“There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but boys, it is all hell.“
Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman
Speech circa 1880
“All I know is what they taught me at command school. There are certain rules about a war, and rule number one is young men die. And rule number two is, doctors can’t change rule number one.”
M*A*S*H, TV Program/Season One
(Sometimes You Hear the Bullet)
Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbour on this day in 1941 five brothers in Waterloo, Iowa walked into a Navy recruiting station and demanded that they all serve on the same ship. Two months later all five bothers (George, Frank, Red, Matt & Al) were photographed on the USS Juneau and became a famous band of brothers.
Nine months later they were all killed in the South Pacific in the Battle of the Guadalcanal. You can imagine the scene when the news was delivered to their parents home on Adams St. where they raised their boys.
“War is hell” is the often paraphrased Sherman quote. And that hell is full of drama so it is not surprising that there have been so many war movies.
A movie on the five brothers, The Fighting Sullivans written by Edward Doherty and Jules Schermer was released in 1944 and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story. (The Academy would later call the Best Story the Best Original Screenplay).
A similar story of eight brothers dying in the Civil War was the inspiration for Robert Rodat’s script Saving Private Ryan that would be nominated for 11 Academy Award and for which Steven Spielberg would win best director honors. (Private Ryan is from the fictious town of Peyton, Iowa and I do not know if this is a minor tribute to the Sullivan Brothers who would of come up in Rodat’s research as he looked for a World War II angle.)
Just a few weeks ago The Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum opened in Waterloo, Iowa. The 32,000-square-foot state-of-the art facility is named after the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo and honors the men and women who have served in the United States Military.
Since today is Pearl Harbor Day in the US it seemed a fitting time to look at screenwriting and war. I guess I could have called this Screenwriting from Vietnam, Screenwriting from Germany or Screenwriting from Iraq.
There have been many great movies made dealing with war because it has everything I’ve covered over the year; Strong, meaningful conflict where larger than life characters deal with life and death decisions that have consequences greater than there own lives. Actions that could in fact change the world.
The upcoming Tom Cruise film Valkyrie appears to be in this tradition. The Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander script centers around an assassination plot against Hitler. It would be hard to film a character in history that has been at the core of more films, TV programs, and books than Hitler. Understanding evil seems to be one of our chief preoccupations. (When we’re not Googling Britney Spears.)
One of the first films I ever remember seeing in the theater was The Green Beret starring John Wayne and David Janseen. (And for what it’s worth Wayne was born in Iowa and Janseen in Nebraska.) By doing the math I was seven years old when that movie came out. I didn’t see the movie again for almost 30 years but there were scenes that I have always carried with me.
The first two were booby traps where soldiers are killed (one into a wall of spikes, maybe I was too young to see this movie) and the other was the ending where a little boy goes looking for Sgt. Petersen who befriended the boy. But Petersen has been killed and it’s heartbreaker (at least it was for a seven-year-old viewing it) as he runs from helicopter to helicopter yelling “Peter-san, Peter-san!”
My boyhood friends and I had no real understanding of Vietnam but we loved the concept of shooting guns, rolling off a hill of sand pretending to be shot, talking on walkie talkies, and dressing up like G.I. Joe. I think every boy at that stage of his life is a dramatist. Making up dramatic scenarios and living them out daily. One day they’re playing with stick that’s an old west gun, the next day it’s a Medieval sword, and the next day it’s a futuristic laser.
Fast forward to when I was in high school and Apocalypse Now was released. That made me want to be a filmmaker and make sure I avoided going into war. Because of Vietnam the majority of young people at that time didn’t get excited about joining the military until the movie Top Gun game out in 1986 where people signed up in record numbers once again proving the influence of Hollywood. (Ironically, Platoon came out that same year.)
Here is a partial list of some of the greatest war films:
All Quiet on the Western Front
From Here to Eternity
The Bridge on the River Kwai
The Sand Pebbles
The Dirty Dozen
The Caine Mutiny
Black Hawk Down
Letters From Iwo Jima
Gone With the Wind
The Last of the Mohicans
Some films have dealt with war from a perspective of humor or irony:
Good Morning, Vietnam
The Great Dictator
And yet other films deal with the lingering effects of returning home from war:
The Deer Hunter
Courage Under Fire
The Best Years of Our Lives
“Out in the Pacific they say he was the best,
now he’s in his civvies heading home like all the rest.”
Sending the Old Man Home
Just as there were stories that emerged after World War II I believe there will be a new crop of stories emerging from Iraq. Jarhead writer Anthony Swofford not only recounted his experiences from The Gulf War but earned an MFA from the University of Iowa. The script for that movie was written by William Broyles Jr. who himself was a Marines in Vietnam.
So there will be more stories to tell from places far away from Hollywood. Stories than help give us meaning or at least a glimmer of humanity in a world that has been at war for thousands of years.
“The next wave of Hollywood filmmakers will undoubtedly include veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their values and empathy could alter the landscape of the filmmaking industry, even the world we share.”
Script magazine/ Real Men Write
It’s my hope that this posts finds its way to Iraq and Afghanistan where a solider or two can read it and be inspired. Thanks to all the soldiers who have fought for this country over the years and have made it such a great place to call home.
Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith
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