VideoHound’s War Movies: Classic Conflict on Film, by Mike Mayo (Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1999), Trade paper, $19.95, 638pp, ISBN 1-57859-089-2.
VideoHound’s been shifting gears lately. Earlier on they concentrated on behemoth encyclopedias that tried to include every film possible on the book’s subject. More recently they’ve been publishing behemoth encyclopedias that look at fewer films in more depth. A case in point is perennial VideoHound author Mike Mayo’s War Movies, which is almost as fat as its predecessors at 638 pages but only treats 201 films along with 35 sidebars devoted to various directors, actors, and themes. The usual, and always appreciated, enormous amount of cross-indexing is here, running nearly 100 pages.
Like some other recent VideoHound releases, this one is a mixed bag. While most of the expected films are here, including many of the classics in the genre, the fact that some important ones were omitted makes this more of a sampler than an encyclopedia. Mayo acknowledges this by mentioning that space limitations required that Back to Bataan and Flying Tigers were among those that could not be included. His criteria are broad enough to include movies that take place far from the theater of war — Bresson’s brilliant A Man Escaped, for example — which leads the aficionado to ask why none of Frank Borzage’s masterful works in this area were included — The Mortal Storm or Three Comrades, for example. Mayo laments the lack of female directors in this realm, but he might have looked at the undeservedly obscure The Ascent by the late Russian director Larisa Shepitko. Admittedly, it’s not on video, but inclusion here might have spurred its release.
On the up side, Mayo takes an unexpectedly ambitious approach, organizing the book mostly by particular wars — American, British, French, Japanese, Russian, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, etc. This will be a blessing for fans who gravitate to one war or another, though less so for those who prefer a strict alphabetical approach. Mayo’s writing is workmanlike and informative, and he appears to have done his research well. Dialogue from the films is reprinted in pull quotes throughout, proving that at least this author — unlike too many these days — has actually seen the films he discusses. Entertaining sidebars include directors (Fuller, Ford, Wellman) and actors (Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray) who worked substantially in the genre. An interminable, self-serving foreword by Dale Dye, a retired captain who’s worked as an advisor on numerous war pix, is more annoying than useful. As always, the indexes are all-encompassing, including title, cast, director, writer, cinematographer, composer, and category. What — no best boys?