War and Popcorn

By Atkinson, Michael | In These Times, May 2012 | Go to article overview

War and Popcorn


Atkinson, Michael, In These Times


We're a country at war, right? So let's talk about war films, you and I. It's a troubling genre, because it's defined by the depiction of wholesale man-made catastrophe, which involves both vast human waste and intense cinematic excitement. Obviously, these two factors are in tension with each other, to say the least - a matter of the gravest ethical trauma crashing into pure entertainment spectacle.

Begin with D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915). Whether you were a Union stalwart or a slavery- mourning rebel in the early 2oth century, the Civil War had been a holocaust for your side. All the same, the battle scenes in Griffiths film are awesomely thrilling, and the film may well have been seen by more people in its years of theatrical life than any film since. Jump ahead to Steven Spielbergs Saving Private Ryan (1998)- no one quite forgets the electric horror of the opening Normandy sequence, which even the film's detractors still applaud as bravura filmmaking and hypnotic.

However conflicted the war film might be, the genre has always resonated with the gravitas of fear and sacrifice. As it should. Even the gungho propaganda films the United States and virtually every other industrialized nation produced during World War II possessed elements of ruefulness and a sense of moral tragedy. Start counting the genre's greatest entries - from King Vidor's The Big Parade (1925) to All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Anthony Mann's Men in War (1957), the scalding movies of the Japanese New Wave, the bitter satires and documentaries about the Vietnam era, Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998) and so on - and you're quickly saturated with outrage. In other words, war films are almost by definition anti-war films, if not in their overt political agenda, then in their subtext and human experience.

Lately, however, "war films"- movies about full-on military combat, assisted by CGI effects that crank the experience up into rampaging mayhem - are of a different breed They have been largely since 9/11. War movies are now fantasies, in terms of both their content and the degree to which they encourage adolescent America to suckle on its own childish ideas about war, heroism, killing and death.

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