Wartime Film

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As I drove home from the Redford Theatre last night, oldies station WOMC-FM was playing “Ballad of the Green Berets”, a 1966 salute to soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War.  That popular song honored U.S. troops during a war that, like the current Iraq War, divided the country, provoked many protests, and shook up the political power structure in the United States.

That particular song helped sustain the powerful emotions of a Veterans Day tribute that I had just attended at the Redford.  The evening was filled with a satisfying mixture of friendly entertainment and sincere gratefulness for our armed forces.

Today, Veterans Day, I’m reflecting on the value of film during wartime.  The ceremony at the Redford included the 1943 movie Destination Tokyo, which showed the heroics of submarine troops preparing for an attack on Japan.  That film also tried to stir up optimism on the homefront for victory in World War II.

The War Tapes

It’s interesting to compare that film to a documentary about the Iraq War that I saw at the Detroit Film Theatre on September 23, 2006.  In The War Tapes, soldiers in Iraq videotaped their experiences fighting that war. Like Destination Tokyo, The War Tapes showed both combat and personal scenes. 

In both films, you gained a new appreciation for what the soldiers were going through.  Soldiers struggled to find a sense of purpose.  You vicariously felt the tension of stressful situations.  You saw how much these soldiers cared for their families.  It was plain to see that our troops are just common, ordinary people who have been led by destiny to make extraordinary sacrifices for the rest of us.

The War Tapes focused on three soldiers from the New Hampshire National Guard and followed them from the challenges of Iraq to a heartwarming homecoming celebration back in the states. It was all part of the same world, you realized; the intense pressures of battle and the innocent, tear-stained joys of homefront reunions. How would these soldiers re-adjust? How had they changed?

When The War Tapes ended, and the filmmakers dedicated the film to the soldiers, a powerful burst of applause filled the DFT auditorium.  I thought back to the protests by some DFT visitors in 2003 before the current Iraq War started.  Was the applause for The War Tapes pro-war or anti-war?  But I had no doubt that it was pro-soldiers.

Redford Tribute

It was no ordinary evening on November 10, 2006 for the Redford’s annual Salute to Our Veterans show, which is put on by the Redford Community War Memorial Association, Inc.  It was something more. 

As organist Don Haller played a stirring mixture of patriotic songs, old standards and religious music, the theater was filled with hearty handshakes and hellos among veterans who had pulled out their uniforms for this special evening. You saw some Redford volunteers in a new light, with their military caps, patches and buttons.

Before the film, a Color Guard from the ROTC program at Detroit Renaissance High School presented the American flag as the crowd sang “The Star Spangled Banner”.  The organist played tributes to the different branches of the Armed Services, as veterans stood up to accept well-deserved applause.

As Destination Tokyo played out on the screen, it wasn’t just another night at the movies. The emotional depth of the earlier ceremonies gave the audience a more serious, sympathetic perspective on the film. Afterwards, I heard World War II veterans reminiscing about those days.

A interesting surprise in the movie was the appearance of famous Detroit movie host Bill Kennedy as a young officer. And the negative comments in the movie about “Japs” helped me better understand why Japanese figures were removed from the Redford walls during World War II.   

Cary Grant’s performance as the submarine skipper in Destination Tokyo particularly impressed me.  It showed how poise, authority and confidence make for both strong actors and outstanding leaders. And only the big screen of the Redford could have gotten that message across.

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Copyright © 2006 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.                 

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