Gardens of Stone (1987) Written by Ronald Bass Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
There’s a good reason you probably have never heard of this Coppola film. It is bad. Like truly, the bottom of the barrel, not even the fun kind of bad. Yet, it doesn’t make me dislike the director or think he’d completely lost his creative touch. To understand why Gardens of Stone is so bad, you need to know what happened to Coppola during the production. It is no big reveal that Coppola centered his family in his life. You can see this in how he included them in every level of his film’s production. The man kept the people he loved the closest to him.
The Cannes Film Festival has kicked off this year. Many new films will be unveiled, from the Hollywood studio ones to small, independent pictures. Forty-eight years ago, the documentary Hearts & Minds debuted at Cannes. However, its distribution in the United States would be held back when a restraining order was issued by one of the interview subjects, National Security Advisor Walt Rostow. Columbia Pictures, which owned the rights, refused to distribute the film to venues. This led to director/producer Peter Davis and his colleagues being forced to buy back their own movie from Columbia. Why would so many people and institutions work so hard to prevent the public from seeing a film? Because it is a searing condemnation of America and the atrocities it committed in Vietnam.
Apocalypse Now (1979) Written by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola’s final film of the 1970s was yet another brilliant piece of cinema. I first saw Apocalypse Now in college (the early 2000s) and was immediately blown away. I had never seen anything like this before in my life. It probably didn’t help that I was homeschooled, and there was pretty much a zero-tolerance policy on R-rated movies in my home. College opened my eyes to so many great films. While other movies have faded in their appeal in the time that’s passed, Apocalypse Now is still up there for me as one of the great pictures. With this recent rewatch, I was discovering connections I hadn’t made before, enriching my experience. I will note I went with the original theatrical cut as I am not a fan of the Redux. I don’t really think the additional material adds much to the spectacular experience of the original.
Gallipoli (1981) Written by David Williamson & Peter Weir Directed by Peter Weir
Set around a decade after Picnic at Hanging Rock, Peter Weir’s Gallipoli continues his interest in looking at the so-called “wonder of civilized society.” He does it this time by making a war film that spends a large chunk of its time looking at the characters on their way to the war. His purpose is to examine ideas closely related to white Australian culture that might not be immediately familiar to people outside of the continent. One of these is the idea of ANZAC, the belief that Australians and their cousins in New Zealand possess unique traits that set them apart from their ancestral lands. In many ways, this is the myth of American exceptionalism Down Under. Weir also knows that you cannot talk about war in this era without addressing male friendship and how profound that love can be and how easily it is abused.
Quo Vadis, Aida? (2021) Written & Directed by Jasmila Žbanić
In July 1995, Bosnian forces took the city of Srebrenica. This was part of the Bosnian War, a three-year civil war that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Ethnic and nationalist groups fell into conflict; proto-fascist forces targeted Muslim populations. The Bosnian War is a complicated subject to talk about, just purely from how complex the internals of these regions are. It was never a clear war with one side versus another, but lots of smaller players as well. Quo Vadis, Aida? tells a very personal story about one of many brutal events that saw the mass culling of people while the United Nations/NATO seemed powerless to do anything. Through this story, we’re forced to contemplate what it would be like to then live beside the very people responsible for such swaths of deaths.
The Card Counter (2021) Written & Directed by Paul Schrader
Paul Schrader’s filmmaking career has been a strange series of peaks and valleys, with movies like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull as standouts. Since then, he’s made an eclectic filmography but with one constant in almost every picture: a tight focus on an intense male protagonist. I come from the camp that doesn’t see Schrader’s focus on this subject as an endorsement. In many instances, they are self-examinations and critiques, and in others, they seek to present a type of person society tries to look away from out of discomfort. Travis Bickle, for instance, isn’t meant to be a person we admire, but we are certainly expected to find some empathy for him. Schrader seems sincerely interested in the plight of war veterans and looking at crucial issues of our time. The Card Counter brings those two elements together.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) Written by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson Directed by David Lean
Of all David Lean’s films, this remains my absolute favorite and rewatching it many years since the last viewing, I saw so much more than I ever have before. I think The Bridge on the River Kwai actually serves as a perfect allegory for the incoming Biden presidency and the unity message of Liberals towards Leftists and Progressives in America. While the film is set during World War II, we aren’t in the middle of the action. Instead, the narrative has two prominent locations: a Japanese POW camp and the Club Med-like hospital and Allied base of operations in Ceylon. We never see massive battleships or armed soldiers moving en masse across hills and fields. These are people broken by war, yet some are still unable to see the madness in their actions and cling to the procedures.
Paths of Glory (1957) Written by Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, & Jim Thompson Directed by Stanley Kubrick
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, Awaits alike th’inevitable hour. The paths of glory lead but to the grave. – “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” Thomas Gray
When Paths of Glory was released in 1957, it was banned in France until 1975. Germany refused to allow it in the Berlin Film Festival lest the picture strain relations with France. Francisco Franco’s right-wing fascist government in Spain would not allow the movie to be shown, and it wasn’t until 1986, 11 years after Franco died. And lest we let the United States off the hook, Paths of Glory was banned from being shown in any military establishment. All this does is speak to the power of the themes of the picture, Kubrick’s first great anti-war film.
The Americanization of Emily (1964) Written by Paddy Chayefsky Directed by Arthur Hiller
You didn’t see a lot of films in the wake of World War II that called military action into question. You would see a slew of anti-war films twenty-odd years out from Vietnam. But on the twentieth anniversary of D-Day, it was a pretty bold move to put out a movie about the lead up to that event, which questioned the leadership of the U.S. military and spoke to how soldiers’ bodies are so often used as props for state-sanctioned propaganda. This material had to be couched inside a romantic comedy-drama, and the subversiveness is hidden deeper in the narrative after we’ve been given a seemingly light set-up.
The Deer Hunter (1978) Written by Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, Louis Garfinkle, and Quinn K. Redeker Directed by Michael Cimino
While this was intended to kick off my Meryl Streep retrospective, I wouldn’t consider it a Streep movie. Oh, she’s definitely a crucial supporting character in the story, and I will talk about her performance, but this film is more a prologue to that series. This is more a Robert DeNiro/Christopher Walken movie, and it is a damn good one. It hasn’t necessarily aged perfectly, and it’s not my favorite film about the Vietnam War, but it is a well-acted, intense, and beautifully tragic movie.