Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Snapshots of War

Stage One: Man to Man Combat

In ancient times war was an accepted part of life. Be it over a matter of land or a girl, a man gathered his group to avenge and fight for his cause. While the weapons were not as lethal as those in modern warfare, the savagery was not any less. Chopping and hacking was aplenty ensuring maximum blood. The one thing that made the ancient form of warfare stand out was that everyone fighting on both sides knew the reason for their war and in most cases knew their opponents.

Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol shows an example of the persistent state of war in ancient times. While the film is about the rise of Genghis Khan and his conquests in ancient Mongolia, many of the elements of war could apply to other nations in ancient times like the Nordic or Moghul India. In Mongol love and war keep equal pace at times and when the blood letting starts, the family and loved ones have to be left behind until the next battle, which is always around the corner.

Stage Two: Trench warfare

As the weapons used to kill other men got more sophisticated and advanced, the distance between the fighting soldiers also increased. The hand to hand combats were replaced by the trench warfare, where opposing armies lay in hiding before firing bullets over to the other side. In such cases, a solider never really knew if he managed to kill someone or not and even if he did kill someone, didn’t find out the identity of his enemy. In Kon Ichikawa’s masterpiece Fires on the Plain one of the Japanese soldiers utters this very relevant truth when he hears the American soldiers in the distance. He peeks to get a look at a passing group of American soldiers in trucks and comments that was his first look at the enemy despite being in combat for months. It is hard to imagine that men fought other men with neither side speaking the same language. In fact, they didn’t need to communicate as they let the bullets do all their talking. Fires on the Plain takes place in Philippines between the American and Japanese soldiers and also highlights another changing aspect of warfare in that two nations would fight in a third nation’s turf, a much more common aspect of war starting from WWII onwards.

War is a savage thing no matter how much one tries to defend its reasons. Kon Ichikawa captures this animal nature of war perfectly in his film while also accomplishing the rare feat of objectively showing the war from the perspective of the soldiers, the everyday men forced into combat. There is no jingoism in the film with none of the soldiers ever talking about the “good of the nation” as each person is only trying to survive and do what they believe is right, even if that means eating another man’s flesh.

Stage Three: Remote warfare, espionage and propaganda

World War II combined both past and even futuristic aspects of war. On one hand, trench warfare was still common but so was the use of aerial bombing, with the two atomic bombs signaling the future nature of combat. But World War II also ushered in a new stage of espionage and its spy game routines led directly to the cold war. Information became just as important as weapons and the cat-mouse game certainly ensured that the war was a complicated affair.

In ancient times, there was no need to sell war to ones citizens. But in the modern civilized world, war had to be sold to its citizens as men and women had to be given a reason why war was necessary. So propaganda became a very common currency during WWII, on both sides of the fighting.

Valkyrie combines the espionage and propaganda elements that took place during WWII. The film shows a true story about an assassination attempt of Hitler. Even though one knows that the characters attempt will end in failure, the film is still a gripping watch.

Stage Four: The inner war and path to recovery

Ok, the war is over. Now what? Can the horror be erased from the soldiers minds? Can the warring leaders actually enjoy the peace and listen to soothing music? Unfortunately, history has shown that peace can never be achieved with war. It never was and it never will. But this does not stop nations from trying to achieve peace with wars. After the war is over, the soldiers are left to fend on their own. In some cases, the men are fine and integrate into society. In other cases, the men can’t shut off the inner demons and look for a new war. Gran Torino can add its name to the list of movies where the men are never really free from their war. Even though the main character Walt (Clint Eastwood) appears to be at peace with his killings in the Korean war, when things get ugly he does reveal that he is still haunted by his demons and heads towards a very un-Hollywood like resolution in hopes of achieving peace for himself and his neighborhood.

Stage Five: Filming the war

Ever since Apocalypse Now, there have been directors who have aimed to film the most realistic war movie by ensuring their audience gets the grim details of war and feels the blood for themselves. Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder tries to parody such a director who aims to make the most realistic war film ever! In his quest for perfection, the director (Steve Coogan) take his cast to a jungle far away from the comforts of a studio set. But things don’t go as per plan and the cast hilariously find themselves in a real war. While the film does a very good job of assembling some excellent characters such as the sleazy film executive (Tom Cruise), the shallow agent (Matthew McConaughey), the fake war writer (Nick Nolte) and the actors aching to dive into their characters (Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr.), it comes across as a missed opportunity for something greater.

Ratings out of 10 for films seen in this series:

Fires on the Plain (1959, Japan, Kon Ichikawa): 10
Mongol (2007, Russia/Mongolia/co-prod, Sergie Bodrov): 8.5
Gran Torino (2008, USA, Clint Eastwood): 8
Valkyrie (2008, USA, Bryan Singer): 7.5
Tropic Thunder (2008, USA, Ben Stiller): 5

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