Film: War: What Else Is It Good For?

'Private Ryan' and 'Thin Red Line' stand apart from previous films

Feb 4, 1999 at 2:06 pm
A classic Hollywood war hero: Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks) in Saving Private Ryan

I've never been entirely comfortable discussing war movies, especially in terms of "accuracy" and "justice." The reason is simple: I've never been anywhere near a battlefield. Warfare is a hazy concept to me, something that happens to distant cultures I don't know or care about. Since we haven't had one on American soil in well over a century, the idea of actually defending our homes against a foreign invader is unthinkable.

In the summer of 1998, for the first time in nearly a decade, Hollywood released a significant war film in the form of Saving Private Ryan. Six months later, acclaimed filmmaker Terence Malick followed up with The Thin Red Line. Both are memorable. Steven Spielberg ensured that Private Ryan was a brutal assault on the senses, that anyone who walked out of the theater unaffected should be checked for a pulse; Malick provided the first art-house war film in history.

Both films found audiences and are likely prospects for Oscar nominations, so regardless of who's watching, both will take their place in film history. Private Ryan was the first World War II drama (focused on battle) in nearly 20 years.

And both Private Ryan and Thin Red Line attempted to reduce the experience of the common soldier to its essence, without politics or social commentary. Since the mid-1970s, images of the Vietnam War have monopolized the genre.

"Vietnam was the beginning of cynicism toward the military," writes Lawrence Quirk, author of Great War Films and a veteran of the Korean conflict. "Soldiers didn't know what they were fighting for. The enemy wasn't always recognizable so they didn't fight to win. They could've won in no time if they wanted to. Soldiers were never saints or angels. They're just human beings."

Indeed, the films generated by that conflict largely attempted to humanize fighting men or to illuminate the dark side of GI behavior. Platoon (1986), directed by Vietnam-vet-turned-social-conscience, Oliver Stone, showed soldiers trying to retain their civilian psyches in the midst of chaos. Born on the Fourth of July (1989) depicted a deeply patriotic young man's evolution into a rabid voice of dissent. The "chicken" pistol game between Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and their Vietnamese captors in The Deer Hunter (1978) is one of the most disturbing sequences of all time. Full Metal Jacket (1987) showed soldiers sauntering around, full of bravado and trash talk. And Casualties of War (1989) pitted the idealistic Michael J. Fox against the monstrous Sean Penn in a tale of kidnapping and sexual assault.

When war movies of the recent past weren't making a statement, they were glamorizing honor on the battlefield. Glory (1989), the Civil War picture about the first fighting black regiment in the Civil War was full of romantic heroism, with Union soldiers storming the Confederate garrison to the lofty sound of the Harlem Boys Choir. Although well-intended, Glory subscribed to the grand notion of dying for what you believed in.

The Persian Gulf War has spawned just one film so far: Courage Under Fire (1997), essentially a detective story with some battle footage, where the central question was whether a female commander had held her own in combat. In other words, "Was Meg Ryan's character 'yellow'?" as George C. Scott's Oscar-winning portrayal of Patton would've phrased it.

In fact, all these films spent so much time on politics and moral messages that they rarely focused on the crucial elements of fear and imminent death.

Private Ryan and Thin Red Line addressed these questions in graphic detail, while treating their subjects in different ways. Private Ryan convinced audiences that their heads could be taken off along with the soldiers on the screen, Thin Red Line had a more lyrical approach to suffering. Explosions churned the earth in rhythmic patterns, almost like a ballet.

It was only natural that two World War II flicks released so close together would invite comparison. Both films may have benefited if they were a few years apart, for it could be argued that Private Ryan and Thin Red Line have effectively canceled each other out. Moviegoers fresh from the carnage in Private Ryan probably won't be so moved by the camera's slow crawl over the faces of suffering in Thin Red Line. For all of Malick's poetic beauty, the mind-numbing violence in Private Ryan may have siphoned off some of Thin Red Line's emotional impact.

On the other hand, Thin Red Line's moody meandering may have damaged Private Ryan's reputation as well. Private Ryan gave Spielberg's artistic credibility a further boost. But despite its innovative camera techniques during the Omaha storm, its storytelling was fairly conventional: Characters embarked on a journey, and those who survived are changed forever. There's also the preachy ending, where an elderly Pvt. Ryan gushes tearfully about whether he earned his deliverance. Given those elements, Private Ryan could prove to be a far more manipulative film than we thought, heroic myths disguised by a few authentic sequences.

Thin Red Line had no regard for such dramatics. Offering no central character to identify with, Thin Red Line was an introspective dreamscape, constructing a series of moments in which soldiers speak in droning internal monologues. Malick often muffled the shouts of the soldiers and the screams of the dying. He depicted battlefield that was slow and silent. Thin Red Line is an aberration of war films, much like 2001: Space Odyssey (1968) was an aberration of traditional science fiction. The more one thinks about Thin Red Line, the more Spielberg's film seems like fluff. It might have been interesting to combine the best elements of each film into one: It would've been quite a spectacle.

World War II has gone down in history as the last "good" conflict. In presenting events from that war, filmmakers don't have to worry about justifying it or demonizing it. That allows them to focus on the experience itself. Many WWII films of the past didn't take advantage of that fact. They were mired in notions of heroism and celebration of American victory on the battlefield.

"There was a great deal of romanticism back then," writes Quirk. "Sometimes that can make you vulnerable against a brutal world. So, in that sense, the cynicism you see today can protect you from that. Warfare brings out the best and worst in people. Usually, films opt for one or the other. I thought Private Ryan finally got it right. It didn't canonize the soldiers but it showed that they could rise to the occasion. The thing that helped about World War II was that people knew what they were fighting for. There was a common cause."

The Longest Day, a grandiose 1962 re-creation of D-Day, focused on American, British, French and German generals, trying to outthink their opponents. In stark contrast to Private Ryan's version of the Norman invasion, The Longest Day didn't spend a lot of time in the trenches. When it did, American GIs were led by archetypal heroes played by Robert Mitchum and John Wayne, with American ingenuity and, presumably, God on their side.

The Longest Day commemorated D-Day as an historical event. Mitchum strode the front with a big stogie crunched between his lips. We watch the unemotional drama of hundreds of faceless men falling dead on the sand. The Longest Day treated death no differently than the average Star Wars film.

The idea of soldiers as cannon-fodder was addressed in the films from the antiwar 1960s and 1970s. Man as a chess piece. Patton came at a pivotal period in American discourse. If the film had been made 20 years earlier, Patton would have been portrayed as a hero. In the midst of the Vietnam War, American society saw him as an egomaniac, not unlike Nick Nolte as Lt. Col. Tall in Thin Red Line, a man who used soldiers for his own personal glory. The antiwar mentality goes all the way back to All Quiet on the Western Front in 1930, laden with disturbing images, including a pair of severed hands clinging to barbed wire. One soldier says cynically: "Every leader needs a good war to make him famous."

With the phenomenal success of Private Ryan (including two Golden Globes), we're certain to have an invasion of studio war pictures in the near future. Set for release around the millennium, U-571 is in production in Rome, a predictable suspense thriller about a submarine crew trying to steal a German coding device, starring Matthew McConaughey. It appears Private Ryan and Thin Red Line will stand alone in time.

Studios needed Steven Spielberg to prove that war films can still make money, but we can't expect Hollywood executives to fall over themselves trying to duplicate the harrowing impact of that film. War films of the future are likely to revert back to traditional formulas, prioritizing heroism and suspense over experimentation and realism.

A mere film will never replicate the reality of battle. When Spielberg spoke with veterans of World War II, they said, "Thank you for this movie. But it was really so much worse." Does that mean filmmakers should stop trying? ©