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War In The Dark
Why World War II is so difficult to get right on the screen—and the movies that do it best
February/March 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 1
Six years after Sergeant Stryker died in front of a Japanese pillbox on a Hollywood back lot, a movie was released that would share with Sands of Iwo Jima the dubious fame of fixing in the minds of America’s youth a picture of combat and how one should behave in combat that has been sustained until the present day. To Hell and Back was a war film with a difference: Audie Murphy, America’s most highly decorated World War II soldier, played himself, suggesting that here was a chance for the audience to see what combat was really like. What the audience didn’t know was that Murphy was still suffering from the aftereffects of his real war and would continue to do so for the rest of his life. The experience of trying to reproduce his life in combat was not easy for him, nor did he regard the result as particularly satisfying. To Hell and Back was a more highly stylized view of war than any number of war films, and Murphy knew it. He was “a lot braver” in the film than he had been in the war, he said, but his modesty only added to his aura. War could be heroic again, at least until all the future heroes in the audience found out otherwise.
The fifties and early sixties were the heyday of the war movie. War movies with a hard edge were still being produced, but they were not about World War II. In 1951 The Steel Helmet , set in the Korean War, came out, followed three years later by The Bridges at Toko-Ri . In 1957 perhaps the best World War I movie ever made, Paths of Glory , revealed Stanley Kubrick as a director with a decidedly unsentimental view of war. Kubrick’s film was banned in France for a time and, notably, from some American military posts. Lewis Milestone filmed S. L. A. Marshall’s Korean War saga, Pork Chop Hill , in 1959. All these films had much in common with their predecessors: Like the best of the earlier films, they reduced the war to the individual human level. Unlike the worst, they refused to indulge in the easy moralizing that had proved so irresistible so often to Hollywood.
Late in the fifties David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai inaugurated a subclass of war film that proved to be incomparably more popular. The military extravaganza capitalized upon new film, sound, and screen technology. In Lean’s film and the blockbusters that followed—The Longest Day (1962), In Harm’s Way (1965), and The Battle of the Bulge (1965)—the screen always had more people on it than were in the audience and more military equipment than one would need to defend a small nation. These were films on the industrial scale, made with the enthusiastic and substantial assistance of the Department of Defense. Grand history, great events, great men provided the rough plots for these panoramas, but beyond that anything that got between the audience and the popcorn was unwelcome. That included reality.
The Vietnam War effectively and promptly killed the war movie, or so film historians say. Why produce a theatrical film about war when the American public saw the war in Southeast Asia on the evening news? Yet even in 1970, as the war was grinding to its melancholy conclusion, one of the most popular war films ever, Patton, was released, and so was the dreadful Pearl Harbor extravaganza Tora! Tora! Tora! Compared with the war in Vietnam, the Disneyfied version of World War II was more satisfying to contemplate than body counts. Perhaps this was when Studs Terkel conceived his idea of “the Good War.”
Once the Vietnam War was safely past, World War II extravaganzas returned to the Pacific with Midway in 1976 and MacArthur in 1977, the latter proving that films on military egomaniacs don’t automatically sell. But Patton , portrayed so broadly and with such near-psychopathic glee by George C. Scott, was as satisfying to the war lover as to the most diehard antiwar activist.
Film historians and critics might regard Patton and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now as antithetical. But while filmmakers were still trying to tell a whole story, audiences were reading segments of their films, some no longer than a television commercial, as reference points for themselves. Scott’s memorable opening monologue in Patton, giant American flag filling the screen, could by itself be made to bear any number of interpretations quite apart from how the director and the actors saw the scene as contributing to the rest of the production. Robert Duvall’s burlesque portrayal of the slightly mad Air Cav colonel could be alternately hated or admired, without regard for the meaning Francis Ford Coppola invested in it. Today, if I were to ask my students, all professional soldiers, to replay a scene from Apocalypse Now, Duvall’s scene would be the one, but their interpretations of it would be as varied as they are.