The sixth annual GI Film Festival, scheduled for May 15-20 in Washington (click here  to read more about the lineup), will feature among its screenings the new movie "Memorial Day" – ironically, just under two weeks before the holiday itself – which tells the parallel stories of service of a grandfather in World War II and his grandson in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
On a Memorial Day spent at his grandparents' house as a child, a boy discovers his grandfather's old footlocker in a dusty barn. After making a deal with the boy to explain selected items, the grandfather finds himself talking for the first time about his sometimes difficult experiences in the war. The boy takes his memory of that day with him as he goes through similar experiences as an adult serving overseas, in the process building a "footlocker" of his own – to perhaps use to start a conversation with his own child one day.
Co-executive producer Jeff Traxler, a Legionnaire who served from 1981 to 1993 mostly as an Army Reservist, first got the idea for "Memorial Day" while participating in Living History Days – historical re-enactments of military conflicts from the Civil War through today. A friend came to one re-enactment from a soon-to-be-torn-down house in which he had found numerous old items, including a military footlocker. Traxler found himself wondering about what kind of story lay behind the antique. After talking with and studying footage from director Sam Fischer, who he had hired to film the final Living History Day, he was suddenly inspired. "It all made sense," Traxler said. He decided on the spot to bring a footlocker – and the service behind it – to the screen.
Traxler owns a hunting club in Minnesota and raised funds for the production from members. He spent 18 months fundraising, developing the story, and gathering his crew and cast – what he describes overall as "a pretty big project." That cast includes "All My Children" alum Jonathan Bennett, Oscar-nominated actor James Cromwel and James' son John Cromwell, who plays the grandfather (James' role) as a young man during World War II.
During the Minnesota filming, everyone involved "tried to keep it on a realistic basis" in terms of portraying soldiers' experiences in war, down to the details. Co-executive producer Kyle O'Malley served with Traxler and is currently a sergeant with the Army National Guard, 34th Infantry Division – known as the Red Bull, and also the unit the grandson in the movie ends up serving with. Just back from his first tour in Iraq when filming started, O'Malley provided useful technical advice. The primary military technical advisor was Maj. Darrin Janisch, also a Red Bull, who served as a liaison to the Guard and the DoD office in Hollywood. Traxler's story idea appealed greatly to Janisch, who had a similar story to tell about his grandfather.
"He was a veteran of the Korean War," Janisch said, "and there were all these foreign things in this footlocker and all these uniforms hanging way in the back of this big closet." Janisch didn't get answers from his grandfather right away, but "after that day, he would talk a little here and there with me about Korea. It kind of started to open the door to that part of his life."
Perhaps the single most realistic element in the film, in addition to Guard expertise and rented Guard equipment, is the use of actual Guardsmen: 39 Red Bulls, most of whom played extras, with one or two given speaking roles. As a thank-you to the division for all of its help, Traxler and his team organized a dual screening this spring that involved both the unit – many of whom, including O'Malley, are currently serving in Kuwait – and the families back home in Minnesota. The families could talk to each other and conduct Q&As via remote link. Traxler says it was "exciting to see people new to the movie reacting to it." And he will have the opportunity to see many more such reactions; in addition to the GI Film Festival screening on May 19, the film has been accepted into the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival and the Newport Beach Film Festival.
"It was truly an honor to work with [Traxler] and the cast and crew, because they were so committed to portraying soldiers not as people view them, or imagine them or believe them to be, but how they really are: good, bad and otherwise," Janisch said.
Traxler hopes that the film will encourage conversations, especially for older veterans. "World War II veterans didn't say much," he said. "They just didn't." American Legion and VFW posts were often used as "a place to go and talk with their own," rather than potentially burdening loved ones. But "people want to remember now .... If they're going to live on, they have to tell them."
"Memorial Day" will be released on DVD, and available for digital download, on May 29. Click here to learn more about the film.
The GI Film Festival is dedicated to honoring military films, and is a past recipient of The American Legion's National Commander's Public Relations Award. Wounded warriors recovering in the Washington area will be presented with special gifts courtesy of the Legion's Operation Comfort Warriors  during a screening of the film "Battleship" at the festival on May 17. More information about the GI Film Festival is on its website.