World War II movies, and not Civil War ones

by Eric on November 30, 2012

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.

{ 121 comments }

1

Jeremy 11.30.12 at 5:13 am

It strikes me that Bridge on the River Kwai seems like an almost textbook example of “war as an existentialist experience and not as a world-historical event.”

2

salacious 11.30.12 at 5:21 am

“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.”

This is interesting–I’m curious how you would articulate the distinction? Is it analagous to agnostic v. atheist?

3

Meredith 11.30.12 at 6:18 am

This is far too insightful for me to handle at the moment. I think of my uncle at Peleiu, and of my children whom I’ve just been advising about their lives of service (and, yeah, their own more individual, personal needs). Thinking movies and thinking lives. The lives are real (which doesn’t make the movies unreal, at all).

4

bob mcmanus 11.30.12 at 6:20 am

I’m curious how you would articulate the distinction?

Nihilist has nothing. The Sun Also Rise?

For a first attempt:the existentialist asserts her values in a meaningless world, or maybe creates personal meaning. But there are a lot of Existentialisms.

Fires on the Plain is existentialist. Human Condition is all over the place, but like Burmese Harp ultimately about compassion. It’s lost in blind purpose at the end of Condition

If SPR is about the Hanks character instead of Ryan, then maybe that movie is also about compassion in chaos. As I remember, Sands of Iwo Jima is about care and compassion more than duty or purpose.

Band of Brothers tells it in the title, and as I remember, Winters is told his troops have earned the right to keep him around.

5

ponce 11.30.12 at 7:06 am

95% of the German soldiers who died during WWII died fighting the Soviets.

Makes American and British movies about the European battles of WWII a little…fantastic.

6

Matt 11.30.12 at 7:35 am

From the beginning, the actual circumstances of World War II were smothered in countless lies, evasions, and distortions, like a wrecked landscape smoothed by a blizzard. People all along have preferred the movie version: the tense border crossing where the flint-eyed SS guards check the forged papers; the despondent high-level briefing where the junior staff officer pipes up with the crazy plan that just might work; the cheerful POWs running rings around the Nazi commandant; the soldier dying gently in a sunlit jungle glade, surrounded by a platoon of teary-eyed buddies. The truth behind these cliches was never forgotten — because nobody except the soldiers ever learned it in the first place.

Lee Sandlin, Losing the War

7

Dave 11.30.12 at 8:03 am

American involvement in WWII has always been entirely shrouded in consensus.(There only a very brief revisionist current with “FDR new about Pearl Harbor”) – which freed Hollywood from some of its usual obligations.

The Civil War is still politically controversial. But there are a few films which touch on it in without making a point- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is one example.

8

Chris Bertram 11.30.12 at 8:17 am

Do Americans ever watch A Matter of Life and Death?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Matter_of_Life_and_Death_%28film%29

9

Stephen 11.30.12 at 8:36 am

“The ordinary soldier … experienced modern war as a vast impersonal and murderous chaos that threatened imminently and meaninglessly to destroy him”: that may be true of US forces. Civilians and soldiers alike, in less fortunate states, experienced war, and many survivors seemed to think they didn’t experience the war in their own countries as exactly meaningless. That is particularly true of the limited number of Soviet survivors I have heard from.

I realise this may be off-topic, if the OP is thinking only of US films about US soldiers.

10

Scott Martens 11.30.12 at 8:49 am

The thing that I love about Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds is its willful and systematic repudiation of the “pop culture treatise on existentialist philosophy.” The heros are not a multiethnic band of farm boys and factory workers drafted into a distant war they have to survive, it’s a group of Jews whose sole motivation is to kill as many Nazis as possible in the most sadistic manner the film’s mise-en-scene intent will allow them to. No one is liberated, there is just a desire for violent revenge that never has to be investigated at all because we all know everyone hates Nazis. The good guys have no character depth at all and almost all die, and not in glorious, brave, or plot-advancing ways, but ignominiously, stupidly and accidentally, without any moral content or existential significance. The Nazis are fleshed out as real characters with understandable motivations and lives, good, bad and indifferent, and then killed just the same. And in the end, the film veers wildly into becoming about “world-historical events” by changing the ending of WWII, violating the very aspect of WWII movies that forces them to become about existentialist experience rather than history: We all know the history. We know who wins, and where, and why, and making a movie about how that actually happened, about the political wrangling and strategic choices made, will not be possible until WWII has really passed out of memory. Tarantino exposes the WWII film as something with precious little to do with WWII.

Contrast this to, for example, Der Untergang, which is very much about world-historical events, but of course, is not an American war movie told from the American side.

11

Bogdanov 11.30.12 at 8:50 am

I don’t know about your assertion that WW1 represents nihilism to WW2’s existentialism. To me WW1 has always been the very pinnacle of all the existentialist themes you are discussing (both in real life and in the arts). In fact, my pick for the most explicitly existentialist war film is Kubrick’s The Paths of Glory (WW1).

12

Mao Cheng Ji 11.30.12 at 8:52 am

There is this film called Cross of Iron, 1977, which I think has a good mixture of nihilism, existentialism, humanism, a whole bunch of isms.

13

Harold 11.30.12 at 9:24 am

Of the Powell and Pressberger war films I liked the straightforward propaganda “49th Parallel”, despite its being rather static and pageant-like, and also “Contraband” with Valerie Hobson, which has a marvelous scene of shooting countless plaster busts of Chamberlain. I preferred these to the more ambitious “Colonel Blimp”, “Canterbury Tale” and even “A Matter of Life and Death” though all were good in their way.

Speaking of Chamberlain, there is a very telling and not too subtle reference him in the climatic scene of Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes”, another wonderful propaganda movie, IMO, energized with righteous wrath and humor.

Then there is Jean Pierre Melville’s “Army of Shadows”.

More recent is the Norwegian “Max Manus, Man of War”, though US film critics did not appreciate its lack of irony.

I don’t know if or how if any of these films fist into the schema of existentialism. Perhaps “Army of Shadows”.

14

Torquil Macneil 11.30.12 at 9:40 am

Yes, Matter of Life and Death, Colonel Blimp and even Henry V seem to be fairly powerful counter examples – all consciously propagandist, of course. Stepping down a rung I think The Longest Day, Dambusters and Battle of the Bulge all seem to take a world historical perspective. There must be more.

15

Phil 11.30.12 at 9:48 am

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

Apparently the ordinary soldier was a bomber crewman stationed on Pianosa. I think there was a lot more stuff in a straight-up ours-not-to-reason-why heroic mode – with, naturally, the dark shadows that mode casts – in the first decade or so after the war. Or maybe it’s a US thing – over here, “war as meaningless chaos” is challenged by “war of national survival”.

16

Soru 11.30.12 at 10:17 am

Isn’t the distinction more about when and where the films were made, rather than where they are set?

For example, you can easily see the transitions between films made for audiences who were respectively fighting the war, had fought in the war, were sick of their parents talking about the war, and were kind of interested again now they were dead.

17

bert 11.30.12 at 10:56 am

They showed ‘Dambusters’ on TV again last week.
1. There’s a brief discussion about whether the sacrifices of the aircrews were worth it. But at no point are you seriously encouraged to believe they weren’t. As far as existentialism goes, that’s it.
2. Instead, Dambusters is a hymn to boffinhood. When Mark Hamill starred in George Lucas’ restaging of the dam raid sequence at the end of the original Star Wars movie, that trust in science is replaced with faith in unspecific transcendental bullshit.
3. You may have a view about the naming of dogs in Dambusters.

18

Harold 11.30.12 at 11:14 am

Catch 22?

19

bjk 11.30.12 at 12:00 pm

The other side of the WWII movie is Beetle Bailey, McHale’s Navy, MASH, Hogan’s Heroes etc. which reflect the other experience of soldiers in war, lots of incompetence and waiting around.

20

Trader Joe 11.30.12 at 12:38 pm

The beauty of war movies – any war – is that they create a tableaux on which viewers can believe “anything can happen.” Factually we know wars induce a degree of chaos and randomness that goes well beyond the fates that befall people in everyday life.

As such, the movie protagonists whatever the arc of their plot, will get dealt random set backs and opportunities that will further the action to get to the conclusion – you can call this existential philiosophy – or you can simply call it an imaginary world that is also a believeable real world at the same time.

Inglorious Basterds (at #10) is an excellent example of this as it uses the war as setting, but pretty well everything that occurs within it didn’t happen or only most improbably could have happened – that said, most movie goers are about 3/4 the way through the film before they really realize they are being spoofed to some extent.

Private Ryan likewise – whether such a thing did happen or can happen is beside the point – in a war viewers believe its something that might have happened and all the chaos that followed are perfectly plausible in that context. Factually, the team that went out to save Ryan saw more action in the few days covered by the movie than most soldiers saw in a one year tour – that’s movie making.

The cadre of viet-nam movies (Appocalypse, Deer hunter even Rambo…) will tell similar morality/humanity tales with a different enemy….we’re now starting to see some movies with Iraq as the setting which effectively transfer WWII plots to this latest more relatable conflict….instead of catching Nazis, they catch terrorists….they try to find WMDs instead of soldiers….

What the old rule? Movies have about 12 plots and then thousands of settings and characters to make them seem different every time you see them.

21

Anderson 11.30.12 at 1:33 pm

WW2 picked up millions of Americans and set them down in places thousands of miles from home, often in countries and islands they’d never heard of, fighting people whose languages and cultures were alien to them. Plus the sheer size of the armed forces enhanced remoteness from one’s leaders; factor in too the system of reinforcement that kept units in the field forever while dropping novices in amongst bitter veterans.

Pretty existential.

The Civil War OTOH was fought “at home” against other Americans. The danger wasn’t so much alienation as sheer rejection of a political war (yes, all wars are political, but this one more than many). Perhaps that generated the need for a glorious cause, be it emancipation or, more often I think, the Union ( whatever dubious cash value anti-secession had to most Union soldiers).

22

Louis Proyect 11.30.12 at 1:40 pm

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
reviewed by
Louis Proyect

The only thing surprising about “Saving Private Ryan” is how conventional it is. I fully expected a much more “noir” vision of WWII along the lines of Oliver Stone’s “Platoon.” What I saw was an updated version of such 1950s classics as “Walk in the Sun,” written by Robert Rossen, the CP’er who named names.

“Walk in the Sun,” also known as “Salerno Beachhead,” just about defines this genre. A group of GI’s are out on a patrol and they get killed off one by one. The enemy is faceless and evil. Our soldiers, by the same token, are good boys who are just trying to get home. The reason that CP’ers were so adept at turning out this sort of patriotic pap is that they had bought into the myth of FDR’s “fight for freedom.” So patriotic were the CP’ers that they also backed the decision to intern Japanese-Americans.

full: http://www.imdb.com/reviews/142/14269.html

23

Eric 11.30.12 at 1:47 pm

the OP is thinking only of US films about US soldiers

Richard Attenborough, the RAF, and the Great Escape are pretty British. As any listener of “The Now Show” would tell you.

I have a pretty good idea the general themes apply also to Enemy at the Gates.

It strikes me that Bridge on the River Kwai seems like an almost textbook example of “war as an existentialist experience and not as a world-historical event.”

Yes, I think Colonel Nicholson can be seen as an existential anti-hero.

I have not seen A Matter of Life and Death, though I have seen Dambusters several times. As for Dambusters there are of course plenty of fairly straight-up hooray for us World War II movies; I guess that’s why I’m talking about being “possibly wrong” and using wiggle words like “echt.”

you can easily see the transitions between films made for audiences who were respectively fighting the war, had fought in the war, were sick of their parents talking about the war, and were kind of interested again now they were dead.

Maybe yes, broadly; but I think Casablanca (as I suggested in the OP) fits the mode I’m describing.

24

Torquil Macneil 11.30.12 at 1:59 pm

“I have not seen A Matter of Life and Death”

Rectify this immediately. You will be glad you did.

25

Mitchell Freedman 11.30.12 at 2:04 pm

A Matter of Life and Death is one of the greatest films of all time. Amazing film!

But for cynicism in war, does anything really top Kelly’s Heroes or What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?

Just wonderin…

26

bianca steele 11.30.12 at 2:13 pm

There might be some Civil War movies that show it as meaningless chaos, the point being not to end up being drafted: Cold Mountain, maybe Shenandoah.

@Inglourious Basterds
They all die ignominiously, except for the girl, who dies nobly, forgiving her enemy. (I guess it’s up to the audience to decide the significance of that, as with the director of Hostel going all nutso fake-gangster, fanboy who finally got a real gun in his hands, and shooting everybody up, to entirely no ultimate effect. I’m not sure the movie is about war at all when it’s in that mode.)

27

belle le triste 11.30.12 at 2:36 pm

“I have not seen A Matter of Life and Death, though I have seen Dambusters several times”

^^^new mouseover text

28

Katherine 11.30.12 at 2:49 pm

On TV recently(ish) in the UK was a somewhat different view of the dambusters – a documentary which included information on the victims of the bombings in the Ruhr Valley, a large number of whom were forced labourers from the East and civilians. As an aside, my grandmother (who was a Lieutenant during WWII) had some very harsh words to say about the devastating effect of the bombings (large) versus the effect on German industry (small).

Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that, like bert, don’t see The Dambusters as anything to do with existentialism, but more a tale of Brits-doing-science-against-the-odds, combined with our-lads-being-terribly-brave, mixed up to a jingoistic whole. The music helps.

As WWIIis going out of living memory, there is more space for us a culture (and thus film) to take a less involved view, shall we say.

29

ajay 11.30.12 at 3:02 pm

As an aside, my grandmother (who was a Lieutenant during WWII) had some very harsh words to say about the devastating effect of the bombings (large) versus the effect on German industry (small).

Worth noting that a) the raid wasn’t repeated once the dams had been fixed, because the remarkably high casualty cost wasn’t justified by the damage achieved
and b) the mission would, if conducted today, be a war crime, under 4GC which specifically forbids attacks on “dams, nuclear power stations, or other installations which contain dangerous forces”.

On the more general point, this is a futile discussion because there have been so many WW2 films made that trying to say “they’re all about X” is ludicrous. Really? There’s some sort of common thread that you can tease out from Heroes of Telemark, The Battle of Britain, The Thin Red Line, Das Boot, The Desert Fox, Fires Were Started, The First of the Few, The Cruel Sea, Saving Private Ryan and Went the Day Well?

30

LFC 11.30.12 at 3:10 pm

Haven’t closely read all the comments, but I don’t think anyone has mentioned Malick’s movie of Jones’s The Thin Red Line; the movie is overlong and existentialist in feel (the novel is also rather ‘existentialist’ and I think is in most ways better than the movie). [Btw, the novel gets some discussion in a book I ran across by chance some months ago in a used bookstore: John Limon, Writing after War: American War Fiction from Realism to Postmodernism (Oxford UP, 1994).]

31

LFC 11.30.12 at 3:11 pm

posted before I saw ajay’s mention of Thin Red Line

32

Eric 11.30.12 at 3:44 pm

this is a futile discussion because there have been so many WW2 films made that trying to say “they’re all about X” is ludicrous

It’s a good thing the OP doesn’t say that, then.

Anyway, the indefensibly overbroad assertion is often a useful tool for thinking about stuff.

33

ponce 11.30.12 at 3:46 pm

“you can easily see the transitions between films made for audiences who were respectively fighting the war, had fought in the war, were sick of their parents talking about the war, and were kind of interested again now they were dead.”

You could add to this list WWII movies that were really about Vietnam.

As a kid growing up in the 60s, I could have given a decent history of WWII lecture thanks to all the WWII movies, TV shows, comics, etc. about it, but I knew next to nothing about Vietnam.

Also, too Kelly’s Heroes.

34

Tom Hurka 11.30.12 at 4:51 pm

That The English Patient is the opposite of Casablanca (the two people vs. the hill of beans) has been said before, but in the book, if you read it carefully, what Almasy goes back to the cave for, and what’s supposed to justify his colluding with Nazism, is to have necrophiliac sex with the corpse of his lover. (As I say, read the scene carefully.) Give me Rick any day.

35

Ben Alpers 11.30.12 at 5:13 pm

Very interesting post, Eric. A few thoughts I’d add (both about the OP and about some of the comments):

1) I think the WWII movie as “pop culture treatise on existentialist philosophy” emerges during the war itself in a fairly complicated way. The cultural work of the wartime World War II movie involved, in part, drawing connection between the seemingly meaningless slog of the military experience (as felt by men in combat, but also as reported to the home front by folks like Ernie Pyle and Bill Mauldin) and the meaning and purpose of the war effort. This task was complicated, I think, by two factors: 1) the American experience of WWI and its aftermath, which potentially made propagandistic invocations of the grand purposes of the war incredible, especially if they didn’t acknowledge the cost of war; 2) the fact that the Axis powers in WWII were, in part, defined by their militarism, which made simple evocations of military virtue problematic. The imagined American war effort would be fought by ordinary American men, whose great advantage would somehow involve ordinary, homefront virtues (think, for example, of the WWII-era movie version of WWI hero Sergeant York: a pacifist at heart who uses his turkey-shooting skills to defeat the Germans). Especially early in the war, wartime WWII combat films were often built around heroic defeats (e.g. WAKE ISLAND). I think the existentialist aspects of the WWII combat film grow out of a lot of these wartime imperatives. Certainly they’re visible in fullblown form by the end of the war (see, for example, the last wartime Hollywood combat film, A WALK IN THE SUN). What’s particularly interesting is that these films emerge about half a decade before existentialism itself really had broad cultural purchase in the US.

2) You could make an interesting, similar argument about much WWII fiction (Mailer’s THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, e.g.).

3) When discussing Powell & Pressburger’s war movies, one ought to include ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING, which is a kind of companion piece to 49th PARALLEL (it has a similar structure, in reverse: a crew of a downed British bomber has to escape across the occupied Netherlands). It’s also available for free viewing in its entirety on YouTube.

36

js. 11.30.12 at 5:18 pm

RE: Powell and Pressburger, I would have thought Colonel Blimp would be the most obvious counterexample to the thesis that WWII films treat the war as existentialist crisis rather than world-historical event. (This isn’t meant to really argue against the thesis; just curious.)

37

bianca steele 11.30.12 at 5:26 pm

There are the well known WWII novels like Mailer’s and Heller’s, but when I read The Killer Angels I wondered if SF was a substitute for the war novel for some veterans. (Shaara served in the Army in the early 1950s but I don’t know where.)

38

bianca steele 11.30.12 at 5:29 pm

And James Jones’. It’s hard to comprehend now, I think, how shockingly cynical his novels were considered to be at the time.

39

LanceThruster 11.30.12 at 5:30 pm

Catch-22 & Stalag 17 belong on this list.

40

LanceThruster 11.30.12 at 5:34 pm

I like the bit of trivia explaing why Slaughterhouse Five made the banned book list. It was for a line of dialogue that actually happened to Vonnegut. After leaving his Dresden captors , he was attempting to wander back to his lines through the snowy countryside when he heard an American call out from a concealed position, “Get out of the middle of the road you dumb motherfucker!”

41

Ben Alpers 11.30.12 at 5:34 pm

js. @36:

FWIW, I don’t think any of Powell & Pressburger’s war-related films really are examples of pop-culture existentialism (with the possible, odd exception of the wonderful, under-rated THE SMALL BACK ROOM).

When considering the breadth of the application of the OP’s thesis, I think it’s worth distinguishing between the World War II combat film (a distinct, Hollywood genre which occasionally is applied to settings other than World War II, e.g. the Vietnam film GO TELL THE SPARTANS) and other (Hollywood and non-Hollywood) films with World War II settings. The core of Eric’s argument (at least as I read it) concerns WWII combat films, though I think it might also be applied to some other pop cultural narratives about WWII (novels, for example, as I suggest above).

42

Frank in midtown 11.30.12 at 5:36 pm

I would suggest including “Is Paris Burning?”

43

bianca steele 11.30.12 at 5:43 pm

I don’t know, if Civil War and Vietnam movies are “really” going to be WWII movies, are the battle scenes in Cold Mountain “really” about Passchendaele?

44

Eric 11.30.12 at 5:59 pm

Conversely, isn’t the (1939) burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind “really” about Guernica?

Thanks to everyone (especially you, Ben) for suggesting a whole bunch of movies I should see, or re-see.

45

Eric 11.30.12 at 6:03 pm

Is Paris Burning? isn’t even available on Netflix! (I did, rest easy, cover the August 1944 uprising in Paris in lecture.)

Ben, are you including POW narratives in your area of “combat” movies?

46

Nick 11.30.12 at 6:30 pm

“The beauty of war movies”

Inglorious Bastards was about bums on seats. Of no artistic value, or any value to society all. The movie he made about cars was the only ok one. Spielberg, the one about the truck. We all should be allowed to make one movie each (thinking that more and more…)

47

Ben Alpers 11.30.12 at 6:31 pm

Eric @45:

At least some POW narratives probably fit the genre…though at a certain point, the POW film arguably becomes a genre unto itself. Certainly, it also draws on prison films and other genres as well as the combat film. Though I haven’t thought a lot about POW films, off the top of my head, I’d identify their depictions of the enemy as distinctly different from the combat films’. After all, POWs are trying to outwit the camp commandant, not defeat him on the field of battle. Incidentally, the roots of this sort of thing can also be found in the war years. There’s a great 1944 US military training film called RESISTING ENEMY INTERROGATION (available here on YouTube…dontcha love the internet?) that’s worth checking out as a possible urtext. And it features German military men that are unlike the depiction of Nazis in other wartime official films, more rational opponents than ideological monsters.

At any rate, I think it’s significant that one of the few post-war pop cultural attempts to make Nazis funny (without ironizing that idea even as one does it, a la THE PRODUCERS) is a POW narrative: HOGAN’S HEROES. Among fictional Nazis, POW camp commandants are unusually well-suited to be objects of humor without crossing the line into joking about things that might make offense (like the Holocaust).

48

Ben Alpers 11.30.12 at 6:37 pm

I meant to add: the go-to analysis of the World War II combat movie as a genre is Jeanine Basinger’s The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre, which is, more generally, a real model of how to write about a cinematic genre.

49

Eric 11.30.12 at 6:49 pm

Isn’t Hogan’s Heroes very specifically The Great Escape where nobody escapes, and thus nobody has to get shot?

50

Eric 11.30.12 at 6:50 pm

(The camp commandant in Great Escape is depicted somewhat sympathetically, as someone who Heils Hitler only reluctantly, when made to by a punctilious Gestapo.)

51

Lee A. Arnold 11.30.12 at 7:02 pm

Well there is The Longest Day (1962), not well known now, but a very big picture that year, which stands apart from the rest because it is a series of experiences of about three or four dozen characters, all international movie stars, playing Eisenhower, Montgomery, Rommel, etc. all the way down to the grunts on all sides. No geopolitics that I can recall. You generally get the idea that, although there were heroics and absurdities, it was just a terrible and useless mess. It is three hours long. It also has a better D-Day landing than Saving Private Ryan, IMHO.

52

Ben Alpers 11.30.12 at 7:02 pm

Eric @ 49 and 50:

I think that’s basically correct (though I always thought that Hogan’s Heroes was a version of Stalag 17…as apparently did the latter film’s writers, who unsuccessfully sued tv show’s producers for copyright infringement).

And there are plenty of other POW films feature somewhat sympathetic (or at least non-monstrous) German commandants, e.g., The Colditz Story (which is a pretty essential bit of British WWII memory).

53

bert 11.30.12 at 7:04 pm

Those pointing to the existential content in Bridge over the River Kwai make a very good point. I’d only add that Alec Guinness plays a decidedly strange central character, and the film itself is a very untypical war movie.

#35 notes that existentialism was a postwar thing, which is certainly true if you date it to the English publication of Being and Nothingness. With this in mind, as a movie with an absolutely conscious and explicit existential framework I’d point to the wonderful ‘The Iron Giant’, which is set in the early Cold War. It’s a rare Pixar box office failure – not enough people have seen it, but those who have tend to love it. Besides existentialism, it features nuclear paranoia and abstract expressionism for that authentic Fifties feel.

My apologies to Eric, btw.
For some reason I confused him with Corey on Spielberg.
That explains my mentioning the un-PC black labrador from Dambusters.

54

Ralph H. 11.30.12 at 7:17 pm

Yes, let’s not forget Kelly’s Heroes, a true existential war movie. Along with the best movie about Vietnam and the 21st century wars, Breaker Morant. The Dambusters mission was definitely sold to Bomber Command and Guy Gibson’s aircrews as a one-shot war-winner, prompting the squadron to undertake great risks and losses. I await the remake, hoping they can resolve the thorny issue of Gibson’s dog’s name.

55

bert 11.30.12 at 7:22 pm

bq. The camp commandant in Great Escape is depicted somewhat sympathetically, as someone who Heils Hitler only reluctantly, when made to by a punctilious Gestapo.

56

Harold 11.30.12 at 7:26 pm

I agree about “One of our Aircraft” – remember liking it. So convenient that it is on Youtube. Also, “Sargeant York” – though it is a WW1 film. Pressberger’s theses in “Canterbury” and “Blimp” – about the British people needing to give up their naive ideals of sportsmanship and fair play because of the nature of the enemy, whatever truth it might have had at the time, annoyed me a bit because I think that by now that message has been pretty thoroughly assimilated. Besides, if the British were in danger of being “too fair” to the Germans in 1939, it was doubtless from far less noble motives than a purportedly misguided sense of fair play.

57

Wonks Anonymous 11.30.12 at 7:28 pm

It was from Crooked Timber that I learned Star Wars imitated the WW2 bomber movie 633 Squadron. Then I made the mistake of actually watching that movie. So I don’t think I’ll watch Dambusters, but Kelly’s Heroes sounds interesting.

58

Joshua W. Burton 11.30.12 at 7:59 pm

Even Ken Burns tells WW2 small.

One thought I’ve often had about telling WW2 big is that Leni Riefenstahl had already poisoned that well: part of the jackbooted horror was just exactly that it was a newsreel war even before it was a real one. Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, Mary Breckinridge and the rest then co-opted the human-scale vignette as a partisan Allied wartime anti-narrative, and the peace canonized the tradition. Catch-22 isn’t a deconstruction like The Red Badge of Courage; on the contrary, it’s a hero’s tale for its time and circumstances. We beat them anyway.

59

Ben Alpers 11.30.12 at 8:07 pm

@ 58:

A great example of telling WW2 big by telling it small is Norman Corwin’s radio drama, “On a Note of Triumph,” which was originally broadcast right after the war in Europe ended, in May 1945. Worth a listen if you haven’t heard it before.

60

Donald Johnson 11.30.12 at 8:20 pm

“Factually, the team that went out to save Ryan saw more action in the few days covered by the movie than most soldiers saw in a one year tour – that’s movie making.”

Really? I’m asking, not making a sarcastic comment. I don’t really have a sense of how much fighting the average frontline WWII soldier would have seen in a given time period, though I suppose that if they experienced as much as that team did in a few days after a few weeks there wouldn’t be an army left. So I guess you’re right, but I’d never thought about it before.

One of the things I vaguely recall reading about WWI (yes, I’m talking about a different war now) was that you had small scale killing all the time, sniping, and so forth. Different from previous wars, where there would be the one day battle in which many thousands die, separated by long periods of boredom.

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ponce 11.30.12 at 8:21 pm

“Along with the best movie about Vietnam and the 21st century wars, Breaker Morant.”

I still use the expression, “Well, they say a slice off a cut loaf is never missed. ” all the time.

Great movie.

62

AcadeemicLurker 11.30.12 at 8:31 pm

telling WW2 big…

Maybe that niche was serviced mainly by nonfiction? I’m thinking of the famous documentary series like Victory at Sea (broadcast in 1952, so pretty close to the real event). Those seem to fit “big sweeping triumphant” storytelling mode.

I think it’s hard to appreciate the power of those documentaries now because the Hitler History Channel has churned out so much WW2 related schlock over the last decade.

63

Mike Jones 11.30.12 at 8:38 pm

It is interesting reading the article that the author completely missed the political forces at work when individual movies were made. Movies made during WWII and shortly thereafter portrayed the Japanese soldiers and German soldiers as murdering inhumane swine which with the atrocities fresh on the minds of returning soldiers was pretty accurate. The basic attitude was that the war is a tough job but it has to be fought. Movies made later in the 50’s and 60’s tend to humanize the Germans and Japanese as the US power structure wanted the US people to envision them as allies now and just misguided in the past. The movies made after that tended to be all about personal anst and anomie and typically removed from the violence and war crimes with maundering mind flitting attitudes. For those writers and directors the Rape of Nanking or the Holocaust was nothing worth thinking about. As a final thought, when one reads the accounts of those who served in the front lines, their thinking is rarely reflected in the movies made in the last 30 years about the war, i.e. Company Commander and Those Devils in Baggy Pants. When people are killing not only your fellow soldiers but committing attrocities, there was rarely existential thinking about what it’s all about but rather “The boys aren’t taking any prisoners today!”

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Main Street Muse 11.30.12 at 8:42 pm

“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.”

Here you are expressing the difference between history and a work of fiction (either film or novel). A film uses an event to share a greater narrative. Facts are helpful, but not every fact of an event will be included.

No work of fiction is ever about “the war” or the “13th amendment” or “John Adams” or “Lincoln.” Fiction is about the cultural interpretation of life as we know it. More importantly, fiction tries to assign meaning to the brutal, chaotic and violent moments that make up history.

The fictional narrative – the greater cultural story – often leaves out facts. In “Lincoln,” the efforts of black abolitionists are missing, FDR isn’t in war movies, primarily because he didn’t exist on the battlefield, so his presence would be a detour to the narrative arc of a film set in a war zone (quite frankly, it was kind of odd when FDR briefly showed up in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”)

A historian notices that a film does not recognize that the RAF executed war criminals involved with those 50 RAF deaths at the hands of the Gestapo. Narratively, however, The Great Escape does not need to wrap it up so neatly within the parameters of this “balancing impersonal justice” system. The film is devoted to the idea that Allied soldiers risked their lives in a terrible war. And it is dedicated to the fact of their existence – and their death in war. That the Gestapo were eventually brought to task for those crimes is a fact that happens after this particular story ends.

Lucas’ American Graffiti, however, used the device of the closing titles to suggest impending tragedy of a character sent to Vietnam and the safe boredom of life as an insurance agent. But again, those closing titles are a narrative device that serve the story – not necessarily the facts of history.

65

PlutoniumKun 11.30.12 at 8:51 pm

One (of many) interpretations of Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’ is that it was an existentialist treatise on post-war guilt (Kurosawa denied he even heard of existentialism when he made it). The film follows a single event – a notorious bandit attacks a samurai and his wife in a woodland glade- seen alternatively through the eyes of the bandit, the wife, the dead samurai (through a medium) and a witness. Each version is incompatible with the others, each is credible, but each witness has a strong motive for not telling the truth. What is striking in the film is that each witness simultaneously portrays themselves either heroically or as an innocent victim, while also implicating themselves in a crime.

Japanese critics and public were baffled by the story, Americans loved it but treated it as a puzzle to be solved, while Europeans responded to the dark heart of guilt and lies at the centre of the film. As some later critics noted, it arrived in Europe as people were creating stories which allocated blame and heroism in the aftermath, and realised that this film perfectly encapsulated the process of guilt, blame and redemption which inevitably followed the war. It also, being Kurosawa, perfectly caught the imperfect mix of confusion, heroism and cowardice (often in the same person), which must surely characterise most combat situations.

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Vanya 11.30.12 at 9:02 pm

I don’t know if “Kelly’s Heroes” can be called a true existentialist war movie. Yes, the movie clearly depicts the war as an absurd event where no one is really in control, and those that claim to lead are puffed up frauds, and in that you could compare the sensibility of the film to that of Vonnegut or Heller. But in the end the movie depicts a universe where clever individuals can triumph on a personal level, and use the absurdity to their advantage. That is miles away from “Catch 22″ and probably more in the vein of the later 1970s celebrations of American individualism in films like “Animal House” or “Smokey and the Bandit”.

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Eric 11.30.12 at 9:16 pm

Here you are expressing the difference between history and a work of fiction (either film or novel). A film uses an event to share a greater narrative. Facts are helpful, but not every fact of an event will be included.

No work of fiction is ever about “the war” or the “13th amendment” or “John Adams” or “Lincoln.”

I am ashamed that I should have written a novel and several books of history without knowing the difference. To this point I have always under the completely opposite impression! I have always understood not only that works of history treat events selectively and do not include every fact of an event, but that conversely, there have been works of fiction about such subjects as “Lincoln.” It is too bad Gore Vidal should have titled a book, Lincoln: A Novel.

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bob mcmanus 11.30.12 at 10:13 pm

I have a pretty good idea the general themes apply also to Enemy at the Gates.

There is an awful lot of social construction portrayed in that movie: Fiennes, Hoskins as Krushchev, German brass. Part of the point might be contrast between the political and the existential, but thus the political is important, and more obvious than in SPR. I would say that the social or political must be irrelevant to “Existentialism Movies” because those conflicts give purpose, if only rebellion or opposition.

I hesitate on the subject because I am not so sure how the existential and the social are connected in the literature, but my gut feeling says not very much. Nausee. The Immoralist precedes, but I put it with existentialism. But what about The Plague?

Now Hell in the Pacific? That’s existentialism.

Refugee movies? Veteran movies? The Men? The Wild One?

There could be a sense in which “Existentialism movies” are war movies. If I am adding Hell in the Pacific, and since Leone was mentioned I have some difficulty not thinking of Runaway Train or Emperor of the North

69

bob mcmanus 11.30.12 at 10:16 pm

Is Diary of Anne Frank an existentialist WW II movie?

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Keith Edwards 11.30.12 at 10:32 pm

There’s an argument to be made that this is one possible interpretation of any historical movie/novel: that they are really about the time and place in which the author wrote them, rather than about the ephemeral historical setting. This of course gives more evidence that Lincoln is in fact about Obama and the US blue/red cultural divide, just using the civil war and personal travails of Lincoln as metaphor.

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Keith Edwards 11.30.12 at 10:35 pm

bob mcmanus @ 69:

The Diary of Anne Frank is just straight up Existentialism. You could film that story against a minimalist black backdrop and it would work in dialogue with No Exit and Waiting For Godot.

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Harold 11.30.12 at 10:43 pm

It is very reductive to say that Lincoln was *really* about Obama. However, it is true that each generation takes from history that which most resonates for them. That is why there will never be one definite and dogmatic interpretation.

73

bert 11.30.12 at 11:14 pm

Wonks Anonymous@#57 sends me to Wikipedia, which is never wrong:

The attack on the Death Star in the climax of the film Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is a deliberate and acknowledged homage to the climactic sequence of The Dam Busters. In the former film, rebel pilots have to fly through a trench while evading enemy fire and fire a proton torpedo at a precise distance from the target in order to destroy the entire base with a single explosion; if one run fails, another run must be made by a different pilot. In addition to the similarity of the scenes, some of the dialogue is nearly identical. Star Wars also ends with an Elgarian-style march, like The Dam Busters.

and where I also learn that before plans came together for the Peter Jackson remake, the rights were owned by Mel Gibson. Who renamed the dog Kike.

74

Alan 12.01.12 at 12:56 am

I’ve scanned the thread quickly and I don’t think anyone said this earlier. Cool Hand Luke clearly–and heavy-handedly– is a humanistic Christology. Miracles (50 eggs, and note his crucifixion pose at the end; the road done in half a day from Luke’s leadership, etc.), his own Peter (George Kennedy), his song about the dashboard Virgin Mary when his mom dies, the final scene of cross-roads with his resurrected picture. I doubt that The Great Escape attempted to convey anything like that at all. FWIW.

75

Main Street Muse 12.01.12 at 1:04 am

“I have always understood not only that works of history treat events selectively and do not include every fact of an event…”

Eric – Rauchway, right? Aren’t you the historian who told your editor you don’t like “hardship porn?” Historical narratives not your thing because it manipulates the reader? Film is always about manipulation. And you are right when you say that “echt World War II movie is … not about the war at all…”

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Barry Freed 12.01.12 at 2:39 am

Funny thing. Just the other night I was talking with a friend who used to ride a Triumph motorcycle like the one that Steve McQueen rides in at the end of The Great Escape (which was mocked up to look like a German BMW) about that scene and then we immediately segued into talking about Cool Hand Luke. I guess it must have been more than those baby blues.

77

Alan 12.01.12 at 2:58 am

And McQueen actually did those fence jumps. Major Chops they shoulda called him.

78

mrearl 12.01.12 at 5:10 am

Alright, I’ve been waiting, but nobody’s mentioned The Guns Of Navarone. You want your nihilism? Richard Harris’ monologue near the beginning, and David Niven’s character all the way through. You want your existentialism? Anthony Quinn, defining himself out of despair, up from nihilism. Stanley Baker’s Brown, lost in anguish. And don’t get me started on Pappadimous.

Ok, Ok, Gregory Peck’s Mallory, the least existential character you could ever hope to meet, next to Atticus Finch. But hey, somebody’s got to blow up the guns and stop splitting the difference between essence and existence.

79

Lawrence Stuart 12.01.12 at 5:43 am

Bambi.

My mother tells me she identified her childhood experience of WW2, including the loss of her father, with Bambi’s big traumas.

I’m not sure it’s existentialist therapy for home front war babies, but it’s tragic, and scary, and all seems to work out in the end.

80

UserGoogol 12.01.12 at 5:56 am

bert @ 53: The Iron Giant isn’t a Pixar movie. Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) directed it it, but the film was produced by Warner Bros, not Pixar.

81

Josh 12.01.12 at 6:43 am

And McQueen actually did those fence jumps.

Bud Ekins, actually. McQueen did a lot of the riding, but not the jumps. (Ekins also did most of the stunt driving in Bullitt.)

82

heckblazer 12.01.12 at 8:48 am

The Big Red One was directed by Sam Fuller and was based on his own war experiences. I’d also recommend two of Fuller’s earlier films, The Steel Helmet and Fixed Bayonets!, and would suggest watching them in that order. They’re both about the Korean War and indeed were shot while it was still going on; The Steel Helmet in particular was controversial for showing an American committing a war crime, and for bringing up Jim Crow and Japanese Internment.

Mao Cheng Ji @ 12:
Cross of Iron may be my favorite Peckinpah film; having Lee Marvin as the lead probably probably influences my preference. For those who haven’t seen it, the main characters are Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front; as you might imagine the film does not give them a heroic triumph.

Scott Martens @ 10:
I’d say that Inglorious Basterds isn’t about WWII but instead WWII movies (which I belive means we’re in agreement). Indeed, I say a fair summary is that it is about destroying Nazis with the power of cinema, and very literally so at points.

Donald Johnson @ 60:
How much action a unit saw depended on where and when they were. The guys Tom Hanks and company hook up with at the end of the film were IIRC the 506th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. Historically they were in combat in Normandy for over a month, and of the 2000 or so who jumped 231 were KIA, 183 were MIA/POWs, and 569 were wounded. That’s around a 50% casualty rate, so yeah, sometimes they did start to run out of army.

83

bad Jim 12.01.12 at 10:07 am

South Pacific touches peripherally upon the war, since it’s the reason all the Americans are there, and a few do get involved in operations, but the story for some reason mainly involves the ways the Americans and Polynesians interact with each other.

How could it be otherwise? Issues of global strategy and logistics are about as suitable to the stage as the intricacies of particle physics (although Frayn’s play Copenhagen is not bad), and it may well be that most veterans were not in the front lines of the infantry. (My father served as a radio instructor, for example.)

At least for Americans, the sheer scale of the effort, randomly mixing people from very different parts of a large continent and transporting them to distant and exotic environments, was probably more memorable and may have been more typical than combat.

84

Eager Eagle 12.01.12 at 10:57 am

Let us not forget that this is Show Business.

1. The American Civil War is stilla hot potato domestically while the WWII narrative has been streamlined. The last few big budget Civil War pictures have been prestige picture driven to production by creative, not studio heads. Most productions of the ACW era skirt controversy by placing the conflict as a backdrop and eschew political thrusts for more personal story telling.
2. The conflict is a total dud with ESL demographic. No one wants to hear about how the nation that is now oppressing them did not split apart at the seams. There is little opportunity to ethnically diversify army composition to make the sacrifice or struggle relevant to the ever increasing share of Americans who are neither northern European or descended from slaves.
3. The ACW sits at the cusp of a technological revolution in firearms technology, repeating arms, but most of the war was fought via cap & ball, line formations, and siege-work. Menacing Tiger tanks, the ping of a Garand rifle, swarming P-51 Mustangs, and the withering fire of an MG-42 are all more relevant and imagination capturing representations of the mechanized, fluid nature of modern combat than carbine cavalry, grapeshot, and rifled muskets.
4. The era immediately after the Civil War, the closing of the western frontier, is one of the most uniquely American episodes in history. The era can approached from a multitude of different angles without being dragged down into the moribund discussion of the American Civil War. Western films are more budget friendly to make: smaller casts, fewer and less complicated sets, close proximity to shooting locations, easy to procure replica weapons and costumes.

The overall arc of both wars are quite similar. A small, highly motivated, materiel deficient but tactically superior force wins a string of amazing victories only to be ground into dust as their opponents resource and population advantages are gradually brought to bear. Not a very inspiring tale to tell the 99%, as one day they can too be crushed under the boot of inevitability no matter their craftiness or pluck. So we dress up the sideshow theatres of combat (the med, Italy, France); where we slay the Nazi supermen that have no air cover, oil to fuel vehicles, or manpower to reinforce their mauled division. The South is begrudgingly given a hat tip for combat performance while the ill equipped nature of their armies reinforces the general backwards nature of that society.

85

novakant 12.01.12 at 2:08 pm

I’m not sure these things can be divided up neatly:

“Come and See” (WWII) is a nihilistic war film if there ever was one, and “Paths of Glory” (WWI) is as existentialist as it gets. Also WWI was seen as an existentialist experience avant la lettre by many who went and described as such (cf. Ernst Juenger etc.).

86

LFC 12.01.12 at 3:28 pm

bad Jim
it may well be that most veterans were not in the front lines of the infantry

I think it’s certainly the case that most veterans were not in the front lines of the infantry. (The ‘tail’ of the army was long relative to its ‘head,’ is the expression that is sometimes used to describe this.)

87

LFC 12.01.12 at 3:42 pm

Further to 86:
There’s also a famous study — I think it’s S.L.A. Marshall, Men Under Fire, though I’m not taking the time to look it up — that found that the majority of U.S. infantry soldiers in WW2 never fired their weapons. Of course there were many soldiers who experienced intense infantry combat in the Pacific, European, and African theaters, but it’s a minority of those who served. I’m fairly sure about that.

88

Barry Freed 12.01.12 at 4:20 pm

“Come and See” is great. Truly one of the best war (or anti-war) films ever made and their are many other Soviet and Eastern Bloc war films I could name that are also in the running and almost all of them far better than the likes of “Saving Private Ryan” but I thought the OP was limited to American, and possibly British, war movies.

89

Alan 12.01.12 at 5:27 pm

Thanks Josh–I’d been told long ago that McQueen did the jumps as well. I stand–or jump–corrected!

90

Barry 12.01.12 at 6:03 pm

hackblaser: “How much action a unit saw depended on where and when they were. The guys Tom Hanks and company hook up with at the end of the film were IIRC the 506th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. Historically they were in combat in Normandy for over a month, and of the 2000 or so who jumped 231 were KIA, 183 were MIA/POWs, and 569 were wounded. That’s around a 50% casualty rate, so yeah, sometimes they did start to run out of army.”

And then they had Operation Market Garden, and then the Battle of the Bulge, and so on.

91

Mao Cheng Ji 12.01.12 at 6:10 pm

I think Come And See can be, in a way, considered a horror film. The Nazis and collaborationists there are all pure evil, no exceptions, iirc. So, it’s sort of like some of the post-apocalyptic Zombie flicks; essentially the same genre. If that’s the case, ‘nihilistic’ probably isn’t a good description.

92

Lawrence Stuart 12.01.12 at 7:00 pm

Terry Malik’s The Thin Red Line was given short shrift above. From Tall’s ‘the closer to Ceasar, the greater the fear,’ to Staros’ defiance, through Welsh’s frank nihilism, there is a total absence of any redemptive teleology.

Even the power of Wit’s sacrifice is haunted by the words of a dead Japanese soldier: ‘Are you righteous? Are you kind? Are you loved by all? Know that I was too. Does your confidence lie in this? Do you imagine that your sufferings would be less because you loved goodness? Truth?’

War is human madness writ large, and the most one can hope is to be is a spark that momentarily illuminates some tiny comer of an immense, incomprehensible darkness.

For these reasons, I’d argue that TRL belongs to the ‘Vietnam genre’ of war films (a genre that would also include Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron).

93

bianca steele 12.01.12 at 7:50 pm

@Phil
Anecdotally, recruits who might be suspected of Communist ties were sent to the Pacific, I think. That might explain the skew in Hollywood films.

94

ajay 12.01.12 at 7:54 pm

Yes, let’s not forget Kelly’s Heroes, a true existential war movie. Along with the best movie about Vietnam and the 21st century wars, Breaker Morant.

Breaker Morant, of course, has as its hero a man standing trial for the murder of prisoners of war. Was it made because they couldn’t quite bring themselves to make a movie about that more contemporary hero, Lieutenant Calley?

95

ajay 12.01.12 at 7:57 pm

Especially early in the war, wartime WWII combat films were often built around heroic defeats (e.g. WAKE ISLAND).

That’s probably because “especially early in the war” there hadn’t been many heroic US victories to make films about. Think about the lag that film production imposes too.

96

ajay 12.01.12 at 7:59 pm

There’s also a famous study — I think it’s S.L.A. Marshall, Men Under Fire, though I’m not taking the time to look it up — that found that the majority of U.S. infantry soldiers in WW2 never fired their weapons.

The general consensus is now that SLAM was making that up.

97

ponce 12.01.12 at 8:54 pm

Early U.S. WWII movies seem to be mostly spy movies and comedies

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_World_War_II_films#1939

98

LFC 12.01.12 at 9:12 pm

The general consensus is now that SLAM was making that up

I got the title slightly wrong: it’s Men Against Fire. If you have a cite handy for the referenced consensus, I’d be interested, but if you don’t, no problem. Btw, I know that the book was cited (approvingly) as recently as 2001 here — see pp. 196-97, 278.

99

nick s 12.01.12 at 9:56 pm

Instead, Dambusters is a hymn to boffinhood.

Beat me to it. In a way, it’s the Bletchley Park film that they could make while Bletchley Park was still unknown. Also, a hymn to the cup of tea, which I suppose puts it in the existential category.

100

heckblazer 12.01.12 at 10:39 pm

LFC @ 86:
IIRC in WWII the ratio was about 9 support for each front line combat soldier.

Barry @ 90:
Fortunately they did have a break before Market Garden and Bastogne. The Pacific was often worse, where you’d have mini-D-Days repeated on island after island with the landing battle sometimes stretching for days and weeks. Occasionally they weren’t mini- either; the landings on Okinawa were larger than the ones on Normandy.
(Also, I hope you aren’t trying say that I’m a blase hack :).

Mao Cheng Ji @91:
The co-writer of Come and See was himself as teenage partisan in Belarus during WWII, and things like the church scene really did happen. That doesn’t hurt your point, it just shows that attempts at accuracy put some constraints on the kind of film they could make.

ajay @ 94:
Since the “they” in this case were Australians, Lt. Calley probably wasn’t on their radar. My understanding is that the opinion that Morant got a raw deal has been common in Australia pretty much since the time he was hanged.

101

Phil 12.01.12 at 10:46 pm

Perhaps my dissent @15 went under the radar. When I think of films (or fiction generally) about WWII, I don’t think of existential crisis or anomie unless I happen to be thinking of Catch-22 – and in that case I don’t feel I’m thinking about a war novel/film. I don’t deny that it’s possible to write war fiction in Heller’s vein of strung-out paranoid black humour, but I think it’s very much a bug rather than a feature – rather as if hard sf authors were writing in the style of Douglas Adams.

At least from a British standpoint, “why are we here and what’s it all for?” doesn’t seem like a meaningful or interesting question to put in the mouths of WWII combat troops, or a typical one either – in fact, it seems like an anachronism.

102

Phil 12.01.12 at 10:48 pm

I don’t deny that it’s possible to write war fiction in Heller’s vein of strung-out paranoid black humour, but I think it’s very much a bug rather than a feature

Correction: I don’t deny that it’s possible to write ostensibly serious and meaningful war fiction in Heller’s vein of strung-out paranoid black humour, but I think it’s very much a bug rather than a feature

103

ajay 12.01.12 at 10:56 pm

If you have a cite handy for the referenced consensus, I’d be interested, but if you don’t, no problem.

Here, let me google that for you.
Spiller, Roger J. (Winter 1988). “S.L.A. Marshall and the Ratio of Fire”. RUSI Journal: pp. 63–71.

104

ajay 12.01.12 at 11:00 pm

Since the “they” in this case were Australians, Lt. Calley probably wasn’t on their radar.

It’s likely that some Australians in 1978 might have heard about an atrocity committed seven years previously in a war* in which Australian troops were heavily involved.

*The Vietnam War.

105

ajay 12.01.12 at 11:10 pm

At least from a British standpoint, “why are we here and what’s it all for?” doesn’t seem like a meaningful or interesting question to put in the mouths of WWII combat troops, or a typical one either – in fact, it seems like an anachronism.

Well, yes.

Note, also, this one:
“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 Was Monty’s Double”. “The Desert Fox”. “Downfall”. “Hitler: The Last Ten Days”. “The Battle of Britain”. “The Longest Day”. “Inglorious Basterds”. “Enemy at the Gates”. “Pearl Harbor”. “The Eagle Has Landed”. “The First of the Few”.

106

Mao Cheng Ji 12.01.12 at 11:24 pm

@100, oh, of course it happened; over 600 villages were burned with their entire populations, at least a quarter (some say almost a half) of the population was exterminated. That’s the material the film is based on. But the way it’s made, I’m not sure it would qualify as a ‘war movie’. It’s just too intense, in a very religious way, IMO. Plus the apocalyptic reference in the title. Another one like that, though to a lesser degree, is Bent, the second half.

107

LFC 12.01.12 at 11:44 pm

@103
thanks

108

bob mcmanus 12.02.12 at 12:00 am

When I think of films (or fiction generally) about WWII, I don’t think of existential crisis or anomie

Well, I wasn’t going to say anything, but I did review my Sartre, and existentialism is a pretty solitary thing, to put it mildly. Being-for-others, the look, master/slave frankly when there are two subjects you aren’t existential anymore. That’s the whole point. If the story is about friend/enemy, or just I/enemy, you are instantly in the social or political.

I would say most of the movies listed here are anti-political movies. “Caring more about my buddies in my platoon than about what the brass wants” kind of thing. And yet they still march on and shoot. Maybe these are bourgeois movies, social reproduction, late capitalist movies.

I will stick with Fires on the Plain which is mostly about one guy, starving and walking to nowhere, deciding against cannibalism for no particularly good reason.

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Ben Alpers 12.02.12 at 12:32 am

@95 ajay:

That’s probably because “especially early in the war” there hadn’t been many heroic US victories to make films about. Think about the lag that film production imposes too.

Absolutely. And I’d add that the lack of early victories was important both in terms of what (more or less true) narratives were available and in terms of what narratives were necessary from a propaganda perspective, especially early in 1942. Nevertheless, this early foundation of the WW2 combat genre had an impact on the tone of later efforts, when there were victories to tell stories about,

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bianca steele 12.02.12 at 12:33 am

Phil:
That’s not how I interpreted the OP. I could be wrong, but I understood existentialism to be present in these films in terms of the impossibility of making sense of the experience, the realization that nothing will ever make sense ever again, which could mean the day-to-day tedium as much as the overarching goal (though it could be hard to see what killing Japanese soldiers had to do with beating Hitler), or anything in between like the absurdity of the CO, or the inability to make sense of one’s actions in retrospect, in peacetime. It’s quite unusual for a Hollywood picture not to be about one or maybe a very few characters, emotions, and so on, as opposed to something “bigger” in the sense I think you’re alluding to.

Also re my @93 although I’ve heard this, the two members of my family who served in WWII, who both saw combat, were both sent to Europe, and one was the brother-in-law of a Communist Party member, though both were born in the US and one was regular Army. (Don’t know where the one who served in the US in WWI was stationed.)

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang seems to be a kids’ parody of a WWII movie, with comic quasi-Nazis (the leader strangely resembling Donald Rumsfeld) invading by U-boat, all mixed up with Prussian aristocrats in a Rhineland castle.

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Alan 12.02.12 at 4:07 am

I just want to say that no one has affirmed that Cool Hand Luke was not primarily an escape film (as it were), but a Christology. As an atheist I just want some confirmation that I’m on the right track. Just say.

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Michael Drew 12.03.12 at 10:04 am

What would “the echt [or not-echt] World War II movie” “about the war” “as a world-historical event” be? Or be like? Does the author mean to say that no such film was ever made? Was it ever made? What film is that? If it was never made, why do we suppose that might be? What might that tell us about… anything? The war as a world-historical event perhaps? Or as an experience in human history? Or as a human event at any level – individual (existential), national, epochal, etc.? Or about film, or its place in the arts and culture? Or the specifics of the film industry as it existed when making (echt?) World War II movies became a thing?

The post, in other words, seems to treat the fact it points out as somewhat inevitable, and the reasons for its existence either opaque or uninteresting. It seems to think that what we can learn from the fact itself is interesting, but not so much what we can learn from why it came to be that way.

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Alex 12.03.12 at 10:41 am

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Phil 12.03.12 at 1:12 pm

bianca – I guess I feel there’s something wrong if something that comes out of the psychological effects of war (any war) gets presented as a statement about the war, (let alone the (echt!) statement about the war). It can only work by either projecting the (“existential”) meaninglessness onto the war, or else by taking a local attempt to stay sane and make sense of things and projecting that onto the war. One gives you Catch-22 – which I exempt because it’s so clearly not about WWII – the other gives you War Horse.

Perhaps it’s my stiff upper lip, but I prefer films that take the meaninglessness and horror & move on. As in the old Forces saying, “if you can’t take a joke, you shouldn’t have joined” – which was memorably explained by a newsgroup regular, years ago, in these terms:

When it is raining and dark, your feet are giving you hell because they have been wet for two weeks, when you are carrying a pack weighing your own weight, when you are on the edge of a minefield, aware that, well within range, are more people than you who want to kill you, and they have the capacity to do so, when your best friend standing ten feet from you gets hit, and you have to wipe his brains from your face so that you can see, and when the instruction is given to go forward, if you can’t take a joke, you shouldn’t have joined.

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Katherine 12.03.12 at 1:42 pm

Where does The Man Who Never Was fit into this narrative do people think? I don’t have a particular view, but it is one of my favourite war films.

The one thing that particularly sticks out for me is the scene where the just-bereaved girlfriend of the female member of the team effectively dictates the heart breaking letter to The Man. For my money, there really aren’t many films that touch on the heartbreak of the people left behind.

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Jeffrey Davis 12.03.12 at 7:59 pm

I wonder if the exigencies of drama differ from those of history.

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novakant 12.03.12 at 8:57 pm

Katherine, if you haven’t seen it already you should watch “The Cranes are flying”.

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Lawrence Stuart 12.04.12 at 12:32 am

@116 “I wonder if the exigencies of drama differ from those of history.”

I doubt it.

In fact, I’d say that the real question is: ‘what kind of drama is history?’ How you might answer that goes a long way to defining the culture, and who you are as an individual member of the culture.

As Petronius says, ‘quod fere totus mundus exerceat histrionem.’

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Jeffrey Davis 12.04.12 at 2:33 pm

re: 118

” ‘what kind of drama is history?’

Pretty limp. Long story short: not enough happens in history.

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Suzanne 12.06.12 at 7:10 pm

@ 19: M*A*S*H is also an updated version of an old genre, the service comedy, only with more blood. Incompetent officers are routine butts of such humor. Most war pictures reflect movie history as much as they do actual history.

The most representative sitting-around-futility-of-war story is probably Mister Roberts, although the movie and the play from which it derives are not nearly as dark as Thomas Heggen’s fine original novel. (Joshua Logan, defending himself against accusations that he had softened the material, did say that Heggen, with whom he collaborated on the stage adaptation, willingly aided and abetted him.)

The movie does have that superb cast – Fonda, Lemmon, Powell, and Cagney.

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Sylvia 12.06.12 at 7:10 pm

Just wanted to thank all the recommenders for “A Matter of Life and Death”. We’d never even heard of this film but found it at the library and were absolutely amazed by it. A fantastic movie. And way ahead of its time in effects and sophistication of technique. Thank you all for the great heads up.

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