By Dana Fresdsti
Dana Fredsti has just published Plague Nation, the sequel to her acclaimed zombie thriller Plague Town. For the last book she wrote a guest post for Under the Radar explaining the research that went into creating a realistic walking dead scenario. This time she shares some memories of her Korean War vet father and breaks down her love for war movies, even the ones that don't always get their facts straight.
I dreamed about my father the other night. This may not seem like much to anyone else, but my dad has been dead for three years and change and this is the first time I've dreamed about him since he died. So… it was a big damn deal for me. It was a very simple dream. Just Dad calling and saying that while he wasn't feeling great, there was no reason the two of us couldn't get together, hang out and just talk. Next minute in dreamtime, Dad and I are sitting opposite one another in these big comfy leather armchairs, reading and talking about movies we liked. I reminded him that after reading my first zombie story A Man's Gotta Eat What A Man's Gotta Eat, he told me I wrote like a drunken misogynist. He died before Plague Town was written. I'm not sure what he would have had to say about it, but I'm sure he would have given me hell for having someone "unholster" their M-4.
Dad was a Korean War vet. He joined the Air Force when he was seventeen (I'm still not clear on whether Grandma helped him lie about his age or gave him special permission to join up before he was eighteen), and came back emotionally scarred. He wouldn't talk about it much … Mom later told me that when he used to drink too much, he'd cry and talk about seeing his friends die in front of him. But I didn't know any of this back when Father/Daughter bonding time for me and Dad was to sit on the couch and watch Rat Patrol together.
If you aren't familiar with it, Rat Patrol aired in the '60s and to quote from IMDB: "Set in North Africa during World War II, this series chronicles the adventures of a 4-man team of commandos within the Long Range Desert Group. (In utter defiance of historical accuracy, the team consists of three Americans and one Brit.) Armed with jeeps equipped with .50-caliber machine guns--and endless chutzpah--they wage a highly irregular war against Rommel's Afrika Korps."
Ah, Rat Patrol… no wonder I've always had such tolerance for bad movies staring Christopher George (Pieces, Grizzly, Day of the Animals); he starred in the show that pretty much epitomized the best memories I have of quality time with my dad. After he and Mom got divorced, he'd take me and my sister out to movies. We never went to see Disney flicks, though. We'd go see movies like Tora Tora Tora; Krakatoa, East of Java (even though it was really west of Java); and Young Winston. War and adventure movies.
So this dream, and all the memories it sparked, started me thinking about the dichotomy between Dad's real life experiences and the fact he loved shows like Rat Patrol, and movies that didn’t necessarily portray war, weapons or even the military in a strictly accurate light. Since I've learned to take my research for my zombie novels pretty damned seriously, especially when weapons/military are involved, I decided to ask friends and family either in the military or with a strong weapons background what it was about movies, shows and books that made them forgive inaccuracies; what movies/books got it right (and why); and what made certain movies forever doomed to consignment into the depths of Bad Movie Hell.
First, the "entertaining and accurate" list:
Twelve O'Clock High – accurate in its depiction and written by the vets who lived it.
Hamburger Hill – a friend said, "My dad was there and he said it was the "least bullshit" movie about Vietnam he has seen."
Strategic Air Command - one of Dad's favorites, with Jimmy Stewart.
The Longest Day (both book and movie) – the movie had actual survivors as technical advisors, and the book had many eyewitness accounts.
Saving Private Ryan – the people I asked couldn't think of a single mistake in it, and it's depiction of tank warfare was deemed spot on by a specialist in this area, and "in a way most writers/filmmakers overlook, the sheer terror of it, but also the way tanks have vulnerabilities."
Tora Tora Tora – "a staid, but amazingly balanced, researched and accurate account of the attack." I still remember being totally freaked out as a kid by the scene where a sailor, his torso and hair aflame, jumped into the water.
Battlestar Galactica (the new show) was, according to a friend, "a very realistic futurism of actual aircraft carrier operations and procedures (the writers clearly served or consulted someone who did).
Battleship got a shout out from a friend, who said, "I watched it with my neighbors who are retired Navy (radiomen) and they loved it. Battleship was Hollywood-accurate AND fun."
Also mentioned, Full Metal Jacket (depressing but accurate), Platoon, A Bridge Too Far, Zulu (one of my personal favorites), and 300 (militarily accurate but with historical errors). Aliens also got a mention in this category.
"We love this despite the fact it's not totally accurate" list (and some of these also my dad's favorites):
Patton - Deemed "occasionally wildly inaccurate in terms of equipment and sequence of events, but is an amazing look into the spirit of a born warrior out of time and context."
The Big Red One and To Hell and Back - both described thusly: "Crappy and inaccurate locations and equipment, but essentially true to their subjects, and directed/adapted by an actual combat vet. The events are real; Hollywood didn't have to make them up to make them heroic.
Kelly's Heroes ("Stop makin' with the negative waves") - Pure silly fun, with comic book "realism" (they kill Germans the way Rambo killed Commies), with an amazing cast and a sparkling script. Like Stripes and Dr. Strangelove, not meant to be accurate.
Commando (Yay, Testosterone-fest!) and First Blood also made this list.
Starship Troopers – this movie wins a special award as being so gloriously over the top goofy that it's forgiven the many ridiculous inaccuracies. Just to name a few WTF things:
1. In a military where throwing knives at recruits is acceptable. it probably isn't very likely that getting someone shot in the head is going to result in nothing more than a stern talking to and a spanking.
2. Chummy relaxed atmosphere in basic training is insanely unbelievable (unless you are training the most ridiculous and unbelievable military).
3. There is no way a fist fight with an officer would get brushed off with nothing more than "rank is not an issue here" either.
4. The fast track to becoming a commissioned officer involving field promotions from everyone ahead of you dying and then you shooting your Lt. is nuts.
5. Getting busted down to private to "see action" rather than "see prison" is nonsense.
However (opines one friend), given the incredible lack of discipline and other bizarre behavior that everyone in the future military displayed (and the fact that Paul Verhoven has a strange sense of humor), maybe all of that is just a realistic depiction of a highly dysfunctional military. Besides, how can you not forgive a movie where Doogie Hauser wear's quasi-Nazi gear and mind-melds with giant bugs?
The OMG, BAD!!!! Category with no redeeming features:
Army Wives – from an actual Army wife: "I absolutely HATE Army Wives. The inaccuracies are so glaring I spend most of my time yelling at the TV when I try to watch it. First and foremost being the fact that they never move!"
Midway – this movie got thumbs down from several different sources. Summation: bad dialogue, insane misuse of stock footage, and in one continuous sequence from take off, to attack to crashing, Chuck Heston flies three different planes.
Red Tails – dubbed "insanely inaccurate movie" about the Tuskegee Airmen, from the supposed sequence of events to cardboard aircraft characters, to dogfights that belonged in Star Wars, this movie didn’t get much of anything right.
Flyboys, Second-in-Command and Blackhawk Down also all got thumbs down, as did Navy Seals, which, according to J. Jackson (who has a kickass zombie novel called Up From the Depths coming out soon, and you can bet there will be total accuracy in the military details) "should have been called, Rich Young Actors Playing with Big Guns and Proving They Haven't the Slightest Clue What the Military is Really Like."
Pearl Harbor – I have actually not gotten any positive feedback about Michael Bay's supposedly accurate account of the events of Pearl Harbor. I do know that someone from the film's art department disparagingly dismissed both a book of painstaking historical research put together by the 20th Century Fox Research Library and the film Tora Tora Tora, adding "This time, we're going to do it right. Tell the story of how Pearl Harbor really went down." Um, yeah, not so much, dude. There's even an entire Wikipedia entry devoted to its historical inaccuracies. The lyrics to one of Team America's touching love songs sums up my feelings about the movie. I hope you'll excuse my slight alteration to the lyrics:
I miss you more then Michael Bay missed the markHere's to you, Dad.
When he made Pearl Harbor
I miss you more than that movie missed the point
And that’s an awful lot, Dad,
And now, now you’ve gone away
And all I’m trying to say is
Pearl Harbor sucked, and I miss you.
Plague Nation is out now.