Nobody's a hero - ten honest war movies
18/03/12 12:10 Filed in: reviews
War is a great subject for a movie. You've got danger, heartache, drama, scenes of great intensity; all the emotions you could wish for. There is, though, the tiny problem that war is a horrible, monstrous event that brings nothing but despair, sadness, pain and loss to everyone apart from psychopaths and people in administrative positions.
A lot of war movies skirt over this problem. They also gloss over the fact that people, in every country, behave in unexpected ways in war. Some people who are supposed to be good behave horribly and some people who are supposed to be bad behave nobly. This is the reality of war, alongside the large amounts of weapons, injuries, death, suffering, atrocities, acts of self-sacrifice and flags.
American movies haven't, I think, done a great job of pointing this out. They are invariably a story about good guys vs bad guys. The Americans are all good, the Germans are all bad and the British are either ineffective or strangely absent. There are some exceptions to this but they're thin on the ground. By comparison, European and Middle Eastern movies do often tell a story where people on both sides behave nobly, and horribly. In those movies, war is a mad, awful event that everyone just has to get through.
Why the difference? The reason may be for the last century or more, America has waged wars abroad, winning most of them. They haven't been invaded, or lost, or been plunged into a bitter civil war. By comparison, countries in Europe have; they have suffered war in their own back yards and people from all walks of life have seen up close the effects. It hasn't always been this way. America had a terrible civil war a century or so ago and its people saw then the horrors unleashed. Here's a quote from an American general who survived that war - William Tecumseh Sherman:
"I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting — its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands, and fathers ... it is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated ... that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance and more desolation."
With all that in mind, here's ten honest war movies:
The true story of concert pianist Władysław Szpilman's survival in the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi invasion of Poland. Unforgettable, very moving and a masterful central performance by Adrien Brody. The unpredictability of Władysław's fate runs through The Pianist. He's betrayed by a Pole and saved from death by a German officer. He helps a Jewish armed uprising after being saved from the gas chambers by a Pole working for the Germans. There are scenes of great beauty and scenes of the darkest shades of human behaviour. Quite brilliant.
It is the last days of the Third Reich in Hitler's bunker. Hitler paces around, demented and delusionary as the Russian army approaches Berlin. Around him, his generals are paralysed and drunk or trying to defect. For his clerical staff, the bubble that has surrounded them, insulating them from the horrors orchestrated by the Nazi top brass, has burst. The characters in Downfall are memorable; Hitler's blinkered ranting, the cold fanaticism of Goebbels, the cult-like beaming smile of Eva Braun. Like The Pianist, the film is based on a personal recollection, in Downfall's case, it is one of Hitler's secretaries. At the end, she talks in a documentary and laments how she behaved. Why, she asks, didn't she do something more?
Based on the book by Lothar Gunther Buchheim, a German who survived service in the U-boat fleet in the Second World War, Das Boot is a dramatic, claustrophobic and, at times, unbearably tense drama set almost entirely inside a German U-boat as it moves through the North Atlantic. The captain is weary, experienced and quietly repulsed by his Nazi leaders. His crew are loyal in the face of their fate, the odds at this stage in the war very much against them. Through the eyes of a young German reporter, assigned to record their progress, the boat moves from tedium to farce and then to chaos and terror. Wolfgang Petersen got his actors to live in the mocked up boat until they as became pale, bearded and hollow-eyed as the real U-boat crews.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven, he of 'Starship Troopers' and 'Basic Instinct' fame, Black Book is about a young Jewish Dutch woman caught up in the Second World War resistance in Holland. The pace is unrelenting. It grabs you within minutes and holds you for the entire two or so hours. One of the things that makes the film so memorable, that makes you sit through it on the edge of your seat, is that you literally don't know what's going to happen next. Who is going to help her? Who is going to betray her? Will it be the German officer, or the Dutch people sheltering her, or a member of the Dutch resistance? She experiences everything from love to desire to betrayal to loss to fear, sometimes all of them at once. Utterly riveting.
Grande Illusion is possibly the greatest war movie of all, so powerful is its anti-war message. It was directed by the great Jean Renoir and tells the tale of officers from the French and German sides realising the madness and futility of what their countries are doing. When the Nazis came to power, Goebbels - their propaganda minister - ordered all copies of the movie to be destroyed, knowing the film's ability to make people see the madness of war-mongering. When the Nazis lost, people in Wester Europe were resigned to the fact that the film was lost forever, until a pristine copy was found in Goebbels' own personal archive. He may have ordered the film's destruction but he himself could not let it go.
Stanley Kubrick was a brilliant film-maker, from 'The Shining' to 'Spartacus' to 'Dr Strangelove'. As in those latter two movies, his awareness of the madness and hubris of war plays a large part in Paths of Glory. It is set in the first world war and concerns a battalion whose soldiers are sick of the fighting and especially of their general's willingness to use his soldier's lives to further his glory. It is intense and emotionally harrowing but also profoundly moving.
Is this a war movie? Perhaps not; it certainly doesn't have any tanks in it but it is a cold war movie and all that that implies; fear, powerlessness, betrayal and secrecy. Once again, like the other films in this list, you don't know who will be the good guys and the bad guys, or girls. The protagonists can only do what they feel right, if they have the strength to do that, and take the consequences. Some may do great deeds that no one will ever know about, others may show utter, callous self-preservation and get away scot-free. The power of The Lives of Others is that some people did do wonderful things and often, they were the last people you expected to do that.
Of all the films in this list, possibly the most demanding in terms of morality is, I think, The Reader. It is about a young German who falls for an older German woman in his town. After the first flush of lust and euphoria, he begins to see that she has a dark past and at least one secret. He tries to delve into this but it only drives her away. Later, he finds her on trial for acts she committed while working for the Germans during the war. The Reader is almost unique for me because it looks at morality and human behaviour in a very brave way. It tries to make us aware that people can do bad things for the simplest and most mundane of reasons and that they can be trapped in a way of thinking, through institutional conditioning, that creates awful events and haunts them for the rest of their lives. It is interesting that when the movie came out, the makers of the film were accused of creating a morally unbelievable situation when, I think, they actually created a masterful one. Just thinking about its story again brings tears to my eyes, even amidst my memories of the other, wonderful films on this list.
In the last few years, a clutch of excellent movies have come out of the Middle East, focussing on its conflicts and the effects of those conflicts on the people living there, or conscripted to fight there. These conflicts have been wonderfully brought to a wider audience by Joe Sacco and his reportage style graphic novels (Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde). This graphic art style crossed over to great effect in the film Waltz with Bashir, about the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Well worth seeing.
The last film in this list is also about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. It has a strong connection to Das Boot because, like that claustrophobic submarine movie, nearly the whole of Lebanon takes place inside the cramped interior of an Israeli tank. Such a premise might seem dull but the sounds and short bursts of vision through the tank's viewing slit ratchet up the tension. The audience grows ever more nervous and engaged as the tank's operators, mostly naive conscripts, wither, fall apart and respond in their own individual ways to the madness and horror going on outside the metal plates around them.
That rounds off the ten films. They're all sad, uplifting, gripping and ultimately brilliant at revealing the spectrum of human behaviour and what people do in the madness of war. It's just a shame that there are wars in the first place. Hey ho.