Sunday, September 2, 2007
War movies then and now
Last night I watched the latest installment of British Film Forever on BBC2 (don’t know if it will turn up on US television at some point), which looked at the history of British war movies.
My enjoyment was tempered somewhat by the ironic, smart-ass tone of the narration, even though it was exactly what I would have expected of the BBC – old war movies, for example, were mocked as being ‘stiff upper lip’, while any film made after 1960 was lauded for being ‘anti-establishment’.
That said, there were lots of great clips and interviews with some of the people who made and starred in the films, and some fascinating insights: The Battle of the Somme, which combined documentary footage and reconstructions, remains the most widely watched film in British cinema history; and, when the film was restored, it was discovered that as soldiers re-created action shots for the camera, the real Battle of the Somme could be seen raging on the horizon.
We also learned that Alexander Korda had to persuade Winston Churchill, who wanted to close the cinemas for the duration of the war, that films could be used to rally the British people to the cause. And so we got classics like In Which We Serve, and the dark but ultimately inspiring Went The Day Well?, in which German commandos take over a sleepy English village; the locals fight back, dispatching several Germans by hand before the Army arrives.
One of the key points about these early films is that they were made at a time when victory was far from certain, but their patriotic tone and certainty in the justness of the cause helped to ensure that Britain and her allies prevailed.
And so to the present day, where Hollywood is preparing to release a raft of films about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I won’t go into the films in detail here – Jonathan Foreman has done a great job of that in this piece at NRO, but you won’t be surprised to learn that the vast majority of the films are resoundingly anti-war. Foreman writes:
Inevitably there will also be tales of veterans driven mad by Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, or tormented by guilt. And, there will be portraits of whistleblowers putting their lives on the line to expose all those atrocities so regularly committed by America’s callous, cruel G.I.s and Marines.
But the ordinary, quiet heroism of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan will not be portrayed at all, let alone celebrated: The antiwar discourse imagines American soldiers only as monsters or victims. So don’t expect to see any movies portraying America’s soldiers building schools, protecting civilians, fighting side-by-side with Iraqi security forces, or giving medical aid.
It’s a great piece, and Foreman is well qualified to comment on the subject – he's a former film critic for the New York Post, who was also an embedded reporter with U.S. troops in Iraq in 2003 and 2005.
There are glimmers of hope: an adaptation of Bing West’s No True Glory, which deals with the 2004 battle for Fallujah, promises to be more Blackhawk Down than Born on the Fourth of July. However, most of these films will serve to reinforce the negative messages delivered daily by the MSM to a public largely ignorant of what’s really going on.
Just as in Britain during WWII there’s no guarantee that we’re going to win the War on Terror. However, unlike then, most of today’s filmmakers and actors, along with most journalists, feel no compunction to rally the people to the cause. They want to see Bush defeated, and if that also means defeat for America, and the consequences for the Middle East and the Western democracies that such a defeat would entail, then so be it.
Hopefully continued progress in Iraq and Afghanistan will diminish the public's appetite for fictionalised bad news stories. And perhaps more film-makers who, while not necessarily cheerleaders for the war at least aren't invested in the idea of defeat, will produce more balanced, even positive movies (where are you Bruce Willis?). If so, and if movie-goers shun the anti-war polemics, then Hollywood will be hit where it hurts – at the box office – and might just get the message.
UPDATE: Thanks to Instapundit for linking, and welcome all. This blog has only been going for a month, so while I have your attention please take a minute to look around – my back catalog isn't that big! There are a lot of comments to take in on this piece, and I'll probably add some more thoughts in a separate post, so do check back.