Summer Viewing: Must Watch Part II

I missed being in the States for the 4th of July since I’m studying in England. Though I missed barbeque and sweet tea, I really enjoy English tea and scones. Did independence for the colonies really require the sacrifice of the afternoon tea? I guess that tea tax incited a lot of people.  (Although, the Twining’s Shop at 216 Strand, London claims to have proof that no Twining’s tea was destroyed in the Boston Tea Party because Mr. Twining and George Washington were friends. I somehow doubt the Boston rebels would have listened to the good Virginia gentleman.)

No sooner did I start dwelling on the loss of Devonshire cream and warm currant scones in American schedules than I realized just how many unnoticed and simple sacrifices are made in war.  In the American Revolution, colonists boycotted their beloved tea for gritty and often bitter coffee. It was a small, but powerful point of resistance. Personally, I think sacrifice today is often considered a lofty and heroic duty of the few who serve.  Imagine Americans today boycotting their Starbucks for a shared belief.  In the second part of my summer movie guide, I want to draw your attention to personal sacrifices made during war in films.

Week of July 7:  Invasion of Sicily July 10, 1943

FILM:  The Scarlet and the Black (1983, Jerry London)

The invasion of Sicily was the first step in the Allies advance against Italy as the continent was invaded in September. I considered writing about Patton, but I wanted to showcase a lesser-known film and highlight personal sacrifices in war. The Scarlet and the Black recounts the actions of an Irish priest at the Vatican who smuggled Jews, downed Allied pilots, and escaped POWs out of Nazi-occupied Italy. *Bonus* It stars Gregory Peck and Christopher Plummer.

Hugh O’ Flaherty facilitated the escape and rescue of an estimated 6,500 people during World War II. He built a network of supporters who hid these refugees in farms, convents, and homes. A Nazi colonel, Kappler, discovers the underground network and eventually believes O’Flaherty is the leader. However, the neutral sovereignty of the Vatican prevents Kappler from excessive interrogation and he settles for intimidation. He paints a white line demarcating Vatican authority and promising to kill O’Flaherty if he crosses it (true story!). Yet, O’Flaherty evades Kappler through the war wearing clever disguises to meet with his network.

I love The Scarlet and the Black because O’Flaherty refuses to compromise his values, even in war. He is willing to risk his own life to protect those being hunted. I could tell you how it ends, but it’s really just one that you need to watch for yourself.

Week of July 14:  Second Battle of Fort Wagner July 18, 1863

FILM:  Glory (1989, Edward Zwick)

Every war has a degree of paradoxes, such as the American Revolution fighting for freedom, while supporting slavery.  Glory depicts the sad reality of a segregated Union army during the American Civil War. The Union will fight for emancipation, but it won’t provide equal treatment to its own soldiers. Dare I say the men who fought in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry fought for emancipation with more valor than any other soldiers? They fought in spite of inequalities because it was part of the greater movement towards equality. They were not paid fairly, they did not receive quality supplies, and they were constantly sent to menial labor jobs and not combat. Their courage and dedication brought attention to the racist contradictions of Union philosophy and action that paved the way for emancipation to penetrate society.

Col. Robert Gould Shaw commanded the first African American unit and fought on the behalf of his men for fair and equal treatment of all Union soldiers. Throughout the film, he struggles to respect the chain of command and to counter the institutional racism. He also must learn to transcend racial barriers to earn the respect of his men. Col. Shaw volunteers the 54th for an attack on Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. He is killed while leading a charge in a devastating attack. Though the attack was not a Union victory, it rallied Union spirit and racial equality. It was during this battle that Sgt. William Carney received the Congressional Medal of Honor, one of the first African-Americans to do so. President Abraham Lincoln credited the 54th for the enlistment of over 180,000 African-Americans. Those who fought demonstrated the small sacrifices of war that are required to win. Racial equality would not come with the Emancipation Proclamation or even the conclusion of the Civil War, but it would never have happened without the small steps to promote equality.

Week of July 21: Gen. Sherman and the Battle of Atlanta July 22, 1864

FILM:  Gone with the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming)

Gone with the Wind has long been one of my favorite movies (my mother says it’s only because of the dresses, which may be partly true). More than anything, though, this movie depicts the laborious effects of war on society. The Civil War is a mere backdrop to Scarlett O’Hara’s dalliances and self-righteousness. She refuses to hear of “war-talk” only to be later defined by the all-encompassing war. Throughout the war, Scarlett is bitter and focused on her own survival needs. Accompanying Scarlett through the war is her compassionate sister-in-law (and the wife of Scarlett’s forbidden love), Melanie. The two women spend the war in Atlanta. Melanie tirelessly works as a nurse and seamstress and gives up everything, including her wedding band, to support the cause and her husband. In comparison, it is easy to fault Scarlett’s selfishness and desire for normalcy. At the pinnacle of her exhaustion, Sherman is closing in on Atlanta, the city is evacuating, and Scarlett is asked to assist an amputation. She flees the hospital and weeps, “I’m going home! I want my mother.” When she finally is home, she realizes just how much the war destroyed her life.

Much of the film focuses on the reconstruction period and the struggles therein.  It shows that no one was exempt from the costs of war. Families are broken, homes are destroyed, livelihoods are lost, and society is completely devastated. Morals, principles, and values compete with survival and profit. Scarlett even marries a man for his business prospects. She snubs civility for profit’s sake and permits brutal treatment of hired prisoners. The depiction of southern reconstruction alone is worth watching this cinema classic because it illustrates the civilian tolls of war.


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