For all the talk of modern men being more in touch with their emotions it would seem that there is still one thing that makes us distinctly uncomfortable and that is when it comes to having a good old blub.
If truth be told I’m a big sap and it seems the older I get the more inclined I am to let loose the tears at the drop of a hat. I’m especially guilty of doing this during films sparking a furious conflict between the rational part of my mind which recognises that I’m having my emotions cynically manipulated by Hollywood and the completely irrational emotional side which is hell bent on drowning me in a salt-tinged deluge of my own making. Over the next few weeks I’m going to run through some of my top cinematic tear-jerkers.
The Great Escape (1963)
A staple of bank holidays when I was growing up. Raised as I was on a steady diet of Warlord and Victor comics and Commando picture Library stories it’s fair to say that I was sucker for a good war movie. Like. Lot of Hollywood history most of The Great Escape is pure hokum that plays fast and loose with the facts even though some of the real escapers were involved in the production. However, as Mark Twain is supposed to have said – ‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.’ The first lump in throat moment comes as a raucous July 4th celebration is underway, our plucky band of P.O.Ws are enjoying some illicit moonshine when the party is brought to a screeching halt – one of the German “ferrets” (men specially trained to detect escapes) has stumbled on the entrance to “Tom” one of the three tunnels being dug in preparation for a mass breakout. The news is a disaster for all of the men but the blow hits Ives (“The Mole”played by Angus Lennie) the hardest. Ives has struck up an unlikely friendship with Steve McQueen’s “Cooler King” but it’s become clear that with every failed escape Ives is sinking deeper into despair. The discovery of “Tom” proves to be the final straw. Slowly, Ives walks over the warning wire and starts to climb the fence. The other prisoners race to save him but it’s too late – a burst of machine gun fire from one of the watchtowers brings his climb to an abrupt halt and his body is left hanging limply from the barbed wire. You didn’t see many Scottish characters in films in those days so I of course felt a natural affinity for the plucky Ives and his fellow Scot MacDonald (Gordon Jackson who I recognised as Cowley from “The Professionals”). In more recent years, the discovery that my Great Grandfather was actually in the camp and knew some of the real escapers has added an extra layer of poignancy to the scene and to the film in general. A miner before the war, I like to imagine that he helped to dig the tunnels just like Ives. The finale of the film is of set against an even greater tragedy. Despite McQueen’s rousing but entirely fanciful motorbike ride to the Swiss border the escapees have been rounded up by the Gestapo. As they are supposedly transported back to the camp the guards stop and tell the prisoners they can get out and stretch their legs. As the men get out a tarpaulin is pulled back and machine guns revealed. Shots ring out and minutes later fifty of the men are dead. In reality the men were shot in the back of the head either singly or in groups of twos and threes over a period of time but you can see why that wouldn’t be quite as effective cinematically. Not knowing the story the first time I watched the film I can tell you I was completely devastated to see so many “good guy” characters so cruelly dispatched – a feat only matched by the “Red Wedding”on Game of Thrones.
A Bridge Too Far (1977)
A rarity among war films in that it doesn’t deal with a victory of any kind. Operation Market Garden was a bold plan to bring an early end to the war that ended in a heroic but ultimately futile sacrifice against overwhelming odds by by British and American paratroopers. As the film builds up to the start of the operation there are signs that it won’t be the walkover the Generals anticipate. Reports of German Panzer divisions near the drop zones are brushed aside along with concerns about how quickly the Allies will be able to reinforce the paratroopers. The initial optimism quickly turns sour as the plan starts unravelling almost as soon as the paratroopers hit the ground. Despite the heroics of a star-studded cast the mission ends with the final bridge still in the hands of the Germans. Surrounded by the carnage of war the few remaining British wounded await their inevitable capture by the enemy. As the Germans arrive the men start to sing “Abide With Me”. The sense of waste and despair is palpable.
Schindler’s List (1993)
The work of Stephen Spielberg is going to feature a lot in this blog – like him or loathe him you can’t deny his talent for knowing how to work his audience. Until the release of Schindler’s List critics had often written him off as a bit of lightweight more at home with action/adventure popcorn movies than with more weighty material. Despite its excellence, Schindler’s List is not an easy watch and as a result its not a film a revisit often. Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler is not your typical Hollywood hero – a womaniser and a heavy drinker he arrives in Poland with his eye on making a quick buck from Jews who, thanks to Nazi racial policies, can no longer own or run businesses. He wines and dines the local SS bigwigs, makes contact with black marketeers and greases palms wherever he goes. After securing a business for himself he decides to hire Jewish workers as they cost less money than Poles. Gradually though he finds himself unable to deny his own humanity when faced with increasing evidence of Nazi atrocities and he takes bigger and bigger risks in order to safeguard his workers. By the end of the film he is literally buying their lives from monstrous SS officer Goeth (Ralph Fiennes). Through it all Spielberg puts his audience through an emotional wringer until we reach the climax of the film, the war is almost over and Schindler realises that, to the victorious Allies he will appear to be just another war profiteer and he must escape. Nesson, who has largely kept his emotions under wraps up to this point finally breaks down under the enormity of what has taken place. Instead of pride in his achievement he feels ashamed that he didn’t do more, wondering whether he could have saved more lives: ‘I could have got more out,’ he tells Ben Kingsley’s Itzhak Stern. He begins to think about what else he could’ve sold to buy more lives: ‘This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would’ve given me two for it, at least one…’ until he breaks down completely. Frankly I was already in bits by this point of the film but Spielberg isn’t finished – as the film ends we see the surviving Jews and their families escorted by the actors who played them in the film as they walk to Schindler’s grave to pay their respects. When I watched the film with my best mate Andy neither of us could speak or look the other in the face for about ten minutes after the credits rolled. We would go on to repeat the experience a few years later when we both went to see Saving Private Ryan.
Band of Brothers (2001)
Spielberg also had a hand in this blockbuster miniseries following the true story of the men of Easy Company, a crack group of US Airborne soldiers. The emotional impact is heightened in this case as over the ten episodes we get to know the men so well as the war begins to exact a grim toll on the men. The most heart wrenching moments probably come in the final two episodes – “Why We Fight” and “Points”. The first details events as the men liberate a concentration camp. At first they are unsure exactly what they have discovered. As they open the gates and are confronted by skeletal figures wandering like grey ghosts and the smouldering remains of huts set alight by the departing guards while their occupants were still inside. Bodies litter the ground and the stench of death forced the men to cover their faces. Horror is piled on horror enough shock even these men hardened by battle. The scene is almost impossible to watch but at the same time so compelling that you don’t want to take your eyes away from the screen. The men’s first instinct is to help the prisoners but an Army Doctor arrives and tells them that they can’t feed the prisoners and that they have to be locked back up to prevent the spread of disease. The job of telling the prisoners falls to Private Joe Liebgott (played by Glaswegian Ross Mcall) the unit’s German speaker. Over the howls of protest he is able to convey the message before sitting down to weep. You feel his pain in doing something which he knows is probably the right thing to do but also goes against his basic human nature when confronted with starving people who have suffered untold miseries a the hands of their captors.
The final episode, “Points” concerns itself with the business of what the men will do now that the war is over. The episode finishes with the men playing baseball while their C.O. Major Winters (Damian Lewis) describes what happened to them all when they went home. It’s a powerful scene reminding us that so many of these men who did extraordinary things during wartime often went on to lead quite ordinary lives when they went home. Up to this point each episode has been topped and tailed with interviews with the surviving members of Easy Company but until now none of them have been identified by name (presumably so s not to tip viewers off as to who would die during the series). Now the men speak for one last time with their identities revealed. The last words are left to the real Richard Winters. On the verge of tears he recounts a letter one of the men sent him after the war: ‘I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day when he said, “Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?” Grandpa said “No...but I served in a company of heroes”.’ As the screen faded to black I was bubbling like a wee girl who had skinned her knee.
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Short story collection https://www.mcstorytellers.com/through-the-darkest-door.html