Thursday, November 11, 2010

Cinematic Soldiers for Veteran's Day

Robert here. For many of us being a soldier is an experience we'll only get vicariously courtesy of the movies.  In honor of Veteran's Day, I thought I'd share some of my favorite portrayals of American soldiers.  They aren't always the most famous actors or the biggest roles, but they've made impressions.  If you've not seen any of the particular films listed and don't want to know who lives or dies, you may want to skip to the next entry.

General George S. Patton played by George C. Scott in Patton (1970)
Starting off with a big one.  Patton is such a towering figure in American History and Scott's Oscar winning portrayal gives us an understanding of the man who often found himself caught in a place between his own talents and the stern hand he felt was needed and the more careful policies of those he served.

Steven Pushkov played by John Savage in The Deer Hunter (1978)
As the sense of patriotism imbued by World War II films made way for the cynicism of the Vietnam era characters like Steven whose great sacrifice seemed to leave no echo or purpose became more and more common.  There's something unspoken and tragic about not only Savage's portrayal of a newlywed filled with a sense of duty only to have his life change forever, but the fact that his story is so common it doesn't even warrant more than a tertiary plot line.

Homer Parrish played by Harrold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
One of the many successes of The Best Years of Our Lives was its ability to illuminate the lasting scars of even what was considered the most just of wars.  Primary to this success was Russell's portrayal of Homer Parrish.  It's the type of performance that makes you feel every struggle and frustration of a man's life as you come to a greater understanding of someone other than yourself and feel thankful that the film will be around for posterity so that others may understand.

Sgt. Maj. John Rawlins played by Morgan Freeman in Glory (1989)
Early in his career, Freeman plays the kind of role that he'd become known for: strong and inspirational, the perfect audience surrogate for what we'd like to be.  His character is certainly less demanding than Washington's Trip, and while his promotion is a sign of how far we can come in times of struggle (and a nice feel good moment) the realization that it doesn't much matter to others, particularly white union troops, is a reminder of how reality often has a lot of catching up to do.

Jay 'Chef' Hicks played by Frederic Forrest in Apocalypse Now (1979)
In a film populated by characters of extreme mental anguish, the soldiers aboard Captain Willis's transport are our only real connection to reality.  Most easily relatable is Chef, whose enviable backstory (he's a saucier in New Orleans) and palpable fear draw us in.  By the time he reaches Kurtz's compound an delivers one of the more haunting speeches in the film, "I used to think if I died in an evil place, then my soul wouldn't be able to make it to Heaven. But now ... I don't care where it goes, as long as it ain't here." we know those wishes won't likely be filled.  It's a moment we're spared seeing but I've played in my head over and over.

Pfc. Smithson Utivich played by B.J. Novak in Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Okay admittedly Novak isn't really given much to do with this character and you might be wondering why him in a movie filled with larger than life personalities.  Specifically because he isn't.  It's a reminder that most soldiers (and most of the "basterds") were practically just kids.  The utterance of his nickname "The Little Man" is a comical moment because it's rooted in truth.  He's no Brad Pitt or Steve McQueen or John Wayne.  But he doesn't have to be.  "The Little Man" can be a hero too.

Sgt. J.T. Sanborn played by Anthony Mackie in The Hurt Locker (2009)
Jeremy Renner's Sgt. James might be the wild man star of the story but Mackie's Sanborn has an arc that puts his to shame. Sanborn isn't just the straight man, he's a real man who slowly comes to understand why he's been so driven to follow the rules.  By the time he laments, "I don't even have a son." we've come to not only understand what he's so afraid of, but feel it as well.

Capt. James "Bugger" Staros played by Elias Koteas in The Thin Red Line (1998)
In a film where characters are sharply divided between the contemplative romantics and the realist cynics, Koteas's Staros is a welcome brush with reality.  His Captain is neither overwhelmed by the beauty of the world nor disgusted by its realities.  He's just a man who seems pretty sure of his position in the moral quandary between following orders and risking the lives of his men.  It's difficult not to like him for this reason, but once the film is done with him, we know not to expect any karmic reward for his dissonance.  Malick's world doesn't work like that.

Sgt. O'Neill played by John C. McGinley in Platoon (1986)
My lasting memory of Platoon has nothing to do with the three lead actors, but instead features a young McGinley, sitting in a fox hole as a wash of emotion plays over his face: relief and probably guilt that he's survived another attack, fear that eventually it won't matter, and utter desperation to just plain go home.  Moments like that give you pause to realize the importance of the little stories in films.  Whether Sgt. O'Neill lived or died wasn't essential to the film's major dramatic story, but it sure was essential to him.

Pvt. Stanley Mellish played by Adam Goldberg in Saving Private Ryan (1998)
In a film where Steven Spielberg wanted deaths to be more than plot points, perhaps none stung as much as Pvt. Mellish.  A likable character, (it feels good watching him declare his Judaism to passing Nazi prisoners), Mellish's killing is so affecting not only because it's slow and feels so real, but because there is a realization that in this small fight, in the middle of a larger battle, in the middle of a larger war, the bad guy won, and there's no going back.

What performances of soldiers, whether lead, supporting or even smaller, have left a lasting impression on you?


Liz said...

I loved your reasoning for Utivich from "Inglourious Basterds."

And although the theme here was clearly American soldiers, how about three French soldiers (but played by Americans)? Paris (Ralph Meeker), Arnaud (Joe Turkel), and Ferol (Timothy Carey) from "Paths of Glory." One of the most shattering movies I've ever seen.

Castor said...

I know Private Upham in Saving Private Ryan isn't the most popular soldier out there but he is worth mentioning as the conscience of Steven Spielberg's movie. Great list Rob!

Simon said...

One of my favorite soldiers is David Bowie in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. But that's probably because I have a leaning towards all things Bowie.

Thanks for including Utivich. I loved that character and his little moments.