As recreation while teaching a new course on World War II, I was watching The Great Escape, and it occurred to me, this is the same movie as Cool Hand Luke except Cool Hand Luke has rednecks in place of Nazis.
Which suggested the possibly wrong or maybe trivially true observation that the echt World War II movie is a pop culture treatise on existentialist philosophy, and not about the war at all. Or rather, it is about the war as an existentialist experience and not as a world-historical event.As I say, I suppose in one way this is trivially true. The ordinary soldier, sailor, marine, airman (almost invariably, therefore, a man) experienced modern war as a vast impersonal and murderous chaos that threatened imminently and meaninglessly to destroy him, a state of affairs in which the only hope for human dignity was to assert, however absurdly, one’s individuality.
To make this point, The Great Escape concludes with the legend, “This picture is dedicated to the fifty,” i.e., the fifty airmen (mostly RAF) murdered by the Gestapo upon their recapture after escaping Stalag Luft III, and why it does not go on to mention that after the war the RAF was permitted to investigate the murders and execute some of the perpetrators: to invoke the trial would be to assert the existence of a balancing impersonal justice, a notion that would cut very much against the existentialist grain of the film.
To some extent this is the basic point of much modern war fiction, but it is especially and particularly true of the World War II movie. The Great War evokes nihilism, not existentialism. (An assignment: Compare the heroes of A Farewell to Arms and of For Whom the Bell Tolls; explain why Hemingway never successfully made the transition from pues nada to existentialism.) And it is why The English Patient is not really a World War II movie – it asserts that the problems of two people really do amount to a hill of beans, even in this crazy world.
Despite The Red Badge of Courage or the work of Ambrose Bierce, the US Civil War has acquired a narrative of overriding purpose: emancipation. (Which is why The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is really a World War II movie, and not a Civil War movie; consider who made it and where, not what characters are in it and when it is set.)
In a World War II movie the narrative of overriding purpose could as well be the emancipation of humanity. The US/UK alliance proceeds under the Atlantic Charter and the war in Europe entails the liberation of the concentration camps. But these acts constitute less, or perhaps just other, than victory; they are face-to-face confrontations with the impersonal murderous chaos that the war has always implied: consider the actions of Mark Hamill’s soldier during the liberation of Buchenwald in The Big Red One, firing mechanically and repeatedly into the corpse of a Nazi soldier who has hidden in a crematory with the intent of ambushing him. Hamill’s character is a sharpshooter and a coward, who has been forced to overcome his cowardice on the Normandy beaches – but not to a larger purpose, simply for his survival and that of his mates. The film ends with Lee Marvin’s squad desperately resuscitating a German soldier just after news of the surrender arrives – and, importantly, the German, we have been carefully and repeatedly shown, is not a “good German” at all, but a devoted Nazi. Nevertheless this act of solidarity among survivors is meant to seem essential.
This is also why we do not, as a rule, see the leaders of the armies or nations in these films, which focus on common soldiers. I know what you will say: Patton! But Patton is the exception that proves the rule; general though he be, Patton is presented as a pawn of faceless fate in that film. We never see Eisenhower, who is simply a name for that implacable force.
It’s also why we don’t see Roosevelt in these films – Roosevelt had too much personality, to present him would disturb the thematic weather too much. In Saving Private Ryan, it’s George Marshall, in real life a soldier’s soldier, who is unfairly made to set the absurd mission in motion.
Which brings me around to Saving Private Ryan – I see it as, from one angle, part of this tradition. It begins and ends with the flag – but it’s a washed out flag, not one whose colors proudly wave. It resists the national narrative. Ryan is charged to “earn this” – but he cannot, possibly, earn it, anymore than any of his predecessors in World War II films could.
The difference, of course, is that he is, in fact, so charged; you wouldn’t get that in an older World War II movie. You can’t earn it, and you won’t. The only thing you can earn is that moment of happiness and dignity that Richard Attenborough’s Roger Bartlett has, seconds before he and his recaptured comrades are murdered.