Thursday, 31 December 2015

War Movie Week: Full Metal Jacket (Vietnam)

There are few directors who have shown quite a fascination with war as Stanley Kubrick. Spielberg might be a worthwhile contender (having made at least three World War II movies plus films about World War I and the American Civil War), but Kubrick seems to constantly return to criticize it. In Fear and Desire he emphasized that war was not black and white. In Paths of Glory he showed the pointlessness of war. In Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb he used dark humour to draw attention to the absurdity of Cold War politics. 

His last war film was Full Metal Jacket, which once again criticises Vietnam, this time by exploring the subject of dehumanization. To do this, Kubrick splits the film into two halves. The better-known of these segments is the first, which depicts the means by which the army turns ordinary people into killers. The second sees the end result of this training once the soldiers are on the battlefield, and explores the question of whether it is possible for a soldier to maintain their humanity. In both cases, Kubrick becomes very critical of the Vietnam War, but unlike his previous efforts, focuses primarily not so much on the politics, but on how it changes those who fight.

The theme of dehumanizing soldiers is first represented in the film's opening montage, which cuts between several close-up shots of the faces of new recruits as they each receive a haircut. Though they look different at first, the men are each getting their hair cut to look exactly the same. From what is visible, each of them begin with a distinct hairstyle, but are changed to display the same crew cut. The montage ends with a final shot emphasizing a pile of hair scattered around the floor of the room, presumably from the different men that have been shown. 

This is a detail often ommitted from war films, even those that deal with basic training (G.I. Jane being one of the few exceptions), but Kubrick dedicates the entire beginning to the haircuts. This is because it marks the first stage of the dehumanization that will progress throughout the rest of the film. The cutting of the hair represents the removal of each person's identity. Whoever they once were, they now have no choice but to become soldiers and to adapt to their new circumstances. Showing the pile of hair reminds the viewer of who these soldiers once were, and how they are now being changed due to circumstances beyond their control.

With the stage set for the transformation, the actual process can begin. This is the role of Drill Instructor Gunnery Sgt. Hartman (R. Lee Ermey, himself a former drill sergeant who has since made a career out of yelling at people). Hartman is quick to bring this to the forefront. His first speech to the recruits consists of him telling them they are not even "human beings" as far as he is concerned. He claims not to discriminate because they "are all equally worthless" and proceeds to use a variety of insults, which include regularly calling the recruits "ladies" as well as a variety of racist and homophobic slurs. 

This being Vietnam, probably in the late 1960's, referring to the recruits as "ladies" would have been an appropriate insult for the era (the U.S. Marine Corps has only just begun accepting women). Similarly, the racist and homophobic slurs used by Hartman would have still been in common use by Americans, many of whom were racist, sexist, and homophobic. Hartman is simply taking advantage of common prejudices of the era. He equates his perception of the recruits to a conservative view of blacks and homosexuals. In other words, he is using common prejudices to make the recruits feel less human.

Hartman also emphasizes the idea of dehumanization by giving each of the major characters a nickname. Among them are "Cowboy" (Arliss Howard), "Gomer Pyle" (Vincent D'Onofrio) and "Joker" (Matthew Modine). All three characters are referred to almost exclusively by these nicknames, with very little regard for their actual names. Once again, Hartman is forcing them to change to adapt to the war, and to conform to his standards. Indeed, conformity remains a central theme throughout the first segment, with a prominent emphasis on the recruits as a collective group rather than focusing on a specific individual.

Joker and Pyle are really the only two recruits given any real development as characters, though Cowboy is given more depth in the second half. That said, it is still obvious that the viewer is aligned with the recruits, especially these two. While Hartman may be a memorable role, part of his effect is that he is alienated from the viewer. While the film shows the everyday routines of Joker and Pyle, the audience never gets to know Hartman as a person. Every one of his appearances consists of him performing his job as an instructor, and even when shown in pyjamas, he never takes off his distinct hat.

By contrast, Pyle is constantly isolated from the other recruits. Hartman singles him out on the first day of training, and as the film progresses, shots are often composed to draw the audience's gaze towards him. One shot that appears repeatedly consists of showing the recruits engaging in a training exercise on one side, with Pyle on the other in an embarrassing position. This is notable in one sequence where a group of marines are seen marching along a path in unison, before Pyle is shown several metres away, with his cap on backwards, his pants dropped, his thumb in his mouth, and his rifle backwards.

Hartman expands on this idea further in one notable scene, during which he conducts and inspection of the barracks. He passes several recruits with only a few minor insults before stopping at Pyle and opening his footlocker. Inside, he finds a jelly doughnut, drags Pyle into the front centre of the room (between two rows of his fellow recruits). He proceeds to use Pyle as an example, and marches back and forth displaying the doughnut, which he holds at arm's length as though he is disgusted by it. He also introduces a new tactic: punishing the other recruits for Pyle's mistakes, making them resent him and thus forcing him to improve.

The only other character given any prominent focus during this portion is Joker, who is fitting in much better with the marines, if not perfectly. From what is seen, he appears to be a decent man when given the chance. This is notable in his relationship to Pyle, as he is the one recruit to attempt to assist him. Pyle is obviously unfit to be serving in the military (given the timeframe, it is easily possible he was drafted) and fails to learn under Hartman. His one-on-one sessions with Joker prove more effective in teaching him. However, Hartman is succeeding in his task of making Pyle into a killer.

This dehumanization can be seen throughout this montage and the various actions that occur during training. One early scene shows Hartman instructing the recruits to sleep with their rifles. He instructs them to give their rifle "a girl's name" with the idea that they are married to their gun. Hartman justifies this by claiming that, in his words, "this is the only pussy you are going to get." Hartman is instructing them to get attached to their rifles by treating them as a lover, thus becoming more acquainted with the idea of killing another person. It is a gradual process, but slowly each of the men are being turned into fighting machines.

This segment of the film ends with the recruits graduating and becoming marines. Hartman delivers a motivational speech about how the marines will serve their country and how even those who die will live on through the continuing success of the Marine Corps. Unfortunately, this optimistic moment is ended by the famous wash-room sequence, which set up the ideas explored in the second half of the film. During this scene, Joker is tasked with guarding the barracks during his last night before getting deployed, and finds Pyle in the officer's lavatory. It is here we get to see what Pyle has become as a result of Hartman's training.

Pyle has become a killer. He displays everything he has learned as a marine, but he is far from a soldier following orders. He begins talking to his rifle, as Hartman has instructed him to do, but also performs several gestures and military calls that he has learned. He even recites the pledge about his rifle. Hartman's methods have worked too well, and Pyle has become an uncontrollable killer. Hartman tries to bring him back under his control but ends up getting himself killed doing so. This moment serves to motivate the second half, in which we see what happens when killers are placed in the field. These are not soldiers, but murderers. Ideology and politics are nothing more than an excuse at best, and all they can really understand is killing.

The second half centres on the actual conflict in Vietnam., and focuses more prominently on Joker. He has presumably been there for some time, but instead of taking a front line job as a marine he has signed on to be a journalist. These scenes, which focus on his relationship to fellow journalist Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard), allow a glimpse of an outsider's perspective on the war. The newspaper is heavily censored, only running stories that put the American military in a positive light. There is frequent talk of how the Americans are trying to "help" the Vietnamese people, who are repeatedly criticized for not wanting outside assistance. 

This newspaper represents conservatives like John Wayne, the co-director of the earlier propaganda film The Green Berets. In fact, there is a very similar thought process going through the minds of the newspaper staff to what that which went into the making of The Green Berets, doing everything they can to make the army look good and convince people to support their efforts. Rafterman remains optimistic, while Joker is cynical, but both are assigned to accompany a platoon into the field. Rafterman in this case starts as an optimistic and even patriotic individual who is forced to see the reality of war, a bleak reversal of the George Beckworth character in The Green Berets.

It is once in the field that the reality becomes clearer. Once the soldiers are actually in the field, politics and ideology are left behind. All that remains is their instincts of kill or be killed. None of the soldiers they meet display any real sense of patriotism. In fact, one soldier, given the strange nickname of "Animal Mother" (Adam Baldwin of Firefly fame), openly calls out Rafterman for thinking in such a way. Animal Mother is depicted as a total psychopath, who seems to simply enjoy killing VC. The same can also be said for the Door Gunner Joker speaks to, who apparently delights in gunning down random people. These are people who, back home, would be seen as dangerous criminals, yet here they are allowed to roam free.

Joker is made to constantly stand out during this second half. He is locked in a tough psychological struggle to retain his humanity. This is symbolized by his wardrobe, which is called out by several characters. His helmet contains the words "born to kill" and yet he also wears a peace sign on his combat vest. He justifies this by saying it represents "the duality of man" or more accurately his own struggle to adapt to the environment of Vietnam. These details represent different sides of his personality, and his struggle to reconcile both.

As Joker travels with these soldiers, he finds himself witnessing the true horrors of war. His own transformation occurs, however, during the film's climax. Here, the marines find themselves faced with a sniper. At this point, rational thought and ethics are abandoned as the soldiers let themselves be consumed by their own emotions. Two of their own are shot and wounded, and even after Cowboy (who is currently in charge) figures out what the sniper is trying to do (drawing the soldiers out one at a time) and tries to respond appropriately, they become increasingly determined to overcome their unseen enemy, and Cowboy ends up having no choice but to follow him, which in turn leads to his death.

Eventually, the Sniper is revealed to be a young girl. She is shot by Rafterman and confronted by the other marines. It is here that Joker completes the shift in character he began in the film's opening montage. The sniper is wounded, and pleads to be shot, but Animal Mother opts to leave her behind. Joker, still clinging to a sense of right and wrong, tries to make a moral judgement, but ends up instead opting to perform a mercy killing. While Joker has handled a gun on numerous occasions, this scene marks the first time he has actually killed someone. Joker is now officially a killer.

This is shown in the movie's strange and enigmatic final scene, where the soldiers march through a battlefield singing the Mickey Mouse Club March, during which Joker can be seen as one of many soldiers. In a voiceover Joker admits that he is only glad to be alive, even if he is living in the middle of Vietnam. He has become a killer. The politics and ideologies that motivated the Vietnam War are irrelevant. All he is concerned about is his own survival, and all he understands is fighting the enemy. This completes the ideas of dehumanization that have been set up from the beginning.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

War Movie Week: Saving Private Ryan (World War II)

Steven Spielberg's 1998 film Saving Private Ryan marks his third film to cover the events of World War II (Spielberg had previously visited this subject in Empire of the Sun and Schindler's List). Unlike his previous efforts, which focused on the impact the war made on civilians, Saving Private Ryan puts the viewer straight onto the front lines and into the heat of combat. From the famous Omaha Beach sequence that sets the story in motion to the desperate last stand that marks its conclusion, this is a story about soldiers, and their experiences in the field.

It is a curious film in that regard, as it is hard to firmly label Saving Private Ryan as a pro-war film in the vein of Bataan or The Green Berets, or an anti-war film like Paths of Glory. It is not hard to see inspiration from both sides. The entire structure of the film's narrative, which centres around the camaraderie between a diverse group of men with an emphasis on heroics, is easily lifted from the World War II combat films produced in Hollywood during the 1940's. On the other hand, the harsh battle sequences could easily have drawn from the likes of Paths of Glory. There is a patriotic tone to the overall movie, which is even bracketed by a shot of an American flag, but at the same time there seems to be something else.

There is definitely a sense that the film intends the viewer to respect the soldiers, but it is worth noting that Saving Private Ryan makes no effort to cover up the horrors of war. The famous Omaha Beach sequence has no trouble emphasizing the thousands of American soldiers who don't survive. There are even realistic depictions of gunshot wounds, and many of them are obviously scared even before the Normandy invasion begins, and when they are being shot at, many of them are more concerned about their immediate survival than ultimately winning the war.

While the focus is purely on the American military (nothing is shown of the Canadians or Brits who also participated in the D-Day invasion), it is hardly glorified. In fact, Saving Private Ryan seems to deliberately emphasize that World War II was not black and white. Most of the few enemy soldiers depicted are shown to be frightened human beings not much different from the Americans. The Americans are also shown to not be above committing war crimes, as is evident when after taking Normandy they proceed to execute soldiers who are obviously trying to surrender and even joke about it.

Even the one German who directly confronts any of the Americans, credited as "Steamboat Willie" (Joerg Stadler) is obviously just a man following orders. When he survives their raid on his machine gun nest, he is simply scared for his life and begs to spared. He is also clearly nervous when he is forced to dig graves, and knows the implications of being forced to do so. This is just an ordinary man trying to survive, not much different from any of the American soldiers. It is true that he later shows up at the end of the film and shoots Captain Miller, but this is likely nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence.

Of course, Saving Private Ryan is not completely anti-war. Spielberg obviously made this film with the intent of respecting fallen soldiers, and there is a sense of victory (if at a cost) which emerges at the end. The war is hardly glorified, but it does appear to suggest at least America's participation was not unjustified, and that good did come out of it. This makes it a curious experience to watch, as Spielberg seems to be intent on showing both sides of the war, the good and bad.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

War Movie Week: Paths of Glory (World War I)

Stanley Kubrick has something of a reputation for his criticisms of war. Across his entire body of work, the themes of war's dehumanization and its pointlessness recur. These included his very first feature film Fear and Desire, as well as his later dark comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and his Vietnam War movie Full Metal Jacket, but nowhere is that more clear than the film that first established Kubrick as an auteur, Paths of Glory.

While Kubrick criticized war in many of his films, none were quite so direct nor so bleak as his simple but effective vision of World War I, which highlights the pointlessness and futility of war. In its own day, Paths of Glory sparked a huge controversy upon release. It was banned in France due to its negative treatment of the French military, and Germany to maintain positive relations with France. Even several decades after its initial release, Paths of Glory is often considered one of the most effective anti-war film.

It is fitting that Kubrick should explore such themes by choosing one of the most pointless conflicts to have ever occurred in human history. World War I was the unfortunate end of over a decade of political tensions and imperialist desires that only needed a final spark to be put into action. That came in the form of the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which provoked a war with Syria and caused a chain reaction that led to half of Europe being engulfed in the conflict.

This was a war like no human being had ever seen, especially with the then-radical weapons it produced such as tanks. It also marked the first time air planes were used in combat. When it first broke out, there was an optimistic attitude among the public. Men were pressured to enlist or else be labelled as "cowards" by their peers. In 1914, they were promised a glorious battle that would end before Christmas. In reality those who were not killed within moments of their first exposure to combat would have to endure four harsh years living in the miserable conditions of their trenches while the generals remained safe behind the lines.

Many of these generals were not accostomed to this new kind of warfare. They had their roots in the very different world of the Victorian Era, and were attempting to adapt tactics that had become long obsolete. While they tried to plan for their own gain, men were fighting and dying on the front lines for small patches of land. The lucky ones were those who could live miserably in trenches. The less fortunate Canadians who fought at the Battle of Passchendale lacked even the cover of trenches, and had no choice but to fight in and risk drowning in deep mud.

To add insult to injury, there was also the Treaty of Versailles which ended the war. This "treaty" consisted of delegates from England, France, and Russia (all of whom were on the same side) meeting and deciding that someone had to be blamed for the war, and it was decided that Germany was responsible. This subsequently led to a series of decisions that would bankrupt the German economy, a factor that twenty years later would unwittingly contribute to setting the stage for World War II.

Paths of Glory is hardly subtle about its bleak view of the war. Right from the beginning there is an obvious divide between the generals who give the orders, and the men who carry them out. The opening scene sees two generals discussing a plan to take "The Anthill" (a heavily fortified German position). General Mireau (George Macready) initially claims to care about his soldiers, but as he speaks with General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) the two of them quickly become interested in taking the Anthill at all costs.

Mireau continues to maintain the illusion of concern by visiting the trench. When Mireau addresses the soldiers, he identifies several as "good" men before approaching one man who is irresponsive (Fred Bell). The man in question is suffering from a psychological condition that has long affected soldiers in combat. There are documented cases of this particular condition happening at least as early as the American Civil War, but it was not until World War I that it was given a name: "Shell shock." Today the same condition is understood as post-traumatic stress disorder. It often affects survivors of traumatic or life-threatening experiences, often but not always associated with returning soldiers.

Unfortunately, during World War I, such an understanding was not in place. Psychology was still in its earliest stages, dominated largely by Sigmund Freud's original concept of psychoanalysis (which, while not completely obsolete, is far more complicated than he realized). PTSD, or "shell-shock" as it was still known, was seen as nothing short of a sign of cowardice. This is brought up in the film when Mireau encounters one such case, denies that "shell shock" exists, and then orders a sergeant to have "this baby" transferred from the unit. He and another officer go on to discuss the potential danger of soldiers with PSTD "contaminating" the rest of the unit.

It is here that he meets Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) and briefs him on the mission. The two of them feign respect, but there is already a clear split. Mireau's bright and shiny uniform serves as a sharp contrast to the dirty fatigues worn by the soldiers in the trench. The earlier confrontations have already established that the respect these two men share is nothing more than an illusions. The General is merely interested in the possibility of a promotion, while Dax actually understands the reality of the war.

It is worth noting that little is shown of the Anthill. The viewer only catches a brief glimpse from a distance, during which only the basic structure is seen. The film refrains from showing a single enemy soldier. This seems like a curious choice, but it is also quite fitting. By showing so little of the Anthill, it becomes much harder to see why the Generals are so obsessed with it. This therefore puts the viewer in the shoes of the soldiers, who will soon be ordered to attack it without any real understanding of what will be accomplished by doing so.

Even Mireau barely seems to think much of the Anthill. He discusses it as little more than a property to be obtained. When briefing Dax, he goes on to casually recite percentages of how many soldiers he thinks will die as though he were merely calculating prices for real estate. It is obvious that he does not care as much about his soldiers as he would like them to think. He envisions them as being brave warriors, with one of his officers even claiming that his visits to the trench improve morale. The reality is exactly the opposite, the soldiers are human beings who are afraid of being killed in action. In 1916, after the high casualties of  conflicts like Vimy Ridge and Passchendale, this would hardly an unjustified feeling.

There are two major sequences that depict No Man's Land, the barren wasteland that divides the two sides of World War I, both of which continue to highlight problems within the military. In the first of these two, a group of three soldiers embark on a reconnaissance mission. They are led by Lieutenant Roget, who makes no secret of the fact that he has been drinking. This mission is a disaster. Their efforts results in Roget throwing a grenade and accidentally killing one of his own men. When the other surviving soldier, Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker) calls Roget out on this, the latter pulls rank in order to press the former into keeping quiet, and he even goes as far as to falsify a report to deny any mistakes.

Roget may be a man on the battlefield, but he is still an officer, and already he is foreshadowing the very same attitudes the viewer will soon come to recognize in the generals. Roget has no concern for the war, he is merely looking out for himself. Instead of taking responsibility for the accidental death of a fellow scout, he opts to cover up any trace that the incident happened at all. Roget is merely trying to protect his own image by falsifying his report and denying his incompetence, much as Mireau will do on a larger scale later in the film. In other words, he is a coward.

The second of these two sequences is the actual battle. This particular sequence was very daring for its time, and was likely an inspiration for many later iconic battle sequences such as the famous Omaha Beach sequence that opens Saving Private Ryan. The sequence begins with Dax marching through the trenches before he climbs a ladder and blows a whistle, a signal for the soldiers to move. Unfortunately, the battle quickly descends into total chaos. The focus is purely on Dax, making it hard to tell precisely what is going on in the overall battle.

Even Dax himself quickly gets lost. When he finds himself back in the trenches, he makes a desperate attempt to lead the soldiers out, but this proves impossible due to the enemy's heavy fire. Dax is doing as he is instructed, giving his best effort, and still General Mireau is furious. Mireau becomes increasingly desperate. From the safety of his bunker, Mireau watches the battle and complains that several of his men are still in the trenches (because the enemy's guns are making it impossible to leave).  The general is desperate to avoid failure, he even goes as far as to order artillery Captain Rousseau (John Stein) to fire on his soldiers in an effort to force them out of the trenches. When Rousseau refuses, Mireau threatens him with execution by firing squad.

He then demands that 100 soldiers be court-martialed for "cowardice in the face of the enemy." Ironically, this reluctance to admit to his mistake confirms that Mireau himself is indeed a coward who do anything to protect his reputation. At this point, the trenches are left behind and the rest of the film becomes about the court-martial. Generals Mireau and Broulard casually discuss the situation over dinner with Dax present. Both generals seem to maintain that "cowardice" was shown by the soldiers and that someone has got to pay the price. Broulard has no concern about the fact that someone is to face execution so much as he is about making sure that they execute just the right amount of people to have their intended effect. The two generals show a complete lack of understanding of what has actually been happening on the battlefield with their desire to "maintain discipline."

It is also obvious that the court martial is rigged. The outcome is clearly decided in advance. It was only a formality that Dax was even permitted to make an attempt to defend the three soldiers who are finally selected as the accused. None of these men have done anything to warrant execution by firing squad. It is implied that Paris was selected by Roget to prevent him from testifying about the latter's actions during the scouting mission. Arnaud (Joe Turkel) is chosen by lottery, and any effort to point out he has been commended twice for bravery is ignored by the court. The last man, Ferol (Timothy Carey), is only chosen by his commanding officer because he is a "social undesirable."

When the "trial" begins, it becomes clear that the prosecution is ready to do anything to find the defendants guilty. The three men relate their experiences in the taking of the Anthill, all of which are distorted to make them sound like cowards. Dax is quick to question each of them and note that this was not in fact the case. Of the three men, one only turned back because he was alone and had no chance of taking the Anthill, one only managed to get part of the way out of the trench before he was forced back in, and one was knocked unconscious after another soldier was shot and fell on top of him.

All of these accounts are dismissed by the judge (Peter Capell) with Dax as the only one who is able to call them out on the pointlessness of this trial. It is obvious that this is a hopeless case, and that the officers overseeing it are merely acting under Mireau's orders. Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird had a better chance of convincing the jury than Dax has with all his years of legal experience. The men are subsequently sentenced to firing squad, a sentence that remains even after one of them is injured and fractures their skull.

Amidst the hopelessness, Dax is able to get one small emotional victory against the selfish officers. He does this by confronting Roget, whose actions he now knows thanks to Paris. Instead of directly accusing Roget, Dax feigns ignorance and instead gives him a special responsibility: putting him in charge of the firing squad. This may seem counter-intuitive to his goals, but there is a good reason for Dax to make this choice. Immediately upon being given this responsibility, Roget tries to get out of it. In other words, he does not care about the fact that one of his men is being executed to preserve his image, he just doesn't want to be the one to kill him. Placing Roget in charge is Dax's small way of exposing the hypocrisy of the generals, and his way of confirming that his officer is indeed a coward. Being forced to face the task of shooting one of his own is the price Roget must pay to escape the consequences of his actions.

There is a small grain of hope that emerges once Dax learns that Mireau ordered the artillery to fire on his soldiers. This was a detail that Mireau had largely aimed to suppress, even dismissing Rousseau's earlier attempt to testify and covering it up as a "shell shortage." Dax is able to get statements and brings them to General Broulard, hoping that exposing Mireau will free his men. Unfortunately, the desired last-minute reprieve fails to arrive. This small glimmer of hope fails to prevent the execution, and instead becomes a final means of exposing the generals as hypocritical cowards.

Broulard had the ability to stop the execution. He had the proof that Mireau had ordered his artillery to fire on his own soldiers, and could have saved the lives of the three soldiers, but does not take it. Instead, Dax finds Mireau and Broulard eating a large dinner and talking about how well the execution went. Mireau boasts that the men "died well" to Dax's irritation. It is only now that Broulard decides to use Dax's information against Mireau, but his only concern is the one specific action. Broulard shows little concern for the people who have just been killed.

It is in this conversation that the hypocrisy of the generals is finally exposed. Mireau accuses Broulard of betraying him, declaring himself "the only innocent man in this entire affair," as well as trying to deny his actions on the battlefield, this coming from the man who is let three innocent people die to preserve his reputation. Broulard is hardly better, missing the point of what Dax has been trying to do by cheerfully offering to let him replace Mireau. It then becomes clear that Broulard sees Dax no differently than Mireau; a wealthy officer looking to advance his status. Dax finally takes this moment to call out Broulard, who goes on to ask what he has done wrong.

This final question quickly catches the attention of both Dax and the audience. Broulard acts as though nothing has happened. This man could have easily saved the lives of three innocent men, and apparently never even considered it. This insane obliviousness is pointed out by Dax upon hearing the general ask what he did wrong: "If you don't know the answer to that question, than I pity you." Everything that has happened has been pointless. Nothing of any value has been accomplished by anyone, just as the entirety of World War I itself, and war in general, often proves to be nothing more than people forced to kill each other for nothing.

This in turn leads to the movie's final scene, which presents the closest thing the viewer will see to an enemy soldier. During these famous last moments, a group of soldiers are gathered in a small tavern where a performer brings out a German (Christiane Harlan, Kubrick's future wife),  for them to see. She is not a soldier of any kind, merely a frightened civilian caught up in the war against her will. It is obvious that she does not want to be here, yet the men express great joy and excitement upon seeing her. She is pressed into singing, and performs a song in German. This is not a glamorous performance. She is obviously scared as she sings, and performs alone, with no musical accompaniment.

Instead, music is created by the humming of the soldiers as they listen to her performance. One by one, their tone changes, and some of them begin crying. This brief but memorable sequence shows definitively that the nation that has been labelled the enemy is made up of human beings, no different from any of the soldiers present, who are all regular people stuck in a war they do not understand. This final scene shows just how pointless the whole war is, even giving the men present a moment of self-realization as they come to recognize themselves as not being much different from the frightened young woman in front of them.

There is a reason Paths of Glory has gained such a reputation as an anti-war film. It is a movie whose messages of the futility of war still hold up effectively today. World War I may be over, but these same messages are still relevant to the numerous other conflicts that have continued over the years. In the end, war is pointless. It involves innocent people being forced to kill each other for reasons they do not understand, and in the end nothing is accomplished.

Introducing War Movie Week

So I'm trying to get back into things at the moment. To do this, I was thinking that some sort of little project that could keep me occupied would be a good start, so I've decided on a theme. Right now, we're coming out of the Christmas break, and that is often a time associated with joy, happiness, and peace. So naturally what better choice than to focus on the exact opposite, which would be war? Over the course of the week, I will be randomly picking out a selection of war films from my collection. Each day I'll be discussing a different film related to a different conflict.

In order to better add a level of simultaneous suspense and uncertainty. I am incorporating a system in how I choose which movies I'll be covering. For each day, I'll be covering a different time period. I have a definite schedule for which days correspond to each era, but the actual war film will be selected at random each day. This means that even I have no idea what films we'll be hearing about. All I can do is provide a list of the theme for each day. Here is the full schedule for the week:

Tuesday: World War I

Wednesday: World War II

Thursday: Vietnam

Friday: Modern Warfare

For each day, the films will be randomly selected from my collection. In that sense, even I don't know for sure what each one is going to be other than the basic timeframe it will cover. I've already picked out my World War I film, but I don't know what will be covered for World War II, Vietnam, or Modern Warfare just yet. Feel free to let me know what you think of my choices in the comments, or to recommend any war films based on the above categories. I can't promise I'll be able to take your recommendations for this challenge, but it might give me some things to keep an eye out for.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Vietnam and the Green Berets

The Green Beret is a title commonly applied to a country's special forces, named for the distinctive green beret that is used to distinguish them from general infantry. These are specially trained soldiers, men and women who are called in when the regular army is not good enough to do the job. This title has been around for some time, though it is most commonly used in relation to the American military. Until very recently it was also a role reserved exclusively for men, and very few at that. Winning a green beret is a very definitive sign of respect in the military.

They were also the subject of the 1968 film, The Green Berets, a film that stands as something of a relic of a bygone era. While not a great film, and one that contemporary audiences would largely disagree with, it it historically significant for the simple reason that it is one of the only films made to make any effort to support the Vietnam War. It is hardly subtle about this intention, and its political views are very obvious when seen today. Even at the time of its release, audiences did not take kindly to it, the likely reason why it is more or less the only propaganda film made during the period.

The Green Berets was far from America's first attempt at using film to create propaganda. John Wayne had already starred in numerous World War II films that were made to support America's entry into the conflict. When he agreed to co-direct The Green Berets, he structured it very much like one of those old combat films. Far from his public image as an idealist, Wayne was a conservative who strongly advocated America's entry into Vietnam. Unfortunately, he failed to keep up with a changing society.

Unlike the early propaganda films of World War II, The Green Berets was made in a very different social climate. This was a period of intense distrust of the American government, brought on by a variety of events, but one of the biggest factors in this distrust was America's controversial decision to enter the Vietnam War, a conflict it could have avoided being part of entirely if not for Cold War paranoia. There were massive protests against this war, and distrust only increased when one such protest rally at Kent State University ended in an authorized mass shooting. It also didn't help that the actual atrocities of Vietnam were publicly televised.

While John Wayne may have been behind with regards to what would be most effective, he was clearly influenced by this growing distrust in the government. In many ways The Green Berets attempts, very unsubtly, to present a counter-argument to protests against Vietnam. Wayne even went as far as to request full military co-operation from President Lyndon Johnson himself, and received it. This is reflected in large part by the character of George Beckworth (David Janssen), a journalist who serves as a representation of the left (or at least how the right wing perceives the left).

Beckworth is depicted as a misguided individual who would fully support America's involvement in the war if he could just understand why they're fighting. This is brought up in the opening scene, where he, alongside several other journalists, voices several arguments against the war. Many of these are points that would be considered valid today, but the film attempts to thoroughly resist. When told that America has no business in Vietnam, Master Sergeant Muldoon (Aldo Ray) responds by displaying various forms of "captured weaponry" that he displays as evidence of communist activity. According to Muldoon, the presence of Russian, Chinese, and Czechoslovakian guns constitutes irrefutable evidence that those countries are assisting the Viet Cong.

Another argument is thrown out to the skeptical journalists during this scene: that there are attrocities being committed by the Viet Cong which must be stopped. He attempts to emphasize this point by suggesting a hypothetical scenario where similar activities (or at least, what the makers of this film think is going on in Vietnam) happened in America. Beckworth, not unjustifiably, continues to remain skeptical, but eventually agrees to go to Vietnam himself.

Upon arriving, he is initially dismissed by Col. Kirby (John Wayne), being told their current operation is too dangerous for civilians to be present. This prompts Beckworth, not unjustly, to consider the possibility that military censorship is in place, and the army is keeping him from seeing anything that might put them in a bad light. When he suggests this, Kirby immediately agrees. Beckworth then spends the rest of the film gradually coming around to recognizing the supposed justification of the war.

Already, one can see how this film is intending to convey its Pro-Vietnam messages. It's doing everything possible to make America look good. Beckworth's sub-plot already serves as an attempt to deny that any censorship is being used to make the army look good, when in fact, the opposite was, and to an extent still is, true (this side of the war would later be examined in Good Morning, Vietnam). It is when Beckworth explains that his newspaper objects to the war that Kirby agrees to let him accompany the Green Berets in their mission, this being the film's way of trying to state that the American government is honest about everything that they are doing.

The film also attempts to emphasize this by making the Vietnamese appear much more welcoming of American assistance than they actually were. Much like the Japanese soldiers of World War II combat films, the VC are stripped of any humanity. Nothing is said of their political motivations or their ultimate goals beyond the implication that it is linked to the (alleged) spread of communism. Instead, they are depicted as nothing more than bloodthirsty savages who commit atrocities against the Vietnamese and need to be eradicated.

The South Vietnamese are is naturally depicted as being on good terms with Americans. Colonel Cai (Jack Woo), a Vietnamese officer, is quick to explain the situation to Kirby, offering a briefing that makes it sound as though the joint-American and South Vietnamese forces are winning. He mentions that the camp that has been established "make big surprise for VC" and seems to imply the only reason it is vulnerable is because it is not yet finished.

At the camp, the South Vietnamese soldiers are seen working alongside Americans as equals, and the film also tries to claim there is a humanitarian aspect to the war. They are shown to be housing South Vietnamese refugees, with an emphasis on a young orphan boy named "Ham Chuck" (Craig Jue) whom the film makes use of as a source of emotion. In addition to this, the film also depicts children being given medical examinations and a village willingly agreeing to be taken by the Americans.

Later on, the Green Berets arrive at the same village to find it massacred by the VC, complete with a sign condemning the Green Berets. The chief of the village has been killed, most of the men have been forcibly recruited into the Viet Cong, and it is implied that a little girl was murdered simply for being treated by Americans. With hindsight, this dark scene calls to mind an anecdote spoken by Colonel Kurtz (also a former Green Beret) in Apocalypse Now, released 11 years after The Green Berets, in which he describes something similar:

I remember when I was with Special Forces. Seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate the children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for Polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn't see. We went back there and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember... I... I... I cried. I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out. I didn't know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget. And then I realized... like I was shot... like I was shot with a diamond... a diamond bullet right through my forehead.

This resemblance is interesting to note, considering Apocalypse Now had very much the opposite tone of The Green Berets. Coppola's film was much more cynical in nature. The above-quoted anecdote describes a similar scenario to what the viewer glimpses the aftermath of in The Green Berets, the implied massacring by the VC of innocents purely because they received American medical attention. It is, however, used very differently in both films. Kurtz's anecdote serves as a glimpse into his mind, one that has come to understand the true insanity of war. This quote offers a brief but crucial moment to see just how a person can be changed by war.

The Green Berets downplays the psychological effect of such a moment. The only people who display any obvious trauma are the victims. Beckworth is also noticeably affected, largely because he realizes the little girl he'd bonded with a day earlier has been murdered. For Kurtz, a moment like this would contribute to his mental decline, but Beckworth reacts differently. Instead, this is treated as motivation for his character, an indication that perhaps America's role in Vietnam is not wholly unjustified. Once again, this serves an obvious function, dehumanizing the Viet Cong in order to make their annihilation seem more justified.

Nearly all of the soldiers depicted in the film are also shown to be patriots who believe in their cause, and many seem bizarrely enthusiastic about being here (most notably the engineers, who smile and crack jokes even while under fire). We never see any members of the cast who are merely soldiers following orders. Nobody ever expresses fear, only firm confidence, and the soldiers who die or get injured are treated as heroes or, in the case of Petersen (Jim Hutton), further incentive to keep fighting. There is always a sense that the soldiers are dying for a cause, at the very least being able to take a large number of VC with them.

One amusing example of this is the heavy weapons specialist Sgt. Provo (Luke Askew), who not only volunteers to join Kirby (for the sole reason that he has not already been chosen) but early on becomes intrigued when he realizes the Americans have a tendency to name things after fallen soldiers. He then becomes worried, not because of the possibility that he could be killed in action, but because he can't think of anything that would sound good with his name on it if he dies. Even Kirby is confused by this at first. Later on, when the camp is attacked by VC, Provo is fatally wounded, and he still shows no obvious concerns about the fact that he is going to die. He instead uses his final moments to tell Kirby that he finally figured out what his name could fit with (Provo's Privy).

This characterization is certainly at odds with later Vietnam War films, many of which are far more critical of America's entry into the war and could be seen as a more accurate representation of what really happened. Apocalypse Now offers a fitting comparison, given one of its most important characters, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), is also a Green Beret. In fact, from what is indicated, he might at one point not have been all that much different from Colonel Kirby. He is established as a decorated soldier who believed in his cause. In fact, he still does, so much so that the American military has to send someone to kill him because he is making them look bad.

Kurtz can therefore be seen as another side of Kirby's character, that which is not masked by a conservative agenda. Kurtz has seen the horrors of war, perhaps things far worse over his entire career than what the soldiers of The Green Berets see in their two missions. It is obvious that these things have affected his mind, and changed him as a person. Taking this into account, he could easily be seen as something of a future Colonel Kirby. Kirby is the man he once was: the ideal, patriotic, heroic American, but the Kurtz is how he was shaped by the reality of war.

Kurtz is also not the only green beret to be featured in Apocalypse Now. The protagonist, Captain Benjamin L. Willard, is also established to have served in special forces. He is very much the exact opposite of Colonel Kirby. Much like Kurtz, he has been changed by his experiences in the war, something The Green Berets is reluctant to detail. Willard is likely suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychological condition that often affects soldiers, and if he ever had any sense of patriotism, it has been lost. He willingly takes on a dangerous mission, but only does so as a distraction, without any consideration towards whether it would benefit the fight against communism.

The film's depiction of the war is also much more cynical than that of The Green Berets. There are no true heroes in combat. None of the characters get to die as heroes. The sudden death of Tyrone "Clean" Miller (Lawrence Fishbourne) is seen as nothing more than a horrible tragedy. Chief (Albert Hall) dies attempting unsuccessfully to take Willard with him. Chef (Frederic Forrest) is decapitated by Kurtz outside of military jurisdiction, and used as a mere tool to convey a message to Willard. Kurtz himself knows this well, and merely tries instead to find an honorable way to die, making sure that Willard kills him like a soldier.

By this point in the film, the politics behind the Vietnam War are more or less forgotten. Where The Green Berets places the goal of stopping the VC front and center, Apocalypse Now opts instead to let that aspect of the war fade over the course of Willard's journey. It is notable at the beginning, but there is a gradual destruction of social order that occurs. Kilgore does a good job fighting the VC, but the pleasure he gains out of destroying their villages leaves one to question his sanity. By the time Willard reaches Do Lung Bridge, it is complete disorganized chaos. Soldiers are firing blind in the dark at an unseen army, and nobody even seems to be in charge. Past the bridge, both armies and their politics are left behind, and the jungle itself becomes a character.

There is no way John Wayne would have permitted such an aesthetic choice in The Green Berets. He wanted the politics to remain front and center, and for the film's ending to inspire the audience to go enlist in the army.This comes up at the very end through the character of Ham Chuck, a Vietnamese boy who becomes a center of emotion. He is an orphan, but has a friend in the form of a dog and a father figure in the form of Petersen. Already, the war has taken most of what he has, and by the end of the film is has claimed those last two things. His dog is killed during the raid on the camp, and Petersen dies ironically before he would have had a chance to see him again.

As the choppers return at the end of the film, Ham Chuck begins searching each of them desperately for Petersen, and is distraught when he is unable to find him in any of them. This leads to a conversation between him and Colonel Kirby during which the latter tries to comfort him by stating that Petersen was brave, and letting Ham Chuck keep his friend's green beret. Ham Chuck then asks what is going to happen to him now, to which Kirby replies "You just let me worry about that, Green Beret, you're what this thing's all about" before the two walk off into the sunset. The expected reaction is obvious: the viewer is supposed to be motivated to join the army in order to help kids like Ham Chuck and stop the evil actions of the VC.

Understandably, upon its release, The Green Berets was not well-received by audiences who were seeing the actual horrors of Vietnam on television. It would mark the last of only two attempts at directing by Wayne (the first being his earlier western The Alamo) and its reputation has hardly changed since. It is a film that is still often looked down upon for the precise reason that it tries to justify America's entry into the Vietnam War. Even in its own time, it was a dated relic of a bygone era, made for an audience that had changed since World War II.

It also does not help that it compares unfavorably to how the war actually developed. The Green Berets ends on an optimistic note, with the implication of an eventual triumph. In reality, America's entry into Vietnam only made things worse. Thousands of people died unnecessarily, and in the end they were pummeled by the VC, leading to a desperate effort to evacuate all surviving Americans as the enemy closed in. The Green Berets is hardly an accurate depiction of what was happening in Vietnam so much as it is the conservative idea of what was supposed to have been happening there.

However, while The Green Berets may be dated (and not exactly a great film, either), it is still a significant film to examine specifically because there are no other films like it. Of all the films that have been made about America's role in Vietnam, The Green Berets stands as the only one, even while the war was still happening, that made any effort to cast the army in a positive light. This alone offers a unique perspective of the war, one that cannot be found anywhere else, offering a glimpse into how The Vietnam War was perceived by those who supported it.

Cpl. Elinor Joseph, an actual Green Beret.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Christmas Movie Cast-A-Thon

Jenna and Allie over at Flick Chicks are hosting a new blogathon, the Christmas Movie Cast-A-Thon. This is an amazing idea. Basically, we get to cast our favorite movie characters into stock holiday-themed roles. How could I resist the idea to bring together a strange bunch of characters for a holiday extravaganza? So let's begin. I have assembled the strangest group of characters you can ever imagine to create what might just be the most bizarre holiday film ever conceived by a human being, unless of course one of my fellow participants manages to outdo me.

So apparently, the plot of this Christmas film is that Santa Claus has to figure out how to get his toys to the children while dealing with Cold War paranoia and an insane Air Force general who thinks he is a communist spy, while some other people are trying to organize a bizarre Christmas party. Let's see what we can come up with.

Santa Claus

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Say what you will about the overall quality of the film, but somehow John Call did a surprisingly good job capturing Santa Claus, the cheerful jolly old man who loves nothing more than bringing joy to everyone. He's also very clever, being able to outwit his would-be kidnappers and plot against anyone who wants to interfere with his goals. 

Santa's Helpers

Gunnery Sgt. Hartman (Full Metal Jacket,1987)- Factory Supervisor

Santa's got perhaps the toughest job in the world. He has one year to make toys for billions of children around the world, has to keep records, and make sure everything is perfect. This entails getting a large amount of elves to speed up production, and somebody has to keep them organized. Who better than a tough drill sergeant who can easily keep everyone in line. If there is a problem, if any toy is flawed in any way, he will know, and he will make sure the elf responsible never does it again. Under Hartman, the factory floor would be a bustling and busy environment, since nobody wants to cross a drill sergeant.

Gordon Gekko (Wall Street, 1987)- Financial Assistant

Hey, Santa's got to make toys for billions of children around the world. Obviously, he's going to need to get the materials to make them from somewhere. In order to obtain the sufficient material, tools, paint, and so on; Santa will need a lot of money. Who better than Gordon Gekko to secure it? After all, this is a guy who can get things done. He knows the business world inside and out and also knows how to bring in the money (if not always through legal means, but technically there's no real government in the North Pole). This is the guy who can make deals with other companies, and get Santa what he needs to make his delivery.

Ted Striker (Airplane, 1980)- Air Traffic

Flying a sleigh is hard work, especially in this day and age. That's why Santa has to keep in constant radio contact with his airfield so that he can get important updates regarding issues with weather and even other planes that might interfere with his deliveries. Striker has some experience in these types of situations. After all, he has on two separate occasions managed to barely avert an airplane disasters, so naturally he'd be the perfect candidate to help prevent those same types of situations happening to Santa. He'd mainly be working from the control tower this time, rather than flying himself, but this is a guy who is always prepared for everything.

Xena: Security

Santa's workshop is going to need security. After all, one never knows who might try to infiltrate and sabotage his operations or his workshop might accidentally get caught in the crossfire between nuclear war. Also, with Hartman in charge, someone is going to have to look out for the well-being of Santa's staff. Who better to fill both roles than someone like Xena? After all, she's not only a loyal and devoted friend committed to fighting for good, but she is also not afraid to get tough when she needs to, and always has a plan when danger is lurking. If anyone can protect the factory and make the staff comfortable, it's her.

Galadriel (The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit)- Therapist/Consultant

Santa might just have the most stressful job in the world. After all, he has to oversee the production of toys for billions of children, keep records on everyone who is born or dies, read a seemingly endless pile of letters and keep track of what is to be sent to each kid. On top of that, he also has to deliver his gifts all over the world in just one night, while simultaneously ensuring that everything is delivered to the right house. Obviously, he'd be constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown and would need someone to turn to. This is where Lady Galadriel comes in. As Santa's personal therapist, he can consult her about all his problems, and she can use her extensive kindness and wisdom both to keep him from going insane and to advise him in his operations. She would also be a valuable asset to the staff in general, as she can help elves through personal issues and stressful situations.

Lisbeth Salander (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, 2008)- Record keeper

Santa's got to keep track of who's naughty and nice, but he can't monitor every kid in the world. What he can do is get the world's greatest computer hacker to gather information on children. If anyone can gather dirt to warrant a lump of coal in a specific kid's stocking, it's Lisbeth. In addition to all this, she can get access to records, addresses, and anything else that may be of value, and she can even get a little bit of extra money when Gekko isn't enough (plus probably a little more to give her a comfortable life in the North Pole). She is also good for breaking up fights among the staff, and quietly investigating any problems that may occur on the factory floor. Also, given the person taking on the Grinch role her hacking skills may also prove useful in a few other ways.

Murph Cooper (Interstellar, 2014)- Flight Co-Ordinator

It's obvious that she's a genius when it comes to mathematics. She grow up with an understanding of intense engineering and even saved the world through her genius. She's also a brilliant physicist, having made calculations that aided in the colonization of other solar systems. Now she has a new, far stranger challenge: using all the available data to determine how Santa can accomplish his flight around the world, delivering presents to as many children as possible, in just one night. Accounting for black hole singularities has nothing on this problem. How could someone with a brain like hers resist such a challenge?


General Jack D. Ripper (Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964)

Jack D. Ripper would obviously be a concern for Santa Claus due to his extreme paranoia. This is after all the guy who has become bizarrely obsessed with preventing the alleged danger of having his bodily fluids forcibly taken from him. Now he thinks Santa is a communist spy (he saw Rise of the Guardians, and nobody told him the Cold War's been over for 25 years) and needs to be stopped.  To call this guy trigger happy would be an understatement. At the slightest glimpse of Santa's sleigh his first instinct will likely be to assume it's a communist attack and begin launching nuclear missiles at it. Talk about a guy who ruins the spirit of Christmas, and he's too stubborn to simply get redeemed by hearing joyful music or visits from ghosts. Santa's got his work cut out dealing with this mess.


John McClane (Die Hard, 1988)

He certainly has a way of making things a bit more... interesting whenever he shows up. He has after all saved Christmas on two separate occasions and several other times had to save the day because he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Still, he does try to put family above everything else, though that can be difficult when he can't even get home for Christmas without having to save a bunch of hostages and destroy a building. No way anyone is going to get bored when McClane shows up.

Lara Croft (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, 2003)

Considering her vast wealth and her spacious mansion filled with secret rooms, Lara obviously has the means to throw a memorable Christmas party. She's also quite eccentric for a woman born into the English aristocracy, so this wouldn't just be your typical boring upper-class party with everyone in suits and dresses, classical music, and discussions about what "inappropriate" activities the lower class are currently engaging in. Lara's more the kind of person who would much rather find a way to incorporate firearms, daring stunts, and elaborate deathtraps into her Christmas parties (plus probably an amazing Christmas feast; at least provided she doesn't try to do it herself). Now what kid wouldn't want to go to that party?

The Children

Bruno (Bicycle Thieves, 1948)

The short-lived movement of Italian Neo-Realism was very heavily based on emphasizing the day-to-day lives of the working class in post-war Italy. This kid is perhaps one of the best examples of those ideas at work. Bruno's a good kid, just unlucky. It's people like this who could benefit from a lot of holiday cheer, and helping the poor is often associated with Christmas. Naturally, bringing in a kid from a film about borderline poverty would logically make sense. This almost seems like the kind of person a Hollywood Christmas film would put heavy emphasis on assisting, but the Italians emphasized the bleak truth.

Hermione Granger (Harry Potter)

She is a little bit older, but Hermione's extensive knowledge of magic could easily be of great use for any Christmas party, and she's got the compassion to go along with it. Hermione is a loyal friend and one who obviously cares about others. Someone with her would fit right into a Christmas film, or at least a really strange film like this one. She's already used her brains, skills, and compassion to save the world, she could probably find a way to use it to help the poor and make everyone's Christmas Day a little brighter.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: Movies About Music

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is movies about music, but there is a catch: we can't do biopics on musicians or anything about a real-life musician. That's not too bad. This might be (literally) a last-minute entry I quickly put together after realizing this week's theme, but I should be able to come up with something.

The Jazz Singer (1926)

Okay, so this is definitely not a movie that has aged well. In fact today it might be considered outright racist due to the infamous scenes of the main character performing in blackface. However, it did make a significant impact due to its technical accomplishments. The Jazz Singer was, at the time of its release, a huge gamble for Warner Bros. Studios. Sound technology had been experimented with for decades, but this is often credited as the first feature-length sound film (though technically it isn't so much a talking picture as it is a silent movie with short segments incorporating sound, usually for musical numbers).  It was this film that brought sound to the mainstream and made studios realize just how profitable talking pictures could be.

The Red Shoes (1948)

If one really wants to get technical, this film is mainly about the struggles of various characters to navigate the ballet industry, but ballet, by its very nature, based on music. The plot also centers around a performance of the ballet. As a result, it involves some incredible musical sequences, including an amazing (if heavily condensed) performance that actually managed to make me respect ballet for the first time in my life. We also can't forget that one of the other main characters is a musician and a composer, and his musical career is an integral part of the story.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)

This bizarre film is a hilarious satire on the life of rock and roll icon Johnny Cash, represented here by the fictional character of Dewey Cox. The story of the film naturally concerns the strange events contributing to the rise and fall of Cox as a musician, who struggles with some unusual situations. Along the way, there are also cameos by famous rock stars. To call this movie surreal is an understatement, but it is still a lot of fun and definitely worth watching.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Casablanca as a Relic of World War II

There have been many films detailing World War II from a variety of different perspectives, but many of the best known films were made after the war ended. Movies like Saving Private Ryan and Das Boot were even made decades after the war ended. Many of these films therefore have a very retroactive perspective on the war. A film like Saving Private Ryan, made in the 1990's, depicts the war as it is perceived by filmmakers looking back on what happened. This is what makes a film like Michael Curtiz's Casablanca stand out from the others.

Unlike many other iconic war films, Casablanca was released in 1943 while the war was still happening. Many have noted how the film is a thinly-veiled allegory for America's reluctance to join the war effort, but it is also an incredible historical document on the grounds that it offers insight into the war from a contemporary standpoint. In other words, to understand Casablanca is to understand how World War II would have been perceived while it was still happening. In some ways, the film is rather progressive for the era, presenting not only a strong female lead but also also providing work for a black actor in Sam, a character who is treated with respect throughout.

Casablanca's obvious dislike for the Nazis also makes it a very agreeable film today, largely because most people today would agree that the Nazis were horrible people who needed to be stopped. However, on some level the film's depictions of the Nazis has not aged so well. This is most notable through the fact that the film continues to mention "concentration camps" despite seemingly not knowing what the term actually means. Victor Lazlo claims to have been held in a "concentration camp" and the characters speak of the danger of being thrown into "concentration camps" but judging by the dialogue it sounds more like they are speaking of Nazi political prisons than actual concentration camps.

A Nazi political prison would not have been much better, but it is still very different from a concentration camp. The former would have been a place for political prisoners, i.e. anyone who defied the Nazis. The latter was a term used to describe multiple horrific camps designed specifically for killing entire groups of people in massive numbers at a time. To provide a more cinematic analogy, imagine a contrast between Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped and Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. The term "concentration camp" as used by the characters in Casablanca would today describe something one might expect to see in Schindler's List, a film about the Holocaust, but what is described sounds more like the type of prison depicted in A Man Escaped.

When seen today, the apparent misuse of the word "concentration camp" looks like a blatant oversight on the part of the filmmakers, but it does illustrate the mindset of a very different era. The actions of the Nazis are currently public knowledge. Thanks to the internet it is very easy to find photographs of concentration camps, and most people at some point in their lives get at the very least a general idea of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust, an event now remembered as one of history's darkest moments. However, this was not always the case, and much of what may be common knowledge today was not so obvious in 1943.

While the war was still going on, the actions of the Nazi party were in large part kept secret. For obvious reasons Hitler did not want the public to know about the ethically questionable activities that were going on behind closed doors, and this included the Holocaust. Any contemporary information on it outside of what was known only to the Nazi party would have been vague at best. All anyone really knew was that Hitler had a list of people to be "relocated" and that there were serious consequences for anyone who tried to hide a person who fit the list. Nobody would have known for sure precisely what happened to those people once they were taken. It was only at the end of the war in 1945, when Allied forces invaded Germany and discovered the concentration camps, that the public became aware of the mass genocide that was really going on.

The reason a phrase like "concentration camp" is so heavily used in the wrong context in Casablanca is literally because the filmmakers obviously did not know what it meant and misunderstood its intended definition. Very few people in Nazi-controlled territory had even the slightest idea of what a concentration camp was, America would have known even less. All they would have had to go on at most would have been vague rumours of the Nazis putting people into "concentration camps" without much more information on what they were or how they worked. Michael Curtiz could have easily misunderstood and took this term to mean a political prison.

Today, one might argue that this little detail seems like a strange oversight in an otherwise finely-crafted movie, and something to be dismissed simply as a product of the era. However, it is because this detail is a product of the era that it is important to bring it to the forefront. This slight error in the dialogue serves as a very clear window into the past and allows a glimpse into the mind of people who lived at the height of World War II and how they perceived the conflict around them. Casablanca is therefore very much a relic of World War II.