Memorial Day Marathon

April 15, 2022
Memorial Day Marathon

Friday May 27 to Monday May 30, 2022 | 39 Movies

TCM honors American veterans with a three-day long marathon of war films that cover the Civil War, World War I, World War II and the Korean War. Eternal questions about ethical rules of engagement and the overall utility – or futility – of war abound in this marathon. Yet at every turn, comradery and survival seem to be the payoff. With their universal themes of heroism, sacrifice and remembrance, many of these films temper and complicate the horrors of war with the indelible courage and heart of its soldiers.

Focusing on the pressures that war imposes on its leaders, World War II veteran Henry King’s Twelve O’Clock High (1949) - about the aircrews in the U.S. Army’s Eighth Air Force, who flew daylight bombing missions against Nazi Germany and Occupied France - was once required viewing at all the U.S. service academies. It was also widely used in both military and civilian contexts to teach principles of leadership. The term "twelve o'clock high" refers to the practice of calling out the positions of attacking enemy aircraft by reference to an imaginary clock face, with the bomber at the center. The terms "high" (above the bomber), "level" (at the same altitude as the bomber) and "low" (below the bomber) refine the location of the enemy. Thus "twelve o'clock high" meant the attacker was approaching from directly ahead and above. This location was preferred by German fighter pilots. Veterans of the heavy bomber campaign cite Twelve O’Clock High as one of the only Hollywood films to accurately capture their combat experience. King’s film was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor (Gregory Peck). It won for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Dean Jagger) and Best Sound Recording.  

That same year, William A. Wellman’s Battleground (1949), the celebrated war film about the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division as they cope with the siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. It won for Best Story and Screenplay and Best Cinematography. Award winning screenwriter Robert Pirosh, who was a former master sergeant in World War II, went on to write and direct Go For Broke! (1951) about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was composed for Nisei (second-generation Americans born of Japanese parents) soldiers. The film is a Hollywood rarity, especially for the time, as it features Asian Americans positively, highlighting Japanese American wartime efforts even while some were confined to internment camps. Pirosh was again nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. Pirosh also wrote Hell Is for Heroes (1962), directed by Don Siegel and starring Steve McQueen (a former marine) and created the World War II television series, Combat! (1963-1967).

Not all the films in the marathon were so well received by the U.S. military or critics, however. Despite being designated an “allied propaganda film of World War II” – and funded by the US Navy – John Ford and Gregg Toland’s December 7th (1943) about the attack on Pearl Harbor was censored for decades. In addition to its sympathetic depiction of the Japanese in Hawaii (including its long highlight of the 160,000 Japanese Americans in Hawaii and their response to the attack), it asked questions about the lack of long-range reconnaissance and short-term air patrols during the event. The film was significantly cut and edited, but it won an Academy Award – for the twenty-minute version of the film. This award, for Best Documentary Short Subject, effectively eclipsed the 82-minute original film until its re-release.

Condemning Anthony Mann’s Men in War (1957) for its depiction of U.S. Army men without discipline, the Pentagon refused to cooperate with its producers. The film tells the story of a small detachment of American soldiers cut off from their division during the Korean War. Since Mann wasn’t able to get tanks and military extras from the Pentagon, he manipulated the landscape of Bronson Canyon with his camera. The enemy soldiers are rarely seen, and the isolation of the platoon is strongly conveyed. Mann made film noirs and Westerns and combined elements of these genres for his debut war film. 

The U.S. Defense Department refused to grant production assistance for Robert Aldrich’s Attack (1956), about a late-stage World War II frontline unit led by a cowardly captain who folds under the brutality of war and is overtaken by a tough subordinate and Machiavellian executive officer. Aldrich said, “The Army saw the script and promptly laid down a policy of no cooperation, which not only meant that I couldn't borrow troops and tanks for my picture – I couldn't even get a look at Signal Corps combat footage. I finally had to buy a tank for $1,000 and rent another from 20th Century-Fox.” The Dirty Dozen (1967), Aldrich’s loose adaptation of E.M. Nathanson’s bestseller about a top-secret mission to turn the Army’s worst prisoners into commandos to be sent on a virtual suicide mission just before D-Day, enjoyed commercial success – but was lambasted by critics for its “sadistic” violence. It nevertheless seemed to pave the way for a Vietnam War film like Full Metal Jacket (1987) and even the DC Comic series The Suicide Squad, which incidentally debuted the same year.

Other films in the marathon show the vulnerability of the soldiers without the exploitative violence. Hell to Eternity (1960) is a World War II film starring Jeffrey Hunter as Marine Pfc. Guy Gabaldon, a Los Angeles Hispanic boy raised in the 1930s by a Japanese American foster family, and his heroic actions during the Battle of Saipan. After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into the war, Gabaldon was drafted and his family was sent to the internment camp,  Manzanar. Japanese actor and matinée idol Sessue Hayakawa plays the role of Japanese commander, Gen. Matsui. George Takei plays Gabaldon’s physical education teacher and friend. (Jeffrey Hunter starred as Captain Kirk’s predecessor, Captain Pike, in the original pilot for Star Trek.)

Lewis Milestone’s Korean War film Pork Chop Hill (1959), about the fierce battle of the same name, was lauded by the New York Times for capturing the “resentment” of the American GIs and how it “tacitly points to the obsoleteness of ground warfare.” The film does not shy away from interpersonal tensions, particularly racial ones, that often get exacerbated during war. Notably, George Shibata, who was the first Nisei appointed to West Point and the first Asian American to graduate from the United States Military Academy, stars as Lt. Suki Ohashi. Woody Strode and James Edwards play African American soldiers based on the 24th Infantry Regiment, which was still racially segregated in Korea. As such, as the film portrays, the regiment was poorly trained, equipped and led. Edwards, who was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army during World War II, lends some extra-diegetic meaning to this role as he played Private Peter Moss, an African American soldier experiencing racial prejudice while serving in World War I, in Mark Robson’s Home of the Brave (1949).

The marathon also includes a wide representation of prisoner of war films. There is John Sturges’ big-budget World War II film, The Great Escape (1963), starring Steve McQueen, James Garner (a Korean War veteran) and Richard Attenborough (who served in the Royal Air Force). The films Reservoir Dogs (1992), Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994) and Chicken Run (2000) all reference or pay homage to the film.  On the other hand, there is the low-budget film, The Steel Helmet (1951), written, directed and produced by World War II veteran Samuel Fuller in ten days with twenty-five extras who were UCLA students, a plywood tank, in a misty studio, with exteriors shot in Griffith Park. The Steel Helmet is largely celebrated for its style and is considered the first American film about the Korean War – but it infuriated the military who had provided stock footage.

The marathon includes a few genre-bending war films. Busby Berkeley’s For Me and My Gal (1942), is a musical based on the life of vaudeville actor Harry Palmer when he was drafted into World War I. The film stars Judy Garland in her first real adult role. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Score. Wesley Ruggles’s See Here, Private Hargrove (1944) is a  bootcamp comedy set in the early days of World War II. It was followed by the sequel, What’s Next, Corporal Hargrove? (1945).  

All’s fair in love and war and there are a few romantic war films in the lineup like Tay Garnett’s One Minute to Zero (1952), which was Howard Hughes’s last film as producer and William A. Wellman’s Darby’s Rangers (1958) which was criticized for having more romance than war. The most notable romance is Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity (1953) about soldiers played by Burt Lancaster (who was part of the Army’s Special Services Division), Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra stationed on Hawaii in the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed portray the women in their lives. It won eight of its 13 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Sinatra won Best Supporting Actor and Reed won Best Supporting Actress. Despite being extensively edited to satisfy the Production Code, the Navy nevertheless banned the film from being shown to servicemen, calling it a “discredit to the armed services.”

John Sturges’ neo-Western suspense Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) stars Spencer Tracy as John J. Macreedy, a one-armed World War II veteran looking for a Japanese man named Komoko in the isolated desert hamlet, Black Rock. But its residents refuse to talk about what they know about the man and his disappearance. Prolific Western director John Ford directed John Wayne in They Were Expendable (1945) which was named in the “10 Best Films of 1945” by The New York Times. Handsomely supported by the U.S. Department of the Navy, Ford’s onscreen directing credit for the film cites his naval experience, “Directed by John Ford, Captain U.S.N.R”. John Wayne stars in other films in this marathon, including Nicholas Ray’s Flying Leathernecks (1951) about the exploits and personal battles of United States Marine Corps aviators during World War II – perhaps a forerunner to Top Gun (1986). He also starred among the global cast in the epic international war film about D-Day, The Longest Day (1962), directed by British and French Ken Annakin, American Andrew Marton and German Bernhard Wicki.