For over 100 years, filmmakers have been retelling stories of death and glory on the silver screen. Some of the tales are factual, others are pure imagination. Most fall in between. filmmakers and studios have been booed and applauded, criticized and praised for their visions. War Films are a tribute to the brave for some and a guilty pleasure for others. Their artistry and their accuracy are much debated by film critics and military history buffs.
The first American war films came from the Spanish-American War in 1898. They were short “actualities” – documentary film-clips, just a few minutes in duration. These include Thomas Edison’s Burial of the Maine Victims of the Maine Sinking at Arlington Cemetery on December 28, 1899. Edison Studio also produced Blanket-Tossing of a New Recruit, Company F, 1st Ohio Volunteers, initiating a new man. These non-combat films were accompanied by “reenactments” of fighting, such as of Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘s “Rough Riders” in action against the Spanish, staged in the United States.
War and Anti-War Films often acknowledge the horror and heartbreak of war, letting the actual combat fighting or conflict provide the primary plot or background for the action of the film. Some war films do balance the soul-searching, tragic consequences and inner turmoil of combatants or characters with action-packed, dramatic spectacles, enthusiastically illustrating the excitement and chaos of warfare. And some ‘war’ films concentrate on the Homefront rather than on the conflict at the war-front. But many of them provide decisive criticism of senseless warfare.
There have been many lists ranking the merit of various War Films, most fall short in their investigation. Many only look at films produced in the last fifty years. Most only include American made productions. This Valorous TV survey will look at films from around the world over the last 100 years. Such a review is too large and complex to be presented in a single article. And, is it fair to compare a film in the post-World War I period and filmmaking technics of the 1920s silent era to the CGI, Dolby sound era of the 21st century?
We will look at films from five distinctive periods, 1898-1939, 1940-1960, 1961-1980, 1981-2001, 2002-2018. Each of these era’s mark significant changes in the approach to filmmaking and headline dominating conflicts altering the human condition around the world.
You may agree with the choices listed here. You may strongly disagree and want to offer a film or two of your own, please do. VarlorousTV.com is your community and we encourage your opinions and suggestions on all content.
1889-1939 In the Beginning
The Birth of a Nation (1915, USA), Director D.W. Griffith
D.W. Griffith’s three-hour Civil War epic, The Birth of a Nation, was released in April 1915 after a special showing in March at President Woodrow Wilson’s White House. It is widely recognized as a blueprint for the feature-length movie and as a showcase for Griffith’s Tolstoyan command of historical narrative.
But one of the greatest glories in movie history is also one of its lasting shames. Within Griffith’s, lovingly assembled images is a story that glorified the Ku Klux Klan, demonized blacks and sealed the misconception that the Reconstruction era in the South was a disastrous experiment in racial equality.
No film before had so forcefully, or painfully, demonstrated that the big screen could challenge the novel and textbook as a way of interpreting and thinking about the past. James Baldwin would damn it as “an elaborate justification of mass murder.” Eric Foner, a leading Reconstruction historian, said that the film did “irreparable damage to public consciousness and to race relations.” Fellow scholar Annette Gordon-Reed calls Griffith both a “cinematic genius” and a “lousy historian.”
For over a quarter century, Birth of a Nation has been enshrined and entombed. In 1992, to much criticism, the Library of Congress added Griffith’s work to the National Film Registry, calling it a “controversial, explicitly racist, but landmark American film masterpiece.”
Hollywood producers did not recognize the box-office potential of propagandist war and anti-war films until the success of D. W. Griffith’s influential Civil War epic. Adapted from Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman. it was the first feature-length silent film and a sweeping drama/epic. It focused on the effects of the war on two families – the Southern Camerons and the Northern Stonemans. The Camerons, headed by “Little Colonel” Ben Cameron, and the Stonemans, headed by politician Austin Stoneman, found themselves on opposite sides of the battle lines when War came. The Civil War exacted a personal toll on both families, only to be followed by the equally destructive Reconstruction period.
Griffith linked the consequences of the war on their lives with the formation of the Ku Klux Klan. The highly controversial film included semi-documentary, panoramic battle scenes and other historical events during the Civil War era.
It’s a difficult thing to do, marketing a cinematic masterpiece that is also hate-mongering propaganda, but that is why the film is so powerful. If it were simply a racist film, it would have faded away long ago. But because The Birth of a Nation is such a magnificent film (in terms of cinematic artistry in 1915), the cancerous ideology at its core is even more toxic, and so we find ourselves continuing to discuss it a full century later.
Griffith was a man of the late 19th century mastering the tools of a revolutionary medium of the 20th century moving images. After several years of acting and script writing, he directed his first movie, in 1908. By 1914, Griffith was among the country’s top directors
This film will make some viewers very uncomfortable, and it should. That fact remains it is a powerful and troubling film whose roots are deeply buried in a powerful troubling time in our history and its deep impact makes it a must-see.
VTV Factoid –Some of the black characters are played by white actors with makeup, particularly those characters who were required to encounter a white actress. Look for the Cameron’s maid. The person playing her is not only clearly white but is also obviously male.
Battleship Potemkin (1925, USSR), Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Any student of film should be required to see this epic before calling themselves a filmmaker. Legendary Russian director Sergei Eisenstein’s classic landmark and visionary film was released in 1926. This Soviet silent film is a tribute to the early Russian revolutionaries and is widely regarded as a masterpiece of international cinema. The film is based on the mutiny of Russian sailors against their tyrannical superiors aboard the battleship Potemkin during the Revolution of 1905. Their victory was short-lived, however, as during their attempts to get the population of Odessa (now in Ukraine) to launch a massive revolution, Imperial Cossacks arrived and laid waste to the insurgents, thus fanning the winds of war that would ultimately lead to the rise of communism in 1917.
This production advanced the art of cinematic storytelling with the technique of montage (or film editing). The Soviet montage style of filmmaking came around 1917 with the Russian Revolution. Before this time most films had been made copying a scene as shot in production. Montage Theory asserts that a series of connected images allows for complex ideas to be extracted from a sequence and, when strung together in post-production, constitute the entirety of a film’s ideological and intellectual power. In other words, the editing of shots rather than the content of the shot alone constitutes the force of a film. The opening of Saving Private Ryan is a prime example of this theory,
Its most celebrated film scene, with superb editing combining wide, newsreel-like sequences inter-cut with close-ups of harrowing details to increase tension, was the Odessa Steps scene. In the scene (with 155 separate shots in less than five minutes), the Czarist soldiers fired on the crowds thronging on the Odessa steps with the indelible, dynamic image of a baby carriage careening down the marble steps leading to the harbor, The shot of the baby carriage tumbling down the long staircase has been re-created in many films, including Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987).
VTV Factoid –The real-life pre-dreadnought battleship Potemkin was scrapped in 1923; the film used another Black Sea Fleet pre-dreadnought to represent her, Dvenadsat Apostolov (“Twelve Apostles”), which was being used as a storage hulk in Sevastopol.
The Big Parade (1925, USA), Director King Vidor
Ok, I confess, The Big Parade has been one of my favorites films ever since I discovered a 16 mm print in a dusty forgotten corner of the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore. When it first premiered in 1925 it was a new kind of war film and the first to realistically portray the horrors of battle and the struggle for survival by three soldier-comrades in the trenches on the Western Front. This endures as a still-powerful classic Great War, anti-war epic with compelling, realistic, brilliantly-staged battle scenes, showing the virtually unprotected front lines marching toward the enemy and getting picked off. This was the highest grossing silent film in its day.
The film mixed grueling infantry action with bittersweet romance and a little comic relief. In 1992, The Big Parade was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
VTV Factoid – King Vidor timed the march of the US youth into the forest and possible death as a slow, measured cadence with the muffled beat of brass drums heralding doom–a metronome to simulate exactly the gait of the soldiers”.
Wings (1927, USA), Director William Wellman
Forever granted a place in cinematic history by winning the first-ever Academy Award for Best Picture in 1927, and the only silent film to do so, William Wellman’s silent epic Wings is more than an Oscar winner, it also endures as a heroic story of friendship with the type of thrilling action only someone who had personally experienced the reality of combat could bring to the screen. Wings, an early anti-war film, is the greatest of the early aviation epics, with spectacular dogfight combat sequences and a remarkable reconstruction of the intense Battle of St. Mihiel. It was the first film to introduce sound effects on a separate strip of film, and dogfight scenes shot in the air, rather than in the studio.
“Wings” possessed many of the qualities that would define future Oscar winners: a huge budget (two million 1927 dollars); a sweeping historical subject that incorporated thrills, romance and sentiment; the leading female star in the country, Clara Bow, at the height of her notoriety as Hollywood’s “It” girl, flanked by a pair of handsome newcomers (Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen); and an innovative use of technology. The initial engagements were presented in Magnascope, a process that allows for supersize images for selected scenes, almost exactly as the Imax-ized blockbusters do today.
Paramount came a bit late to the War Films game with “Wings.” Two previous big studio productions, MGM’s “Big Parade” (directed by King Vidor in 1925) and Fox’s “What Price Glory” (Raoul Walsh, 1926), had already begun the process of romanticizing and reclaiming the traumatic experience of the Great War. But those were films about foot soldiers, while “Wings”, perhaps inspired by the national wave of enthusiasm that accompanied Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 trans-Atlantic solo flight, was about the war in the air, a subject that literally required a new perspective.
Paramount’s head of production, B. P. Schulberg, found what he wanted in a young and relatively inexperienced director named William A. Wellman, who had been a fighter pilot with the Lafayette Flying Corps during the war. Today the flying sequences in “Wings” would be executed using digital techniques; in the ’30s and ’40s, they would have been created with a combination of miniatures, rear projection, and optical printing. But in 1927 the only way to capture these effects was to perform them in front of live cameras, and Wellman found himself at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio commanding a 220-plane escadrille staffed by Army airmen and Hollywood stunt flyers.
Because the planes were too small to accommodate an actor, a pilot, a cameraman and a camera,
Harry Perry, the director of photography, found a way of mounting a camera in the front cockpit so that it could be operated from the pilot’s seat. Those close-ups of Arlen, who had learned to fly in the Canadian Royal Flying Corps, Rogers, who learned to fly during the production, and their comrades, are gripping because they are unshakably, unmistakably real actors filming their own performances on sets sailing thousands of feet above the ground.
Rogers’ flight instructor and sometime backup pilot was Lt. Hoyt Vandenberg (aka “Van”), an Army Air Corps pilot at California’s March Field. Vandenberg later became a four-star general, commanding the 9th Air Force in World War II, and served as the US Air Force’s first official chief of staff after the war
VTV Factoid – The U.S. military cooperated heavily in the making of this film, providing thousands of soldiers, millions of dollars’ worth of equipment, and virtually all the pursuit planes the army had at the time.
Napoleon (1927, France) Director: Abel Gance
Experimental French filmmaker Abel Gance’s visually revolutionary picture was previously planned as a six-hour long epic. Originally titled Napoléon vu par Abel Gance (“Napoleon as Seen by Abel Gance”), was partially shot with panoramic, “triptych” Polyvision at its climax (three-screens side-by-side to create a wide-screen effect, later known by future generations as Cinerama). This meant that the film had to be shot with three synchronized cameras, and then projected on gigantic, 3-part screens. Napoléon, released in 1927, recounted the life of the French general Napoléon Bonaparte, tracing his early years through his invasion of Italy in 1796. It was intended to be the first of several films about the French emperor, but no subsequent movies came to fruition.
The film begins with Napoléon as a child at the military college at Brienne where, predicting his future, he leads his classmates to victory in a snowball fight. As an adult, Napoléon is imprisoned by the revolutionary leader Robespierre during the Reign of Terror. After Robespierre’s fall in 1794, Napoléon is released from prison and subsequently marries the beautiful widow Josephine and is appointed the commander of the French army in Italy.
French director Gance was a true pioneer in filmmaking, and the final sequence of his big-budget epic was shot in a unique filming that required shooting with three synchronized cameras. This allowed the right and left portions of the screen to at times present different images from what was being shown in the center of the screen. At other times, the images blended back into one. When the movie Napoléon was released, however, few theatres were willing to invest substantial sums in the equipment needed to project the film. Gance recut a sound version of the movie in 1934, and the film was re-edited into countless other versions. His original cut had been presumed lost forever until British film historian Kevin Brownlow, with financial support from American director Francis Ford Coppola, found the footage and in 1980 launched a major restoration of the film with a triumphant new score by Coppola’s father, Carmine. In 2000 Brownlow presented a further restoration that added 35 minutes of newly discovered footage.
VTV Factoid – In addition to its pioneering use of widescreen, this film also has a lot of handheld camerawork. The filmmakers experimented extensively with small, handheld, motorized cameras to heighten the dramatic effect of many scenes.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, USA), Director: Lewis Milestone
This stirring, impassioned film, the first sound film to win the Best Picture Academy Award, is possibly the greatest anti-war film ever made. It was based upon the 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque that viewed the Great War from the German point of view. All the young idealistic German youths who went to the front to voluntarily serve the Fatherland became disillusioned and ended up victims of the struggle.
For the first time, a film portrayed soldiers as human beings who are ravaged by their war experiences. The film documents their descent into the truth of modern war in graphic detail, from the everyday reality of trench warfare to the starvation and butchery they encounter. This film is not about heroism but about drudgery and futility.
The film ends simplistically on the day of Armistice, as a young German soldier Paul, who has been at the front for four years, reaches his hand out from the shell-hole trench to touch a beautiful butterfly. The sound of the whine of a French sniper’s bullet breaks the silence and he dies. The film’s final images are composed of ghostly soldiers marching away, while superimposed over a dark, battle-scarred hillside covered with a sea of white crosses.
Remarque’s realistic depiction of trench warfare from the perspective of young soldiers struck a chord with the war’s survivors, soldiers, and civilians alike, and provoked strong reactions, both positive and negative, around the world.
Remarque’s harshest critics were his countrymen, many of whom felt the book denigrated the German war effort, and that Remarque had exaggerated the horrors of war to further his pacifist agenda. The strongest voices against Remarque came from the emerging Nazi Party and its ideological allies. In 1933, when the Nazis rose to power, All Quiet on the Western Front became one of the first books to be publicly burned. In 1930, screenings of the film were met with Nazi-organized protests and mob attacks on both movie theatres and audience members. In 1979, the film was remade for CBS television. Watch the original, a more powerful production; it is difficult to buy “John Boy” Walton as a battle-hardened Stoßtruppen.
VTV Factoid – To ensure authenticity, director Lewis Milestone instructed the studio to try to find out if there were any World War I German army veterans living in the Los Angeles area, so he could have them authenticate German uniforms, equipment, etc. So many were found that Milestone cast a lot of them as German officers in the film and had them drill the extras playing German troops (the scene where they are laying communication wire in the forward trenches was led by a former German soldier whose job during the war was to do exactly that).
Hell’s Angels (1930, USA), Director: Howard Hughes
Millionaire playboy director/producer Howard Hughes’ expensive film featured more impressive WWI aerial battle sequences and special effects than any film before. It also highlighted the debut of platinum blonde sex symbol Jean Harlow (speaking the famous saucy line: “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?”)’ in love with two English brothers, Monte and Roy Rutledge (Ben Lyon and James Hall) who were British Royal Flying Corps pilots.
Howard Hughes had been at work since 1927 on his first major screen effort, a picture he intended to rival the hit aviator flick and first Best Picture Oscar winner, Wings (1927). Hughes made and remade the film over three long, draining years, the budget climbing higher and higher as he assembled the largest private air force in history, close to 150 planes. During the filming Hughes lost his wife to divorce, two stunt pilots and a mechanic killed during the filming of the movie’s stunning aerial sequences. Two directors, Marshall Neilan and Luther Reed were casualties to the production. More than two million dollars were spent as Hughes ordered shots and reshoots of dogfights and bombing sequences. Far worse for the production, sound was invented, and so the movie itself had to be replaced. Roughly, 2 million feet of unedited silent footage in a market that virtually overnight was clamoring for talkies.
Rather than scrap the whole project, Hughes decided to add sound to the air footage and re-shoot the dialogue sequences. That was bad news for the film’s leading lady, Greta Nissen, a Norwegian dumped from the sound version because of her very thick accent, but good news for Jean Harlow, a fresh face on the Hollywood scene who took the opportunity to make a real impression on audiences and reviewers, at least for her looks and sex appeal, if not for what many called her “awful” acting.
The love triangle plot of Hell’s Angels is certainly secondary to the action sequences, and for all the troubles during shooting, the flying sequences remain spectacular even by today’s computer-generated standards. After the two stuntmen were killed, the remaining pilots refused to perform a dangerous aerial sequence Hughes demanded. An expert pilot himself, Hughes did his own flying, getting the shot but crashing the plane and breaking several bones in the process. With some amazing footage already in the can, and determined to make his mark in Hollywood, the millionaire playboy spared no expense, shooting roughly 250 feet of film for every foot that was used in the final cut and running costs up to nearly $4 million.
Hughes went all out promoting, staging what is still the largest movie premiere ever. A mob of 50,000 people (Hughes’s company claimed it was half a million) lined Hollywood Boulevard leading up to Grauman’s Chinese Theater, May 27, 1930. The street was illuminated by 185 arc lights Hughes rented at a cost of $14,000. Scalpers sold $11 tickets for $50, and an actual fighter squadron flew overhead. By the time the film was scheduled to start, the crowd was swarming the limos of celebrity guests, forcing the overwhelmed Los Angeles Police Department to call the National Guard for back up.
Although a popular success, Hell’s Angels was nowhere near able to recoup its staggering costs on its initial release. A heads up: when you watch this film be prepared for the Zeppelin over London battle. It is based on an actual action, breathtakingly done, and the inspiration for the opening of Star Wars and Jaws.
VTV Factoid – All color prints of the movie were thought to be lost until a print was found in John Wayne’s ‘s personal vault in 1989, ten years after the actor’s death, by his son Michael Wayne. It is possible that Wayne received the print from the film’s producer/director, Howard Hughes. The actor starred in Jet Pilot (1957) for Hughes in 1949, but the film was not released until 1957 because Hughes continued to have the flying sequences re-shot, a situation not unlike this film.
Scipione L’Africano aka The Defeat of Hannibal (1937, Italy) Director: Carmine Gallone
Scipio L’Africano is noteworthy, not necessary for the quality of the film, but for who the writer and producer are. Scipio L’Africano represented the first foray into filmmaking by Vittorio_Mussolini, the war-hero son of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. It was originally intended to be an Italian-American co-production, but Hollywood producer Hal Roach pulled out of the project on the advice of his associates who warned that a partnership with a fascist dictator and Adolf Hitler’s partner in crime may not be good for business.
Rumors have it that Vittorio’s father, “Il Duce” himself, wrote the screenplay and personally demanded that Italian filmmaker Carmine Gallone returns to his homeland to direct the picture. Due to Italian film industry’s troubles had Gallon had moved abroad where he worked for many years in France, Germany, England, and Austria. As a director of “big budget” epics, he was considered a rival to Cecil B. De Mille.
Scipio L’Africano is one of the most expensive historical epics in movie history. The film concentrates on Roman consul Scipio’s Herculean efforts to topple the regime of Carthaginian conqueror Hannibal. It takes 15 years, but Scipio is finally able to raise a big enough army to defeat Hannibal, first in Africa and finally at the pivotal Battle of Zama near present-day Tunisia. A subplot concerns the political intrigues concocted by the treacherous Numidian Queen Sofonisba.
To bring Scipio L’Africano to fruition, director Gallone was afforded the luxury of a 232-day production schedule. According to official files, 32,848 extras, 1,000 horses and 50 elephants (for Hannibal’s journey across the Alps) were used in the film. Even so, this heavily propagandistic tribute to the glories of the Roman Empire is often shoddily put together, chock full of such anachronisms such as telephone wires stretching over the battlefields. The film was not the enormous flop that many people claim, but its lukewarm box-office showing was enough to convince the Italian film industry to concentrate on musicals and light comedy fare for the duration of the Mussolini regime.
The film has also been criticized for its inhumane treatment of animals in the battle scenes where many were maimed or killed for authenticity’s sake. The film’s motto, “Victory or death”, was appropriated by Fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to inspire his people for his war against Haile Selassie and his brutal invasion of Ethiopia.
VTV Factoid – Look for the Roman soldiers wearing wristwatches and patent leather shoes even though the film is set thousands of years before they were invented.
Grand Illusion Aka La Grande Illusion (1937, France) Director: Jean Renoir
French director Jean Renoir’s classic World War One drama idealistically expressed the ‘grand illusion’ and hypocrisy of men at war. Renoir attempts to signal a warning about warfare’s ‘grand illusions’ with this classic anti-war film set in a WWI German prison camp during the height of the conflict in 1916.
There, aristocratic French officer Capt. de Boeldieu faces a dilemma regarding his planned escape with other POWs, including working-class mechanic French officer/decorated hero Lieut. Marechal and wealthy middle-class Jewish Lieut. Rosenthal. They are under the watchful eye of German Captain von Rauffenstein, a classic autocratic Prussian.
Apart from its other achievements, Jean Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” influenced two famous later movie sequences. The digging of the escape tunnel in “The Great Escape” and the singing of the “Marseilles” to enrage the Germans in “Casablanca” can first be observed in Renoir’s 1937 masterpiece. Even the details of the tunnel dig are the same, such as the way the prisoners hide the excavated dirt in their pants and shake it out on the parade ground during exercise.
But if “Grand Illusion” had been merely a source of later inspiration, it wouldn’t be on so many lists of great films. It’s not a movie about a prison escape, nor is it jingoistic in its politics. It is a meditation on the collapse of the old order of European civilization. Perhaps that was always a sentimental upper-class illusion, the notion that gentlemen on both sides of the lines subscribed to the same code of behavior. Whatever it was, it died in the trenches of World War I. “Neither you nor I can stop the march of time,” the captured French aristocrat Capt. de Boieldieu tells the German prison camp commandant, Von Rauffenstein.
What the Frenchman knows, and the German won’t admit is that the new world belongs to commoners. It changed hands when the gentlemen of Europe declared war. And the “grand illusion” of Renoir’s title is the notion that the upper classes somehow stand above war. The German cannot believe that his prisoners, whom he treats almost as guests, would try to escape. After all, they have given their word not to.
The commandant is played by Erich von Stroheim, in one of the most famous of movie performances. Even many who have not seen the movie can identify stills of the wounded ace pilot von Rauffenstein, his body held rigid by a neck and back brace, his eye squinting through a monocle.
The movie, filmed as the clouds of World War II were gathering, uses the story’s characters to illustrate how the themes of the first war would tragically worsen in the second. So, pointed was Renoir’s message, that when the Germans occupied France, “Grand Illusion” was one of the first things they seized. It was “Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1,” propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels announced, ordering the original negative seized.
Its history since then would make a movie; the film’s print clandestinely was smuggled across borders in shadowy ways. For many years it was assumed that the original negative had been destroyed in a 1942 Allied air raid. But it had already been bought out by a German film archivist named Frank Hensel, then a Nazi officer in Paris, who had it shipped to Berlin, saving the film the Nazi’s wanted to be destroyed. Your motivation to watch this is to enjoy the film Hitler was afraid for you to see.
VTV Factoid –Erich von Stroheim clashed with Jean Renoir in the early days of shooting, and the director later said the actor “behaved intolerably.” They had one argument over whether there should be prostitutes in the German quarters, a detail Von Stroheim thought would lend greater authenticity, but which Renoir rejected as a childish cliché. The dispute so distressed Renoir he burst into tears, which caused Von Stroheim to do the same.
Alexander Nevsky (1938, U.S.S.R) Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Like many of Eisenstein’s best films, Alexander Nevsky was conceived as a morale-booster, aimed at stirring up Russian patriotism. It is set in the 13th century, but the villainous Teutonic Knights are obviously meant to represent the mushrooming threat of Hitler’s hordes. With Russia besieged by both Prussian knights and by the Tartars, only a charismatic leader can save the populace from these barbaric baby killers (yes, we see the villains tossing screaming infants into bonfires!)
This nationalistic film presented the medieval story of the 13th-century Russian prince Alexander Nevsky. The film’s most memorable and gripping sequence is the half-hour long battle scene on the blindingly-white ice at frozen Lake Chudskoye in 1242 on the boundary between Novgorod and Pskov. In the battle’s finale, as the defeated Germans fled, they were swallowed up when the ice cracked and plunging them into the frigid water.
The film also conveys highly anti-clerical and anti-Papal messages. The knights’ bishop’s miter is adorned with swastikas. Religion plays a minor role on the Russian side, present mostly as a backdrop in the form of Novgorod’s St. Nicholas Cathedral and the clerics with their icons during the victorious entry of Nevsky into the city after the battle.
Alexander Nevsky stressed, as a central theme, the importance of the common people in saving Russia, while portraying the nobles and merchants as “bourgeoisie” and enemies of the people, contributing nothing.
The picture was released in December 1938 and became a great success, the most popular of the Russia films made in recent times.
After August 23. 1939, when the USSR signed the Molotov- Ribbentrop Pact, which provided for non-aggression and collusion between Germany and the Soviet Union, Alexander Nevsky was removed from circulation. But the situation reversed dramatically on June 22, 1941 after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, and the film rapidly returned to Soviet and western screens.
VTV Factoid –The actual battle is reflected in both Old Russian and German chronicles, but information about specific details differs. One of the main differences is the number of warriors on the Teutonic side–German chronicles say 300, but Old Russian accounts give the number as 2000. The difference may be because the German accounts only mention the number of Teutonic knights themselves and not their servants, retinues and foot soldiers. Historians are still trying to determine exactly where the battle took place.
Dawn Patrol (1938, U.S.A.) Director: Edmund Goulding
Dawn Patrol is a remake of the 1930 Howard Hawks’ 1930 film of the same title starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Richard Barthelmess, Errol Flynn takes the lead role as insubordinate flight commander Captain Courtney. Basil Rathbone is the commanding officer Major Brand forced to send inexperienced pilots of the 39th Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps into the air against aces of the infamous German flying circus during World War One.
The remake remains faithful in many details to John Monk Saunders’ Oscar-winning original story for the Hawks film. Nevertheless, Howard Hughes, upset with the remake’s similarities to his 1930 Oscar-winner Wings, sued Warner Bros. He lost when it was proven that the screenplay for The Dawn Patrol was indeed based on the Saunders original, which had been written as a vehicle for Ronald Colman before it was filmed in 1930 with Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
The Dawn Patrol is set at the French headquarters of the British Royal Flying Corps, where ace pilot Flynn blames squadron commander Basil Rathbone for the heavy losses the unit is suffering. After the command is turned over to Flynn, he realizes the hard realities behind Rathbone’s actions,
particularly after the younger brother of Flynn’s best friend, David Niven, is killed in action. The movie is unusual in that it does not contain a single female character.
Errol Flynn was always at his best when paired opposite his on-screen nemesis, Basil Rathbone. Rathbone had served in WWI and wears his own decorations in the movie one of which is the MilitaryFollowing, basic training with the London Scots in early 1916 he received a commission as a lieutenant and joined the King’s Liverpool Regiment as an intelligence officer. Eventually attained the rank of captain.
After his younger brother’s death at the front, Rathbone convinced his superiors to allow him to scout enemy positions in camouflage suits had been made to resemble a tree during daylight rather than at night, as was the usual practice. Because of these highly dangerous daylight reconnaissance patrols, he was awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous daring and resource on patrol”
Flynn became a naturalized American citizen on August 14, 1942. He saw his own desire to serve in World War II dashed when he was turned down by every branch of the armed services after being classified 4F because of heart problems, a history of malaria, various venereal diseases and tuberculosis The great “swashbuckler” was mocked by reporters and critics as a “draft dodger”; but the studio refused to admit that their star, promoted for his physical beauty and athleticism, had been disqualified due to health.
VTV Factoid – The filmmakers needed several shots of the planes taking off and landing. They assembled a squadron of 17 vintage WW1 aircraft, most of them Nieuports. Flying them proved just as hazardous as in WW1. By the time filming ended, stunt flyers had crashed 15 of them.
Beau Geste (1938, U.S.A.) Director: William A. Wellman
In the early part of the Twentieth Century, young boys around the world fantasied about a life of adventure marching in the western desert of Morocco with the French Foreign Legion. William Wellman’s superb Beau Geste is that fantasy brought to the silver screen. The plot involves the three Geste brothers played by Gary Cooper, Robert Preston, and Ray Milland who disappeared from England to avoid scandal and joined the French Foreign Legion. The themes of the film included brotherly loyalty, patriotic honor, self-sacrifice, and treachery.
The film opened with the mysterious view of Fort Zinderneuf, later to be explained as the film progressed. Major de Beaujolais arrives at Fort Zinderneuf to find all the soldiers dead yet mysteriously still posed at their stations as if guarding the fort. A letter found on one of the bodies tells the life story of its author, Beau Geste, starting fifteen years earlier and explains the mystery of a fort manned by the dead.
There is much to be admired in this film, especially the values embodied in this story.
VTV Factoid – At the film’s world premiere, the first reel of the 1926 silent version of “Beau Geste” was shown just before the entire 1939 sound version, to demonstrate how far films had advanced in thirteen years. This almost backfired because the 1939 film, apparently, followed the 1926 one extremely closely, and some of the first-night critics were annoyed, rather than pleased at this, feeling that the 1939 version should have been more imaginative. However, this did not keep the 1939 version from becoming a smash hit and a film classic.
Hope to hear your responses to the films we selected. Next month we will share our selections for Valorous TV’s Must See War Films of WWII.