War and the Movies

I credit the amount of movies being released when I was an impressionable child for my lifelong interest in all things ‘war’.  War movies are amongst some of the first moving pictures made, and  I would suggest that broadly there are four types of war movies. 

There are the ‘entertainment’ ones. These are action movies that use war as a backdrop to a story; such as Kelly’s Heroes, (1970).  Then there are movies such as ‘The Battle of Britain, (1969), Zulu Dawn, (1979), and ‘Waterloo’ (1970), that attempt to tell the story of a battle; usually by focusing on either real or fictional characters within that battle.  There are movies that attempt to examine the experience of war and its effect on people, such as Gregory Peck’s ‘Twelve o’clock high’, (1949); and finally, propaganda movies, such as ‘Target for tonight, (1941). These movies use the cinema to raise the country’s morale; or too encourage volunteers to a particular branch of the services.   In my opinion, some of the notable ones include:

‘Goodnight Mr Tom’, (1998); is a sweet story of how an abused child is evacuated from war-torn London, and placed with a grieving ‘Mr Tom’; who in no way is child friendly, or anyone friendly for that matter. The child has issues, and as the story develops Tom becomes fond of the child as both their stories unfold. From the experience of war perspective, this movie examines many issues faced during wartime Britain.

I`ve mentioned two good drone movies previously,  with ‘Good Kill’ (2014) examining the effect that being a Drone Operator has with regards to PTSD; the movie raising interesting questions.  ‘Eye in the Sky’, (2015), used I believe to train war lawyers, examines the legality of a drone strike and the collateral damage caused. It focuses on the legal and ethical questions raised by such action through the medium of a young girl stood at ground zero of the intended target.  I find it interesting that both these movies were released at a similar time. Two movies worth watching as a debate topic, I feel.

Mel Gibson’s ‘We were soldiers’, (2002), was released almost twenty years after ‘Platoon’, (1986), but both movies focus on the experience of war and how it changes people; Charlie Sheen’s character in Platoon, at the end of the movie stating that following his experience, “the war is over for me now; but it will always be there for the rest of my days”. This mirrors the sentiment I notice when interviewing Veterans; Sheen’s character having changed dramatically throughout.  One of my Veteran friends, sadly now passed away admitted that he was a real ‘tearaway’ before being called up, and that ‘the Army made him’.  (He was wounded on Hill 112 during ‘Normandy’).

To me, the most poignant part of ‘We were soldiers’ is the effect that war has on soldier’s wives; the listening to the news on the radio and awaiting the inevitable stream of telegrams.  The movie plays out as much on the US Army base as it does in Vietnam.  A similar harrowing Vietnam movie was Tom Cruise’s ‘Born on the fourth of July’, (1987), which examines the abysmal treatment of wounded G.I.s in V.A. hospitals.

My interpretation of Memphis Bell, (1990) is that the movie is about ‘why we fight’; the determination to do one’s duty on the bomb run, and then fighting for your friends as they crew nurse their battered aircraft and each other home after the mission.  Brad Pitt’s ‘Fury’, (2014) being essentially ‘Memphis Belle in a tank’, as ‘War Daddy’ (Pitt) holds his crew together as they carry out their mission; finally opting to stay, fight and ultimately die as a team, rather than abandon Pitt to his fate in order to save themselves. “Best job I ever had”.  In a similar vein is ‘Hoot’s, speech at the end of Blackhawk Down, (2001), where he explains that fighting is ‘all about the men next to you’.

Which brings us to propaganda movies such as David Niven’s love story, ‘A matter of life and death’, (1946), which sought to address a growing discomfort in the Anglo-American relationship at the end of WW2. “Over paid, over sexed and over HERE”.  Niven also started in the 1944 movie, ‘The way ahead’, which told the story of a bunch of random civilians who came together as a disciplined unit through army training; essentially spreading the message that, ‘we’re all in it together’. Movies are thus a powerful opinion forming and propaganda tool; which is why Nazi Germany gradually nationalised its film industry, producing such propaganda classics as Lenni Richenstal’s ‘Triumph of the will’, (1935).

Of course, movies can also prophesier; for example the H.G.Wells movie, ‘The shape of things to come’, (1936) suggested a dark future for mankind in an eternal war, released as Europe itself geared up for war; with the 1930 movie, ‘All quiet on the Western Front’ being another anti-war movie that reminded people of the loss of a generation only a decade before.