We’ve reached another milestone, the end of another two-month block of Oscar-winning movies. I have to admit that I’m kind of glad to be moving on from the war films. Though I watched a fairly wide range of pictures this month, ranging from gritty realism to charming musical, in the end, the plots of each were relatively similar: war happens, and it sucks.
One thing that surprised me after watching a whole series of war films over eight decades was that they weren’t that different. Maybe it was naïve, but I expected there to be some sort of continuum of focus or storyline, with each decade promising a greater depth of character or meaning. Hell, I expected to see more heroic World War II films, of the sort that I associate with war movies (but probably can’t name by title). Something like Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan, where you learn how deep the camaraderie flows in the way everyone in a platoon unites as one unit despite their differences.
Or maybe I expected the opposite – films that show only the brutality of war. Yes, there was plenty of that, but not exclusively. I’d have guessed that the films depicted World War II would show more of a patriotic vision, the rightness of war, in opposition to the wrongness of Vietnam. Our views of war are tinted by whether our side was the winning one, by our justification of the act itself. And it’s true: there is a bit of a divide in perspective between the two wars, which together made up the bulk of the subject matter of the films I selected. Perhaps the most positive-themed movie in this batch was The Bridge on the River Kwai, and that was only because they managed to blow up the bridge in the end. (It’s worth pointing out that this happened in a POW camp. And half the characters died.) Oh, and then there was The Sound of Music, which ended with them escaping the Nazis (yay!) but also ended with the Nazis taking over (boo!).
In short, it is clear both that we haven’t learned how to avoid war in the eighty-plus years that movies have been made about it and that we will never cease to ask questions about war in various art forms. Do we look to these for entertainment because we want to better understand the consequences of war on people and society, or do we believe war to be something different than what it is?
I don’t know. I’ve read quite a bit about soldiers’ experiences in war, various ones throughout the ages, and I can’t help wondering what keeps dragging us back into conflicts despite our best intentions. It’s like that old quote attributed to Einstein, where the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. We aren’t exactly repeating the same thing – after all, in different eras and with different players, can you really say each war is the same? – and yet, there is a sameness to each of these soldiers in war. In each movie, we see people who once believed in a greater cause, only to find that in war, there is no cause but survival.