Sergeant York (1941) Review

Director: Howard Hawks

Genre(s): Biography, Drama, War

Runtime: 134 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Sergeant York is one of the greatest pieces of Americana to ever grace the silver screen. Alvin C. York (Gary Cooper) is a Tennessean hillbilly with a pacifistic interpretation of the Bible who is hesitant to be drafted into the American military during World War I. This is a true story, and, according to legend, the real York insisted that Gary Cooper be cast as him, although I couldn’t tell you if this aspect of the production is factual or not.

Despite being a famous war picture, it should be noted that this film is not all battlefield antics. The first half (or so) is actually a peek inside the life of the rural, backwoods United States in the early 1900s. Be prepared for lots of hick accents. However, the sequences on the front line of the Western Front in Europe are spellbinding. With the exception of some arched-back deaths, the combat is realistic and intense. The action scenes, like a bar fistfight at the Tennessee-Kentucky border and a depiction of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, are excellently rendered.

Gary Cooper rightfully won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance here, one of the best in cinema history. The struggles his character faces are relatable, as he wrestles with his conscience, sense of patriotism, and interpretation of his holy book over how to best serve his country. To be honest, the morals of the movie are pretty simple, but it’s important to remember that this is a piece of propaganda intended to brace Americans for their seemingly inevitable entry into World War II. Sergeant York was sent to theaters in the United States several months prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Aided by a good musical score from Max Steiner, this flick is dripping in sentimentality, which, along with its hillbilly accents, might turn off some modern viewers. I do admit that it’s a little corny, but it’s still one of the most engaging motion pictures to ever be released. Not only is it one of the very best features about the First World War, it’s one of the very best war films of all time. Regardless of your religious or political persuasions, you’re bound to enjoy Sergeant York.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Emperor (2020) Review

Director: Mark Amin

Genre(s): Action, Biography, Drama, War

Runtime: 99 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The 2020 biopic Emperor fumbles with the historical facts, but still manages to be an entertaining work about an often-overlooked period of U.S. history. In 1859, just before the outbreak of the American Civil War, escaped slave Shields Green (Dayo Okeniyi), nicknamed “Emperor,” joins militant abolitionist John Brown’s (James Cromwell) raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), with the goal of inciting a slave revolt. As historically inaccurate as it may be, I still found myself engaged to the events taking place on the screen.

Emperor takes an action-movie-ish approach to the life of Shields Green. I mean, this picture even has a Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)-esque wagon chase, for Heaven’s sake! The action is almost laughably explosive at times, but I suppose that that’s just the price of making a historical film that gets seen by the masses. It’s a little ridiculous, but it’s all part of the fun.

This movie shouldn’t be looked to as an accurate representation of the events of 1859. The horrors of human slavery are kept safely in the bounds of the MPAA’s PG-13 rating. The Harpers Ferry raid looks like a full-scale battle (complete with a cannon or two!), and the fate of Shields Green is completely fictionalized. It may be a little awkward for history buffs to sit through for these reasons, but these alterations to historical fact make the finished product more commercial.

It may play fast and loose with the truth, but Emperor is still a film that I enjoy. John Brown is my hero, so it’s cool seeing him in cinematic form (even if the flick isn’t as good as Seven Angry Men [1955]). The critical reception of this feature was mixed, but I can largely forgive its crimes against history because of how easily one can become emotionally invested in it. Just make sure to quickly look over Shield Green’s Wikipedia page after viewing.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Gandhi (1982) Review

Director: Richard Attenborough

Genre(s): Biography, Drama

Runtime: 191 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Gandhi was one of those movies that was met with a rapturous response upon its initial release (it won eight Oscars – including Best Picture), but has largely fallen by the wayside when the greatest motion pictures of all time are listed. Well, the British Film Institute did name it the thirty-fourth greatest British movie of the twentieth century in 1999, so it still gets some recognition. As you’ve probably guessed, this film is a biopic of Mahatma Gandhi (Ben Kingsley), the Indian independence activist who insisted that his followers use non-violent methods to throw off British rule.

This Lawrence of Arabia (1962)-esque flick feels like one of the last of the old-school historical epics. According to Wikipedia, the feature’s budget was $22 million, which feels like a tiny amount when you look at the massive spectacle that the movie has to offer. One scene used over 300,000 extras, which is a world record, according to the folks at Guinness World Records. It makes it seem like Gandhi‘s budget was endless.

The sequences with big crowds (like the funeral, the Amritsar Massacre, and the Salt March) are the reason to watch (well, those and Ben Kingsley’s masterful performance), and the scenes of indoor political intrigue just don’t capture the same feeling. As excellent as this picture is, it does largely ignore some of Gandhi’s flaws. His alleged initial racism against Blacks and his insistence that Jews commit suicide rather than violently resist the Nazis are not covered here.

Do they still make movies like Gandhi? Not really. This supersized, three-hour film is one of the best historical epics to not directly revolve around a war. Ben Kingsley disappears into the title role and the production values are exquisite. Also, how could we forget that it gave the world the Gandhi II scene from the “Weird Al” Yankovic comedy UHF (1989)? Overall, this feature is quite watchable, considering its length and scope.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

A Beautiful Mind (2001) Review

Director: Ron Howard

Genre(s): Biography, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 135 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

While A Beautiful Mind is not my favorite movie of 2001 (that would be A.I. Artificial Intelligence [2001]), it was still a very worthy choice for Best Picture at the Oscars held for films released that year. The feature being reviewed here has a wide appeal and still holds up very well. It’s a biopic of genius mathematician John Nash (Russell Crowe), who finds himself increasingly wrapped up in the Cold War intrigue of the late-1940s and early-1950s.

A picture like this easily could’ve become just another dry recitation of the events in the subject’s life, but, under the guidance of director Ron Howard, it becomes something far more than that. A Beautiful Mind turns out to be an engrossing psychological thriller that rewards multiple viewings. If there’s any downside here, it’s that the third act isn’t as eye-popping as some of the content that came before it.

Russell Crowe was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his work on A Beautiful Mind. His performance here could not be any more different than his performance in the previous year’s Gladiator (2000) if he tried. They’re worlds apart, with him playing a badass action hero in the 2000 movie and an awkward, self-absorbed intellectual in the 2001 one. However, the entire cast of A Beautiful Mind deserves a shout-out, because they all did a phenomenal job.

As far as flicks that won the Oscar for Best Picture go, this one is certainly more on the crowd-pleasing side, rather than the it-only-appeals-to-film-snobs side. On paper, a film about a mathematician who doesn’t kick anybody’s ass may sound like a recipe for disaster, but Ron Howard pulls it off. It really is a stirring and thought-provoking drama, with some great performances thrown into the mix.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Raging Bull (1980) Review

Director: Martin Scorsese

Genre(s): Biography, Drama, Sport

Runtime: 129 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Raging Bull may be a boxing movie, but it sure isn’t Rocky (1976). Directed by Martin Scorsese, this film is about the rise of violently psychopathic boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro). Is this critically acclaimed movie a masterpiece or just a bunch of raging bullshit? I think that the truth lies somewhere in between those two extremes.

This sports biopic is occasionally criticized for revolving around a person with no redeeming value outside of the boxing ring. Robert De Niro’s dedication to the role is admirable (he gained around sixty pounds for parts of filming), but the character he plays is simply a low-life, abusive brute with no control. He can’t really be considered a tough guy, due to his out-of-control paranoia and thin skin. A good motion picture doesn’t need to be centered around a good guy, but Raging Bull‘s characters are so despicable that it really hurts the feature.

The saving grace of this flick are its more sports-oriented scenes. It really comes alive in the boxing ring. These sequences are filmed amazingly well, being simultaneously ugly and beautiful. It seems like Scorsese is trying almost every trick in the book to make the audience feel immersed in the brutal sport. It’s a shame the rest of the film has to deal with Jake LaMotta viciously lashing out against everybody in his life.

In addition, Raging Bull feels a little episodic, never building up to a proper climax. Just about the only emotion inspired by the work is revulsion. As part of the American Film Institute’s AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (1oth Anniversary Edition) retrospective in 2007 it was named the fourth-best American movie of all time. Really? It’s not a bad movie, but the fourth-greatest American film of all time? This is higher than the likes of Schindler’s List (1993), The Wizard of Oz (1939), the original Star Wars trilogy, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), etc.? I don’t think so.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Elephant Man (1980) Review

Director: David Lynch

Genre(s): Biography, Drama

Runtime: 124 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

The Elephant Man was only director David Lynch’s second feature film (the first being the surrealist horror movie Eraserhead [1977]), and this is his second classic motion picture in a row. This feature is a biopic of Joseph Merrick (played by John Hurt, and referred to as “John Merrick” here), a man from Victorian Era Great Britain who was born with extreme body abnormalities. With the help of Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), he escapes from his life as a sideshow “freak.”

This black-and-white film contains some astonishing performances. John Hurt gives a moving (and Oscar-nominated) acting job as the titular character. It took eight hours each day to apply the make-up required for the role (and another two to remove it). Anthony Hopkins matches this incredible thespian talent with a performance that’s just about as far removed from Dr. Hannibal Lecter as can be imagined. They’re both intelligent and compassionate, just like the entire film itself.

It’s not a horror picture, but it’s sometimes as ominous as one. David Lynch carries over the “industrial dystopia” vibe from Eraserhead to his work here. However, this is actually a film about humans, showing how evil and wicked they can be, as well as how noble and high-minded they occasionally are. If there’s any fault with this work of art, it’s that the who’s-the-true-freak? message is a little on-the-nose at times.

The Elephant Man is easily one of the more emotionally-engaging pictures out there. It’s certainly not as surreal as some of Lynch’s other work, which makes it more accessible to the “common” filmgoer. It’s a movie that must be watched. The tagline (“A true story of courage and human dignity.”) doesn’t lie. This is an important and watchable movie.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Hacksaw Ridge (2016) Review

Director: Mel Gibson

Genre(s): Action, Biography, Drama, War

Runtime: 139 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The 2016 war film Hacksaw Ridge may be the Sergeant York (1941) of its generation. Both pictures are based on true stories about American conscientious objectors during a world war. Here, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) signs up to join the American military during World War II, and he finds himself fighting for his right to serve as a non-firearm-carrying medic and seeing combat in the Battle of Okinawa. This is one of the great follow-your-conscience movies.

The first half of Hacksaw Ridge is largely dedicated to setting up Doss as a character and showing the audience his struggle to avoid having to wield a gun during basic training. Many of the supporting characters in Doss’ unit feel somewhat interchangeable, reducing the impact of the battle sequences when they do arrive, but this is a minor fault. There’s plenty of religious content throughout the feature, which may turn off some viewers, but, considering that the plot is grounded in historical events, this shouldn’t be much of an issue.

The second half is where Doss and his fellow soldiers see the horrific face of war on Okinawa. The ultra-violent battles do have some glaring computer-generated blood and gore, and sometimes the choreography of the combat strays into straight action movie territory. The action scenes are highly, highly exciting, but should they be? Is excitement appropriate for a war film with pretensions of realism?

Hacksaw Ridge is an inspiring, moving, and grueling watch. Desmond Doss’ struggle to do what he feels is right in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds is easy to relate to and captivates the audience. Yes, allegations that the battle scenes are occasionally “war porn” are largely true, but they’re still pretty messy and gripping. It’s one of the stronger war flicks that I’ve seen, and it comes highly recommended.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Schindler’s List (1993) Review

Director: Steven Spielberg

Genre(s): Biography, Drama, War

Runtime: 195 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Director Steven Spielberg released two very different films in 1993: the dinosaur-oriented action-adventure Jurassic Park (1993) and the genocide drama Schindler’s List. Set during World War II, German industrialist Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) works to save Jews from the worst of the Holocaust by having them work in his factory. This epic, chilling masterpiece (based on a true story) is in the running for the greatest motion picture in cinema history.

This meticulously crafted movie benefits from impeccable (mostly black-and-white) cinematography and effortless-looking performances. It’s interesting to note that the character development here is not obvious or in-your-face. The Oskar Schindler character’s transformation from indifferent, greedy businessman to savior of hundreds of people is subtle and takes time. This change does not occur in a single episode. The picture raises issues with the duality of man. Why are some humans so heroic, while others are so evil?

John Williams’ melancholy, aching musical score is one of the best aspects of the movie. While the film deals with both the plight of the Jews in Eastern Europe and Oskar Schindler’s efforts to rescue them, the end result never feels like two separate movies joined at the hip. Violence here is brutal and graphic, but it never crosses the line into becoming gratuitous. While most of the feature is appropriately downbeat, there are a few moments of tasteful humor.

Watching Schindler’s List, with its recurring motif of paperwork, may seem like a daunting task, considering it’s a three-plus-hour film about the Holocaust. However, Steven Spielberg is a careful and prudent guide to this world, making sure that the finished product is watchable (if still heartbreaking), balancing horror and Hell with hope and heroism. This picture should be shown in high schools and comes very, very highly recommended.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Seven Angry Men (1955) Review

Director: Charles Marquis Warren

Genre(s): Biography, Drama, War, Western

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1955 biopic Seven Angry Men was actually the second time that actor Raymond Massey played John Brown on the big screen. The first film was the pro-slavery propaganda piece Santa Fe Trail (1940), where Brown was the villain. Anyway, this historical drama details the life of that famed American abolitionist, as he battles against pro-slavery forces in Kansas and what-is-now West Virginia in the years leading up to the American Civil War. It’s a very nifty movie that does justice to the legendary figure at its center.

People who have studied the life of John Brown, one of my heroes, will recognize various incidents in the picture inspired by real-life events. Yes, some of these highlights of Brown’s life – like the Sack of Lawrence and the Battle of Osawatomie – are exaggerated to make them more cinematic, but the flick often sticks surprisingly close to the facts. A few major events are omitted from the feature, like the Battle of Black Jack and the raid into Missouri to rescue several slaves.

This is a morally complex film that doesn’t shy away from asking the big questions about extralegal violence. Raymond Massey gives a dynamite performance as the central character, although it may be too much to keep track of all of his grown sons, considering how little fleshing-out some of them are given (they make up the other six angry men of the title). The action scenes that show up are serviceable, but not above and beyond the call of duty.

Seven Angry Men is an excellent look back at the history of militant abolitionism in the years prior to the breakout of the American Civil War. However, it should be noted that an unnecessary romantic subplot occasionally brings the movie to a standstill. This, right here, is the proper John Brown motion picture to view, not that Santa Fe Trail stuff. If you enjoy this work, I’d recommend reading the book John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights by David S. Reynolds as a companion piece.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) Review

Director: Arthur Penn

Genre(s): Action, Biography, Crime, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 111 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The 1967 gangster movie Bonnie and Clyde feels just as alive, fresh, zesty, and vital now as it did during its original theatrical run. As you probably know, the plot concerns bandit duo and lovers Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty), who tear through the Central-Southern United States on a crime spree in the 1930s. One of the best of its kind, this film took the sensibilities of the French New Wave and applied them to these American folk figures.

Bonnie and Clyde remains dazzling partially because of its expert juggling of action, drama, romance, comedy, suspense, and historical context. Unless you abhor pictures that glamorize murderous criminals (which this one has a tendency to do), there’s something here for just about everybody. The feature starts off adventurous and relatively light, but, by the time of the third act, it feels like a road trip to Hell.

It’s generally a fast-paced piece of work, with some very, very good action sequences (the violence that they contain was considered shocking back in 1967). A special shout-out has to go to the cast, who all play their distinctive characters with aplomb. The Great Depression-era United States is convincingly recreated here, and the flick is surprisingly funny at times.

Bonnie and Clyde is sometimes credited with playing a critical role in tearing down the old Hollywood Production Code, which dictated what content could and couldn’t be in American movies. The film’s graphic violence, sexual undercurrents, and glorification of ruthless criminals made the Code impotent. It was soon to be replaced by the MPAA rating system (you know, like G, R, etc.). Talk about a movie that left an impact! However, this motion picture is still highly recommended, regardless of its influence and significance in cinema history.

My rating is 9 outta 10.