I like war films. Most Americans do- I bet even Quakers secretly enjoy a guilty thrill when they close their drapes and throw Saving Private Ryan on the ol' DVD player.
See, nothing is as dramatic in film as a film about war. Decisions made by the characters effect the ultimate stakes of human existence- life and death. Stupidity, cleverness, heroism, cowardice, love, hate, cruelty, and mercy are basic human qualities that are portrayed on an epic scale against the backdrop of armed conflict. We can get a vicarious thrill watching Audie Murphy gunning down Nazi hordes with his Tommy Gun without the inconvenience of being in France in 1944. We can be horrified at the carnage of the landings at Omaha Beach without actually having nasty pieces of metal fired at you by someone who is desperate to kill you. Or we can marvel at the hideousness of fighting in the jungles of Vietnam without experiencing it firsthand.
What I am driving at is that there isn't really such a thing as a " war movie" ( or its cousin, the " anti- war " movie, which is a " war movie" with more gore and weeping). What is known as the war movie is really an action- adventure flick- granted usually a little more meditative on the human cost of armed conflict, but still a species of that genre. As Walt Whitman said of the American Civil War, " The real war won't get into the books." Or, as a German veteran of the Eastern Front of the Second World War suggested, his memoir should be read outdoors on cold nights in the rain or snow, in a hole you have dug, for days at a time. If you think you are learning something about the experience of war by watching a movie, you are badly mistaken.
But surviving the elements and struggling against the boredom of war are not what make exciting war movies. So Hollywood conveniently mentions these things in passing and gets to the good stuff- the fighting. For which I am extremely grateful.
Yet there is a war that is so badly represented in the film industry that it makes me want to tear my hair out. The First World War, aka The Great War, should be a source of action- adventure gold. Fighting in the trenches, fighting in the air, epic sea battles, campaigns in Palestine and Africa, heroic charges, stupid generals... it should be a no- brainer for movie producers.
Yet, time and again, movies about The Great War are produced as love stories. Yeah, that's right, love stories. For some reason what was probably one of the most unromantic wars in human history is constantly pitched as a great time to get laid. So there is too much smoochin' and not enough shootin'. This is especially true of the war in the air. Every single First World War aviation movie devotes an inordinate amount of time to dashing young fliers sweeping buxom young women off of their feet for a bit of horizontal refreshment ( the BBC comedy series Blackadder Goes Forth does an excellent job spoofing this stereo type). There is precious little time devoted to blasting an enemy fighter to shreds with a pair of blazing Vickers or Maxim machine guns. And even scenes like that are generally badly done (e.g. Flyboys, The Red Baron).Even infantrymen get their fair share of booty. Remember Brad Pitt stalking the battlefields of 1915 Ypres in the horrible Legends Of The Fall? The director must have invented two dozen reasons for Pit to remove his cap so he could strike poignant poses with his hair blowing in the wind. And of course we end up with about fifteen minutes of trench fighting and two hours of Pitt pouncing on everything wearing a skirt. And still striking those annoying poignant poses.
I am aware of the vast historical ignorance of the American audience. But why worry about it? Americans don't give a damn about historical content. Just show a bunch of Doughboys tearing the Hun a third cornchute with rifle and bayonet. Oh wait, they did!
In a rare burst of sanity and inspiration, in 2004 A&E network produced an awesome but little known movie called The Lost Battalion, a remake of the 1919 film of the same name. It tells the story of some 550 men of the U.S. 77th Infantry Division who became surrounded by the Germans in the Argonne Forest in October 1918.Despite being heavily outnumbered they held on to their positions for three days until relieved by the rest of the 77th. This has everything a good war movie needs- explosions, bad leaders who we can hate, good leaders we cheer for, ethnic humor, reflections on the insanity of war, bayonet charges, hand- to- hand fighting, and a chivalrous foe ( this is 1918 remember- the Nazis fought the next war). And not a single romantic moment! An absolutely classic American war film.
Other good films about the Great War:
All Quiet On The Western Front ( 1931): The soundtrack is scratchy and the special effects are dated but still stands out as one of the best war films of all time.
Paths Of Glory ( 1957): Stanley Kubrick's meditation on the bullshit of military justice devotes the first part of the film to some interesting trench fighting scenes. The rest involves a trial. Remove any throwable objects from reach- you will get very angry.
Lawrence Of Arabia ( 1962): A great film with awesome actors, LOA also has great battle scenes from a " a sideshow of a sideshow" of the war.
All Quiet On The Western Front ( 1979): The inevitable re- make. But surprisingly well- done. The sets are first- rate, the acting excellent, and the main character Paul Baumer narrates from the book during pauses in the action- nice touch. Surprisingly bloody for a made- for- TV- flick from the 1970s.