Following the release of Dunkirk, a film that, as shown by its 12A certificate, shied away from graphic depictions of violence, I thought it prudent to open up the discussion on the way war is depicted in this most popular of cultures: the cinema.
Firstly, though, if there is one thing that we all can agree on, is that war is a terrible and violent phenomenon. As such, it would seem like something that one would avoid recounting. And yet, time and time again, as a people, we flaunt our wartime credentials. From Homer’s Iliad to Roman Emperor Augustus and the Res Gestae, in which he accounts for all his military triumphs, to the current nationalist displays of armed power by countries such as North Korea and America, it is seemingly a part of our DNA.
Film has never veered away from this questionable tradition. Since the days of D.W. Griffith and his controversial classic Birth of a Nation, the spectacle of battle has seemed attractive to those who wanted to push the boundaries of what the medium could achieve. In the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, some of the great war films had been distributed, designed to augment patriotic pride on behalf of the troops in conflict, or in remembrance of their sacrifice: such revered films include The Battle of Britain (1969) and The Longest Day (1962).
On an aside from these, many a war film seeks to capture the overwhelming impact of the event of war, to a much more violent and horrifying degree: films such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Saving Private Ryan (1999) have been simultaneously praised and questioned on their graphic depictions of First and Second World War contests.
So, as we cannot escape war’s grasp from inside the cinema, or outside of its walls, perhaps there is a question of how it should be depicted. After all, cinema is an art form experienced by all, and as such can go a long way to affecting our view of a historical event: the spectator, or the subject, is ultimate in terms of how a text is absorbed and discussed.
It is from this that one must realise that graphic depictions of war are not the most effective in capturing its devastation. Violence is a terrible aspect to warfare, and yet it is also one that is somewhat nullified by the voyeuristic experience. As Henry Bacon points out in his text The Fascination of Film Violence, our position ‘in the soothing darkness of the auditorium or the comfort of our homes’ allows us to experience ‘great sensations without responsibilities or attachments’ (Bacon, H. 2015: 18). While I would avoid accusing anyone of consciously enjoying violence in a manner akin to the Marquis de Sade, I do believe Bacon is on the right track in terms of how we can never really place ourselves within the physical environment of the war. The violence perpetuated is at a distance: we are safe from its grasp.
In contrast with our physical inactivity, however, the spectatorship of cinema does not limit our cognitive experience; the psychological nature of warfare can be explored to great effect within cinema, and should be pushed to the forefront of any historical depictions of war in future.
Take two films as an example: David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and David Ayer’s Fury (2014).
With Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, we have his signature, epic scope. Yet, it is almost entirely without action or conflict. Instead of focusing on the violent front, Lean opts to adapt a story of a group of American POW’s in a Japanese camp, forced to build a bridge over the eponymous river. What this leads to is a dialectical subjectivity, as the Japanese and American protagonists clash over their ideals and principled differences. Moreover, Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness), the leader of the POW’s, suffers from a singular vision: he refuses to divert from his passion to complete the bridge, even so far as to fight with his own American allies. Rather than reduce the conflict to a binary of good vs. evil, a convention that eases our viewing experience, Lean extracts subtle hints of a greater psychological trauma within the men who are supposed to be the grandstanding heroes of a Great War: rather than glorifying, Lean creates empathy by getting under the skin of his characters, giving us a chance to pass judgement.
David Ayer achieves a similar effect in Fury. A film that refuses to stay true to patriotic values, Fury dives into the grime and filth of boots-on-the-ground combat. Following Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) and his tank crew as they roll into Germany, they are faced with a number of questionably amoral decisions. One such scene, a harrowingly difficult watch, involves Wardaddy forcing the youngest recruit, Norman (Logan Lerman), to shoot a surviving German officer, pleading for his life and a chance to return to his family. Now, you may wonder: this isn’t psychological, it’s physical. However, the point of the scene, and the reason it resonates so much, is that the killing is meant to be meaningless, as it naturally feels for us as spectators, due to our detached and distant position. Instead, it is the psychological acceptance that war removes all right and wrong, leaving only a target to eliminate, that causes the film to stick with you long after it concludes.
With these two examples, one can see how war isn’t something to glorify or assert in terms of a binary, good vs. evil value system. There is no dialectical structure: war removes even this fundamental tenet of our human functioning. Instead, the purpose of filming war should be to emulate the intensity of the amoral, mental trauma that the soldiers of war would have experienced. Rather than present elongated sequences of soldiers being mowed down by machine gun fire, instead cinema should seek to feed the unconscious feelings into our own mind, so that we too show sentiment and fear and resentment towards what had happened: one no longer feels that they are without responsibility, as they would be witnessing a recreation of a wartime massacre.
While violence should never be shied away from – cinema can often inspire pacifism due to the spectatorial intensity of these battle sequences – it cannot be identified with on a personal level and subsequently falters in the film’s overall task: to create sympathy for those involved. Instead, cinema has the marvellous power to manipulate time, space and narrative in order to insinuate unique ideas about the world and its inhabitants. This psychological tinkering can best delve into said people, allowing us to fully appreciate any and all sacrifices made. Rather than glorify the ‘what’ and ‘how’, instead cinema should focus on the ‘why’, that little nugget of personal drive that lies underneath the surface. As I said in my review for Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan achieved this with flying British colours, veering away from extensive battle scenes and instead opting for a technically overwhelming torrent of intense yet streamlined storytelling, tapping not only into the soldiers’ fearful psychology, but our own as well. It was because of this experience that I felt inclined to write this article. And it is with this article that I hope a more refined, complex and rewarding depiction of war may be achieved, away from the spectacle that often dominates our screen.