Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Towards Some Criteria for Judging Movies About War

Different genre of film have different criteria by which they are judged. Westerns are different from romantic comedies which are rarely the same as low budget horror films, and so forth. Each of these have different conventions that connoisseurs of the genre will identify and discuss. A good western will generally have a climax that involves a final encounter between good and evil, usually in the form of a gunfight. A romantic comedy will almost always end with true love overcoming all obstacles. It would be quite rare, I think, to have a successful romantic comedy that ends in a gunfight that symbolically presents the struggle between good and evil. One can go against genre and break the rules, but that is a tricky matter and requires great skill.

This essay proposes some suggested criteria by which a movie about war, or which takes place during a time of war, could be judged. I base some of my criteria in part on the notion that war is a very serious, morally ambiguous phenomenon and that some of the criteria and judgments about such a film, even a comedy about war, must have some sense of the seriousness of the subject matter, even if it is not acknowledged explicitly. One way to look at these proposed criteria is as both story structure and aesthetics that are genre-specific.

War, as I use the term, is organized violence between states, ethnic groups or political movements. Although there can be a "war between individuals", for our purposes we restrict it to between groups of people sponsored either by a state or by a faction, e.g. a political movement. I am excluding gangster and espionage movies, although both may have organized violence, and both may take place during a time of war.

Often times, movies about war are not about the war itself, but take place during a war. Apocalypse Now is a film about the Vietnam war, in part, even though we do not review any of the specific battles of that war in detail.  The Good, The Bad and the Ugly takes place during the American Civil War in the West although it is not a film about that war. Das Boot is certainly about war. 

So here are my criteria.

1. A good movie about war would convince you that you really, really did not want to be there.  This is particularly true the closer you get to the front.  If the movie implies that war is fun, and everyone is just having a grand time, then it is probably a terrible movie about war.   By this criteria, Mash is certainly a movie about war, but McCale's Navy is not. Sure, there were entertaining moments during a war, and some of those moments were very entertaining indeed.  But most of the time the soldiers are bored and miserable, or just bored.  And some of the time they are saying to themselves, please Jesus just get me out of here.

He really doesn't want to be there

2. Details matter, so get them right.  There are a lot of details in war and those details may mean the difference between victory and defeat or between life and death.  Often a filmmaker can not afford to show reality because for practical reasons it is just too expensive.  But most of the time, they just get the details wrong because they did not care to find out what happened. And as a result they present something that is not true or possibly not understandable when they do not have to. Sure you can violate this rule in the interests of farce or sarcasm or for other reasons but at least you should have a reason.

3. It should be real, but not too real, please.  At some point it is better to allude to the issues and leave them as just that, allusions. I am not sure there has ever been a good film about the Ardennes Campaign in World War 2 (the Battle of the Bulge), although I am aware of one pretty good one that was low budget.  Did you ever wonder where 250,000 or so men in the dead of winter who are unexpectedly shooting each other went to the bathroom or who exactly picked up the dead or what a person looks like after being caught out in the open by an artillery shell?  Good.  Real, but not too real, please.

4. If the movie presents or has scenes at or near the front, it should attempt to portray the unbelievable chaos that is the characteristic of essentially all battles I am aware of.  The plan didn't work, no one knows much about what is going on, there is total madness, people are getting hurt and killed all around you. Even when not in a battle it might not make any sense and in a battle itself, forget about it.   I felt that Saving Private Ryan captured some of this feeling at times very well.

Nobody knows what the fuck is going on

5. People exhibit extraordinary behavior during battle that they would not exhibit anywhere else.  A total idiot may suddenly exhibit extraordinary presence of mind when being shot at. Some of the crazy stories you hear about someone in times of war or battle are actually probably true as far as we can tell.  However, if one is going to use that in a film it is probably best to draw from history even if what you are writing is fiction so that you can defend yourself when someone says that what you showed was impossible.

6. Some of the smartest and most ethical people who have ever lived have fought in a war, some of the dumbest and most shallow people who have ever lived have fought in a war.

7. Different cultures fight wars differently.  Some cultures which are believed to be very different may in reality be very similar.

8. Very few of the people in the millitary on either side are evil.   There are some evil people in war and in peace but the military of most countries are not blessed with a particular excess of them.  Military people, particularly leaders, will often seem cruel or uncaring, but that is the nature of the activity, at least as perceived by someone who does not need to deal with the situations they deal with on a daily basis.

It is good to remember that when the movie is over, at best you have an impression of what it was like to be there.

I am going to argue that Apocalypse Now is one of the best and most realistic films set during a war, and that any of the Star Wars films are among the worst films that are ostensibly about or taking place during a war.

Revised 12/27/2015

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