Those War Films
War films, like Westerns, are always in fashion. From Hollywood and elsewhere, there flows a constant stream of films about heroism, cowardice, battles, bombings and butchery generally. So, at regular intervals, we sit transfixed in our cinema seats, while jet planes zoom overhead and the U.S. marines go in to finish off yet another bunch of anti-democratic savages. Satisfying? Maybe. Harmless? Improbable. But useful? Very rarely.
War is, after all, a serious subject. Yet, of the enormous number of films that have been made about war, one can count on one’s fingers those which say something intelligent, useful or constructive about it.
Generally speaking, war films, like thrillers and westerns, follow well-defined patterns and fall into a few set groups. The commonest kind is the heroic battle-story with a slender plot and perhaps a little love interest. The hero, rugged and clean-living, goes into battle and, after inevitable setbacks, crushes the enemy practically single-handed. Sometimes he dies at the end, murmuring beautiful thoughts and accompanied by a celestial choir.
In these films the sort of thing that one remembers is, perhaps, Robert Taylor defending Bataan single-handed against hordes of Japs; or Veronica Lake gallantly walking into the enemy camp with a bosom loaded down with hand-grenades; and other similar epics of true-to-life bravery. Occasionally the story is more sophisticated and the background a little less false. But, basically, the same pattern is there—heroism, and the defeat of an evil enemy.
Why should one object to this ostensibly harmless kind of fairy tale? What is important is that the audience is expected to participate by identifying itself with the hero and the victorious army. It is objectionable for films to blatantly glorify the sordid business of killing. It is harmful to glamorise the slaughter of one’s fellow-men. Above all, it is dangerous to suggest, as these films do, that war is inevitable and necessary and that “fighting for one’s country” is a natural and desirable thing.
Another (and much smaller) category of films is the semi-documentary type, usually without love-interest, in which the portrayal of the fighting is much closer to reality. A few of these films have been extremely good, A Walk in the Sun, for instance, telling of one brief sortie by an American patrol in the Italian campaign. The Polish film Kanal is also worthy of mention, with its horrifying account of the crushing of the Warsaw uprising and the miserable and wretched deaths suffered by the survivors, either in the sewers of Warsaw or at the hands of the Germans. It is interesting to see, however, that this otherwise admirable film makes no mention of the Russian army which stood outside Warsaw for weeks, allowing their “allies” to be butchered in the sewers. But, of course, one should not expect too much from film-makers in countries now dominated by their Russian “liberators.”
Probably the best of this type of film is the Finnish film The Unknown Soldier, which portrays the tiny, ill-equipped Finnish army in its war against Russia. In this, war is stripped of glamour and adventure and shown for what it is—a brutal and fearful business. This kind of film may, and sometimes does, inspire a genuine horror of war an all that goes with it, which in itself is a good thing. However, as these films never put forward a positive point of view, or any alternative to war, the overall effect is to make people think that war is a terrible and terrifying thing, but also that it is necessary and justifiable in the right circumstances.
During the war, and shortly after, there was a spate of documentary films, most of them made by the Crown Film Unit. The intention was to boost morale and convince the public that our cause was just and that victory would inevitably come. Some of them were well-made (for example, Fires Were Started), and did at least give an unsentimental and fairly accurate picture of what went on in the war. Many documentaries, notably The March of Time series, held out extravagant promises of the wonderful world that was to be ours after the war, a world freed from economic disasters, international tension and all the unpleasant things that occurred before the war. This is one good reason why these films are never shown today.
Since the war, we have had the opportunity of seeing documentaries that put the other side’s point of view—Blitzkrieg, for instance. Although the uniforms are different, the message is the same—”We are right and the enemy is wrong.”
Another fairly common type of war-film is the prison-camp story, with the usual ingredients of escape, brutal punishment, cheerful and heroic prisoners and bullying prison-camp commanders. The pattern of these films is much the same as the heroic battle-epic. The prisoners attempt to escape because it is their duty to get back home to fight again. So insistent is the escape theme in films like The Wooden Horse and The Colditz Story and many others, that one gets the misleading impression that prison-camp life consisted of never-ending escape attempts, and that captured soldiers couldn’t get back in the front line quick enough. Some of these films have depicted revolting brutality, not so much from a desire for authenticity, but rather to encourage national hatreds. One of the few prison-camp films to explore the possibilities of genuine human contact between captors and captives was La Grande Illusion, a French film, which itself was made long before the Second World War.
The one comes to the very few films about war which put forward a clear point of view—that war is unjustifiable, perhaps, or that war is harmful to all who take part in it. One or two even suggest that the war leaders and officers are not disinterested saints, but people with a vested interest in warfare. Attack, for example, did this badly, by showing the harm caused by a fanatical officer, but negatived this point by suggesting that “good” officers would have solved the problem. Paths of Glory, on the other hand, presented a picture of army officers scheming and competing like business men, and the disastrous effect this had on the men at the bottom, many of whom died as a result.
The films where a humanist or pacifist view is presented are few and far between. Apart from Paths of Glory, there is the old All Quiet on the Western Front, with its sympathetic portrayal of the German soldiers in the First World War. It had the temerity to suggest that German soldiers were human, too, with the same wants and desires, and cutting the same poor figure in the muddy trenches as their counterparts on the allied side. La Grande Illusion put forward a similar point of view, and exposed “the great illusion” of national enmity.
The result of the tally is not a very encouraging one—a handful of worthwhile films: a negative but accurate ones; and an enormous number of misleading, sentimental and harmful films glorifying war, extolling films, and justifying cruelty and murder. Cynics will say that the public are only getting what they deserve. Maybe, but this is only half of the story. Films themselves are the outcome of social forces, and at the same time help to fashion the climate of opinion in which they appear. So it is that Capitalism, a harmful and irrational system, produces the harmful and irrational by-product—war. This engenders the phony justifications for national enmities, which war films reflect and help to bolster up.
This process is endless—post-war situations produce new justifications and new hatreds, which themselves help to make new wars possible. The only thing that will stem this tide is knowledge and criticism. Working people are gradually coming to realise that wars are not glamorous affairs, that battles are not mere backdrops for heroes, and that national hatreds are not natural and praiseworthy.
One hopes that this trend will be reflected in the cinema, and that if films do deal with war, they will approach it in a critical, constructive and conscious way. Perhaps this is expecting too much of Capitalism, but if the cinema doesn’t catch up, one at least knows that the working class eventually will.