The Best Movie Critic + review

Better Know A Genre: War Movies

You may have noticed that Justin has been pretty quiet on The Movie Advocate lately. That's not because he hasn't been writing. Oh, no! When I first started the Advocate, Justin came up with a pretty great idea. What if we 'themed' some months to a specific genre or category of movie? He proposed War Movies for the first month, and I could tell his wheels were already turning. However, I could have never guessed at the scope of what he had planned. What we have here for you today is the first of 4 or 5 entries for the month of March, and... well, I'll let Justin explain for himself...
In this series of posts, we will be investigating a specific movie sub-genre. Fair warning: there is very little research going into these aside from my own spotty memory. These aren’t going to be exhaustive studies of the genre, but rather a primer and some editorializing. With that, we’re off!

BETTER KNOW A GENRE - WAR MOVIES

I decided to focus on war movies for the first month of doing this after I saw Katherine Bigelow’s incomparable The Hurt Locker and trying to place that in the larger context of war movies that I’ve seen. In reflecting on war movies, I realized that I’ve probably seen more war movies than I have of any other genre in what’s known as “genre film.”

I tried to sort them out in a classification of different movie types, and soon decided that the most productive way to look at war movies is first by either pro-war or anti-war, and then to further divide them by thematic elements. I thought that this was also a more valuable way of looking at war movies than by sorting them by if they are facts-based, plausible, or entirely fictional. Over the next month, there will be a post each week with a few more supplemental bits.

I am specifically omitting Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now because there has been enough written about those movies and frankly, if you haven’t seen any one or more of them, you just need to. Required viewing for anyone who is serious about genre film, which I assume that you are since you’re reading this…

THE GREEN BERETS - PROPAGANDA

The Green Berets is an incredibly interesting movie as one of the only Vietnam movies to actually come out during the conflict (1968). It is essentially a recruitment movie starring John Wayne. The Green Berets were an American Special Forces unit in Vietnam that specialized in training civilians and doing other humanitarian and infrastructure work away from the front lines. The goal of the movie was to explain and demystify the reasons for American involvement in the war – note, we supposedly went to Vietnam to help our French allies withdraw – by the time The Green Berets came to theaters, America was shifting focus from helping our allies to a battle of hearts and minds against communism.

The Green Berets personified the fight by depicting the South Vietnamese as a good people with strong American values fighting against the hated Viet Cong. John Wayne of course was the face of America at the time. At 61 though he looks too old to be doing commando stuff... It is a repeat of the same type of character that was featured in, well, all the other John Wayne war movies. It’s completely unremarkable and so is the plot.

I specifically characterize this movie as propaganda for a couple of reasons; it is a completely unrealistic depiction of the fighting conditions and the people doing the fighting. The battles are easy to follow and not at all confusing. The morality in the movie is even more clearly defined. But perhaps the biggest indication of propaganda in any medium is the transference of emotion felt towards one thing to another unrelated thing. In the case of the Green Berets, it’s because as American’s it’s practically impossible not to love John Wayne and to see him as the embodiment of the classic do-gooder American swagger. Beyond that, the portrayal of the North Vietnamese Army as a bunch of cowardly booby-trappers that kill the main supporting star with a gruesome tiger trap is manipulation at its best. Of all the atrocities the NVA were guilty of, the ultimate one in this movie is the killing of one of our bright-eyed American boys.

Now, this isn’t to say that this movie isn’t worth watching. It totally is, but more as a historical document of the dishonesty of the impending Nixon years.

Magic Moment: The tiger trap scene, it really is surprising

STARSHIP TROOPERS - SATIRE

I view the anti-war cousin to propaganda as satire. The perfect opposite to Green Berets is Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, which is one of the most underrated movies of the 90’s (right next to Verhoeven’s Showgirls). Starship Troopers focuses on an Aryan-perfect group of 20-something high schoolers in Argentina of all places. Argentina has been turned into a conservative paradise, until it’s wiped off the face of the earth by a bunch of bugs. I haven’t read the novel, but from what I’ve heard, this movie doesn’t really follow it at all.

Like many great works of science fiction, many ideas from Starship Troopers have either come true, or don’t seem too far off. However, I don’t mean technologies, I mean marketing. Starship Troopers came out when the internet was coming into households courtesy of the dial-up modem and AOL. Troopers nails the use of the internet as recruitment propaganda delivery system. Children stomp bugs to do their part in the war effort and Dougie Howser hips us to the best place to shoot a bug. It’s not hard to imagine these as flash games now days. In the real world, the Army even released its own video game, America’s Army, early last decade. I’m guessing the only reason that something like that was not specifically included in Starship Troopers was because of how outrageous that is. The short “Do you want to know more?” propaganda clips between scenes are eerily reminiscent of You Tube videos, which are a source of disinformation and propaganda for each side.

Beyond using new media as propaganda in the movie, if Starship Troopers was released unchanged today, it would be viewed as an incredibly subversive commentary on the war on terror. The bug meteor attack on Buenas Aires seems to be completely unprovoked and more like a terrorist attack then the first move towards possible colonization. The Ft. Joe Smith sequence is notable for its really strange and antiquated characterizations of Mormon settlers being slaughtered by the bugs, a latter day stand-ins for Native Americans. The most troubling revelation is that the Troopers are positively shocked to find out that some bugs are capable of thought. They search out the ludicrously yonic brain-bug behind enemy lines hiding in a cave. All these events are punctuated by an undercurrent of bravado Americanism that seems even more ridiculous in the face of such an alien enemy, “I need a new sergeant, you’re it until you’re dead… or I find someone better.” “What do you get when you shoot a nuke down a bug hole? A bunch of dead bugs.” Starship Troopers is brain dead, ridiculous, and has gratuitous gore and nudity. It’s also the most intelligent war satire since MASH.

Magic Moment: “They’ve sucked his brains out.”

PATTON - GLORIFICATION OF THE WARRIOR

Unlike the previous two movies I’ve talked about, Patton is a really really good movie. It’s got top-notch acting, writing, and production. The movie is a biography of the WWII years of General George Patton, who was the US tank commander. Simply put, without Patton there’s a good chance the allies would not have won WWII, or at the very least it would have been significantly prolonged. Patton was an extremely divisive and controversial figure. He is perhaps best remembered by the American public for slapping a young man with shell shock. Patton called him cowardly and denied that shell shock, what we would now call PTSD exists.

George C. Scott won a well-deserved Oscar for his portrayal. His characterization is so convincing that the moments when Patton starts to go off the deep end seem completely believable. The portrayal of Patton in the movie considered himself to be part of the grand tradition of warriors; he even believed he had seen the battlefields in past lives. This is really new-agey for such a blood and guts guy. He talks at length about how fighting in WWII is too impersonal and that he’d rather be swinging swords at people than being in a tank. Beyond weirdness like that, he extremely dislikes the USSR troops, and the British, swears at everyone, stirs it up among the brass, and shoots his antique six-guns at strafing fighter planes – and this is all shown with a loving, un-ironic, devotion.

I would bet serious money that a gifted editor could re-cut this to be a seriously damning indictment Patton’s methods and character. Instead, the movie we have sidesteps the serious ethics questions with both its means-justifies-ends mentality and a sympathetic portrayal of Patton as a man lost in time who must fight because that’s what he is meant to do. The conflict is also secondary to Patton’s drive. Patton’s motivation is power and glory and not a higher sense of duty to country.

Scott really steals the show in this one, but the supporting actors are also quite remarkable, especially Karl Malden’s Omar Bradley. The cinematography in this movie is also incredible. The movie abounds with Leone-sized landscapes of Africa and Europe that are as big as Patton’s character. The iconic framing of the opening monologue with Patton standing in front of a humongous American flag does as much to set the tone of the movie as Scott’s fiery oration. As a large-scale war epic, this movie breezes through its long running time, complete with overture and intermission.

Magic Moment: “No poor dumb bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

FIRST BLOOD - EMOTIONALLY UNSTABLE SUPER WARRIOR

Across the aisle from Patton we have John Rambo, who really just wanted to grab some breakfast. John Rambo is a newly discharged green beret who has the maddest killing skillz ever. Because the ignorant small town sheriff mistakes Rambo for a no-good drifter, Rambo spends the next 90 minutes kicking the crap out of his deputies and anyone else thrown at him. That is until his blubbering outburst to his mentor about how hard it is coming back to the US after war.

Now, it’s that scene that in my opinion transforms this from an action movie about a misunderstood veteran into hardcore speculative fiction and commentary about the army training unparalleled soldiers but neglecting to provide counseling or re-entry assistance upon wrapping their tour of duties. Sadly, serious discussion and treatment for PTSD and depression has only recently been widely offered to returning soldiers. Including it as the major “twist” to what is otherwise a pop-action story was a really ballsy move in 1982.

At this point, it’s important that I make a distinction here that I don’t consider First Blood to be overtly anti-war. I do, however, consider it to be anti-army while still being pro-soldier. Rambo is portrayed as a Frankenstein’s monster type character. Even before the final emotional scene, it’s really hard not to sympathize with the guy. Partyly because even with the ludicrousness of the situation, it’s easy to relate to being misunderstood and lost in a bureaucracy (ever been to the DMV?), and partly because late 70’s / early 80’s Stallone was such a likeable guy.

Subsequent Rambo movies have lost the heart this first one had, and instead, moved to cheap pandering. In First Blood Part II, Col. Trautman springs Rambo to go on a suicide mission to rescue some of the boys that were left behind. In Part III, Rambo takes on the Ruskies in Afghanistan, and in the most recent entry, the eponymous Rambo, he makes Halo’s Master Chief seem like a believable character. Despite the ultimate slide into self-parody, First Blood is a major work, and deserves the respect of a serious movie in spite of its over indulgences.

Magic Moment: The assault on the town during the climax.

-Justin

Ben here again. Wow, this guy is putting me to shame. And this is just the first post of a longer article that Justin will continue to unveil as the month progresses. Though this is his baby, I'll try to augment "Better Know A Genre" with posts covering a few movies Justin isn't going to write about here and there. And what about you? What are your favorite war movies? How would you divide different movements and thematic breaks in the genre? Feel free to share any bitchin' double features you can think of, too. And check back next week for Part Two of Better Know a Genre: War Movies!

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