It's the last Monday of May, the day where we think back to the soldiers who died and survived the various wars we've sent them to fight.
It's a time to visit the cemeteries, plant flags at the statues and plaques honoring the fallen, and break out the binge watching of Band of Brothers and any World War II movies we got for check out from the library shelves (or in these modern days, streaming off a service).
But as a real war rages on in Ukraine - and as a decades-long war in Syria continues its bloody stalemate - we need to remember that it's not just soldiers who are caught on the battlefields.
Far too many wars over the centuries were fought near cities, towns, settlements, places where the common folk were struggling to survive on their own without raiding parties or sieges laying waste to their communities. As the wars grew bigger, as the mechanized armor developed and grew, as the air became a war zone all its own bringing bombs dropped from above, the range of destruction by war spread. By the first World War, entire nations could get enveloped, occupied, devastated, flattened into poppy fields. By the second, the entire continent of Europe was on fire, with few safe havens to flee.
Every place - from the Home Front of London, to the occupied streets of Paris, to the bombed-out neighborhoods of Warsaw, Stalingrad, Leningrad, so many other cities - knew the horror of war.
This fact got my notice a few years ago when - during a channel surf looking for something to watch during summer break - I came across a little-heralded Italian movie titled The Four Days of Naples. As a history buff - especially for WWII - I kept watching it, as I had started up at the moment when the story really kicked off.
For those who don't remember what happened to Italy in the Second World War, the nation had fallen to Fascist control - the originator, in fact - by the mid-1920s in response to their failings in the previous war, and their leader Mussolini had attempted to forge the nation into a military regime. Thing was, they weren't the Romans of old, and most of their military plans - conquering much of the Mediterranean from Greece to Africa - were flawed and wasteful. When Nazi Germany came along as a military ally, Italy signed up to form an Axis Powers with them... and quickly turned into the junior partners as the Nazis were more thorough - and nasty - when it came to war.
By the time Mussolini and his generals flubbed their 1940 invasion of Greece - which forced the Germans to finish the job for them, and affected their ability to invade Soviet Russia - the Italian population were pretty much done with the Fascists leading them. By 1943, with the Allied forces of Free France, Great Britain, and America knocking at the door from Sicily, the Italians were ready to surrender and be done with all the scarcity, starvation, disease, and the bombing raids decimating their cities.
This is where Four Days of Naples opens, early September 1943, with the citizenry hearing word that the Fascist government had collapsed. With that, the streets erupt with Neapolitans - the term for "Citizen of Naples", no not the ice cream that's NEOpolitan - celebrating, thinking that for them the war is over.
Unfortunately, their city and indeed much of Italy itself has a lot of German troops based there... and the Germans were not about to surrender to the Allies. Nor were they going to give up such prime real estate like the rough Italian terrain...
(The YouTube link below is to the entire movie, it may have fallen into public domain but please respect any copyright laws if needed)
The film is based on the real-life events of that September 1943, focusing heavily on four days - September 27 through September 30 (with October 1st being the day the Allies arrived). The director Nanni Loy employed what's known as the Italian Neorealist style: Where the storytelling focuses on the poor or working classes, intermingling various story threads for each characters weaving a larger story towards the conclusion. It also relies on filming in location (no sets or stages), and working with non-professional actors (although one or two actors would play some of the more emotionally demanding roles).
What you get is a kind of semi-documentary feel to the film, especially with Four Days where the incidents unfold spontaneous in the way the real-life events did. And the events we're watching were astounding.
What the Germans did to Naples after the Italian Fascists fell was to turn it into occupied territory, ending whatever hopes the locals had that their war was over. The army began taking civilians hostage in order to force the rest to comply to their orders. The Germans also began conscripting the men to serve either as forced labor at their "work camps," or turn them into front-line cannon fodder for their planned defensive effort to keep the Allies from reaching Central Europe through the south.
The brutality of the German round-ups became too much for Neapolitans, and by September 27 the Germans were accosted by civilians, mostly women who braved the machine guns to rescue their husbands and sons. With that, the city was in open revolt.
In Loy's film, the chaos of the moment carries every scene forward, from the brutality of the Nazis towards the defiance of the Italians. Entire scenes are breathtaking as we witness them: The most brilliant sequence when an entire neighborhood overlooking an alleyway full of Germans erupts into a rainfall of every possible piece of furniture that could get thrown from the windows.
We're carried along by the drama of the characters themselves. We're introduced to a Hollywood-handsome Italian sailor, with the early scenes - flirting with a melancholic young prostitute, riding a bike through the city as celebrations begin in earnest - hinting he would be the main POV character of the entire movie. (Spoilers: He's the unnamed sailor executed by the Germans at the beginning of the occupation to send the people of Naples a warning) We come across mothers greeting their sons who had gone into hiding to avoid army conscription, only to see those young men seized by Germans, driving those mothers to rebel. There's a couple - the man loves the woman, but she married a wealthier man long before - playing out a melodrama that happened a lot apparently during the Big War. There's a school of orphans, led by a teenage resister who rebukes their schoolmaster when the city rises up against the occupiers. There's a little boy lost in the chaos of the uprising, eagerly chasing from one fight to the next to watch the battles, innocently unaware of the dangers of war...
When the movie came out in 1962, the Second World War was still fresh in the memory for those who lived it (the film itself relies on the damaged buildings that had remained standing for almost 20 years as background). Four Days was a moderate success, and had even been nominated for several awards (for Best Foreign Film and for a Best Screenplay award with the Oscars). And then, well, it's almost hard to find. There doesn't seem to have ever been a DVD release honoring it. I'd rarely seen it on the cable networks ever since I saw it years ago. Someone on Twitter thankfully pointed out the YouTube link to me.
It's an important film. Unlike most war movies that focus on the battles, or the generals, or the soldiers, this was a film that focuses on the civilians who get caught in the crossfire, and the many moral - sometimes noble - decisions they have to make to survive.
I hope you all watch this. It's a breathtaking perspective of what war is for those who don't want to fight in one.