Film as a Battlefield
Reviewing a century of cinematic combat
By Noel Murray and Rob Nelson
AUGUST 31, 1998: Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan has been hailed by many as the greatest war movie ever made, which is partly a tribute to the film's often startling realism, and partly a result of the American media's addiction to hyperbole. Nevertheless, Ryan is something special, so it's not surprising that critics are working overtime to categorize the film, and to position themselves as either boosters or opponents.
War films tend to inspire just such soapboxing. A story about war is rarely acceptable on its face; also under consideration is just what the narrative says about war--namely, is it "anti" enough? Ryan has already been slagged by such prominent critics as Jonathan Rosenbaum, who called it "another goddamn recruitment film" (a quote that he admits to borrowing from the late writer-director Sam Fuller). Admittedly, despite the harrowing battle scenes, Spielberg's anti-Nazi fervor and "boy's adventure" style do mark Ryan as a film for fighters, not pacifists.
But is that really a flaw? With all the discussion of war as a subject for drama, it's worthwhile to take a look at a handful of great movies that employ conflict as a backdrop. Among the best are All Quiet on the Western Front, Au Revoir les Enfants, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Best Years of Our Lives, Europa, Europa, Glory, Grand Illusion, M*A*S*H, Mister Roberts, Patton, and Stalag 17. Each of the above films deals in unique (or at least entertaining) ways with the human response to combat. The 13 films discussed below go even further--exploring national character, personal responsibility, and even the pleasures of childhood through the smoke of dropped bombs.
Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory is often praised as the ultimate antiwar film, but actually Kubrick is more blatantly anti-military. Employing the same black humor and flat, stylized acting that would later mark the masterpiece Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick tells of a French regiment during World War I that's ordered to seize an impregnable German position. When the assault fails miserably, three random soldiers are chosen to be court-martialed and executed for cowardice. The resultant trial is lunacy, as high-ranking desk jockeys pass judgment on the "fitness" of men who were pinned down by artillery fire, with no support, and did the only sane thing for themselves and for France--they retreated to fight another day.
Military justice is the theme of two other fine features--Robert Altman's The Caine Mutiny Court Martial and Brian DePalma's Casualties of War. Altman's film is an adaptation of Herman Wouk's play, which itself is an adaptation of the author's novel about the trial of a handful of disgruntled sailors. Wouk's story asks a pertinent question--is dislike and distrust of a commanding officer a good enough reason to defy his orders? A similar question is at the core of DePalma's account of an American platoon's My Lai-like pillaging of a Vietnamese village. Michael J. Fox gives a powerful performance as a soldier who risks his life and his career to bring charges against his fellow troops for raping a young villager.
In the heat of war, with atrocity and panic all around, justice is a hard thing to discern, righteousness is a luxury, and a man is a man, no matter how many bars are on his lapel. What is the "right thing" to do when situations are spinning out of control? You could fall back on "just following orders," but the Nuremberg court has all but discounted that defense. For a compelling look at what "the enemy" goes through in wartime, see Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot, wherein a band of career sailors in a German U-boat deal with orders from Nazi hands. Peterson's film generates suspense from all the standard submarine story elements--torpedo attacks, submerging too low, etc.--but it also thrusts the audience into the mind-set of the people who fought on the wrong side during World War II, and explains why they fought.
Also see Claude Berri's Uranus, which takes place in a French village just after World War II, when the French people were still sorting out who was a resister and who was a collaborator. Rarely has politics been explored on such a human scale, and rarely has the question "What did you do in the war, daddy?" stung so bitterly.
Of course, France and Germany were the main sites of conflict in World War II. Also interesting to examine is the more remote British attitude toward the war. The Powell/Pressburger gem The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp takes its title from a popular U.K. comic-strip character--a bumbler who represents the ideal of "the gentleman soldier." The movie is not about Colonel Blimp, per se, but about a Blimp-like military man who served in World War I and made friends with a German POW; now, as the second World War approaches, he has only a minimal grasp of the evil that has encroached on his respected old foe.
The Englishmen's misunderstanding of the changing face of Germany is also at the core of The Remains of the Day, Merchant/Ivory's adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's award-winning novel. The story as a whole deals with a butler's rigid devotion to servitude at the expense of personal feeling, but it also indicts the aristocratic would-be diplomats who sought to maintain good ties with Germany even as that nation slipped further into darkness.
Meanwhile, back on the home front, children experience war quite differently--sort of as a lengthy, deadly "snow day." In John Boorman's funny, poignant Hope and Glory, a preteen boy wanders through the rubble of London, collecting shrapnel, learning to swear, and giving thanks to Adolf Hitler for bombing his school. Similarly, in Rene Clement's proto-New Wave Forbidden Games, a French war orphan enlists her cousin to help her kill small animals so that she can stage elaborate funerals. She's simply coping with abandonment, but the adults in her village--who prefer to bottle up their feelings about the carnage of war--are appalled by her morbidity.
Finally, there are the episodic films, which show the tedium and tension of daily warfare, as well as the way surrealism becomes inextricably interwoven with reality. For matter-of-fact Civil War detail, you can't beat Gettysburg, especially the stunning first half, which climaxes in a thrilling, impossible set of Union maneuvers. World War I is well-covered by King Vidor's silent classic The Big Parade, which starts with lazy days spent drinking and wooing in a muddy French village and ends with a white-knuckle nighttime battle sequence full of incredibly choreographed tracking shots.
Vietnam has been the subject of the most recent episodic war movies, as filmmakers have attempted to convert the moral morass of a soldier's daily life into a statement about the human condition. The closest anyone has come is Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, which transplants Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness from the Belgian Congo to French Indochina. Until a vague, pretentious ending almost sinks the film, Apocalypse Now travels deep "in country" and finds all manner of freaks, psychos, heroes, and fools--a representative sample of American life reflected through the distorted lens of wartime.
Also noteworthy is Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, which details the process by which a trembling kid becomes a tightly wound (even overwound) instrument of war. A shaky second half also undoes Jacket, though the climax does feature a jittery sniper attack that presages the nerve-wracking battles of Saving Private Ryan.
How does Ryan rank among the above films? That's not really an appropriate question. By and large, critics have been too quick to sanctify Saving Private Ryan, and thereby hesitant to nit-pick its substantial flaws. That said, to consign such a powerful film to a slot on some list is to cheapen its emotional impact. Ryan is to be experienced on its own terms--audiences have been leaving screenings visibly shaken and deeply moved, forced to think about the sacrifices of their ancestors and contemporaries. To rank that experience is like asking someone to compare the relative merits of marriage and childbirth.
No, Saving Private Ryan is more accurately compared with other war films in terms of context. Steven Spielberg presumes that his audiences know enough about World War II to know why the war was worth fighting; and he presumes that his audiences have seen enough war films to know the conventions he's both usurping and reinforcing. The carnage that opens the film is a corrective to all the "pretty deaths" of cinema's past, and a rebuke to Sam Fuller, who said that there's no way to show the abattoir-like details of conflict without sending the audience scurrying for the exit. It's also an instant backstory for all the film's characters--we may not know much about their past, but we know they survived Normandy.
There are echoes of all the great war films in Saving Private Ryan. The episodic trudge through France recalls Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. The brief encounter with a terrified French family recalls the home-front dramas of Hope and Glory and Forbidden Games. And almost every frame is filled with the split-second moral decisions and questionably justifiable homicide that inform the best of the genre. The most affecting war films are the ones that put the audience behind a rifle and ask us not to judge the man who pulls the trigger too harshly. For all the attempts to simplify Saving Private Ryan by categorizing it, the film succeeds because it is as complicated, in motivation and execution, as war itself.
Grey areasPerhaps best known for the documentary Gimme Shelter, which captured footage of the 1969 killing at Altamont Speedway during a Rolling Stones concert, the Maysles Brothers (Albert and David) are also generally credited with coining the term "direct cinema" to describe their pioneering fly-on-the-wall approach to the form. Currently, as the style of "unobtrusively" following subjects informs everything from Hoop Dreams to Hard Copy, "direct cinema" may no longer seem to have the impact it did in the Maysleses' heyday.
Nevertheless, a newly struck print of the brothers' 1976 classic Grey Gardens (playing through next Thursday at the Watkins Belcourt) proves that their work is still plenty provocative--and especially so in this era of shallow celebrity docs. At the time of its release, the film's portrait of Jackie O's deeply eccentric aunt and cousin--"Big" Edie and "Little" Edie Bouvier Beale (ages 56 and 79), who then presided over a decaying East Hamptons mansion overrun by cats, raccoons, stale food, and other fashion faux pas--certainly played off the public's fascination for all things Kennedy. (Even then, of course, documentary distribution required attention-getting subjects.) Today it plays more like a purely harrowing study of the combined effects of profound isolation, downward mobility, and societal misogyny as reflected through the women's codependent neuroses.
The movie was deeply controversial in '76 (not least for embarrassing Jackie), and so it remains. Is this an exploitative invasion of privacy? Subtly disguised camp? To what extent are the "performers" directing the picture? And how "direct" is this cinema, anyway?
"It is perhaps the first film about women," Al Maysles has said--and, if not, it's at least what you'd call a women's picture, a real Now, Voyager. As in so many of their films (which also include the 1968 cult masterpiece Salesman and the little-seen Beatles-in-America chronicle What's Happening!), the Maysleses provide the launching point for a discussion of the very nature of documentary and the inevitable influence of the camera upon "reality"--as if, given the Beales, it ever existed to begin with.
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