Midway trailer reaction

Dick Best’s squadron of SBD Dauntless bombers dives toward the Japanese carriers in Roland Emmerich’s  Midway

Dick Best’s squadron of SBD Dauntless bombers dives toward the Japanese carriers in Roland Emmerich’s Midway

A new teaser trailer for Roland Emmerich’s forthcoming historical action film Midway dropped this morning. I first heard about the project last year and, despite a basic reaction of Oh no, decided to reserve judgment. This trailer hasn’t done much to change my initial reaction, but I am still withholding judgment. We’ll see.

The Battle of Midway is a seminal moment in American military history and the course of the Second World War. It deserves a serious, sober dramatization that will convey the seriousness of the Japanese threat, the courage of the sailors and aviators involved, something of the longterm consequences of the victory—and, of course, the terrible cost.

So I’m in favor of a new Midway film—the Charlton Heston Midway, which I’ve never seen all the way through, came out 43 years ago—especially given the potential of modern special effects to simulate something like the incineration of the Akagi.

However, I’m not sure Roland Emmerich is the best person to handle this story. In fact I’m pretty sure he’s not. He’s helmed some of the worst big-budget schlock Hollywood has had to offer for a quarter century. He made the climate change Chicken Little fables The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, the misbegotten historical adventure 10,000 BC, went down the Oxfordian conspiracy rabbithole with Anonymous, and is most famous for his mindless sci-fi crowdpleasers like Independence Day and the American Godzilla. Even what I think is his best movie, The Patriot, is a ridiculously simplistic retelling of the Revolution in the South that’s riddled with falsehood.

So I’m not terribly optimistic.

All that said, like my initial reaction to the first real trailer for Tolkien, I’m just going to list a few thoughts:

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  • After all my negativity about Emmerich, there are some definite wins in the casting, especially Woody Harrelson as Admiral Nimitz. Harrelson was great as Texas Ranger Maney Gault in The Highwaymen, which I loved, so I look forward to him playing a similarly legendary figure again.

  • The first half of the trailer covers a lot of Pearl Harbor ground, with a lot of similar shots—CGI Japanese torpedo planes zipping through battleship row, fighters strafing people on the ground, and even the departure of Jimmy Doolittle’s squadron of B-25 Mitchells for the first bombing of Japan. Two of my favorite historical movies of the last few years—Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, for my thoughts on which click here and here—cover almost exactly the same events but do so in radically different ways. If Midway is going to double up on some of the material Pearl Harbor covered, I hope it’s significantly more different than what we’ve got in this trailer.

  • Aaron Eckhart plays Doolittle, which could be quite good, and some publicity stills show him in China after the raid on Tokyo. But again—just how much does this film cover before it gets to Midway?

  • Lots and lots of CGI, not all of it impressive looking. One doesn’t have to go as far as Christopher Nolan did with practical effects on Dunkirk, which gave that film such a spare, austere look, but some detectable real planes and ships would be nice—and help convince our brains that we’re not watching a cartoon.

  • My wife and I just rewatched Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which is a real hoot. Nick Jonas looks exactly the same here.

  • This film also features two alumni of my favorite underappreciated historical film, The Alamo—Dennis Quaid (Sam Houston there, Bull Halsey here) and Patrick Wilson (William Barret Travis there, US naval intelligence officer Edwin Layton here).

  • I’m intrigued to get a bit of the personal life of Dick Best, the divebomber pilot who dropped a bomb into the elevator of the Akagi. He’s played by Ed Skrein and Mandy Moore (familiar to me, many times over, as Rapunzel) plays his wife. Done well this could lend some depth to the often anonymous men who fight America’s wars. But given Emmerich’s track record of developing romantic relationships—or any kind of human relationship—I’m withholding judgment.

  • Best’s dive toward the Japanese fleet, which we get snippets of at the end of the trailer, knotted my stomach. So, mission accomplished there.

  • A number of other figures from the battle—ordinary pilots and sailors who did incredible things—are listed in the cast elsewhere online, men like Wade McClusky and George Gay, who survived their flights to attack the Japanese fleet, and Eugene Lindsey, who did not. I hope Midway does them justice.

You can watch the teaser trailer for Midway embedded in this post above. The film comes out November 8, timed for Veterans Day.

Stories in the End

Just this morning I had a talk with my dad about stress, fatigue, fretfulness, and frustration and their unlikely but surest antidote—gratitude. It was a good reminder, and brought to mind Cicero’s line that gratitude “is not only the greatest of virtues, but the mother of all others.” That line should be this blog’s motto, by now.

I mention this because I think paying tribute, honoring a memory, is one of the best ways to express gratitude. It’s that kind of profound gratitude that pervades Stories in the End, a book just released by my friend Jay Eldred.

Stories in the End is a curious book. It’s narrated by Jay’s co-author, Tom Poole, a US Navy veteran and sportsman who died in 2017 at the age of 98. He tells his story in a series of letters to a young relative named “B.” Tom’s letters to B. take the reader through his life from his boyhood to old age.

Tom was a native of Goldsboro, North Carolina, but moved with his parents to New Bern when he was two and lived there—minus his years abroad in the Navy—for 96 years. There he met and married his wife Amber, a story told with great affection and warmth.

The bulk of Stories in the End covers Tom’s years in the Navy, particularly his extensive and harrowing service in World War II. He joined the Navy before the war and thus was at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He saw action at Casablanca and in the Pacific and was part of the Operation Neptune fleet that supported the D-day landings in Normandy in June 1944. The day after D-day his ship, the destroyer USS Meredith, struck a mine. She sank while being towed back to England for repairs. “That night was the worst night in my life,” he writes. “Worse even than Pearl Harbor, worse than the day Amber died in 2006. We floated in the water—in the dark and in the fuel.”

He survived all of these incidents and spent another twelve years in the Navy—including what must have been a nice time as head of naval recruiting in his hometown—retiring in 1957 and taking a job first at the New Bern water plant and then Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point as a civilian contractor and hunting, fishing, and turtling. His postwar letters are full of the details of this life—his successful effort to negotiate a pay raise for his employees, the art (and a little of the science) of fishing and trapping, and visits with friends and family.

I mentioned Jay and the curiosity of his project up front because I wanted to draw attention to his accomplishment with Stories in the End. Jay based the book on audio recordings of his conversations with Tom, which Tom permitted on two conditions: that he never know when or how he was being recorded and that Jay not begin writing the book until after he had died. Jay followed both of Tom’s strictures and, consulting boxes of documents and a few written reminiscences left behind by Tom, has produced a book that genuinely feels like conversations with Tom. By the end, I was sad to know he would be leaving, that this would be our last chat.

The narrative voice is perfect—warm, winsome, and by turns funny and profoundly moving. I’ve already quoted his terse summary of the night he spent in the Channel after the sinking of the USS Meredith. Here’s the moment at Pearl Harbor when he emerges from the USS Raleigh’s boiler room:

I’d wanted to make the Navy my career. Of course, Pearl Harbor kind of decided that for me. I think Pearl Harbor was like a bad dream. There was a lot of concussion and a lot of confusion, people running here and people running there, bodies in the water and ships on fire. The Utah was tied next to us and had rolled over. I knew there were men trapped inside.

And later, as the second wave of Japanese attackers come:

The Japanese flew so close I saw one shake his fist at us and could see he was wearing a red tassel. I shook my first back at him and wished I’d had a shotgun. Instead, we were sitting dead in the water. We kept firing though, and were credited with downing six planes. We were the lucky ones, too.

Tom’s memories brim with such details—there are many, many more remarkable moments not only from his war years but from the rest of his life, and I want to leave plenty for y’all to discover.

Tom’s story is simply and extraordinarily told, a credit both to Tom for his storytelling abilities and the incredible life he led, and to Jay for the difficult task of shaping audio recordings into such a solid and compelling narrative. The effort—a sign of the gratitude Jay has brought to this project—has paid off. Stories in the End is a loving, grateful tribute both to a generation—fewer than half a million World War II veterans are still living, the book reminds us—and to an individual man, an exemplar of hard, humble work, duty and loyalty, and faith.

A Night at the Garden

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This year’s Oscar nominations dropped without me noticing or caring that much. Most of what I liked last year didn’t get nominated, and I’m okay with that. The Oscar ceremony is as meaningful as a given State of the Union address—not very much, and grandiose and overlong to boot.

But as I looked through the nominees in the Oscar categories this morning I was arrested by one nominee in the Documentary Short field: “A Night at the Garden.” I recognized the poster art immediately—a still photo of the stage, complete with American flags and a colossal George Washington, during a 1939 rally of the Amerikadeutscher Volksbund or German American Bund, an organization of Nazis. The Bund held this rally in Madison Square Garden. 20,000 people attended.

While the film is short and clearly meant to suggest Troubling Parallels, the filmmaker wisely lets the images themselves do the talking. (He explains his approach in the website’s Q&A.) This keeps the film from drifting into any of the outright foolishness characterizing our current political discourse. The film will make ideal classroom viewing and should prompt plenty of discussion, from the aesthetics of the rally itself—which worked gangbusters in Germany but mostly attracted curiosity in the US, if not the scorn it did in Britain—to First Amendment protections and the use of force by the police. One could also, if one really wanted to play with fire, start a discussion about why Nazis were fine with the Pledge of Allegiance.

The short runs seven minutes and is available in its entirety on the film’s official website. I highly recommend watching it, and I’m grateful that this is available now. No student that I’ve had in the last six years has known that there was an active and very noisy (if in reality rather weak) pro-Nazi organization in the US before World War II, and when I tell them about this rally they can’t believe it. This footage, paired with a good contextual talk, should come in handy.

With the Marines at Tarawa


75 years ago today, the US Navy landed Marines on Betio, the largest island of Tarawa Atoll. The Japanese defenders had heavily entrenched themselves in sand and palm log bunkers and enormous bombproof dugouts. Though the island was just over a square mile in area it took the next three days to secure, with constant heavy fighting all the time. Over a thousand Marines were killed, and two thousand were wounded. Of the more than 2,600 Japanese defenders, seventeen were captured. The rest died fighting, along with over a thousand Korean forced laborers.

With the Marines at Tarawa is an Oscar-winning documentary short about the battle. Much of the footage was shot by Marine combat cameraman Norman Hatch—who just died last year aged 97—and who steeled himself for the project by pretending the assignment was just like any other. The film is an achievement, an unflinching, powerful depiction of modern war in all its terror, glory, and awful consequences. And it offers no false promises of easy victory, only a reminder that it will get worse before it gets better.

But as remarkable a film as With the Marines at Tarawa is, it almost didn’t come to be. Wartime censorship prohibited the depiction of dead Americans’ bodies, and so the producers of the film had to seek an audience with FDR himself in order to get permission to show the grisly footage of the battle. Roosevelt, moved by the footage and informed of the disconnect between what American troops were living through and what the folks back home were imagining—a disconnect explored in print by embedded reporter Robert Sherrod in his excellent Tarawa: The Story of a Battle—granted it.

I show this film to every US History II (1877-present) class that I teach. Despite its age, it always makes an impression. Take the twenty minutes to watch it today if you’ve never seen it before—and even if you have.

Richard Weaver on toughness and heroism

From Weaver's great Ideas Have Consequences, published in 1948, seventy years ago:

Since he who longs to achieve does not ask whether the seat is soft or the weather at a pleasant temperature, it is obvious that hardness is a condition of heroism.

This passage comes from a chapter entitled "The Spoiled-Child Psychology," in which Weaver documents the degeneration of virtue in the modern world and ascribes our afflictions, crises, and upheavals to an essentially immaturity: a discontent, a raving for a norm of comfort and self-fulfillment that is both unattainable and–the real root of the problem–materialistic. Without the transcendental, an idea he develops later in the same chapter, heroism is meaningless struggle and discomfort. And with the transcendental stripped out of our cultural imagination–so that every human endeavor is nothing but economics, or competition for resources, or, our explanation du jour, simple power–all we can do with the leftovers is squabble like toddlers over the choicest bits.

Richard M. Weaver (1910-63)

Richard M. Weaver (1910-63)

I don't entirely agree with some of Weaver's diagnoses. He sees Aristotle as part of the problem, for instance, which is a notion I vehemently disagree with. But few writers have lamented the modern world as thoughtfully or eloquently or with as little hysteria or mordant self-pity as Weaver did in Ideas Have Consequences.

The quotation above, in a bit more of its context. Note Weaver's explicit references to World War II as symptomatic–even on the Allied side: 

The trend continues, and in a modern document like the Four Freedoms one sees comfort and security embodied in canons. For the philosophic opposition, that is of course proper, because fascism taught the strenuous life. But others with spiritual aims in mind have taught it too. Emerson made the point: "Heroism, like Plotinus, is almost ashamed of its body. What shall it say, then, to the sugar plums and cat's cradles, to the toilet, compliments, quarrels, cards, and custard, which rack the wit of all human society?" Since he who longs to achieve does not ask whether the seat is soft or the weather at a pleasant temperature, it is obvious that hardness is a condition of heroism. Exertion, self-denial, endurance, these make the hero, but to the spoiled child they connote the evil of nature and the malice of man. 

The modern temper is losing the feeling for heroism even in war, which used to afford the supreme theme for celebration of this virtue. 

I last read Ideas Have Consequences four or five years ago and have been meaning to reread it since. Do check it out–it's a short, punchy book full of challenging ideas, and it will be well worth your time. Weaver's Southern Essays is also a wonderful collection on a favorite topic of mine, and also worth reading. You will also see a quotation from Weaver as an epigraph to my soon to be released Civil War novel Griswoldville.

Unknown Soldiers

Last week I reviewed the Finnish film Talvisota (The Winter War) for Historical Movie Monday. At the time I had just started reading a novel taking place a year and a half after those events: Väinö Linna's Tuntematon sotilas, or Unknown Soldiers in its most recent English translation. I finished it earlier this week. It's one of the best war novels I've ever read.


Unknown Soldiers follows a company of Finnish machine gunners through the Continuation War, from the beginning in the summer of 1941 to ceasefire in September 1944. The Finns coordinated their invasion of Soviet Russia with the German invasion, Operation Barbarossa, making the Finns ostensible German allies though they were never fully incorporated into the Axis. The goal was to recapture land taken from Finland by the Russians during the Winter War and occupy other territory to be used for postwar bargaining following German victory. 

None of this matters to the characters in Linna's novel. Not really. They know about most of this political background and occasionally discuss it, but their war is earthy, small-scale, and intensely personal. They are less concerned with Hitler's eventual success against Stalin than with how to handle the weight of a machine gun while marching, how to get enough to eat, how to make some extra cash while the war keeps them from home, how to keep out of the way of officers, and how to stay alive.

The novel begins and ends with the war. After a brief introduction to most of the major characters—there is no single "main" character—the machine gun company assembles and boards trucks for the front. They don't know where they're going or why at first, and a brief passage on God's destruction of a patch of forest through a wildfire is the last bit of omniscience we'll get until the very end. We experience the fog of war with the characters, seldom knowing any more than they do and taken by surprise just as often as they are. 

The characters are wonderfully drawn, and have apparently become bywords for particular kinds of people in Finland. Linna ranges up and down the chain of command, giving us moments with everyone from the company commander to new privates who arrive at the front a few years in. Lieutenant Lammio, a potential martinet but otherwise harmless, becomes company commander after the respected previous commander is killed just a few days into the war; in his new position, his negative traits come to the fore. Ensign Kariluoto, another officer, is naive and detached and has the novel's only real love story, budding from his infatuation with Sirkka, a hometown girl. There's Hietanen, a bluff, good-humored jokester who is nevertheless painfully shy around women, and Vanhala, a giggler, both of whom sober up over the next three years, especially as they rise to positions of leadership and find themselves tested. Lehto is aloof, a gruff, tough fighter, and Määtä, a short, quiet man, never shirks from hauling his squad's machine gun, quietly earning the respect of every man in the company. Lahtinen is a communist sympathizer who, like most Marxists, annoys his friends by interjecting mindless revolutionary formulae into ordinary smalltalk. Honkajoki is an eccentric trying to build a perpetual motion machine and who carries a bow and arrows. Mäkilä, the company quartermaster, is obsessively stingy with the men's gear: "He kept the shelves in impeccable order," Linna tells us, "stocked with all the finest equipment, unmarred by any worn-out items—which he distributed to the company." 

The novel is also, I should point out, wryly funny.

My two favorite characters were Rokka and Koskela. Antero "Antti" Rokka is an older man—in his early- to mid-thirties—a husband and father, a veteran of the Winter War, and a refugee from Kannas, part of the Finnish territory taken by the Russians. He has the most personal stake in the success of the invasion, and only when it becomes clear, in the last quarter of the book, that he'll never see his old farm again is his chipper, folksy demeanor shaken. He has no time for formalities and routinely offends superiors with a knowing "Lissen here." He is also the best soldier in the company, never shrinking from combat, and, in one famous episode, ambushing and wiping out a platoon of more than fifty Russian soldiers with just his submachine gun. (This incident, far from being a proto-Rambo bit of action, is based on an actual incident in which a soldier named Viljam Pylkäs gunned down over eighty Russians.) By the end of the novel, when he's one of the only major characters left, I really dreaded for his safety.

Koskela, on the other hand, is an officer who achieved his rank through merit, during the Winter War. He's strong, silent ("quiet Koski" is a nickname used a few times throughout), courageous, leads by example, loved by his men—all the qualities of a Greek hero without the arrogance or ostentation. As a leader, he also sets himself apart through the crucial ability to know what matters and what doesn't, an ability Lammio, who tries to court martial Rokka at one point, lacks. When leadership of the company finally devolves onto Koskela at the end of the book, as the Finns retreat from Russia and face encirclement, Koskela acts quickly and decisively and his men follow. It's a really stirring portrait of manhood and leadership.

Linna also has a lot to say about courage, but shows what courage really means in modern war. For every death-defying one-man charge on an enemy bunker by Koskela there are two or three small moments borne of split-second decisions by men forced into a corner: Lahtinen staying behind with a machine gun while his buddies evacuate wounded men, or Hietanen finding almost accidental courage in the face of a Russian tank attack: 

It was as if his entire consciousness had been frozen. It refused to consider the significance of these angry blasts, as if shielding itself from the terror such considerations would induce. Hietanen darted quickly behind the upturned roots.
Just then he heard Rokka's voice yelling, "Now shoot like hell!"
Hietanen was panicked and trembling with anxiety. The urgency ringing in Rokka's cry struck his over-excited consciousness as a warning of some new, unknown danger. Then he realized that the call was intended for the others.
It occurred to him he did not know if the mine was functional or not. He didn't know anything about it except that it was supposed to explode under pressure. It was a little late for sapper training, however. The time was now or never.
A vision of the tank tracks rolling beneath their fenders flashed through his mind. Right there ... right there ... And then he threw. The weight of the mine made aiming next to impossible, and a kind of prayer-like wish flickered through Hietanen's consciousness as he hurled it. . . . Only then did the precariousness of his own position suddenly dawn on him. Would the tree base be enough to protect him from the force of the blast? He sank down behind it, opened his mouth and pressed his hands against his ears.
Two seconds later, it was as if the pressure of the whole world suddenly descended upon him. He didn't experience the explosion as a sound, but rather as a numbing, thudding blast
and then his consciousness went dim.
When it returned, he saw that the vehicle was still, titled slightly to one side. . . . He just lay there, looking back and forth at the tank, then at the men, who were yelling at him, "Yes, Hietanen! Woo-hoo! Bravo, Hietanen!" The praise was all wasted, however; Hietanen couldn't hear a thing.

All the danger, brutality, humor, courage, excitement, dread, horror, irony, and businesslike slogging mirror the war and Finland's role in it. It's excellent.

A Finnish machine gun position overlooking no-man's-land, February 1944. Source:  SA-kuva , the Finnish Defense Forces Wartime Photograph Archive.

A Finnish machine gun position overlooking no-man's-land, February 1944. Source: SA-kuva, the Finnish Defense Forces Wartime Photograph Archive.

I could say more about the plot, but the plot doesn't really matter. The war is, for the characters, a string of violent incidents that gradually winnows and thins the ranks, and that's what Linna, who lived through the Continuation War himself, shows us. He presents military life and war unromantically, as ceaselessly hard work with limited resources, work that can turn deadly with no warning. By the end of the war, even evacuation by ambulance isn't safe. The much-ballyhooed "random" deaths of George R.R. Martin's characters have nothing on Unknown Soldiers, and these soldiers' deaths are the more pitiful when they come because we care so much about them.

Unknown Soldiers has a well-deserved place in the pantheon of great war literature. It has the grim, clear-eyed detail of All Quiet on the Western Front and the sense of sheer, exhausting labor of The Naked and the Dead. But the novel Unknown Soldiers reminded me of most was Karl Marlantes's Matterhorn. Like Linna, Marlantes was a veteran of the war he wrote about and based his novel on his own experiences. Like Unknown Soldiers, Matterhorn takes a worm's-eye view of the conflict, bringing the reader into close quarters with a large cast of characters for hundreds of pages. And it's worth the trip.

Closing notes

Linna published his novel in 1954. It was first translated into English as The Unknown Soldier in 1957, and again in 2015 by Liesl Yamaguchi, which is the version I read. I neither speak nor read Finnish, but I understand this new translation is more faithful to the original than the first English version. Yamaguchi undertakes the thankless task of communicating the many local dialects and accents of Finnish, and mostly succeeds; Rokka's woodsy twang, to give one example, is instantly recognizable, though some of the others' slangy talk is distracting.

There have been three film adaptations: in 1955, a Finnish classic that airs every December on Finnish Independence Day; in 1985; and again in 2017, a version shot using natural light that looks strikingly beautiful. The 1955 original is available in its entirety on YouTube. The newest version is not apparently available on DVD or Blu-ray anywhere yet, but here's the trailer and a clip of Rokka's one-man massacre of that Russian platoon.

The Winter War

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Historical Movie Monday returns from an end-of-semester induced hiatus to look at a film little known in the US, about a war little known outside Scandinavia. The film is the 1989 Finnish war movie Talvisota or The Winter War.

They ordered us to drive the Russians away from our positions. I’m going to the headquarters to ask them: with what men?
— Lt. Kantola in The Winter War

The history

In the fall of 1939, flush with success following his invasion of eastern Poland—divvied up with his erstwhile archenemy, now ally and partner, Adolf Hitler—Joseph Stalin planned the next step of Soviet expansion by looking northwest to Karelia and Petsamo, Finnish provinces on the Russian border. He had already managed to bully Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia into "mutual assistance" agreements, which he would shortly exploit to take those countries over, and hoped for similar success in Finland. Stalin pressed Finland to cede these territories to the Soviet Union and provide land for a naval base on the Baltic near Helsinki. The Soviets made these demands for ostensibly defensive reasons—they claimed they wanted a greater zone of security around Leningrad, for instance—but an eventual total takeover of Finland was probably the goal.

The Soviet attacks on Finland, from Wikimedia Commons

The Soviet attacks on Finland, from Wikimedia Commons

The Finns were divided, with even Baron Mannerheim, the retired commander-in-chief of the Finnish military and a fierce opponent of the Bolsheviks, arguing for concessions to the Soviets because of Stalin's perceived invincibility. When negotiations broke down in late November, Stalin had his political pretext, and the Red Army, borrowing a page from their Nazi allies, staged a border incident to provide a military pretext for an invasion of Finland. The war began November 30.

From a purely statistical point of view, Mannerheim had been wise to counsel acquiescence: Finland's population in 1939 was around three million; the Soviet Union's population was 180 million larger. The belligerents' armies were similarly mismatched, with Stalin's Red Army of around 1.6 million men, in almost 100 divisions, outnumbering the 340,000-man Finnish army almost 5-1. The Red Army was also more heavily mechanized, with thousands of up-to-date tanks and trucks available, and had huge advantages in artillery and aircraft. Nevertheless, with Soviet aggression unmasked, the Finnish army mobilized and Mannerheim returned from retirement to lead them.

Since Finland had gained independence in 1917, its military policy had been defined by the proximity of the Soviet Union, an ideologically motivated, aggressive behemoth. With mobilization, Finnish troops moved into a line of defenses across the Karelian Isthmus, the strip of land north of Leningrad between Lake Ladoga and the Baltic. The bulk of Finland's troops deployed to this line of trenchworks, bunkers, wire entanglements, and minefields—later nicknamed the Mannerheim Line—with small forces in the narrow "waist" at the middle of the country and in the far north near Petsamo. 

It was on the Mannerheim Line that the Russians met disaster and the Finns made their reputation. The Red Army, which had lost 40,000 officers in political purges the year before, was poorly and unimaginatively led, ideologically hidebound, and completely unprepared for the Finnish winter. The Finns, on the other hand, were excellent woodsmen and marksmen, were well-prepared for the cold even though a third of them came to the front with civilian clothing or equipment, were capable of lightning-strike movement through the winter landscape on skis, and—a not insignificant factor—they were fighting for their homes.

Despite being undersupplied and grossly outnumbered, the Finns resisted ferociously and bled the Russians in a savage war of attrition. Repeated assaults on the Mannerheim Line resulted in staggering casualties. The difficult, swampy, heavily forested, and lake-pocked terrain ("Finland," a British observer noted, "consists entirely of natural obstacles") channeled Russian attacks into prepared kill zones where they fell to machine guns, artillery, and snipers—a Finnish specialty. Temperatures dropped to -45° F. The Soviets had planned to celebrate victory in Finland with a triumphal parade for Stalin's birthday on December 18. Instead, the war dragged on into January, with a disastrous attempt to cut Finland in half that wasted the lives of nearly 10,000 Russian soldiers against 400 Finnish dead, and into February with renewed assaults on the Mannerheim Line. Attrition ground both sides down. The Soviets learned slowly and at enormous cost in life, but they could afford their losses more than the Finns could.

Finally, with the British, who were already at war with Stalin's ally Hitler, showing interest in intervention, the Soviets ended the war through negotiation. The Finns were forced to cede the disputed territory to Russia, but had given Stalin and his army a black eye. The Winter War looked, to much of the world, like a humiliating defeat for Stalin. To Hitler, observing, watching, plotting, it demonstrated the weakness of the Soviet military.

By the time the ceasefire went into effect the morning of March 13, 1940, the Red Army had lost over 130,000 dead and missing, with over a quarter million wounded and another 130,000 frostbitten due to the Soviet regime's inability to equip its soldiers with proper winter gear. The Finns, by comparison, lost 22,000 dead and missing and 43,000 wounded. The war had lasted 105 days.

Finnish troops under Soviet assault near Taipale in  The Winter War .

Finnish troops under Soviet assault near Taipale in The Winter War.

The film

Talvisota or The Winter War is based on the novel of the same name by Antti Tuuri. Tuuri's story follows a small unit of reservists from Ostrobothnia, in western Finland, as they are called up, deployed, and survive the war's 105 days of cold, starvation, and Russian attack. The film was released in 1989 to great acclaim in Finland and was even submitted to the Academy for Best Foreign Language Film, but was not nominated. That's a shame, because The Winter War belongs in the top tier of war films in any language.

Martti (Taneli Mäkelä) aims his rifle during a Russian assault

Martti (Taneli Mäkelä) aims his rifle during a Russian assault

I should point out that there are three versions of The Winter War in circulation. The original release ran over three hours, a cut down international release runs just over two, and an expanded TV mini-series version nearly four and a half. Though I had heard of the film even as a kid, as a faithful reader of World War II magazine, and a college roommate of Finnish ancestry had recommended it, I only got to see it last month thanks to a generous Finnish colleague, who lent me the two-hour version on DVD. I'm very interested in running down the original three-hour version.

While the film has an ensemble cast of colorful war movie types—the lady's man, the earnest officer, the wizened vet—the main character is Martti Hakala, a married farmer who deploys to the front with his dandyish younger brother Paavo. Their mother sends them off with a request that Martti look after Paavo at the front. Martti asks their platoon leader to put them into a squad together, and so the brothers train, march, and dig in along the Mannerheim Line together. There, at the beginning of December, Martti and Paavo's platoon weathers the Russian assaults on Taipale, attempted river crossings near Lake Ladoga that resulted in heavy casualties.

The Finns beat back repeated mass assaults on their trenches despite lack of armored support, little artillery ammunition, and inferior numbers. Several times the Russians infiltrate the Finnish trenches, but Martti's unit counterattacks and retakes their positions. Each attack leaves piles of Russian bodies along the front, but also whittles Martti's platoon down a little at a time. Men die randomly and brutally. One seasoned veteran doesn't even make it to the front; another, in one of the film's goriest and most poignant scenes, is cut in half by Russian artillery but lives long enough for Martti to discover him.

Martti and a wounded Paavo (Konsta Mäkelä) shelter in a trench

Martti and a wounded Paavo (Konsta Mäkelä) shelter in a trench

Martti and Paavo each get leave, and their unit is pulled out of the front line to rest once. The men make trips home, and these trips, especially when following tragedies, underline how much the war is changing the men fighting it. On his last morning at home, Martti's wife, waking early, looks at him like a stranger.

The combat scenes are thrilling and harrowing, as expertly executed as any of the big budget battles of Saving Private Ryan a decade later. The filmmakers dramatize the claustrophobia of trench-clearing, the awkward courage necessary to retake a bunker, and the difficulty of removing the dead and wounded brilliantly. The men themselves look more and more pitiful, as their faces blacken with dirt and powder residue—realistically, over their entire faces, and not in the usual Hollywood manner— and their snowsuits and uniforms shred to rags. Despite the poor video quality of the DVD transfer I was watching, I felt as if I were there—something I haven't felt about a film in a long time.

The film is technically as well as dramatically excellent. The cinematography conveys the severe cold visually, the pyrotechnics are by turns awe-inspiring and terrifying, the stunt work is excellent, and the special effects—primarily makeup and models, especially aircraft—are seamless. The film also benefits from an enviable authenticity, as the filmmakers had access to correct period equipment and gear, including Soviet T-26 tanks captured during the Continuation War fought a few years later.

The film as history

There are a couple of ways filmmakers can dramatize a war. They can take a "God's eye" approach, in which they present numerous perspectives from multiple participants. Think of older war films like The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far, which balance generals in conference rooms with ordinary grunts on the front lines. A step down from that godlike point of view might be the "bird's eye" view, which offers groundlevel combat with some officers or leaders with a higher level of awareness to let the audience know what's going on, why, and what's at stake. Some newer films like We Were Soldiers and Black Hawk Down come to mind. 

A Finnish machine gun crew entrenched in the frozen woods during the Winter War

A Finnish machine gun crew entrenched in the frozen woods during the Winter War

The Winter War belongs to a final category, one that has existed since the silent era and 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front but certainly favored since Saving Private Ryan came out twenty years ago, a category that offers the ordinary soldier's view without recourse to larger explanatory structures, map tables, or exposition-reciting general officers. The Winter War offers an excellent "worm's eye" view of an important but often overlooked conflict. 

Understanding that this is the film's approach, The Winter War gets pretty much everything right, small details and large. I've already mentioned the authentic weapons, uniforms, and equipment, but it throws in some other details that help sell its authenticity. The destruction of the distinctive Finnish Lutheran church at Äyräpää makes it into the film, as do the origins of the "Molotov cocktail," an improvised explosive using wine bottles. The Molotov cocktail was not invented in Finland but was named there—after Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov—in a bit of gallows humor.

But where The Winter War really excels is in dramatizing what it was like for the Finns on the Mannerheim Line. The film largely ignores geopolitical speculations. Martti and his comrades discuss the broader significance of the war, how it started, and why, but they do so without full knowledge of their situation—like real soldiers, plunked down into chaos not of their making or choosing, really do. Their behavior and actions are perfect. They don't think of themselves as heroes even while performing herculean feats of bravery. They're scared, tired, and filthy and want to make sure they have enough bread and ammunition to make it through the next day. And what is more, the film makes you feel that. By the end of the film, as both sides stand up in the open to celebrate the ceasefire, all you can do, along with the characters, is stare in disbelief.

A final note: the colleague who lent me the film had several relatives who fought in the Winter War. One was so badly afflicted by PTSD that he killed himself some years later. "That was a whole generation who went to hell," my coworker says. The Winter War, while not downplaying the Finns' incredible bravery, shows you why.

More if you're interested

The Winter War is usually treated as a subset of World War II, often a footnote to Hitler's scheming to invade Russia. The textbook I currently teach from for Western Civ gives the conflict half a paragraph. 

The two most readily available books I've come across are The Winter War: Russia's Invasion of Finland, 1939-40, by British journalist Robert Edwards, and A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish War of 1939-40. Both are relatively short and readable. I say "most readily available," because you may have to hunt for them. I found the former in a used book store and snatched it up, and had to order the latter from Amazon. That the copy I received was print-on-demand may indicate its scarcity and lack of demand. Let's fix that.


If you're looking for an account in a widely available survey, Antony Beevor's Second World War has a good, detailed narrative that fits the Winter War into the broader context of World War II but doesn't shortchange the ferocity of the conflict or Finnish heroism. A pretty good two-page synopsis is in A War to be Won: Fighting the Second World War, by Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett. There is also detailed treatment of both the Winter War and its sequel, the Continuation War, in A Concise History of Finland, by David Kirby, which I've been browsing preparatory to reading this summer.

A book I did find in Barnes & Noble and would happily recommend is Finnish Soldier vs. Soviet Soldier: Winter War 1939-40, by David Campbell. The book is part of the relatively recent Combat series from Osprey, a well-established and reliable publisher of military history books. I have a small library of Osprey guides. This one gives, in about 80 pages, a capsule summary of the war and its political context but focuses mostly on combat proper and the men involved: uniforms, weapons, equipment, communications, chain of command, food, supply, and how all of these affected the men doing the fighting. The book features three chapter-length case studies of battles along the Mannerheim Line and in the middle of the country and gives the reader a vivid picture of what it was like, which is arguably the most difficult task for historians. It's also lavishly illustrated with photos and maps. 

On the Russian side, the crucial book is The Great Terror: A Reassessment, by Robert Conquest, which covers the purges and show trials of 1938 with excruciating detail. Conquest includes several pages on the effects of the purges on the Red Army, especially its performance in Finland. Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War, by Chris Bellamy; Russia's War: A History of the Soviet War Effort, 1941-1945, by Richard Overy; and Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945, by Catherine Merridale all include examinations of the Winter War and its effects.

If I can insert a personal plug, the Winter War figures into the background of my World War II novel Dark Full of Enemies. The sniper character, Ollila, was inspired by Finnish sniper Simo Häyhä. Please do check it out if you're interested.

Finally, the kind Finnish colleague who lent me The Winter War on DVD also recommended The Unknown Soldier, a 1955 film about Finnish troops in the Continuation War. The film was adapted from a novel by Väinö Linna and has been remade twice since, most recently in 2017. This version was shot using natural light and looks beautiful and harrowing. Watch the trailer here. Penguin Modern classics brought out a new English translation of Linna's novel, published in the UK as Unknown Soldiers, in 2015 and which I got in the mail last week. I've been reading it ever since—it's excellent so far.

Coming up

Historical Movie Monday will continue. Coming up this summer, I'll get away from World War II again for a bit to look at a few ancient and medieval films and, perhaps, even my favorite baseball movie. Thanks for reading!

Hacksaw Ridge

Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss in  Hacksaw Ridge

Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge

After a break for Easter and another week's hiatus due to illness, Historical Movie Monday returns with a film about a peaceful man in a time of war, a man of principle in a time of expedience, a man of transcendent faith in a world narrowed to naked survival. The film is Hacksaw Ridge, starring Andrew Garfield.

With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it don’t seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together.
— Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge

The history

The US Marine Corps and Army landed on Okinawa on April 1, 1945. It was Easter Sunday—and April Fool's Day. Eugene Sledge, a Marine mortarman, later remembered how

When our wave was about fifty yards from the beach, I saw two enemy mortar shells explode a considerable distance to our left. They spewed up small geysers of water but caused no damage to the amtracs in that area. That was the only enemy fire I saw during the landing on Okinawa. It made the April Fool's Day aspect even more sinister, because all those thousands of first-rate Japanese troops on that island had to be somewhere spoiling for a fight.

The Maeda Escarpment is visible running northwest to southeast across the top of this map, north of Shuri. Each topographical relief line represents ten meters of elevation.

The Maeda Escarpment is visible running northwest to southeast across the top of this map, north of Shuri. Each topographical relief line represents ten meters of elevation.

Okinawa, the largest of the Ryukyu chain, was about 70 miles long and lay about 400 miles south of the main Japanese archipelago. Its size and proximity meant that, once captured from its defenders, the island would be a close airbase for the firebombing of Japanese cities, and, in the long term, a critical staging area for the long-awaited invasion of Japan. 

Fortunately, that invasion would never come. Unfortunately, it was, at least in part, because of the 82 days of grueling combat that followed the landings. The Japanese fought from dense networks of mutually-supporting bunkers, pillboxes, and tunnels that slowed the American advance in the southern half of the island to a crawl. Okinawa's rugged landscape and torrential spring rains added to the misery. American and Japanese corpses rotted half-buried in craters. According to Sledge, Okinawa "was choked with the putrefaction of death, decay, and destruction." 

The center of Japanese resistance in the southern half of Okinawa was the town of Shuri. The Japanese commanders were headquartered in the town's medieval fortress, Shuri Castle, and the town formed the nucleus of a series of heavily fortified defensive rings, carefully constructed to take maximum advantage of the terrain. What 20,000 Japanese defenders had done at Iwo Jima, which the Marines had taken at the cost of almost 7,000 lives, the 100,000 defenders of Okinawa would far surpass. By the end of the battle, over 12,000 Americans had been killed in action, thousands of others had died of wounds, and another 50,000 had been wounded. The vast majority of the island's 100,000 Japanese defenders were killed, and around 150,000 Okinawan civilians, caught in the storm, died too.

Among the toughest strongpoints of Shuri's defenses was the Maeda Escarpment, a flat-topped ridge with a sheer cliff face running diagonally across the island for several thousand yards. The ridge was honeycombed with tunnels and interconnected bunkers. According to a unit history of the 77th, after a tank fired white phosphorous into one bunker, "within fifteen minutes observers saw smoke emerging from more than thirty other hidden openings along the slope." Here, at the end of April and beginning of May, elements of the 77th Infantry Division repeatedly scaled and assaulted Japanese positions, only to be repulsed with heavy casualties. Previous assaults by another unit had resulted in 1,000 casualties in four days. 

Desmond Doss receives the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman

Desmond Doss receives the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman

Here, over the course of several days at the beginning of May, Private Desmond T. Doss of Lynchburg, Virginia, a combat medic in the 77th, repeatedly entered the combat zone to rescue wounded men—sometimes isolated from the main body of his unit by 200 yards or lying within 30 feet of enemy positions—and even stayed on the ridge giving first aid after his unit fell back. A lanky, rail-thin young man, Doss would drag or carry his wounded comrades to cover, administer first aid, and carry them to the edge of the cliff where he would lower them by rope for evacuation to field hospitals. He continued to rescue and treat the wounded after the capture of the Escarpment—by now nicknamed Hacksaw Ridge—and their advance on Shuri until he was himself wounded and evacuated on May 21.

Doss later estimated he had saved around 50 men over the course of those days; his commanders estimated 100. The army settled on 75. For his actions there and throughout the Battle of Okinawa, Doss was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

A word that often recurs when reading accounts of Doss's exploits is remarkable. What Doss did was remarkable, not only because of the physical and moral strength it took, or the courage to face such a murderous, often invisible enemy, but also because Doss was a pacifist. A Seventh-day Adventist, Doss had believed American involvement in World War II to be justified but would not himself take a human life. He had enlisted as a medic but been put into training with a rifle company, where he faced harassment and abuse for "cowardice." 

The film

Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss and Theresa Palmer as Dorothy Schutte in  Hacksaw Ridge

Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss and Theresa Palmer as Dorothy Schutte in Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge began with another film: The Conscientious Objector, a documentary about Doss produced for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Doss had, like another pacifist Medal of Honor winner, Alvin York, refused to market himself or his story for financial gain, and only agreed to do so much later in life. After seeing The Conscientious Objector, producer Bill Mechanic optioned Doss's story for a full Hollywood treatment. Doss would die, in 2006 at the age of 87, long before the project came to fruition.

Mechanic spent years developing Hacksaw Ridge. Major studios proved uninterested; even more than a decade ago, just before the advent of the Marvel series with Iron Man (2008), studios wanted properties with franchise potential. A film about a devoutly religious pacifist did not pique studio interest. Mechanic even approached Walden Media, which had produced the faith-inflected Narnia films in the early 2000s, but their insistence on "a soft PG-13" bothered Mechanic, whose interest in Doss's story stemmed precisely from the man's courage in horrible conditions.

Mechanic eventually brought Mel Gibson on to direct. This was an inspired choice. Similar to his biblical epic approach to Braveheart, Gibson brought an old Hollywood sensibility to Hacksaw Ridge and a famous—if not infamous—obsession with physicality and suffering to the second half of this picture.

The filmmakers—Gibson, Mechanic, and screenwriter Robert Schenkkan, who also worked on Tom Hanks's HBO miniseries The Pacific—structured Hacksaw Ridge in two acts rather than the traditional Syd Field three-act structure. The result is a bifurcated movie, radically different in tone and execution in its first and second halves. The first half is an old Hollywood love story that flirts with corniness. Schenkkan, in the behind-the-scenes features of the DVD, speaks of the challenge of making Doss, an atypical Hollywood hero, interesting: a man with deep personal faith, no vices, and a relationship with closely observed boundaries. I think Hacksaw Ridge succeeds at making Doss relatable and likable by embracing him and his world unironically and even lovingly. Doss's romance with Dorothy Schutte is (refreshingly, I have to say) chaste and old-fashioned, and even the abuse Doss suffers during bootcamp at the hands of his fellow recruits (all fun Hollywood "Central Casting" types) is squeaky clean, language wise. Only after a couple viewings did I realize how little swearing there is in the film.

Gibson carefully adopted this calm, reassuring, old fashioned aesthetic to create the maximum possible contrast between the world Doss leaves behind and the world he enters in the second act—Okinawa in 1945. 

Hacksaw Ridge 's Okinawa set on an Australian farm.

Hacksaw Ridge's Okinawa set on an Australian farm.

Shot on small, low-budget locations in Australia but with a panoply of skilled makeup and special effects artists, the film's combat scenes are harrowing. Despite watching dozens and dozens of war movies since I was a kid, Hacksaw Ridge shocked and disturbed me. The combat is extreme—over-the-top, frenetic, gory, ultraviolent, and indiscriminate—and the wounds inflicted on human flesh detailed, graphic, and severe. This treatment of combat—by the director of The Passion of the Christ, a fact seldom overlooked—has brought Hacksaw Ridge in for some criticism, the essence of which is the irony of a film about a pacifist being filled with such gruesome, in-your-face violence and gore. A few reviewers seem to think that Hacksaw Ridge glorifies war, and others seem repelled by the inferred glee they imagine Gibson takes in staging such scenes.

But like the near-cheesiness of the pre-war scenes, this violence serves a crucial purpose to the film and its pacifistic message. I cannot emphasize enough what a round-the-clock horror show Okinawa was. The combat lasted two and a half months and devastated the island, with around a quarter of a million people killed and wounded as a result. Mechanic rightly intuited that he could not do justice to Doss's story with a PG-13 version because Okinawa was not a PG-13 experience (compare how the PG-13 Unbroken pulled some of its punches in its depiction of Japanese POW camps). Doss's heroism—his refusal to carry a weapon (some medics are, accurately, shown carrying pistols and carbines in Hacksaw Ridge) despite the danger, and his repeated return to the killing zone—would not have registered on the gut, emotional level they did without a brutal depiction of what Doss was risking to save the lives of others. In addition, by the time Doss himself is wounded the injuries feel real because we have seen so much of what has happened to others before him.

Finally, Hacksaw Ridge's violence heightens the film's religious tones and iconography. (I think iconography is exactly the right word: witness that slow-motion shot of Doss washing the blood off after he comes down from the ridge.) I have plenty of differences with Doss's sect, but the courage he showed, the sheer physical punishment he took in sacrificing himself for others, and the love with which he did it show a man modeling Christ better than anything Hollywood could come up with. For that reason along, Gibson, with his hyper-sacramental sense of the physicality of the world and what it demands of people, would have been the perfect choice to direct. I think the finished product speaks for itself.

The film as history

hacksaw ridge carry.jpg

I'll be brief on this point. Hacksaw Ridge tells Doss's story, but it tells it in the way, again, of Old Hollywood. The film Hacksaw Ridge reminds me most of is Sergeant York, which hits many of the same beats and has a similar tone, structure, and hard-hitting violence (by 1941 standards). It also freely elides and condenses the events of Desmond Doss's life story.

You can find more detailed breakdowns of the liberties Hacksaw Ridge takes elsewhere (here's one good one), but a handful include:

Desmond Doss standing above the cargo nets on the Maeda Escarpment, 1945

Desmond Doss standing above the cargo nets on the Maeda Escarpment, 1945

  • Doss and Dorothy were already married by the time he enlisted, so he did not miss their wedding after being thrown into the brig.
  • Dorothy did not become a nurse until after the war and she did not meet Desmond at a hospital.
  • Tom Doss's alcoholism was exaggerated and the dispute over the pistol did not directly threaten Doss's mother.
  • Doss actually had experience as a combat medic on Guam (July and August 1944) and Leyte (October-December 1944) before landing on Okinawa.
  • Smitty, Doss's primary antagonist through bootcamp, was a composite character, as were most of the other members of Doss's unit.
  • The dramatic last-second intervention of Tom Doss at his son's court martial was invented; in reality, he phoned a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church's leadership, who went through channels with the Pentagon and helped clear up Doss's situation.

What these liberties all have in common is that they were taken to condense and, especially, heighten the film. In the case of the cliffs Doss's unit must scale to reach Hacksaw Ridge proper, the heightening is literal. The one thing Gibson toned down was the nature of Doss's final wounds: after being blown up by a grenade, Doss gave up his stretcher for a more severely wounded man, had his left arm shattered by a bullet, splinted it himself, and crawled 300 yards to safety. That, Gibson thought, no one would believe.

I'm not particularly bothered by the film's effort to condense Doss's life. Reading the real story, it is diffuse and extremely complicated, and the filmmakers had to be selective in their presentation in order for the story to work in their medium. None of the changes compromise the story, I think, and all were calculated to set up and make intelligible Doss's actions on Okinawa (witness his nascent medical skill and interest in helping others illustrated by early scenes surrounding his meet cute with Dorothy). 

Nor am I particularly bothered by the heightened tone and presentation of the film, since it is consistent all the way through. Hugo Weaving as Tom Doss isn't just a tormented alcoholic, he's a wildly tormented alcoholic. (Weaving skillfully brings his performance away from the verge of scenery-chewing several times, especially his dinner scene after Doss's brother enlists, and the pathos he evokes is both surprising and real.) Doss's tormentors don't just harass him, they physically pummel him. The violence is not just shocking and gruesome but operatic and balletic, and places a heavy emphasis on machine guns and hand to hand combat when much of the time the enemy fired invisibly from bunkers and caves. All of this is in the service of a legitimate interest in the story, and the exaggeration, I think, helps. To bring a relevant passage from Flannery O'Connor into it: 

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.

Despite his outward appearance, Desmond Doss was a large and startling figure and the storytelling suited him.

If I could change one thing about Hacksaw Ridge, it would be to emphasize what a longterm sacrifice Doss made on Okinawa. Shortly after the end of the war, Army doctors discovered he had tuberculosis, probably contracted in the Philippines, and he spent the next six years in and out of VA hospitals before being discharged with 90% disability. During the 1970s, an apparent overdose of antibiotics caused him to go completely deaf, requiring a cochlear implant years later. In all, Doss lost much of the use of his left arm, five ribs, a lung, and years of his life and health in the service of his fellow man.

How all of that could have been incorporated into the film, I don't know, but I'm glad his story has gotten so much attention and hope it will inspire future Desmond Dosses.

More if you're interested

redemption ahr.jpg

Doss was surprised with an appearance on This is Your Life in 1959; the entire episode is available on YouTube here. Doss's genuine humility and discomfort at the attention he's been given are palpable. Doss's company and regimental commanders, both of whom were portrayed in the film, also appear on the show.

Doss's life story has been told by Booton Herndon in The Unlikeliest Hero. The Seventh-day Adventist Church reprinted Herndon's book and gave away thousands of copies when the film came out. There are two versions: Redemption at Hacksaw Ridge, which is updated with photos and Doss's life after the war, and Hero of Hacksaw Ridge, an abridgement. The Conscientious Objector, the documentary that led to the production of this film, is available on DVD and on YouTube.

Okinawa: The Last Battle, cited above, has a good chapter on the events surrounding Doss's exploits available for free from the US Army Center for Military History. Richard B. Frank's Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire has a good assessment of Okinawa in its context as a stepping stone to the invasion of Japan, and Max Hastings's Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 has a good chapter on Okinawa. Robert Leckie, Marine veteran of Guadalcanal, New Britain, and Peleliu, wrote a readable popular history of the battle called Okinawa: The Last Battle of World War II.

The indispensable book on Okinawa, if you want to understand the horror that men like Doss lived through, is the aforementioned Eugene Sledge's memoir With the Old Breed. This book is a must-read for anyone who has a rosy or triumphalist view of war.

Next week

I haven't settled on a film for next week just yet, but a kind colleague of mine just dropped off a foreign film I've wanted to see since high school, so it may be that. Until then, thanks for reading!


dunkirk mole.jpg

We're a week away from the Oscars, so while I'm trying to avoid back-to-back posts on the same historical periods, I wanted to write a little about one of my favorite films of the last year, a nominee for eight Oscars, and a stunning World War II film—Dunkirk.

He’s shell-shocked, George. He’s not himself. He might never be himself again.
— Mr. Dawson

The history

World War II began with German invasion of Poland in September 1939. On April 9, 1940, after months of "phoney war" in which Germany and Britain—which had guaranteed Polish sovereignty—were at war but not actively fighting, the Germans invaded Denmark and Norway. The British committed to the defense of Norway, with off-and-on land and sea combat around Narvik. A month later, on May 10, with Nazi and Allied troops still tied down in Norway, the Germans invaded the Low Countries. Their ultimate target was France.

A German tank just before the surrender of France in June 1940.

A German tank just before the surrender of France in June 1940.

The Germans inverted part of the previous war's opening moves by attacking through the Ardennes Forest (the site, four and a half years later, of the Battle of the Bulge) but, instead of striking for Paris as they did in 1914, they swung to the right in a carefully planned Sichelschnitt—"sickle-cut"—to the English Channel. This lightning stroke would split the Allied forces defending France and entrap them in defenseless pockets, which would then surrender or be reduced. 

With the benefit of hindsight, the much-vaunted German "Blitzkrieg"—a term almost never used by the Germans themselves, who spoke of Bewegungskrieg, maneuver or movement war—was a costly gamble. Because of Germany's geographically vulnerable strategic position, Hitler and his armies had to strike hard and fast or be overwhelmed from multiple directions. The rapid invasions and conquests of 1939 and '40, while impressive and calculated for maximum psychological impact, resulted in heavy losses of infantry, armor, and—perhaps the most critical new branch of a modern arm—air power. 

British troops awaiting rescue on the beach at Dunkirk.

British troops awaiting rescue on the beach at Dunkirk.

Nevertheless, the Germans did succeed. They broke through in northern France, severed the British Expeditionary Force and some French and Belgian units from the main body of the Allies, and drove them back against the Channel. There, the British and their allies were trapped in a rapidly shrinking pocket of French and Belgian coastline. By May 20, only ten days after the initial invasion, the British were planning an evacuation by sea.

Dunkirk, a small port city on this stretch of French coast, became the focus of the evacuation efforts, codenamed Operation Dynamo. Dunkirk had good port facilities and spacious beaches. Unfortunately, the German air force bombed the port into uselessness, leaving the beach and an artificial breakwater—"the mole"—as the only points of departure. Furthermore, the beaches sloped so gently into the channel that Royal Navy destroyers could not approach closer than a mile to shore without danger of running aground. This left the mole as the only practical embarkation point, loading one or two boats at a time with men queuing along its length, exposed to enemy air power. Fewer than 8,000 men out of 400,000 were evacuated on the first day.

At this point, the famous "little ships" came through. Either through volunteers or commandeering by the Royal Navy, about 850 private boats ranging from pleasure yachts to barges and fishing boats made the hazardous crossing from Kent to Dunkirk. For over a week, they ferried batches of troops from the shore to the waiting destroyers, or even all the way back across the Channel to Ramsgate. By June 4, nearly 340,000 men had been rescued, preserving a nucleus that would allow the Allies to carry on resistance and, if Hitler waited long enough, rebuild.

The film

Christopher Nolan first conceived Dunkirk during a cross-Channel trip to the town aboard a sailboat. He had known the story of the little ships since childhood, but only by making the crossing himself did he come to realize how hazardous the voyage was. 

Christopher Nolan directs Kenneth Branagh

Christopher Nolan directs Kenneth Branagh

Dunkirk, as scripted by Nolan, is not a traditional war movie—to the great annoyance of some reviewers. In the publicity campaign leading up to the film's release, Nolan emphasized that Dunkirk was a survival film, and that he had constructed it as such. Where a traditional war movie would focus on the risks of combat, with generals or other officers framing the battle in terms of strategic aims and geography and possibly even giving time to both sides, Dunkirk focuses on the attempts of ordinary British soldiers to escape.

I won't spend much time on the film's structure—there's plenty about that elsewhere, and the high-concept structure of Nolan's films may prove to be a detriment in the long run, since they offer so much distraction from the story to internet pedants. It's the story I want to focus on.

Dunkirk follows three major characters: a private in the infantry (appropriately named Tommy), a Spitfire pilot, and the captain of a sailboat making the crossing from Ramsgate. While their stories interweave in creative ways, and eventually tie together at the end, they offer three perspectives on the crisis and the evacuations—one might almost say three dimensions, with one character trying to get away from Dunkirk, another crossing to Dunkirk, and the third flying above Dunkirk.

Offering commentary and a minimum of exposition are Kenneth Branagh as a Royal Navy officer and James D'Arcy as an infantry officer coordinating the evacuations at the mole. The film occasionally pulls back to these two in order to explain the crisis; otherwise, the film—by intention—is an exercise in almost exclusively visual storytelling, operating much like a silent film. Tommy's story specifically has almost no dialogue; we understand what is happening to him, what he wants, and how he means to escape through looks and actions. It's masterfully done.

Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy in  Dunkirk

Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy in Dunkirk

Despite the film being an ensemble piece with no characters significantly more prominent than the others, the performances are excellent. The heart of the film is Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, the captain of the sailboat Moonstone. Mr. Dawson sums up the film in two moments: when, after being told to turn back by a shellshocked evacuee, he replies "We've a job to do," and at the end when, the job done, he quietly puts on his hat and disappears into the crowd. Dunkirk honors quiet heroism and duty in terrible circumstances.

The film is also technically brilliant. The majority was shot on IMAX film, with the rest—mostly the sequences aboard the Moonstone—on 65mm. Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography is beautiful, and the aerial sequences in particular capitalize on the immersion that IMAX offers. (One of my first memories of seeing an IMAX film was watching a movie about flight and space travel as the Kennedy Space Center.) The sound effects are brutal—the gunshots at the beginning of the film are a shock, actually violent, and the sound of the divebombing Stukas is terrifying. The special effects are almost entirely in-camera as opposed to CGI, and are excellent. The film feels real because most of it is—a vanishingly rare quality in modern cinema.

The film as history

The Withdrawal from Dunkirk, June 1940 , by Charles Ernest Cundall

The Withdrawal from Dunkirk, June 1940, by Charles Ernest Cundall

The filmmakers went to extraordinary lengths to do things practically and as authentically as possible. Over a dozen of the real "little ships" that helped in the evacuations were used in filming for added authenticity, for instance. But they did have to reckon with the limitations of their medium and the method they had chosen to tell the story. To provide just one example, the German Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter planes have a distinctive yellow paint scheme on their nose, despite that not being introduced until several months later in 1940. Furthermore, the Messerschmitts are, in fact, Hispano HA-1112s, licensed copies produced by Franco's government.

But there are three reasons for this "inaccuracy" (which I would classify as a nitpick). First, the yellow nose was a concession to the visual nature of cinema as a medium. The filmmakers knew that the audience had to be able to distinguish the German planes from the British immediately, and a bright yellow nose, despite being early by a few months, was the solution. Second, there are very few operational Bf-109s left in the world, and, third, Nolan wanted real planes, really chasing each other on camera. These are completely justifiable reasons related closely to the medium of the story; they're choices by master craftsmen, not errors.

But despite the best efforts of the filmmakers, critical praise, and audience approval, Dunkirk took some flak from historians, including a number I respect. Victor Davis Hanson, after praising the film's many strengths, criticized its lack of strategic context. James Holland nitpicked the film, saying that there wasn't enough smoke and apparently even bringing a stopwatch into the theater to time the Spitfires' machine gun fire. Andrew Roberts, in addition to criticizing the film's "tin ear for the Anglo-French relations of the time," savaged Dunkirk for its

clichéd characterization, almost total lack of dialogue, complete lack of historical context (not even a cameo role for Winston Churchill), a ludicrous subplot in which a company of British soldiers stuck on a sinking boat do not use their Bren guns to defend themselves, problems with continuity (sunny days turn immediately into misty ones as the movie jumps confusingly through time), and Germans breaking into central Dunkirk whereas in fact they were kept outside the perimeter throughout the evacuation.

All three of these historians misread the purpose and the form of Dunkirk

Again, Nolan conceived of Dunkirk as a survival film, and one that focused on the panic of entrapment. That panic, that claustrophobia, would disappear with the introduction of top-down strategic map-room scenes like those Hanson wishes for and, at worst, reduce the ordinary soldiers of the story to bit players. Compare the soldiers in Dunkirk with the cannon fodder of The Longest Day or A Bridge Too Far if you want to see what I'm talking about. Dunkirk belongs more to the tradition of Saving Private Ryan, a narrowly focused film which, lest we forget, thrusts the viewer immediately into D-day with no opening explanation or context.

Holland, who also praises the movie before getting down to his nitpicks, seems to be bothered by the film's limited scope as well. But this is a limitation of the medium—there just isn't room in one film for 200 destroyers.

Roberts, on the other hand, is difficult to answer. I can only assume he wasn't paying attention to the film and went into it blithely uncurious about its purpose, technique, or artistry. The continuity errors are caused not by carelessness, but by shifts in time across days and hours. The trapped British soldiers don't shoot back because they're hiding and don't want to give away their position. And, in a criticism from later in his review, the little boats aren't evacuating all of the 330,000+ soldiers from Dunkirk, but taking them out to the destroyers to be evacuated. All of this is made abundantly clear by the characters themselves—especially Branagh and D'Arcy's officers on the mole—or by just paying a little attention and taking the film on its own terms.

Dunkirk is a movie, and, as a result, gets some things wrong. But it's a strong film that does perhaps the most difficult job a historical film takes upon itself—putting the viewers into a world that has long since vanished and making them feel what actual people at one time felt. Nolan and his team worked at the peak of their skills in their medium and produced an excellent movie. 

More if you're interested

An important book if you're interested in both the film and the history is Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture, by the film's historical adviser, Joshua Levine. Levine offers not just a good short summary of the events leading up to and following Operation Dynamo, but also gives good coverage to the making of the film and Nolan's approach. 

dunkirk levine.jpg

Walter Lord, most famous for A Night to Remember, a book about the sinking of the Titanic, published The Miracle of Dunkirk: The True Story of Operation Dynamo in 1981. The books has been reissued for the film's release. I haven't read this one, but Lord's work is pretty highly regarded popular history and it has some good photographs and illustrations.

For a fuller strategic and historical picture than the film provides, there are a lot of places to look. I'm just going to list a few.

Alistair Horne's To Lose a Battle: France 1940, is a readable, well-researched, but slightly dated (published in 1969) history of the German invasion of France and the Low Countries in 1940. This is the final volume of a trilogy on French military history; I recommend it. The Duel, by John Lukacs, is a book I've mentioned before, and I recommend it again.

James Holland, who was critical—bordering on pedantic—about the film, has a couple of good books. For a lavishly illustrated, very short narrative of the invasion of France and the following Battle of Britain, his Ladybird book The Battle of Britain is an excellent read. For more detail, his Battle of Britain: Five Months that Changed History is a comprehensively and exhaustively researched book that includes the fall of France and the evacuations from Dunkirk. The Rise of Germany, the first volume of his ongoing trilogy The War in the West, covers the fall of France and the evacuation from Dunkirk in detail, with a great deal of up-to-date research.

Finally, Sir Max Hasting's book Winston's War, which narrates World War II from the point of view of Churchill, begins with Churchill becoming PM during the fall of France and covers the evacuations from Dunkirk—as well as Narvik and elsewhere—in good detail from a top-down strategic perspective, knowing what Churchill knew when he knew it.

Next week

Despite saying that I'm trying to avoid back-to-back posts from the same period, next month I'll dedicate Historical Movie Mondays to the Middle Ages. Call it "Medieval March." But first, I want to honor an important anniversary that will fall next Monday, and consider the 2004 film The Alamo.

Darkest Hour & Churchill in film and history

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Yesterday I saw Darkest Hour, the latest in a welcome—to me—spate of Winston Churchill films. 

Those who complained of Dunkirk's crucial lack of generals pushing flags around map tables have the movie they wanted in Darkest Hour—this film takes place almost entirely in smoky conference rooms and halls of power. That's not a criticism—there should be room for both kinds of movies. But Darkest Hour is much, much more than a recreation of grand strategy and the decisions of powerful men. It's an excellent dramatization of determination in the face of defeat and the crucial role one man can play.

The film

When Darkest Hour begins in May 1940, Nazi Germany, flush with diplomatic victory in Czechoslovakia (1938) and military conquest in Poland (1939), Denmark, and Norway (April 1940), has invaded France. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, once lauded as the savior of world peace, is now derided and mocked to his face in Parliament. Chamberlain recognizes that he must step down, and that political and military necessity require the formation of a coalition government between rival parties. Chamberlain nominates Lord Halifax as his successor, but it rapidly becomes clear—to the immense exasperation of Chamberlain, Halifax, and King George VI—that the only member of their party that the opposition will accept as head of a coalition is Winston Churchill.

Darkest Hour follows Churchill—65 years old, outspoken political pariah and flipflopper, veteran of many failed imperial and military ventures, the most prominent of which is the Gallipoli campaign—through roughly the first month of his premiership, into but not quite through the crisis at Dunkirk, which plays out, off-screen, through the last third or so of the film. Throughout, Churchill must battle rivals within his own government, especially Chamberlain and Halifax, who want to pursue negotiations with Germany in order to avoid further bloodshed and the total destruction of the British army in France.

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill and Lily James as Elizabeth Layton.

The performances throughout are excellent. Gary Oldman, in heavy prosthetics and a fat suit, is very good as Churchill. His voice never quite loses that familiar Gary Oldman timbre, and he sounds whinier than Churchill when reaching into the upper registers, but he captures a great deal of the spirit and especially the energy of the man—the real man, not the icon. Oldman ably walks the line between caricature and character assassination, about which more below. 

Other standouts include Stephen Dillane (Thomas Jefferson in HBO's John Adams) as Lord Halifax, depicted here as perhaps oilier and more conniving than in real life but a powerful opponent to what Halifax perceives as Churchill's recklessness with the lives of British soldiers and civilians. Ronald Pickup is good as a politically disgraced and physically failing Chamberlain. Kristin Scott Thomas is good as Clemmie Churchill and Ben Mendelsohn is good as a standoffish George VI who must warm up to Churchill over the course of the film. Lily James brings the luminous innocence of her characters from Downtown Abbey, Cinderella, and Baby Driver to the small—probably too small—part of Elizabeth Layton, Churchill's new secretary. Crucially, all of these performers work well together, and especially with Oldman, who is willing to share his scenes with other characters rather than grandstand.

The film is beautifully scored by Dario Marianelli, and beautifully shot by Bruno Delbonnel. Especially stunning are scenes set in Parliament or Churchill's underground war cabinet. A radio broadcast lit by the red On Air bulb is particularly striking. The cinematography has a digital sheen that I don't care for, but digital cinematography is in the ascendant; you won't see many more Dunkirks going forward.

Darkest Hour as history

A brief word about the film's historical accuracy, something I've mentioned before that I care a lot about. 


Darkest Hour depicts an intensely busy and chaotic month in one of the most dramatic events of world history. Naturally, the screenwriter and filmmakers have massaged the material to fit within a two-hour runtime. Characterizations are mostly accurate, and the events themselves are largely true to the historical record.

I was underwhelmed by the famous and apparently controversial scene in which Churchill travels one stop on the tube and talks to ordinary Londoners. One reviewer, who apparently didn't pay much attention to the movie, claims that Darkest Hour "dishonors Winston Churchill's memory." The tube scene is charming and sentimental—and extremely restrained compared to the sentiment in historical films by Steven Spielberg—but hardly dishonors the man. Oldman, in an interview linked below, described it as "lyrical," a poetic scene that aims at "emotional truth" rather than literal, events-based drama. I'm fine with that.

Like those of another great World War II film, Valkyrie, the events of Darkest Hour are well known. What the film succeeds at brilliantly is portraying the doubt and fear of living through those events ignorant of the outcome. That's always a worthy achievement.

But the film Darkest Hour reminded me most of was Lincoln, with its dramatic depiction of how ideals and determination must force their way through the realities of political life: compromise, cooperation, wooing, and sometimes abject failure. Like Lincoln, Darkest Hour is held together by a great central performance. And through those perfomances both films show us leaders who can accurately parse what is and is not important, which hills to evacuate and which to die on, and, rather than succumbing to defeat or cynicism or mere jockeying for power, see the big picture and drive toward it.

Dueling Winstons

As I mentioned above, there have been a number of films about or prominently featuring Churchill in the last few years. While waiting for Darkest Hour to start, I was able to tick off seven others:

The Gathering Storm, starring Albert Finney
Into the Storm, starring Brendan Gleeson
Churchill's Secret, starring Michael Gambon
Churchill, starring Brian Cox
The King's Speech, with Timothy Spall as Churchill
The Crown, with John Lithgow as Churchill
Inglourious Basterds, with Rod Taylor making a cameo appearance as Churchill

And there are surely more.

Oldman is a powerhouse in Darkest Hour, but as I've hinted above, I never quite overcame my sense that I was watching a really good performance. The voice, for me, was the giveaway. This is not to detract from Oldman's performance or the film—go see it—but Oldman will ultimately come up second or third in my favorite cinematic Churchills.

Albert Finney in  The Gathering Storm  and John Lithgow in  The Crown .

Albert Finney's performance in The Gathering Storm is a longstanding classic, a handsome and well-acted TV movie that gives you a very good sense of Churchill out of power. This is Churchill during his "wilderness years," politically ostracized and barely making ends meet through his writing. Finney is excellent. The best sound-alike I've come across is certainly Timothy Spall in The King's Speech, where he has a small and not particularly accurate role in the abdication crisis. Into the Storm boasts one of my favorite actors, Brendan Gleeson, as Churchill, but Gleeson is too burly for Churchill and the film is a rather cheap-looking TV production. Michael Gambon, the second Dumbledore, was miscast in Churchill's Secret, which also missteps by devoting a lot of its time to a fictional nurse's personal struggles. I haven't seen last year's other Winston movie, Churchill, but I love Brian Cox and he apparently gave a solid performance in a film that was—speaking of character assassination earlier— otherwise garbage.

To the surprise of no one more than myself, perhaps the best Churchill performance I've seen recently—vying with Finney's classic and the bold new Oldman—is John Lithgow in The Crown

Lithgow is too thin and tall—by eight inches—for Churchill, and he's American to boot. So what a wonderful surprise to see a nuanced, carefully balanced and real portrayal of Churchill. To me, Lithgow's unlikely Churchill perfectly blends the traits that make it easy to caricature the man in one direction or the other: the crankiness and amiability, the cold blooded determination and maudlin sentimentality, the confidence and bouts of depression, the devotion to honor and tradition and the political calculation, the high-flown grandiosity and candid self-deprecation. Churchill was both a frustrating man and one who inspired intense devotion. I haven't seen both sides of him portrayed quite as well.

More if you're interested

A few books and other resources that I've enjoyed and benefited from on the topic of Winston Churchill in World War II:

Winston's War: Churchill 1940-1945, by Max Hastings is a comprehensive look at Churchill's wartime leadership, including much, much more than the month covered by Darkest Hour, including Churchill's ill-fated courtship of American help (carefully and subtly portrayed in Darkest Hour), his obsession with commando operations and opening a front in the Mediterranean, and his eventual marginalization by Roosevelt in favor of Stalin and his fall from power. It's a triumphant and tragic story brilliantly told. I highly recommend it.


The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill & Hitler, by John Lukacs, is a short, brisk history that frames May and June of 1940 as a battle between two titanic personalities at the height of their powers. Both Churchill and Hitler struggled with recalcitrant subordinates and military setbacks, and both traveled extensively back and forth between command centers and points of crisis as the invasion of France unfolded. Lukacs, with pointed insight, does an excellent job of laying out the parallels but also, more importantly, explaining the deep differences between the two men and their sides and foreshadowing the different courses Churchill's and Hitler's wars would take. As I watched Darkest Hour, I was reminded again and again of The Duel, and when I watched the end credits I realized why—Lukacs served as the film's historical advisor. 

Lukacs has also written Five Days in London: May 1940 and Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: The Dire Warning, Churchill's First Speech as Prime Minister, two short books on even narrower slivers of Churchill's early leadership: a few days during the collapse of the Allies in France and a single speech to parliament. 

Winston Churchill: A Life, by the late Sir John Keegan, is a short biography from the Penguin Lives series. Keegan manages to compress Churchill's massive life into a brisk 200 pages, with good attention given to his wartime years. I recommend this biography to anyone setting out to study Churchill for the first time.

Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: The Great Speeches is a wonderful Penguin Classics collection of Churchill's oratory from across his long career, including the three immortal speeches dramatized in Darkest Hour.

Finally, Dan Snow of the History Hit podcast has two excellent interviews on Darkest Hour available: one with Anthony McCarten, the film's screenwriter, and another with Gary Oldman himself, who is remarkably humble and candid about his approach to portraying Churchill. Each interview is around twenty minutes long, and well worth the time to listen.

In conclusion

Go see Darkest Hour. It's a very good film and an excellent look at one month of history. Pair it with Dunkirk to get a sense of those events from the top down and the bottom up. And check out some of those other Churchill films. If you already have and have a favorite film version, let me know which it is with a comment. But above all, dig into the history and learn from it. It's something Churchill himself, no mean historian, would heartily endorse.