November 11th is Remembrance Day here in Canada. For our American neighbours, it is Veterans Day and is also known as Armistice Day. We here at Foote & Friends On Film decided to offer a few recommendations for films that shine a spotlight on war times and those to whom we owe our freedom. Please enjoy our retrospective.
By John H. Foote
Initially, I was going to write about Steven Spielberg’s WWII masterpiece Saving Private Ryan (1998), arguably the finest films ever made about the horrors of combat. But I thought that the film has had so much attention, it might be interesting to look at films exploring the First World War because there are so few movies about the nightmare and even fewer chroniclers.
So, I reached back a bit and admittedly cheated choosing a trio of films that in their own way explore the horror of World War I.
This was a Canadian film directed by Paul Gross who also played the lead role of a young man who has fought and returns to fulfill a promise to protect a young man. He has fallen in love with a nurse and makes a vow to protect her brother. The film is not a great narrative work, so much depends on the final hour and the startling, realistic battle scenes. Sadly, they plunk a love story in the middle, but I understand the reasoning, they need that to get the budget.
The battle scenes in the muddy field are remarkable. The rescue of the younger brother is powerful, as the Germans see the valour in the act. The cinematography is quite impressive, as are the costumes and production design. There is so much good about the film, but so much wanting, yet it is a marvelous history lesson in its study of the horror of the conflict.
THE WARS (1983)
The Canadian film THE WARS (1983) did the same as former Stratford wunderkind Robin Phillips brought Timothy Findley’s much-loved novel to the screen. I saw the film when it opened in a single Toronto cinema, and loved it, but have sadly watch it disappear.
I met Phillips in a chance encounter at a gas station as he headed to Findley’s house to show him dailies. Very nice man, shy, reserved, brilliant.
The film has its moments, the eerie sequence of the mustard gas creeping ever closer is quietly terrifying. I liked that they tried to explore the before, the during and the aftermath of war. Nicely acted by Brent Carver and Jackie Burroughs.
Truly sad that in this day and age, with so much technology around us, this film is in danger of being lost.
WAR HORSE (2011)
And Steven Spielberg dipped a toe into WWI with WAR HORSE (2011) a beautifully crafted war story about a young man separated from his beloved horse, claimed for the war effort. They are reunited, beautifully so when the boy cuts his horse free of barbed wire with the aid of a young German soldier. That moment of humanity in the blood and mud is stirring, deeply moving. One of Spielberg’s most underrated films, an homage to the work of Victor Fleming.
Spielberg gives a great understanding of how valuable the horse was in this war, and how many died on those terrible fields of horror.
We are one hundred years removed from the end of WWI. A century has gone by, all those who fought and survived have joined their military brethren in the beyond. If they are ever forgotten, shame on the generations who followed. Shame on us.
By Alan Hurst
When released in late 1979, Yanks was described as overly sentimental – as if that was something to be avoided at all costs. But Yanks is one of the best depictions of WW II home front life ever filmed. At times it is unapologetically sentimental, but it’s also funny, honest, sad and a little heartbreaking as it depicts the impact of war on three different groups of people.
Set both in and near a small town in rural England, it weaves several different stories involving English women and families and the American servicemen they befriend. Richard Gere and William Devane are the two main male characters, and both are involved with English women (Lisa Eichorn and Vanessa Redgrave) but struggling with the subtle but still established differences in culture, class, and race. We get to know the working-class family of Eichorn’s character and the upper-class life of Redgrave’s character. We also get to see how out of place the American soldiers feel, being so far away from home and looking for a connection in another part of the world before being deployed to the front.
Directed by John Schlesinger, who won an Oscar for Midnight Cowboy (1969), Yanks is beautifully filmed and features a strong cast of American and British talent including Richard Gere, Vanessa Redgrave, William Devane, Lisa Eichorn and, in a wonderful supporting performance as Eichorn’s mother, Rachel Roberts. These characters all feel very real and their reactions and struggles never hit a false note. You find yourself rooting for these people – you want the young lovers to get to the train station to say goodbye to their guys before they head off to war, you admire the stoicism of a family following the death of a major character, and you can revel in the easy camaraderie at a wedding or family dinner.
Visually, I don’t think this era has ever been so perfectly captured. England looks like England when the weather is cold and damp – everything is burnished with a feel of mist. Both the art director and costume designer get it just right as well – there’s a nice worn and warm feel to everything. Underscoring everything is a terrific soundtrack that incorporates original music with vintage songs of the forties. I particularly love the use of the song “I’ll Be Seeing You” at the end of the film and Glenn Miller’s “String of Pearls” as Devane and Redgrave fly back from Ireland.
I remember seeing this in a theatre, walking out after it was over and immediately walking back in for another viewing. Re-watching it 39 years later it has the same impact. One of the reasons I think it does resonate for me is the fact that it’s a link back to where my own family came from just before both world wars and how those years directly impacted them – both as an extended family living through the experience overseas and as enlisted men heading back home to fight. Every time I watch it I feel I know these people.
By Craig Leask
MRS. MINIVER (1942)
Many movies have been produced showing the horrors of war (Patton (1970), The Bridge on The River Kwai (1957) and Dunkirk (2017)) and on soldiers returning home (The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), The Man in The Gray Flannel Suit (1956) and the Vietnam War drama Coming Home (1978)). Few have been as successful in depicting the effects on home life during such trying times as Mrs. Miniver. The key may be due to the fact that the movie was conceived and filmed while the world was at war and the stress, fear, sacrifice, and atrocities were real facets of daily life. Based upon the 1940 Jan Struther novel of the same name, with production commencing soon after the book’s release, the timely story depicts the effects of World War II on an ordinary British middle-class housewife and her family.
The timing of production (fall 1940) meant the movie was set prior to the US entry into the Second World War. As the script developed and moved closer to fruition, so too did America, in moving closer to joining the war effort. In fact, the production of Mrs. Miniver was well underway when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, 1941. This major change in world events resulted in the immediate need to re-write and re-shoot completed scenes to keep up with rapidly changing alliances. The final version of the ever-evolving script and plot line now mirrored a new US – British alliance and furthered anti-German sentiment. Scenes filmed post-Dec 7, 1941 no longer concentrated on the fear and uncertainty facing a nation at war. The spirit of the film now reflected a tough new resistance, a spirit of national pride and the emergence of a nation of strength and stamina.
The film was released July 3, 1942, three years prior to the end of the war. The timing of the film’s release had an unanticipated effect on a world in crisis. The movie had a major impact on the morale of the allies and, at the request of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Vicar’s (Henry Wilcoxon) speech in the final moments of the movie was immediately broadcast over “The Voice of America in Europe” radio programme. Additionally, also at Roosevelt’s request, this same speech was translated into numerous languages and air-dropped over parts of Europe occupied at the time by the Germans. Mrs. Miniver to this day is cited as a pivotal film which helped to mobilize the United States in its defense of the Allies.
By Nick Maylor
THE IMITATION GAME (2014)
For his role as Alan Turing, Benedict Cumberbatch received his first Oscar nomination, richly deserved. Aside from being an endlessly watchable film, The Imitation Game tells an important story, one far from the front lines.
Alan Turing is now best known as the namesake of the Turing Test; an application which is used to decipher whether or not someone can tell if they are talking to a human being or a machine.
A brilliant mathematician, Turing was involved in the war effort as part of a team of codebreakers who spent countless hours trying to break the Enigma machine; a notoriously difficult mechanism for which the Nazi’s used to mask their communications.
The Imitation Game was directed by Morten Tyldum and written by Graham Moore, based on the biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges. I decided to highlight it here particularly due to the horrible treatment Alan Turing (a genuine war hero) was given by the British government after his contribution to the war effort, merely because of his homosexuality. LGBTQ citizens have been fighting alongside us for the entire span of human history and we are only now starting to give them the recognition they deserve. Cumberbatch gives a magnificent performance in the film and for reasons I cannot quite put my finger on, The Imitation Game is a movie I can watch time and again, never getting tired of it. It simply never gets old. Not all war heroes carried weapons or stood on the front lines, although those who did deserve our respect and remembrance. Turing’s contribution to the Allies was massive and invaluable to the war effort.
Despite having saved countless lives during the war, Turing’s later life was an unnecessarily sad story. In 1952 he was charged with “gross indecency” due to homosexual acts being illegal in the United Kingdom at the time. He pled guilty to the charges and chose probation over prison time. His probation was conditional upon receiving hormonal injections that resulted in chemical castration.
In June 1954 Turing died from cyanide poisoning in an apparent suicide.