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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: War is Hell—and then, onscreen

Screen Grabs: War is Hell—and then, onscreen

'The Fatal Alliance: A Century of War on Film' comes to BAMPFA. Plus: 'The Troubles' puts Irish resistance in personal light

War is, famously, Hell—as put in simple but lasting terms by William Tecumseh Sherman, a Union general in the “War Between the States” 140 years ago. That it should also provide fodder for so much of the ensuing century’s primary entertainment medium, motion pictures, is part and parcel of war’s perversity, in which “Hell” gets romanticized in retrospect (as well as, sometimes, in-progress) in order to make its participation bearable, even appealing. Each new film or TV series gets analyzed for how “realistic” a depiction it might or might not be. But most of us can never really know—and even combat veterans have embraced a bewildering range of treatments, their own perspectives as diverse as the artistic approaches.

San Francisco-based veteran film critic and historian David Thomson’s latest book—he’s written so many that even the sleeve bio is vague, pegging their number as “over 25”—is The Fatal Alliance: A Century of War on Film (Harper). In his typically erudite, digressive style, it approaches that subject from myriad angles, encompassing discussion not just of movies and television but literature, art, and of course the actual historical context for screen works highly variable in their relation to known facts.

BAMPFA in Berkeley is hosting a small related series throughout this month, with Thomson lecturing at each of four screenings, one each Wednesday night. On March 13, he’ll present Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 Paths of Glory, an indictment of coldblooded military strategy and “justice.” It has producer-star Kirk Douglas as a French Army Colonel during World War I who reluctantly orders his troops into a suicidal storming of a “no man’s land” between trenches, with no victory expected or even possible. But our attention is riveted more by those superiors who risk very little: George Macready as the vainglorious Brigadier General who issues those fatal orders simply to add another medal to his uniform, and Adolphe Menjou as the Major General who nudges him into it for his own breezily ruthless purposes. Paths of Glory was too sobering to be a popular success, but it established Kubrick as a leading director.

That “Great War” is also the subject for two other movies shot at either end of a full century’s expanse. Showing on the 20th, They Shall Not Grow Old was released in 2018. But this nonfiction project for Lord of the Rings’ Peter Jackson applied colorization, audio effects, and digital enhancement to make newsreel footage from the Imperial War Museum’s archives bring real-life glimpses of British military service during WW1 to eerily immediate new life. The next year, Sam Mendes’ 1917 (showing on the 27th) applied other up-to-the-moment technologies in a visceral fiction of the frontlines that purports to unfold “in real time,” thanks to the illusion of one continuous, two-hour tracking shot. As Thomson notes in his book, such ingenuity can dazzle—and can also be a way of distancing us via its sheer, conspicuous virtuosity.

The series’ kickoff this Wed/6 might not be automatically be thought a “war movie” at all. Robert Bresson’s fact-inspired 1956 A Man Escaped is a meticulously detailed, pokerfaced chronicle of a French Resistance fighter (Francois Leterrier) imprisoned by Germans in 1943 Lyon. He spends all his time there analyzing the bare surroundings to determine the escape plan that is his singleminded goal, so that he may keep fighting the enemy. The director’s typical austerity of tone and performance, colored only by bursts of Mozart, builds considerable tension—as much as the “bombs bursting in air” spectacle of conventional combat epics, this very quiet, mostly solitary story conveys the life-and-death urgency of warfare.

Those four films represent just a bit of the celluloid terrain covered in The Fatal Alliance. Born in London during the Blitz, Thomson devotes more attention to the UK cinema of his formative decades than most film writers, drawing the curious reader to little-known (at least here) titles like Humphrey Jennings’ 1943 Fires Were Started—a very fine docudrama about home-front firefighters that transcends wartime propaganda, even as it is superbly effective as such. There are musings on the macho heroics of the classic populist war actioner, as well that genre’s key stars from John Wayne to Mel Gibson.

I’ve never been drawn to those movies, whether it’s Sands of Iwo Jima or Black Hawk Down; I guess I prefer what would be considered anti-war movies, like the various versions of All Quiet on the Western Front, the silent Big ParadeJourney’s End (whose excellent 2017 incarnation remains shamefully overlooked), the Russian Come and See, John Huston’s studio-butchered (but still great) Red Badge of Courage, Terence Malick’s lyrical The Thin Red Line, and so forth.

Also falling into that category are several foreign masterpieces Thomson highlights, including Jean Renior’s Le grande illusion, Larisa Shepitko’s Soviet The Ascent, and Masaki Kobayashi’s remarkable 1959-61 Japanese trilogy The Human Condition. Then there are the films about wartime espionage; the “rousing adventure” category of colonialist throwbacks (Gunga DinThe Four FeathersZulu, et al.); even the queasy Me Decade vogue for “Nazisploitation” kickstarted by 1974’s The Night Porter, in which fascism was luridly milked for sexual kinkiness.

Not to mention the popularity of war as slapstick. Chaplin was cautioned against making 1918’s Shoulder Arms, which places “the Little Tramp’s” antics in the trenches; it was thought a world still suffering calamitous losses would take great offense. But when the film was released, two weeks before Armistice even, it was a huge hit—particularly with returning soldiers.

There’s also what Thomson calls “films about what soldiering has done to men,” which span from the empathetic (The Best Years of Our LivesComing Home) to the fear-mongering (all those thrillers about psychotic Vietnam veterans—an unpopular war makes for easy villainy, it seems). America’s misadventures in SE Asia and their screen treatments are duly discussed, including M*A*S*HApocalypse NowPlatoonThe Deer Hunter, et al.

But “war movie” turns out to be a term encompassing so much, you may be struck by how many notable titles don’t make it into the book, like Das Boot or Lone Survivor. The Fatal Alliance doesn’t aim to be definitive, or to have a thesis—the cultural artifacts examined are too complicated and contradictory for those to be reasonable goals. But it’s a distinctively personal survey of a porous genre whose expressions say a lot about who we are, who we’ve been, and who we may become…at yet another moment when various not-so-small regional wars are applying pressure to the button of a global conflagration. Maybe it’s always that moment, to one degree or another. For full info on the BAMPFA series “In Focus: The Fatal Alliance—A Century of War on Film,” running March 6-27, go here.

Most war movies focus on a specific corner of a giant conflict, a World War or one of the US’s drawn-out more recent excursions abroad (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq). But wars come in all shapes and sizes. They can be viewed from perspectives that are “sprawling,” as in the “all-star” epics of yore like The Longest DayTora! Tora! Tora!MidwayA Bridge Too Far, and so on. Or as intimate as one household, like Maryna Er Gorbach’s striking 2022 Klondike, in which an expectant couple on a rural farmstead in Eastern Ukraine see their house partly destroyed by mortar misfire—yet, hemmed in by politics and violent chaos, they must stay there. They have nowhere else to go.

A similarly microcosmic view is offered by The Troubles: A Dublin Story, writer-director Luke Hanlon’s first feature. Though about the long-running conflict of governmental control, religious and cultural identity in Northern Ireland, it eschews dwelling on politics or ideology to focus on this “irregular war’s” impact on individual lives. In 1981, two teenage brothers in the titular city agitate to be recruited into the IRA. Three years later, a bungled holdup “for the cause” gets them arrested. Three more years on, they’re released from prison. Their parents are deceased, and the world in other ways has moved on without them. Can they re-integrate back into society? Do they want to? Are they even allowed?

Those questions play out differently for the two still-young men. Volatile Sean (Ray Malone) is not welcomed back by the furious wife (Sarah Hayden as Marie) he’d kept ignorant of his covert activities—until, of course, the police and courts filled her in. She wants nothing to do with him now, and prefers him kept well away from the children who no longer remember their father anyway. But then, even a different reception mightn’t have calmed Sean, who’s grown antisocial and violence-prone in general. By contrast, Francis (Adam Redmond) hasn’t been poisoned by their experiences. He just wants to carve out something like a normal life, finding one potential path to that in romancing bartender Rosie (Sophia Adli). But she is a “civilian,” and hence disapproved of by brothers’ still-active, watchful IRA contacts.

“What the hell is wrong with you? We had the same life. Why are you so fucking angry?” Francis asks Sean, who views his sibling’s aspirations towards normalcy as weakness. These characters are not particularly bright, or driven by any cogently articulated beliefs; their very ordinariness is The Troubles’ strong suit. It dramatizes an everyday immersion in war (even if of the guerrilla kind) in terms that are credible and relatable, without the sentimentality Kenneth Branagh brought to an admittedly different narrative perspective in Belfast. Hanlon’s film is modest and somewhat uneven. yet it conveys the dislocation of a “foot soldier” lobbed back into society with some vividness. Good Deed Entertainment releases it to On Demand platforms including TUBI on March 5.

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