Monday, March 16, 2015

The War Genre

Originally, I wanted to just write about a recent war movie I saw, and I loved, Paths of Glory. Paths of Glory is a film set during World War I about a failed operation to take "Ant Hill" away from the enemy (Germans, in this case). The plan fails, and the higher-ups in the army decided to deflect blame onto the "cowardly" soldiers whose lack of bravery and fervor caused the failure. They end up executing three soldiers for treason -- one who was injured before the battle began and spent the fight unconscious, one whose name was drawn from a hat, and one who knew about an officer's prior mistake that cost a soldier his life. The film was directed by Stanley Kubrick, but it was directed by the Stanley Kubrick that sometimes pretends to direct films like a completely different person. It invokes Dr. Strangelove more than The Shining.

If the film is really "about" anything, I would say it's about the disconnect between the officers and the soldiers, the callousness that this disconnect creates, and the absurdity of military-style, hierarchical thinking. The generals sit in lavish parlors and discuss how the executions of their fellow soldiers will surely raise the spirits of the infantry. It is a film without a happy ending, not even a hopeful one, that paints war in an ugly, pointless light.

And that's basically the end of my review. The film does a great job of proving the thesis it creates towards the beginning: War is dumb. I was really surprised to see, however, that Paths of Glory makes its way onto the IMDb Highest Rated War Movies List, coming in at number seven.

Don't get me wrong, I loved this film. I loved it. It may even squeak past Dr. Strangelove as being a better film. The film absolutely deserves to be on any to movie list. I was just surprised to see it described as a "War" film.

One of the things that really interests me as a movie is thinking about genres. My long-standing position is that genres are better defined as the intended sensation that a film wants to give, rather than the types of characters and settings that appear in it. An animated film that is meant to terrify its audience is completely different from one meant to make them cry, and yet Watership Down and Grave of the Fireflies are considered to be in the same genre. An animated film that wants people to laugh is a completely different animal from something made as a vehicle for music, and yet Monsters Inc. and The Wall, are also supposed to be in the same genre. It's a mess.

If you would have asked me what traditionally belongs in the war movie genre, I would have told you that it probably included a lot of scenes of fighting, people dying, people yelling into a radio, a lot of dramatic music...you know what I mean, a lot like Saving Private Ryan, which appears as #2 on the list. I wouldn't say that it involved a lot of romance and talking in a bar, like in Casablanca, which is #1 on the war list.

Now, I will argue that Casablanca is a better movie than Saving Private Ryan, but are they both "War movies"? Are they both about war?

On the on hand, Saving Private Ryan largely shows the realities of war, and I would argue, largely free of judgement or praise in either direction. A recent film that I saw last year, Fury, does much of the same, choosing to show a more realistic side of things, rather than heap praise or condemnation. (Personally, I think showing the realistic side of warfare inevitably leads towards being anti-war, but maybe that's just me.) If anything Casablanca is pro-war, arguing that the allies should be fighting the Germans, and more subtlely, arguing that the US should join in (which it was not at the time of its production). Dr. Stangelove and The Great Dictator are decisively anti-war, Charlie Chaplin even going so far as to poke holes in the fourth wall, peek through and talk directly to Hitler himself. Half of the films just mentioned don't even show any fighting.

It's hard to summarize the IMDb list into a single "emotion" that all of these films are striving far, and much harder to try and gather their collective visions into a single ideology (pro- or anti-war). Moreover, they don't even seem to carry the same themes about fighting and warfare, as some are about civilian children or saloon owners. However, I would argue that the lists works on account of war itself being a thing that is too complex to distill down to a single pro- or anti- stance. Sure, you can largely be in favor of one or the other, and argue for humane treatment, but in the end, war is a brutal necessity. It is sometimes necessary for the greater good of preventing further suffering, and sometimes it brings nothing but misery for those who must live through it. It is often absurd and pointless, and (perhaps because of this) sometimes we find deeper meaning in it. The movies on the IMDb list reflect not only each auteur's individual thoughts on war, but also a collective sense of the various things that war is.
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