Just another war movie
There is a bitter beauty to the uniformed misery of men as they cut through the jungles or trudge into the mud, their unique characters entertaining us, the engaged voyeur. The captivating arcs of these protagonists as they survive another bleak day, far from home, serving what ever cause their masters demand it is thrilling, saddening and at times comical. War is entertaining. It is more than just choreographed violence and special effects, famous speeches and harrowing scores it is the relatability or even the contrast to the movie goers’ experiences. It is just fiction, however. Not real. War in real life is not a fun experience, it is horrible. Yet film and fiction bring us the battles of imagination and it can barely satisfy many of us and our demands of pretend violence and make-believe history.
Recently the Chinese People’s Liberation Army released its new recruitment video, it is short but sets a strong narrative. Like longer films it drives a message home with the intent of appealing to men of obligation, pride and nationalism guiding their instinct to enlist. It lionises such men before a wider public, garnering an image of bravery and better men who would dare stand the line for their safety, sacrificing in their names. Dying, killing for them. The short recruitment clip is powerful, it is however not a film. Films as a story often have the same effects, even when they are supposed to be anti-war or grounded, they appeal to many for the right and wrong reasons.
Many like to criticise a war movie for its errors or the liberties that a film maker takes a story down a certain direction, despite the known facts of history. This is the nature of fictionalising history, narratives and stories need to be steered in a cohesive and artistic manner to allow for a satisfying consumption. Sometimes film makers get it right, other times they err too drastically. It is what the film makers decide to omit or edit from the final product that often represents a callous disregard for truth, perhaps at times it is done to appeal to the general public, a viewership accustomed to simplistic representations. Or maybe it is done because an ideology or a propaganda message is needed to help promote either a pro war or anti-war message, a nationalistic anthem or a real-life person needs to be bolstered despite their historical actions.
It is the magic of movie making. It is why Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’, does not seek to tell a specific story of historical relevance but instead meanders into a myriad of miserable sensations leaving the viewer wary of what war can do to the mind of man. It is visually immense, its characters are larger than life and it is quotable, so while it ticks the boxes for film snobs it also has an appeal to those who love and hate war. Though warfare is painted it in an unfavourable series of colours. Its message is lost as its moments of impact are instead embraced, notably the Air Cav’s attack on the VC village, helicopters rushing in with Wagner blaring loudly in concert with rockets, machine guns and spinning rotor blades. An impressive action scene of mayhem and weapon porn so that the beach could be surfed by the films characters. Afterall “Charlie don’t surf”. The attack is punctuated with incoming mortar fire and a tall standing Lt Col “Bill” Kilgore played by Robert Duvall, behind him a tree line is burned by the fury of napalm. Computer Games and other medium have attempted to pay homage to that cinema moment, none doing it justice. Men in uniform in wars thereafter admiring Kilgore and his indifference to killing and gore. To them he is a hero. The violence is a pornography satiating their desires to witness killing and to role play the ‘bad ass’ in another person’s country.
“You smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Lt. Col William ‘Bill’ Kilgore
The protagonist Captain Benjamin Willard played by Martin Sheen could only witness the chaos and volatile men of the war, until he finally reaches his destination where Marlon Brando’s Col. Walter E Kurtz presents a moral quagmire for the young Captain who has been sent to kill him. Kurtz is seemingly mad, a deity among a people lost to the war has left its murderous carnage only to carve inside the deep jungles his own dark society. Much like the book and then film ‘Catch 22’ the film defines the nature of war and legislated slaughter as the ultimate form of madness, it is so incomprehensible in its stupidity and destruction that it is simply accepted as a normality. The film takes the crazy extends of this normalised bloodshed and presents it to the viewer as an artistic slap in the face and yet it is only seen as high art, entertainment or for some as mentioned, a validation of the excitements of war.
“We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won’t allow them to write “fuck” on their airplanes because it’s obscene!” Col. Walter E Kurtz
Years later, Martin Sheen’s son Charlie would play the young private Chris Taylor in the 1986 film ‘Platoon’. Inside this fictionalised representation of writer-director Oliver Stone’s war time experiences. He is green and is the story teller’s ambassador, the classic protagonist for the viewer to cling. He was the uniformed innocence of the young serviceman fighting in a war that he need not understand. Two father figures emerge for Taylor, Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) and Sgt. Elias (Wilem Defoe) both guides for his survival one a tough killer and the other empathetic and patient. Many have criticised the historical accuracy of Oliver Stone’s story, claiming lies and false depictions of events, questioning his service in the war. Yet we know that atrocities were committed by all sides fighting that war and others. The films focus is on Chris Taylor and his comrades as they get by. The films moral meeting spot culminates in the horrible scene where Taylor is forced to watch a village full of civilians suffer rape and murder, he is helpless to stop the blood lust of his brothers in arms. It was not until Elias’s arrival that the conscience of the audience is realised. Yet like Barnes and those other soldiers bashing boys faces in with the butts of their shotguns, raping teenage girls and shooting at the feet of the unarmed there are those who watch in the audience cheering with drooling joy.
War always allows a certain context to satisfy the most vulgar terror, it legitimises it. Sergeant Barnes after the village massacre goes on to murder Elias, telling his comrades that he was killed by the enemy. It is as they evacuate by helicopter that the stubborn Elias runs from the enemy soaking up their bullets, his death a powerful punctuation of Taylor’s own realisation. It is a poster moment. In the end, at the climax of an NVA attack young Taylor kills Barnes. Chris Taylor physically survives the war, but he is changed by it. Not so much as those condemned to suffer through it shall continue to reap its legacy, for them beyond the silver screen the war’s shadow continues to loom. To the watching audiences the Vietnam war is a cool soundtrack and a genre of films, television shows and other mediums. To those in South East Asia it is an American war of bitter memories.
“Somebody once wrote, “Hell is the impossibility of reason.” That’s what this place feels like. Hell.” Private Chris Taylor
“Are you smoking this sh-t so’s to escape from reality? Me, I don’t need this sh-t, I am reality. There’s the way it ought to be, and there’s the way it is.” Staff Sgt. Barnes
“I love this place at night, the stars. There’s no right or wrong in them. They’re just there.” Sgt. Ellias
Unlike the men in the film ‘Platoon’ who are the youth of America, Sam Peckinpah’s “Cross of Iron” (1977) follows another platoon of lost characters facing the onslaught of a miserable set piece of a long war and the Soviet war machine, this time they are tired Wehrmacht soldiers. Lead by Sergeant cum Corporal cum Sergeant Steiner (James Cockburn) the veterans of his reconnaissance platoon are cynical in their professionalism. The film gives the viewer a gritty lived in setting, the soldiers are not just survivors but are living fixtures of the misery of the frontlines. A new commander Captain Stransky (Maximiilian Schell) is fresh from the comforts of occupied France and has volunteered to serve in the East, though of noble upbringing he envies the dishevelled commoner Steiner who had been awarded the Iron Cross for bravery, a medal that the Captain yearns to earn. A child prisoner, a baby faced private and a young lieutenant depict the youthful innocence, each dying during the film. The prisoner by his own side in a battle after Steiner sets him free, the young private from a Russian female soldier who stabs him after offering him a drink and the platoon lieutenant Meyer as he heroically leads a counter attack as the Soviets attack. Steiner bears helpless witness to each death. Unable to protect the youth in his charge.
Few survive, Steiner leads his platoon back from enemy lines only to have them gunned down by Stransky’s adjutant Lt. Triebig himself depicted as a corrupter of the young. Steiner guns him down once reaching German lines, confronting Stransky leading him through the vicious hell storm of a final Soviet attack. Behind the lines are the commanding officers Colonel Brandt (James Mason) and Captain Kiesel (David Warner) who are as wary and cynical of the war as Steiner is. It is a film based upon the book by Willi Heinrich, ‘The Willing Flesh’, though it steers from the novel it captures the books heart with a touch of Peckinpah’s visual telling. It is a book about reality in the time of irrational unreality of war. Where man can barely grasp the truth of their setting, Steiner in a scene with Cpl Schnurrbart (Fred Stillkrauth) discuss Clausewitz and God in the moments before the carnage of war consumes them. The message of war is depicted in its action, in the futility of war and the destruction it has on innocence. The lust for glory and the desperate desire for survival meeting beneath the banner of state policy and its horrible child, warfare.
“I believe God is a sadist, but probably doesn’t even know it.” Sergeant Steiner.
“Sergeant, if I go back without the iron cross, I couldn’t face my family.” Captain Stransky
“Steiner… is a myth. Men like him are our last hope… and in that sense, he is a truly dangerous man.” Captain Kiesel
Unlike the confused story telling of men of violence trying to survive mayhem other films that have been lauded as greats by film buffs and war movie goers tell a simpler and more direct tale. They are “Westerns” in khaki, not the Sergio Leone or even Sam Peckinpah dirty story of the frontiers but the classic good guy versus bad, cowboy and Indian fantasy. ‘The Green Berets’ (1968) starring John Wayne perfectly encapsulated this hearty telling of a simple story, ‘the Duke’ depicting a special forces officer going to the Orient to help win the ‘good’ war against blood thirsty communists. It was a war worth fighting and like the West needed taming so too was the Far East in need of civilising, so the film glorified the message even as the ‘Tet’ offensive flickered on the television screens of the same movie goers visiting the drive in to see the Vietnam ‘Western’.
‘Go Tell the Spartans’ (1978) and ‘Siege of Firebase Gloria’ (1989) in a similar anthem to ‘The Green Berets’ sees a veteran leader (Burt Lancaster and R lee Ermey) inspire his warriors in a South East Asian ‘Beau Geste’ last stand before the hordes of countless savages. Though only 3-4 years exists in the time line between the two films, ‘Go Tell The Spartans’ set in 1964 shows an escalation of the war to come and the naïve arrogance of the American war machine that thinks itself better than the French whose graves are near to the battleground of the film. The South Vietnamese are shown as brutal and primitive in need of a colonial guidance, much like the British Rank era of films set in the North West Frontier of India or deep in the dark continent of Africa. “The Siege of Firebase Gloria” takes place in 1967-68 and the war has already run deep, the heroes of it are trapped and isolated in their own mini Khe Sahn like firebase. Both are films full of brave men fighting because they are heroes. Not because of any righteous calling but because they are simply soldiers, looking out for their buddy.
“Foreign policy decisions are not made by the military. A soldier goes where he is told to go, and fight whom is told to fight. “ Sgt Muldoon
“[to a wounded, one-eyed Viet Cong scout] I’m going home, Charlie… if they’ll let me.” Cpl. Courcey, Go Tell The Spartans
“The nights are always beautiful that time of year. But you were no safer at night. And the long hours of stillness worked on your fears. Night was the time you wondered what the *hell* you were doing here… and whether or not you’d get your balls blown off tomorrow. You could do some pretty ugly thinking at night. For some of us, the nights were getting far too long.” Sgt Bill Hafner, The Siege of Firebase Gloria
After the Post-Vietnam war era of movies where an anti-war message rained throughout the productions from Francis Ford Copolla to Stanley Kubrick in their efforts as film makers the 1990s and 2000s saw an energetic resurgence in action military movies. Veteran film maker Ridley Scott in 2001 made the film adaption of the book ‘Black Hawk Down’ an exciting, though singular explanation for the October 1993 events in Somalia, leading to the deaths of numerous US soldiers. Again, the protagonists are relatable for the films intended audience, all-American men who find themselves inside a foreign and feral world, a place that is beneath their benevolence. Scott manages in many ways to tap into similar feelings one experienced while watching James Cameron’s military sci fi sequel ‘Aliens’ in that it shows a group of stranded warriors in a grim isolated location fight off alien infestation of violent and relentless killers. Whereas Cameron shot an entertaining almost schlocky motion picture, Scott’s movie is to be taken seriously it is filmed in a realistic and graphic tone.
The history buffs can debate about the truth of the film’s historical facts doing so beneath the loud and entertaining on screen violence. The US soldiers are the heroes, the Somalia ‘Skinis’ have more in common with Xenomorph’s in Cameron’s sci fi franchise. They are depicted as dark black, soul-less inhuman killers. A contrast to the smiling and loving familiars of the protagonists who must survive isolation and immense adversity as a city of unreason and death pursue them. The film does show with mixed emotion the plight of the civilians trapped, they are the damsels in distress. Heroism often needs its victims, though in Scott’s film they are props. For the most part however the story is quite simple, a black and white tale of good versus evil. That is all that matters, and the film was timely, still fresh in the cinemas and on the new release shelf as the United States and its allies came to terms with the tragedy of 11 September 2001. Then all that mattered in the World was America’s grieving, their need for vengeance. ‘Black Hawk Down’ confirmed a simmering hatred and prejudice, the dark barbaric hordes were dangerous and uncivil. With Han Zimmer’s unique, edgy and modern sound track the anthem for the new war could just as well fit the invasion of Mesopotamia some two years later.
“Y’know what I think? Don’t really matter what I think. Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window.” ‘Hoot’, Black Hawk Down
“Now, there will be some shooting. Bakara Market is the Wild West, but be careful what you shoot at because people do live there.” McKnight, Black Hawk Down
“You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.” Ripley, Aliens
It is the film makers job to entertain, the medium rarely lends itself for a true retelling of history or to present all of the facts. It is perhaps a criticism not of the medium and the many movies made about the subject but those who watch and never once seek to investigate. Those who allow the emotional strings to be enough to knot their convictions and to secure their bias. ‘Breaker Morant’ can murder civilians and Boer POWs with ease because he is a heroic scapegoat, a legend of the early ANZAC spirit, betrayed by the British in their war. Just as Chris Kyle in ‘American Sniper’ is all that is brave and skilled when it comes to the professional killing class, he is the thin camo line between civilisation and the darkness beyond. The real-life Kyle is a dark tragedy of the warrior, the film grapples with this but leaves one feeling satisfied in its depiction that he was apparently a hero doing a job. Not a more complex being who likely loved killing.
The British enjoyed a glorious era of film, epics and romantic illustrations of the triumphs of Empire and the Anglo way of life. The celebration of colonial mastery and heroism in their exploitation to the last man standing moral drama of a few versus the many help to glorify the sense of British majesty. Perhaps one of the best films for this is the 1969 classic “The Battle of Britain” it is a remarkable film with great attention to detail, perfect music and characters that help to lift the movie. Set during the perilous period of late 1940 when Britain “stood alone” against the evil Nazi regime of Germany. For the Finns in the north suffering the brunt of a Soviet invasion overcoming far greater odds is of less historical importance in world of simplistic depictions for World War Two. It was apparently a triumph over genocidal fascism. With that in mind, ‘The Battle of Britain’ is a masterpiece. The real courage of the RAF and British people is a sustaining mark of pride, though it was not the only defiance that existed during that period.
It is unlikely that the glory period of entertaining action films that movie watchers experienced in the late 1970s into the middle 1990s shall ever visit the world again, let alone the 1950s-80s war films of majestic simplicity and terrible messages. The political correctness and lack of flexibility when it comes to context and discourse stand to cause controversy which in turn harms the financial success of a movie. It is unlikely that a Sam Peckinpah or even a John Carpenter could appear inside of modern Hollywood, let alone a prime George Lucas telling a whimsical space fantasy with a layer of contemporary morality meshed within. It is an age of Super Heroes and monsters versus humanity, the military blockbuster is often on the nose or most are fatigued by the genre because real war is more accessible to them thanks to modern media. They are apathetic about that as they are the fictional. Perhaps in some ways as ‘Heavens Gate’ marked the end of the Western genre, despite the occasional success such as ‘Dances with Wolves’, great war films and those with a successful message have also stalled beneath the weight of Michael Bey styled action.
To tell an unfavourable movie today is hard, as the military often works hand in hand with the film makers, at times funding, approving and cooperating with them so that they may have all the cool weaponry and filming locations. In the importance to this access and funding a film needs to abide by certain constrictions it is not merely the constraints of focus groups, corporate executives but the Pentagon itself which helps to mutate the final cut of a creator’s vision. It is no wonder that most modern films are a mess. Computer games have been for the past two decades a new outlet for the familiar narrative, many of which are simply an interactive motion picture, an evolution of the many dreaded full motion video games of the 1990s. Just as most modern films seek the approval and assistance of the military so to do these modern computer games.
Most nations have its film that drools with nationalism, for some the preferences are so expansive that they can be specific to national holidays and periods. China is enjoying this modern investment in films and the power that they convey in telling a national narrative. The future will not likely be dominated by a Hollywood version of history, whether pro or anti-war, the new era will be in subtitles. Though many nuanced and contrary films were absent in their mentions it is in the imagery of war that often many forget the underlying truth of the reality. Certainly, larger than life characters exist for better and worse in this world we live, they are not as easy to know as the many of the heroes and villains envisioned in fiction. It is because of that fiction and movies are a powerful inspiration and conveyor of ideology and impressions. If the consumer only ingests the simplified and homogenised version of an event with little course to investigate beyond that sole source, then the future looms grim as war will grow to become an accepted and glorious undertaking. In the past a separation from the battlefield and peace created a romantic paradise for those feeding, funding and supporting the wars. With technology and instantaneous access to raw footage, primary sources and debating perspectives the truth to war is no longer hidden, ignorance of its gloom and terror can only be a choice. For the impressionable such films can inspire enlistment without serious thought, the film ‘Top Gun’ is famously credited with seducing scores of men to join the Navy. The movies can also engender a disregard to the suffering and lingering aftermath of war, no Vietnam war film revisits the battlefield decades later showing the dismembered children setting off landmines and unexploded bombs or the mutations caused by depleted uranium and other chemicals.
Gene Hackman’s character Lt Col Iceal Hambleton of the United States Air Force, who eludes capture from the enemy after he was shot down in a B-52 bomber does not return after the war, he would not leave the comfort of a golf course to inspect the pock holes of South East Asia left by the bombers he rode in. The millions of unexploded munitions ticking away claiming lives every year, decades after the war ended are an inglorious truth. Just as the heroes of the ‘Dam Busters’ do not look at the drowned civilians unfortunate to be near the dams that they destroyed, flooding all beneath. In the arc of the hero’s journey inside the story, that post script does not matter. Yet, in the real world it is all that should matter. It is the outcome, whether intended or not of the valiant acts. The civilian is the prop to the men of honour and glory, they are those in need of rescuing or merely background extras needed to enshrine the uniformed hero’s importance. They are not just the little boy that John Wayne befriends, but a fighting age male acceptable for abduction or killing on site, especially if inside a ‘free fire zone’. War is Hell, but unlike Hell it is not theological or imagined. War is far worse because it is very real. And no matter how sincere a film maker is in their attempts to convey this message, it shall never do the misery justice.
So, while it is not a film, the new recruitment video like many others is a fictional celebration of war. All propaganda is. All recruitment imagery must be a lie. The Chinese will run deep into the new century experiencing in their own way a celebration of their own history with graphic deception and subtle honesty. The film industry is already swelling, war movies with heavy messages are being produced. How Western audiences so accustomed to an Anglo-American version of war telling and history shall consume these films does not really matter. War is everything it is depicted to be, yet so much more. It is in the grand omissions; the facts and realities absent from any story or glorification that we find truth. “Peace behind me, war to the front of me” the narrator says in the Chinese PLA recruitment video, for many it is never so simple. The oppression and tyranny of the Peoples Republic government is the peace, a still silence. The war, that is the disharmony, the uncertainty. Dissent. It is also the realisation that perhaps one day the next superpower shall meet the ailing one. The one constant of every medium is that war is inevitable, how we remember and exhibit it is relevant to how one can gain from it.
“Well, killing a man isn’t clean and quick and simple. It’s bloody and awful. And maybe if enough people come to realize that shooting somebody isn’t just fun and games, maybe we’ll get somewhere” Sam Peckinpah.
Kym Robinson, November 2018