The Spectacular War

Now You Know. So goes the title of a recent anthology of online postings written by viewers in response to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998). As the title implies, the postings feature testimonials by people who, after seeing the film, claim a new understanding of the sacrifices made by their parents and grandparents and the horrors of modern combat.

Wow, can we say problematic? Let’s bracket, for a moment, those pesky postmodern crises that beg the question of what it means to know anything in the first place. Still, the very notion that by watching a piece of narrative Hollywood filmmaking we can somehow come to know the reality of war is both prevalent and dubious. It suggests that narrative film, due in part to its staggering verisimilitude, can actually come to be seen as a kind of document that can colonize -- and even replace -- historical memory. And when the context of the narrative is war, the stakes become dangerously high.

The vast majority of cinema invents a fiction; it creates an illusion of narrative reality by stringing together a series of sounds and images in familiar, lifelike ways. The war film represents one among many recurring patterns these fictional narratives take. And more so than most film genres, the American war film has historically made precious little pretense about the political subtexts of its narratives, perhaps because politics and war make such inseparable bedfellows. We’ve gone from the rah-rah of Capra to the cynicism of Kubrick, Coppola, Stone and, well, Kubrick again.

The 1990s saw an altogether new take on the war film, one that began in some ways with Steven Spielberg’s Schindler's List (1993), reached its apotheosis with Saving Private Ryan, and has seen various incarnations ranging from Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995) to Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001, see review here). Suddenly, it seems, the filmmaker had positioned himself more as historian than storyteller, a move that has concealed the political subtext of the films’ narratives more deeply beneath a veneer of authenticity. The new American war film seeks more to document the reality of war than to explore the true nature of war. It has replaced artistic exploration with spectacular re-creation and recreation. Schindler’s List began a trend that has robbed the war film of its real artistic significance, a trend that has been broken only by The Thin Red Line (1998).

Schindler’s List marked a radical turning point in the career of Spielberg and the history of the American war film. Spielberg made a name for himself by crafting hyper-stylized action-adventure pictures. His early films are spectacular, larger than life, too fantastic to be real. When he set out to make his Holocaust picture, the wunderkind-turned-mature-director dumped much of his trademark technique. He dispensed with his cranes and his dollies for a stark realism. Here was a World War II/Holocaust film shot in startling black and white with raw, hand-held camera work. The violence was brutal and direct.

Spielberg made no pretense about why he had chosen this approach. The choice to film in black and white came out of a desire to make the film look like genuine footage from the era, and the cinema veritae stylings were ripped directly from documentary film technique. The result was a film that sought to bring the audience closer to the Holocaust than any fiction film previously produced.

A great deal has already been written about Schindler's List and the creation of pseudo-historical document (see, for example, Robert S. Leventhal's “Romancing the Holocaust, or Hollywood and Horror: Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List”). Most of it comes down to a very simple problem, though: Here was a filmmaker shooting a “true story” war film in a documentary style, the subject of which was genocide, the story of which was redemption, rescue and survival.

There’s a fundamental tension here. If Schindler’s List has colonized our collective memory of World War II and the Holocaust, it has created a history not about death and destruction but rather about survival. It makes for great drama, but as history, it proves a little disingenuous at best, dangerous at worst. After all, a filmmaker can recreate images of death, but that’s far different from providing the audience with the experience of it, with the palpable, tangible, terrifying experience of war. There is a serious gap between the spectacle of war and the emotional and psychological reality of it.

The Spielberg approach to the war film has become rather commonplace since Schindler’s List, from Braveheart and Gladiator (2000) to The Patriot (2000) and Black Hawk Down. Still, the most noteworthy iteration of the war film as historical document is almost inarguably Spielberg’s own Oscar-winning blockbuster, Saving Private Ryan.

Saving Private Ryan purports to give its audience war through the eyes of soldiers. The now famous Omaha Beach sequence that opens the film stands as one of the most technically memorable sequences in film history. It features graphic violence, hand-held camera-work, blood splattering on the camera and a plethora of subjective point-of-view shots that place the viewer directly in the position of the soldier in battle. It in fact begins with the suggestion that the events portrayed are the direct recollection of a war veteran in the present day (it isn’t until the end of the film that Spielberg reveals that the character doing the remembering wasn’t even at Omaha Beach). Spielberg sutures the audience right into the action; the audience lives the battle and experiences the carnage. By the film’s end, it appears as though Spielberg, too, wants to tell his audience: “Now you know.”

But you don’t know. Narrative film isn’t how we should do history at all. Saving Private Ryan, like Schindler’s List before it, exploits the context of war to tell a story of rescue, survival and redemption. The film follows a small group of soldiers selected for an atypical mission: to find and return a young soldier -- the only one of four brothers still believed to be alive -- safely to his mother. The real narrative subtext here is the restoration of family and the recuperation of a nation and its history. The film eschews large political questions or philosophical meditations on the nature of armed combat. War, here, is a given, a necessary fight to save the world from an unspeakable evil. The only question the film seems to leave is whether we, the beneficiaries of this conflict, have earned the sacrifice.

Fortunately for all involved, it ends on a note of reassurance. “Am I a good man?” asks the aged Private Ryan, by way of asking, “Have I earned the sacrifice?” “Of course you are,” his wife reassures him -- and by proxy, us -- thereby leaving no doubt that we are the rightful heirs to this historical legacy. For a piece of art that poses as an authentic recreation of the experience of war, this pat conclusion offers none of the thoughtfulness or political and ideological complexity necessary from anything aspiring to the status of either historical document or artistic exploration. It takes the path of formal rigor and ideological ease, and, in the process, it sets the standard to which almost every other contemporary war film aspires.

Take, as an example, British director Ridley Scott’s Oscar winner, Gladiator and his latest opus, Black Hawk Down. Scott, always willing to sacrifice content for style, exceeds the spectacular standard for battle scenes set by Saving Private Ryan. Yet here, too, there’s a curious lack of any real insight into the psychology of the soldier or the nature of warfare. Beyond spectacle, he offers heroism and redemption -- and precious little more. Whither the moral complexity of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) -- or even the call-to-action of Frank Capra’s propaganda series Why We Fight (1943-45)? Has the increasing technical proficiency come at the expense of the serious grappling with the nature of the beast? In short, has the search for what is real in war killed the exploration of what is true in war?

To answer this question, it’s necessary to consider one last 1990’s war film: Terrence Malick’s under-appreciated World War II epic, The Thin Red Line. Malick’s film saw wide release a few short months after Saving Private Ryan swept the nation, and, for both critics and audiences, suffered by juxtaposition and comparison. If Malick sought to rival the Spielberg epic for harrowing realism, he most certainly failed. The Thin Red Line is indeed quite convincing; it’s a high-gloss, expensive Hollywood war epic. Yet Malick does not indulge in the same hyper-realism of Spielberg or Scott. He seems instead to intuit the truth that eludes Spielberg and Scott: Even though the cinema appears capable of imitating or re-creating reality, it is fundamentally an artistic medium that must grapple with reality within a fictional framework.

In this regard, Malick is the heir to a tradition in American film that includes Paths of Glory and reached its artistic and popular height after Vietnam with films like Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), Stone’s Platoon (1986) and Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). Those films, like The Thin Red Line, are less concerned with re-creating combat than with the political, psychological and philosophical implications of war.

Malick’s real achievement stands in stark contrast to Spielberg’s vision of war; Malick’s is a war film that searches for meaning in the conflict. The Thin Red Line lacks a clear narrative structure, instead placing emphasis on the psychological experience of war as seen through the eyes of a host of young men. They ponder the power that comes with the ability to kill, the arbitrary distinctions that turn fellow men into enemies, the legitimacy of following and breaking orders, the ethics of euthanising a wounded comrade with morphine. At the same time, Malick counterbalances these considerations with a clear sense of the political import of the conflict; ranking officers may be disinterested careerists, but they still make it clear that this battle is integral to the success of the war. Most importantly, Malick uses the conflict to explore the very nature of war itself, how it comes to be in the world.

In The Thin Red Line, war thus becomes a set of contradictions. It is a part of nature even as it destroys it. It is made by man even as it shatters him. It comes from God even as it represents God’s absence. War, here, is staged as the Biblical Fall as well as a part of some divine mystery and order. There are no answers here, just ambiguity, doubt and humanity. Perhaps Malick reaches too far, but among his contemporaries, he towers simply by virtue of his willingness to reach out at all.

Film cannot offer the real experience of war. At the end of the day, the cinematic experience is nothing more than a group of people in a dark room watching tricks of light and sound. Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, et al. may be magicians working within this idiom, conjuring re-creations more dazzling than we might have dreamed even 15 years ago, but they cannot offer real history or real experience. Confusing cinematic spectacle with the horrors and necessities of armed conflict signals an end to our ability to discern truth. American filmgoers would be well-served if they stopped looking to cinematic technicians to find out what war is really like and instead turned to cinematic storytellers to find out what it truly is.

Christopher Wisniewski is a freelance film writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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