The GI Film Festival: Showcasing Heroism Through Film
As we wind down this “Military Appreciation Month” on this the 146th anniversary of the Memorial Day—first celebrated on May 30, 1868 as “Decoration Day”—most of us have no real idea of what it is like to “give the last full measure of devotion”—or even a ‘partial measure of devotion’ in the frenzy of combat, becoming maimed for life ... becoming a hero.
The power of cinema to bring this reality home was demonstrated once more at the just-wrapped GI Film Festival.
The event opened with Field of Lost Shoes, a Civil War drama starring Jason Isaacs (Black Hawk Down, The Patriot), Lauren Holly (Picket Fences), David Arquette (Scream), Nolan Gould (Modern Family) and Tom Skerritt (Top Gun). It depicts 250 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute who valiantly fought in the Battle of New Market 150 years ago on May 15, 1864—for ‘their country,’ as Confederate Commander General Robert E. Lee depicted the cause. They lost their shoes as they pressed through the muddy battlefield, thus the name.
The engagement was part of Union Commander General Ulysses S. Grant’s grand plan to win the war. Control of the strategically rich Shenandoah Valley was a key element in what he hoped would force the South into submission. The film, realizing a dream by Dominion Resources chief executive Thomas Farrell, is set to premiere September in 20 cities.
The festival closed with Fort Bliss, starring Michelle Monaghan (Source Code) and Ron Livingston (The Conjuring)—part of a “Salute to Women in the Military.” The film is a drama of the heart and the pitched battles that take place within that heart—post combat, in this case Afghanistan. It features a fictional combat medic mother, Lt. Col. Maggie Swann (Monaghan), striving to readjust to realities on the home front. She is raising a young son, who doesn’t remember and doesn’t care for his divorced mother. He now lives with his father's pregnant girlfriend, with whom the little boy has bonded.
The opening battlefield scene, graphically depicting a soldier hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, is a classic, opening one’s eyes up to the reality of what our fighting men and women have endured in these wars. Then comes the reality of the wounded human heart—back at Fort Bliss, on and off base, as this mother faces the bittersweet task of reconnecting with her child and rebuilding their lives, a reality our fighting men and women confront daily, in all its different harrowing forms.
Directed by Claudia Myers (Kettle of Fish), particularly touched by the unique challenges of women in the military, it will premiere September 19.
Associate producer Michael J. Hardy, a retired military attache, asked why people should see the film, said: “It’s a great film—especially to see the lens on the Army you don’t normally see. It’s very realistic and very uplifting; and it tells a story from a mother’s point of view, who is both a professional in the Army and a mother and the conflict of those two.”
In between these two beautifully crafted films, the fest featured a “Salute to Hollywood Patriots,” hosted by Gary Sinise, with shorts on James Stewart and Travis Mills—in addition to: The Civilian Military Divide (a documentary short), When the Game Stands Tall (feature on the “warrior spirit”) and a series of compelling documentaries featuring “international warriors” (hosted by the Canadian Embassy); “action,” “why we fought,” “heroes from each generation,” “heroes then and now,” “transitioning,” “remembering Korea,” “the families who serve,” and “overcoming barriers.”
Two in particular stood out for me—Honor and Sacrifice and 4-4-43—stories of immense heroism by Special Operations forces, lost to history—until now.
Honor and Sacrifice is a complex story of family ties and military heroism reduced to its heroic simplicity by director Lucy Ostrander. It begins by telling about a Japanese-American family, the Matsumotos, who settled in Los Angeles farming hardscrabble land at the turn of the 20th century. They suffered all the indignities, including, what family remained being sent to internment camps during World War II.
Most of the family had moved back to Hiroshima, where the father, a photographer, captured beautiful images of that historic city—just as he had photographed captivating images of Old Los Angeles.The eldest son, Roy, had studied in Japan, before returning to the states and was released from internment when he offered to enlist in the war effort; two of his brothers had stayed in Japan.
Roy answered the call for “A Dangerous and Hazardous Mission,” along with some 3,000 other men. Because of his language skills, he ended up playing a key role in the U.S. Army Special Operations guerrilla unit commanded by General Frank Dow Merrill, dubbed “Merrill’s Marauders,” that fought in the China-Burma-India theatre, becoming famous for missions that deeply penetrated behind Japanese lines, often engaging far superior enemy forces.
They defeated the Japanese 18th division and captured a strategically important airfield (Myitkyina) in northern Burma. Entering Burma from India through the Himalayan Mountains, they walked 1,000 miles through dense jungles, carrying heavy equipment. Conditions were so treacherous that only 200 marauders survived, and only two survivors suffered no wounds or major illness requiring hospitalization.
None of the horses and only 41 mules survived.
This remarkable story of Roy Matsumoto’s heroism is told by his daughter Karen who, in recent years, discovered her father’s military intelligence background and the fact that he intercepted all the Japanese communications and how on one strategic day he saved the 2nd Battalion. (While interrogating Japanese prisoners of war, encountering a friend, he found out his family miraculously survived the nuclear bomb, because, given the paucity of photographic supplies, economic necessity forced the family to resettle in the countryside.)
4-4-43: Lt. Col. William Edwin Dyess and The Greatest Story of the War in the Pacific, directed by John Lukacs, is another never-before-told gem. It tells the unique story of the only large-scale group of POWs to escape from the Imperial Japanese Army in the Pacific Theater during World War II told through the eyes of Dyess, whom Lukacs calls “one of the war’s greatest, yet least-known heroes.” (Noted voice actor Tom Kane, a.k.a. “The Voice of the Oscars,” captures the spirit of the late Dyess.)
The film is narrated by decorated Marine Corps/Vietnam vet Dale Dye, the crusty old colonel in Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Band of Brothers (2001).
Dyess, dubbed the “One-Man Scourge of the Japanese,” fought the Japanese in the air, ground and water—as a daredevil pilot, infantryman and even a Marine for a few wrenching hours. He led America’s first amphibious landing of the war—just one more fact, overlooked for 70-plus years, which the film spotlights.
After surviving the Bataan Death March and nearly 12 months of starvation, disease, and torture in captivity, Dyess helped lead the Davao POW escape—specifically intended to tell the world about the infamous Death March and Japanese POW atrocities.
Dyess fought behind enemy lines with Filipino guerrilla forces before General MacArthur evacuated him in mid-1943. But, when he came home, he didn’t receive a hero’s homecoming because President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the military brass, having adopted a “Europe First” mantra, did not want to distract from “Operation Overlord,” otherwise known as D-Day, being readied to commence a year hence.
Dyess was not alive when the government finally went public with the story of the atrocities in early 1944. He died in a freak plane crash over Los Angeles just before Christmas 1943 while trying to save the life of a lone motorist during an emergency landing.
This rough, rugged and handsome Texan had made rank of Lieutenant Colonel—serving as what we now know as a Special Forces operative. He was 27 at the time of his death. Dyess’ wife, Marajen, a wealthy Hollywood socialite, and very well connected, was hosting a big bash that evening at their swank apartment on Crescent Heights Boulevard with several major studio players and actor friends.
That day, Ed was rushing from errands to get ready for the big party, where they heard the tragic news of his death. One of the first to console Marajen was Mary Pickford.
Seventy years later Dyess still hasn’t received his deserving Medal of Honor. Lukacs is spearheading an effort to correct this oversight—with the help of a powerhouse group including, he said, “Texas local, state and national politicians, plus an army of retired generals and a fleet of admirals, other military personnel active and retired, living Medal of Honor winners, one of the four surviving Doolittle Raiders, the former president of the Philippines (a West Point grad), Navy Seals, bestselling historians and many others.”
Let’s hope that day comes soon—along with a major motion picture, worthy of Dyess. And, that’s a wrap!
Just a brief snapshot of the heroism of our fighting men and women, we’ve celebrated this May, which the GI Film Festival plays such an integral role in showcasing each year.