A history of war films
THE PHILOSOPHY OF WAR FILMS. Edited by David LaRocca. Published by University Press of Kentucky. 538 pages. $30 retail.
Aside from a few scattered references to All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), World War I gets short shrift (again) in this compilation of essays about war films.
Nevertheless, this self-explanatory volume, which represents another fine effort from University Press of Kentucky’s series of film books, is well-assembled by editor LaRocca and neatly divided into four distinct – and distinctive — categories: “The Aesthetics of War On-screen,” “War as Condition of Self-Formation and Self-Dissolution,” “Ethical Tribulations of War,” and “War, Nature, and the Absolute.”
Each author of each essay provides a detailed analysis of the symbolism, historical accuracy (or lack thereof), and themes explored in the films they discuss. Occasionally their observations are long-winded, but for the most part, are conveyed with clarity and keen observation.
It should be noted that some great war films, although historical in a basic respect – because the respective conflicts actually took place – are not necessarily factual. Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), for example, is based on his own experiences in Vietnam, but the basic narrative is fictional. On the other hand, Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989) is based on an actual character (Ron Kovic) and is more rooted in historical reality. That said, both films are widely – and rightfully – considered among the best films ever made about the Vietnam War, winning Stone the Best Director Oscar both times.
Likewise, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) – for which she won a Best Director Oscar (the first given to a woman) presents a fictional (although informed) story set during the Iraq War, while of her subsequent Zero Dark Thirty (2012) – which depicts the pursuit of Osama bin Laden – it could be said has history on its side. Does that diminish, enhance, or somehow compromise either film’s impact or does it matter if the film works on its own terms?
Andrew Fiala’s essay General Patton and Private Ryan (“The Conflicting Reality of War and Films About War”) address that very issue, neatly comparing and contrasting Franklin J. Schaffner’s Patton (1970) with Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998). (Once again, both directors took home Academy Awards.)
Garry L. Halberg’s Apocalypse Within (“The War Epic as Crisis of Self-Identity”) examines Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), which used a Vietnam setting as the backdrop for a latter-day retelling (or reinterpretation) of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”
I know several people who consider Apocalypse Now one of the great movies, but I’ve also known Vietnam veterans – we miss you, Larry Offner — who considered it nothing short of a travesty, an evisceration of the Vietnam War for its own dramatic purposes. Each opinion contradicts the other, but both are valid.
An especially good contribution is Robert Pippin’s Vernacular Metaphysics (“On Terrence’s Malick’s The Thin Red Line”) – one of two chapters devoted to Malick’s 1998 adaptation of James Jones’s best-selling novel – in which the author, an avowed Malick admirer, not only conveys what he likes about the movie but also conveys precisely, which remarkable insight, what the film’s detractors (including yours truly) dislike about it.
It was almost enough to make me want to revisit the film. Almost, but not quite. Maybe I’ll just re-read that chapter instead.