Oh, What an Unlovely War


I love war movies. Scenes of fighting men shooting the crap out of other fighting men nails me to the seat, goggle-eyed and excited as a kid. No matter how grisly the soldiers’ wounds, how suffocating the jungle heat and nasty the maggots crawling over their shattered bodies, I’m seduced. Whether it’s the seemingly unsentimental but ultimately glamorous Hurt Locker or John Wayne in that recruiting poster for the military, Sands of Iwo Jima or the faux-realistic Saving Private Ryan, I can’t look away. It’s a blood-and-guts thing, like the emotions evoked by Patton (Ronald Reagan’s favourite movie). As the old TV beer commercial used to say, it reaches parts of you that others don’t. Specifically, the bowels not the mind.

Here in the US, in the middle of two real wars, some of us have been watching, on HBO, the $150 million, ten-part mini-series, The Pacific, about US marines in combat in the bloody-awful "island hopping" campaign in places like Guadalcanal, Peleliu and Okinawa.

The Pacific, which boasts Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks as executive producers, follows on the much-watched success of their previous TV mini-series Band of Brothers which focused on a single paratroop unit from stateside training to exhausted victory over Germany. Brothers was effective drama because, refreshingly, it cast relatively unknown actors who had rubbed-raw, off-kilter faces, and because it gave the audience time to know the men individually. And also the battleground of Europe, where most of our ancestors came from, is more familiar to us than the exotic Japanese-held islands.

So far, The Pacific misfires because, like the campaign itself, it diffuses focus; employs (again almost unknown) actors but this time whose expressionless faces look curiously zombie-like – or is that the point? – and are so physically alike they’re hard to tell one marine from another. The Spielberg-Hanks mini-series, an obviously sincere attempt to bring a nearly forgotten war home to us, strains for authenticity. I’m sure the uniforms are correct-to-period as are the weapons and battle quirks of this and that beach landing under fire. The platoon of screenwriters worked from two wonderful war memoirs by enlisted marines, Eugene Sledge and Robert Leckie (both of whom survived the war), and the posthumous saga of Medal of Honor hero John Basilone (who died on Iwo Jima).

Like Band of Brothers and Private Ryan and most modern war movies, The Pacific is marked by jittery camera work to convey the confusion of combat, volcanic explosions and flamethrowers galore, and of course lots of mangled bleeding corpses. Unlike Clint Eastwood’s little-seen Letters From Iwo Jima, the Japanese enemy in The Pacific remains faceless, remorseless, banzai-crazy and most often depicted as terrifying ghostlike forms in the night. Recently, Tom Hanks (whose father fought in the Pacific) got into hot water with American conservatives by referring to that war as one of "racism and terror". Back in the second world war, Hanks remarked, " … we viewed the Japanese as ‘yellow, slant-eyed dogs’ (who were) … out to kill us because our way of living was different … Does that sound familiar, by any chance, to what’s going on today?"

It’s possible that in their own minds Hanks and Spielberg believe that with The Pacific they’re paying homage to the courage of American fighting men and women as well as making an anti-war statement in general or specifically attacking today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or all three.

That’s the problem with war movies. When does a show like The Pacific, with its emphasis on "unit cohesion" and guts in battle, become a recruiting poster for the glory of war?

Most war movies, or movies about war – there is a difference – that explode on the screen with gut-wrenching firefights cannot help but be a call to arms. It’s the nature of the beast. This is especially true of The Pacific with its cartoon-like use of exploding bodies and reliance on the viewer’s sympathetic nervous system to instinctively rally to kill, kill, kill the slant-eyed threat out there in the formless jungle.

I can think of very few war-based movies that, regardless of the makers’ intent, didn’t lean to making testosterone-laden young men, or nostalgic oldsters, go out there and sign up for military mayhem. Perhaps mine is the wrong way to see such movies. After all, Catch-22, M*A*S*H, Charge of the Light Brigade, even violence-mongering pictures like Black Hawk Down, cast a withering eye on the insanity of chain-of-command. But sticking in my memory are only two films that took the trouble to seriously subvert the whole idea of war: Renoir’s Grand Illusion (which had almost no fireplay) and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory which frontally assaulted the meanness and cruelty of the military power structure.

CLANCY SIGAL is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. He can be reached at clancy@jsasoc.com





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