War Round Up

Holy Jesus! What sort of slimy,
walrus-looking, piece of shit 
round up is this?
In which we call a disparate group of war films to attention and see which of them has a killer war face and which have major malfunctions.

Fiddle-dee-dee. War, war, war. It seems man’s capacity for violence and cruelty to fellow man on the battlefield holds an endless fascination for us, with virtually every major human conflict in history dramatised for the screen at one stage or another. Here’s an eclectic (dirty) dozen to get you started.

All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930) is a superb adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's devastating WWI novel, and still the anti-war movie all others look up to. The tragic waste of young life is brilliantly captured in the technically inventive, harrowing battle scenes, whilst the superb sound design is all the more remarkable coming at a time when sound in films was not commonplace. The final image of a soldier reaching to touch a butterfly is desperately poignant and justifiably celebrated. In Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957), the lottery of death and the cruel injustices of war are also painfully demonstrated as three innocent French soldiers are court-martialled for cowardice following the failure of their regiments to take a German fortress. Their commanding officer (Kirk Douglas) fights their cause, bringing him into conflict with his aloof and bureaucratic superiors, leading Kubrick to consider his film not so much "anti-war” as "anti-authoritarian ignorance”. Either way, it is a classy, well-acted affair and more emotionally involving than much of Kubrick's later work. Joyeaux Noel (Christian Carion, 2005) is a diplomatic, multi-national production recounting the famous Christmas truce in the trenches of WWI in 1914, when opposing troops set down their guns and mixed together in No Man’s Land. Well played, although a female character seems rather shoehorned in for dramatic purposes, a wholly unnecessary addition as the events depicted are moving and dramatic enough in themselves.

With scant regard for time or geography, we now train our gunsights on Iraq. Jarhead (Sam Mendes, 2005) recounts the experience of Marines during the First Gulf War and is rather underwhelming, despite a fantastic soundtrack and some standout moments. There's no denying that the film looks wonderful, with great shots of the desert by day and by night - it almost becomes a character in its own right. Just as well, because the human characters are a bit distant and superficial , making it hard to empathise with them, and the whole affair seems to suggest that war is all a bit pointless. Although maybe that is the point. The aftermath of the Second Gulf War and the search for WMDs provides the backdrop for Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, 2010), a surprisingly toothless thriller, given the talent involved. Well-staged and action-packed, but offering little to engage the brain - I suspect the makers had more interesting discussions about it all off-camera than they managed to put on film. The same setting for The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008), which focuses on the experiences of bomb-disposal experts in Iraq. It doesn't really carry much emotional impact, but each individual set-piece is suitably tense and sweaty and the performances very good. To be honest, though, it's most likely to be remembered for being the film that finally won a woman the Best Director Oscar. A woman, no less! Anyway, if it's the Iraq War that gets your juices flowing, you’d be better off with the TV mini-series Generation Kill, which blows all of the above away.

A couple of recent efforts based on experiences in the 1982 Lebanon War. Lebanon (Samuel Maoz, 2009), a much-lauded film set entirely inside the belly of a tank. Remember Paul the Psychic Octopus from the World Cup in 2010? This is similar; based in a tank, moves fairly slowly and is quite predictable. And, like Paul, when the end finally comes, you wonder what all the fuss was about. Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008), in which the director deals with his memories and nightmares of war, is much better. The striking animation injects something new into material that may have been seen in countless other war films, helped by a terrific soundtrack and some sobering accounts of the horrors of war. Such modern warfare is in stark contrast to events in The Red Badge of Courage (John Huston, 1951), based on Stephen Crane’s famous novel about a young soldier taking part in the American Civil War. Huston’s direction is efficient and the battle scenes are expertly staged, but at only 70 mins long the whole effort feels rather underdone and is unlikely to stick long in the memory.

Moving on to WWII, Patton (Franklin J Schaffner, 1970) is an epic biopic about the fascinating General George S Patton, most renowned for a barnstorming Oscar-winning (and refusing) central performance from George C Scott. Loses focus a bit in the second half of the film but still a fine war film featuring some great battle scenes and especially notable for being historically accurate. And for being Elvis’ favourite film. Fact. Black Book (Paul Verhoeven, 2006) is a watchable thriller based on the activities of the Dutch Resistance during WWII. Some good action is undermined by a plot which features too many implausible twists, but the delectable breasts of Carice van Houten make regular appearances throughout to make up for the plot contrivances. Of course, it’s worth remembering war is not all about breasts. In fact, war is hell and the proof is seen in the devastating Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985), which focuses on the Nazi occupation of Belarus in 1943. It’s a brutal, unflinching affair, featuring a haunting performance from 14-year old Alexei Kravchenko as the innocent boy scarred forever by war. It took so much out of the director, he never made another film and it’ll probably leave you a bit shaken also. Maybe that’s the way all war films should be.

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