Tales of glory and tragedy, fixed in time

Whether movie wars are just and their soldiers are heroes depends largely upon when the film was made.


March 10, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic

Ever since D.W. Griffith established a new language for the American cinema in 1915 with The Birth of a Nation -- a film whose societal and artistic impact has rarely been rivaled since -- war films have been an audience favorite.

But few genres have undergone so many transformations, or been so demonstrably swayed by the prevailing political winds. From pessimism to pacifism, from flag-waving patriotism to don't-trust-anybody cynicism, war films have reflected the political mood and even, in some cases, helped mold it.

Randall Wallace's We Were Soldiers, starring Mel Gibson as a combination warrior and father figure who leads his men against insurmountable odds in a battle about which the top brass understand nothing, is a prime example of where war movies seem headed in the new millennium. It's a film at once both cynical about the reasons for fighting, yet at the same time unashamedly supportive of the men in combat. In other words, the cause may not be entirely just, there may be shades of gray when it comes to what's right and what's wrong, but that doesn't make the men doing the fighting any less heroic. Or any less honorable.

That's not how the battlefield was depicted in the early days. War films, partly in response to the firestorms of protest that greeted Birth and its virulent racism, partly in response to American unwillingness to get involved in World War I, soon shifted into a decidedly pacifist mode. Thomas Ince's Civilization (1916) featured Christ himself praising a submarine captain for refusing to sink a ship carrying civilians. Even Griffith joined the crusade, with Intolerance (1916); although not technically a war film, this epic-length lament chronicling man's continuing inhumanity to man was an effort to quell the passions he'd stirred in his earlier film, convince the European rulers that they needed to get along with each other and support America's reluctance to be drawn into the European conflict.

But shortly after Intolerance was released, America entered the war; audience support for the film vanished almost overnight, leaving Griffith with an expensive commercial flop on his hands (even though it's a better film than Birth). For a time, Hollywood's war films were all about valiant soldiers battling the bestial Hun (best personified by Erich von Stroheim, whose character once went so far as to casually throw a baby out the window). But when the war ended in 1918, war films practically vanished.

Pacifism and heroism

In 1925, however, MGM released King Vidor's The Big Parade, starring John Gilbert as an idealistic American who enlists with ideas of saving the world, experiences the horrors of trench warfare, gets his leg shot off and returns home broken in both mind and body. Its pacifist message harked back to the days before America's entry into the war, but its take on the war and its aftermath was far more realistic -- and sobering -- than anything Ince or Griffith ever imagined (Parade didn't rely on divine intervention to get its message across). The film proved a huge hit, MGM's biggest moneymaker until Gone With the Wind came along 14 years later.

The early talkies continued in that vein. Jean Renoir's The Grand Illusion (1937) starred Pierre Fresnay and von Stroheim as rival French and German officers who realize there's no such thing as civilized warfare anymore. And Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), still one of the most haunting films ever made, highlighted the futility and banality of war by following a group of young German recruits (led by Lew Ayres) who start off with visions of becoming heroes and end up struggling to retain some semblance of hope in humanity as the bombs drop continually around them.

Things changed again, however, with America's entry into World War II. Scores of films, made both during the war and in the decade after it, focused on the bravery of the soldiers and the absolute justness of the cause. Historians have labeled the war against Hitler and the Axis powers as the last good war, and that view is reflected in the movies that use it as their setting. In such films as Bataan (1943), Guadalcanal Diary (1943), 30 Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), heroes are everywhere, glory is there for the taking, and American audiences could feel good about the risks their sons and daughters were taking and the cause they were fighting for.

Even a film such as John Ford's They Were Expendable (1945), which made no attempt to soft-pedal the fate of P.T. boat crews sent on what were essentially suicide missions against the Japanese, were more poignant than pessimistic. These men were heroes in a heroic war.

And when a filmmaker did opt to convey an anti-war message -- Stanley Kubrick, for instance, in Paths of Glory (1957) -- the stories usually were set in World War I.

Antiwar years bred new genre

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