War movies used to be a staple of American and international film. They provided an excellent mechanism for combining action with patriotism, which fed the studios' wallets and the immigrant studio heads' nationalism at the same time. But war movies died with Vietnam, in the U.S., at least. The only war movies one sees today are anti-war movies - an excellent mechanism for combining action with idealism, which feeds the studios' wallets and the shallow studio heads' superficial sense of social involvement at the same time. (Things change, but not much.) Anti-war movies have a much more limited audience, though, so not nearly so many of them are made. Which makes the chances of seeing three new war movies in a single month rather unlikely.
None the less, I did. It helped that two were made outside the U.S. What is interesting about the experience is that the films covered three different wars from three different periods of history, using three different perspectives, and had three different themes. The up side of the decline of war movies is that they are no longer out there glamorizing war. The down side is that war is a powerful catalyst for the artistic impulse, and has been a fundamental component in many great artistic masterpieces. These three films found three different ways to use the power of war without glorifying it.
Henry V is an adaptation of Shakespeare's play about Britain's great warrior king, the victor of Agincourt. During World War II, Olivier used this material to fashion propaganda, creating a world of pageantry in which plucky little England overcame tremendous odds to gloriously win a continental war. The new version of the film, directed by Kenneth Branagh, takes a very different view of things. The same play, edited differently by the two directors, provided two different views of war. Branagh presents a dynamic young king prodded and duped into fighting a bloody, vicious war whose victory is undone within a generation. This Henry V contains no fields of honor and thundering hoards of glistening knights. It is full of dirt, mud, and gloom. Despite a decisive victory with small losses, Branagh's Henry is a king who has seen the horror of war, and is happy to compromise his demands to avoid a return to battle. England is a nation led by a duped leader into an unnecessary and horrible war to uphold a dubious territorial claim. War here is futile, nasty, without any redeeming value.
Branagh furthers his achievement, though, by presenting the seductive side of war. Henry is a tremendous leader of men, able to stir and cajole them to unbelievable efforts. How many in the audience would not follow Henry into battle after the speech he gives before Agincourt? Precious few, I think. Yet, while that battle was forced, it was fought in a war that would benefit only the few, if anyone at all.
Glory is a very different film. Glory, directed by Edward Zweig, tells the story of the first black regiment to see combat in the American Civil War. During that War, one of whose major causes was slavery in the Southern states, the Union was reluctant to use black soldiers. Underlying prejudice against blacks was nearly as widespread and deep in the North as in the South. Moreover, the South made it very clear that they intended to treat black soldiers and those who fought with them very harshly. So, despite the intense desire of blacks to participate in the war that would liberate them, the Union dragged its heels on using them.
But the persistence of blacks and the enlightenment of a few white Northerners finally prevailed. Black soldiers were recruited, trained, and, eventually, used in battle. Glory tells the true story of the first regiment of black soldiers to see battle. Their bravery in some hideously deadly combat proved that black soldiers could be just as effective as whites. Unlike Henry V, the war in Glory is necessary, and, in a destructive way, liberating. The soldiers in Glory die in enormous numbers, but they die for a reason, and their deaths have meaning and value. The horror of war is not minimized, but the focus of the film is how some men used war for good purposes, sacrificing themselves for the benefit of others. Not a popular point of view, nowadays, and only the socially acceptable message of racial equality made this film possible, at all.
Talvisota, the third film, has a more modern setting, and is primarily concerned with the destruction of war. In 1939, the U.S.S.R. invaded Finland with a huge army, basically seeking to incorporate it into the Soviet Union, or, at least, to seize strategically important chunks of the country. But the Soviets made two important errors - they invaded in winter, and they underestimated the resolve of the Finns. Unprepared for a winter campaign against a determined opponent, the Russians took tremendous losses, despite equally tremendous numerical superiority, and the war was eventually ended. Finland had to give up some territory, but maintained its independence.
The few Americans who know of this war tend to view it as a dashing affair carried out on sparkling snow, with daring Finnish ski troops encircling lumbering, incompetent Soviet units. It has a clean, surgical image, reinforced by clear heros and villains, and a situation in which the underdog basically prevailed. Talvisota smashes that image. A Finnish film directed by Pekka Parikan, it does not suggest that the Finns were responsible or in the wrong, but it makes clear that no modern war has anything of glamour about it.
Talvisota follows a group of Finns who are conscripted to help defend the country. Their war is not a matter of swooping down on bumbling Russians, but a horror of trench fighting against seemingly endless hoards of enemy troops, with intermittent moments of terror as Soviet artillery and aircraft pound them. One after another, they die, suddenly, nastily, usually with no particular rhyme or reason. Charging into the enemy sometimes proves safer than going behind a tree to relieve yourself. The soldier next to you can be blown apart while you aren't scratched. Every time a man goes out of your sight, it might be the last time you ever see him.
No film I have seen has ever painted as strong a picture of the destructive power of war as does Talvisota. The film is three harrowing hours of death and explosion. Forests are reduced to fields of shattered stumps. Men are ground down to the point where they are hardly living at all. Death is rarely clean, and usually very messy and unpleasant. The soldiers are killed, their families are torn apart, the countryside is destroyed. And, worst of all, the whole awful process is unavoidable. Finland didn't want the war, didn't ask for the war, but could only avoid it by submitting entirely to the enemy. Talvisota is easily the bleakest of the three films, for it shows no redeeming feature of war, yet also suggests that the best intentions in the world cannot always allow you to avoid it.
These three films demonstrate the artistic power of war. How could an activity that, by its nature, involves death on a large scale and the clash of fundamental ideals not be a powerful subject for art? The true shame of most war films made during the greatest flood of combat movies is perhaps not that they made war too heroic, but that they treated the subject so shallowly, with Errol Flynn and company mowing down faceless battalions of Japanese and Germans, at no real cost to themselves or even to the enemy. Toy soldiers fell over, and our side won the game. Branagh, Zweig, and Parikan have artistic visions - war as horrible waste, war as a terrible but necessary step in liberation, war as tragically unavoidable destruction. These sorts of war films are important even in times of peace, and even to those who oppose war for any purpose. They are the cinema's contribution to one of the great issues of all times, and are every bit as important as books, editorials, and speeches. This is cinema as art.
Back to the review list.