Cinema’s War Against War

Paper by Jacob Schleien.

Cinema around the world has featured conflict in it since the very first films with a narrative. We see movies as early as Birth of a Nation (1915) even feature fighting and conflict. It’s one of the core ingredients to a movie. As cinema has progressed however, movies begin to carry common themes and motifs that relay a message. One of these films is a message of “anti-war.” Films like Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Paths of Glory (1957), and Saving Private Ryan (1998), all use these themes, motifs, and cinematic effects to show their viewers the horrors of war and advocate against conflict. They masterfully use gruesome, realistic, imagery as well as powerful narratives to progress the theme that it is in fact, the common man or woman, who always winds up losing in war. With this powerful message, these films hope to create a societal change to make viewers view war in a negative way around the world.

When examining these films by their chronological release dates, we begin with Stanley Kubrick’s, Paths of Glory (1957). The film begins with a revolutionary tracking shot of General Mireau walking through his trenches asking if his men are ready to kill more Germans, as if murder is a sport. The inciting incident occurs when Mireau looks to bomb his own men who refuse to leave their trenches as it is futile to try and gain territory. While this act of treason does not happen, the army is defeated and Mireau does not accept responsibility and instead blames his men. Eventually the generals decide on executing three different soldiers for cowardice.

This film focuses on a strong narrative and symbolism to better show the disparity of power between the regular soldiers and generals. In Andrew Kelly’s article, Brutality of Military Incompetence, he states that “Much of the film details the opportunism and greed of the French High Command, though by implication it is a condemnation of all military authority” (215). A great example of this greed is when Broulard, the highest ranking official, hears about the fact that Mireau wanted to fire upon his own men which is the highest level of treason. Rather than condemn Mireau, he opts to commend Dax for finding a way to take Mireau’s job. As the men eat their expensive food on their exquisite dining sets, this scene shows us how the generals’ literally view the men as pawns as they live like royalty while battle rages on.

Another extremely notable scene from this film is what might be referred to as the “cockroach scene.” The three chosen men sit in their cell awaiting death when Private Paris notes that the cockroach in their cell will be physically and spiritually closer to his family than he is tomorrow. This prompts Private Ferolles to abruptly smash the cockroach like it will make Paris feel better outliving it. In Burgess’s, Paths of Glory Antimilitarism, he notes that “by a brutal act of destruction, an illusion of power is achieved. Later on, the lives of the three soldiers are snuffed out as abruptly and brutally as was the cockroach’s life, for the sake of General Mireau’s illusion of power” (8). These scenes combine to create a power hierarchy between the cockroach, the three privates’, and the generals. The private can kill the cockroach like it is nothing, but the generals can do the same to the privates. This is a cinematically perfect way to establish how the common soldier is viewed and loses in this situation.

Kubrick’s Paths of Glory was just the beginning of cinema’s attempts to bring the realities of war to the silver screen. In arguably one of Tom Cruises’ best and most inspiring performances he plays Ron Kovic, in Born on the Fourth of July (1989). Ron Kovic is a representation of how sometimes war is so gross and meaningless that many of those dragged into it are indeed better off with a bullet to the head on the battlefield. This is something Ron struggles with when he is injured and sent home from Vietnam. Scholars like Jack E. Davis agree that “For Ron Kovic, rehabilitation and reintegration after Vietnam represent the worst years of his life” (11). An accumulation of struggles in the hospital puts Ron in a helpless wheelchair-ridden state back at home in America. While we typically regard men who serve our country as heroes, Ron finds himself returning home and begging for the nurse and doctors to just treat him like a “human being.”

After months in the hospital hoping to recover use of his legs, Ron finds himself stuck in a wheelchair at home with his family. Director Oliver Stone shows how much of a changed man Ron is now that he has returned home, and he literally cannot live with his family. One of the most perturbing scenes is the climax of Ron’s family struggles. Humans have all encountered arguments with the ones we love and live with for so long. Oliver Stone’s confrontation starts in a very similar fashion to how one of those arguments might start. A son coming home intoxicated is not very far-fetched from an American nuclear family. It is the extent to which this argument goes and how the crescendo of Ron’s screaming and flailing wakes the neighborhood and eventual causes him to remove his catheter make even the viewer feel uncomfortable watching.

Ron’s decent into depression is not quite like the murder of three innocent soldiers in Paths of Glory. This narrative takes a much more intimate style approach with just a single protagonist that we see has been so broken by the system he loved and protected. While Kubrick’s movie acts to show how the elite are doing in war as well as the poor, this movie takes a much deeper dive into the life of the individual commoner. By focusing on just one man, this film can better show the effects after war. This is very important because those who don’t actually serve in battle don’t realize that a soldier never leaves the battle for the rest of their lives.

Kubrick does not shy away from battle scenes in his film, but he was unfortunately limited by the technology of the late fifties. That does not mean that other, more contemporary, great directors have not tackled the beast of war in cinema. Steven Spielberg, one of the greatest directors of all time, made one of the most gruesome, eye-opening, triggering movies of all time with his Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Gore plays a massive role in this film, something any viewer will find very evident within five minutes of the famous intro scene. The intro scene being one of the most real depictions of D-Day ever created. Using a non-steady camera, a barrage of jumbled audio, and violence the intro “doesn’t present the soldiers as superheroes, but rather as confused and scared men who are simply doing their best to survive” (Budanovic). It’s so easy to have every bullet miss the “good guys” in movies. Spielberg did the exact opposite in this scene. As the bullets and bodies fall at similar rates, we barely even see an actual Nazi until the men break through.

Instead, Spielberg chooses to show us the absolute fear of the young soldiers in shots like these. As Tom Hank’s character, Captain John Miller, struggles with shellshock like the man in the intro of Paths of Glory, we see the men struggle for cover from the Nazi fire.

Budanovic’s words come to fruition as the fight for survival becomes obvious.

Once again, we see this movie making the point that the commoners are the ones that are put in these intense, fiery moments of struggle that result in the creation of more Ron Kovic’s. A statistic in Bacanovics’ article plays testimony to the realism of the film as “two weeks from when the film was screened, the Department of Veteran Affairs had to increase staffing on its telephone counseling line” (Budanovic). World War Two veterans were being triggered by how absolutely real this movie felt to them.

We can see real life statistics showing us the struggles soldiers face when they come home, but the ones who do not make it back are best represented by “Doc” in his final moments. After heroically charging the Nazi machine gunners, he finds himself taking his last few breathes as he bleeds out from bullet wounds. The intimacy in this scene between Man and Death is something neither Paths of Glory or Born on the Fourth could capture. The realization that all men are this close to similar pain at all times in war becomes apparent when the lower-ranking men give each other a silent stare and debate of whether to give Doc more morphine. It is not until the Captain Miller orders it that they give it to him. It is in his final breathes we hear him call for “Mama” and says he “wants to go home.” A boy wanting to go home, calling for his mother, certainly plays at the viewers emotional chords. It makes one asks if war is worth it for this whole squad of boys to go through this pain and feel the same tearing agony for their mothers and home. These horrific deaths that make viewers cringe can be found scattered throughout the film with Melish’s death, and eventually Captain Miller.

Captain Miller does hold the title of Captain, yes. That does not categorize him as the military elite, however. The movie makes a point to humanize Captain Miller and make it known he was drafted and was a happy schoolteacher and coach prior to the war. Captain Miller merely holds rank because of his maturity, not because of greed or deception like those of Paths of Glory (1957).
This movie looks less to demonize the higher-ups in the military, and perhaps that is because Spielberg grew up in America with an American education that favors the U.S military, but that does not change Spielberg’s political reach. David Walsh of WSWS.org says that Spielberg’s political reach is so vast that “Many people believe more in [Spielberg’s] films than they do official political life” (Walsh). That being said, Walsh’s overall perspective of the movie is vastly different. While Spielberg’s massive political influence is agreeable, Walsh says that Spielberg is “too pleased with the world” in this film and a “pro-government anti-war film.” If one watches the introduction scene, and sees men burning, searching for limbs, and drowning it is hard to see where the director is “pleased with the world.”
The intense gore and amount of death far outweighs the American propaganda of this film. Spielberg is a Jewish American. He is going to certainly have innate bias against Nazi’s and favoritism of the Americans. Scenes like Doc’s or Melish’s death act as reminders that war is still absolutely disgusting in the end and it is not as linear as people commonly think. As Otto cries on the staircase, listening to his brother-in-arms get murdered, it is hard to say Spielberg is “too pleased with the world” and was not spreading an anti-war message. The film does not act to tell the entire history of World War Two like Walsh expects from Spielberg. Instead it tells a small-scale story of heroism — but that heroism constantly comes with insane sacrifice. The constant reiteration of these being common boys and men that die means to show it was not the government that fought the war. They weren’t the ones fighting on the fronts like these commoners.

While most war films do in fact take a position against fighting, these three films all act to show the viewer how common people are specifically the ones who receive the short straw when it comes to fighting. From the literal hierarchy of power in Paths of Glory (1957), to the harm on an individual level in Born on the Fourth of July (1989), even Saving Private Ryan (1998) shows us that the men fighting in the field are no more men than any college kid. War is possibly the worst aspect of human life. There is a complete disregard of morals from the powerful that trickles down on to those that are forced to fight on their behalf. Hollywood’s goal through movies like these is to get the common man to think “what if that was me in his shoes.” This of course leads to an anti-war philosophy to life as no man or woman should ever have to endure what happened in the trenches of World War One or the beaches of Normandy in World War Two.

Works Cited
Budanovic, Nikola. “Saving Private Ryan Depicted War So Realistically That It Triggered PTSD among Veterans Who Watched It.” WAR HISTORY ONLINE, 11 May 2018, www.warhistoryonline.com/world-war-ii/spielbergs-war-saving-private-ryan.html.
Burgess, Jackson. “The ‘Anti-Militarism’ of Stanley Kubrick.” pp. 4–11., doi:10.2307/1210143.
Davis, Jack E. Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies. Vol. 28, Center for the Study If Film and History, 1998.
Kelly, Andrew. The Brutality of Military Incompetence: ‘Paths of Glory’ (1957), Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. Routledge, 2006.
Kubrick, Stanley, director. Paths of Glory. Bryna, 1957.
Spielberg, Steven, director. Saving Private Ryan. Dreamworks, 1998.
Stone, Oliver, director. Born On The Fourth Of July. Ixtlan, 1998.
Walsh, David “Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan: Small Truths at the Expense of Big Ones.” World Socialist Web Site, 1998, www.wsws.org/en/articles/1998/07/ryan-j31.html.

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