Tuesday, April 23, 2013


            “The Longest Day” is a movie about D-Day that was based on the nonfiction book by Cornelius Ryan.  I thought it would be interesting to see what Hollywood added and altered from the book.  Here are some statements about events in the movie, try to determine if they also appear in the book.  You don't need to have seen the movie.

1.  Rommel said, "Believe me, Gentleman, the first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive. For the Allies as well as the Germans, it will be "The Longest Day… The Longest Day"! 

2.  Dutch Shultz wins a lot of money in a crap game, but a rosary from his mother causes him to purposely lose it all before potentially dying.

3. “Pips” Priller complains about his squadron being withdrawn leaving only he and his wingman.

4.  Janine Boitard hides downed airmen in her basement.

5.  Capt. Ernst During puts his boots on the wrong feet.

6. A paratrooper lands in a well.

7. Steele’s parachute gets caught on a church steeple and he was hit in the foot.

8. A British chaplain goes bobbing for his mass kit.

9. A group of soldiers including Schultz pass by a group of Germans without either side noticing the other was the enemy.

10. Col. Vandervoort broke his ankle on landing.

11. Pluskat sights the armada and relays that it is coming “right for me!”

12. Private Flanagan (Sean Connery) stumbles and falls in the water and says “they’re trying to drown me before I even get on the beach!”

13. There was a bagpipe player with Lovat.

14. The beachmaster had a bulldog and started a stalled vehicle by hitting it with his cudgel.

15. The reporter yelled “damned traitors” when the carrier pigeons went the wrong way.

16. Janine Boitard helped blow up a train and was almost drowned by a German soldier.

17. Gen. Cota says “Two kinds of people are staying on this beach, those who are dead and those who are going to die.”

18. When two Germans try to surrender, a Ranger shoots them and then says “I wonder what ‘bitter, bitter’ means.”

19. Flight Commander Campbell (Richard Burton) was shot down, crippled, and shot During (who still had his boots on wrong).

20. Priller and his wingman made the only appearance by the Luftwaffe that day.

21. A British paratrooper landed at a German headquarters and told a German general “Awfully sorry, old man, but we simply landed here by accident.”

22. A group of nuns walk through the chaos of Ouistreham to care for the wounded French.

23. Fuller uses Bangalore torpedoes to blow a lane through the barbed wire and then blows a hole on the sea wall to open up Omaha Beach.


1. Rommel said, "Believe me, Gentleman, the first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive. For the Allies as well as the Germans, it will be "The Longest Day… The Longest Day"! True.

2. Dutch Shultz wins a lot of money in a crap game, but a rosary from his mother causes him to purposely lose it all before potentially dying. True, except he had received the rosary earlier and remembering it caused him to reenter the game.

3. “Pips” Priller complains about his squadron being withdrawn leaving only he and his wingman. True, the squadron was needed for the defense of Germany.

4. Janine Boitard hides downed airmen in her basement. True.

5. Capt. Ernst During puts his boots on the wrong feet. True.

6. A paratrooper lands in a well. True, he climbed out by using the parachute shroud lines.

7. Steele’s parachute gets caught on a church steeple and he was hit in the foot. True, but he was hit in the foot on the way down.

8. A British chaplain goes bobbing for his mass kit. True, but it actually happened to an American chaplain.

9. A group of soldiers including Schultz pass by a group of Germans without either side noticing the other was the enemy. True, but both sides knew who the other was, they just did not do anything about it.

10. Col. Vandervoort broke his ankle on landing. True, but it was not a compound fracture.

11. Pluskat sights the armada and relays that it is coming “right for me!” True.

12. Private Flanagan (Sean Connery) stumbles and falls in the water and says“they’re trying to drown me before I even get on the beach!” True, except his name was McQuaid

13. There was a bagpipe player with Lovat. True.

14. The beachmaster had a bulldog and started a stalled vehicle by hitting it with his cudgel. Mostly Hollywood. Capt. Maud was actually on Juno Beach and his dog was an Alsatian. He did not cane start a vehicle. he did have a cudgel.

15. The reporter yelled “damned traitors” when the carrier pigeons went the wrong way. True.

16. Janine Boitard helped blow up a train and was almost drowned by a German soldier. Hollywood. The actress (Irena Demick) was the producer’s mistress so her role was expanded.

17. Gen. Cota says “Two kinds of people are staying on this beach, those who are dead and those who are going to die.” Actually said by Col. George Taylor of the 16thRegiment of the First Division.

18. When two Germans try to surrender, a Ranger shoots them and then says “I wonder what ‘bitter, bitter’ means.” Semi-true – actually happened on the bluff of Omaha Beach.

19. Flight Commander Campbell (Richard Burton) was shot down, crippled, and shot During (who still had his boots on wrong). Hollywood, the Campbell character was created for Burton.

20. Priller and his wingman made the only appearance by the Luftwaffe that day. True, although they might not have been the only appearance of the Luftwaffe and they were still drunk from the night before.

21. A British paratrooper landed at a German headquarters and told a German general“Awfully sorry, old man, but we simply landed here by accident.” True.

22. A group of nuns walk through the chaos of Ouistreham to care for the wounded French. Hollywood.

23. Fuller uses Bangalore torpedoes to blow a lane through the barbed wire and then blows a hole on the sea wall to open up Omaha Beach. Hollywood. There is no Fuller in the book and the egress from the beach was not that simple. It involved small groups of men fighting their way to the top and taking out the German positions.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

DUELING MOVIES: Buffalo Soldiers (1997) vs. Rough Riders (1997)


                 TNT produced two movies bringing recognition to legendary cavalry regiments of the late Nineteenth Century.  It seemed logical to compare them especially since the two units fought alongside each other in the Spanish-American War.  “Buffalo Soldiers” is a fictional story about the Tenth Cavalry in the West participating in Victorio’s War.  “Rough Riders” tells the tale of the formation of Teddy Roosevelt’s volunteer cavalry regiment through its Charge Up San Juan Hill. 

                “Buffalo Soldiers” appeared on TV in 1997.  It is set in the New Mexico Territory in 1880.  Apache Indian leader Victorio has broken out of the Mescalero Apache Reservation and is ravaging the countryside.  The Buffalo Soldiers are represented by Company H, Tenth Cavalry stationed at Fort Craig.  They are led by Sgt. Wyatt (Danny Glover).  Their nobleness is established in the first scene as they rescue some Indians who are being hanged by Texas Rangers to get them to reveal the location of Victorio.  Theme:  whites racist, blacks mistreated, Indians misunderstood.  When the unit returns to Fort Craig they are confronted with the newly arrived all-white Second Cavalry  with its racist commander and the new post commander Gen. Pike (Tom Bower) who is openly hostile to the black soldier “experiment”. 

                Both units are sent out to track Victorio.  The units separate and the Buffalo Soldiers are lured by some decoys into an ambush.  They get spanked, but luckily capture Nana (another renegade leader who was hoping to hook up with Victorio).  However, Wyatt is blamed by Pike for abandoning the Second.  In case you don’t realize what a jerk he is, he murders a captive during the night because his singing is keeping him awake!

                Col. Benjamin Grierson (Bob Gunton) leads another tracking expedition, but is wounded by a sniper and command falls to Wyatt.  Redemption time?  Or corruption time?  Wyatt seems to be going over to the dark side (or the Texas Ranger side) as he threatens to kill an Indian woman warrior to get Nana to talk.  They ride into another ambush so a main character named Christy (Mykelti Williamson) can get killed.

                Wyatt sets up an ambush at a watering hole and Victorio’s band walks right into the trap.  It’s a Mexican standoff with both sides fingering their triggers.  Will the Buffalo Soldiers do their duty as members of the U.S. Army or will they side with the similarly mistreated  Indians?

                Historically speaking, “Buffalo Soldiers” is a farce.  It is fiction if you bother to check, but any casual viewer would get the impression that it is based on actual events.  Very loosely based.  There is no background given as to the history of the Buffalo Soldiers.  This is no “Tuskegee Airmen” (an obvious comparison).  We do not find out that the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry were established after the Civil War.  They were stationed in the West and earned their nickname from the Native Americans.  Sadly, their duties were more of the scouting, protecting railroad workers and mail carriers, and building roads variety, instead Indian fighting.

                As far as the movie events are concerned, Victorio broke out of the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona in 1879 and launched Victorio’s War.  They were provoked by disease, lack of supplies, and general mistreatment.  They did attack settlers.  They ambushed a company of the Ninth Cavalry in Las Animas Canyon using the classic decoy tactic.  Later, Grierson led the Tenth in a campaign to track down the Apaches.  His strategy involved staking out watering holes.  This forced Victorio to escape into Mexico where his band was surrounded and wiped out by Mexican soldiers.

                “Rough Riders” was a two part miniseries that appeared on TNT in 1997.  It covers the entire history of the First US Volunteer Cavalry.  It also gives an overview of the Spanish-American War, specifically the Cuban part.  The movie introduces us to numerous real and fictional characters.  It hits the greatest hits of the war:  Hearst telling Remington to provide the pictures and he’ll provide the war, TR sending Dewey to the Philippines, the Spanish use of smokeless powder, Teddy’s multiple glasses, etc.  It concludes with an extended reenactment of the Battle of San Juan Hill.

                The movie opens with pictures, newspapers, and political cartoons to get us into the war.  Teddy creates the Rough Riders and a motley crew of outlaws, Ivy Leaguers, ranchers, Indians, etc. gather at the encampment.  A famous sheriff named Bucky O’Neill (Sam Elliott) becomes the stereotypical drill sergeant.  There is more than a training montage.  Eventually they entrain to the singing of “Garry Owen” and pass by waving crowds that include forgiving Confederate veterans.  In Tampa, Teddy wins a race to get on ships first by commandeering a train and mooning the infantry as they race by.

                In Cuba, the unit walks into an ambush in the woods when Gen. Wheeler (Gary Busey) pushes the regiment ahead against orders.  The first main character dies.  An ex-outlaw named Nash (Brad Johnson) runs away and stumbles into a Spanish flank.  The unit has followed him so he ends up the reluctant, wounded hero.  This is supposed to be the Battle of Las Guasimas.  The rest of the film concentrates on the Battle of San Juan Hill.  There is an artillery bombardment.  Nash returns from the hospital to seek cinematic redemption.  Teddy leads the charge up Kettle Hill and kills a couple of Spaniards.  After taking the hill, they move on to San Juan Hill and mingle with the Buffalo Soldiers.  Teddy shoots two more.  Nash is brave.  We win.  The survivors return home.

                As far as historical accuracy, the movie is above average.  The creation of the unit and the roles of Teddy Roosevelt and Leonard Wood are accurate.  The Battle of Las Guasimas is vaguely close.  Wheeler did disobey orders and the Rough Riders walked into an ambush.  However, the Spaniards were firing volleys instead of from in and behind trees.  In the movie, the Americans blunder into the Spanish flank and force them to retreat.  In reality, the Spanish inexplicably withdrew in spite of having the Rough Riders in a bind.  The movie plays down the incompetence common in first battles in American wars.

                The Battle of San Juan Hill is problematical.  It starts accurate and ends laughable.  The movie accurately depicts the terrain and the pre-charge bombardment that provoked the charge.  Teddy did start out on his horse “Little Texas”.  The capture of Kettle Hill was close to as depicted.  Teddy did go off toward San Juan Hill with just a few men because of miscommunication.  From this point on, the movie descends into bull shit.  In actuality, the Rough Riders did move on to San Juan Hill but by the time they arrived the fighting was over.  The mingling with the Buffalo Soldiers occurred during the charge up Kettle Hill.  The movie does not have any Buffalo Soldiers doing that.  As far as Teddy’s personal actions, Bill Clinton must have based his push for awarding Teddy the Medal of Honor after he saw this movie.  In his autobiography, Teddy (not known for modesty) claimed he shot a running Spaniard “like a jack rabbit”.  In the movie, I counted him shooting at least four of the enemy.  That's Hollywood for you - take the facts and make them four times more exciting. 

                The fun part of “Rough Riders” is the intermingling of real historical persons with the fictional.  Surprisingly, the real figures are accurately portrayed.  Bucky O’Neill and Hamilton Fish died basically as depicted.  O’Neill did say the last words that are put in his mouth.  Frederic Remington and Stephen Crane were spectators as shown.  Wheeler was the loose cannon loony as played by his equivalent Gary Busey.  Tom Berenger gets Teddy’s personality down.  Some will be surprised by his zest for warfare and his boyish mentality, but it fits what I have read about him.

                Both the movies are admirable attempts to bring recognition to famous units.  “Buffalo Soldiers” has the additional aim of making a statement about racism both toward African-Americans and Native Americans.  It is done in a heavy-handed way with hissable villains and cringe-worthy preachy dialogue.  The acting is average and thank goodness for Glover anchoring the film.  The rest of the cast includes some scene-chewers (especially Bowers).  The scenery is excellent.  The music is a blend of made-for-TV forgettableness and some period songs.  The action is average as expected for a movie of this type.  The scenarios are ridiculous and the evolution of Wyatt’s character is hard to believe.  The movie ends with you scratching your head about the motivation of the Buffalo Soldiers.

                “Rough Riders” is well-acted, but also has some scene-chewing.  I’m tempted to mention Busey, but he was playing a scene-chewer.  The dialogue is a bit florid, especially from the mouth of Stephen Crane.  There are the expected cliches.  The redemption of Nash, the gruff leadership of O’Neill.  Westerners and easterners learning to become a team.  The music score is a cut above due to it being composed by Elmer Bernstein’s son Peter.  The sound effects are well done during the battle scenes.  There is some welcome old school humor of which “Buffalo Soldiers” is totally bereft.  Neither movie has anything special in the cinematography department.  The action is more intense and realistic than in “Buffalo Soldiers”, but neither is bloody or graphic.  There is quite a bit of hand-to-hand combat that is well staged.  It is a much better history lesson than “Buffalo Soldiers”.

                Which movie is better?  Clearly, “Rough Riders”.   It could not have been much better considering the made-for-TV nature of it.  “Buffalo Soldiers” could have been a lot better.  I’m no big fan of “Tuskegee Airmen”, but it did a better job lauding its unit.

Buffalo Soldiers  =  C-

Rough Riders      =  B+          

P.S.  I have often shown the charge up Kettle Hill from “Rough Riders” to my American History class because it is entertaining, action-packed, and acceptably accurate.  It also offers an excellent example of how Hollywood plays with history.  I have the students count Teddy’s kills and then I tell them the truth.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

#18 - Stalag 17 (1953)


                “Stalag 17” is considered one of the great WWII POW films.  It is sometimes mentioned with “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “The Great Escape” as the triumvirate of top tier POW movies.  It was released in 1953.  It was based on a stage play by two veterans of Stalag 17B in Austria.  Director Billy Wilder reworked the play for the better and got pretty boy William Holden to play the lead even though Holden was unhappy with the cynicism and selfishness of the Sefton character.  Holden walked out on the play when he went to see it.  Wilder refused to soften the character and Holden went on to win the Oscar for Best Actor.  Wilder was nominated, as was Robert Strauss for Best Supporting Actor.  The movie was shot in California and the mud was real.  Wilder made the interesting decision to shoot the scenes in chronological order to where supposedly some of the main actors did not know who the stoolie was until the end (which sounds like bull shit to me).  The movie was a smash hit in America and Europe.
                The movie opens with cynical narration by Cookie (Gil Stratton).  He asks why there aren’t any movies about POWs?  (I guess he had not seen “The Wooden Horse” – 1950)  This will be the tale of a spy in a barracks.  Two prisoners escape through a hole under the stove.  The tunnel is in the wash area.  Sefton bets they won’t make it.  What a jerk!  Machine gun fire proves him right and he wins some cigarettes.  It turns out that Sefton trades cigarettes with the Germans and has a stash of luxuries that he trades for more cigarettes.  Some of the cigarettes from the bet buy him an egg that he eats while the other PWs are feasting on potato soup.  Sefton is an anti-social, self-preservationist.  “It’s everyone for himself – dog eat dog”.  He mentions that attempting escape is foolish.


                The film bounces between scenes of barracks life and scenes that develop the stoolie angle.  A guard named Schulz (Sig Ruman) rousts them for roll call.  (The makers sued “Hogan’s Heroes” for obvious reasons.)  Although the character is not a buffoon like in the TV show, he is there for comic relief.  The commandant is a Col. Von Scherbach (Otto Preminger).  He plays him as a smug Nazi bastard.  He is somewhere in between Von Luger (“The Great Escape”) and Saito (“The Bridge over the River Kwai”). 
                The film makes an effort to depict typical goings-on in a camp.  There is a mouse race (run by Sefton), peeping at Russian women in the adjoining camp, Christmas caroling, a dance with some of the men role-playing women, mail call, volley ball, listening to the clandestine radio, etc.  Woven into this is the main story line of “who is the stoolie?”  Sefton is the first to float the idea that someone is informing to the Germans which back-fires on him because everyone naturally assumes being a “black marketeer” is just a small leap to “collaborator”.  The audience learns early that the stoolie is passing messages to Schulz using the device of a loop in a lamp wire.

                Two new prisoners arrive.  One, Dunbar (Don Taylor), is a rich boy who had a past with Sefton.  Sefton holds a grudge against him, but he is a true hero.  He tells the barracks of his destruction of a German munitions train on the way to incarceration.  Of course, word of this gets to the commandant who has him brought in for interrogation.  Sefton is blamed for this and beaten up.  While bed-ridden he figures out the secret of the lamp.  The barracks hatches a plan to rescue and hide Dunbar in the water tower.  Someone will have to get him out.  Price (Peter Graves), barracks security, offers to do the job.
                Sefton exposes Price as the stoolie.  He volunteers to get Dunbar out because he figures it will mean a big payout from the rich guy’s family.  He will need a distraction and what better than throwing Price into the compound with noise-makers tied to his legs.  As Sefton leaves he tells his mates “If I ever run into any of you bums on a street corner, let’s just pretend we’ve never met before.”  Then Wilder backs off a bit in the characterization by having Sefton salute and smile.  Price attracts the attention of the machine gun towers as Sefton and Dunbar use wire cutters to escape.  Graves gets a great death scene.  The movie closes with one of the funniest lines in war movie history.  When Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) asks what made Sefton turn heroic,  Animal (Strauss) responds:  “Maybe he just wanted to steal our wire-cutters.  You ever think of that?”

Acting                     A+

Action                    D

Accuracy                N/A

Realism                  B-

Plot                         B-

Overall                   B
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  Yes.  It is a deft blend of comedy and suspense.  The movie is definitely PG in violence and language.  Females might be disappointed in the measures Holden took to dehandsome himself.  (That didn’t stop him for entertaining lady friends in his trailer during the filming.)
                The movie is fictional so this category does not apply.  The screenwriters may have incorporated some actual incidents in the plot, but the main plot points seem unlikely to have occurred in any camp.  Not that there weren’t some collaborators, but I am aware of no incident where the Germans managed to plant one of their own in a barracks.  I also never read about a PW blowing up a munitions train with a matchbox incendiary.

                Although it was not the first WWII prisoner of war film (sorry, Cookie), “Stalag 17” certainly laid a strong foundation for the subgenre.  It established some of the template.  Most of the action takes place in the barracks.  There is a lot of interaction between “hale fellows well met”.  Comic relief is thrown in.  The men try to make the best of their difficult conditions.  Those conditions (since it’s a German camp) are not intolerable to the point where  many men in the audience (and all the fourteen year old boys) would trade places with them for a week.  “Stalag 17” is not typical in its mystery subplot and the fact that it is not predominately about an escape attempt.  I can think of no other POW movie that includes humor, suspense, mystery, and a dislikable central character.

                The main strength of the film is the acting.  Holden is great as possibly the first anti-hero in an American WWII movie, POW or otherwise.  Wilder brings out the best from an actor reluctant to play against his usual roles.  Holden may not have deserved the Oscar (he personally thought Burt Lancaster should have won for “From Here to Eternity”).  In fact, Wilder works wonders with the cast.  It was genius and gutsy to cast Otto Preminger as the commandant.  Preminger was legendary for treating actors like Von Scherbach treats the prisoners.  So I guess you could say Preminger was playing himself.  Graves is appropriately hissable as the villain, although it is obvious to everyone (except the actors supposedly) that he is the bad guy early on.  Strauss did not deserve an Oscar nod, but he and Lembeck do have some humorous moments.  Neville Brand (a WWII veteran) scores as the barracks tough guy.   Lefton memorably strikes a match on his cheek.  The only false note is from Jay Lawrence (Larry Storch’s brother) as Sgt. Bagradian.  Bargradian does impressions of people that could not have been funny in 1953 and certainly are not funny today. 
                The movie is famous (and has been criticized) for its broad humor.  I have to admit much of it is silly, but there are some truly funny lines.  Hell, just the way Marko the Mailman says “At ease, at ease” is LOL.  When Trzcinski  (one of the screenwriters, playing himself) receives a letter from his wife he says “ I believe it. My wife says, ‘Darling, you won't believe it, but I found the most adorable baby on our doorstep and I've decided to keep it for our very own. Now you won't believe it, but it's got exactly my eyes and nose.’ Why does she keep saying I won't believe it? I believe it! I believe it.   Schulz gets some good ones like “The barracks should be schpic, and also schpan!”  Even Preminger gets a moment when he puts on his boots so Von Scherbach can click his heels during a phone call to a superior.  It’s the kind of movie that leaves you smiling, but guiltily because you know the real thing was not as funny.  However, American soldiers do tend to maintain their senses of humor even in tough situations.
                The movie is technically sound.  Wilder’s cinematography gives the movie a dynamism that overcomes the static nature of the barracks.  Many of the shots have depth to them.  The set is nicely authentic looking.  The barracks has nice touches like pin-ups, laundry hanging, and graffiti carved into the bunks.  The score is used sparingly and not to force a mood on the audience.

                “Stalag 17” is an entertaining movie that holds up fairly well although I doubt my students would be very impressed.  The top-notch acting and the blending of humor with the seriousness of a prison camp with a stoolie in it makes it different.  Possibly this would not have worked without Wilder at the helm, but it does work.  With that said, it is very overrated at #18 on the list of 100 Greatest War Movies.  I would have it in the top 100, but not in the top 50.  It is inconceivable that it could be rated 26 spots higher than “The Great Escape”.  That’s insane.

Saturday, April 13, 2013




            This is the third annual finals of the March Madness War Movies Tournament.  This year’s competition was to determine the best WWII ground combat movie.  Sixteen movies entered the tournament and after watching all sixteen, reviewing them, and comparing them in various categories, we are down to the last two.  There were some surprises along the way, but we ended up with the two top seeds in the finals.

             It’s a fascinating match-up.  One is an Old School battle epic classic with an all-star cast that was filmed in black and white.  The other is from the modern VioLingo School that uses all the bells and whistles available today.  Interestingly, the two finalists are both about D-Day and they present a macroview (TLD) and a microview (SPR).  They make perfect companions for not only educating and entertaining the audience, but for recognizing the participants in Operation Overlord.   

            The tournament always concludes with a recap of the movies’ past scores.  It comes down to the calculator.

                                          TLD                                      SPR

Acting                                 9                                          10

Cliches                                8                                           6

Plot                                    10                                          8

Combat                               9                                         10

Realism                               8                                          9

Dialogue                             8                                          9

Soldier Behavior               9                                          8

Entertainment Value      10                                        10

Technical Advisors          10      Effects                      10

Educational Value           10      Characters                8

Balance                              10      Deaths                     10

Accuracy                             8        Implausibilities      6


Total                                  109                                      103



            Congratulations to “The Longest Day” for winning this year’s tournament.  The Finals was pretty competitive, but TLD was the comfortable winner.  While TLD was consistently strong in all the categories, SPR was let down by two areas where it has gotten a lot of criticism from war movie fans:  clichés and plausibility.  The spectacular acting and combat makes it one of the great war movies, but it does have some cringe-inducing elements (e.g., the evil German) to please the general public.

            TLD has no weaknesses as a war movie.  I am sure there are non-purists that gripe about the black and white, the length, and the fact that you have to read subtitles!  But from a war movie fan’s standpoint, it is hard to see how it could be better given when it was made.  I am not even sure a modern remake would be superior.  The combat would be more realistic, but we have SPR to cover that.  Watch them together.


Thursday, April 11, 2013




         “Saving Private Ryan” won Academy Awards for Cinematography, Sound Effects Editing, Sound Mixing, and Film Editing. It won BAFTAs for Best Sound and Best Special Effects. The opening combat scene is a tour de force. Spielberg used amputees to realistically depict dismemberments. The most amazing shots are the underwater shots which included men being hit by bullets. The sounds of battle have seldom been better done. Listen for the bullets ricocheting off the beach obstacles. The monstrous roar of the Tiger tanks in the final battle is straight out of a horror movie. It could be argued that SPR has the best sound and visual effects of any war movie.

         “When Trumpets Fade” was a low budget film and was on the opposite end of the spectrum with regard to money available for effects. With that said, they got a lot of bang for their bucks. The film came out in 1998 (the same year as SPR), so you can not accuse the director (John Irvin of “Hamburger Hill” fame) of cribbing. Irvin gets the environment right. The men are wallowing in mud or moving through a foggy forest landscape. The most impressive effects are the explosions from mines and artillery. It is the first movie I can recall that has realistic tree bursts. (Later topped in “Band of Brothers”.) The hellish landscape of the river crossing is perhaps overdone, but still impressive.

Saving Private Ryan 10
When Trumpets Fade 8


          SPR is a small unit dynamics movie. The ensemble is an interesting one and of average clicheness. One interesting aspect of the character development is the mystery of Capt. Miller’s background which is held until a dramatic moment in the film. Before we learn Miller was a teacher, we subtly learn he suffers from combat stress and does not follow orders without being cynical about them. He also is human and makes mistakes (e.g., the assault on the radar station and allowing the German to live). None of the other squad members gets a back-story, but they all get their moments to flesh out their characters. I would not call them multi-dimensional, but they are not cardboard. Their deaths are all heart-tugging because we know enough about each to care.

          WTF (oops, I’ll call it “Trumpets” from here on) also concentrates on a small unit, but includes some second tier characters from the officer class (Capt. Pritchett is particularly intriguing). Manning is the main character and we learn little about why he has the type of personality he has. There are clear implications that his cynicism and anti-authority attitude was based on losing his previous squad and best friend. Other than Manning, the other characters are pretty one-dimensional, but do represent some interesting types. Each character develops in relation to Manning.

Saving Private Ryan 18
When Trumpets Fade 14


           SPR set the gold standard for war movie deaths. It is firmly in the tradition of the patrol unit / “who will survive?” trope. This type of thing has been done many times before and doubtless will be done again. One thing that sets SPR apart from a movie like “Cross of Iron” is the gut-wrenching quality of the deaths of the unit members. The stand-out here is the death of the medic Wade. Not only is the acting terrific by Giovanni Ribisi, but the scenario is unique. Even Vin Diesel gets a death scene not worthy of his acting skills. Mellish’s death is very powerful and tough to watch. The movie concludes with one of the great surprise deaths in war movie history.

          “Trumpets” opens with a scene that is opposite in style to the opening of SPR. In SPR we get an inspired choreography of death, “Trumpets” features the death of one man – Manning’s buddy Bobby (Jeffrey Donovan of “Burn Notice”). It is poignant and has some similarities to Wade’s. Another death has Manning shooting a squad member who is panicking. Not as powerful, but thought provoking. The movie comes full circle in the end to mirror the opening scene which is a bit heavy-handed, but effective.

Saving Private Ryan 28
When Trumpets Fade 22


          The one major weakness of SPR is the implausibilities in the plot. I am not referring to the overall construct of a mission to rescue a single soldier after the deaths of his brothers. That fantasy is firmly backed by the actual story of the Nieland brothers and besides, the movie is clearly fictional. It is plausible that the high command (in this case Gen. Marshall himself) would have ordered the mission. With that said, there are several Spielsbergian moments in the film that were obviously put in to advance the plot. Someone has to die in Neuville to establish the “who will survive?” theme. It was wise to kill off Vin Diesel early, but having him take the little girl was ridiculous. Miller’s decision to assault the radar station can only logically be explained as a way to kill Wade, start the evil German arc, and introduce some unit dysfunctionality. In reality, the reason Miller gives for going off-mission to lead an attack that would certainly get at least one of his group killed would only make sense if Miller was incompetent and clueless. After developing the idea that Miller was grudgingly following orders to accomplish a mission he disagreed with, it made absolutely no sense for him to risk the mission like he did. Worse, the scene begins the extremely implausible arc that has the freed German killing two members of the squad and himself being killed by his biggest supporter. Can you say IRONIC? Pure Spielberg! Pure bull shit.

           “Trumpets’ is also fictional and also manipulative of the audience. The opening and closing scenes are supposed to be ironic. The central construct that a reluctant and openly insubordinate warrior would be promoted by men who obviously disdain his attitude is ridiculous, but clearly necessary for plot development. The decision of the trio (all of whom dislike Manning) to go on a suicide mission with him strains credulity. Sanderson’s (the fat guy) survival is not likely, but you have to give credit for breaking the “fat guy always dies” cliché. Where SPR would still be great without its implausibilities, “Trumpets” could not exist without its Hollywoodisms. By the way, “Trumpets” also has a recurring German character, but his limited appearances do not seem forced.

Saving Private Ryan 34
When Trumpets Fade 30


           It was a nice run for the Cinderella “When Trumpets Fade”, but it just did not have the power to overcome such a heavyweight. The performance of “Trumpets” does give hope to all those low budget war movies out there. It is possible to go toe-to-toe with the megamovies. However, it is extremely important to have a great script and great acting if you want to stand out and “Trumpets” has those ingredients. It helps to be different. With that said, SPR is the superior movie and deserved to win. It has its detractors and some will feel that “Trumpets” should have pulled the upset, but SPR overcomes its implausibilities with brilliance in many other categories and money does buy great effects, great actors, and a great director.


          Both movies are based on books by Cornelius Ryan. They are both classics. I consulted Amazon and found that TLD has a rating of 4.8 compared to ABTF’s 4.7. As far as military consultants/technical advisers, TLD had 24. The standouts were Gen. Blumentritt, Lt. Gen. Gavin, Maj. Howard, Col. Priller, Maj. Kieffer, and Lucie Rommel. ABTF had 6 consultants. They included Gen. Gavin, Lt. Gen. Horrocks, and Maj. Gen. Urquhart. Of course, ABTF was made in 1977 so fewer participants were still alive.
The Longest Day 10
A Bridge Too Far 9


          “The Longest Day” came out eighteen years after D-Day. It was the perfect time to come out with the definitive take on the famous battle. The movie is sometimes described as a docudrama which is a testament to its educational value because it is inaccurate to equate it with a documentary. The brilliance of the movie is in its presentation of the background incidents before the landings. The audience is clearly apprised of allied strategy and German confusion. Amazingly, this preparatory information (the first fifty three minutes of the film) is done in an entertaining manner. Almost seventy years later, there is still no better film for telling the story of D-Day to a movie audience. On a personal note, I have shown this movie to my students and even though it is in black and white and educational, they enjoy it.

         “A Bridge Too Far” is very similar to TLD in structure and goals. It deserves credit for bringing recognition to a much less known campaign. Plus because it was a loss, it took guts to make the movie from a financial stand point. I found that it does not do as good a job of “teaching” the battle. There is much less strategy coverage. More than with TLD, you would need to know more about the subject going in to truly understand what is happening. Still, since most intelligent people had at least a vague idea about D-Day, but few knew anything about “Operation Market Garden”, ABTF certainly did a great service to history.
The Longest Day 20
A Bridge Too Far 17


           This category refers to three things: opposing sides, Allies, and brass to boots. TLD establishes a pattern early of covering both the Anglo-American perspective and the Germans. I did not use a stop watch, but it appears that in the 53 minute opening act the movie gives equal treatment to the leadership of both sides. Obviously, once the landings begin, we get less coverage of the German perspective, but they are still interweaved into the narrative. As far as the Allies, I can’t see where there could have been much complaint from the British about the movie being too “American”. Unlike other American-made war films, this film does not give the impression the Yanks won the war by themselves. The Ste. Mere Eglise scenes are balanced by the Pegasus Bridge sequences. The Omaha Beach scenes are balanced by action on Sword. The French get the attack on Ouistreham and nice coverage of the Resistance. Only the Canadians have a right to complain. Of the seven major events (Pegasus Bridge, Ste. Mere Eglise, Omaha, Sword, Utah, Pointe Du Hoc, Ouistreham) reenacted in the movie, four are American efforts. That seems fair. As far as coverage of command versus soldiers, the movie is very strong. There are numerous “grunts” depicted (Schultz, Steele, Fuller, Pluskat) along with the commanders (Howard, Lovat, Cota, Vandervort).

            ABTF was obviously modeled after TLD. The structure of jumping back and forth between the British command and the German generals who were going to be affected is similar, although the movie does not spend as much time with the Germans. The movie is fairly balanced between the Americans and British. The director was British (Richard Attenborough) and the key audience was American so that is not surprising. It appears he throws in the river crossing to let Americans have some action, to add a grand set piece, and to justify Robert Redford’s salary. The Dutch Resistance gets its due (although it is not comparable to TLD’s coverage of the French and it does not have Janine). When it comes to brass versus boots, “Bridge” is heavily command-centric. There is really only one common soldier character (Dohun) and he appears and disappears in one segment. Whereas in TLD, several grunts are introduced early and then are tracked throughout the film.
The Longest Day 30
A Bridge Too Far 25


           TLD is based on a well-researched book, but Ryan was not trying to write the definitive history of Operation Overlord. He was writing a history of the battle from the perspective of the participants. The book is a collection of vignettes surrounded by the facts of the invasion. It is macrohistory from a microhistory perspective. Certainly a documentary like the D-Day episode of the “World at War” series is more accurate. However, if you get your history from Hollywood (which unfortunately is the case for most), TLD is as good as it’s going to get and much more entertaining than a documentary. There are some inaccuracies, but most are minor. Some examples include that Rupert was actually a sand-filled dummy and the battle noises were provided by paratroopers that dropped with them. There was no casino any more in Ouistreham (it had been replaced by a bunker) and there were no nuns. The 82nd Airborne had the clickers, not the 101st. Small stuff like that. There is one major howler. In the film, Omaha beach is “won” by blowing a hole in a concrete wall and it’s on to Berlin. This is way too simplistic and short-changes the heroic small group actions that actually got the forces onto the bluff.

           “Bridge” is very similar to TLD on the accuracy front. Not surprising since it came from a book by the same author. It has the same strength of retelling history in an entertaining and informative way with mostly minor Hollywoodisms. One example of the influence of Hollywood is the Dohun scene which tweaks the real story in several ways to make it more entertaining. In comparison, the battle for the Arnhem Bridge is more accurate than TLD’s Omaha Beach reenactment. Plus, you can argue “Bridge” gets more leniency because it chooses to bring light to a fairly obscure campaign. I also think that unlike TLD, “Bridge’s” military consultants were on set to make sure Attenborough did not stray far from reality. Gen. Urquhart described the film as a “reasonably accurate spectacular”.

The Longest Day 38
A Bridge Too Far 33


            The father of epic battle reenactments defeated one of his sons. The apple did not fall far from the tree. Of all the war epics that concentrate on a battle, these are the two that are most alike. I would argue that the only movie in the subgenre that is superior to “A Bridge Too Far” is “The Longest Day”. “Bridge” was an admirable effort to duplicate its progenitor, but its subject matter is just not as compelling.

Saving Private Ryan (1) vs.
The Longest Day (2)