The World War II movie Days of Glory opens today on 3 screens. That's not to be confused with another movie called Days of Glory, from 1944, or the other one from 1945. Nor is it to be confused with Hope and Glory, Paths of Glory, What Price Glory, Bound for Glory, Days of Heaven, Days of Thunder, or just plain Glory.
In the past, war movies used to be about something. By the titles alone, you could go to a movie expecting to see Attacks, Battles, Bridges, Boats, The Big Red One, Bullets, Dawn Patrols, Dirty Dozens, Fighting Sullivans, Fixed Bayonets, Flying Leathernecks, Great Escapes, Guns of Navarone, Merrill's Marauders, and even Full Metal Jackets. Titles like these make you want to roar and holler and tear around the woods, ripping right through enemy cover with thunder and trumpets driving you on.
Now, look at this list of more recent titles: Amen, Beyond Borders, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Casualties of War, Charlotte Grey, Cold Mountain, Coming Home, Courage Under Fire, Dark Blue World, Empire of the Sun, The English Patient, Flags of Our Fathers, Gardens of Stone, Gods and Generals, Heaven and Earth, Innocent Voices, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Patriot, Pearl Harbor, Rules of Engagement, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Tigerland, We Were Soldiers and Windtalkers.
Some of these movies are good and some aren't, but the titles alone make you feel like you ought to stand at attention, before yawning and maybe crawling under a rock. Rules? Flags? Courage? Casualties? Patriots? Where are the guns, bullets and boats? What's the point?
I've already written about this at length, here it is again in a nutshell. The topic of war is still very much alive, even though it has become passé to make war movies that glorify violence. So instead, we get these gutted, bloodless shrines to bravery and glory. Days of Glory is a perfect example, completely uninteresting and unremarkable in every respect, but unwaveringly devotional and noble. I guess you can't even blame the Weinsteins for choosing their deadly dull title to replace their film's original title, Indigènes (2006), which translates to "Natives." (Not exactly rousing, either.) Regardless, their ploy worked. It sounds like an important movie, and so Academy members nominated it for a Best Foreign Film Oscar.
Days of Glory isn't the only boring title out there this week. There's We Are Marshall (355 screens) a truly dreadful inspirational sports drama that also has the misfortune of being based on a true story. Why do so many sports movies have to be inspirational dramas? We used to have movies like The Longest Yard or The Bad News Bears (the originals -- no remakes, please) that celebrated the brute physicality of these sports.
Boxing is the only sport that has been served well in the movies, and Rocky Balboa (266 screens) provides a very surprising example of a good one. Sylvester Stallone's re-entry into his most lucrative creation came with a slight sheepishness, as if aware of its own absurdity. But it's also the most touchingly personal film Stallone has ever made, the one that probably best reflects his own hopes and fears. It also has a great title; the word "rocky" sounds tough, hard and craggy. It can take a punch. "We Are Marshall" sounds like it would be tackled in the first down and dragged off field in a stretcher.
Here's another one. Want to tell the story of a CIA agent living a life of secrets and spying, torn between two beautiful women? What would you call that? Hell Is for Spies? Paranoid Agents of Justice? Nope, you'd call it The Good Shepherd (80 screens), and where can you go with a title like that but to make a three-hour yawner so careful and soul deadening that no one even remembers seeing it. It landed one minor Oscar nomination (for Art Direction), and as far as I can tell, no one has noticed one way or the other.
That said, suppose you wanted to make a thriller about a hard-nosed reporter bulldozing his way back into Berlin after the war, not only to track down a true love, but also to find a missing scientist with secrets that could control the world? And let's say this movie would be released on the same weekend as The Good Shepherd. Let's see: how about Ink-Stained Typewriter Jockeys in Berlin? Or what about Blitzkrieg Bulldozers? Wrong. The correct answer is The Good German (22 screens). I wonder how many people bought tickets to The Good Shepherd thinking they were going to see the George Clooney movie, and bought tickets to The Good German thinking they were going to see the Matt Damon movie?