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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Going to war… movies

I suppose an obvious question that comes up on a movie web site during a time of war is: what are good movies to watch, if not exactly to get us “in the mood” for war, then to put the war into some kind of perspective. If films are a major component of our collective cultural memory, then what do they tell us about where we are now?

In the weeks before the war began, George W. Bush famously and impatiently said Saddam Hussein’s bureaucratic delaying tactics were “like a bad movie.” Now that the war has begun, we may find that it is like a good many movies, both bad and good. Depending on your vintage and/or your political leanings, you might find yourself popping into the video shop to pick up copies of anything from the romantic From Here to Eternity (or its 2001 quasi-remake Pearl Harbor) to the adrenaline-pumping Top Gun, the jingoistic Rambo movies (First Blood, etc.), or the stomach-wrenching Platoon. The dramatic rescue this week of a captured American soldier and its attendant publicity might be expected to fuel a surge in video rentals and sales of Saving Private Ryan.

As for me, well, here’s my personal list of films I’ll be dusting off in order to try putting things into perspective:

  • The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957): Winner of seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, this David Lean adaptation of a novel by Pierre Boulle (who also wrote Planet of the Apes) is both a big-screen spectacle and a fable about the absurdity of war. In an Oscar-winning performance, Alec Guinness plays a stiff-upper-lip British colonel in a prisoner-of-war camp in Burma who ends up, in an effort to keep up his men’s morale, directing them to cooperate with their Japanese captors in building a bridge. The colonel himself becomes so caught up in the project that he loses sight of the bigger picture. In the end, he is devastated when “his” magnificent bridge is destroyed by William Holden. The natural human tendency to lose sight of the big picture in a large organization is a lesson well worth learning and remembering, whether one is in a corporation, the military, or the government.

  • Gallipoli (1981): This epic by Peter Weir is also one of the all-time great war movies. Beautifully photographed, this film is essentially a buddy movie about two young idealistic (and, it must be said, beautiful) Australian men who go off to fight in World War I. In the end, the pair (played by Mel Gibson and Mark Lee) are slaughtered along with a good many of their countrymen in a bloody but pointless battle in Turkey, mainly for the benefit of the British. The film is an eloquent statement on the waste of war. It also serves as a cautionary tale about the possible pitfalls of being a junior partner in a coalition.

  • Black Hawk Down (2001): This is a must-see for anyone interested in a graphic recreation of how wars are fought in today’s world. The year is 1993 and the place is Somalia, but the tensions and the atmosphere cannot help but remind of us of Afghanistan or, now, Iraq. Indeed, it is said that Saddam Hussein studied this film for ideas as to how to combat the looming American invaders. No other war movie gives us such an image of the potential ineffectiveness of military super-technology in urban street warfare. Nor does any other film highlight so well the unbearable tensions among western soldiers, Moslem civilians and urban guerrillas. And nor does any other film so far, we have to conclude, make us experience what war is like at the turn of the millenium.

  • Breaker Morant (1980): Another cautionary tale, this time the moral is that just being a great warrior doesn’t mean you won’t be sacrificed as a convenient scapegoat if it suits the purposes of the political leadership. In other words, it wasn’t just the Nazis who got into trouble for “just following orders.” As much a courtroom drama as a war movie, director Bruce Beresford tells the true story of three Australian soldiers who are court-martialed for their actions in the Boer War. Not surprisingly, the film takes the side of the soldiers who, in its view, are treated shabbily after risking their lives and doing only what was asked of them. In the title role, Edward Woodward speaks one of my all-time favorite lines. In a jail cell toast, he proclaims, “Live each day as though it were your last; one day you’re sure to be right.”

  • Star Trek episode #34 (“Amok Time”) (1967): Okay, this isn’t actually a movie. It’s a TV episode of Star Trek. But for all its sci-fi trappings, 1960s-style cheesy special effects and hammy acting by William Shatner, it makes an insightful and profound comment on the causes of war. In this episode we learn that the extremely civilized and logical (male) Vulcans go crazy once every seven years as part of their mating process. If the male Vulcan does not mate during this period of madness, he must kill or die. Mr. Spock’s condition is resolved when he seemingly kills Capt. Kirk in a violent fight. At times, in real life, it seems as though military superpowers have the same condition and are compelled to go to war every few years. In any event, this episode is an excellent illustration of the old line: Why do men go to war? Because the women are watching.

  • Skammen (Shame) (1968): One of Ingmar Bergman’s lesser known films, this is one that had one of the greatest effects on me. Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow play married concert violinists who live on an island, completely aloof from and uninvolved in a war that is raging all around them. Until it reaches their island. In one sense, this is a look at what happens to the bystanders in a war and how they are traumatized. In another sense, it can also be seen as an allegory for Sweden, which has been politically neutral for ages. The film’s very title seems to point to the moral dilemma of not getting involved in a war. Specifically, do or should people in neutral countries feel guilt about not taking active part in the war against, say, Hitler? This issue is particularly timely since the question of whether to back, oppose or stay mum on the current war is one that has split not only the European continent but every single European country, as well as America. Skammen has stuck with me for years and is especially present in my mind these days. And not just because it was filmed on Gotland, where three of my great-grandparents were born. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I am watching my country fight a war, as I sit in a convenient and seemingly safe vantage point in a politically neutral nation. On an island.

    In the end, only time will tell definitively if the real heroes were the ones who initiated Gulf War II or the ones who opposed it. Long before that, however, we can look forward, inevitably, to Gulf War II: The Movie.

    -S.L., 3 April 2003

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