War Movies and the Human Heart
In a previous contribution to Chronicles' Filmlog, "Three for the Resistance," I discussed movies portraying the plight of small nations—Norway, the Netherlands, and Finland—overwhelmed by ruthless Nazi and Communist force during the World War II era.
The column evoked an extended discussion about war movies in general, including thoughtful comments by combat veterans. The veterans undeniably have a point that the experience of battle in modern warfare cannot be adequately conveyed in any medium. Yet war is one of the decisive factors of human history and and contains elements touching on the universal and eternal in regard to our experience and nature. The subject cannot be avoided by art.
You have doubtless heard the typical namby-pamby American sentiment that "Violence never solves anything." It was repeated by my sixth-grade teacher breaking up a fight on the schoolground. (I was losing, which usually happened since my father had told me never to hit anyone unless they were bigger than me.) In fact, the one and only potentially positive attribute of violence is that it sometimes solves something.
Perhaps the theme of Resistance can be revived again later, but more can be presented usefully here about war cinema. I believe it was Faulkner who said something to the effect that all great stories concern the human heart, and particularly the human heart in conflict with itself. Given that it is impossible really to reproduce the experience of war on film, I would prefer to think in terms of “wartime” movies rather than “war movies” as such. With Faulkner's theme of the human heart in mind, limiting ourselves to World War II, and in the hope of bringing on more reader discussion, here goes.
The WW II films that I have come to admire most are British, for reasons stated in an earlier column. Perhaps my favourite of all is Sink the Bismarck (1960), which skillfully blends strategy, action, and humanity to render a real event seemingly comprehensible. Not surprisingly, the British appear to do best with sea stories: Noel Coward’s wartime propaganda for the British navy, In Which We Serve (1942); and The Sea Shall Not Have Them and The Cruel Sea (both 1953). The American films Command Decision (1948) and The Enemy Below (1957) contain some of the same admirable elements.
The German films Das Boot (1981) and Stalingrad (1993), fit my theme, as does Cross of Iron (1977), an American treatment of the experience of Germans on the Eastern front. Further, I will point to the Russian films Ballad of a Soldier (1959) and My Name is Ivan (1963). For my money, Ballad of a Soldier ought to be on anybody's list of the greatest films of all time. There are several Japanese treatments that could be mentioned, but by far the best is The Human Condition, a three-film series (1958-1961).
Another treatment I would call classic is the thirty-episode British television series Tenko (1981-1984), about British women imprisoned by the Japanese. As far as I know, it has never been produced in an American format DVD. On the same subject, A Town Like Alice (two versions, 1956 and 1981) and Paradise Road (1997).
Finally, let me recommend two gems about American fighting men and the home front, which are perhaps not as well known as others I have mentioned: I'll Be Seeing You (1944) with Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten, and The Clock (1945) with Judy Garland and Robert Walker. These two really reach the heart.