Classic Films for Commemorating Pearl Harbor and a Nation at War During Christmas


Today we commemorate “Pearl Harbor Day.” Sixty-nine years ago, “Battleship Row,” in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was attacked with vehement force and incomprehensible destruction by the Imperial Japanese Navy. The next day, in his address to Congress and an anxious nation, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called December 7, 1941 “a date which will live in infamy.” And thus we were drawn into fatal conflict with Japan, and soon after, with Germany.

And it is fitting that we should remember America’s war effort, even during this Christmas season.

  • It was during this season that the United States entered the war with Japan, in direct response to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
  • American service men and women engaged the enemy for several consecutive Christmases during World War II.
  • Notable events of the Second War happened during the Christmas season.
  • Today, the United States is engaged in war in the Middle East, and many American men and women will be far from home at Christmas, while others prepare to be deployed.

Film provides us with a unique way to remember. Here is a list of a few films that recall Pearl Harbor and Christmas during wartime:

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

This is the classic reenactment of events during the attack on Pearl Harbor. It re-tells what happened, from both the American and the Japanese perspectives.

Pearl Harbor (2001)

Two boyhood friends, Navy pilots stationed at Pearl Harbor, endure the trauma of the attack.

Joyeux Noël (2005)

I first recommended this film last year. It recalls a most unusual Christmas eve encounter—called “the Christmas Truce”on the World War I German front, between the Germans on the one side and the French and Scottish forces on the other. Joyeux Noël is on my list of movies to see again each Christmas season.

For other posts I’ve written about this film, see Favorite Christmas Movie for 2009 and Joyeux Noël: A Film Discussion Guide.

Stalag 17 (1953)

This may seem an odd entry. First, Christmas plays an understated role in the film. Second, this is a Billy Wilder comedy. Third, it is an older movie, filmed in black and white. But in its defense, note that Stalag 17 was one of the first films to join laughter with the ignominy of war. In it we observe a group of men courageously, though often raucously, making the best of a bad situation. Yes, there is comedy, some of it (okay, much of it) silly. This is, after all, a Billy Wilder product. But there also is pathos and suspense.

On close inspection, many people today, with no war experience at all, can relate to the diverse feelings exhibited by these men, feelings that are compounded during the holidays. Loneliness. Unrequited love. Disillusionment. Alienation.

Wilder was an intelligent director. He was interested in far more than the easy laugh. You see this in Stalag 17 when you pay close attention. Grown men revert to childishness to comfort themselves. They are resourceful, both at play and in the attempt to re-gain their freedom. Group dynamics are explored with sensitivity to how leadership and courage are perceived by others, what happens when the wrong person is blamed for serious misconduct, how trust is built up, then dissolved, and what people are willing to sacrifice for the good of others.

Stalag 17 stars William Holden, Otto Preminger, and Peter Graves (of the original Mission Impossible TV series). The movie was the “inspiration” for the TV series Hogan’s Heroe’s, which even “borrowed” the Sergeant Schultz character.

I saw this movie for the first time last night, and I recommend it.

Recommended links related to the attack on Pearl Harbor:

Links related to Christmas during World War I and World War II:

Do you have a movie to recommend that fits the category of this post? Of so, please let us know in the comment box.

The movies mentioned here:

Land of the Free Film Premiere


The film Land of the Free premieres Thursday, May 27, in Whittier, California.

I’m a big fan of this movie. Of course, how could I not be? Erin Geivett, my daughter, co-stars in the film. This is her debut as a lead actress. Read more of this post

Adam Sandler Rides Again


bedtime_storiesHe rides a red horse, a motorcycle, a chariot, and (almost) drives a red Ferrari. Adam Sandler is in fine form with his usual lack of finesse as comic hero Skeeter Bronson in Bedtime Stories (distributed by Walt Disney Pictures). Sandler’s basic costume is a handyman uniform. But the actor is kept busy changing in and out of cowboy chaps and gladiator garb for period performances of his imagination.

As children, Skeeter and his sister, Wendy, had helped their father run a splendidly modest motel. Marty Bronson had been a wonderful father, indicated especially by his storytelling powers. But, as fate would have it, he was a lousy businessman. Of economic necessity, Marty signed his cherished family business over to a charmer named Barry Nottingham. Young Skeeter was witness to this unfortunate transaction, and the insincere promise from Nottingham that the boy would run the place, if he chose to, once he was old enough.

The story gets going some years later, when Nottingham emerges as an unscrupulous tycoon with an odd aversion to ordinary germs and a bad-girl daughter who is inexplicably chased about by admiring paparazzi. (Think Paris Hilton.) Nottingham retains Skeeter, not to run the company as promised, but as chief fix-it man. Responsibility for managing the firm is left to a conniving fellow named Kendall, who courts Nottingham’s daughter, Violet, in a scheme to succeed the aging tycoon.

Just when old man Nottingham has announced that Kendall is to be promoted, and Skeeter concludes that life’s true stories have no good endings, Wendy, now single mother of two, has a favor to ask. She needs Skeeter to be night-time sitter for the children while she’s away for several days to interview for a job. Skeeter has no natural affinity for Bobbi and Patrick, and no idea how he’s supposed to keep them entertained when they’ve lived in a protective bubble—without television, camping experiences, and the like.

One of the best scenes of the film captures the first night Skeeter has charge of the children. They ship off to bed happily enough. But Skeeter, they tell him, must read them a bedtime story. He samples the titles of books in their bedroom collection. The titles humorously reveal the uptight habits of their mother, obviously stricken with politically correct inhibitions about the environment and personal safety. To avoid rehearsing this “communist” propaganda with niece and nephew, Skeeter proposes that he make up a story, like his old man did when he was a kid.

Naturally, the movie revolves around these bedtime stories. Instantly warming to the idea, the children insist on modified endings to Skeeter’s tales, which are told with gusto and feature himself as the conspicuous hero. Amazingly (and this we know already from the previews for the film), events during the next day parallel the story line, conclusion and all, of the previous night’s tale.

It’s never sorted out how these daily coincidences are fated to occur. The family guinea pig, a recurring presence in the film, has something to do with it, apparently. What that is, you might say, is a lacuna in the story. At any rate, the coincidence is plain, and once he catches on, Skeeter takes pains to arrange for a day that will turn to his advantage with the lovely Violet Nottingham and the graces of her doddering dad. Adventures ensue, but never with the blessed results eagerly anticipated by Skeeter.

Meanwhile, the children are tended during the day by a wholesome female friend of Wendy’s. Jill harbors understandable misgivings about Skeeter, whose sensibilities tend toward the reckless and irresponsible. The moderate tension that defines their relationship is one of several plot twists that must be resolved for the movie to come to a complete and satisfying ending. (This probably makes the movie sound more subtle and sophisticated than it is.)

While watching this movie, you may be reminded, as I was, of two other fabulous movies (by “fabulous” I mean having no basis in reality)—The Princess Bride and Night at the Museum. For one scene in particular, and a good one at that, you may recall the classic film Ben Hur (which was loosely based on a true story of some significance).

With two exceptions, the characters are interesting enough. There’s Violet Nottingham—nice on the eyes, but not nice—and Jill—easy on the eyes, and very nice. Violet is played by Teresa Palmer, 22-year-old Australian starlet with the possibility of a future in film. Kerry Russell, who plays Jill, will be recognized as the more experienced actress with significant roles in more substantial movies: as Lyla Novacek in August Rush (2007), the waitress, Jenna Hunterson, in Waitress (2007), and lead character Katie Armstrong in Rohtenburg (also known as Grimm Love) (2006)—recognized, that is, if you’ve seen any of these films. Russell is probably best known as the empathetic victim of a horrible explosion early in the film Mission: Impossible III (2006). Her performance in that role was brief, but very compelling.

British actor Richard Griffiths (b. 1947) is pleasing as Barry Nottingham. The comic lilt of his performance was, I’m sure, enhanced for me by my acquaintance with someone who is rather Nottingham-esque. Griffiths’ claim to fame is as Uncle Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter series. (An interesting fact about Griffiths is that his parents were both deaf; but in Bedtime Stories there’s no obvious evidence that this contributed to his acting repertoire.)

The children, Bobbi and Patrick, are played by Laura Ann Kesling and Jonathan Morgan Heit, respectively. Both do a swell job. Kesling, for whom this is her film debut, I believe, is better than swell and doubtless has a future in acting. Her apparently spontaneous peels of bemused laughter are endearing. They may well be truly spontaneous, which would be a credit to Adam Sandler as a demonstrated laugh-maker by nature.

adam_sandlerSandler has more movies to his credit than I’ve seen. But of those I’ve seen, he’s at his best in Bedtime Stories. (It should be noted that he is also producer of this film, which may account for much of its comic genius.) Here, Sandler isn’t slapstick funny. He isn’t funny for funny’s sake. Funny seems to come naturally to his character as a means of dealing with the pain of loneliness and ignominy. But the almost incessant playfulness has understated moments, and in general it doesn’t betray the deep bitterness many would feel in his situation. There are worse ways of dealing with disappointments in life than to make light of their occurrence. I like this complexity about the character, even if the effect was utterly serendipitous.

The two fiends in the film are Guy Pearce as Kendall, the scheming hotel general manager, and Lucy Lawless as Aspen, co-conspirator and manager on duty. Pearce and Lawless (how apropos is that pair of names?) have the look of simpleton villains who are utterly unsympathetic. The name “Aspen” speaks with loud innuendo; I haven’t the foggiest association to make with “Kendall.”

Guy Pearce starred in the very dark film Memento (2000), and was cast as a drag queen in Priscilla: Queen of the Desert (1994). So he is, you might say, “versatile.” In Bedtime Stories, he looks and acts pathetic, as I imagine he’s supposed to. But during screenwriting I would have suggested a different permutation of pathetic. He looks, sounds, and acts silly in a way that loses the scent of funny most dominant in the movie.

Lucy Lawless’s liability is her casting alongside Pearce qua Kendall-permutation-of-pathetic. I want to say that the inane visual and verbal exchanges between Aspen and Kendall insult the capacity of today’s audience to take the bad guys a little more seriously. But this isn’t a serious film, so that, in itself, isn’t a serious criticism. Still, something’s not quite right about the style of humor attempted in the portions of the script assigned to these unfortunate actors. I do think it’s a problem with the script. (Note: Lucy Lawless played D’Anna Biers, Number 3 in Battlestar Gallactica.)

On the whole, though, the script is a good specimen of its type. Audiences still appreciate the kind of humor executed here. And what they like best, from the response I heard in the theater, is comic acting and dialogue that presupposes a reasonably intelligent audience—that is to say, an audience that can discern the referents of subtle allusions and modulate their laugh response to the shifting characteristics of comedic elements in a film.

This film has something else going for it in the comedic category: plot twist and artistic conceit. Nah, forget plot twist. That refers to the threads of the story and their connections. Artistic conceit is something else. It has to do with the vehicle used for conveying the plot and its various twists. Here the conceit is creative and naturally conducive to comedic rendition—the fulfillment in real life of stories told on the eve of their occurrence. The technique sometimes buys two laughs for the price of one, as when Skeeter resuscitates the “big harry guy on the beach.” Eavesdropping on Skeeter’s bedtime stories, you try to imagine how their fulfillment will play out, and usually you’re mistaken about some relevant detail. For someone with an uncanny ability to see what’s coming, for almost any genre of film, that’s a plus.

Bedtime Stories gets off to a promising start by cutting quickly to the grownup stage of Skeeter’s life and establishing his character with a three-way conversation at the hotel registration desk—between Skeeter, Aspen, and an aging alcoholic guest who swears that the mini bar in her room was raided by a Leprechaun. Here we’re introduced to the primary tension, the predominant tone of humor, and Skeeter’s affability despite painful exploitation.

There are quirky moments and unaccountable details to be noted. I’ve already mentioned the metaphysically curious causal function of the family guinea pig. The narrative emphasis given to the creature’s bulging eyes is a bit peculiar, too. The timetable for events is highly compressed; events it would take months, if not years, to unfold transpire in the span of a few days. This may be necessary to ensure that Wendy hasn’t abandoned her children indefinitely. But this sort of fabulosity is out of sync with the central conceit of the movie.

Some of the dialogue is a little offbeat. When Skeeter asks Jill, during what is supposed to be a magical moment, and as if in a trance, “Are you the fairest maiden of the land?” she replies with self-effacing candor, “Do you mean, like, the fairest in checkers?” (or something to that effect). Huh?

Another oddment of the film: it begins and ends with a narrator, who happens to be Skeeter’s father, Marty (played and voiced by Jonathan Pryce). But Marty has gone to his reward, so how is this possible? This, too, is fabulous. But, again, it’s fabulosity is of a different cut than is realized fairly effectively with the bedtime story “fulfillments.” If Marty Bronson’s narrative role makes intentional sense on some subtle level, it’s lost on me.

More important to the story line, but not high profile, is the part played by Courtney Cox. It’s nice to see Ms. Cox in a wholesome role, as Wendy, the politically correct single mom. In the end, Wendy has a private moment with Skeeter, when she’s repentant about her stiffness as the older sister who couldn’t let her hair down. I suppose it’s a fantasy, but I like to think there’s a latent message here that the whole  politically-correct-environmentalist-zeal-and-health-craze-thing is a tad overdone these days.

I almost forgot to mention Mickey, played by Russell Brand. This good-natured good buddy of Skeeter’s is exotically inept. He suffers from “sleep panic disorder”—among other things, apparently. But his “translation skills” come in handy at a crucial moment when Skeeter must impress Mr. Nottingham with a superior plan to take the dynasty to the next level of success. And Russell Brands’ costumes are among the most interesting.

Adam Shankman directed. This is one talented guy. He directed and choreographed Hairspray (2007), and is doing the same for a sequel. Box Office Mojo lists Hairspray fourth in gross receipts (nearly $120 million) among live action musicals produced since 1974. He’s said to be working up a Sarah Palin inspired TV series about the female mayor of a small town (in development at Fox and tentatively titled “Cadillac Ranch”).

dont-stop-believingI have no recollection of the musical score, which is film-speak that seems a little highbrow for this kind of movie. I did pay attention to the music that accompanies the closing credits. It’s the 80s hit song by rock band Journey, “Don’t Stop Believing.”

As for the editing, it’s critical to what I’ve been calling the conceit of the film, and it’s handled pretty well. Bicyclists decked in racing gear are smoothly morphed into cowboys galloping on stallions, for example, while our hero and his girl race the opposite direction, alternately on motorcycle and horseback. The composite sequence that completes “the arc of the story” (something that would have been appreciated by Mickey, the brainless buddy) is a clever resumé of the bedtime stories. It moves toward a predictable but fitting victory for the good guys.

Bottom Line:

On the downside, the villains lack that special je-ne-sais-quoi, the narrator has inexplicable talents for telling stories from the grave, and events happen in fast-forward. The end of the movie is very nearly ruined by a reprise of the Kendall-Aspen theme that overstates their humiliation. But there’s more upside than downside to Bedtime Stories. It’s hard for a movie to be this kind of funny today. If memory serves, Night at the Museum (2006) scampered after the same funny bone, but I think with less success. Movies in this genre (some would say “of this ilk”) don’t generally fare well with critics. But if you laugh pretty consistently and groan only occasionally for one hour and thirty-five minutes, the movie fulfills its objective.

Army of Shadows: A Film Discussion Guide


army_of_shadows_1shThe French film L’Armée des Ombres (“Army of Shadows”) is an adaptation of the 1943 book (same title) by Joseph Kessel, who participated in the French Resistance. Whether you know little or much about the Resistance, if you want a realistic film portrayal of a critical aspect of the Second World War, this is a film to rent or buy. I can’t imagine a more effective vehicle for presenting an insider’s view of the movement.

The film is expertly cast and paced with precision. But the action is subdued, so don’t expect a Jason-Bourne-meets-James-Bond kind of experience. Army of Shadows offers a tight shot of espionage—plotting with limited resources, the paltry odds of success, endless psychological misgivings, and complex interpersonal dynamics.

The movie is filled with tension. But it’s the kind of tension that invites serious consideration of difficult questions:

  • What does it really mean to be courageous?
  • Is it possible to exercise genuine freedom of self-determination in the very moment you are about to be executed by a firing squad?
  • Can a cause be so just that killing an innocent co-belligerent is justified if letting her live could compromise the mission?
  • On what basis can you entrust your life to someone you’ve never met?
  • Should a woman with the skills needed to execute a tactically sophisticated and personally dangerous mission be enlisted if she has a husband and children who know nothing of her activities?
  • Does it ever make sense to engage in a fatal rescue operation if no one will know of your valor?
  • Why does the simple offer of a cigarette enable some men to face certain death with dignity?
  • Was the French Resistance a prudent response to the Nazi occupation of France?

This film churns the emotions and the mind. The Resistance is testimony to the indomitable spirit of human beings guided by commitment to a high ideal. I saw  Army of Shadows soon after seeing the Angelina Jolie film Changling. The similarities are unmistakable. Both are based on actual events. In both cases individuals pursuing righteous causes suffer terrible indignities. In both, success seems humanly impossible. Hope wells up from a secret place and keeps men and women in the game, even when the game is almost certainly lost. These are remarkable parallels, parallels I would have missed if I had not seen the two films in the same week.

As these films end and the credits roll, some viewers will be stuck to their seats with feelings of sadness mixed with cheer. The sadness explains itself. The cheer is unexpected. But the cheer is solidly grounded. It rises in response to the failed heroism of Christine Collins, the mother in Changling, and of Phillipe Gerbier, the head of a Resistance network in L’Armée des Ombres. Because the heroism is real, though it is not rewarded with complete success (or perhaps because it is not rewarded with complete success), our own dignity is affirmed.

I’m ususally content to see a movie once, even a very good movie. But soon I’ll be downloading L’Armée des Ombres from Amazon to my TiVo. This one is worth owning and re-viewing.

Amazon DVD

Amazon DVD

Amazon Video on Demand

Amazon Video on Demand

The Book by Joseph Kessel

The Book by Joseph Kessel

Legends of the Fall: A Discussion Guide


Legends of the Fall (USA, 1994); directed by Edward Zwick

Chapter 4 of my book, Faith, Film and Philosophy, is titled “Defining Love through the Eye of the Lens: Romance, Sex, and the Human Condition in Pretty Woman, Legends of the Fall, and The Bridges of Madison County.” The author is Greg Jesson. Here are discussion questions for the film Legends of the Fall that I’ve used in conjunction with his chapter.

  1. A native American named Stab, an elder of the Cree Nation, narrates the beginning of the film. How would you explain the director’s choice in beginning the film this way?
  2. In a letter to his mother, Alfred writes, “I pray every night for the grace to forgive Tristan.” Do you agree that Tristan has sinned against his brother, Alfred? Explain your answer. Does Alfred ever forgive Tristan? Why or why not? If you believe he doesn’t, what would it have taken for him to forgive Tristan?
  3. When visited by a committee of citizens who want Alfred to be elected to Congress, he shouts at them, “What do you want for yourselves if you get my son elected?” What does this say about his view of politics? What does it say about his view of people, in general?
  4. Alfred says, in response to his father’s accusation that the U.S. government has yet to regain its wisdom, common sense, and humanity: “I will consider it my absolute duty to bring both wisdom and humanity to the United States Congress.” This may ring a bell. Compare Alfred’s vow with the similar promise made by Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. How are they alike? Different?
  5. Following his argument with the Colonel, Alfred says, tenderly, “Susanna, you deserve to be happy.” Is this true? What is Alfred’s conception of happiness? How does this compare with your conception of happiness?
  6. Does the Colonel have a favorite son? If so, who is it? What accounts for this? How are the others affected?
  7. What happens when Susanna’s name comes up, after Tristan returns home? Is Susanna over Tristan? Is Tristan over Susanna? What is your evidence?
  8. What do you think of Anthony Hopkins’s performance as a stroke victim? Is his stroke supposed to mean anything that ties into the story line of the film? (Is it symbolic?)
  9. One Stab repeatedly speaks of “the bear inside” of Tristan. What is the point of this metaphor? What does it say about Tristan and One Stab’s evaluation of him as a person?
  10. At a public meeting, Alfred and Tristan meet. Alfred asks, “How’s father? Is he well?” Tristan answers, “As well as can be expected.” What does this mean? What can be expected? Why?
  11. In explanation of the accidental death of Isabel, Alfred says to Tristan, “It was a terrible, tragic, accident.” What does this say about Alfred? Has he changed as a person?
  12. Whose faults are greater? Tristan’s, or Susanna’s? Support your answer.
  13. At Susanna’s grave, Alfred says to Tristan, “I followed all the rules . . . . And you, you followed none of them. And they all loved you more.” What does this say about Alfred’s view of love? What does it say about his view of doing the right thing? Is there a sense in which he isn’t any different than Tristan?
  14. Tristan’s father says to him, “You are not damned, Tristan. I won’t allow that.” Any comments?
  15. How are things resolved in the end? Does this change anything?
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