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cultural vandal | by maryann johanson

ironies and idiocies: the soldiering experience on film

It’s Memorial Day weekend, and the unofficial start of the summer movie blockbuster season, and multiplex screens will be full of explosions and gunfights and general mayhem. What won’t be found on this cinematic battlefield are soldiers, which is ironic, considering the nature of the holiday that gives this weekend an extra day. You might encounter a character or two who is military, like Will Smith’s fighter pilot in the 1996 summer flick Independence Day, but the movies they appear in won’t be about the experience of soldiering. We seem to have decided as a culture — or at least Hollywood has decided for us — that the battlefield is no place for flippancy.

Sure, there are a handful of satires, out-and-out comedies about the ironies and idiocies grunts are subject to, the smartest and funniest of which, Robert Altman’s wickedly incisive MASH, is generally considered one of the best war movies ever made, if not one of the best movies of any genre, period. But you could watch over a single long holiday weekend, should you care to host your own satirical-soldiers DVD film festival, the actually funny, actually sophisticated movies about being in uniform (Goldie Hawn vehicles don’t count): the Marx Brothers’ 1933 classic Duck Soup, the 1981 Bill Murray flick Stripes, 1999’s deliciously subversive Three Kings, starring George Clooney. (The wildly successful 1994 flick Forrest Gump includes some gentle satire about life in uniform, too, but it’s hardly the film’s focus.) The one-two punch of MASH and Catch-22, both from 1970, suggest that perhaps only during an unpopular war is it possible to be successful with a film that sends up the military. The clever and witty Buffalo Soldiers, starring Joaquin Phoenix as a cold war-era enlisted grunt with a mercenary streak, was sunk by dint of the fact that it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival mere days before 9/11 — even the hint of criticism of the American military, after that day, was enough to give Miramax cold feet: it withheld the theatrical release of the film for two years, and then let it sink almost unseen. (Be sure to add it to your DVD-fest, though — it’s a hoot.)
Satire that’s actually anti-war, not merely “look how moronic life in the armed forces is”? The few examples don’t focus on the combatants themselves: 1940’s The Great Dictator, starring and directed by Charlie Chaplin, sends up Hitler and totalitarianism; Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 masterpiece Dr. Strangelove aims its barbs directly at the men in charge, not the spearcarriers. No, a quick gander at the very many very good dramas about soldiers throughout the history of Hollywood leads you to only one conclusion: if you want to make an anti-war statement, tell the story of battle through the eyes of the men who fight the battles, and don’t spare the sop. (Not that it’s always a bad thing that a movie insists you keep a box of Kleenex nearby.)

Of course there are a few soldiering flicks that are chillingly precise and unsentimental about the horrors of war on the ground, and, notably, they start appearing in the post-Vietnam era, when, perhaps, America’s retreat and loss brooked no suggestion of tragic necessity: 1978’s The Deer Hunter, 1979’s Apocalypse Now, 1986’s Platoon, 1987’s Full Metal Jacket. But there is a remarkable uniformity — no pun intended — among movies about the soldiers of the two “good” wars of the 20th century, the World Wars. Ironies and idiocies abound in the experience, naturally — the long-distance runner of 1981’s Gallipoli who can’t outpace a bullet, the WWI soldier decorated for bravery in 1957’s Paths of Glory executed on a trumped-up charge of cowardice — and of course there is a sense of young lives cut down before their time, as with the snipers, male and female, enlisted men and volunteer warriors alike, of 2001’s Enemy at the Gates, about the devastating Battle of Stalingrad. We feel for the pain and suffering of the soldiers in these tales, from the awkwardness of returning home from the front in 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives to the charnelhouse nightmare of D-Day in 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, but the almost unvarying undertone of all these many films about the stories of the wars of the first half of the 20th century is that they had to be fought, that the sacrifices had to be made.

As the era recedes from living memory, though, perhaps we’re on the cusp of a new attitude. One of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, Joyeux Noel, about the “Christmas truce” along the trenches of France in 1914 (coming to DVD in September), appears at first to be merely another depiction of the ironies of war. By its end, though, its pondering whether the high-ranking idiots who started it could have avoided it entirely.

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  1. a good anti-war, anti-military, nice guy basically out to make the most of things for himself WWII movie is The Americanization of Emily (made post-WWII, of course), with James Garner as the amoral navy man, a charming scrounger of the first water, out to make the war as comfortable for the generals as possible (and thus, himself comfortable as well). then the man meets his waterloo (or bataan, as the case may be) in the very proper, rigidly patriotic, war widow Emily (Julie Andrews) who is very attracted to him but not to his cynical ways. it has a hilarious send up of “heroism” and “duty” and i highly recommend it, if it can be found. funny, smart and rather gen-X in its sensibilities (or maybe, more Lost Generation) it has the added advantage of James Garner in snappy Naval uniforms…

  2. You forgot Jarhead, though it was just released last November. It’s just about the definitive Gulf War movie.

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