of them my all time favorites.  There have been plenty of war movies I’ve loved while never really considering it as a genre I care much about.  There are as many reasons for that as there are movies about war.


I seem to mention this every Memorial Day, so I may as well say it again now, but my uncle was killed in action in the battle of Iwo Jima.  If you scroll down to the “f”s at this website, you’ll find the listing for “Ferrara, Joseph L, Cpl, KIA, 25th Marines, USMC.” That’s him, my father’s older brother, who joined up after Pearl Harbor and whose medals I still have.  Maybe that’s why I’ve always been more interested in World War II war movies than any other kind and, particularly, those having to do with the Japanese military, not the German military.  Or maybe not.   War is a genre like any other and prone to the same vague outlines as all the rest.  Saying you’re a fan of Horror as a genre could mean anything.  Maybe you like slasher flicks but hate classic monster movies.  Maybe you like psychological horror or ghost stories but hate demon possession stories.  And so it goes with war.

Where War as a genre is different is that it’s subsets often follow historical markers like the World War I, II, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War, Iraq, and so on.  The stories are often fictional, though not always, but the backdrop is almost always a real event.  There are no war movies based around wars that never happened that we consider war movies in the same genre sense.  It seems that once we make up a war, as in Things to Come, Starship Troopers, or Edge of Tomorrow, it then becomes a different genre, usually Fantasy or Science Fiction.  There are plenty of battle scenes in the Lord of the Rings trilogy but I doubt anyone would classify Return of the King as a war movie, even though it pretty much is.  By contrast, The Bridge on the River Kwai, an oft-used example in my posts, is clearly a war movie even though there’s not a single classic battle in the movie (obviously there’s a lot of action at the very end but it’s not a standard battle).  Just having battles or even full scale wars does not make your movie a war movie.  For that to happen, it really has to be connected to history.  And maybe that’s why I can love and respect so many war movies without ever thinking of it as a favorite genre.

While there’s been a steady market for war comedy from The General to Stripes, war movies tend to be on the serious side and when you’re watching one, even if the story and characters are fictional, you know it’s based around a very real event in which thousands to millions died.  Often, if not almost always, war movies will try to focus in on a small story taking place within the larger backdrop of war.  Kwai offers an obvious example of this but other movies, like Paths of Glory and Breaker Morant, show the hypocrisy happening on the sidelines as men away from the war attempt to make one small part of it feel just and right by doing something utterly unjust and wrong.  I’ve tended to like that kind of war movie more (hence my love of Kwai) because it removes the war from the movie in a strange sense.  Paths of Glory and Breaker Morant become philosophical courtroom dramas to me that deal with events that occurred during war but have no need to actually show the war, at least not for most of the movie (though Paths does have an expertly shot nighttime advance that is, obviously, if you’ve seen the movie, very important to the plot).


Then there are the biopic war movies, usually of famous heroes or leaders (To Hell and Back, Patton) but sometimes of completely fictional characters, like Clive Candy, the British soldier we follow from the Boer War all the way to 1943 and the midst of World War II in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.  That one, Blimp, is an all time favorite and it doesn’t show any real fighting scenes (you do see battlefields and London being bombed) but has a solid sense of war and the immense horror and loss that goes along with it.

One type of war movie I can view without most of the psychological baggage that attends to movies concerning wars where I still have a personal, emotional connection, are the war movies dealing with a much older war for its narrative, like the Civil War in America or the Revolutionary War in the Colonies against the British.  Once you’ve gone that far back, I can almost just watch it as an adventure movie, even though I know the same horrors were present.  As far as both of those war movie types go, I guess Red Badge of Courage and Drums Along the Mohawk are my favorites.

No matter how you feel about the genre of war movies, the fact is, unscientifically speaking, it’s got a pretty good track record.  Most of the war movies I’ve seen are pretty good, either because the filmmakers approach the subject with more care and reverence than they do other movies or I’ve just been successful at avoiding the dogs, and believe me, that might be the case.  All I know is, it’s a genre with a lot of movies I love but not a genre that I love for itself.  I never find myself saying, “Let’s watch a good war movie” like I might with many other genres but if you asked, “Want to watch…” and then inserted the title of pretty much any movie on today’s TCM schedule, my answer would be a resounding “Yes!”  As TCM honors the countless souls who paid the ultimate price, by playing war movies all weekend, we remember, sometimes painfully, that it’s the one genre whose very existence depends on that sacrifice by so many.



12 Responses War, War, War: TCM Memorial Weekend Marathon
Posted By tdraicer : May 24, 2015 2:49 pm

There is a belief common on the Left (and I’m a New Deal type liberal myself) that the only good war movie is an anti-war movie (Paths of Glory is an obvious example), and other war movies are attacked even if they clearly show the cost and ugliness of war because they are insufficiently ant-war. Glory, for example, was attacked by some critics for that reason.

But films like Glory, or Bataan or The Longest Day, remind us that there are times when the choice is between fighting against great wrongs (slavery, genocide, brutal dictatorship) or letting them stand-or conquer. We need anti-war films to remind us not to treat war as a game or a ready solution to difficult problems. But we also need other kinds of war movies to remind us that brave men-and women-put their lives on the line so that we would have the freedom to argue over which battles in our time are worth fighting.

Posted By Steve Burrus : May 24, 2015 5:12 pm

I personally think/feel that Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” was the very best War movie ever made. I guess that’s because of its’ subtle anti-war message and just generally I LOVE every movie directed by Mr. Kubrick!

Posted By Doug : May 24, 2015 5:33 pm

Greg, you mentioned “Edge of Tomorrow”-did you catch the allusion to “The Americanization of Emily”? THERE is an anti-war movie!
Aside from George Patton,no soldier or sailor loves War more than Peace. Nobody wants War.

Posted By tdraicer : May 24, 2015 6:39 pm

>Nobody wants War.

It is true that even the Nazis would have settled for victory without war (all the world had to do to avoid war was surrender in advance) but given the choice between achieving a particular goal and peace, lots of people have historically chosen war.

And sometimes you have to choose war to stop those sorts of people.

Which, to get back on topic, is the underlying theme of many war films, especially (and most appropriately) those set in WWII.

Posted By New Mexican : May 24, 2015 8:07 pm

I don’t know if people want war or not — well, I do, but that is not the point.

What I DON’T want is a weekend of war. Even more, I do not want ANOTHER weekend of war. As a viewer, I find the programming is tedious, repetitive and one note, year after year, especially for Memorial Day weekend. The sheer relentlessness diminishes the impact of any one film.

As an American I find the choices limited and jingoistic. There is a lot more to war than combat battles, heroics and death. Where is something on Alan Turing? Or the Japanese experience of WWII or rebuilding Europe, or the decisions that led up to various actions? Or, most importantly, the aftermath of war(s).

Don’t get me wrong, I too see meaning in some of the films. As a New Mexican, “Bataan” is especially meaningful. But, a one-note, one perspective weekend? Give it some deeper thought, programmers.

Posted By george : May 24, 2015 10:02 pm

Glad someone mentioned THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY. After all the Memorial Day coverage this weekend, about how glorious and magnificent it is to die in war, I wish people would watch this:


Posted By george : May 24, 2015 10:06 pm

And I wish more people, including (maybe especially) our politicians, would watch this clip:


Posted By swac44 : May 25, 2015 6:46 pm

Reading “pretty much any movie on today’s TCM schedule”, I’m guessing the qualifier is due to the presence of The Green Berets, which I’ve never seen in its entirety, but the 10 or so minutes of it I caught this morning clued me in to how clunky and clueless the movie really is. The biggest sore spot for me was Jim Hutton, acting like he’s in one of those screwball forces comedies of only a few years before. The times changed quickly, too quick for the makers of this title.

Few war movies are as powerful as the one George refers to in his second link, All Quiet on the Western Front, and I was lucky enough to recently see James Whale’s quasi-sequel to it, The Road Back, in March. Some riveting stuff in the film, especially the battle scenes and the material dealing with the soldiers coming to terms with civilian life after the slaughter. But I’ve read Whale was very unhappy with the experience of making it, the film was recut to tone down anti-German sentiment, and even reshot in some parts. Worth seeing, but clearly not on the same level as its predecessor, or Whale’s best work.

Posted By george : May 25, 2015 8:09 pm

“Aside from George Patton,no soldier or sailor loves War more than Peace. Nobody wants War.”

Except for Chris Kyle, who boasted in “American Sniper” (the book) of how much he loved war and enjoyed killing “savages.”

The movie version would have been much more controversial if Eastwood and the screenwriter had retained the book’s gung-ho jingoism.

Posted By Steve Burrus : May 25, 2015 8:33 pm

Well as someone who lives close [Dallas TX] to where Kyle used to live I have to think that what he meant by “savages” was very narrowly the Middle East terrorists who had inflicted so much damage to our country on 9/11!

Posted By george : May 26, 2015 3:09 am

Except that those terrorists weren’t in Iraq, until we stupidly invaded that country. They were hiding out in Afghanistan and then Pakistan with Osama bin Laden. You are aware that Iraq didn’t attack us on 9/11?

Posted By Steve Burrus : May 26, 2015 6:36 pm

I agtree with you “New Mexican”. all of these weekend movies seem to be just “one-note johnnies”, heavy on the combat part of the war and NEVER exploring any of the many other aspects of war! It’s all gotten quite boring.

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