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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
In The Barefoot Contessa, Humphrey Bogart’s character, a director, delivers this line: “Life every now and then behaves as if it had seen too many bad movies.” During the Gulf War, as troops in one particular unit began their attack on Iraqi ground defenses, their commander ordered “The Ride of the Valkyries” played over loudspeakers on their tanks and fighting vehicles. I later asked their commander if he had a great number of Wagnerians in his unit. But no, of course not. That was what Robert Duvall had his own loudspeakers play during his heliborne assault on the VC village in Apocalypse Now , both to unnerve the enemy and to suffuse his own men with Götter-dämmerung-like frenzy—a case of life imitating art imitating life. If it wasn’t true in the film, real battle would make it so, and the real commander, a decade after, knew exactly the effect he wanted to achieve. This improbable convergence between film and combat was momentary no doubt. As the more unfortunate among these troops would discover, the distance between film and combat was as great as ever.
At first I had no intention of seeing Saving Private Ryan. Having studied with and taught professional soldiers about the experience of combat for twenty years, I had no desire to see an attempt to reduce to film anything I knew about this subject. But I knew, too, that my students would want to know, insist on knowing, what I thought about this movie—not as a film critic but as a military historian. How did this film compare with others of its kind, the ulterior question being, of course, How close does it come to the real thing? In the end avoiding the film seemed like avoiding responsibility. So I went, unenthusiastically, as an obligation, in self-defense.
I saw a good war film, one that was informed by a high purpose, executed with the technical brilliance we have come to expect from its director, played by skilled actors representing the usual collection of American “types”: the selfless officer, the tough sergeant, the wise guy, the hick, the intelligent one who will funk it, the medic, and so on. The plot line was, well, dopey, but then the troops drew lots of dopey missions during World War II, and on the scale of dopiness, this one wasn’t that high. Any night attack was dopier. The dialogue was noble and pure and thus quite unsoldierly, since the linguistic currency of the World War II American soldier came down mostly to inventive variations on the word fuck , made to serve a multiplicity of meanings. But that would have made for a dull script, and one completely at variance with the film’s high-mindedness. The twenty-five-minute gush of violence on Omaha Beach could hardly have moved a theater audience now inured to the daily police blotter roundups that pass for the evening news everywhere or nightly television programs featuring “Greatest Disasters on Video.” I saw several families, complete with small children, happily munching their way through the whole film. Everyone else seemed pleased to be getting their money’s worth.
Aficionados of war films often judge their quality on the basis of accuracy—of historical fact, of military equipment, of technical military procedures. Some will have discovered by now that on the real Omaha Beach the defending Germans did not emplace their machine guns outside the casemates but inside them. Students of the finer points of minor tactics will have noted the highly improbable, near-academic discussion between Hanks and his men on the best way to silence one of said annoying German machine guns. How many discussions on setting up enfilading fire had there been in the maelstrom at Omaha Beach? These characters were supposed to be veterans, and veterans communicate and move in close combat by nonverbal means, signals, a jerk of the head, a wave of the rifle or hand—if even that. They don’t talk because experience will have taught them that no one can hear anything above the din of combat anyway. Screaming is common, however, not to communicate but to expel the overwhelming rush of terrified excitement. Soldiers old and new have testified frequently to being hoarse after a battle, though they don’t recall having spoken to anyone.
Afterward, once Hanks and his men embark on their quest for the immensely valuable Private Ryan, it is clear that no one is in any danger as they stroll across the Normandy meadows in perfect view of the cameras, and the enemy too. Showing hours of a seemingly empty Norman countryside of course was beyond even the talents of Steven Spielberg to make interesting. Some acute fans of aerial warfare will also wonder what the marvelously beautiful P-51, an “air superiority fighter,” was doing busting tanks when the incomparably ugly P-47s commonly drew ground-support missions and the weapons to do the job. Details of this sort, interesting as they may be to future tacticians and military historians, merely distract us from the uglier facts about what is actually happening in such situations.