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Soldier On
by Simon Smithson

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Hanks's wish to be big goes very, very wrong.

Hanks's wish to be big goes very, very wrong.
Is it possible for a movie to capture the entirety of an experience? I don't think so- I mean, none of the shoot-outs that I've seen on film really equal the real-life shoot-outs that I've been involved in. Mainly because the movie versions rarely involve water pistols and someone saying ‘Ow man, you got me right in the eye- not cool.'

The idea of a movie is not to completely replicate experience, but to simply hit the high points and provoke an emotional and intellectual response in the viewer (unless the movie is MILE HIGH, in which case it will only provoke you asking for your money back). And nowhere is it more difficult to accurately base a movie in real events, and nowhere is it possible to garner more of a reaction, than in a good war movie.

Because all of us have been in love, or been scared, or pretended to be a pool cleaner in order to seduce a lonely housewife. But it's only a small percentage of the population who have gone into battle, who have risked their lives and pitted themselves against a deadly opponent who is trying to destroy them (those who have been audited by the IRS notwithstanding). So it's an experience that doesn't lend itself immediately to the imagination.

Some war movies, however, manage to capture the lives of soldiers in a way that stays with you long after the credits have rolled. They draw the situations and characters in such a way that you shudder when the bullets hit home. Some war movies paint no man's land in such vivid colours that it's impossible to look away, and impossible not to be moved by the plight of the soldiers who have left their homes so far behind. These are generally the movies that avoid the clichés of men staggering valiantly on with a dozen bullets in them, the ‘stiff-upper-lip-old-chap' jingoistic tales of improbable victory.

There's a place for such movies, don't get me wrong. But given the realities of war, it's perhaps a less glorious place than the movies that delve into the mind of the soldier.

Unfortunately I was unable to source copies of either the 1957 Stanley Kubrick PATHS OF GLORY or the original 1930 Lewis Milestone ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. Instead my recent experience of World War One movies is limited to the 1979 Delbert Mann remake of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, which is probably for the best, as I find it impossible to watch World War One movies without exclaiming at the television ‘What the… you get in trenches and then run across open land at the other guy? THAT's your plan? What's the matter with your idiot generals?'

ALL QUIET is the story of a group of young German volunteers in the First World War, charting their journey from the classroom to training and to the battlefield. It refuses to dehumanise either the Germans or their French counterparts, instead bringing home every moment of horror and sadness as, one by one, the young men are killed. The loss of life is almost second to the loss of humanity that each man endures as
Charlie and Emilio would never act up at home again.

Charlie and Emilio would never act up at home again.
he comes face to face with the realities of war. In the brief scenes where the narrator, the character of Paul Baumer, returns home on leave, he is shocked to find that his true home is now at the front, among his fellow soldiers, instead of with his family in the house where he grew up.

Humanity and vulnerability are key themes in the World War 2 epic, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. As my fellow columnist Andy York pointed out in his excellent recent column (The Greatest Generation can be found in last week's columns), SAVING PRIVATE RYAN put paid to the gung-ho war movie in its stark depiction of the brutality of war. From the outset of the scenes on the beaches of Normandy we see that the soldiers are all too human; mere flesh and bone are no match for the German guns.

As the movie progresses and the members of the squad get more individual screen time their lives before the war and their emotional turmoil during the conflict come to the fore. Giovanni Ribisi delivered a stand-out performance, his reminiscences about his mother watching over him as he went to sleep steeped in pathos and regret.

Even Tom Hanks's Captain Miller, regarded by his men as more of an unstoppable force than a man, is shown to be human. The trembling of his hand and his revelations of his life before the war show him as a man who does the best he can to keep his emotions in check when in the field. Miller knows that life is fleeting, and never more so than in war. Battle is no cause for celebration.

There are other consequences to war than just the loss of life. The loss of innocence and the loss of humanity are explored in the Vietnam movies PLATOON and APOCALYPSE NOW respectively. Two generations of Sheens portrayed men in Vietnam in two very different movies, both of which were well-articulated and well-told stories of what can happen to men who are cut adrift.

PLATOON saw Charlie Sheen star as Chris Taylor, a young and inexperienced man who volunteered to fight in the jungles of Vietnam. Taylor is exposed to two opposing ethical forces- the brutal Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger) and the moralistic Sergeant Elias (Willem Defoe). Taylor's moral compass flickers back and forth between these two points throughout the beginning of the film, finally coming to rest on the nobility personified in Sergeant Elias.

PLATOON poses the question- is it possible to send a soldier to war and expect him to remain the same? Sheen's character begins the film as a naïve and uncertain young man who joined up because he believed he was doing the right thing by enlisting. As soon as he's on the ground, however, he is faced with the truth of the situation, and the stress begins to work on him. It is only through his adoption by Elias and his pot-smoking buddies that Chris is able to find salvation, rather than being sucked in by the savage black hole that is Tom Berenger's Sergeant Barnes. And even though Chris manages to preserve his own sanity and his own soul, his innocence
The name 'Ocean's 3 Kings' was nixed by studio bosses.

The name 'Ocean's 3 Kings' was nixed by studio bosses.
is irrevocably lost.

I'm well aware that making the following statement on a site devoted to movies is akin to covering myself in meat sauce and jumping into a piranha-infested river, but, as far as I'm concerned, APOCALYPSE NOW: REDUX is the best movie ever made. For the purposes of this column I was finally able to justify the hours it takes to watch it, and Coppola's masterpiece about a man who was gone over the edge of sanity and the consequences set in motion is just that- a masterpiece.

Sure, Marlon Brando was paid enough money to finance a small country for the role of Colonel Kurtz. But it wasn't my money, so I consider it totally worth it.

Martin Sheen's voyage down the river and into his own psyche is one of the great narrative tales of modern cinema. Confronted by the horrors of the war, the vast consuming emptiness of his own soul, and the almost-insane actions of his fellow officers, Sheen's mission to terminate Kurtz ‘with extreme prejudice' unveils the darkness of the human heart and the precipice of sanity that humanity as a whole balances on- a precipice that can be suddenly, shockingly, withdrawn from beneath the feet of a man who has seen too much of the world. Kurtz's recollection of the sights that drove him to abandon his role as a soldier and assume the mantle of a butcher are all the more terrible because he presents them so reasonably. The backdrop of war provides the catalysts for such a seismic shift in the psyche- confronted with such monstrous events, how can any man prevent himself from becoming a monster, if only to wipe them from the face of the earth?

The same rationale applies to the enemy, as well as the heroes of a war film, something that was brought home in spades in the Gulf War film, 3 KINGS. It was a remarkable movie in many ways, not the least of which was that it got a flawless performance out of Ice Cube.

The unusual visual techniques, the blending of black humour and surreal violence, the mercenary motivation of the main cast- all of these added up to make a movie as refreshing as it is memorable.

One of the most poignant scenes of the movie is when Mark Wahlberg is separated from his fellow soldiers and captured by Iraqi troops who proceed to torture him. As Wahlberg is being electrocuted and given a refreshing drink of crude oil, his interrogator calmly informs him that it was Americans who bombed the interrogator's house in Baghdad, killing and crippling his young family. It's hard to maintain a motivation of righteousness after such a revelation.

The events of war are such that they can throw the strengths and frailties of the men and women who fight in them into sharp relief. A good war film is one that doesn't shy away from that fact, that highlights the fact that in the face of such adversity, the human spirit is capable of both great courage and great cruelty- and that both come with a price.



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Every other Monday

An in-depth look at the different kinds of characters that make the movies, how they've changed over time, and how they reflect the best and worst of us.


Other Columns
Other columns by Simon Smithson:

And The Cat's In The Cradle...

I Ain't 'Fraid Of No Ghost

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan

Psycho Killer- Qu'est-ce que c'est?

You Can't Spell Private Without I

All Columns


Simon Smithson
Simon was crushed when he found out that 'Ghostbuster' was not an actual vocation, and so went with the next best thing - writing columns for Internet movie sites. He's working on a proton pack of his own, but it's going to take some time.


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If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Simon Smithson by clicking here.


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