Remembering wars through unforgettable films

Memorial day reflections, refracted through cinema and memories of Bellingham during World War II
Memorial day reflections, refracted through cinema and memories of Bellingham during World War II

For those of us old enough to have personal recollection of World War II — and we are a dwindling number — that war will always be the one which comes to mind on the occasion of Memorial Day. I was seven years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Quite soon fathers and sons in my neighborhood went to war in uniform. Civilians at home worked long hours and six-day weeks. There was gasoline and food rationing. The best way to describe the atmosphere to those who were not there: It was as if the spirit which prevailed in the country briefly after 9/11/2001 lasted for a full four years.

Although its signs were all around us, we kids probably connected to the war most strongly through the black-and-white films we watched at Saturday matinees. I went every Saturday with a grade-school friend (Dewey Lawrenson, John Abbott, Henry Banks, or Allen Jewell) to Bellingham's American Theater. Admission was 9 cents or, alternatively, a metal toy to be recycled for the war effort. After the latest episode of an adventure serial, a war movie went on the screen. Most were unashamed propaganda, intended to lift home front morale and breed hostility toward our enemies. Nonetheless, they were effective and artful films which time has treated well. Many could be seen this past weekend on movie and other cable channels.

In Bellingham, we saw newsreels and films depicting the loss of the Phillipines to the Japanese and the Bataan death march. Within weeks of VJ-Day (Victory in Japan Day), a parade was held down Holly Street in downtown Bellingham. Leading it, astride a white horse, was Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, who had stayed with his men after Gen. Douglas McArthur had decamped for Australia. Wainwright had been imprisoned by the Japanese. As he rode past on his horse, I saw that he could not weigh more than 120 pounds and feared for his life.

Right after the war, in 1946, a powerful film, The Best Years of Our Lives, directed by William Wyler and starring Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, and Fredric March, swept the Academy Awards. It portrayed a soldier, sailor, and airman returning to their hometown after the war and their sometimes heart-rending problems of adjustment. A few years later, in television's early days, Victory At Sea, a documentary series with score by Richard Rodgers, told the story of the Navy's mostly Pacific Theater struggles during the war.

Two World War I-based films are classics worth seeing in any generation. Lewis Milestone's 1930 film, All Quiet on the Western Front, derived from the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, a German soldier during World War I, saw the war through the eyes of young students inspired to enlist by war-glorifying teachers and sent to the trenches to die or be wounded. Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, a 1957 film, presented a fictionalized account of French soldiers' World War I mutiny in the trenches and its savage repression by callous ranking officers. Kirk Douglas and Adolph Menjou starred in principal roles; Douglas played a gutsy field commander standing up to brass who ordered the execution of his men — and losing his argument.

Gregory Peck played the lead role in two films notable for their authenticity: Twelve O'Clock High (1949) in which he played the commander of an American bomber squadron, based in England, which over time became decimated; and Pork Chop Hill (1959), in which he played a Korean War infantry lieutenant fighting a desperate but essentially meaningless action for control of Pork Chop Hill to bolster peace negotiators' bargaining hand toward an armistice. It was based on actual events.

All of these films were made in black and white, which heightened their sense of stark reality. All had spare dialogue and tight editing.

Many war films, strong and weak, have been made in the years since. One of the most effective, shown on Home Box Office this past weekend (as in previous weeks), has been Taking Chance, starring Kevin Bacon as a Marine officer voluntarily escorting the body of a dead enlisted man, killed in Iraq, for burial in his Midwestern hometown.

Far distant from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other perilous places, it is easy for us to enjoy our glorious spring weather and the natural gifts which our region brings us. It is well that we be reminded, via film if not otherwise, that brave men and women are at this same moment undergoing great hardship, and sometimes giving their lives, unseen and often unrecognized by us. God bless them. And thanks to film makers and others who will not let us forget them.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of