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Symkus column: Here’s how Hollywood has celebrated and/or condemned war

Ed Symkus
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"Saving Private Ryan"

Memorial Day is one of those holidays that comes with traditions attached: a parade through small towns, a cookout in the backyard, hanging a flag in front of your house. Well, our flag is still folded and ready to make its annual appearance, but we won’t be seeing any parades or attending any cookouts this year.

So, another tradition, of lesser prominence, at least at our household, is going to be moved up a few notches this time around. We’re going to have a mini-war movie festival in the living room.

Some say these films celebrate fighting. Others reason that all war movies are actually anti-war movies that question the futility of war. Full transparency: I’m not a fan of the genre. I am what they called in my hippie days, a dove. I never served in the military (high lottery number during the draft), and war movies usually make me uncomfortable, both physically and emotionally. Still, a good movie is a good movie, and if a thoughtful, exciting, well made one comes along that happens to feature armed forces groups going at it, I will give it a try.

In going over a lengthy list of war-related films, I realized that I have watched my share. Because there have been so many made (this is one popular genre), it took a while to winnow a list of recommendations down. But here are 10 that impressed me, kept me engrossed, frightened me, entertained me, and got me thinking about the senselessness of armed conflict.

“Apocalypse Now” (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic suffered difficulties including demanding actors, terrible weather and health problems. But the story of a CIA operative (Martin Sheen) sent into the deep jungle to assassinate a colonel who would be king (Marlon Brando) is a violent, seething, dreamy, provocative work of art.

“Full Metal Jacket” (1987)
Another Vietnam War story that’s developed two camps of fans: Those who label it pro-war and the pretty much equal amount of those who insist it’s anti-war. The film itself is also split down the middle, with the first half concentrating on the brutal basic training of Marines, and the second half following soldiers - and a combat photojournalist - into the heat of battle. Unflinchingly directed by Stanley Kubrick.

“Gettysburg” (1993)
This sprawling, four-and-a-half-hour film focuses on the military buildup and final execution of the three-day battle that’s become synonymous with the Civil War. Lots of unknown facts pop up (Were British forces really aligning with the Rebel army?), and the art of how wars are designed is brought to the fore. But it all ends in the ferocious titular battle which, if you look closely, at right about the four-hour mark, has sword-wielding Ted Turner playing a Rebel soldier, being cut down on the field.

“Hacksaw Ridge” (2016)
Mel Gibson had already proved he could make a remarkable war film when he directed and starred in “Braveheart.” But this one, set during WWII on Okinawa Island, while featuring scads of breathtakingly violent sequences, is, without a doubt, virulently anti-war. It focuses on the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector who enlists in the army with the goal of saving lives - as a doctor - and refusing to carry a gun. There are hellish horrors on display, but it’s a spiritually uplifting film.

“Inglorious Bastards” (2009)
OK, so you get your endless talk fests that are part of the package in every Quentin Tarantino film, and they come with outrageous bursts of violence (the alternate universe bloody death of Hitler here one is particularly satisfying). But the real prize in this WWII drama is the crazy plotline, which tells of a band of Jewish-American soldiers who are on a mission - headed up by Brad Pitt - to kill and scalp every Nazi they can find in France. The perfect final line of dialogue is, “This just might be my masterpiece.”

“The Longest Day” (1962)
Three different directors (who you never heard of) worked separately on various segments of this WWII story about the June 6, 1944, landings of Allied forces at Normandy. The filmmakers endeavored for accuracy by hiring consultants who were fighting on the beach the day the event happened. Filmed in black and white, and boasting a cast including John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton (and a pre-Goldfinger Sean Connery and Gert Frobe), the story is told from the points of view of the Allies and the Germans.

“Paths of Glory” (1957)
It’s the film that brought the name of Stanley Kubrick to the attention of filmgoers, and stands as one of the greatest WWI films and harshest condemnations of war. Thought-provoking from beginning to end, it’s about a probably insane French general who orders a colonel (Kirk Douglas) to lead his men into a suicide attack against the Germans. Things go very wrong, and the general levels accusations of insubordination, then attempts to try some of his own soldiers in a court-martial, with a goal of having them executed. An intense, fascinating film.

“Platoon” (1986)
Writer-director Oliver Stone, basing part of this Vietnam story on his own experiences in battle there, succeeds in pointing out the immorality of war. A young, innocent college student (Charlie Sheen) drops out and enlists to fight for his country, but finds that he’s neither needed nor wanted there, at least in the eyes of some of the veteran soldiers he encounters. He discovers that atrocities are a way of life, and that if he wants to survive, he must become involved in unmentionable activities. Great performances from Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe.

“Saving Private Ryan” (1998)
It’s another one featuring the Normandy Invasion, and the first unrelentingly violent 27 minutes of Steven Spielberg’s brutal WWII film will hopefully never be topped in intensity - because viewers would not want to go further down that black hole than he brings them here. Spielberg keeps the violence coming, and his anti-war message is unmistakable. Then he shifts gears and turns the whole thing into a highly dramatic saga of the search for one soldier, whose brothers have been killed in action, and who the army wants saved.

“We Were Soldiers” (2002)
Set during the early days of America’s involvement in Vietnam, this stars Mel Gibson as the military man whose orders from his superiors are to lead his men into battle, then “find the enemy and kill ’em.” It’s a story of a man displaying strong leadership, even when all odds are against him, and hope is a hard thing to maintain. The use of extreme violence is sporadic but effective in the film’s goals of celebrating the men who are doing their jobs and at the same time, condemning war.
Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.