When I was child, perhaps my least favourite film genre was the war movie.
For the most part, the plots tended to be rather melodramatic and very predictable. There was always lots of violence and macho heroics. Despite all the death and destruction, the hero always made it to the end, even if his mates, brothers, comrades or best friend didn’t. No matter how many bullets or bombs whizzed past, they always lived to tell the tale.
Of course during actual war time such World War II they were not merely entertainment but also for propaganda to keep up morale on the home front. Admittedly, not all war films are the same. In recent decades, there have been a number of films detailing more realistic portrayals of the horror and brutality of military conflict (The film Platoon (1986) on the Vietnam war is a case in point). More recently in 2019, there were two more such films.
The first 1917 deals with a day in the life of an ordinary soldier tasked with an extraordinary assignment on the western front during the First World War; the second Midway deals with the events in the south Pacific following the bombing of Pearl Harbour bringing the US into World War II.
1917 is a graphically realistic film which unfolds over a period of 24 hours in an otherwise beautiful countryside often scarred by the death and destruction of full scale war. It depicts the horrors of trench warfare with disturbing realism: bodies decomposing in mounds of earth; corpses floating in streams, pack horses emaciated; plump rats scuttling along underground tunnels.
The soldiers are ordinary men thrown together in inhuman conditions and subject to barbaric acts. The senselessness of the killing pervades the entire movie. The audience’s knowledge of history only enhances this fatalism; in another two decades, their successors would face a worse global conflict which would kill millions more. Thus we already know that their suffering and sacrifices will be largely pointless.
The stark realism of the setting, the young actors who reflect innocence corrupted by insane violence; all these elements of this film gel to leave us with a personal portrait of human horror in a world where accepted human values have been turned upside down and human life becomes disturbingly expendable.
The second film Midway deals with the conflict in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. It regularly moves from the American to the Japanese combatants and their commanders. As with the previous world war, the soldiers, sailors and airmen are the pawns of a much bigger game of politicians and generals.
They are ordinary guys thrown together into a very extraordinary, dangerous situation. Unlike 1917, we see more of the senior military and politicians whom plan and direct battles from a distance. That the death and destruction vastly exceeded that of the previous world war is evident from the expansive battle and bombing scenes. Of course there are heroics and examples of bravery but all these are set against scenes of violence and often immense destruction. Highlighting the savagery of war is the suicidal acts of kamikaze pilots and captains who insist on dying on their scuttled ships. One scene is particularly disturbing: the murder of a US sailor. Apart from these deliberate acts of violence, there are also the deaths resulting from accidents such as errors of judgement or mechanical failures. These untimely deaths cannot be treated as mere statistics as we learn about their families and their lives before this war. This film does not glorify war but depicts actual events and people who are brave, frightened, stressed and often pushed to the limit of human endurance.
Unlike 1917, Midway covers specific historical events and individuals. While 1917 highlights the pointless slaughter when European empires clash, Midway reflects a horrific conflict which is necessary to conquer an aggressive and savage empire.
In Australia we all know about the Anzacs who are a lingering memorial from the First World War Since this war ended more than a century ago, none of its veterans survive nor does anyone with contemporary experience of it. The Second World War ended 75 years ago so the ranks its survivors are very few. Therefore most of us have never experienced such global conflicts and perhaps have a limited understanding of how they come about. Neither 1917 nor Midway glorify war but portray historical events at a time of unbelievable violence and cruelty of brief periods of the twentieth century when the laws of civilisation were subverted.
Such films are necessary to remind us of our not-too-distant history when autocratic, militaristic regimes terrorised their own populations before spreading further afield. Successive generations need to be reminded of the savagery major wars can unleash. Global military conflict is not glorious but catastrophic, something reinforced by graphic, historically accurate war movies.