War is a given. Yes, let’s not beat around the bush, let’s not pontificate about the necessity of man stumbling while working toward his higher being blah blah blah. I wish you were right. I really do. But all the evidence points toward Man being a brutal, twitchy animal that needs only the slightest of motivations to get very violent, very quickly. In Wings of Desire, an apparently immortal Homer leafs through books in a library, wondering why there are no epic poems about peacetime. “What is wrong with peace that its inspiration doesn’t endure?”
We seem to be made of meat and conflict. As a writer, I am told again and again that the engine of story is conflict. Without conflict, there is no story. So, alright, we are made of meat, conflict, and stories. So I arranged my viewing in a certain way to embrace one of the biggest of those stories – World War II, for many the defining event of the last century – and it took me weeks to unpack what I had seen.
Overlord is a movie I was turned onto by the redoubtable Chad Plambeck. It was originally planned as a documentary about the Overlord Tapestry, a sort of modern-day Bayeaux Tapestry commemorating the 30th anniversary of D-Day (Overlord being the code name for the massive amphibious invasion). Director Stuart Cooper, an American expatriate, sat through three thousand hours of war footage housed at the Imperial War Museum, and he and producer James Quinn developed instead the idea of a feature film about a young Englishman called up for service in the latter part of the War.
The movie starts with a flash-forward – the first of many – of a young soldier running on a beach, his life suddenly cut short by a gunshot. This shot is mirrored by our first sight of Tom (Brian Stirner) running home to collect his luggage, so he can meet the train to report for duty. He misses his connection, and is delayed overnight while Nazi planes rain bombs down upon London. This is also the first major use of the motif Cooper will use throughout, as firemen battle the blazes and collapsing buildings in just one night of The Blitz. Tom and his story is shot in black-and-white, and the marriage of the film of two different eras is handled almost seamlessly (the skilled sound work goes a long way toward making the older footage seem more alive and current, part of the world the actors move through).
Tom will go through basic training (not without a bit of trouble), forge new friendships, and start an almost-romance with a girl which is cut short by the secretive moving about of troops, seemingly at random, in the run-up to the landing. It is to the credit of Cooper, Stirner and Julie Neesam playing The Girl (literally) that the audience feels the pain of this termination, with no time to say goodbye or even explain, as keenly as the characters.
Throughout, Tom has visions of his death on the battlefield, and it doesn’t matter where the eventual battle will be fought, he has a vision for every terrain. As Overlord approaches, he becomes convinced that he will, indeed, be one of many who will be felled on that day, and says so in a letter to his parents – which on the eve of invasion, is burned with all his personal papers, as it no longer seems to matter.
Overlord feels as gray as its cinematography, yet feels so utterly human that we never doubt the truth of what is being presented onscreen. Its major failing, perhaps, was in its timing -1975 wasn’t a good year for war. America was still smarting over the loss of Vietnam; the last completely successful war movies were probably four years in the past, movies like Patton and M*A*S*H*, neither of which could really be called typical war movies. And, at the time, if you didn’t open well in America, you simply disappeared. Which was the case with Overlord, until it was re-discovered and championed by Xan Cassavetes for her documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, for which we may all be thankful.
As big a story as D-Day was – big enough to support many, many movies – it was not the entirety of the war. Hell, it wasn’t even the only continent or hemisphere in which it was fought. So it was time to journey to the Pacific Theater with The Thin Red Line.
It was 20 years since Badlands and Days of Heaven, and it is really odd to consider Terrence Malick coming back with a war movie. The Thin Red Line is the second book in James Jones’ war trilogy – the first is From Here to Eternity – and since Jones served in the battles portrayed, I tend to expect some truth from him. More on that later.
The movie The Thin Red Line is first and foremost an ensemble piece, and holy moley what an ensemble. Off the top of my head: James Caviezel, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Elias Koteas, John C. Reilly, Ben Chaplin, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, John Travolta, Jared Leto, John Savage, George Clooney I mean holy crap. That sounds like the cast of a late 20th century version of The Longest Day, except that it’s a Malick film.
That means there’s a lot of internal monologue laid out over the movie, by various characters, and sometimes you’re not really sure who’s talking. Like the girl’s musings in Days of Heaven, it feels like a Beat poetry fest suddenly overlaying the movie proper. In this case, most of them seem to be pulled from Jones’ text (and a few from From Here to Eternity, just to be sure), cementing Malick’s reputation as a philosopher-filmmaker, for better or worse. Many people think that’s for the worse.
What cannot be denied, though, is the quality of the Oscar-nominated cinematography by John Toll. The contrast of the beauty of the countryside with the absolute terror and bloodshed and random death of the Battle of Mount Austen is hypnotic and engrossing. One image that will stick in my mind forever: a young soldier, cowering against the earth as Japanese bullets whiz over his head, noticing a fragile leaf that closes as his fingers brush against it, fascinated even as death flies and comrades die all around him. It’s an image cribbed from Picnic at Hanging Rock, but it’s a memorable one.
This portion of The Thin Red Line does handle the truth of the situation pretty well: this was the first combat experience for many of these soldiers, and that panic and havoc are well-conveyed. The booklet in the Criterion blu-ray reprints an article by James Jones from the 1963 Saturday Evening Post, shortly after Thin Red Line‘s publication. It’s entitled “Phony War Films”, and it contains this passage:
“…the true test of a true antiwar film is whether or not it shows that modern war destroys human character. None of these films does. Instead, they show that (for our side, if not for the enemy) war develops and enlarges human character.”
There is some of this in Malick’s Thin Red Line. Ben Chaplin, in a truly excellent portrayal as Private Bell, is a soldier who finds himself doing brave things not because he’s a hero, but because this is where he is, and if he does these things, maybe things will be better tomorrow, maybe more of his buddies will be alive. This means he winds up on the front line, taking out a hardened machine gun bunker in the only firefight shown in the movie, hectic and terrifying. Bell writes to his wife often throughout the movie, his memories of them together a source of strength, After this battle, his letters tell of his struggle to not change, to come back to her the same man as when he left. His reward is a letter telling him she has fallen in love with an Air Force captain, and asking for a divorce.
The balance to this is Caviezel’s Private Witt, a former AWOL who sees a bright light in everyone, even the enemy. Sean Penn’s Sergeant Welsh, slowly being eaten alive by the war, regards him as a “magician” for that. One of them will survive the movie. I’ll bet you know which.
I find myself on the fence about Malick. I don’t hate what I’ve seen, but I’m not sure if I like it or not. That means I’ll watch more of his movies to figure that out, which puts him in the win column for now.
But for the sheer embodiment of Jones’ earlier statement about war grinding out all character in a person, we have to move back north again, for Elem Klimov’s Come and See.
I owe Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film: An Odyssey for my even knowing about Come and See. The few scenes referenced therein, a few episodes of the Hardcore History podcast, and the constant threats of “The Russian Front!” in Hogan’s Heroes was about all the prep I had for this one.
We start with Flor (Aleksey Kravchenko), a young Belorussian boy (Kravchenko was 14 at the time), digging in a WWI battlefield, much against his father’s wishes. Flor finds an old rifle, cleans it up, and joins the partisans in the surrounding woods fighting the invading Nazis. His dreams of glory are crushed when the commander leaves him behind to help establish a secondary camp. He’s not allowed to nurse his hurt feelings for long, though, as German bombs destroy the camp and troops begin filtering through the woods. He and a girl from the camp (Olga Miranova) escape to Flor’s village, only to find that the Nazis have already been there, and the bodies are stacked like cordwood behind a barn.
Flor finds the remnants of his village – vice versa really, he is shell-shocked, half-deaf, and almost gets himself and the girl killed in a bog – and he eventually heads out with a small guerilla force to find food for the refugees. The war is not going to be kind to this venture, and attrition will eventually leave Flor on his own. He attempts to steal a cart, only to be taken in by his attempted victim as a new wave of Nazi troops flood over the region. Flor’s rifle and partisan uniform are hidden in a haystack and he is hastily given a peasant tunic and the quick biographies of his new family, in case the Nazis ask.
The Nazis do not ask. They round up the entire village into a central building, lock the doors, and set the building on fire. Flor escapes this fate only through a whim of the commanding officer, who needs a victim for the photo op quoted on the video box. He is left in the middle of the burning village, devastated and ravaged as the landscape itself. He reclaims his rifle and uniform, and follows the Nazi’s tracks to where they have been ambushed by the very partisans Flor had joined a seeming lifetime ago.
Klimov filmed Come and See in chronological order, and we see the progression of Flor’s descent into the madness of war, how the events wear upon him. Klimov had sought to have Kravchenko hypnotized, so the filming would not cause him any lasting damage; but the boy was resistant to hypnosis. So filming proceeded, and by the time we reach the end of the movie, some of the 14 year-old’s hair had gone gray. That is not entirely acting and makeup at the end.
This truly is one of the great antiwar movies, by simply telling the truth. The slaughter of the village – which the closing credits tell us was the fate of 628 Belorussian villages and their occupants – is only one atrocity in a vast sea of them.
I’d like to end this with something calming, something soothing, but I fear I cannot. Every day someone new is beating the drum for war somewhere, and moreover, there is always war somewhere, not even for intelligible reasons beyond our apparent need for these stories, this fiction of war that is disproven over and over again, yet we seem to continually pitch headlong toward it. Perhaps our thirst for such stories really is that great, even though we have many, many sad stories to relate already.
War is a given.
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