Children’s Crusades: Three Summer War Films
In the summer films War for the Planet of the Apes, Wonder Woman, and Dunkirk, the serious subject of war is pandered down to its audience.
In the early pages of his 2003 Gulf War memoir Jarhead, former U. S. Marine Anthony Swofford and some of his fellow few and proud pump themselves up for deployment by watching Vietnam War movies like Platoon and Apocalypse Now. He explains the strategy by unknowingly echoing Truffaut: there is no such thing, the soldier writes, as an ‘antiwar’ movie. “Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man,” as Swofford provocatively puts it.
With or without war as a subject, the problem of film’s morality — or its possibly inherent lack thereof — has long preoccupied scholars and critics. This particular claim, however, takes on new dimensions when studios insist on releasing apparently kid-friendly war movies. If it’s not easy to name a Vietnam War movie that’s not rated R (at least any of the ones made since the war ended in the mid-70s), it might be worth noting the number of recent ‘war films’ that have been slipping into the multiplexes with a PG-13 rating.
This development makes sense, to a point. As my film studies mentor liked to point out, the PG-13 rating was contrived in the mid-80s to extend the R-rating downward and thus bring in more underage viewers without requiring parental accompaniment. But its apparently increasing popularity for high-profile, big-studio war films makes the rating seem even more brazenly cynical and exploitive. Can any film tell anything like the truth about war without serving up imagery and scenarios that the MPAA would deem too much for minors (at least without adult supervision)?
Over the course of a ten-day stretch in mid- to late-July, I watched three PG-13 war films — War for the Planet of the Apes, Wonder Woman, and Dunkirk — in a local multiplex, and the experience raised these and related questions all the more insistently and instructively. As different as their stories and approaches appear (at first glance, anyway) to be, all three clearly seek the moral status of ‘antiwar’ movies, striving, in various ways, to alienate viewers from the violence that they depict (or at least most of it that can truly be labeled ‘war violence’). But tellingly enough, all of them struggle and, in at least some important ways, fail to fulfill these ambitions.
Warning: Plot spoilers ahead.
Not With a Bang
The trailers for War for the Planet of the Apes emphasize the war setting and themes, particularly highlighting Woody Harrelson’s renegade Colonel McCullough as the scourge of Caesar, the noble ape protagonist of the franchise, and his reclusive community of enhanced simians. The trailers also invoke the Vietnam War (and Vietnam War movies) in several shots, including one of a human soldier’s helmet scrawled with “Monkey Killer” and the clip of a helplessly captive Caesar on his knees, leaning into a cocked pistol for public execution. Clearly, the trailers prime viewers for the horrors of war, replete with zealous recruits marching and standing at aggressive attention, primed to kill and die at their commander’s word.
So it is perhaps a bit of a surprise when this climactic entry in 20th Century Fox’s trilogy turns out (as the New York Times’s A. O. Scott and others have suggested) to be more of a prison escape movie and a Western (with a Biblical epic coda to boot) than a war film. Apart from the opening assault on the apes’ forest stronghold and a follow-up guerrilla sneak-attack in the first half-hour of the 140-minute movie, the actual sturm und drang of war are confined to about a 10-minute stretch or so near the end, when an army of invading humans attacks McCullough’s prison compound. (Peter Jackson probably could have gotten a whole movie out of that clash alone.)
And even then, it is not might of arms or heroic valor that saves the apes, but rather a deus ex machina appearance by Mother Nature, who takes out all of the human soldiers with a perfectly-timed and -placed avalanche (that leaves the apes to save themselves by scrambling up the emblematic trees that populate the slopes above the compound).
The film’s designs on an antiwar message thus arguably attach themselves most importantly to Harrelson’s odd, occasionally unhinged updating of Joseph Conrad’s and Marlon Brando’s renegade Kurtzes. A self-styled philosopher and historian, Harrelson’s exalted commando (named only in the official credits as “The Colonel”) menacingly stalks and head-shaves and lectures his way through the proceedings, mythologizing his first encounter with the captive Caesar as another squaring-off between famous antagonist war commanders of the past: Grant vs. Lee, Napoleon vs. Wellington, and (perhaps in purposeful error) Custer vs. Sitting Bull.
The Colonel is clearly offered up by the filmmakers as both the human spawn and the all-too-human author of war, a vicious ideologue who fancies himself a truth-speaking pundit, dispatching the weak from this earth as a bloody champion of the grotesque bigotries that we cloak so misleadingly under the pseudo-Darwinian concept of the ‘survival of the fittest.’ He relishes power, looking down from on high in mirrored sunglasses, ordering guards not simply to execute but first to crucify Caesar and other captive apes as examples to force the others to slave-labor themselves to death and realize his diseased vision.
So when, near the end of the film, Caesar finally gets to confront his nemesis and learns that the Colonel too has fallen victim to the cleverly symbolic disease of dumbness that is increasingly overtaking all of the humans, Caesar gives up his dreams of revenge and leaves his tormentor to pull the trigger himself. In our Colonels and their need for war, the film argues, we are simply, pathetically, and grotesquely killing ourselves. At the climactic moment, the camera cuts outside the room where the Colonel pulls the trigger and — for perhaps the only time in a soundtrack otherwise blaring with overkill — registers the end with a modest offscreen pop, an anticlimactic sound effect for the human race’s symbolically self-inflicted end in the midst of war. Not with a bang will we go out, the film curiously suggests, but with a pathetic little whimper.
The War to End all Wars?
Has any theoretically antiwar film had to work harder or more impossibly against itself to deliver an antiwar message than this summer’s Wonder Woman? The heroine is an Amazon, a princess of a mythical race of fierce, men-scorning women warriors who (according to tradition) cut off one of their breasts to shoot their bows all the more freely. The ancient (and male) Greek poets whose legends, for the most part, gave us these women warriors pretty clearly didn’t approve of (much less love) the Amazons’ independence and valor, pointedly subjugating their champions and queens to overmastering male icons like Achilleus and Theseus, whose conquest of the Amazon queen Hippolyta was even transmuted into uneasy sex comedy a couple of millennia later by Shakespeare in his winsome A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Then you have to consider Warner Brothers’ flailing efforts to compete with the Disney-Marvel blockbuster machine by producing the likes of Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad, overblown, dubiously-cast, and heavily-criticized attempts to build a DC ‘universe’ on the increasingly sterile (in hindsight) successes of the Christopher Nolan–Christian Bale Batman trilogy. DC likes to consider itself the darker, more serious older brother to Marvel’s glossy, strategically action-punctuated, feel-good sketch-comedies, so how’s the first supposed ‘chick-flick’ comic book actioner going to burnish DC’s dour, self-serious image?
And this list of imposingly built-in obstacles can’t end without broaching Hollywood’s shameless penchant for marginalizing or carefully circumscribing women’s perspectives and story-lines. If, as independent director Anna Biller has vigorously argued, Classical Hollywood at least afforded women characters some real substance and agency on screen, the post-studio Hollywood of the last half-century or so has consistently doled out money in huge sums to male directors and stars and franchises while relegating the vast majority of the relatively few female directors to ‘indie-budget’ and genre-niche leftovers. Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins had to know that this might be her one shot at the kind of vast resources that many of her male colleagues are frequently gifted, and if she blew it, she might find herself scrambling to crowdfund arthouse fare for the foreseeable future.
So, how do you bear up under all of these pressures and produce a female-driven pulse-pounder that will not only appeal to women but also make cishet men feel that they’re still sufficiently and conventionally manly enough to purchase a ticket? In this case (among other strategies), you make your tank-tossing Amazon princess less the driver of the action than the narrative helpmeet of its true (and conventionally male) motivator, Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor, the American-British spy who uses Diana’s obsession with killing Ares, the god of war, as a means to carry out his own heroically renegade (if less grandiose) scheme to thwart the doomsday implementation of a killing gas to end all weaponized gases. Oh, and go ahead and let your patronizing male gallant instruct the far more learned but still charmingly provincial Amazon princess in the art of the close-clenched waltz and the joys of (presumably missionary-position) Eros.
That’s certainly not to suggest that the film lacks all pluck or wit in the face of patriarchal Hollywood’s tentpole imperatives. Women actually get to talk to each other in this film in several scenes, and they also get to solve problems entirely on their own. Director Jenkins particularly gets a winning performance out of lead Gal Gadot as a boldly intelligent innocent who thinks it’s absurd for Steve not to sleep with her on their (magically rapid) voyage to England, where she takes convincingly novel joy in the sight of a baby and her first taste of ice cream. Perhaps my favorite moment in the film has Diana ignoring Steve’s predictable interdiction and invading a wood-paneled room full of bluff, middle-aged barrister-types debating the terms of the imminent armistice; long before she speaks a word, Diana has registered in her expression, posture, and naturally poised movements everything we need to know about the cowardice and dishonesty of this conventionally masculinized power-space.
If successful elements like these make it impossible not to root for Wonder Woman and its Ares-nemesis of a heroine, they also make it all the more disappointing to note the many other ways in which it plays things so safe for DC and Warner Brothers. Even the early sequences set on Themyscira, a Mediterranean island where the Amazons have lived without men for centuries, seem painfully self-censored. Somehow, there’s hardly a Sapphist or plus-sizer or white-haired grandmother (like the irresistibly bright-eyed and sharp-tongued crones of Mad Max: Fury Road) in sight; what we get instead are a lot of svelte and mostly remarkably pale model-types working each other out in quasi-Classical, short-skirted leather bondage outfits, unmistakable counterparts to Zack Snyder’s excruciating broheem fantasy fighters in 300. Sure, they’re warrior women, but how do they feed themselves or build their great cliff-side houses of stone or clothe the walls and supply the chambers with eye-catching art?
Many reviewers have applauded the movie as a whole while criticizing its predictable (and predictably overblown) climactic confrontation between Diana and Ares. Even the score lapses into convention for this big final face-off; where much of the songtrack favors relatively unobtrusive, slow-building, strings-driven arrangements, a la Howard Shore’s award-winning scores for Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth fantasy films, the end sequences mostly settle for thumping bass and other forms of tired aural bombast. But the concessions to convention begin long before the God of War grows himself a spiky death-helmet and bellows at the war-hating woman warrior who so charmingly but naively thinks she can relieve humankind of his baleful existence.
Perhaps the signature scene in the film best captures its mixed, delimited achievement as a statement against war. Horrified to hear from a distraught new mother that a nearby town is under hopeless siege, Diana climbs right out of the infamous mud and frozen horror of a World War I trench and walks determinedly across the ‘no man’s land’ separating the Brits and their allies from the always conveniently villainous Germans and their machine gun nests. Viewed as a metaphor for a bold assault on deep-pocketed paternalism in Hollywood, it’s a delightfully bravura spectacle, a lone woman on a moral mission doing precisely what a controlling male has told her she can’t do. But within the story-world, the scene does anything but make a statement against war or violence, instead inviting us (all too successfully) to cheer as Wonder Woman just gives a decisive power advantage to one group of humans with guns and bombs in its unending turf war with another group of humans with guns and bombs.
Virgins with Rifles
Young men, soldiers, nineteen fourteen
Marching through countries they’d never seen
Virgins with rifles, a game of charades
All for a children’s crusade . . .
Sting’s sweetly bitter invocation of World War I in his 1985 track “Children’s Crusade” rather improbably conjured the horror of the ‘war to end all wars’ for virginal Top 40 radio listeners growing up in the midst of Reagan’s and Thatcher’s Cold War-saber rattling. Three decades later and still more improbably (not to mention rather disappointingly), Christopher Nolan has in Dunkirk largely reduced the horrors of a notoriously desperate, deadly, week-long evacuation under fire in the early stages of World War II to a virgin’s crusade for just going home.
If the other two films discussed here can justifiably avoid (or severely limit) depictions of the bloody truths of battle because they’re ‘just’ fantasy war films, what excuse does Nolan have for making a visually and aurally taut evocation of a famous historical clash so remarkably anodyne? As veteran viewers of Nolan’s films would expect, Dunkirk is a marvel to look at and listen to, but it’s painfully barren to ponder — and arguably a distressing moral and imaginative failure in that barrenness.
The opening scene, for example, for the most part works marvelously as a Nolanesque tour-de-force for atmospherics. Our main character, the as yet unnamed Tommy, tries to escape through the eerily deserted (and impeccably lit) streets of a French village to the beach where the rest of the British troops await evacuation. One-by-one, his companions are picked off by visually unsourced but terrifyingly plausible sniper fire that pounds almost viscerally into viewers’ ears and minds, leaving Tommy to scramble over a gate before which his final companion is cut down.
But where is all the blood that should spurt out when the bullets hit the bodies of Tommy’s fellow soldiers? Why can’t we hear the stricken screaming and moaning as they (presumably) lie dying in the streets? Tommy apparently feels no horror or remorse or even concern for the deaths of his companions, merely escaping through a group of French soldiers hiding behind sand bags to reach the magnificently shot strand where hundreds of thousands of other kettle-helmeted soldiers wait in lines for their maritime rescue. Nolan even offers us a visual pun to drive home the overriding (and rather unmistakable) point of this opening sequence, having Tommy squat among the dunes to evacuate his bowels before reaching the evacuation lines proper.
The film takes considerable, perhaps even impressive pains not to idealize the soldiers, including Tommy. They are plausibly selfish, conniving, and opportunistic, stealing boots from the freshly dead and grabbing up a wounded soldier on a stretcher to force their way through the long lines in vain hopes of smuggling themselves onto the first rescue ship. Later, a group of fresh-faced boys who wouldn’t look out of place in a Monty Python sketch from, say, 1983’s The Meaning of Life quickly agree that the French soldier among them must be sacrificed to German snipers to lighten their stowaway ship for escape.
And in one of the film’s other gradually converging story-lines, a shell-shocked pilot who has been saved from his downed plane by a civilian vessel on its way to help evacuate Dunkirk gets incensed when the captain staunchly refuses to turn around, as the pilot insists, to return immediately to England. The rescued and decidedly unheroic pilot lashes out at one of the film’s many fresh-faced youths, causing him to fall and (like Claggart falling to the blow of Melville’s complicated Christ-figure, Billy Budd) hit his head and eventually die, the victim of selfishly stubborn if technically friendly fear.
It is tempting to applaud Dunkirk for insisting that war doesn’t actually turn us into heroes and, in fact — all too easily — tends to do just the opposite, bringing out our nastiest, most duplicitous, and most cowardly desperate survivalists. Combined with the film’s remarkable technical prowess (the superb aerial battle scenes do Hollywood’s long tradition of intense pilot-to-pilot combat quite proud), the film’s blunt view of human nature at its worst distorting and dictating the behavior of characters whom we do sympathize with may, as so many reviews have already hosannaed it, win the film serious awards consideration at the end of the year.
But the lack of a moral imagination that limits the tumults of modern mechanized warfare and its terrible voracity for human bodies to technical spectacles in Dunkirk should give such praise pause long before the remarkably, almost embarrassingly clichéd ending makes viewers cringe. When the improbable deus ex machina of the English civilian armada finally arrives, prompting one of his officers to ask poor Kenneth Branagh‘s Commander Bolton what it is he sees through his binoculars, perhaps his generation’s most magnificently adept handler of Shakespearean blank verse has to lavish all of his verbal talent on a remarkably groan-worthy one-word response: ‘Home.’. And apparently, we’re supposed to tear up with him, ignoring the common knowledge that the German planes that have, on suspense-film cue, occasionally complicated the little 400,000-troop evacuation, will be delivering their ordnances fairly soon right to that ballyhooed ‘home.’
But Nolan’s hardly done there reducing a massive human horror to an E. T. punch-line. No, we have to watch as soldiers rush to patriotic attention at the prospect of the fabled white cliffs of Dover and then, a little later, aboard the remarkably clean and inviting train, demand a newspaper from a couple of young boys working near the tracks in the famously beatific English sunshine so that they can read of their own rescue. The literal and metaphorical sunniness of the denouement seems absurd, if not obscene; just get these poor boys some tea and bread with jam as they chug along homeward, and then we can all pretend somehow that the war is over, that everything is now okay? Really?
One could argue that the improbably upbeat ending of Dunkirk is designed less for the sake of the soldiers in the story than it is to offer some relief to us viewers who have survived Nolan’s expertly-orchestrated 106-minute assault on the senses. But in the final reckoning, that defense only underscores the film’s surprising flimsiness. Nolan feels increasingly like a stylist in search of a story, a gifted craftsman who does not scruple to reduce a well-documented moral and humanitarian disaster still in reach of living memory to an exercise in IMAXed aesthetics, the human perpetrators and victims of his superbly-staged and evoked violence little more than pawns to be sacrificed for the sake of this grandmaster filmmaker’s latest vaunted game against his own, ever-growing legend for technical wizardry.
War Films: History’s Lessons?
It’s never particularly wise, of course, to take Hollywood any more seriously than it takes itself. The Dream Factory has always been, first and foremost, a money-making machine, and the PG-13 rating will, no doubt, continue to grease the summer box office wheels for years to come. And if the occasional tentpole actioner manages to say something meaningful about the hell of war, the studio financiers won’t object — as long as such moral loftiness doesn’t dampen the profits at all.
If you’re looking for a master film stylist who really knows his way around the moral dimensions of war stories, you can always return to Kubrick, of course. And don’t stop with Full Metal Jacket or Barry Lyndon; rewatch Dr. Strangelove sometime and marvel at its nearly impossible ability to evoke the vast physical and moral horrors of globe-engulfing war with a handful of studio sets, some stock footage, and a set of indelibly witty performances by (among others) Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, and Slim Pickens, ingeniously embedding the vast tragedy of war into the still vaster tragicomedy of human nature.
Let me also heartily recommend Alan and Susan Raymond’s unforgettable, heartbreaking 2000 documentary for HBO, Children in War. Though it probably cost less to make than the producers of these PG-13 blockbusters spent on catering, this quiet, absolutely devastating film lovingly but unrelentingly immerses viewers in the agonies that the children subjects have survived in several countries torn by war during the 1990s. It is a terrific piece of filmmaking, every bit the equal of Nolan’s in its expertly achieved imagery, sounds, and editing, but that’s not the point; it aims simply and superbly to sear viewers’ hearts and minds with the horrors of war and the most urgent lessons of history through the living faces and voices of war’s most innocent and vulnerable survivors.
The wisdom that we seem to need to relearn over and over again — that war is an unspeakable horror, a verifiable hell that we should work together to forestall quite literally at all costs — is something that War for the Planet of the Apes, Wonder Woman, and Dunkirk can only suggest by the by and in delimited ways. Kid-friendly PG-13 war movies, as enjoyable and impressive and even moving as they can, in parts, be, will probably never help us (as Sting memorably suggested in his song) to absorb history’s lessons and finally put an end to our catastrophically violent children’s crusades.
What are your thoughts?
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