If you watch “Casablanca” and “Fury,” you’ll have two very different pictures of World War II. On top of the vastly different settings, everything from technology of filmmaking, to the tone of the film, to the style of acting, to the overall messages and themes–they’re all different. Much of this is simply due to different story lines and the fact that “Casablanca” focuses on romance as well as war, but the different attitudes toward war are palpably different as one was produced 72 years before the other.
In 2014, I read multiple books on a timeline starting before WWI and ending after the Great Depression. I was fascinated at how, sticking to a timeline instead of authors or series, you could see and feel the change of society as a whole, as they entered and exited the Great War. The devastating effects can be read about in the history books, and they can be felt through fiction.
Since movies were my first love, I began to wonder if they would follow similar trends. There are a lot of things that books have that films cannot offer–an in-depth look at a character’s mind, words, using your own imagination to your advantage– to name a few. But there are also things that film can offer that books cannot–a total sensory immersion, the raw emotion as actors play out a scene as a compelling score plays in the background. They both have things to offer, and good artists, be it filmmakers or authors, play to those advantages.
I fired up my Netflix account and tried to see if I could do with films what I had done with early 19th century American literature–after all, 2 hour movies were being produced since well before WWII. To my dismay, many popular old war movies were difficult to find. I wound up subscribing to the Netflix DVD service, which has pretty much every DVD I could possibly be interested in.
As I built my queue, my focus wasn’t initially on war movies. I wanted to simply observe the evolution of more recent society, so I ordered every best picture winner from 1969 to now. One would arrive by mail, I’d watch it, return it, and wait for the next. It took me a while, but I eventually finished with “Moonlight” from last year’s awards. I found previously unknown movies that I would love, and films that I could have certainly done without. I was glad to have watched all of them.
The war movies really caught my eye. “Patton” and “The Deer Hunter” came first, later followed by “Platoon.” In the 90s, I would watch “Dances with Wolves” and “Braveheart,” which are always good to watch again. Once I realized that I was witnessing a similar trend in regards to the evolution of war, I re-watched some more modern classics, to include “Saving Private Ryan,” “Black Hawk Down,” and “Fury.”
The list was long, and I realized that America has a good history when it comes to war films. I will say that, while I enjoyed the classic Vietnam era films, I generally like the manner in which serious modern war movies are produced more. They tend to focus more on the stark reality of a war zone, rather than trying to make heavy-handed points about war when the filmmakers have clearly never fought in one. It is also clear that Hollywood has made leaps and bounds when it comes to taking these productions so seriously that they have their actors trained by real soldiers. Of course, not every movie hits that mark nowadays, but with each year they tend to get better.
I did notice one commonality that always rubs me the wrong way: war movies from the Vietnam time period forward tend to treat war like it’s some hazy, undefinable disease that you catch simply by being in theater. They often portray soldiers as hapless victims, hollowed out and unable to ever function in society again. PTSD is very real, and many of these experiences are well told in “Saving Private Ryan.” I’ll never forget the scene where two wounded soldiers walk quietly through the airport at the end of “We Were Soldiers.” I was happy to see few overly dramatic, victimizing moments in Michael Bay’s “13 Hours.” All of the films I just listed do not fall into this trap–they show the hardships and emotional toll of war, but they also show the strength and determination of those who face it and carry on.
During my survey, I noticed that Vietnam era films have a stronger sense of the ethics of war, one way or the other. I would imagine that this was a heated argument in the U.S. at the time, and the more nuanced, well-crafted films like “Platoon” simply show war in all its complexities. It allows you as the viewer to come to conclusions yourselves. Nowadays, we get films that stray away from the ethical dilemmas and focus more on the brotherhood and family aspect that is inevitably created in a war zone. Both styles have their merits.
It seems that outright anti-war films haven’t done well, despite the time era and/or political leanings of the country. The levels of disillusionment of the characters certainly fluctuates, but it’s rare to find a movie that preaches that the average soldier is evil and the war he fights in is entirely unjustified. Most people realize that, wherever you land in an argument, reality is more complicated than that.
Featured image courtesy of Saving Private Ryan Facebook page.