Excerpt from Soldier's Heart by Elizabeth D. Samet, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Soldier's Heart

Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point

by Elizabeth D. Samet

Soldier's Heart
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2007, 272 pages
    Sep 2008, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Vy Armour

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These works of imaginative literature can be read in relief against works of nonfiction such as Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War and the writings of Plutarch (available in Penguin and Oxford Classics editions and in a two-volume Modern Library edition). Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs, a book that changed the way I think about soldiers and war, is available in several versions; I recommend Penguin Classics or Library of America.  The latter also publishes the very different Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman. Theodore Roosevelt’s The Rough Riders is an energetic account of war as grand adventure (Modern Library War). I am not alone in thinking Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (Penguin Modern Classics) the subtlest memoir to emerge out of World War I. Barbara Harshav’s translation of Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter, by Simha Rotem [Kazik] (Yale), made a powerful impact on the plebes with whom I read it. The rich meditations of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on war and many other themes can be found in Wartime Writings, 1939–1944 (Harcourt) and in a collection of his books, Airman’s Odyssey (Harcourt). War memoirs are illuminating in sometimes surprising ways, especially perhaps when they blur the line between fact and fiction, as is the case with Robert Graves’s Good-bye to All That (Anchor); T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Penguin Modern Classics); and Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (Faber and Faber).

Alfred Hitchcock once declared that the “chase” was “the final expression of the motion picture medium,” but sometimes it seems as if there is no subject more cinematic than war. The war film is our modern epic. My students refer frequently to Braveheart (1995, dir. Mel Gibson), Saving Private Ryan (1998, dir. Steven Spielberg), Black Hawk Down (2001, dir. Ridley Scott), Jarhead (2005, dir. Sam Mendes), and the older but still powerful Apocalypse Now (1979, dir. Francis Ford Coppola).  The films that shaped the way I thought about soldiers and war growing up included Sergeant York (1941, dir. Howard Hawks), Desperate Journey (1942, dir. Raoul Walsh), Wake Island (1942, dir. John Farrow), Guadalcanal Diary (1943, dir. Lewis Seiler), Five Graves to Cairo (1943, dir. Billy Wilder), They Were Expendable (1945, dir. John Ford), To Hell and Back (1955, dir. Jesse Hibbs), Run Silent, Run Deep (1958, dir. Robert Wise), and Patton (1970, dir. Franklin J. Schaffner). A trio of films from 1964, which I didn’t encounter until much later, combine Cold War hysteria with a still pertinent commentary on the civil-military relation: Dr. Strangelove (dir. Stanley Kubrick), Fail-Safe (dir. Sidney Lumet), and Seven Days in May (dir. John Frankenheimer). Grand Illusion (1937, dir. Jean Renoir) remains for me the most powerful cinematic study of war.

Max, the former Army captain who is now in film school, insists that the horror film Jacob’s Ladder (1990, dir. Adrian Lyne) is “the most realistic war movie ever made.” His other favorites—the films he grew up on—include Little Caesar (1931, dir. Mervyn LeRoy), The Public Enemy (1931, dir. William A. Wellman), The Roaring Twenties (1939, dir. Raoul Walsh), Casablanca (1942, dir. Michael Curtiz), and Cool Hand Luke (1967, dir. Stuart Rosenberg).  Among the films old and new that seem to have had an especially powerful impact on Max and other students are Metropolis (1927, dir. Fritz Lang), His Girl Friday (1940, dir. Howard Hawks), The Lady Eve (1941, dir. Preston Sturges), The Maltese Falcon (1941, dir. John Huston), Citizen Kane (1941, dir. Orson Welles), Double Indemnity (1944, dir. Billy Wilder), Notorious (1946, dir. Alfred Hitchcock), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, dir. John Huston), Sunset Boulevard (1950, dir. Billy Wilder), Night and Fog (1955, dir. Alain Resnais), North by Northwest (1959, dir. Alfred Hitchcock), À bout de souffle [Breathless] (1960, dir. Jean-Luc Godard), Yojimbo (1961, dir. Akira Kurosawa), Hud (1963, dir. Martin Ritt), The Battle of Algiers (1966, dir. Gillo Pontecorvo), The Conversation (1974, dir. Francis Ford Coppola), The Player (1992, dir. Robert Altman), and Prisoner of Paradise (2002, dir. Malcolm Clarke and Stuart Sender).

Excerpted from Soldier's Heart by Elizabeth D. Samet. Copyright © 2007 by Elizabeth D. Samet. Published in October 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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