Archive: Saturday Night at the (Military) Movies

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.

Finally, Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan (especially the first twenty minutes of the latter)… Dale Dye worked on them, so of course they got it right.

(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.)

22 thoughts on “Archive: Saturday Night at the (Military) Movies”

  1. Saving Private Ryan has been criticized (accurately in my opinion) for the nihilism of the story. At one point the Hanks character says that saving the private “maybe the only worthwhile thing to come out of this” mess or whatever term he used. So stopping Hitler wasn’t worth it ?

    Gomer Pyle, I think, came from “No Time for Sergeants,” a book in the 50s.

    Another good ambush scene was in “Rules of Engagement,” ironically starring two Obama fans. It is also pertinent in the Libya and Egypt story.

    “Twelve O’Clock High” is a true story, written by guys who were there. The only thing changed from the real story is the ending as the real General Savage had a perforated ulcer, not an emotional breakdown. The “918th bomb group” was actually the 306th in the real story. They just tripled the number.

    The story of the movie is here and read the section on the real counterparts of the characters.

    Other favorite war movies of mine include “Battleground” and “Patton.”

  2. Four years ago a son of a longtime friend enlisted in the Marines. She threw a going away party for him. I brought two gifts; a pocket-sized “military” bible (encased in aluminum), and a DVD of Full Metal Jacket. Joey set aside the bible and said thank you. Later that day he put in Full Metal Jacket, and this kid, who graduated high school just four months earlier, proceeded to give Gunnery Sergeant Hartman’s lines verbatim. And here I wasn’t even sure he’d know what the movie was.

  3. It turns out that Stanley Kubrick may have made the very best and longest-enduring USMC recruiting and retention commercial evah!
    Which was very likely not his intention at all…

  4. Sgt – how your daughter could think Gomer Pyle came from Full Metal Jacket astounds me. Surprise Surprise Surprise! Gomer and Sgt Carter were the early 60s – FMJ – 1987…

    Interesting article in – I think – the latest American Heritage by John Eisenhower who served under Patton – said the real one wasn’t a lot like the George C Scott version – in mannerisms –

    There is a great movie based on the book Ghost Soldiers – about the rescue of the starved and diseased remnants of American POWs in the Philippines – The Great Raid – by a Ranger unit – again, dead accurate it seems to me and not surprisingly helped by Dale Dye. Being the movie the skpiied a big part in the rescue but movies have to be different than books

    Robert Avrech, Hollywood screenwriter – has his best list of war movies

  5. I’m sure you all know that the Gunny in the movie was played by the guy hired as technical adviser. When they saw how good he was, he got the part. He’s made a nice career from that role. He had several small roles before that and coached Lou Gosset Jr for his DI role in “Officer and a Gentleman,” another good military movie. Dame Dye got a small role in “Rules of Engagement” but he has made a nice living from his technical adviser jobs. Ironically, the role in RoE has been criticized as inaccurate since he plays a senior officer indulging in “Command Influence.”

  6. Another epic deserving of positive note is A Bridge Too Far (1977). My Dad is highly critical of most “war” movies for all of the reasons noted. He gave that one a positive rating. He should know, he was an infantry platoon leader at Eindhoven. He felt that the story line was accurate as well as the portrayal of the tactical engagements. Still had a few issues with some of the small unit tactical movement.

    He has watched the Band of Brothers and gave the early episodes positive ratings. Since he was in Golf Company, he was intimately familiar with Easy Company. The freeze up of the second commander of Easy Company, he disputes ever happened. In the later episodes he became increasingly critical of the messaging which he attributes to the various directors’ pet rocks. For example, there was no problem with rape of locals by 101 troopers. He said if that would have happens in any pattern, he would have known about it as a battalion staff officer. He was certain that the unit cohesion and pride and first line sergeants held even the later replacements in line. He said any such incident would have been dealt with severely and used as an object lesson. He didn’t have much positive to say about the small unit engagement scenes.


  7. Know all about Dale Dye, MK – matter of fact, I heard about him long before he was famous for being ‘Gunny’ – all the old Far East broadcasters on my first tour knew about Dale Dye, as a military broadcast specialist. They all had their stories about Dale Dye as he was quite the character in military broadcaster circles – lamentably, they all tended to tell the stories at parties, where everyone (including me) was moderatly toasted. So I do not remember any of them, very clearly – only that I knew of him long before he was famous in the outer world. As for The Great Raid – reviewed here:

  8. I am told by a friend who spent time around B-52s that Dr. Strangelove was an absolute favorite with the aircrews. According to him everybody had memorized the dialogue, and many of the small details were correct.

  9. Death 6 – to me A bridge Too Far was very accurate as to the battle (from what little I know) – but as a movie – it flopped – just seem to drag on.

    I guess that’s why movies usually divert a bit from the books – or actual facts –

    From The Great Raid the way the author described those 100s of Rangers crawling undetected – 100s of yards in the open to the camp – took hours. And to put that in the movie….

    Speaking of Band of Brothers apparently one of the members – CO 1st Battalion – Clarence Hester = was a neighbor of mine and I didn’t even know his past until he died – like most of those heroes – humble

  10. There was a movie set in the South Pacific in WWII that started out with a patrol moving through the jungle. The first words you hear, from off camera, are a sergeant yelling “Spread Out”. It effected my father very powerfully. Anybody know what movie that would be?

  11. I grew up in a Navy town and my best friends tended to be Navy brats. My step-dad and my father-in-law both worked at the Navy Yard and I got my first job on base as a civilian.

    “Last Detail” sure caught the world of the squids as I knew them – the dumb butts and the drunks, the cynical and the naive; people without roots whose future was decided by someone else far away. These people were the rather cosmopolitan entre to the world outside my sleepy Gulf Coast Southern town.

    Jack Nicholson caught the lifer attitude and persona perfectly.

  12. Your Blondie friend thinking that ‘Gomer Pyle’ came from ‘Full Metal Jacket’ is rather non-sensible, as, assuming the original does not exist… why would Ermey’s DI come up with the name at all? He could just as easily have called private Leonard “Johnny Smedgley” or whatever. Obviously the name Gomer Pyle has to have some previous meaning for the DI to reference it. But anyway….

    The other statement that leaped off the page here for me was that MASH the TV show has “aged better” than the movie. In another forum (that was even referenced here, as I remember) someone wrote simply “MASH (TV) has not aged well”.

    Truer words never spoken. MASH is show, like Seinfeld, Star Trek, maybe Cheers, where I am pretty sure I have seen every single episode. And I cannot stand MASH today for even five minutes. It is SO insufferably smarmy and self-righteous, it is like needles in my spine.

    And what was referenced here way back was my pithy (pat, pat, ow!) observation of today’s left, and I guess why I cannot stand to watch MASH any more:

    Hawkeye Pierce has become Frank Burns, and is (and was) every bit as insufferable.

    This was especially true when oh-so-saintly liberal Mike Farrell took over from Wayne Rogers. I have no idea what happened to Mike Farrell since, but where is Rogers today? Over there yukkin’ it up on FOX Business. Heh. That says it all.

  13. Whitehall – the one thing that stuck with me and The last Detail was that poor naive slob going to Portsmouth and never having….

    But then, that was the “last detail” ;-)

    never having been the Navy I thought the movie showed the real Navy

  14. Andrew X – Mmmm, Blondie is actually my daughter. She was born in 1980, and didn’t come to live in the US permanently until she was 12 years old. She had never heard of the TV programs that featured the original Gomer Pyle.

    As for MASH, TV or movie version – matter of taste, I guess. Some episodes were better than others, and honestly, the best ones stick in my own memory much more than scenes from the movie.

  15. Let’s not forget “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” from 1957. David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, etc.) directed, William Holden, and (my fav actor) Alec Guinness.

  16. Sgt FWIW when MASH – the TV series came out I thought it was a poor imitation of the movie – but it grew – the movie now seems dated to me but Alan Alda will be collecting residuals until he dies.

  17. In the early 80s when South Korea was a military dictatorship and I was a child, M*A*S*H seemed like a bleak commentary on the futility of war.

    Now that South Korea is a prosperous and free country while North Korea continues to be this, it’s hard to see the show as anything but the best produced work of propaganda in support of the worst government in the world.

  18. Yep – with North Korea being the ghastly place that it is, and South Korea free and prosperous, the comments by M*A*S*H characters about the futility of the war do ring terribly hollow.

  19. Yes, quite hollow, short-sighted, simple-minded, and misguided…. and SO damn sanctimonious about being so wrong – thus its excruciating nature.

    Would that the phenom be limited to just a TV show.

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