Paths of Glory (1957) Written by Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, & Jim Thompson Directed by Stanley Kubrick
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, Awaits alike th’inevitable hour. The paths of glory lead but to the grave. – “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” Thomas Gray
When Paths of Glory was released in 1957, it was banned in France until 1975. Germany refused to allow it in the Berlin Film Festival lest the picture strain relations with France. Francisco Franco’s right-wing fascist government in Spain would not allow the movie to be shown, and it wasn’t until 1986, 11 years after Franco died. And lest we let the United States off the hook, Paths of Glory was banned from being shown in any military establishment. All this does is speak to the power of the themes of the picture, Kubrick’s first great anti-war film.
The Americanization of Emily (1964) Written by Paddy Chayefsky Directed by Arthur Hiller
You didn’t see a lot of films in the wake of World War II that called military action into question. You would see a slew of anti-war films twenty-odd years out from Vietnam. But on the twentieth anniversary of D-Day, it was a pretty bold move to put out a movie about the lead up to that event, which questioned the leadership of the U.S. military and spoke to how soldiers’ bodies are so often used as props for state-sanctioned propaganda. This material had to be couched inside a romantic comedy-drama, and the subversiveness is hidden deeper in the narrative after we’ve been given a seemingly light set-up.
The Deer Hunter (1978) Written by Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, Louis Garfinkle, and Quinn K. Redeker Directed by Michael Cimino
While this was intended to kick off my Meryl Streep retrospective, I wouldn’t consider it a Streep movie. Oh, she’s definitely a crucial supporting character in the story, and I will talk about her performance, but this film is more a prologue to that series. This is more a Robert DeNiro/Christopher Walken movie, and it is a damn good one. It hasn’t necessarily aged perfectly, and it’s not my favorite film about the Vietnam War, but it is a well-acted, intense, and beautifully tragic movie.
Bashu, The Little Stranger (1986) Written & Directed by Bahram Beyzai
There is an emphasis on homogenizing foreign cultures into a monolith. This does a disservice to the broad diversity that exists inside these borders. We sometimes forget that national borders are artificial things, and people are often corraled inside sovereignties they have no direct connection with. Bashu, the Little Stranger, chooses to displace a Southern Iranian from the Khuzestan province due to the Iraq-Iran War. By moving this person into the Caspian north, we see how prejudices and cultural dissonance affect how we treat our fellow citizens.
War is Hell. War is a racket. War is a problem that humans could get rid of and maybe will one day. Here are some films I think captures the darkness of war and the impact it has on human beings. If you have other movies you think are great anti-war pictures, leave them in the comments below. I might give them a watch.
Paths of Glory (1957, directed by Stanley Kubrick) Stanley Kubrick made no bones about his stance on war in this film, Dr. Strangelove, and one more we’ll talk about down the list. Paths of Glory takes place in France during World War I. Kirk Douglas plays Colonel Dax, a military leader trying to keep his men from getting killed needlessly. The Generals decide to send a division on a suicide mission to slightly push back German forces. Everything descends into chaos, and in the aftermath, one general decides to court-martial 100 men for cowardice to cover his own ass. Dax explodes against his superiors and fights for his men, knowing it will fail. The final scene of this film is a powerful moment, a solemn quietness that belies the heavy cloud over young men unaware they are about to be sent to die.
The Thin Red Line (1998) Written & Directed by Terence Malick
War movies should always be horror movies. Terence Malick seems to have had this in mind when he shot The Thin Red Line, a film made after a twenty-year absence. Malick’s journey adapting the novel by James Jones began in 1988, his producers agreed to help him bring the book to the screen. What followed was a decade of some of the most in-depth research a filmmaker could embark on. Malick consumed everything directly and tangentially related to the story. He read books on the reptiles and amphibians of the Pacific region, the Navajo code talkers, and immersed himself in traditional Japanese drum music. Malick’s ultimate vision of the Pacific theater of World War II was to portray the island of Guadacanal as “raped by the green poison,” a term he used to refer to war.
As we get older, we’re told our views on life will change. That is a somewhat accurate assessment I’ve found. However, as I was told by older people I would become more conservative in my thinking as I aged, I discovered the opposite to be true, at least in the sense they implied. One thing I have become very conservative about is the act of war, conservative in the sense I abhor it. I find people who have a war hawkishness about them to be very liberal about the deployment of soldiers and the dropping of bombs. I am thankful that I have never had to personally experience war and have great sympathy for those who have taken lives and had lives taken from them. I cannot fathom the trauma a person carries with them in the wake of that experience. Come and See is possibly the best war film ever made in my opinion because it is directly about that trauma.
Before we jump into this first film, some background on Werner Herzog. Werner Stipetic was born in Munich in 1942 in a house that was destroyed by Allied bombing a couple years later. The family migrated to the Alps, where the father left the family, causing 12 year old Werner to take his grandmother’s last name, Herzog. Herzog showed a rebellious streak early on, when asked to sing in front of his class and refused. Till he was 18, as an act of defiance, he never sang, listened to music, or learned to play a single instrument. At the age of 14, Herzog encountered a simple encyclopedia entry on film making that infused the desire in him to create. He stole a 35mm camera from the Munich Film School in act he defends as a necessity for him to continue living. Herzog has been married three times, something you would expect based on his volatile personality. One more interesting note about the director, during a 2006 interview with BBC critic Mark Kermode, Herzog was shot by an unknown person with an air rifle. He seemed to brush it off and attempted to continue with the interview, despite Kermode freaking out over the incident.
Signs of Life is a war film without war, instead the soldiers are driven to madness through sheer boredom. Set on Crete during World War II, the film finds Strosek and two fellow German officers put in charge of a munitions depot nestled in ancient ruins. The main character here is the most blank canvas, while his compatriots, Becker and Maynard have more fully fleshed personalities. Strosek has ended up engaged to local Greek girl, Nora in a relationship that seems founded in their mutual lack of anything interesting to do. The film is narrated in a stoic, travelogue style that tempers the picture up until its last twenty minutes when Strosek becomes completely unhinged.
Signs of Life is cited as an inspiration for Kubrick’s The Shining, however I saw a lot of similarities with Polanksi’s Knife in the Water. Both films are of the same era and place their characters in a lifeless, desolate landscape where they are psychologically pushed to extremes. As we’ll see with the majority of Herzog’s work, he is incredibly interested in the psyche of men who have a break with reality and the role nature plays in that. Strosek is positioned against his desert setting as minuscule, he is insignificant, hence his position defending a post that is no danger of being attacked. Signs of Life is about humanity’s innate need to believe they are useful. When we feel that our society has no use for us it will inevitable cause a break from the social expectations and mores.
So we have caught up with Brian De Palma’s body of work. Redacted goes back to a lot of the same territory as 1989’s Casualties of War. We have American troops in a foreign land and the sexual violation of a native girl is the crux of the conflict. There’s one soldier who above all the rest is still virtuous. This was one was written by De Palma as well and really shows off his weakness as a writer. However, there are some interesting technical elements to the picture, and it really easy very experimental for De Palma, both in its making and the distribution.
Told through soldiers’ personal video diaries, CCTVs, news footage, and user submitted online videos, this is based on a true story where a squad of American soldiers were responsible for the rape of 15 year old girl and the subsequent murder and burning of both she and her family. The film did not do well upon its release, and in no way is this a great movie. However, many of the criticisms were jingoistic blather about De Palma wanted to imply that all soldiers are evil monsters. The fact that one of the squad members goes to the authorities with what happens must have gone over their heads. Its part of this thoughtless creed of “support the troops” which many interpret as do not question or think critically about the actions of the military. I don’t believe every soldier over there is some sort of sociopath, but I believe the culture that surrounds the military breeds that in people who leaned that way in the first place. That said, De Palma doesn’t present either the villains or the hero of the film in an interesting way at all.
The two vile soldiers who perpetrate the rape and murder are drawn cartoonishly broad. There are even scenes where they cackle like the hyenas in The Lion King. The hero is also without flaws and there’s nothing remotely interesting about him. The type of evil that is most interesting is the kind that comes out of mundane and ordinary people. When you have two characters who appear to be walking cliches they don’t come off as truly intimidating at all. A good filmmaker would make us like these guys, show us sympathy for them, and then reveal their darker nature. It makes us question ourselves. Even Sean Penn in Casualties of War, of which De Palma is really ripping himself off on, was a character I understood. Even though his action were abhorrent I could see what he saw in the world. What I did like was De Palma trying to do more with his camera. His typical POV shots were incorporated as part of the soldier’s diaries and there’s some interesting work done with website video.
Looking back on the films of Brian De Palma I have to defend him as a cinematographer. He may not always be a great all-around storyteller but he is one of the best cameramen I’ve ever seen. The level of tension he can generate in a film is amazing, and its all done through some of the tightest editing around. The moment in the prom scene of Carrie, as Amy Irving is figuring out what the bullies are about to do is such a perfect example of that. So much information is told without words, simply looks and cuts. The museum scene in Body Double should be shown to every wannabe filmmaker of how to tell a voluminous story in a only a few minutes and without a single piece of dialogue. Even watching the worst films of De Palma’s, I always knew he would amaze me with the camera. Sadly, his career has been marred by too many failures in a row. According to IMDB, De Palma appears to be working on a remake of his great rock opera Phantom of the Paradise (seen before I started this marathon), a prequel to The Untouchables sub-titled Capone Rising, and The Boston Stranglers, based on a true crime book about the theory that multiple men were placed under the umbrella of one serial killer. My hope is that De Palma can still find a way to produce good films again, I know he has it in him and I think there’s a strong possibility that he can rally a comeback in the same way that Francis Ford Coppola has been doing.
Casualties of War (1989) Starring Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn, John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, Don Harvey, Thuy Thu Le
Coppola made Apocalypse Now. Stone made Platoon. And De Palma made Casualties of War. At the end of the 1980s De Palma was secure in his place as a Hollywood film director. When he had been closing out the 1970s he was still immersed in Hitchcoclk style thrillers. A decade later he’s made a gangster epic (Scarface), a 1930s historical crime film (The Untouchables), and a Vietnam War flick. Despite the change in venue and content, there are the same cinematographic trademarks (deep focus and POV tracking shot). But how does this film shape up next to the other great Vietnam War flicks?
PFC Ericksson (Fox) is out on patrol with his unit when they are ambushed. He’s standing over a Viet Cong tunnel and falls half way in. As a Cong soldier inches closer, knife in teeth, Ericksson is saved in the nick of time by Meserve (Penn). Later, they both witness their commanding officer getting gunned down and Meserve takes over. He becomes obsessed with revenge and leads his group of five men to a village where they kidnap a young girl with the intent to rape and savage her. Ericksson is frozen as he must decide whether to protect this innocent or honor the bonds of his military brotherhood.
Casualties is by no means a perfect film, but it is a surprisingly mature film for De Palma, where he seems to be balancing his camera flourishes with a thoughtful look at the nature of war. There are still some cringe inducing line deliveries and Penn’s Maserve is played a little too broad for my taste. I did like Meserve’s speech about hating the Army. Often in pop culture, the soldier who brutalizes for pleasure is made out to be a dedicated troop. It feels more realistic that such a sociopath would despise the lack of self-decision that comes with the military. Once Meserve is out of the eye of his superiors he adopts his own sense of law. Ericksson provides a balance as a soldier who appreciates the idea of duty and rank. When Ericksson goes to report what he has seen he goes through the proper channels of authority. Meserve tries to get revenge under the radar.
De Palma ends things in a way I didn’t expect. Moments before the credits rolled, I felt the film hinting at a possible dramatically violent finale, but then it ends in an ambiguous way. The message of the film is hammered way to bluntly, though. De Palma does an excellent job of telling this story in a clear, comprehensible way and he uses some interesting technical skills. At the end I felt a certain dissatisfaction with product. It’s not as high an artistic achievement as Apocalypse Now and its doesn’t have the emotional weight of Platoon. It is a well made piece of cinema with some very enjoyable acting, but definitely doesn’t score as high as some of De Palma’s other films for me.
Next: The first big disaster, Bonfire of the Vanities.