Nostalgic Trot Through Some of the Best War Films Ever Made
THE GREATEST EVER WAR FILMS offers a perfect three hour divertissement for fans of the genre. Comedian Al Murray offers a mixture of clips and anecdotes with the help of a series of celebrity guests and expert opinions as to why the war film has such an enduring place in filmgoers' minds. The stereotype is a familiar one, especially for the older films: wet Bank Holiday afternoons, Christmas and New Year festivities, an audience craving for actioners - the schedulers knew how important it was to please them. Hence they put on endless repeats of classics such as THE DAM BUSTERS (1953), THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957), THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), 633 SQUADRON (1964), and WHERE EAGLES DARE (1968). The only snag is that this stereotype is only partially true. Whereas these films certainly did appear on Bank Holidays and at Christmas, many of them (especially after Channel 4 was established in 1982) were shown on weekday afternoons. One had to be either a) unemployed; b) a freelance film buff; or c) a student in order to be able to see them.
This point of history, however, is ultimately irrelevant. What matters more is to consider why the war film genre remains so enduringly popular, nearly seven decades after the end of World War II. There is obviously a patriotic motive - particularly in the decade or so after 1945, British war films consciously glorified the efforts of their armed forces in an attempt to sustain patriotic feeling at a time when the Empire was cracking up. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, many American films about Vietnam dramatized the country's angst about losing the war and the human cost involved. Retellings of the Second World War such as Spielberg's SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) offers graphic representations of the horrors of armed conflict, a salutary lesson to anyone trying to engage in combat with their rivals. War films not only glorify; they also satirize; this is the principal reason for their popularity.
Looking at this documentary, one realizes two things - first, that the war movie has often told the same story over and over again (this is another reason for its enduring popularity); and second, that many war movies made sixty, seventy, or even eighty years ago still stand up very well today. I defy anyone not to be moved by the sentiments of IN WHICH WE SERVE (1942), even though it dramatizes a class-conscious world no longer in existence now; likewise Lewis Milestone's ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930) remains a powerful anti-war piece.
Sometimes I found the obsession with familiar British themes - class being the most notorious - rather wearisome in this documentary, but nonetheless I thoroughly enjoyed the selection of clips included.
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