I recently watched Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old at Cinemapolis. Quite unintentionally, this followed a period over several weeks in which I watched a number of films pertaining to either war or its effects, including Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun — the latter of which is starkly different from the previous two films. This recent plethora of war films has raised a number of issues in my mind, all of which might be consolidated in the following question that this column seeks to address: Can a war film be made without glorifying the destruction it depicts (or does not depict)? The juxtaposition between Fassbinder’s film and the others highlights the importance of the perspective of those involved and how it influences a war film’s merits and politics.
In my opinion, these questions are obvious and necessary to the experience of engaging with a war film. Of course, they are certainly not original or profound, as critics have been accusing war films of propagandizing since their inception. Nevertheless, it seems as though many viewers are not questioning war films along the aforementioned lines. Admittedly, I approach war films from a starkly anti-war viewpoint, but I think a common belief that I share with even my most hawkish peers is that the violence of armed conflict ought to be approached with some sort of dignified solemnity. Of course, it’s also important to understand both sides of a conflict.
It seems as though the more gritty and realistic a war film appears or claims to be, the more it actually works to glorify war’s destruction. With this statement I have films like Saving Private Ryan and Dunkirk in mind, both movies portraying acts of war in scenes that are tremendous and grandiose. They Shall Not Grow Old uses actual footage from World War I that was restored to a striking, colorized clarity by Peter Jackson and his production team. (An extra interview with Jackson after each screening of the documentary reveals the incredible lengths the team went through to restore the footage.) While the claim might be made that such depictions seek to inform and warn viewers of the very real destructive capacity of man, at what point does the massive expenditure of resources on recreating these violent acts become inherently suspect? Moreover, the striking cinematography of these films runs the risk of coming across as epic, inspirational, even beautiful at times. When these images are placed in narratives of Allied victory and triumph, any anti-war, anti-destruction message, if it even existed, is nullified.
A strikingly different depiction of war is Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun, released in 1978. The film’s premise is about a German woman who was married during World War II and, following Germany’s defeat, has yet to reunite with her husband, presuming him to be dead. Interestingly, we do not see very many scenes of war itself. Instead, the viewer is left only with the utter destruction of war and all of the anxious despair that thrives amidst the rubble and bombed-out cities. I think that only a director from a nation who “lost” a conflict and experienced the brunt of its destruction could make such a film that is so genuinely anti-war. Fassbinder, who was born in Germany in 1945, was likely quite familiar with how a defeated nation copes with war’s devastation.
In the post-film interview with Jackson, he states that his documentary carries no inherently political message and asserts that it merely tells the story of an average British soldier on the front line. He mentions that the primary purpose of the documentary is to inspire viewers to learn about any possible involvement in WWI by their ancestors. Jackson’s claim to political neutrality is surprisingly naïve, and we must hold such directors more accountable. These epic images created by directors of war films take on lives of their own — always the postmodernist — and in an era of increasing nationalistic fervor around the world, these images can be used to justify more violence and narrow-mindedness. In this light, I place They Shall Not Grow Old in line with other films like Darkest Hour and Dunkirk, both of which I interpret as pro-Brexit propaganda as they valorize Britain’s endurance during times of war from limited perspectives. I certainly do not mean to downplay the bravery of the individuals who took part in these wars, but I am rather calling for an increased complexity in the narratives these films employ as well as a more critical stance against them.
Nick Swan is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Swan’s Song runs alternating Thursdays this semester.