The Issue Of War & Film In America

Griffith and Bitzer, 1913

There is no denying the controversial legacy of D.W. Griffith in the cinema. At this point Griffith and the ramifications of his work have been taken for granted if not out of context. But there is no getting passed Griffith’s momentous contribution to cinematic technique or to the marketing and sale of the cinema in America. Neil Sinyard has called Griffith “the cinema’s first director superstar; its first auteur; its first emperor.”

But such praise is derivative not of the narrative content of Griffith’s work, but of his radical approach to film technique. To single Griffith out only for the influence of technique his films had is to negate what is perhaps his furthest reaching influence on the American cinema; the potential for propaganda. Sergei Eisenstein has often held D.W. Griffith up as a sort of cinematic deity in interviews and writing. And its clear to anyone familiar with the Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potempkin that Eisenstein was an ardent follower of Griffith’s style of montage, which he readily adopted as his own. And it is even more apparent that a connection can be made between Griffith’s distinct manner of montage and that of early Soviet propaganda films.

Yet, Griffith, despite his Victorian world view, valued human drama above all else, as evidenced in Broken Blossoms (1919). The effectiveness of his camera in conveying and capturing human emotion is still powerful, which is why Birth Of A Nation (1915) has become ever more difficult to watch. No one wants to root for the Klansman out to rescue the damsel in distress, though Griffith’s style brings out one’s most ardent sentiments of empathy.

This paradox is a by product of the Griffith technique which has been so often imitated if not replicated that one can experience the same paradox in films as diverse as John Ford’s The Searchers, Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ. In each case it seems that the prejudices of the film’s author inadvertently seep through. This has become even more problematic in today’s gentrified society of political correctness where a sensitive audience will emphasize with Robert DeNiro despite the fact that the Viet Cong remain a gaggle of one-dimensional sadists. One could very well term this paradox “accidental propaganda”. I say this because, with the exception of Mel Gibson (apparently, despite being an anti-Semite, his film was not intended to convey that belief), there is no evidence that John Ford and Michael Cimino are racists. Their racial messaging comes out of what they see as narrative necessity. Though it appears each of these directors has some political agenda, the lack of other political texts in these films negates the accusation, supporting the supposition that the singular racial overtones are an anomaly. In certain respects, particularly with regards to John Ford’s career, these films are simply adhering to a political corrective ness that has since been revised.

But perhaps the genre, which employs this tactical paradox most prevalently, is that of the war film. It would be easy to single out older films such as The Guns Of Navarone or The Green Berets, but their ability to strip the “enemy” of any personality traits other than sadism is an art form still utilized by filmmakers today. Even if this is the age of political correctness and cross demographic accessibility, it would be difficult to discern as much from Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan, The Great Raid, Zero Dark Thirty and We Were Soldiers. These films all promote a blind nationalism, vilainizing the opponents of the United States as faceless barbarians, for whom the stakes are only as high as their kill count.

Cpt. Miller (Tom Hanks) dies heroically if not predictably.

Cpt. Miller (Tom Hanks) dies heroically if not predictably.

This is, of course, typical of war films from any country or region; that the film would paint their side as heroic and selfless; a tradition going back further than Homer. The issue here is that these films present a highly prejudiced worldview and convey that perspective to an audience unaware that it is being sold a political idea or re-rendering of past events. European films have been, at least in my experience, more successful in presenting war without one-sided heroism or an inadvertent propagandist message. The reason these European films are able to escape such conventions of American cinema is largely due to the fact that these films do not adopt an “us and them” philosophy, opting instead to depict the horrors of war from the perspective of the civilian. The Mirror, Come And See, Coup De Grace, Bullet In The Head, Vukovar, Hope and Glory, and Forbidden Games all give accounts of both sides of a conflict from the perspective of a third party civilian observer, thusly negating the problematic terrain of a film like Saving Private Ryan. American films rarely deal with civilian participants of war. And when they do they often adopt the heavy-handed polemics of John Cromwell’s Since You Went Away.

These European films represent only a counter point to the conventions of American genre filmmaking discussed before and can only serve to contrast and illuminate this argument via that contrast. The real anti-thesis to the standard American war film exists in the work of a single filmmaker, Samuel Fuller. Consider Fuller’s third feature The Steel Helmet (1951). Unlike other films of its time, The Steel Helmet has an energy and realism that can only be accounted for by examining Fuller’s role in the American Infantry of WWII. Similarly, Fuller’s background in journalism allows him the recklessness to address such subjects as racial discrimination and Japanese Internment. Both subjects are breached naturally, and do much to humanize different characters of racial minorities, thus permitting them the same development and cruciality to the plot that the Caucasian characters have. In 1951 this was unprecedented, but Fuller went even further by humanizing the “enemy” of the film’s narrative, drawing distinct parallels between the views on warfare between the American and North Korean soldiers. In Fuller’s film, a hero is defined by his ability to simply survive, an idea that may appear to have minimal repercussions but in actuality is so broad that Fuller’s film, along with his subsequent war films, pays tribute to all who have died in a conflict.

With Verboten! and The Big Red One Fuller refines this approach by adding to the formula a sense of the historic and the romantic. The use of archival footage of concentration camps in Verboten! pre dates Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremburg, and serves not as a device to reinforce the inhumanity of Nazis, but rather to juxtapose the American treatment of German civilians as they occupy Germany. In this way Fuller conveys his concept that in war everyone is a victim and everyone is a killer, that responsibility permeates all of the societies involved. This philosophy on war mirrors that of Fuller’s counterparts in Europe, but without structuring the film from a civilian perspective. By the time Fuller makes The Big Red One he has added a sort of Romance to the histrionic. By opening the film with Lee Marvin’s character at the close of WWI, Fuller suggests that war will forever repeat itself, and that it is this notion that haunts not only the soldier, but also the society for which the soldier has gone to war.

Fuller's interracial The Steel Helmet

Fuller’s interracial The Steel Helmet

The Big Red One was Samuel Fuller’s last film about war, and remained the last American film about war to offer an alternative to the model D.W. Griffith put forth in his The Birth Of A Nation until Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Part of this may be due to the ambiguity of the Vietnam conflict. In an attempt to clarify that ambiguity, films such as Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Casualties Of War set out to polarize the conflict with a touch of “good versus evil” rather than revel in the ambiguity that plagued our nation and its soldiers the way Francis Ford Coppola did in Apocalypse Now (1979). And just as Vietnam began to truly drift into our past, 9/11 occurred and sparked an ongoing boom in war films that sought to act out the retribution and revenge that America hungered for with an appetite that has yet to be quenched. Perhaps these symptoms in our society and the longevity of Griffith’s methods are indicative of America’s need to constantly reaffirm her dominance over the world?

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Spring 2014

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