James C. Banks

War Movies: In Seach of a Standard for a Usually-Dry Genre

In Uncategorized on March 25, 2011 at 3:03 am

Last year, The Onion ran a piece entitled “Tom Hanks Forces Houseguests to Play ‘World War II’ with Him”. When their satirical version of Hanks assigns roles, he says:

“Bruce, you’re the tough guy from Brooklyn who cares a lot more than he lets on and everybody calls you ‘Brooklyn,'” Hanks reportedly said, pacing back and forth in an authentic 1943 U.S. officer’s field jacket. “Martin, you’re the funny medic named Dankowitz.”

“Ron, you’ll be the weakling Irish kid everybody thinks is going to get us killed,” Hanks added. “Let’s just hope you don’t, soldier.”

Somehow, when I read that, I felt that this was approximately how screenwriters developed characters when plotting war movies—by type rather than individuality. There is nothing about the war film itself that should make characters dull and two dimensional, but often they are.

Recently, I watched Band of Brothers and, after finishing the last episode, realized that I had watched ten hours of narrative without ever feeling empathy for the characters—because, among all the protagonists, there was no character to distinguish any of them. The same could be true of pictures like Saving Private Ryan and Blackhawk Down.

This is not to say that soldiers—as portrayed in movies and on television—have no personality: Private Ryan does have distinctive devotion to his duty and Major Winters (the hero of Band of Brothers) is human enough to suffer post-traumatic stress after looking into the eyes of a German before killing him. The problem is that war is too often portrayed in media as an extremely limited experience, deviating as a sort of dialectic between the stress of a mission and the decompression that follows it. This is an ebb and flow which makes for intensity but not poignancy.

There are a number of war films that are indisputably great movies: The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, The Thin Red Line, The Hurt Locker. But in all of the above mentioned pictures, war is the setting but not the theme. These are all fundamentally films about how specific individuals navigate adverse circumstances, unlike the formerly mentioned films which are more about the monotonizing nature of warfare.

This is a subtle distinction and it is hard to conceive of its standard, but, were I to try, the standard would probably be something like this: A war film is intriguing if you can make an interesting movie about its protagonists set during peace times. Short of that, the picture might be captivating enough to hold my attention while watching it, but it certainly wouldn’t replay in my mind after turning the screen off.

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