With Christopher Nolan’s World War II film Dunkirk around the corner, one must wonder if Hollywood will finally stitch together the right recipe to brew an epic WW II film worthy of becoming a modern classic. If an accomplished film architect were to sleuth successful military cinema since 2000, they would find that the ingredients have all been identified and placed on the kitchen table, waiting for the right chef to make a tasty soup.
1. Start With A True Story
Remember the adage that truth is stranger than fiction? Whatever the merits of Saving Private Ryan, this film fails this idea because while D-Day was a real event, the story is fiction. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks made amends when they created HBO’s Band of Brothers about the real actions of the 101st Airborne Division just prior to, and after D-Day.
2. Minimize CGI
Give us something we can’t get at home. Make the trip to the theater worthwhile by making the film as realistic looking as possible. While a majority of homes have something like an X-Box or a PC chock full of computer animation (yawn), there are only about 221 real military vehicles in the entire world from this time period. If you can’t include some of the real ones, how about putting a little bit of well spent money on creating some realistic replicas made out of steel?
Free yourself and your viewers from the claustrophobic studios scene in front of a green screen and film outside in natural light. The 2005 film Jarhead by the talented Sam Mendes was based upon a true story and also taken from a great book of the same name. The story was about elite Marine scout snipers in a Surveillance and Target Acquisition (or STA) platoon of the 7th Marines during the somewhat recent 1990 Gulf War. However, this film is forgettable partially as it appears mostly to be shot indoors using very little military hardware.
3. Go For The Big Battle, Big Story
At the start of the 2001 film Enemy at the Gate, set during the Battle of Stalingrad, my interest is piqued. Overhead, German Stuka Dive Bombers make bombing runs on Russian soldiers placed in barges at the Vulga River. The film is based upon a true story and takes place during a major turning point of the war. So far, so good.
It is a good film, but for me it is not a great film as after the opening the movie shortly settles into mostly a one-on-one story of two snipers hunting each other. Speaking of the Big Battle and the Big Picture, how about putting a lot of real (not computer) people in the film as extras to flesh out the scenes? For partial guidance here, look to some of the scenes in Riddley Scott’s Gladiator.
Furthermore, the 2014 film Fury with Brad Pitt is one step forward and one step back. Fury moved in the right direction by featuring a few real Sherman and German Tiger tanks, however the fictional film fails in other ways when five men confront the contrived and implausible seeming task of fighting 300 elite SS soldiers.
4. Get The Little Details Right
Ridley Scott’s 2001 film Black Hawk Down was outstanding because so many of the little things were done so well. First, they started with the outstanding book by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden. His book examined the true tragic firefight that occurred in Mogadishu, Somalia between US Special Operations forces and the warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid, who was interfering with a famine relief program called Operation Restore Hope.
Bowden’s book was based upon his outstanding and meticulously researched 29 part series of articles. Scott had the cooperation of the US military. The terminology is correct. The hardware is right. Methods such as fast-roping to a target are displayed (also used during the Bin Laden raid btw). One comes away from that film having seen something you don’t get to see elsewhere.
On the Subject Of Little Details
On the topic of getting the little details right, a clever director could look to the outstanding 2014 commercial by Cadbury, filmed outside and inspired by a real and touching Christmas Truce that broke out briefly one hundred years earlier in 1914 during World War I between groups of German and English troops.
A great deal of attention was paid not only the getting the uniforms right, but also to the troops method of shaving their beards, which was period correct with straight edged razors. As a result there is a HUGE payoff for the viewer. If you haven't seen the commercial, it is worth watching. Or, a short feature about the making of the commercial is just as interesting.
Were I were to write the IMDB summary of this not yet created dream classic incorporating all of the above points, it would read something like, “…this film is Band of Brothers meets Black Hawk Down and the Cadbury Christmas Truce ad.”
I hope Christopher Nolan delivers with #Dunkirk, but until then, us enthusiasts will be waiting for the soup to be just right.