To read The National Review’s “Politically Incorrect Guide Memorial Day Movies” is one of those moments where you seriously wonder if conservatism in the Trump Era isn’t just one big episode of “Punk’d.” Written by Arthur Herman, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, the list was an attempt to highlight war movies for conservatives to watch on Memorial Day – many of which are fantastic – but are bizarrely packaged and advertised as movies that will piss off liberals.
“These movies portray serving one’s country in uniform as something to be revered and respected, not dismissed,” boasts the Twitter promo for the piece. Its marketing is a straw-man argument, so it’s first important to establish a few matters of fact.
During the Vietnam War, there was liberal backlash against members of the military — protesters who mistakenly directed their anger at the soldiers rather than focusing on the government that sent them there. However, due to Hollywood’s more modern “defeatist” (Herman’s word) attitudes, his list has no films about the Vietnam War, or about Iraq. The most recent war spurred widespread liberal protest, but this time with empathy for the men and women who fought.
Most films on the list were made by Hollywood during World War II. That war was preceded by a conservative policy of isolationism that opposed American involvement in Europe during the early 1940s. Hollywood, dominated by European immigrants, supported the liberal President Roosevelt joining the war and standing up to fascism. At a time when President Trump is returning the Republican Party to the “Fortress America” ideas of the late ’30s and early ’40s, and stomping European military alliances in NATO, it seems ironic at best to suggest liberals would view American’s sacrifice during World War II as “politically incorrect.”
… and now Herman’s comically naive list.
“The Big Parade”
It’s to Herman’s credit he’s picked films that show the complexity of war, but is NRO aware this was largely viewed as one of the most important and influential “anti-war” films of all-time? The horrors of trench warfare juxtaposed to falling in love with a beautiful French woman – liberals, run for the hills, this is everything you hate!
“They Were Expendable”
This one’s a jaw-dropper. Herman repeatedly refers to director John Ford’s “poetry,” but anyone who has seen the film would wonder if Herman actually understands what Ford’s visual lyrics say. This film has been championed, screened and restored by a litany of liberal film lovers. Noted liberal Mark Harris, who literally wrote the (incredible) book on this film that resulted in the subsequent Netflix doc, agreed with the absurdity of this film’s inclusion.
@BrianCDoan If what you get out of They Were Expendable is “It’ll make liberals mad,” you don’t get They Were Expendable, or liberals.
— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) May 28, 2017
John Ford’s “conservatism” was complicated and evolved from the ’30s to the ’60s – which is why his later films like “The Searchers” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” are seen as an important reframing of the American western mythology.
Pop Quiz: If you lined up 10 Trump supporters and 10 IndieWire readers, who would be more upset about the fact that “Battleground” director William Wellman fought for the French Foreign Legion, and appeared at rallies wearing a French uniform?
Wellman was viewed “a man’s man” director, capturing action and grit in some of the most visceral filmmaking of golden studio era. However, his films were always imbued by incredible physiological complexity, which is why “Wild Bill” has always been a revival house favorite for cinephile pinkos. “Battleground” is a great example, showing how each soldier is on the verge of desertion.
In reviewing “Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel” – a Wellman biography written by the filmmaker’s son, William Wellman Jr. – Michael Sragow wrote in The Washington Post:
“Astonishingly, Wellman made two potent dark masterpieces during the rah-rah years of World War II: “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943), an uncompromising anti-lynch-mob Western that’s also a trenchant indictment of American rites of manhood, and “The Story of G.I. Joe” (1945), a tribute to World War II infantrymen that is all the more heartening because of its unremitting focus on loss, frustration and exhaustion. Neither has lost its relevance.”
In other words, Wellman’s films, even those made during the war, never took a black-and-white view of America or supplied easy answers. He was exactly the type of director IndieWire readers would love to champion. In addition to his war films, he made some of the best early gangster films, which were criticized by cultural conservatives for the glorification of criminals. He took dead aim at celebrity culture in biting satires, showed the contradictions in our culture, and he fought hard against Hollywood’s need for happy endings – having lost his job and threatened to punch Jack Warner over his demand for a sugar-coated ending.
“Pork Chop Hill”
I genuinely don’t know what to say about Herman’s inclusion of a movie by director Lewis Milestone, except that it takes enormous chutzpah. Milestone’s career was defined by two things: making anti-war films and being blacklisted as a Communist sympathizer; American conservatives forced him to move to Europe for work. Milestone’s dying wish was the full restoration of his anti-war classic “All’s Quiet on the Western Front,” a film Herman references, but one wonders if he’s actually seen it.
“Gods and Generals”
Herman gets one right, and in all fairness, his words should speak for themselves:
“The first documented Memorial Day celebration was led in April 1866 by the ladies of Columbus, Miss., who decorated the graves of both Union and Confederate dead. So it’s worth winding up this Memorial Day tribute by watching a visually sumptuous film that honors both sides in the War between the States, with outstanding performances by Stephen Lang as Stonewall Jackson and Robert Duvall as Robert E. Lee. With the totalitarian Left busy vandalizing and pulling down statues to these heroes, this is a film certain to drive your liberal friends crazy — also because all the characters speak movingly of their devotion to God and service to the Almighty as well as to their country.”
Yes, liberals do believe these Confederate statues should come down, and generally aren’t fans of celebrating two generals who, in the name of God, led the charge to kill hundreds of thousands to defend the South’s right to own slaves. So yes, Mr. Herman, this movie drives liberals crazy, except that at 219 minutes (and a 280-minute Director’s Cut), it is so incredibly boring that it is destined to unite liberals and conservatives in the need for a holiday nap.
Author’s Note: On this Memorial Day, I would like to dedicate this article to my grandfather Jack Noonan, whose life was defined by his near-death experience fighting in the Pacific during World War II. I have fond memories going to the VFW and watching old war movies with “Old Irish,” who was staunchly conservative and did not suffer fools lightly.