Lights, Camera, Military Action…

By Guy Westwell

saving-private-ryan-steven-speilberg.jpgSaving Private Ryan, 1998

Considering celluloid conflicts


In the last few years, Hollywood has produced a distinct and commercially successful cycle of war movies including, amongst others, Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998), Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001), Behind Enemy Lines (John Moore, 2001), Pearl Harbour (Michael Bay, 2002) and We Were Soldiers (Randall Wallace, 2002). These films work hard to renew America’s self-belief, to reclaim faith in war as a valid mechanism of change and to reassert American moral rectitude. Viewed now – from the other side of American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – they can be seen to have foretold of a renewed period of American military involvement abroad and as such they are useful pointers in the process of reckoning America’s increased willingness to wage war.

Moral crusade


Much is made of the traumatic and cacophonous opening to Saving Private Ryan. However, the end of the film is just as significant. Ryan, whose life has been saved by the sacrifices of at least half a dozen American soldiers, including Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks), asks his wife if he has been a ‘good man’. The question remains unanswered but Ryan’s extended family surround him and, without words, reassure him that he has indeed lived up to the responsibility passed to him by the sacrifices of these men. This device (Schindler’s List ends on a similar note) demands that movie-goers knit the carnage of the film’s battle sequences into some kind of moral framework and that they search their souls for a suitably moral perspective with which to view not only the past but also the present.

The HBO television series Band of Brothers (2001), executive produced by Spielberg and Hanks, lays bare the logic of Spielberg’s feature in a useful way. Like Ryan, Band takes D-Day as its starting point and then follows a company of American soldiers through the latter stages of the WWII, from hard combat in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge, through the liberation of Bergen-Belsen to the taking of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest at Berteschgarden. Crucially, the liberation of the Jews, and the identification of the Holocaust as the dark heart of the conflict, provides a stark moral dimension to the military campaign. This is a symbolic narrative of purpose, bravery and sacrifice motivated primarily by a sense of injustice at the human rights abuses of fascism (with the Holocaust as touch-stone). The film enables Americans to persuade itself that sometimes war can be just and necessary, while encouraging them to consider their own culpability in present day injustices. The question – have we been good? – is not an easy one to answer.

we-were-soldiers-randall-wallace.jpgWe Were Soldiers, 2002

This avowedly moral historical perspective can also be seen in those movies that focus on Clinton’s foreign policy (a policy that, on paper at least, shared much with Spielberg’s avowed historical conscience). Black Hawk Down shows American soldiers attempting to curb the genocidal tendencies of warlords in Mogadishu; Behind Enemy Lines follows an American pilot defying rules of engagement and single-handedly exposing the war crimes of the Serb-controlled Yugoslav army. However, unlike those works which peruse the safely distant WWII, these films inevitably show the strain of applying a clear-cut moral view of history to more contemporary conflict situations. Behind Enemy Lines, for example, deals with the brutal complexity of war in the Balkans by inventing an implausible and incoherent narrative at which most viewers would simply laugh.

Righteous anger


Pearl Harbour
, like Saving Private Ryan, revisits WWII and for similar reasons. However, more worryingly, it appends a deliberate sense of America as undeserving victim. The movie’s mise-en-scene is honeyed with nostalgia, while the over-blown sound track and CGI-heavy action sequences ride rough-shod over any possibility of understanding the motives behind the Japanese decision to precipitate war with the US. Movie-goers are forced simply to swallow the full-blown patriotism on offer while also committing themselves to a certain kind of righteous anger at the unprovoked attack (the film was produced before September 11). The deployment of the 1941 narrative offers a reassuring and binding framework at a time when the threat to America is primarily symbolic and also dispersed contingent and fluid.

The revisionist tendency of these combinations is at its barest in the recent Vietnam movie We Were Soldiers. The title attempts to capture a sense of wholeness in the past, when soldiering was honourable and war almost desirable. With an aesthetic as over-blown as Pearl Harbour’s, the film centres around two early and significant defeats of the Americans by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and focuses on Col. Hal Moore (by Mel Gibson), who behaves heroically and fights a clever tactical battle against overwhelming odds.

The moral imperative displayed is dovetailed again into a righteous anger stemming from the movie’s (gratuitous) portrayal of American soldiers machine-gunned by NVA regulars in endless, predictable slow-motion, all the time cross-cut with ‘notification of death’ telegrams delivered to wives and families. It’s of no surprise that the film’s release was rushed forward to coincide with post-September 11 bellicosity.

Postmodern irony


On September 10, 2001 Film Four signed a deal with Miramax to distribute Buffalo Soldiers, a satire detailing heroin-dealing on a US military base in West Germany in 1989. The following day changed everything. Preview audiences proved extremely unreceptive to the movie’s warts-and-all account of US military corruption, and at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Anna Paquin, (Robyn in the movie), was hit with a bottle, thrown by a protestor who felt the film to be anti-American. As a result the film was only released this July.

It’s tempting to presume that the reason the movie couldn’t be screened earlier is because it’s the new Dr Strangelove, M*A*S*H or Apocalypse Now, and that the current cultural climate cannot tolerate an intelligent and challenging exposé of military mores. Unfortunately though, this is not the case. Occasional scenes work well (American soldiers, high on heroin, watch the fall of the Berlin wall on TV totally confused about the significance of what they are seeing) but overall the movie’s use of cynical humour, empty quotation and glib violence, as well as the redemptive possibilities of its love story, turn it away from critique and towards the cynical pleasures of much film-making found on the periphery of the Hollywood mainstream.

apocalypse-now-francis-ford-coppola.jpgApocalypse Now, 1979

Interviewed about the movie, director Gregor Jordan explained how, ‘originally, I was drawn to the intellectual premises in Robert O’Connor’s (source) book, but then I thought, you can’t just make an intellectual movie that doesn’t really entertain as well, so I thought we needed action and romance and explosions and guns.’ By his own admission then, Jordan has taken a script with real teeth and produced a film that, in terms of critique at least, is compromised and incoherent.

Taken together the tendencies of recent US war cinema have achieved, in sum, a renewal of the signifier ‘war’, a decisive therapeutic move in overcoming the so-called ‘Vietnam syndrome’. The films mentioned, with their primary focus on the moral certainty of a particular understanding of WWII, bypass the darker, more complex concerns of 1970s and 1980s war cinema (e.g. The Deerhunter (Michael Cimino, 1978), Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986) and Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987), which showed American culpability in racism, rape, murder and military incompetence in Vietnam). As a result they lay a foundation of sorts – at least in the psychic, libidinal sphere in which Hollywood operates – for actual war.

A culture without any mechanism for self-critique is a brutal one and the contemporary war cinema indicates that there is precious little evidence of any ability to make serious, intellectual and challenging war movies at the start of the twenty first century. This limited vision of conflict cannot but feed into and consolidate the militarily aggressive neo-conservatism given face by the election of George Bush Jr. in 2000 and given popular mandate after the events of September 11.

Happy endings?


That said, from the outset, David O. Russell’s 1999 Three Kings, with its 1991 Gulf War scenario, unsettles expectations and offers a kind of counterpoint from within the same national cinema. We are thrown into the action with no clear attempt to establish place; a running American soldier (Mark Wahlberg) stops and asks, ‘are we shooting?’ It is not immediately clear whether he is an actor asking for direction or a grunt checking orders. An Iraqi soldier is then shot, although it is not clear whether he is surrendering or fighting. Then our protagonist starts crying as the film jolts, with what the shooting script describes as a ‘smash cut’, to victory celebrations. Thus an ambiguous, violent act is obliterated by the machismo and casual narcissism of the victory call.

It’s a neat encapsulation of the film’s central dilemma, one faced by the film’s characters (remain hermetically sealed off from the reality of the war or to begin to care about the Iraqi people) and by the viewers (who must decide whether to be moved, appalled, or titillated). Though the film nods towards the conventional, moral dynamic of most films in the cycle (initially chasing gold but inevitably ending up saving the imperilled refugees) it is a movement that fails to tidy away the messy business of oil, sanctions, Kurdish resistance fighters, reluctant conscripts, unscrupulous journalists, ignorant GIs and sharply intelligent Saddam loyalists. Like the false endings of Douglas Sirk’s 1950s world, Three Kings at least offers a closure that goes some way towards the open endings of both conflict and life.


Dr Guy Westwell lectures in Film Studies at London Metropolitan University and is working on War Cinema for Wallflower Press.