Thursday, July 9, 2009

War Movies . . Huh! What are they good for?

The Edwin Starr video.

Around this time of the year we see lots of war movies on our Tee Vees starring John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood and other familiar faces. And I know many of our vets with experience in combat stay away from them, much like people whose families have suffered through childhook leukemia would avoid movies like My Sister's Keeper.

Or not.

So just what do War Movies do for us? Many were blatant propaganda, but many helped give mom and pop back home a glimpse of what their sons and daughters in uniform overseas were facing. Some, like The Best Years of Our Lives made us see what our fellow citizens returning from war often wounded and damaged had to face in trying to reassemble a normal life. Others were, simply put, entertainment. The Rambo series comes to my mind here, although IMO "First Blood" has redeeming qualities.

Rarely did any of these movies, the serious ones of the genre at least, give us civilians back home a truly realistic description of what war does to the body. The mind and sould received all kinds of dramatic treatment, inside and out, but censorship would never allow us a view of the inside of a blown tank or a naval turret opened up with shellfire or human bodies shot to pieces or hit with a grenade blast. And so for most of us Americans, except for those with close personal experience, of course, the mental image of war is limited to some sort of "cool" video game or childhood Cops and Robbers.

Ignorance breeds unsuspected consequences all too often.

That's why I put Saving Private Ryan at the top of my list of ten. Hard to believe 11 years have gone by since it came out. As a civilian whose only experience in shooting anything dead was hunting, it's my belief that SPR is the closest Hollywood has ever come to presenting the viewing public with a true version of life and death in war. The rest fall in no particular order.

My second pick is We Were Soldiers, for realism and a glimpse of the enemy and his family, contrasted with the home-grown version.

Schindler's List, the Red Dress and human suffering and next to it ( yes, I know, I'm cheating by sticking in a few more ) The Empire of the Sun.

The Sand Pebbles, for Steve McQueen in one of his best roles and Mako.

Paths of Glory, for the bureauocracy of war, the good ol' boy network, and the girl's song at the end that still makes me well up.

Dr. Strangelove, another Kubrick classic and a continuing source of quotes for all seasons.

Glory, because in high school I read all I could on the War between the States and because of the eternal question, "Why am I doing this?"

Good Morning, Vietnam, although I'm sure it's greatly fictionalized, a good story on could happen when you live among the enemy.

Battle of Britain, if only for Susanna York's Maggie Harvey "Don't you yell at me, MR Warrick!" and Spits, Hurricanes, Messerschmidts, Heinkels and Stukas. And along with that, I need to include Wings with its early look at Gary Cooper.

Tora Tora Tora, for its contrasting views from the American and Japanese side and for it's decent attempt at historical accuracy. And with it for the same reasoning, I'd include Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima.

There are other movies I could have included in my list, but I'll leave that to my readers to suggest and discuss.

...

36 comments:

  1. BB,
    Strange you didn't mention GARDENS OF STONE which is my all time fav. You should read the book.

    I did not like nor could stomach SPR since it was so incorrect in many ways. Militarily imo it was garbage-in a tacticl sense. I won't go into details as i'd only bore everyone but would any SS mann say Fuck AH???Ever??? Have you ever heard of the SS sticking a gun out on an OP w/o another gun? All MG's are employed in pairs in good units, and the SS was a good unit militarily. MP's are not used stuck out in left field. Why didn't the Ranger sniper take out the Krauts? Why would the medic go on the assault.? As u can see i can go on all day.. Try this biggy - putting the us mg IN A TOWER WITHOUT AN ESCAPE ROUTE OR INTERLOCKING FIRES- NEVER EMPLOY AN mg IN PLUNGING FIRE MODE WHEN YOU CAN GET GRAZING FIRE BY GROUND MOUNTING IT. Using the sniper w/o a spotter or slack man? THE STORY MADE NO SENSE SINCE THE OBSTACLE COULD BE EASILY BREACHED BY division level ENGR support- so blow it and defend the friendly side? but it was visually entertaining.
    Also what about THE AMERICANISATION OF EMILY?
    BLACKHAWK DOWN? GERONIMO? THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS? ON THE BEACH? ALL QUIET ON THE WF?
    THE BRIDGE? DAS BOOT? THE RAID-GHOST SOLDIERS? BIG RED 1? ENEMY AT THE GATE? STAINGRAD?EXODUS? LONGEST DAY?A BRIDGE TOO FAR?BAND OF BROTHERS?PLATOON? APOCOLYPSE NOW? L OF ARABIA?
    BTW, I'd recommend reading SAND PEBBLES if you have not done so.
    There you have it.
    Nice list. jim
    Was Schlinder a war story? How about inspired by war?

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  2. Gardens of Stone

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093073/

    And thanks to you, I now know of it.

    In slight defense of SPR, the biggest part of movie making is the visual and auditory impact, the accuracy of story and technical detail, not as much. Even I could figure out "What's so important about the damn bridge?"

    And it ended very well, a call to better ourselves in comparison to what our comrades years ago gave us.

    Last of the Mohicans ( DD Lewis version ) is a big favorite of mine. The soundtrack still can get me going.

    I included Schindler because of the viewpoint of civilians, German and Jew, during war and how they dealt with a military at war.

    Do feel free to go on all day!

    :)

    ..

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  3. Patton.
    Bridge over the river Kwai.
    The HBO miniseries "Rome" (minus the gratitutous sex).
    Big Red One.
    Um, lessee, oh, Spartacus.
    Masada (so historically inaccurate, but so what).
    Troy which is still imo, probably one of the greatest movies dealing with the psychology of characters and their motivations yet today.
    Um...hmm, a few others that I'm trying to dig out of the memory hole here...hmm, I'll have to give is some thought.

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  4. I can't stand them, in general, both for the war porn aspect of many as well as the serial tactical fuckups that Jim details. I thought that SPR started pretty grittily but degenerated into a typical WW2-style "Four Jills in a Jeep" uplifting hero movie by the end.

    So, having said that, my favorites in no particular order are:

    "The Beast", an odd little flick set in A-stan in the 80s, a sort of monster movie with a Soviet T-55 as the monster versus Afghan muj and a Sov whose "buddies" leave him to die. Made by Israelis (which may account for the decent tactical stuff) and morally ambiguous, which is only right for a war flick.

    Big Red One Sam Fuller was a grunt in WW2, and it shows.

    The Siege of Firebase Gloria For the pure comic perfection of R. Lee Ermey, that obnoxious little Gyrene, walking around with two of his guys' severed heads and offering the following advice: "Anyone know who these belong to? This is Corporal Miller. He's dead. Hell, the whole gun crew's dead. And to add insult to injury, Charlie took the fifty-fucking caliber machine gun with him. I don't have any respect for Corporal Miller anymore, because he allowed his troops to relax. They let their guard down for five fucking minutes, and Charlie took advantage of it. Look at 'em, Goddammit! Pay attention. Stay alert! Stay alive! It's as simple as that!"

    Out-FUCKing-standing!

    Gardens is a terrific movie, too, but a "war movie" only indirectly.

    Gotta run, but I can probably think of several more. But just for the record, "Blackhawk Down" is a perfect example IMO of the worst kind of war porn - a "Zulu" for the 20th Century. Fucking awful - heroic white men against faceless hordes of armed and dangerous negroes. And the mission? The "reasons why"? Nowhere.

    That stuff flew in 1864 and 1964, but 2004? Not so much.

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  5. Joe Heller's book, Catch-22.

    It was a little bit difficult to look past the German attacking in M-48's in Patton. If I remember correctly they (the tanks) were borrowed from the Spaniards.

    Walter Olin

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  6. Heller's book and the 1970 movie adaptation directed by Mike Nichols. Brain got off track.

    Olin

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  7. I agree with Ranger about "Gardens of Stone," an ineffably sad movie that addresses a terrible time in our history and captures our Army environment at the time very well. I think James Caan is even better in this than he was in "Godfather."

    I also agree about SPR: overhyped, terrific and realistic opening, but then just another war flick. Same with "Blackhawk Down." War porn.

    But, hey, what about "Apocalypse Now"? Maybe you had to be there, but no movie has done a better job in relating the madness that was Vietnam. You think Brando and Duvall are over the top? Sure, but I knew guys like that. AN is the polar opposite of SPR: there are no true believers in AN, and as the war went on and on and on, this was reality. A lot of us are the cynics we are today because of Vietnam.

    "Catch 22," also a great book, the best Heller wrote, is pretty good on the weird war front. As is "M*A*S*H." Unlike the insipid TV series, the movie is very hard-hitting and unforgiving. I like those kinds of movies.

    Agree on "We Were Soldiers." Read the book. The title actually is "We were Soldiers and We were Young." That "young" in the title of Hal Moore's excellent book is very important. Also agree with Ranger about reading "Sand Pebbles." Good movie, better book.

    Let's see. I'm with the Chief in not being a war movie buff, but there are some, already mentioned, that are worth second viewings. "Das Boot," of course. "Big Red One" is terrific, Lee Marvin at his best. "Spartacus" is noteworthy for the homoerotic theme, but it's still a great movie. I don't think anyone's mentioned "Full Metal Jacket," with Ermey as the Gunny, so I will.

    Agree on "Lawrence" and "Last of the Mohicans. Terrific movies. WRT "Mohicans," I wish they'd also made the "Deerslayer," to further examine Natty Bumpo/DDLewis, who is an outstanding actor. And yeah, the music is wonderful.

    Agree on "Tora, Tora, Tora" and "Strangelove." From the Strangelovian genre, although it's not precisely a war move, "Seven Days in May" is always worth watching.

    Great post, Basil.

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  8. "The Good Soldier Schweik in Czech with English subtitles. But I am still waiting for Hollywood, or Prague, to do the unwritten finish of the story with the anabasis of the Czech Legion through the Siberia to Vladivostok.

    mike

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  9. Publius,

    re: "We were Soldiers and We were Young."

    Not to be picky, but the title is actually, "We Were Soldiers Once. . . and Young," and it was written by an acquaintance of mine, Joe Galloway, with Col. Moore as co-writer.

    They recently collaborated on a new installment.

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  10. I did not know I have associated myself with such a pack of romantics! If such is the case, may I also include "Zhivago".

    :)

    Lawrence, River Kwai, Smiley's People, Hitler, Cromwell, Fall of the Roman Empire, Ladykillers and Star Wars, all featured . . . . who?

    Kirk and Burt in "7 Days", Kirk and Tony in "Spartacus" ( although Curtis' accent was jarring ) and Arkin as Yossarian, great movies to see more than once. I'll play the Ranger's part for Spartacus in that the Roman advance toward the slave army went strangely awry and certainly Spartacus' slaves would have been well equipped with the spoils of previous victories, not like some French rabble assaulting the Bastille.

    But Kubrick was bent on making a point, which is what good movies like these want to do. They are propaganda, the film-makers will use dramatic means to spice the story up to get attention. And the flaming balls and logs of fire, in Spartacus, Ben Hur, Gladiator, Troy!

    Hollywood candy.

    I've got to tell you I'm surprised at the opinions of SPR. But it goes to prove my main point in posting this, that this is what the average American thinks war is like. This mental image is what the Pentagon promotes; You've seen the ads on TV and in the movie theater.

    I didn't include "Band of Brothers" or "Rome", because they're serials, not movies, but still they are visual interpretations of armed conflict.

    There are many good foreign films like Mike suggested, and a good one in that category is Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai".

    Thank Heaven no one mentioned "300"! Although I do believe a serious update of the 1962 movie "300 Spartans" could be done and do well.

    It's been a while since Gladiator and Troy, both of which did OK. Strange that the genre wasn't continued.

    Speaking of Gladiator, Crowe did another good one, "Master and Commander".

    bb

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  11. Oh, remembered my fourth fave: "Three Kings", the "Apocalypse Now" for the Gulf Wars. Never saw a flick that "got" the combination of clueless GIs, angry lifers, angle-shooters, war lovers, "Other Government Agencies", careerist bastards and echelons above reality so well. Like "AN", it manages to capture the wierd, pointless randomness of young men with guns can achieve.

    "We Were Soldiers" is a great book, and the movie manages to catch the feeling of the book fairly well. Mel almost atones for "The Patriot". Almost. But I think the movie fails because they focus almost exclusively on Hal Moore's battalion at LZ X-Ray (which makes for a heroic story where the "good guys" get to win) and ignore the disaster of LZ Albany, where the 2/5 Cav and 2/7 Cav were decimated by a textbook L-shaped ambush.

    So that's my list of the "good". Any candidates for the "bad" and the "ugly"? My only caveat is that anything made between 1941 and 1945 has to get a sort of "Special Olympics" handicap, since we really were fighting for survival and movies then were designed, like everything else, not to tell the truth about the war but to win it...

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  12. You caught me, Lisa. Memory is unreliable and haste makes waste. I don't know Joe Galloway, but what I know of him is all positive. He's always been a friend to the soldier. I have met the legendary Lieutenant General—he was a lieutenant colonel at the time—Hal Moore and found him to be a fine gentleman. The Moore-Galloway team turned out a fine book.

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  13. FDChief is soliciting nominations for the "bad" and "ugly"? Without giving it much thought, and right off the top of my head, I'd nominate virtually any John Wayne movie, with "The Green Berets" topping the list.

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  14. I like a couple of the more obscure titles:
    Cross of Iron
    Kelly's Heroes

    "The Guns of Navarone" was pretty good, partly because it was so different from the book it was essentially a different story. "Force 10 from Navarone" was completely unwatchable. In the "Ugly but not unwatchable (at least for a civilian)" category we have "Platoon."

    There's any number of bad (even cringe-worthy) war movies from the 1960's and 70's. "Where Eagles Dare" was one that I had thought was okay when I was a teenager but was awful when I rewatched it recently.

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  15. I put "The Great Escape" high on the list, primarily for the relationships it depicts. Very realistic.

    "Patton" is just, - - - "Patton". It hit the screen at a time when it was refreshing to view a war and a warrior that wasn't bogged down as we were in RVN. And, the musical score was dynamite.

    I must confess that the Normandy landing scenes of SPR are about as close to the reality of heavy engagement as I have ever seen. Several personal experiences in fire bases under attack came to mind as the landing scenes played on the screen.

    Al

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  16. Basilbeast,

    They are romantics, no?!

    Publius,

    When Knight Ridder unceremoniously let Galloway go b/c of his war position, he then continued to tell the truth at McClatchy before most were on the bus.

    Joe admires Moore unendingly, and "We Were Soldiers Once and Young" is certainly a classic.

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  17. Lisa, it's apparent to me they are.

    :)

    The subject of romance against the backdrop of conflict brings up in my mind Sean Connery in "The Wind and the Lion" with Candance Bergen.

    And Pluto's mention of "Cross of Iron" reminded me of a similar story, "The Blue Max". I'm a sucker for aviation, which is why I suppose it will sound a bit strange in reply to Chief's request for bad movies I'd place "Top Gun" into that category.

    If it's on TV, I'll watch bits of it, because of planes, Take My Breath Away, and Kelly McGillis, but the story sucked.

    And back to "Mohicans", a companion piece would be "Dances with Wolves".

    Thanks to you folks, I've got at least a couple more DVDs to get.

    bb

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  18. Basil,
    then u must add-THE GREAT WALDO PEPPER.
    jim

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  19. BB,
    Let's add Gettysburg since you add Dances.
    G-burg is the adaption of Killer Angels. I was there when they filmed it.
    jim

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  20. This is leading me back to my most frequent complaint about books vs. movies, the book is almost always better.

    Al commented that the Great Escape is very realistic. Read the book by Paul Brickhill (who was in the camp during the events portrayed in the movie) and you'll see that the movie makers had to leave out about 75% of the good stuff.

    The same is true for Paul Brickhill's other good book, the Dam Busters about the activities of the little bomber squadron that could.

    I loved the Killer Angels but Gettysburg mostly left me bored. There are things you can and should do in a book that shouldn't be in a movie...

    I agree with BB on "Top Gun," movie looks cool and sounds good until you try to make sense of it and then it falls apart. Worse, "Top Gun" was the first of a bunch of similar movies "Iron Falcon" and "Firebirds" come to mind that weren't nearly as good as "Top Gun" which is really saying something...

    "Mohicans" doesn't do anything for me (except the music, love the score!). It's pretty hokey and they altered so much stuff from the book (which would have made it a better movie, go figure) that I just can't get into it.

    "Dances with Wolves" is pretty good the first time but really falls apart when you see it a second time.

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  21. Paul,
    Dances is a lot like Lawrence of Arabia/ Jeremiah Johnson/Zuvago-they all have man as a small player in a larger story which is his place in nature. The panorama is the story- watch these without the sound and you get the idea.
    Only Martin Sheen could portray REL as a bumbling disconnected idiot.
    jim

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  22. then u must add-THE GREAT WALDO PEPPER.

    Damn.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nlQT6m7StAY

    Then I'd have to add "Dawn Patrol".

    Paul, I agree that the book usually is better, because it's you that constructs the visual of the storyline. A lot like singing in the shower; pretty darn good alone, but heaven help you if you bring it out in public. :)

    I like the theme of DwW, finding friendship and love among the enemy.

    All war must be just the killing of strangers against whom you feel no personal animosity; strangers whom, in other circumstances, you would help if you found them in trouble, and who would help you if you needed it.

    - "The Private History of the Campaign That Failed", Mark Twain


    bb

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  23. Shaara's "Killer Angels" is a terrific book, but, like Paul, the TV/movie adaptation left me cold. It might have had something to do with the very early scenes of the fighting on July 1. Shaara makes Buford, the Union scout commander who pretty much saves Meade's ass with his delaying action on Seminary Ridge, a hell of a fascinating guy, and weaves in a LOT of detail about the tactics of ACW cavalry vs. infantry and the importance of ground - his Buford flat-ass doesn't want to give away the lovely terrain he's holding, so he dismounts his troopers and fights a standup fight...and the whole battle gets shaped around that. Nice contrast with the "romantic" JEB Stuart, still stuck in Napoleonic thinking.

    On the subject, I did appreciate "We Were Soldiers" - Mel Gibson almost atones for "The Patriot". Almost. But I thought that the great failure of the film was that it ended with the 1/7th at LZ X-Ray. The book, better in every respect, continues the story with the disastrous ambush of 2/7 Cav at LZ Albany. I mean, you can understand why the filmmakers made the choice - it makes for a much tighter film AND the "good guys" get to win. But the truth, and the reality, of why the battles of 1965 ended in Paris in 1972, is in the book, and the movie misses the whole point, which is that bad wars waste the lives of good men, on both sides...

    As for "Blue Max" and "Battle of Britain" - both have terrific aerial stuff. But as movies, enh, pretty thin gruel. I always thought that the best treatment of sky fighting was the way William Wyler handled the Dana Andrews character in "The Best Years of Our Lives". He was obviously a good officer, and a good flier. But it was also obvious that flying a bomber over Germany was a hell of a nightmare, and though he was as stoic about it as any good 1945 GI he was still messed up inside.

    "TBYOOL" is just a flat-out great movie, period.

    I have to say that "Top Gun" is WAY up there on my list of The Worst War Movies of All Time, right next to "Red Dawn". Nothing like mixing a little macho chest-pounding with cool things that blow up, some hot nookie and top it all off with some faceless enemy stromtroopers to kill. Wolvrines!

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  24. I note that I forgot to mention the whole problem with "Gettysburg" for me, namely, that in the place of Shaara's Buford you get Sam "Fear My Giant Mustache!" Elliot.

    But here's Shaara as Buford on the morning of July 1:

    "Buford looked past them to the silent town. Pretty country. But too neat, too tidy. No feel of space, of size, a great strry roof overhead, a great wind blowing. Well. You aren't a natural Easterner, that's for sure. Extraordinary to think of war here. Not the country for it. Too neat. Not enough room. He saw again the white angel. He thought: damned good ground..."

    How do you make that into a movie?

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  25. I hear Glenda from Oz isn't doing anything right now . . .

    8-b

    bb

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  26. Another addition

    Rufus T. Firefly in "Duck Soup"

    ...

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  27. basil-

    Great thread! I was wondering as to how to respond. Agree with those saying books are better. Literature is the best way I suppose to capture the reality(?), whereas film is mostly spectacle and hard to get away from that fact.

    No one has ever made a film of Ernst Jünger's "Storm of Steel" or Robert Graves's "Goodbye to All That" . . .

    My opinion? 12-15 year old boys love SPR. I considered doing a lesson task on how the "Tiger tank" portrayed was actually mounted on a T-34 chassis but gave up on it.

    My all time favourite? AN Redux! Never was there, but what a great film!

    2nd Favourite? Maybe, The Red Badge of Courage with Audie Murphy and Bill Mauldin playing green soldiers . . . John Huston film . . .

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  28. Chief,
    I'm always amazed that Buford did not get the MOH for his actions, but i feel the same way about Meade since he was the only Union GO to actually do a Gos duty. He got the troops there and let the subordinate CDRs fight the tactical battle-this is what won the day. Nobody did that before with Lee.
    I liked THE KILLER ANGELS as i have a link with the author. He was a Korean war era 82nd trooper and a FSU professor. We shared a therapist here in Tallahassee. My disconnect with the book is that it is historical fiction and the damned CGSC uses it as required reading and as a writing requirement for graduation. It's fiction and CGSC doesn't grasp this point- Why not LEE'S LTs?
    Sam Elliot was a more believable Buford than he was a SGM Plumly. SEs head was as big as a steel pot- check it out.
    LZ Albany was significant because the 1st MOH for a black officer was awarded for that fight. If memory serves it was C Pitts? Remember that all those fights were led by WP LTCs and all were desperate affairs. I served with a Xray surviver-also a Army Distinguished Rifle Shooter by the name of Smith was killed in that fight. Just a bit of trivia.
    As per Shaara and his words in Bufords mouth- God man , i thought he was gonna smell the flowers.
    jim

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  29. Jim: I get the feeling from reading his reports, and from reading men who knew him, that Buford was one of those characters whose thoughts run on like that, but who don't way anything they don't have to. He was a thoughtful guy, tho, and a great cavalry leader. The guy recognized sixty years early that the Napoleonic cavalry charge was a dangerous romantic memory. He taught his troopers to regard their horses as battle taxis - "Your big fat horse is there to get your big fat ass into battle, but once it's there it's about as useful as a big fat elephant."

    Thing is, Buford was dying, his heart was never healthy, and in December of 1863 he was dead, probably of typhoid combined with heart disease and possibly TB. I agree that given the way that Congress flung around the MoH I'm shocked he never got one for 7/1/63. The story is that he was promoted to MG literally the day he died. His response? "It's too late; now I wish I could live."

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  30. Lee's Lieutenants is a hell of a work of writing. I read through it while I was going through BNCOC; good read, in that wordy late 19th/early 20th Century way. I did think that Freeman's one issue was that he worshiped Lee a little too much. I mean, he pretty much blames Ewell, Stuart and Longstreet for Gettysburg. Lee himself took the lick for the debacle, and it seems louche to argue with the man himself.

    From the other side of the hill, U.S. Grant's "Memoirs" are a great study of men and war.

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  31. Chief,
    Lees Lts is an apology for losing the war but at least it was a historical work unlike KAs.
    I'll have to read Grants memoir since I've taken so many hits on the history question lately.
    jim

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  32. Dark Blue World. Even more Spitfires.
    633 Squadren ... Mossies.
    Dambusters.
    Battle of Britain. Spits and Hurri's ... and York in her suspenders.
    The Purple Plain .. more Mosses.

    Hmm, I think there is a theme here.

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  33. FWIW, I thought HBO's Generation Kill was a well done series -- perhaps the 3 Kings for Gulf War II? Haven't seen it yet, but reviews make "The Hurt Locker" to be THE movie of that war.

    Although a corny adaptation of Ryan's book, I always liked A Bridge Too Far. And, A Midnight Clear for a more interesting & modern look at the Bulge.

    And Gardens of Stone. One of the all time best. No question Caen was better in it than in the Godfather. (Don't let Mrs SP know I'm dissing her favorite movie evah!)

    SP

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  34. Forgot to add When Trumpets Fade.... another great, thoughtful movie.

    SP

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  35. My wife TiVo'd Generation Kill thinking I would want to watch it, and when we were scannign through the "What do we want to watch tonight?" chat we often have on date night I saw that listing.
    She told me that she TiVo'd it for us, and not knowing what it was about we scanned the summary. Anyway, long story short, I told her if she wanted to delete it it was fine with me, I'd just as soon watch Music and Lyrics than watch that.
    I've kind of drawn a line I will not cross over on the whole Gulf War I and II thing.

    The video game war, er, wars, as a coworker once remarked during the first one...it was too much like watching a movie...I'd just as soon keep the two separate as much as possible.

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  36. Sheer,
    I'd recommend Generation Kill.
    If you like Band of Brothers then you might like this story.
    It's well done and powerful.
    jim

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