While Hollywood studios would have us watch Hangover Part II or Kung Fu Panda 2 this Memorial Day weekend, and others like TCM take a nostalgic look at the holiday with a four day Marathon encompassing "a host of combat films produced in six different decades, set in various eras and offering a variety of perspectives on the subject of war. The movies range from D.W. Griffith's silent drama Hearts of the World (1918), starring Lillian Gish as a young Frenchwoman whose betrothed becomes a soldier in World War I, to Hornets' Nest (1970), a World War II adventure with Rock Hudson as an American paratrooper who plots with Italian children to blow up a Nazi-controlled dam."
Packed with gems like the Gary Cooper duo The Real Glory (1939, TCM premiere), in which Cooper stars as an American Marine set on blowing up a dam (what is it with blowing dams in these films?!), against the backdrop of the turn-of-the-century Moro uprising in the Philippines, and Cooper's Oscar®-winning performance as the title character in Sergeant York (1941), a pacifist who nonetheless became the most-decorated soldier of WW I, the TCM line-up looks to the past for model soldiers to honor and remember.
Portraits of war created by the myth-making Hollywood machine.
The problem with treating Memorial Day as something nostalgic is that it deprives a current generation of veterans their due.
On Memorial Day 2011, there is no act more apposite than to take 90 minutes to watch the film Restrepo. Now available on Netflix instant streaming, this documentary film by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington embeds the viewer into the day to day lives of an infantry regiment the deadliest valley in Afghanistan.
From the film's opening moments, in which we (as an audience) are riding inside a military vehicle that is subsequently rolled by an IED, and ambushed by a firefight, Restrepo sets a new standard for "you are there" journalism.
This unique partnership between Junger (best known as the author of "The Perfect Storm") and Hetherington (an award-winning war photojournalist who had covered the Civil Wars in Libera, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria, as well as the conflicts on the Middle East) literally embedded the team for an entire year with the troops at the Korengal Valley, considered a strategic point to combat the Taliban and statistically the most dangerous location in Afghanistan.
The death of Tim Heatherington this past April 20 while covering the conflict in Libya makes real how perilous the conditions in Restrepo really were.
Not content to stand back and let the shot come to him, Heatherington thrust himself into combat, armed not with a gun, but with a camera. HIs mission, to capture reality, and bring it to the world.
It takes those like Heatherington, a rare breed with a steadfast commitment to truth and an unyielding thirst for danger, to bring projects like Restrepo to life.
Of Heatherington's death in Libya, filmmaking parter Junger writes:
That’s also part of what you died for: the decision to live a life that was thrown open to all the beauty and misery and ugliness and joy in the world. Before this last trip you told me that you wanted to make a film about the relationship between young men and violence. You had this idea that young men in combat act in ways that emulate images they’ve seen—movies, photographs—of other men in other wars, other battles. You had this idea of a feedback loop between the world of images and the world of men that continually reinforced and altered itself as one war inevitably replaced another in the long tragic grind of human affairs.
That was a fine idea, Tim—one of your very best. It was an idea that our world very much needs to understand. I don’t know if it was worth dying for—what is?—but it was certainly an idea worth devoting one’s life to. Which is what you did.
While writing this piece, I came across this Tweet from @chrisbrychell.
This Memorial Day, let us remember not only the soldiers who have died serving this country, but also the journalists and reporters who risk their lives in the service of truth.
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