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What to Stream This Weekend: War Movies for Memorial Day

Saturday, May 27, 2017 3:57
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I was surprised to discover recently that Memorial Day didn’t become a federal holiday until 1971. I grew up hearing it called Decoration Day and never knew why, until now—it was the day on which the families of soldiers who fell in the Civil War decorated their graves. It’s a holiday to remember those who died in combat, and, though it’s a distinctively American holiday, it’s fitting to remember those who died in battle everywhere. I’ve drawn up, for the occasion, a list of war movies that are available to stream, while also wondering what that genre of films even means.

War is a part of history, but the concept of a war film is as dishearteningly and uselessly vague as that of a historical drama. “History,” with all the differences in time and place that it can imply, is no more unified a setting or theme than war is. Though all wars are about the same thing—death, mutilation, destruction, trauma, the imposition of will—war in the fifteenth century isn’t the same as First World War trench warfare, which isn’t the same as nuclear war. That’s why, in compiling a group of war films, I’ve organized them by the war that they depict. For that matter, they don’t all depict war directly; some depict the prelude to war or the aftermath of war, the emotional devastation that’s wrought away from the battlefield, or the political and diplomatic maneuvering that go into war or, at best, prevent it.

For instance, the Argentinean director Pablo Agüero’s “Eva Doesn’t Sleep” (available on Netflix), which I saw while taking part in the superb Critics’ Week program at the Berlin Film Festival in 2016, is a story of soldiers and politicians, who are seen over the course of decades. The movie doesn’t have a single battlefield sequence, but it has a dramatic confrontation between a guerrilla fighter and a hostage that offers unique and terrifying historical insights about that country’s “dirty war.” Alain Resnais’s “Muriel,” focussing on the Algerian War, is a story of memory; so is George Marshall’s “The Blue Dahlia” (whose modest direction is secondary to the power of the script, by Raymond Chandler)—about memory and the inability to forget. Yasujiro Ozu’s “There Was a Father,” made in Japan during the Second World War, is a subtle but unmistakable cry of anguish against militaristic attitudes (though, fortunately for Ozu, the Japanese government didn’t notice).

I’ve tried to go beyond some of the more familiar classics centered on war, and to consider a varied range of regions, times, and approaches. Because the Second World War still looms so large in political culture and, for that matter, culture at large, I’ve pulled together a batch of films that considers it from a varied range of perspectives. Josef von Sternberg’s “Anatahan” dramatizes the plight of a group of Japanese soldiers who are marooned on an island and don’t even know that the war has ended; Claude Lanzmann’s “The Last of the Unjust” is a documentary in which a rabbi discusses the experience of being forced to work with Adolf Eichmann in administering the Theresienstadt concentration camp.  William Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives” is a grand drama about three returning American veterans coping with a changed country, changes in their families, and changes in themselves. Satyajit Ray’s “Distant Thunder” depicts the devastating famine that afflicted parts of India during the war owing to Great Britain’s confiscation of the rice crop to feed its troops.

I’ve been frustrated, in looking for movies that I love, to discover that, despite the apparent cornucopia of films on offer by the various streaming services, only a small number of the ones I’d hoped to find are available. (For instance, Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” though available on DVD from Criterion, isn’t streaming on the Criterion Channel or elsewhere.) Crucial movies about war that are directed by women are unavailable to stream, such as Samira Makhmalbaf’s “Blackboards” (about survivors of the chemical-weapon attack in Halabja, during the Iran-Iraq War) and “Oh! Uomo,” co-directed by Angela Ricci Lucchi and Yervant Gianikian, an ingenious and agonizing compilation of archival footage centered on, but not limited to, soldiers whose faces were mutilated in the First World War. “Fengming” is the name of a woman—He Fengming, a victim of the Cultural Revolution, whose lucid and analytical memory is seared by unabated pain. I’m grateful that there are streaming services with such generous offerings, but I’m not getting rid of my DVDs (or VHS tapes) any time soon.

The Civil War:

Kevin Willmott, “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America” (Amazon)

Jacques Tourneur, “Stars in My Crown” (Amazon, iTunes, and others)

Raoul Walsh, “Band of Angels” (Amazon, Vudu, iTunes, and others)

Zachary Treitz, “Men Go to Battle” (Amazon, iTunes, and others)


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