Turner Classic Movies does not mess around. When execs at the oldies-but-goldies channel needed an esteemed military expert to cohost its 100th anniversary tribute to World War I, they went straight to retired General Wesley Clark, a 34-year veteran of the U.S. Army and the Department of Defense. Yes, the General knows his movies! TV Guide Magazine spoke with Clark about TCM's 43-film marathon, which appropriately kicks off on the Fourth of July (Friday, 8/7c) and continues every Friday throughout the month. (Check tvguide.com listings or tcm.com for the full schedule.)
TV Guide Magazine: It's such a surprise to see you chatting about flicks!
Clark: Oh, I love talking about the movies, thinking about them and, especially, remembering the first time I saw some of them. I was six-years-old when I went to see The Sands of Iwo Jima and still recall that experience vividly. I was a cadet at West Point when I read the book of All Quiet on the Western Front and saw the movie for the first time. Those are profound memories.
TV Guide Magazine: Which of the films selected by TCM is the most meaningful to you?
Clark: It has to be All Quiet on the Western Front, which is a beautiful and really shattering look at the common humanity of soldiers, and the fact that it was cast from the German perspective makes it even more meaningful. There's an authenticity to that film that could never be duplicated today. Just its extraordinary title alone grabs me. It instantly transports you.
TV Guide Magazine: How many of the films in the marathon were you already familiar with?
Clark: At least half, and it was wonderful to discover so many that were new to me. What's interesting is that the theme that runs through these films isn't war so much as it is humanity. There's a timelessness about the fear and love, the hope and desperation that's depicted in so many of them. When you watch Sergeant York, starring the great Gary Cooper, you are witnessing a standard of heroism and virtue that is really unique to a time and place. They did an extraordinary job in capturing the emotions of war.
TV Guide Magazine: Some of the world's greatest films have been set during WWI — Grand Illusion, Paths of Glory (below), Lawrence of Arabia — but it's nothing compared to the movie community's interest in WWII. Why hasn't WWI — also known as "The Great War" — fascinated moviemakers in quite the same way?
Clark: Because WWI was too much like a Friday night football game — we got all worked up and ready for it, then it was over in the twinkling of an eye. The U.S. participation in the war only lasted three months, in terms of full-on, all-out fighting. The first Americans were engaged in combat in late August 1918 and the war essentially ended in early November that same year. It was not a popular war. In fact, President Wilson won his reelection by promising to keep the U.S. out of the war. And we were never really attacked, except for a couple of merchant ships being sunk. Though 10 million Americans were mobilized, from our perspective, it wasn't a "world war." Perhaps all that is reflected in Hollywood's [lack of] interest. But those who do see the drama in WWI have found terrific stories.
TV Guide Magazine: As a man who's seen many years of war, from Vietnam to Kosovo, do you think Hollywood generally gets it right?
Clark: It's gotten better and better over time, especially in later films like Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July and The Hurt Locker. Bits and pieces of all these movies they're showing on TCM really resonate. The question is, how do they hold up over all? But they all have a part to play and are, historically speaking, of great value. You can see in these films that we, as a people during WWI, were for the first time getting a real sense that war is pointless rather than glorious, and that nothing compensates for the danger and the death and the destruction that war brings. There is a lot of pain in these movies, real heartache. They aren't just entertaining and thrilling. They are part of the first effort to deglamorize war and to make us look into our hearts and question what we're doing. That's what films do best — help us reconnect with our humanity and remind us of what's truly important.