Friday, May 25, 2012

War Movies

As a writer you’ll learn that action on the page is not the same as plot movement. The action has to be relevant to the characters on the stage, otherwise, all that Bamm! Zip! K-Pow!!! is just background noise.

When I was a kid, I loved war movies. I loved the spectacle. The explosions. The adventure. But as I got older, my interest waned. Being a history buff, I was irked by historical inaccuracies and anachronisms. And then later I would get bored by the story. Which is the irony. A war movie has plenty of conflict. Jeez, it’s a war. The problem is, all those explosions and mayhem don’t seem real. It’s not until we feel empathy with the characters do we get hooked.

Which makes war movies such a tough sell. We got the BIG tribute movies which appeal mainly to history geeks and action junkies. Battle of Britain. Midway. Gettysburg. 

Recognizing this, some movies are written with a built-in rivalry to pit the good guys against the bad at a personal level. But the scope of war is too big for a grudge match between combatants, and the showdowns between hero and villain come off as contrived.

So to make the story compelling, we’ve got to focus on a microcosm set within the cauldron of battle. The plot becomes how the individuals cope on a personal level with their comrades and against their fears.

Look at Patton. The Blue Max. Platoon. Twelve O’clock High. The Bridges at Toko-Ri. All Quiet on the Western Front. Cross of Iron. Paths of Glory. 

In those movies, the enemy is regarded as an anonymous foe. When the enemy is met face-to-face, it’s to enhance the barbaric viciousness of the combat. One great example (All Quiet) is when Paul Baumer, the young German infantryman, stabs a French soldier and is forced to watch him suffer and die. And it’s not just killing of the enemy. In The Victors, a truckload of war-weary American GIs gets detoured to serve as witnesses for the execution of a fellow soldier, a deserter. It’s a cold, scathing scene.

 The last war movie I saw was War Horse. Spielberg used a horse as an allegory for the inhumanity endured by the soldiers. I found it unsettling that on screen men are massacred by the hundreds, yet it’s the horse we’re supposed to feel sympathy for.

 Something else that disturbs me about war movies, which is not a fault of the movies themselves, but rather how they bring into question the insanity of war. All that waste of money, killing, and heartache...for what? Seems that one war is merely a rehearsal for the next catastrophe.


Bonnie said...

I avoided "War Horse" because the horses didn't choose to go into combat. But come to think of it, the young men fighting that war didn't really want to fight it, either.

When I was a kid it seemed like all the war movies ended with the death of the people who you cared about the most. So I hated them. Still do, actually. I like war movies where the good guys win, and there aren't too many of those. Great essay, Mario!

Mario Acevedo said...

Bonnie: Thanks for the comment. A movie wouldn't be a tragedy without a sad ending.

a barker said...

As I see it, the first problem with war movies, and war fiction for that matter, is that the subject matter is always ambivalent. We humans at one and the same time continue having wars and abhorring them. It is a historical tradition that is alive and well and one we struggle with as societies. Secondly, there are too many inaccuracies in the majority of these movies because it is the story being told that matters, not what actually happened. It requires a suspension of disbelief that we tend to be highly suspicious of nowadays. Finally, the good guys are never purely good guys; they are, at best, anti-heroes. A great topic and a good essay.

Mario Acevedo said...

Barker: Thanks for dropping by. All fiction requires a suspension of disbelief. And even a tiny story is too big to be related in its entirety on screen.

Tom Curran said...

Interesting post.

I enjoy watching "good" war films; I could compile a long list, but will settle for a short one: Twelve O'Clock High, Saving Private Ryan, The Cruel Sea, and The Desert Rats, especially the parts with Richard Burton and James Mason (playing Erwin Rommel).

Recently I watched the series, The Pacific, and can recommend it to anyone who is interested in the true horror of war. The series succeeds because it is largely based on real characters, two of whom wrote brilliant and moving memoirs of the Pacific War, from the POV of US Marines on the front lines: E.B. Sledge (With The Old Breed) and Robert Leckie (Helmet For My Pillow). The series follows the two characters from enlistment to postwar; and also includes interviews with both of them, and with their comrades. A caution: the series is truly shocking in its depiction of violence and brutality. But it is a valuable contribution to the genre for just that reason.

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