With Memorial Day rapidly encroaching upon us this weekend, Olive Films has seen fit to reissue a dandy double-feature of semi-classic World War II films that bravely straddle the line between unironically jingoistic and brutally self-aware, both creating a strange, flag-waving and flag-folding pair of black and white war stories that were definitely of their time.
Even though I have my own redacted views on the military, I’ve always had a soft spot for war pictures – especially World War II films – most of which can thankfully be attributed to my father. When he died of heart failure, polycystic kidneys, a massive stroke and a subdural hematoma in 1999, he was about 80 or so years old. My dad was an old man and, conversely, was a proud veteran of WW2, earning a Purple Heart for his honorable service as an airplane mechanic overseas.
While his favorite films were always Westerns, he wasn’t opposed to the occasional war picture, even though they often left him depressed or shaken. Like many veterans, he was never fond of talking about the War and I tend to think that those movies slowly helped him work through whatever it was he needed to. He was even getting ready to see his first movie in an actual theater in 20 years when Saving Private Ryan was released but, chronologically enough, he died a week before its target landing date.
One of those films he always spoke fondly of was John Wayne’s Flying Tigers (Olive Films). Watched now with more of a Liberally enlightened eye, it’s more of a hilariously jingoistic piece of pro-America propaganda that goes out of its way to present the USA as the square-jawed saviors of the world while the poor Chinese they’re protecting are wizened, weak primitives who couldn’t possibly have survived without us and our superior firepower.
That being said, Flying Tigers is also a very stereotypical old-school action film, featuring manlier than thou characters with names like Pappy and Blackie who brag about how many they shot down in a day while grooming their pencil-thin moustaches and shouting every line with that patently fake bravado that Phil Hartman used to parody to perfection on Saturday Night Live. It’s a b-movie that manages to tug on the patriotic heartstrings by introducing Pearl Harbor in the last few minutes, but it’s too little, too late.
But my father loved it, God bless him.
On the other hand, he absolutely loathed Home of the Brave (Olive Films), which, rebelliously enough, I liked quite a bit for its War is Hell presentation, both on the battlefield and at home. A group of star soldiers (including a young Lloyd Bridges) are sent on a mission to survey the deserted side of a Japanese-occupied island. And while this is normally all well and good, the big problem here is that one of the soldiers is an African-American and most of the squad has a big racist problem about it.
When the mission inevitably goes bad, the young black solider returns to base with an array of psychosomatic disorders, including fake amnesia and faker paralysis, all seemingly stemming from the fact that everyone hates him because of his skin color, which I can empathize with, even if it gets kind of off-track when the doctor shakes the soldier out of his syndrome by calling him the N-word
For the most part Home of the Brave is a surprisingly indicting look at the pre-Civil Rights Movement military that I’m sure was decried as Off-Broadway Commie Propaganda upon release. Based on the play by Arthur Laurents and produced by Stanley Kramer, this is a well-meaning drama from the well-meaning Left-leaning Hollywood elites at the time that, honestly, did pave the way for later, more thoughtful World War II films that went even further in exploring these explosive themes of the battle inside in the 70s and 80s.
Even though both Flying Tigers and Home of the Brave are well-worth viewing as historical artifacts, they really don’t hold up in any other way. Despite their themes of patriotism, honor and sacrifice, the blatantly exaggerated racial insensitivity makes them more of jokey fodder than actual rabble-rousers. Unless, of course, you’re watching them with 80+ year old WWII vets. In that case, you better show some goddamned respect.
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