Years ago, Quentin Tarantino gave a notorious interview to TheNew York Times in which he scoffed at films with an earnest message. “Why not just say, ‘I don’t like war,’ and be done with it?” he demanded. In Tarantino’s mind, the horror of war is not a point that needs to get proved over and over.
But can war be dismissed so easily? History’s great generals have found this most fundamentally human activity to be an essential and perhaps salubrious part of our nature. The 19th century German general H.K.B. von Moltke claimed that “perpetual peace is a dream, and War is an integral part of God’s ordering of the universe.”
Our own William Tecumseh Sherman–whose tactics would be hugely influential in Germany–famously declared, “War is hell.” However, as Edmund Wilson suggested in Patriotic Gore, his study of Civil War literature, Sherman seemed also to have relished his role of a wrathful angel, bringing chaos and horror to a decadent culture. In a similar sense, it’s an awesome feeling to watch the cataclysms that bring down the mighty with the humble. It takes a great and awful war to leave Miss Scarlett cowering under a bridge with Mammy and Prissy while the enemy gallops overhead.
The kinetic experience of exploding shells, of crawling through mud, of seeing comrades suffer from unimaginable injuries, are foreign to those of us lucky enough to have been born in the developed world of the last few decades. For us, films like Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down are as close as we’ll get to the stygian horrors of the battlefield. Even if we don’t exactly enjoy the experience, we tend to value such glimpses of the unmentionable and the unthinkable.
It could also be that all of the horrifying images we have absorbed over the years have succeeded in making us lose our taste for actual bloody combat. In that sense, even celebratory films like Saving Private Ryan may function as covert, unintentional anti-war films.
A good war movie is not necessarily an anti-war movie in the didactic sense that Tarantino meant.
Nor are they necessarily the ones with the most “realistic” carnage. The most interesting films attempt to deal with war in its various ethical dimensions, as a human phenomenon that will not soon disappear. Here are five proposed double bills, which could perhaps serve as counter-programming alternatives to the all-bombs, all-the-time coverage, when it begins. A special effort has been made to avoid films top-heavy with battlefield gore.
Stanley Kubrick: The lately deceased, chilly misanthrope returned to war themes throughout his career in films like: Full Metal Jacket, Dr. Strangelove and Spartacus. But of particular interest is Paths of Glory (1957), a World War I film that presents the working classes as the ultimate victims in any war. Kirk Douglas is an officer who defends three men in a court-martial that inspires chilling thoughts of the military tribunals so beloved of the Bush/Rumsfeld/Ashcroft axis. But Kubrick saves the film’s real knockout for the finale, a heart-stopping scene in which drunken soldiers, in a sudden moment of clarity, see the humanity in the face of the foe they’d been trained to hate.
Generally, Kubrick was a profound pessimist, but in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), he offered a glimmer of hope. But first, there’s that famous prologue in which the film suggests that the first human tool was a makeshift club, which was used to kill an animal for food. Immediately afterward, another human tries to swipe the food, thus leading to the invention of the world’s first murder weapon. In this film, Kubrick imagines both the beginning and the end of violence.
North Africa: One of the great war films is the pro-interventionist Casablanca (1942), politically risky at the time, but a beloved classic today. It was only produced because of the passionate concern of the Jewish-American brothers who produced the film, sibling moguls Jack and Harry Warner. Shot entirely in a Morocco of the Hollywood backlot imagination, Bogart’s tough, unsentimental loner was the American archetype who needed to be persuaded to stick his neck out because it was the right thing to do.
In the very different political climate of the 1960s, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1965) dramatizes the struggles in the Casbah between the occupying French forces and the Algerian revolutionaries who were hiding out. At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum from the artifice of Casablanca, this gripping, thrilling and frightening film’s intentional documentary style was so convincing that a disclaimer had to be added, stating that all of the footage was staged. The Battle of Algiers isn’t pretty: The French use torture and the Algerians set off bombs in public places.
Civilians in the Crossfire: Ugetsu (1953), is arguably the greatest film by Japanese master Kenji Mizoguchi, and it shows how a war affects two fairly ordinary peasant couples who seize on the conflict as an opportunity to improve their fortunes. Although the story is set in long-ago feudal Japan, it’s clearly an allegory of that country’s hubris in World War II.
Paul Mazursky’s Enemies: A Love Story (1989), based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer novel, is quite simply a beautiful, funny and terribly sad film. A Polish Holocaust survivor is tragically and comically wedded to three women who represent diverse parts of his wartime experience. Despite the safety of their American refuge, the characters seem to be stumbling through an afterlife–they can’t quite comprehend that they’re alive. But after what they’ve been through, they’ll never be “alive” again.
The Modern American War: Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog seemed to be a rude piece of instant political satire when it was released in 1997. But, if anything, this send-up of Clinton-era excess is timelier than ever. The story of presidential advisors cooking up a phony war is all-too-believable at a time when the government spooks us with terror alerts as it quietly accumulates an unprecedented amount of knowledge and power.
Though Wag the Dog doesn’t name names, David O. Russell’s Three Kings (1999) names some very familiar ones indeed: Saddam Hussein and George Bush the Elder. This is a dead-on action film in which the modern American soldier has little experience in combat, and never even sees his enemy. George Clooney stars as a crooked officer who leads three of his men into the desert to steal some of Saddam’s gold. Along the way, they get an education in the human cost of bombing a country back to a pre-industrial state.
The Adversary in the Looking Glass:Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion is one of history’s great films, a classic liberal humanist plea for universal brotherhood. French officers are being held prisoner in a German camp and we see how class distinctions divide the men, and create a sort of funereal bond between the German camp commander and the top-ranking Frenchman. Two representatives of a new, classless world emerge–a wealthy Jew and a working man–and they escape from the camp together. The film’s title refers to the belief that WWI would end all wars, and, alas, the optimism of the film’s ending was also premature, for The Grand Illusion was produced in 1937.
And, playing in Triangle theaters for a little while longer is The Pianist, Roman Polanski’s impressive evocation of life in wartime Warsaw. The film’s emotional centerpiece is a devastating sequence between Adrien Brody’s title character and a Nazi officer, in which the hunter and the hunted fumble toward reconciliation and forgiveness.