The War film has has long been an honored staple of the Hollywood Canon as long as film itself has been around. Indeed, the film that codified the language of cinema, The Birth of a Nation (in other words, the movie that created the term "movie." The Birth of a Nation pretty much provides the dictionary definition of "movie," and had the audacity to do it first), has a first half that can easily be construed as a War Film. The genre has mutated to fit the social climate at hand: the 30s saw a deromanticized, ugly version of war after WW1, the 40s were tainted by a desperate recruitment attempt, the 50s and early 60s glorified war in the way that only nations at peace are capable of, the late 60s, 70s, and early 80s saw visions of hell through jungle-colored lenses, and the late 80s through 90s brought a near-fantasy version of war, created by a national policy of sweeping conflict under the rug. Today, we stand at a junction: the world is evolving past the Rambos and the Top Guns, but has yet to find its voice for dealing with contemporary conflict: some films hit (The Hurt Locker, Paradise Now), but the majority (Lions For Lambs, Redacted, In the Valley of Elah) miss.
I'll be honest: war film as a genre has always fascinated me. I once heard it stated that war films were the most interesting of genres, because they allowed humans to play out their regular conflicts to an extreme. This might be the first posts about war as a genre, but it's certainly not the last.
For now, I'd like to make a bold statement: making a truly "anti-war" war film is almost impossible. I would say entirely impossible, but for one fine example, which we will discuss in a moment. This is not to say that an anti-war message can't be conveyed through film. My claim is that doing so within the confines of a stereotypical war film is stunningly hypocritical.
Film as a medium has a difficult relationship with war: on the one hand, film seems to be the perfect way to capture the heightened emotion, the strategizing, the combination of giants fighting one another by deploying the smallest ants. Film can focus on one individual's problem in the midst of thousands and thousands of people fighting for thousands and thousands of others. On the other hand? Film as a medium cannot realistically express war. Things like story, pacing, and dramatic symmetry are lost on war as a reality. To films, however, they are absolutely essential. This creates a problem: a director cannot introduce one without violating the other.
Consider Platoon. This is widely considered one of the best anti-war films ever made, indeed, one of the best war films of any kind ever made. I have an objection, however: its focus on combat. Yes, the Charlie Sheen narrative pretends to make grandiose statements about the loss of innocence, and many empathetic characters die in horrific, brutal ways. But then the combat comes. It's masterfully directed, and incredibly proficient on a technical scale, but it has an energy and a sense of purpose that many viewers will find exhilarating. While I have never been in combat, nor do I plan to, I feel confident in saying that combat is many things, but exhilarating is not one of them. Admittedly, Platoon does not play like a recruitment video (unlike such unabashedly biased films as Top Gun). Too many red-blooded males watch the movie, however, and can't help but be excited by the images of combat shown. I have, however, encountered people who have watched the film and left with a positive image of war. And, mind you, Platoon is a very unpleasant film. If these young men can watch Platoon and be excited, imagine their reaction to the jingoistic works of Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay.
Here is where I should say that an anti-war film in the context of an actual war film is impossible. However, it only takes one counterexample to keep conjecture from becoming reality. Thus, I humbly submit All Quiet on the Western Front for your consideration.
All Quiet on the Western Front adroitly sidesteps all of the problems I outlined earlier. It avoids attempting to wring drama out of a focused plot by leaving plot by the wayside: the film is a series of vignettes, whose only connection is that they happen to the same group of people. The film avoids showing battles almost entirely. There is one exception, a third of the way into the film: this scene ignores strategy and character completely. Indeed, one can't even tell which side is which. And that's the point: All Quiet... eliminates the possibility of routing for "the right side." Instead, it shows what is best described as a montage of death: countless men running into gunfire, their political ideology rendered irrelevant by the swift and sudden introduction of a bullet into their vital organs. There's absolutely nothing exhilarating about this All Quiet..., because there's nothing exhilarating about death, which is all the film has time to portray. The film itself says it best. Here is the opening title card:
This story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.
And later, the film's thesis statement, as delivered by Lew Ayres:
"We live in the trenches out there, we fight, we try not to be killed, and sometimes we are. That's all."
All Quiet on the Western Front. The only true anti-war film ever made.
Disagree? Give me a good counterexample. How does one go about dramatizing war without making it look enjoyably dramatic?