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  • Writer's pictureAugust Sorenson

A Salute to Veterans Day (Part 1)

Updated: Nov 10, 2021

From the early days of the film industry to the present, Academy alumni have been at the forefront of cinema, dotting films and securing roles on the silver screen. In honor of Veterans Day, we would like to showcase a few films that feature a wartime setting: some sprawling and epic, some personal and intimate, but all highlighting, in one way or another, the impact of men and women who served their country.

Since You Went Away (Jennifer Jones, Robert Walker, Agnes Moorehead)

“Since You Went Away” depicts life on the American home front during World War II in a midwestern American town. Released in 1944, the events it depicts onscreen are contemporaneous for the time, and though the characters are fictional, their relatability drove the story home for viewers.

Featuring not one, but three Academy graduates, the star-studded cast was a huge draw at the time. Jennifer Jones (Class of 1939) stars as Jane Deborah Hilton, Robert Walker (Class of 1939) as the underdog character Corporal William G. ‘Bill’ Smollett II, and Agnes Moorehead (Class of 1929) plays the socialite Mrs. Emily Hawkins. Shirley Temple also features as Bridget ‘Brig’ Hilton.

Trivia: It was based on the 1943 novel “Since You Went Away: Love Letters to a Soldier from His Wife” by Margaret Buell Wilder.

A Guy Named Joe (Spencer Tracy)

Victor Fleming’s wartime romance, “A Guy Named Joe,” takes to the skies in a fantastical, heightened rendition of a wartime drama. The film received positive reviews at the time and became one of the highest grossing films of 1943. This success continues today: it frequents AFI lists for top movies on a routine basis.

“A Guy Named Joe” follows a pair of lovebirds: the reckless pilot of a B-25 Mitchell, Pete Sandidge (played by Spencer Tracy, Class of 1923), and Air Transport Auxiliary Pilot Dorina Durston (played by Irene Dunne). Unafraid of straying from tragic elements, the inescapable difficulty of wartime romance is at the fore throughout.

Trivia: To give the film an authentic look, various scenes were shot at United States military bases with genuine aircraft seen in shots.

The Clock (Robert Walker)

In Vincente Minnelli’s “The Clock,” released in 1945, Robert Walker (Class of 1939) shares the screen with legendary actress Judy Garland. A romance set during World War II, Joe Allen (Walker) is on leave when he meets Alice Mayberry (Garland) in a train station — the cliché is sure to make any hopeless romantic utter an audible: “aw.” (Don’t worry, the ending is even better.)

In spite of Garland’s voice, she doesn’t sing in the film, and it was her first real dramatic role that wasn’t driven by music.

Trivia: The director of the film, Vincente Minnelli, would go on to wed Garland not long after the film was released.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (Spencer Tracy, Robert Walker)

Spencer Tracy (Class of 1923) and Robert Walker (Class of 1939) share the screen in Mervyn LeRoy’s 1944 wartime epic “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.” Following the events of the famous “Doolittle Raid” that saw the American military regroup and strike back after the crushing defeat at Pearl Harbor, “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” stars Tracy as Lieutenant Colonel (soon to be Brigadier General) Jimmy Doolittle, and Robert Walker as Corporal David Thatcher, gunner-mechanic.

Based on the 1943 part-autobiographical book of the same name, great attention was given to retaining a sense of the authenticity present in the book. The realness with which aerial combat is depicted was lauded at the time, securing the films place in cinematic history.

Trivia: For Tracy’s performance in the film, he received special billing rather than his usual top billing; his performance (in terms of time onscreen) more closely resembles that of most distinguished guest star rather than that of a lead.

G.I. Jane (Anne Bancroft)

“G.I. Jane” broke new ground when it was released in theaters in 1997. Through a female lead, Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil (played by Demi Moore), the film imagines mixed-gendered armed forces. Despite an underwhelming performance at the box office, “G.I. Jane” remains important for placing a woman at the center of a typically male-dominated genre and turning that idea on its head.

Academy graduate Anne Bancroft (Class of 1950) brings her chops to the screen as the cunning Senator Lillian DeHaven, the character responsible for pushing the Navy to allow women into their ranks. During a series of trials O’Neil proves worthy, and is selected based in part on merit and in part on her feminine physique.

Trivia: The DVD release of the film grossed $22,122,300 in rentals, nearly 50% of what it pulled during its theatrical release.

Saving Private Ryan (Jeremy Davies)

Released in 1998, Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” depicts the grittiness and intensity of war throughout, with its opening scene depicting the D-Day landings becoming one of cinema’s most famous. Pulling nearly $500 million at the box office and securing 11 Academy Award nominations and 5 wins, the film is regarded as one of the greatest of all time.

The strength of the cast can not be understated. Working as an ensemble, characters bounce dialogue off one another with an intimacy and quickness that gives audiences the illusion of watching a brotherhood. Tom Hanks anchors the cast as Captain John H. Miller, serving as the de facto lead until Private James Francis Ryan, played by Matt Damon, is intercepted by the unit. Jeremy Davies (Class of 1990) gives a brilliant performance as Corporal Timothy Upham, bringing a sense of innocence and heart to the film. The optimism he holds for humanity in the midst of war drives home the Spielbergian theme of humanism.

Trivia: The D-Day scenes were shot in Curracloe, County Wexford, Ireland, using members of the Irish Army reserve as extras.

Jarhead (Dennis Haysbert)

“Jarhead” comes in as a more contemporary wartime drama, dropping audiences into the events preceding the (and in the midst of) the Gulf War from the perspective of US marines. Directed by Sam Mendes, the film follows Anthony “Swoff” Swofford (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) who deals with the trauma and isolation that plagues soldiers in war and basic training. Based on the 2003 memoir of the same name, “Jarhead” received favorable reviews, with particular attention given to the performances.

Dennis Haysbert (Class of 1977) joins the cast as Major Lincoln, utilizing his iconic voice and authoritative gravitas to a masterful degree. Haysbert famously played President David Palmer in “24,” and his character in “Jarhead” shares the name with former President Abraham Lincoln.

Trivia: The title of the film “Jarhead” is slang term used for marines, referring to their “high and tight” haircut.

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