A long while ago, I kicked off a discussion about the military in movies, which resulted in uncorking a raging stream of opinion among blog commenters about movies, and how the military was generally portrayed therein—and lest anyone in Tinseltown be patting themselves on the back on their sterling record, let me break it gently to them that if I could figure out a way to distill and bottle most of the feedback, I’d have a dandy product on sale at Home Depot or Lowe’s, suitable for peeling varnish or paint off furniture. Generally, movies dealing with the military were derided for gross improbabilities in military practice or custom, faulted for violations of uniform regulations, general appearance and grooming standards, the presence (or absence) of inventory items in a movie represented to be set in a certain historical period, and over-egging the pudding, so to speak, when it came to explosions, ricochets, gunfire and engine sound effects.
What was curious to me were the movies which massed muster; those which were noted for one reason or another to be accurate, either in detail, in general tone, or psychologically about the military. They fell into several different categories, being ancient and modern, comedy or drama, block-buster or niche-market. Many of them sank below the surface of the national consciousness within a year or so of release, but continue to resonate with the military audience.
The oldest movies so noted were made shortly after; and about- World War II, when the events related were still in recent memory: Mister Roberts and 12 O’clock High, when many in the movie industry would have had direct experience of the military, if not the events specifically dramatized. The common experience of military service in that war, and immediately afterwards meant a supply of actors of a certain age who could put on a uniform and not disgrace themselves by their bearing; Steve McQueen, who served as a Marine was cited as being totally squared away in the movie The Sand Pebbles.
Down Periscope, and Kelly’s Heroes were mentioned several times for getting the personal dynamics, the uniforms, and details correct, which suggests that truth of a situation may be more nearly found in a comedy than the grimmest of dramas. M*A*S*H, which was based on a series of stories written by a front-line Army surgeon in Korea, sent veterans of the medical services into (you should pardon the expression) stitches, though I think the TV version has aged better than the movie, which never made very clear, exactly why Frank Burns and Major Houlihan had attracted the odium of Hawkeye and Trapper John. (It was clear in the book and the TV version: he was a jerk and a rotten surgeon.) M*A*S*H made it clear what it was like to be doing your job, at the end of the supply lines at an overseas location, with a varied group of people; the old pros and the incompetent, the flakes and the nutcases, and the dependable, making a difference, and your own amusements as well. Catch-22, also based on a novel by a veteran, and very much the same absurdist kind of movie as M*A*S*H was cited for be accuracy of it’s engine sound effects; an argument for taking care of the little details, in hopes that the larger effects take care of themselves.
Last Detail, Gardens of Stone and especially the first half of Full Metal Jacket earned favorable comments: for respectively getting the language, the uniforms, and the whole basic training experience nailed down. I am reliably informed that whole generations of young Marines have memorized the dialogue from Full Metal Jacket. So strong is the effect of this movie that tnen-Cpl. Blondie and I once had an argument on the origin of “Gomer Pyle”; she insisted that it came from that movie, not a TV sitcom and spin-off character from the Andy Griffith Show. (Really; I remember it very clearly. Gomer Pyle USMC predates Full Metal Jacket by a considerable margin.)
The jungle ambush scene in Forrest Gump, and the claustrophobic Das Boot also scored praise from veterans, as did the recent releases, Blackhawk Down and We Were Soldiers. Given that the core readership of that particular blog had vast experience in playing with all sorts of weaponry, and blowing things up, I would be inclined to take their word for the visual, aural and physical effects.
(Original post which inspired this meditation is lost in the early SSDB archives – but the thread of comments gave me the material for this essay.)