But let’s be honest, sometimes it’s more fun to curl up with a real war movie: a gung-ho, lock-and-load, no-holds-barred action film. It’s this kind of movie that Tarantino has made, squarely in the tradition of The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare, and The Great Escape.
Take a look at that list again, you may notice these films have one thing in common. They’re all set during World War II. Why? Because that was – by common consent – the “just” war, a war that had to be fought, with clearly demarcated good guys and bad guys. That kind of playing field lends itself to heroics, and Hollywood (and Pinewood too) has responded accordingly – initially as part of the Allies’ propaganda effort, but with no great let-up after the war ended.
Veterans may have scoffed (or refused to watch) the Boys’ Own adventure type war films that the British, in particular, churned out in vast quantities in the 1950s and 60s, but there was a large and receptive audience for them – and why not? We won, after all.
Nation’s Pride, the Nazi propaganda film-within-the-film that Tarantino has imagined, suggests that there would have been just as many morale-boosting entertainments if History had handed victory to Hitler and Goebbels. Only the uniforms would have been different. Instead, of course, the German film industry was decimated by the war, and largely shied away from the subject for decades afterwards. Defeat can inspire great films too – witness Das Boot, Stalingrad, and Downfall – but they take longer to gestate.
With other wars, it’s been a different story. There were relatively few dramatic films made about WWI, the so-called Great War, while it was still going on, but those made subsequently almost always fall into the anti-war camp: All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths Of Glory, Oh! What a Lovely War.
And with few exceptions, the same goes for Vietnam. You can argue about the politics of Rambo, Platoon and even The Deer Hunter, but only John Wayne really seemed to think this war was a good idea – and his The Green Berets was laughed off the screen.
The greatest war movies? Well, Apocalypse Now wiped me out when I first saw it… in fact for three years I went to see it religiously, whenever it was playing on the big screen. The exhilaration of the helicopter attack, and how it gives way to the deeper pull of madness and despair, that stays with you.
It was bested by a Russian film – obscure except to anyone who has seen it, because once seen it’s never forgotten: Elem Klimov’s Come And See just plunges you into the brutal thick of genocide and rubs your face in it.
More recently, The Thin Red Line is a movie I keep returning to: it’s rare to find a war movie that puts you into the mind-frame of the troops so completely as this one does.
I was impressed and moved by Clint Eastwood’s Flag For Our Fathers, but even more so by the counter-punch, Letters from Iwo Jima. That conceit of showing us the same battle from both sides (perhaps inspired by Malick’s film?) is a stroke of genius.
And I want to mention two by the Dutch provocateur, Paul Verhoeven. On the surface, The Black Book is relatively straightforward account of the Resistance during WWII – except that the heroics we expect are hopelessly muddied by the compromises made by agents on both sides just to stay alive.
And then there’s Starship Troopers, which looks like sci-fi, but which is really just a war movie in hyper-drive. What’s different about this one is that it’s a real undercover operation: Verhoeven only pretends to be on the side of the humans. As you watch it, you realise our guys are the fascists, and you find your sympathies switching to the enemy – in this case armies of giant bugs. A war movie that can make me feel sorry for a cockroach is worth a cheer.
War by War
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