Monday is Veterans Day, which grew out of Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I. Instead it marked an all-too-temporary halt to armed conflict. The word "armistice" acts as an arrow, pointing to the peace our world never accommodates for long.
War movies have long been big business, like war itself. This weekend brings the film "Midway" to theaters. It's the Roland Emmerich version of the Battle of Midway, opening with a depiction of the attack on Pearl Harbor and then moving on to the retaliatory bombing of Tokyo known as Doolittle's Raid. In 1976 an earlier movie of the same title rumbled through the land, presented in Sensurround, the teeth-rattling analog enhancement, courtesy of enormous speakers parked at the back of theater auditoriums. That's entertainment.
Generations before "Call of Duty" and the ever-expanding morgue of digital first-person killing games, we learned to experience screen warfare as a good time, an exciting way to spend an hour or two or three. I think I saw my first war movie on TV, a year or two before my parents took me to "Patton" at the drive-in.
"Ambush Bay," it was called, from 1966. It was a minor picture in every way, set (and shot on location) in the Philippines, dealing with U.S. Marines fighting the Japanese. Fifty years later the only thing I remember is a weirdly pitched comic-relief sequence with Mickey Rooney killing hapless enemy soldiers by offering them "potatoes." The potatoes were grenades. We thought that was funny.
A film critic ends up writing about every kind of war movie over the years, sobering, thrilling, sadistic, solemn. With a lot of those reviews, positive or negative, I'm all too aware of how my own politics may inform what I think, and say, as well as how an opinion might land with various members of my extended family.
I have a lot of military on every side of that family. The veterans among us – starting and ending with my father, still alive and well, a U.S. Army captain before he went into business, and then teaching – represent every sort of personality there is. Living and dead, in all branches, they represent a wide range of political and social viewpoints and, collectively, a rebuke to the patronizing notion of a single, lockstep American military sensibility.
My dad never had any love for rah-rah heroics when it comes to war movies; he waved off the climax of "Saving Private Ryan," for example, with a "yeah, yeah, here comes the cavalry" mini-review. A couple of Thanksgivings ago my cousin Eric, military through and through, talked me through his reasons for not liking "Lone Survivor," the Peter Berg Afghanistan-set war picture from 2005. I liked that film, and its tense procedural focus. What struck me as effective and lean struck him, the one who knew the conflicts and the region and the geopolitics intimately, as typical Hollywood rogue heroics.
Nothing appeals to everyone. Most moviegoers don't look to the movies for stark realism or harsh reminders of the way we live, or the wars we wage. For those folks there is "Midway." Meantime, beginning at 5 a.m. Central time Monday, Turner Classic Movies presents a 12-film, 24-hour tribute to Veterans Day.
One of the greatest being shown, "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946), remains a serious favorite of many of my family members and a lot of my friends. It comes from a time when a nation craved a reasonably honest, powerfully felt drama of veterans returning to their Midwestern city after the war. I had the honor of introducing it on TCM two years ago. Among its glories is the Hugo Friedhofer score, one of many we included in a Classical WFMT special, "The Film Score: Music for Veterans Day." The program receives an encore presentation 10 p.m. Monday; you can stream it on wfmt.com.
A good Veterans Day weekend to you. And may we all remember a time, a century ago, when Armistice Day perched on a perilous, illusory hope of lasting peace. The arrow still points in the direction we must go.