The romance of war films – Jennifer Leigh Williamson from Nomad Cinema explains the themes behind their recent screenings at the Imperial War Museum, and explores why audiences still find war films so compelling.
Why are war films so compelling? Transcending genres and unaffected by the changing times, we’ve been watching from Intolerance (1916) to Anthropoid (2016). Examining the last 100 years of entertainment and intrigue, the Imperial War Museum’s current exhibition Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies explores how war has proved a profoundly compelling subject since the earliest days of cinema.
Why did it happen, this mad act of nature, this crazed human moment? Well, at least it produced art. Perhaps, in the end, that’s what catastrophe is for – Julian Barnes
The exhibition which runs until January 2017 has teamed up with social enterprise The Nomad Cinema this November to screen three diverse war films: Casablanca (1942), Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Atonement (2007). Known as the ‘pop-up cinema with a difference’, the Nomad donates 100% of its profits to charity, making the events simultaneously entertaining, educational and philanthropic. But why have we chosen these three films to represent a century of this compelling genre?
The films are different in every way: tonally, aesthetically and structurally. They are filmed decades apart, cover two different wars and have three vastly different directors at their helm: Joe Wright (Atonement), Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) and Kubrick (Full Metal Jacket). Yet they are all equally compelling. The Real to Reel exhibition’s aim is to examine the breadth and diversity of the war movie genre, considering the many reasons why directors tackle the topic of war and exploring the impact they leave on their audience. The Nomad’s films do this by highlighting an aspect of that: what every war film has in common and what makes them so compelling, romance.
‘I’m very, very sorry for the terrible distress that I have caused.’
One way of looking at the WWII setting of Atonement is as an allegory for the tragedies that perpetuate the film. Briony is a privileged 13 year old who likes to invent stories. One hot summer’s day she witnesses several risqué exchanges between her older sister Cecilia and Robbie, son of their servant and Briony’s secret crush. That night, their visiting young cousin Lola is attacked and Briony’s accusation of Robbie, I would argue her ‘act of war’, alters their lives. War obliterates innocence and the loss of innocence in the film’s opening act is palpable. Briony’s witness and misunderstanding of the lust between her sister and Robbie shatters her childish perceptions of romance. The rape of Lola is a violent act that scars the family and sends Briony into battle.
Atonement is laced with romance beyond its doomed lovers. The film is visually exquisite throughout, thanks to Joe Wright’s direction: the golden light emanating from the fateful note Robbie sends to Cecilia and the sumptuousness of the stately English manor. The famous Dunkirk scene, displayed at the Real to Reel exhibition, is presented as one, beautifully-choreographed shot, encapsulating ‘our boys’ in their defeat, singing hymns, sorrowfully executing their horses and preparing for evacuation.
‘I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.’
One could easily argue that Casablanca is a propaganda piece. Along with films like Mrs Miniver (1942) and The Great Dictator (1940), war films from this era usually had the ulterior motive of recruitment, and the IWM exhibition examines such films in detail. Like Atonement, Casablanca is a tragic, WWII romance yet there is a key difference, in Atonement the romance is the primary story, in Casablanca it is the war itself. Filmed during WWII, with propaganda rampant on all sides, the greatest weapon available was belief in a better world. That is to say, if good men fight back evil can be defeated. As spectators, we care about Rick and Ilsa’s romance, but it is the defiance, the rebellion and the sacrifice for the greater good that is at the core of Casablanca, not the love story.
Rick is the classic everyman and the perfect vessel for an Allied propaganda piece. A broken man, a drunk and a criminal, who is motivated into action not only by injustice, but to make a better world for the woman he loves. Casablanca is a film about ideology, it is not the story of Rick and Ilsa’s love, but rather the battle for Rick’s soul and how Ilsa’s love saves it. Curtiz’s motivation and vision would have been wholly different to Wright’s, but in the end the two films are equally romantic and evocative.
Full Metal Jacket
‘If you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon. You will be a minister of death praying for war.’
It might seem a stretch to argue that Full Metal Jacket is romantic. But trudging through hell, staring evil in the eye and living to tell the tale has a grim romance to it. Just as Briony has romantic visions of love and martyrdom in Atonement, Private Joker has the romantic vision of first being above the war, then becoming a part of it, being born to kill. Kubrick’s war films feature heavily at Real to Reel, including Doctor Strangelove (1964) and Paths of Glory (1957).
Unlike Rick, not all souls can be saved, and Full Metal Jacket shows a battle lost, much like America’s Vietnam campaign itself. By brutally splitting the film into two pieces, Kubrick observes the dehumanising effect war has on Marine recruits, first following the boys as they endure their merciless bootcamp training, then tracking the type of men they become through the savagery of conflict. Many hail the film as an anti war masterpiece. It certainly shows its horrors and insanity, highlighting the particular ferocity of Vietnam by addressing war crimes, sex crimes and drug use. Kubrick presents these abhorrent acts to show his distain of the institution but the director himself commented: ‘There are obviously elements in a war film that involve visual spectacle, courage, loyalty, affection, self-sacrifice, and adventure, and these things tend to complicate any anti-war message.’
Can it be an anti-war film if it is compelling? Does the use of ironic music and humour juxtapose the horror around them or make it entertaining? Do the battle scenes glorify murder and have us rooting for our ‘heroes’, or do they show that there are no heroes in war? The Nomad chose these films for the IWM’s Real to Reel exhibition to explore these questions, to examine filmmakers motivations and to show the compelling and enticing nature of the genre.
Conflict, power, love and sacrifice are the compelling themes of war. Filmmakers and audiences are drawn to this genre because war shows the entire spectrum of humanity: at its worst, its best, its most powerful and its most vulnerable. War films feed the romantics inside of us whilst teaching us how to rise above and be better. They find hope in a hopeless situation, and that, in itself, is compelling.
Jennifer Leigh Williamson
The Nomad Cinema donates 100% of its profits to charity. The Real to Reel exhibition runs until January 2017.