antiwar themes


antiwar themes
   Conventional wisdom would surely insist that STANLEY KUBRICK’s PATHS OF GLORY, DR. STRANGELOVE, and FULL METAL JACKET contain antiwar messages. But perhaps “antiwar” is too vague a rubric for these films, inasmuch as two of them are, more specifically, clearly antimilitary, and one is clearly antinuclear. Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove are dominated by mad generals in the case of the latter and vain, foolish generals in the case of Paths of Glory (generals who demand that innocent soldiers who have fought bravely be executed as scapegoats to cover up their superiors’ incompetence and bad judgment). One is tempted to ask whether any realistic war movie would not by definition also contain an antiwar statement. But consider the earliest war films, those contemporaneous with World War I, which were not really antiwar features. D. W. Griffith made Hearts of the World (1918), a story of love and war, as part of the war propaganda effort. Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory? (1926) was based on a play by Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings that certainly asked the right question but whose plot consisted mostly of facile romantic melodrama and gruff macho comedy, while most of the fighting transpired offscreen. King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925) depicted “realistic” combat and grim mutilation-making the point that war may be hell but it is unavoidable. Among the exceptions were, of course, Lewis Milestone’s classic All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), which anticipated Full Metal Jacket in its documentation of the rigorous indoctrination of young men into killing machines, and Ernst Lubitsch’s The Man I Killed (1932, also known as Broken Lullaby), which, like Hal Ashby’s later Coming Home (1978), proves that an effective antiwar statement can be made in a story that transpires after war’s end. (Lubitsch’s story of a soldier obsessed by guilt over his killing of a soldier in battle is something of a curiosity inasmuch as its solemn, occasionally heavyhanded tone marks a significant departure from his better-known comic satires. )
   Even though the isolationist United States had avoided involvement in World War I for years before U. S. troops entered the fray in 1917, patriotic responses were perhaps inevitable in these early films, which touched the hearts of the audience rather than confronting viewers with the graphic realities of combat.
   Like those war films contemporaneous with World War I, war movies made during World War II and the Korean conflict celebrated the “guts and glory” paradigm of the 1940s and 1950s, with a few notable exceptions such as John Huston’s powerful documentary The Battle of San Pietro (1945) and William Wellman’s Battleground (1949). But it was not until the anxieties of the cold war era had been digested by popular culture that serious American antiwar films about World War II and Korea began to appear in the 1950s. Moreover, as the socalled protest generation grew to maturity in the late 1960s, antiwar films had a new, vulnerable target-Vietnam. These films, among them Apocalypse Now (1979), tended to be mythic, in order to demonstrate the collision of innocence with corruption—what Kurtz called “the horror”—as young warrioradventurers were thrust into the “heart of darkness” by forces beyond their control. Such was the case with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), and Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986). Yet, arguably, Oliver Stone’s strongest antiwar film was not Platoon (which was based on the director’s own experience) but Born on the Fourth of July (1989), which was based upon the postwar experiences of marine Ron Kovic, who had been wounded in action and crippled as a result. From a safer distance, filmmakers are moving beyond Vietnam back to a more patriotic, guts-andglory tone of World War II. STEVEN SPIELBERG’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) was a tribute to the “greatest generation” celebrated by historian Stephen Ambrose and journalist Tom Brokaw. Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) was a somewhat ponderous philosophical meditation upon the futility and waste of war in general. Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor was by no stretch of the imagination an antiwar picture, but rather a patriotic valorization wrapped in an inept and anachronistic melodramatic plot. Released on Memorial Day weekend in 2001 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Bay’s picture was marketed as a tribute to the disaster and its aftermath, but it was still the same old story, a tale of love and glory, bogged down by bad dialogue and sentimental nonsense.
   Films like these seem especially problematic in the face of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957), a trenchant indictment of the military-industrial complex, based on Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 novel, on the eve of American involvement in Vietnam. How could any war be celebrated or justified after Kubrick’s damning statement? Cobb’s novel, and by extension, Kubrick’s film, dissected the insane ironies and ruthless opportunism of “military justice” in its depiction of the unjust execution of several French soldiers brought before a tribunal on charges of cowardice. What kind of antiwar message, if any, is contained in Kubrick’s Vietnam film, Full Metal Jacket? MICHAEL HERR, who collaborated with Kubrick on the screenplay, said that Kubrick “wanted to make a war movie” that would offer “a God’s-eye view of combat,” but, unfortunately, by 1987, Kubrick had been “overtaken by other filmmakers” on the subject of Vietnam. The film was based upon GUSTAV HASFORD’s short novel THE SHORT-TIMERS, perhaps the most brutal, nihilistic narrative to have come out of the Vietnam experience. Full Metal Jacket is not an easy film to watch, but it is not as disturbing as the source novel. Kubrick focused upon the dehumanizing process of boot camp, where young men are turned into killers before they are loosed into the jungles of Vietnam. Of course, war is hell, but in Kubrick’s view, it is also insane. The boot camp experience of Kubrick’s film was later to be imitated by Joel Schumacher in his film Tigerland (2000), which made a parallel statement about how young recruits under pressure could be driven insane.
   Paradoxically, perhaps Full Metal Jacket should not be considered an anti–Vietnam War film at all, since the circumstances of the war and the issue of U. S. involvement are only obliquely examined. Indeed, one of the few overt references to the Vietnamese presence transpires in a scene late in the picture involving a female Viet Cong sniper. But the real point of this scene is not her politics or her patriotism, but her dehumanization. She has been as ruthlessly conditioned to be a killing machine as her U. S. counterparts. Moreover, the fact that scenes like this were not shot in Vietnamese locations but, as publicist Brian Jamieson has pointed out, rather in English forests absurdly presumed to look like Vietnamese jungles, suggests the illogic of accepting that this film is about Vietnam at all. Perhaps, Kubrick’s Vietnam is rather like Kubrick’s New York in EYES WIDE SHUT-a fantasy site, a convenient arena for Kubrick’s psychodrama. Indeed, what Kubrick is deploring in this film—and this theme is apparent everywhere in Kubrick’s films—is not so much the waste or futility of human endeavor but the loss of individual will. Not just the insanity of the military-industrial complex but the unthinkable realities of nuclear holocaust are the subjects of Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Made in 1964 at the height of the cold war, it addresses “MAD” (an acronym based on the defensive strategy of “mutual assured destruction”) paranoia concerning the operations of the Strategic Air Command. Significantly, Kubrick decided not to follow the straightforward narrative of the source novel, RED ALERT, but to treat the story as an absurd black comedy and allegorical satire, populated with caricatures rather than fully developed characters. On the face of it, the possibility of a world gone insane—as a nutty general stumbles across the trip wire of nuclear devastation-seems too bizarre to be probable. But in JAN HARLAN’s documentary, STANLEY KUBRICK:A LIFE IN PICTURES (2000), former Warner Bros. CEO and president John Calley reminds us that military leaders like General Curtis LeMay have been subsequently revealed to have been “absolutely psychotic. ” Thus, ironically, it took a MAD Mad Magazine cartoon approach to reveal a terrifying truth about our military leaders.
   This was exactly the opposite approach to that taken at precisely the same time by the British filmmaker Peter Watkins, whose antinuclear film, The War Game, won an Oscar for best documentary in 1966. Watkins preferred a humorless, shock-to-the-system, graphically depicting with blunt, documentary-like accuracy what the effects and consequences might be if there were to be a nuclear strike on the county of Kent, south of London. For some viewers, and for the BBC, who financed the 47-minute film, this frontal assault on the viewer’s sensibilities was rather too much of a bad thing, though The War Game became a cult favorite of the protest generation during the Vietnam era and was widely shown on college campuses. Ultimately Dr. Strangelove wiped out the antinuclear competition of other, more plodding films, like Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe (1964) and John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May (1964). Satire, not lectures, connected with audiences of the day. In the final analysis, Kubrick’s “antiwar” films are, like his other pictures, difficult to categorize precisely. In that very ambiguity, perhaps, lies their enduring strength.
   J. M. W. and J. C. T.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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