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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
As for these ugly facts, including what modern industrial-strength war does to human beings who get in the way, the intense combat action so inventively filmed at the invasion beach, which in reality took several movies’ worth of hours to accomplish, would not have made a movie by itself. Cinematic conventions had to be obeyed, and so the combat action does not resume until the end is near, when a highly problematic defense of a village guarding a vital river crossing is hastily mounted. The Germans advance with machinelike confidence, somehow knowing, as we do, that they have the Americans outgunned. Not during the spectacular on Omaha Beach but here, during the fighting for the village, is where we see the single most violent scene. It is also the most intimate. Two soldiers engage in hand-to-hand combat, in a grappling frenzy of rifle butts, fists, and knives, reducing the whole war to a small room. We see one soldier consummate his victory over the other slowly, while he whispers soothingly to his enemy as if he were a lover. Outside, the combat builds toward a conclusion we know by now is not going to be a happy one. Of course the noble Hanks will be killed, but his death is arch-heroic. His mortal wounds are invisible, but the high-mindedness of his death fills the screen. Horatius is at the bridge again.
Audiences have every reason to be impressed by Saving Private Ryan. And Spielberg has every reason to be happy with what he has done. In addition to the box-office returns, he has been acclaimed by veterans’ groups and even awarded a medal by the Army to add to his already substantial laurels. Perhaps no other war film has received such approval from old soldiers, who rather more willingly than before have come forward to recount their own experiences. But what, exactly, are the veterans approving? The film may refresh their experiences, but it is highly unlikely that the film will add to their memories. No, the film is for everyone else. Beginning and ending in an American military cemetery in Normandy, it is a eulogy to the victory generation, and it is praise thankfully received.
One of the great myths of war is that fighting in one somehow makes one a better person, someone who has gained admission to a world on the extreme edges of human behavior that everyone else can only imagine. But war still holds its appeal to those who are innocent of the real price required to know it. Some commentators have actually expressed regret they did not fight in World War II (a regret, it should be noted, that is easy to express half a century later). This kind of knowledge cannot be had on the cheap. War in the dark is no substitute. Judged by this standard, there never has been a good war film, and there never will be. But, for me, the best films about war are those whose makers try to look squarely at war for what it is, not for how they think it should be. Such a standard is not often compatible with artistic or commercial or vicarious ambitions, which is why there are so few good war movies to choose from.
Just as certainly, scenes, bits of dialogue, or expressions of character will be enlisted for the public storehouse of imagined knowledge about modern war. Inevitably, some who have seen Saving Private Ryan and others like it will decide that war is an experience worth having. They need not be denied. If they are serious, these cinematic warriors need only go find themselves a war. The world has plenty to choose from. There they will learn that some experiences are better had only on film.