War Movies, Old And New

I’m trying to decide whether to go see 1917 this coming weekend.

From the reviews I’ve read, 1917 sounds like a a powerful, well-made movie, with an intriguing dash of extended take technical wizardry thrown in, so it’s not that I’m afraid I’d be shelling out the money to see a clinker.  No, it’s all about the fact that the reviews of the film emphasize that it fully and very effectively exposes the brutal horror of war generally, and World War I specifically.  I’m not sure that I’m ready for that.


Growing up, “war movies” were a pretty simple genre.  The Americans were the good guys, and the countries we were fighting — especially the Nazis — were the bad guys.  War movies inevitably involved some barracks hijinks and basic training footage showing the tough drill sergeant and the camaraderie of soldiers coming together to fight for a noble cause, and the soldiers who died did so heroically in pursuit of a clear, greater good.  War movies really weren’t really all that bloody, either.  Soldiers who were killed after taking some courageous and selfless action tended to get shot in the gut and die grimacing and clutching their midsections, like Jim Brown’s character in The Dirty Dozen.

Of course, everyone — especially veterans — knew that the movies were a totally sanitized depiction of war, and eventually filmmakers began striving for more realism, first gradually and then more and more extensively.  With Saving Private Ryan and its groundbreaking treatment of storming of the Normandy beaches on D Day — showing men shot through the head, blown apart, searching for lost limbs, dying horrific deaths covered with gore and entrails on a faraway beach — the old war movies were officially gone and a new form of war movie had taken their place.  When I saw Saving Private Ryan, I found it to be a powerful and brilliant movie .  . . but boy, it was tough to watch and hard to take.  1917 sounds like more of the same, and I’m not sure I want to see it.

This sounds like a wussy reaction, and no doubt it is.  And I also think that it’s a positive that the old form of war movie, with its naive treatment of good guys and bad guys and bloodless heroism, isn’t being made to deceive people about what war is really like.  In fact, I feel somewhat guilty about feeling reluctant to go to movies like 1917 for a refresher course on how terrible war actually is.  But is it really how I want to spend a Friday night or a Saturday afternoon?

Hacksaw Ridge

“War movies” have gotten increasingly difficult to watch over the years.  In the old days, men died heroically while ringed by their buddies — taking a bullet, closing their eyes, and then slumping over after saying a few well-chosen words about their loved ones and the cause of freedom.

No longer!  For decades now, war movies have been much more focused on trying to accurately depict the horror and brutality of war.  Ever since Saving Private Ryan, the battle scenes in war movies have become a bloodbath, with heads shot off, legs blown off, men screaming in agony, and battlefields littered with intestines, blood, and body parts.  You really need a strong stomach to go to a war movie these days.

hacksaw-ridge-2016-andrew-garfieldHacksaw Ridge, with its depiction of a savage fight to take a ridge during the battle of Okinawa in World War II, definitely falls into the “strong stomach” category.  But around the battle it tells the story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who wants to participate in the campaign against the Japanese, but whose religious beliefs and personal story won’t allow him to fire a gun or take a human life.  So he enlists in the army, puts up with the disbelief of the other members of his unit, narrowly defeats a court martial for disobeying orders to fire a weapon, and ultimately is accepted by his fellow soldiers and becomes a first aid corpsman.  And when the unit goes into battle on Okinawa, Doss displays incredible courage and gallantry under fire in his efforts to help desperate wounded men, ultimately lowering them each down a cliff before going back to try to find “just one more.”  For his heroism, Desmond Doss became the first conscientious objector to win the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Hacksaw Ridge is a good movie because it’s a classic American story about one man standing true to his beliefs and showing how one man can make a difference.  It has a lot of the familiar elements of war movies — the hard-boiled sergeant, the soldiers from every part of the country, the tough-talking guy who starts out a bully but ends up a comrade — and, in the battle scenes and their aftermath, brutally explicit carnage as the Americans and the Japanese fight hand to hand with rifles, pistols, flamethrowers, grenades, packet charges and machine guns.  All of that death and destruction created the vicious setting that allowed Desmond Doss, well played by Andrew Garfield, to show what one man of faith was capable of doing.  And in the scenes after the battle, when after nightfall an exhausted Doss keeps going back, risking death from the Japanese patrols in his efforts to try to save just one more wounded soldier, the tension created by the film is electric.

It’s a good story, but one that is brutal in the telling. After the movie Kish said she just couldn’t watch parts of it.  Maybe there’s something to be said about war movies that are so bloody and realistic that they are terrible to watch.