Ben Bova: Classic films have something to say

A couple of nights before the Academy Awards, my sharp-witted wife and I were having dinner with friends at Ristorante Amore, one of the best eateries in Naples. Naturally, our conversation was about the movies.

We started talking about our favorite films. I was a bit embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t seen any of the current Oscar nominees. In fact, I haven’t been to a movie theater at all in a long while, except to see the Saturday afternoon simulcasts from the New York Metropolitan Opera.

I usually get DVDs of movies when they become available and watch them in the privacy and convenience of my home.

So I suppose it’s natural that most of my favorite movies are oldies, dating back to the 1940s in some cases.

Our dinner-table discussion made me ask myself why I liked certain movies so much, while others that have been very popular or highly praised by the critics didn’t impress me much at all. Puzzling about that, I finally realized there were two important characteristics to the movies I love best.

First, the movie has to be good enough to watch over and over again. I’ve seen some movies so often that I can just about lip-sync the dialogue. That’s a good movie, as far as I’m concerned.

Second, the movie has to say something. More than the plot, more than the acting, more even than the writing, the movie must make a point, tell me something important, something valuable, something about the human condition and how we should try to live our lives.

Take “Casablanca,” for example. It has brilliant dialogue (“Round up the usual suspects!”). The cast is impeccable, with Claude Rains at his polished best. It’s a wonderfully romantic story about love lost, then found, and ultimately lost again.

But in addition to all that, it says something important: fighting Adolf Hitler was more important even than the love between Ilsa and Rick. World War II is ancient history to most people living today, but “Casablanca” vividly shows how vital it was to fight the Nazis.

How good a movie is it? In the 1960s at Humphrey Bogart festivals in the Boston area I watched college students who had spent their day protesting the Vietnam War get up and sing “Le Marseilles” along with the actors on the screen. They were swept up in the emotional pull of the film, despite their anti-war activities. That’s a good movie!

“Citizen Kane” is widely regarded as one of the best films ever, and I remember the jolt I got when I finally discovered what “Rosebud” means. But despite Orson Welles’ ground-breaking techniques, I can’t watch “Kane” as often or as frequently as I do “Casablanca.” Just a couple of weeks ago I was flicking through the TV channels and there it was, Bogie and Ingrid Bergman and all the rest of them. I couldn’t help but sit there and watch every last minute of it. Again.

“Rocky” is an extraordinary film. It’s hard to do a boxing movie (or any sports film) with freshness and suspense. Sylvester Stallone wrote a gem in “Rocky.” The film is filled with suspense and action, and yet there are no villains in the story. Not one. Even the neighborhood loan shark turns out to be a fairly decent guy.

I write fiction for a living, and I marvel at Stallone’s tour de force. Moreover, he makes a powerful point. Rocky reluctantly comes to the conclusion that despite all the training, all the effort, all his hopes, he can’t beat the champ. But he tells his girlfriend, “I just want to be on my feet when it’s over.” He wants to go the full 15 rounds with Apollo Creed.

He achieves his goal. He loses the fight, by a split decision, but he keeps his self-respect. A great film. Where else have you seen people leap to their feet in a movie theater to scream for their hero? That’s drama. The innumerable sequels are pitiful in comparison.

There are lots of other wonderful films, too many to include in this limited space. But one that always chokes me up is, believe it or not, “The Glenn Miller Story.”

That’s right. With lanky James Stewart and saccharine June Allyson. It’s a Hollywood biopic and really pretty bland. But look a little deeper.

The story is about the hero’s search for the distinctive kind of music that eventually became known as “the Glenn Miller sound.” Through the first half of the film you are shown half a dozen or more different forms of jazz music, including a gig by the great Louis Armstrong. All through it, Miller (as played by Stewart) is seeking his own special sound.

When you finally hear it, finally hear Miller’s band play “Moonlight Serenade” — well, I don’t know how it affects you, but I get a lump in my throat.

Like Rocky Balboa, Glenn Miller sets a goal for himself and accomplishes it. I’m a sucker for that kind of story, I guess: the little engine that could.

Of course, I write science fiction for a living, and I love to see good science fiction on the screen. But it’s really very rare. Most of Hollywood’s “sci-fi flicks” are dumb remakes of old monster movies or disaster films in which scientists are portrayed either as idiots or megalomaniacs intent on ruling the world.

The best science-fiction film I ever saw was “The Man in the White Suit,” which starred Alec Guinness. It was made in England in 1950 by a group of people who didn’t realize they were doing science fiction. They thought they were making a comedy.

It’s quite a funny film. And fine science fiction, too. Some day I’ll tell you why I think so.

Naples resident Ben Bova is the author nearly 120 books, including “Mars Life,” his latest novel. Bova’s Web site address is

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