The Oscar Project
After a few picks this so far that were a bit of a miss, I was so glad to watch The Dirty Dozen this week for the challenge. This was a movie that I have seen bits and pieces of over the years when it’s on TV, but I had never actually sat down and watched the whole thing beginning to end.
The story is that of a group of army prisoners in WWII that are hand picked for a mission behind enemy lines. They are to parachute into France just before D-Day and locate a chateau where many high-ranking German offices will be, and kill as many as possible. The film is littered with stars of the era including Lee Marvin as Major Reisman, the officer in charge of the operation, Ernest Borgnine as General Worden, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas, and a very young-looking Donald Sutherland.
As with many films about a group of misfits that need to come together, the best part of the movie is the middle. Two other movies came to mind when thinking about this, Remember the Titans, and The Breakfast Club. Now, both of these might sound like silly comparisons to a WWII special ops movie made in the 1960s but hear me out. I’ll focus mostly on Titans but bring a few thoughts on The Breakfast Club as well.
The similarities between Titans and The Dirty Dozen are quite interesting when you break them down. The first act of both films really covers the set-up. In The Dirty Dozen, Major Reisman gets his orders from the general about the mission and goes to the military prison in London to pick up the “dozen.” They are salty and unsure about the assignment, but don’t really have a choice and go along. In Titans, the film starts with Yoast as the head coach, and covers a bit of the politics going on around the decision to have Boone take over the team.
The second act of both films is really the “training” section. Boone and his coaching staff put the team on busses to get them away from town and to the seclusion of a nearby college campus where they will conduct their summer training. Not surprisingly, the busses fill along racial lines before Boone orders everyone off the bus and reassigns them as an offence and defense, intentionally mixing things racially to start breaking down the barriers. Similarly, Dozen takes the prisoners to a remote clearing in the countryside, where they build their own encampment. Reisman tells them that they are all in it together and if any one of them fouls up or deserts, the entire squad will be sent back to prison to carry out their sentences.
In both films, the disparate groups initially scoff at the idea of getting to know their opposites, but slowly learn to trust one another. In Titans, there are scuffles between offense and defense at the camp, but soon enough the prejudices start to fade and black and white stand side by side, as long as they’re on the same side of the ball. Similarly, one of the first scuffles in Dozen occurs when Savalas’s asks if they have to eat alongside Brown’s character, using language any black man would find offensive. As the entire group fight over this, Reisman quietly leaves the room and tells the guards outside “Oh, the gentleman from the South had a question about the dining arrangements. He and his comrades are discussing place settings now.” Reisman knows that if they can come to some understanding amongst them, even through physical fighting, they will ultimately become stronger.
This is also something you see in The Breakfast Club, though without the racial undertones. Throughout the middle of the movie, the five detentionees fight about the stereotypes and preconceptions they each have about the others. It’s not until they start talking to each other, and more importantly, listening when others are talking, that they start to realize how much they have in common. While these five don’t have anything pushing them from the outside other than being in the same detention together, the result is the same and by the end of the film, they all seem to come out stronger, or at least more open to different viewpoints, than before.
For any of these three films, the middle section truly feels like the best part, but why is that? I think it’s because this is where we see the most character growth and that makes us as viewers feel like there is hope. If five high school kids can overcome their differences and learn about each other, the T. C. Williams football team can come together and successfully integrate to win a Championship, and a group of 12 condemned men can take out a Nazi stronghold in occupied France, then it should be easy for us to tackle whatever the day throws at us.
Granted, it’s never that easy, and these stories aren’t happy endings. The Breakfast Club kids make it out easiest, finishing their essay and heading home to think about what they learned during detention. In Remember the Titans, the film ends with a return to the funeral that opened it with the entire team mourning the loss of their friend and teammate Gerry Bertier. Yes, they won the championship, and gained lifelong friendships, but they lost their teammate and one of their best leaders.
The Dirty Dozen has the least happy ending of these three films, but then it is a war film after all so the stakes are much higher. The squad makes it to the chateau full of Germans, only losing one member during the parachute jump. Everything seems to be going well until Savalas’s character turns on Brown’s and alerts the Germans to their presence through the resulting gunfire. Ultimately, only Major Reisman and Joseph Wladislaw (Bronson) survive, accompanied by one of the guards, Sgt. Bowren (Richard Jaeckel). The rest of the squad is either killed by German gunfire or sacrifices themselves to complete the mission. They did go in knowing it was likely a suicide mission, but I was hopeful that a few more would survive.
Part of what I want to do with this challenge this year is chronicle my experiences through watching the movies that I select for each of these categories. In certain circumstances, the timing of watching the films will play a part in my feelings on it. My choice to watch Platoon on the evening of January 6, 2021 certainly had an impact.
As I write this post, we are in the midst of a strange time in our nation's history. While there is still much to be figured out about the events of January 6, 2021, it is sure to be a date that finds a place in history books of the future, not unlike July 4th, 1776, December 7th, 1941, and September 11th, 2001. I bring up those dates not to compare the recent events to those famous events. The scale and ultimate loss of life that resulted from the events on those days goes far beyond what we saw this week. However, there was a sense of January 6th being a turning point in history, just as those dates were.
But what does this have to do with Platoon? Well, nothing really. The only connection is that I spent the afternoon watching continuous news coverage of the events then watched the film. Usually I would turn to a comedy to cleanse the palate. But I had committed to doing this challenge and needed to get my film in before the end of the week, planning to watch it on Wednesday evening, before all the chaos erupted. So I sat down and pulled it up on Netflix as planned and tried to focus my attention on the movie for a few hours.
This was easier said than done and I fear it may have detracted a bit from the viewing experience. That said, the violence and chaos I saw in the film were definitely more serious than what was on television news earlier that evening. But, it was a very interesting juxtaposition.
What about the film?
As someone who has loved films for a long time, I have read, seen, and heard many people's opinions on this film. It is often cited as one of the best films about war ever made and given the fact that Oliver Stone was himself a Vietnam veteran, the entire film feels extremely real and genuine. However, I have to admit to being a little less enthralled with this film than I was with Apocalypse Now (the Redux version). That is not to say that it's a bad film. It is fantastic and still worthy of all the praise it has received over the years. Perhaps the fact that I have heard continued hype about it over the years meant that whatever the film was would fail to live up to expectations. Perhaps if I'd seen this earlier in life, before I settled down and had a family, maybe then I would have been able to connect even more with the characters, all being young teenage and early 20s men.
One thing I will say as a huge positive about the film is that it didn't feel bloated the way war films often do. It was a tight two hours and didn't even feel that long because the pacing was great. There were times for quiet and introspection, punctuated by the fire fights and chaos of the guerrilla warfare faced in Vietnam. Continuing the comparison to Apocalypse Now, that film clocks in at just over two and a half hours in the director's cut, but often feels like three hours or more. That film tends to have more extended periods of introspection and rumination, and feels much more like a psychological study than a snapshot of a short period in history in a small part of the jungle like Platoon.
I can't let the comparisons end there with the obvious one left unstated. While Platoon was made nearly a decade later than Apocalypse Now, they feature father Martin (Apocalypse Now) and son Charlie (Platoon) Sheen in the leading roles. One could argue that Charlie's is less of a lead since Platoon's cast is much more of an ensemble, but both actors are the featured voice in the film and provide narration at different points.
Interestingly, both Martin's Captain Willard and Charlie's Chris Taylor undergo a transformation during the time that we are with them in Vietnam. Willard is already a seasoned veteran at the beginning of the film, but progress more and more towards going native as he progresses up river over the course of the film. Taylor on the other hand is a brand new soldier, fresh off the plane from the States. Initially he is a fish out of water, the only man who volunteered in a unit full of draftees. But when he is accepted by some of his peers, he begins to blossom and ultimately shows levels of courage and bravery, along with at least one bout of insanity along the way.
Keith David (King) has enjoyed a prolific career since the 1980s with appearances in blockbusters like Pitch Black, There's Something About Mary, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith while also providing voice work for a number of films. Forest Whitaker (Big Harold) appeared in Fast Times at Ridgemont High a few years prior to Platoon, and returned to the subject of Vietnam with Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam before winning an Oscar for his role in The Last King of Scotland in 2006.
Two more cast members to note are John C. McGinley (Sgt. O'Neill) who would go on to land a role as Dr. Perry Cox on the comedy series Scrubs and Johnny Depp (Lerner) who you may know best as Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Depp's role in Platoon was minimal, but McGinley figured prominently as Sgt. Barnes's right hand man.
The final word
I plan to post an official review of this film under the Reviews section, but to summarize my feelings on the film, it nearly met my expectations. I was looking for a story about a group of soldiers in Vietnam and that's what I got. There were relationships built and strained, as I'm sure really happened on the ground there. There was plenty of chaos, a sprinkle of weed and alcohol, lots of f-bombs, and what felt to me like genuine military jargon (I'll leave the actual veterans to fully judge that point).
In the end, Platoon lives up to the tag line from the trailer and posters: "The first casualty of war is innocence."
Be sure to come back next week for the next film in the challenge. Week to is all about "classic" films.
A film you like that is not set in the current era
There was plenty to choose from when I picked this category, but I had to go with a film that I absolutely love, and I have seen probably two dozen times or more over the years. It’s one of those that I usually watch to the end whenever it comes on TV, which sometimes takes up several hours of my afternoon/evening/night.
I have to say, this film is one of the best I’ve seen when it comes to immersing the audience in the time period and the world it exists in. From the opening sequence in Germania, we are thrust into a gritty hellscape of how war was waged two thousand years ago, give or take a century or two. The opening battle is brutal, and they don’t get any tamer from there.
It’s easy to say that the battle and fight scenes are some of the best parts of Gladiator, yet I find many of the best parts are in the quiet intimate moments between the chaos. The personal interaction between Russell Crowe’s Maximus and his owner Proximo (Oliver Reed) about how he can win the crowd and potentially win his freedom is one of those moments. Another is Maximus’s interaction with the young prince Lucius before one of his fights. He speaks with the boy I think because he sees his own dead son in the boy and wants to connect with someone that age once again. And speaking of his son, one of the most incredible scenes is when Maximus returns to his farm to find his wife and son dead. The anguish that Crowe displays is part of the reason he was crowned Best Actor by the Academy for his work in the film.
The film also won an Oscar for Best Costume Design, and this goes back to my initial point about immersing you in the world. There are thousands of costumes in this film that make you feel like you are in ancient Rome. Everything is here from the obvious gladiator gear, to the soldiers in the army, the simple robes of the senators, and the elaborate robes of the royalty. The last time we were watching the film, my wife and I both remarked that Lucilla’s (Connie Nielsen) costumes are some of the most beautiful in the film and fit her character perfectly.
But the costumes alone don’t make this film feel like a part of history. There are plenty of scenes in the markets, the countryside, and of course, in the gladiatorial arenas themselves. The way the story progresses, Maximus fights his way through several lesser arenas throughout the Roman Empire, before venturing to Rome itself and competing in the Super Bowl of gladiatorial arenas, The Colosseum. It’s quite a scene when Maximus and his fellow slaves see the edifice for the first time and once they get inside, it’s hard to distinguish where the live replica of the building ends and the digital version begins.
All in all, Gladiator is a fantastic film. Yes, there are some historical inaccuracies, but you get that with any film based on historical events. That’s the beauty of film. It’s a chance to tell a story set in a real time and place, but with some elements of fiction woven in. It’s hard to say that there are no wasted shots in a film that stretches over two and a half hours, but I feel that this is about as close as one might come, with nearly every moment on screen contributing to and moving the story forward.
Take a moment this holiday weekend and visit ancient Rome in Gladiator. You won’t regret it.
Day 24 – A film you wish you saw in theaters | Day 26 – A film you like that is adapted front somewhere
A film that put you in deep thought
This is the second newest film I have on my list and one of the most recently critically acclaimed. As such, there may be a bit of recency bias in this pick, but that’s OK. I wanted this list to have a broad spectrum of films from different eras, genres, directors, and styles, and that means including recent films as well as those from 50 or 80 years ago.
For anyone who has seen this film, I challenge you to admit that it didn’t move you in some way. As I wrote in my recent review of the film, it is a personal story, yet one that is told on a grand scale. There are moments of intense emotion between individuals, followed by sweeping views of the devastation of war that is evident all around them.
I’m not joking when I tell you that I sat in silence in my living room, all by myself, after this film finished playing. In today’s world of streaming video and DVDs, it’s easy to just click off the credits and move on to the next piece of media. But as the category for today suggests, I sat in thought after this film finished. I let the credits play and imagined how I would have reacted in the shoes of the characters on screen. Would I have had the courage to lay my life on the line the way they did to save my fellow countrymen? Would I have been able to crawl through trenches full of decaying carcasses, avoid sniper fire, and swim over a waterfall, just to deliver a message that could potentially save the lives of hundreds of men? I’m not sure.
This is a hallmark of some of the best films throughout history. They tell a striking story in an incredibly visual way that makes you sit back and think. Films like this stay with you and give your brain plenty to chew on, not just in the moment, but for days after viewing. That is what 1917 did for me.
Day 12 – A film that you hate from your favorite genre | Day 14 – A film that gave you depression
I'm just a film buff who wants to watch great movies. Where else to find the best, than the list of those nominated by the Academy each year?