14 November 2008


When I was teaching military law at The Basic School, we made use of commercial motion pictures in the Leadership Department. For instance, I showed When Hell Was In Session, the story of Admiral Jeremiah Denton, as a precursor to teaching on the Code Of Conduct. We showed 12 O'Clock High as a study in various leadership styles.

Below are five motion pictures that taught me something of leadership. I would be interested in learning if practitioners of other professions claim any help from motion pictures.

My top 5:

Mr. Roberts
Henry Fonda
Jack Lemmon (Academy Award)
William Powell
James Cagney

This motion picture takes place aboard a Navy cargo ship in the waning days of WWII. The Captain, a tyrant who was commissioned from the Merchant Marine, takes joy from punishing his sailors for his own incompetence. Lieutent (jg) Doug Roberts, the First Lieutenant and Cargo Officer, is the only barrier between the Captain and the crew. Thinking himmself wasted on a part of the backwater Navy, he longs for duty with the forward forces, for one opportunity to test himself in the crucible of war. It is only after he gets his transfer that he comes to recognize the gallantry of men consigned by war to sail "from tedium to monotony, with an occasional side-trip to apathy."

From this I learned that in war, every man has a role and they are all important in their own way. The cooks in the battalion mess are every bit Marines as are their infantry brothers.

When Fonda was recognized at The Kennedy Center Honors, the Naval Academy glee club sang. As they marched from the stage, the Midshipman director saluted Fonda and said, "Thank you, Mr. Roberts." Each Mid saluted as he left the stage. Fonda said it was the greatest honor of his career.

The Enemy Below
Robert Mitchum
Curt J├╝rgens

This is a study in command and the art and tragedy of war. Mitchum is the newly assigned Captain of a destroyer escort in the Atlantic. Jurgens is the CO of a U-boat seeking to rendezvous with a surfacew raider. When the destroyer makes contact with the sub, a 12 hour pursuit commences. I learned to let the man who knows his job do it without unnecessary interference from the "boss." The mutual respect that the two "enemies" ultimately share is one that I feel toward some of the NVA officers I opposed on the field of honor.

12 O'Clock High
Gregory Peck
Dean Jagger (Academy Award)

The 918th Bomb Group is one of the initial groups making up the 8th Air Force. As a test bed for daylight precision bombing over Europe, it develops a reputation as a "hard-luck" group. Peck is sent to relieve the Group Commander and turn it around. Through a combination of hard-nosed determination to accomplish the mission, personal courage, and the ability to treat his young airmen as men--eve when they do not want to be men--he transforms them. "It's tough to grow all the way up at 21!"

Jagger won the Academy Award for his performance as the ground executive officer.

Steven Spielberg complimented the opening of the movie as one of his favorites.

What Price Glory
James Cagney
Dan Dailey

An otherwise non-descript motion picture based on the play by Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings, it nonetheless goes to the heart of the professional soldier. Captain Flagg commands a rifle company in the 6th Marines in WWI France. First Sergeant Quirt, with whom he has served and battled over their long service, is assigned as his First Sergeant. The other NCOs include Cpl Kuiper (Wiliam Demarest) and the Mess Sergeant (Harry Morgan). These "Old Breed" regulars take the many raw recruits under their wings and turn them into Marines.

In its own way, it is also a study in leadership. As the unit marches back to the front, Flagg says, "There's something about he profession of arms--it's almost like a religion." The wounded Quirt follows up with, "Oh what a lot of damned fools it takes to make an army. Hey, Flagg, wait for me."

Laurence Stallings was a WWI Marine who was wounded at Chateau-Thierry. He ultimnately lost his leg due to the wound.

Battle Cry
Van Heflin
James Whitmore
Aldo Ray
Tab Hunter
Raymond Massey

Arguably the best novel to come out of WWII, it is also the best WWII motion picture about the war in the Pacific. Written by Leon Uris, it is a fictional account of members of 2d Battalion, Sixth Marines from boot camp to a first wave assault late in the war. Uris was a member of 2/6 and I suspect that Heflin's character was loosely based on 2/6's most famous commander, LtCol (later LtGen) William K. Jones.

James Whitmore, himself a WWII Marine, is splendid as the seasoned Communications Chief who turns recruits into warriors.

If you follow this theme, you will see that a core value is the leadership of the "elders", the "Old Breed of American regular," that runs through it.


robert austell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
robert austell said...

Thanks, Mac - I have no thoughts on movies, but would commend the Horatio Hornblower series of books as an excellent primer on leadership. It's a great story, too.

Mac said...

Rob--I agree re: Hornblower.

Bill Crawford said...

those are some old movies!

I'll have to check em out - think I've seen 3 of them.

Viola said...

Mr Roberts is a favorite. I don't think Ive seen any of the others. Maybe 12 O'clock High because I use to watch all of Gregory Peck's movies.

Dave Van said...

“Wall Street” with Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen (1987) had to be a favorite of Lehman Bros, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Fannie and Freddie, with it’s message that “Greed is Good” don’t you think? And of course “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” (1988) hands down favorite of GM, Ford and Chrylser with the message...”the car of the future”.

Reformed Catholic said...

All movies I grew up with, and appreciated. I'm wondering what your thoughts are on the character of Sgt Stryker (John Wayne) in Sands of Iwo Jima ??

Reformed Catholic said...

Oh, and I second Rev. Austell's comment on Horatio Hornblower.

FWIW ... the BBC/A&E series of Hornblower movies were not bad at all.

Then there's the Patrick O'Brian novels with Capt Jack Aubrey. Another interesting series of books about a military leader.

Rev Kim said...

Thanks for these! I'll check them out. I hope that doesn't make me a bad American because I haven't seen them :) And Dave loves war movies, so now I know what we can watch when we hunker down for the winter.

Mac said...

RC: Of course, as a Marine, I like Sands of Iwo Jima. As a Rifle Company Commander, I had the standard picture of John Wayne from the movie, chin strap dangling, with the aprocryphal caption "Life is tough, but it's tougher if you're stupid!" hanging on the bulkhead of my office. In training, we were admonished that our chin straps should be buckled ("Who do you think you are, Candidate, John Wayne?"). A standard component of the C-Ration was the cheese spread or PB@J tin with 4 "John Wayne" Crackers, the tin itself having been opened with a "John Wayne" can opener. (I still have the one I carried on my dog tag chain throughout my career.)

Stryker is a leader, and fairly accurate of the senior wartime NCOs. He so wanted the role (the producers were thinking of Kirk Douglas) that he went down to Camp Pendleton and lived with several NCOs for three months to prepare to audition for the role.

A little trivia: during the first night on Tarawa, as he is setting in his lines for the night, one of the people he tells off to a two-man position is "McCarty." My Dad was at Tarawa, so it is special to me.

I read all of O'Brian's books. "Lucky Jack" Aubrey is a favorite character of mine, and the movie "Master and Commander" is well done and a pretty accurate depiction of the good Captains of the time.

Rev Kim: Never would I think of you as a "bad America," just one failed by our system of public education when it comes to history. 8>)

Add Master and Commander to your viewing list, as well as Jeffrey Chandler in "Away All Boats." Whiler Captain Jedediah Hawke is the lead role, pay close attention to the actions of his Chief Petty Offices, the backbone of the Fleet.

Happy watching!