In a few short hours it will officially be Memorial Day weekend, the kickoff for a summer’s worth of cookouts, sun-tanning, and most importantly, movie marathons. What better way to fill that extra twenty-four hours of spare time in your schedule than sitting in front of multiple screens? I know you’re likely already going to see the new “X-Men,” a repeat viewing of “Godzilla,” or just generally anything in the theater that isn’t “Amazing Spider-Man 2,” but in all seriousness, don’t forget what this weekend is meant to be all about. To help make your leisure time appropriately respectful, we’re recommending three films that honor those who have fallen while serving in our armed forces.
“The Battle of San Pietro” (1945)
Available on YouTube.
Made by John Huston (“The Maltese Falcon,” “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”) for the War Department in the waning months of WWII, “San Pietro” walks a blurred line between documentary and propaganda. In his recent book, “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War,” Mark Harris makes a convincing case that much of front-line battle footage in Huston’s film, long reputed to have been captured by cameramen risking their lives under German fire, was in fact the product of extensive reenactments; however, the end result of such manipulation isn’t quite what you’d expect. Respectful and admiring of the Allied victory at San Pietro, Huston is nonetheless greatly concerned with the physical and moral cost of war: the inclusion of haunting images of wounded soldiers and destitute Italian families rather work against the film’s supposed purpose of boosting American morale (and indeed, the film’s public release was delayed several months by War Department officials). The loss of American lives is felt far heavier here than in most of Hollywood’s war-time pictures.
Cast: Tom Berenger, Martin Sheen, Stephen Lang, Richard Jordan, Jeff Daniels, Sam Elliott, C. Thomas Howell, Andrew Prine, Cooper Huckabee, Patrick Gorman, Bo Brinkman, James Lancaster, William Morgan Sheppard, Kieran Mulroney
Available to rent streaming from iTunes and Amazon Instant, on disc from Netflix
At a whopping 250 minutes (plus another 20 if you want to go for the director’s cut), “Gettysburg” will certainly take out a chunk of your holiday; originally intended as a six-hour mini-series, it in fact remains to date the longest Hollywood release ever. But in some ways the burdensome runtime works in the film’s favor – this is not a movie that can be accused of glamorizing the grueling, horrifically violent pace of the Civil War. Based on Michael Shaara’s thorough and fascinating novel “The Killer Angels,” “Gettysburg” is equally meticulous in recreating its time and place, resurrecting the 19th century for modern audiences in a very visceral way. Jeff Daniels is exceptional as Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, but the cast is appropriately filled with weary, bloodied men, their faces haunted by the incomprehensible human destruction around them.
“The Hurt Locker” (2009)
Available streaming on iTunes and Amazon Instant, on disc from Netflix
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Evangeline Lilly, Christian Camargo
The moral conflict and ambiguity that has surrounded just about every cultural depiction of American war since WWII makes it a somewhat uneasy debate to pick a more contemporary choice for inclusion here. But part of what made Kathryn Bigelow’s history-making Oscar winner exceptional was its separation of the individual from the larger conflict – I would hope that no matter your feelings toward the Iraq War, it is difficult to find anything but empathy and respect for the men and women of our armed forces in this film. Modern tactics of insurgency and terrorism have brought about a new kind of warfare, but ultimately that’s a flowery way of saying that there are new ways for soldiers to die. Supported by terrific performances by Renner and Mackie, Bigelow brings that experience home to the viewer in heart-stopping, breathtaking fashion.