Friday, May 28, 2010

For the Weekend: Memorial Drama

It's Memorial Day weekend, as I'm sure you are all aware, and that means trips, barbecues, fun in the sun.  But it also means, as most guys already know too, war movies.  TCM is having a 72-hour war movie marathon, starting today and going through Sunday, so I've picked out a few for you not to miss.

At 8pm EST tonight is "Stalag 17," Billy Wilder's dramedy from 1953 about a group of war prisoners in Nazi Germany.  It stars William Holden (in his Oscar winning role) as Sgt. Sefton, a prisioner who has no problem trading with the Germans for a few luxuries.  But when two inmates die in a trap while trying to escape, everything thinks Sefton is spying on the inmates for the Germans.  It's a great thriller as Sefton must find the real spy before it's too late.  The screenplay was actually based on a stage play of the same name, by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski (who where both prisoners of war together).  Holden was asked to go see the play before filming, but he disliked it and walked out.  He even disliked the screenplay, refusing the lead role.  However, the studio made him take it.  He wasn't the original favorite for the part though.  In the beginning, Charlton Heston was the inspiration for the role.  But as the character grew more cynical in rewrites, Holden was more the type.  Holden hated how selfish his character was though, and begged Wilder to rewrite it some.  Wilder refused, and Holden won an Oscar.  (Stick around after "Stalag 17" for two more great prisoner camp films - "The Great Escape" and "Bridge on the River Kwai.")

Sunday at 12pm EST is "The Dirty Dozen" from 1967 starring Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, and Telly Savalas.  In this WWII story, Marvin stars as Major Reisman, a rebellious soldier who is given the secret task of taking a group of criminals with death sentences or long life sentences on a suicide mission behind enemy lines, to distract the Germans while D-Day happens on the coast.  It's based on the novel by E.M. Nathanson and directed by Robert Aldrich.  Aldrich had tried to acquire the rights to the book himself when it was only in outline form back in 1963, but MGM finally won the rights.  Originally John Wayne was offered the lead role of Major Reisman, but he declined, instead taking his time to make "The Green Berets" (on at 5:30pm EST).  Marvin accepted the role, and though he enjoyed making the film, he didn't like the way it depicted war.  By his own experience (he served in the Marines during WWII), he said it was not an accurate portrayal of real wartime, calling it "crap."  "The Dirty Dozen" still went on to earn four Oscar nominations, winning one of them (Best Sound Effects).

Finally, later on Sunday at 8pm EST is "Mister Roberts."  From 1955, it stars Henry Fonda as the titular character, James Cagney, William Powell, and Jack Lemmon.  This comedy-drama tells the story of Roberts, a Navy Lieutenant who longs to be part of the action in the Pacific during WWII but is stuck on a cargo ship instead thanks to his tyrant of a captain (Cagney).  Directed by John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy, it received three Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.  Jack Lemmon was the only win though, for Best Supporting Actor.  "Mister Roberts" was based on the stage play of the same name, for which Fonda had originated the role and won a Tony for it in 1948.  Even though Fonda had played Roberts for two years on Broadway, he was not the first choice to play the role on film.  The studio felt that Fonda, who was 50 at the time, was too old to play the part.  They offered the role to Marlon Brando and Tyrone Power, but Ford refused to do the film with anyone but Fonda.  Ironically, it was that decision that ultimately caused Ford to leave the production.  Even though Ford and Fonda had made several successful films together before, they did not see eye to eye at all on "Roberts."  Ford even sucker-punched Fonda one time.  Finally, Ford left and LeRoy came in.

Each one of these films will get you in the wartime mood, in good ways.  So sit back, and remember the war stories of the past (and keep today's soldiers in your thoughts as well.)  I hope you all have a wonderful long weekend.  Enjoy the marathon, guys!  Be back Monday.

(Post-tidbit:  "Stalag 17" was shot in sequence, scene to scene, a very rare process in Hollywood.)

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