A War Movie Gone Thriller: The Hurt Locker (2008)

Yes, I had to do it. I had to add something on this ubiquitous film.

The story of The Hurt Locker should be sufficiently known by now. We are shown a bomb squad on their mission to disarm bombs in Iraq. When a real danger addict is appointed to be the new leader of the squad things get really exciting.

Somehow, when I realized I liked it, I felt a soft tingling feeling of shame that made me wonder.

But the fact that I did enjoy The Hurt Locker doesn´t necessarily mean I think it is a good war movie. There was a whole lot of suspense going on. It was entertaining and it sure felt like a thriller. The possibility of every  bomb or object to prove deadly seemed like a serial killer lurking around in the dark. He sees you, you sense him. Creepy. I stopped breathing every time Sgt. First Class James started to cut those little wires.

While I was watching it I did not for one second question it. I felt just so swept away and liked it. Period. But afterwards I found it kind of problematic. One is almost grateful wars take place and offer us such a great topic of suspense.

I remember that I had very comparable feelings after having seen Apocalypse Now. The anti-war message was just not clear enough for me.

Same here. It´s like saying: yeah well, war is shit, we shouldn´t do it but so what, it´s fun.

Of course that is not what Kathryn Bigelow tried to say but it is what the audience could understand.

This potential to be misunderstood comes from the blending of the genres. Or rather the blending of major techniques of different genres. War movies don´t normally create this type of suspense. It would have been possible to show the same without creating the suspense.

Maybe I should put it that way: The Hurt Locker is one hell of an exciting movie but a dubious war movie. It is especially problematic as it shows a very specific bit of warfare in Iraq. Where every other movie with an attempt at realism (the most extreme example would be Redacted. Come to think of it, Redacted is actually the antithesis of The Hurt Locker. It is so boring it hurts) has often long boring stretches where nothing else happens but watching road blocks, this one shows it as if the war in Iraq had nothing else but moments that got your adrenaline pumping.

Be it as it may it is great filmmaking. Kathryn Bigelow is very good at that. If you want to watch another one of her movies either try Point Break (1991) or Strange Days (1995). Both are highly enjoyable without creating any guilty feelings. Especially the first one is one of the rare movies that I can watch again and again. And, as an additional asset, it will help you understand her technique and where she comes from genre and theme wise.

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Intimate enemies aka L´ennemi intime (2007) or France, Algeria and the War that was no War

This was one of the hardest movies to watch for me for very personal reasons. All those who have read the About page on this blog, know why. For everyone else here´s a quick explanation. My father fought in this war for almost three years after having been drafted barely aged 18. His stories were as much part of my childhood as were his brooding silences and constant nightmares. I may say that this war is as much part of my life as it is of his. More so due to the nature of it. This is no war to be proud of – most are not but this one especially not. France didn´t even call this a war, they said it was an attempt to reestablish order. But there was a good reason to not call this a war since  Algeria was an integrate part of France, although not with the same rights. There was no real enemy to be fought since the Algerians were French, hence this movie´s title Intimate enemies, meaning the enemy within.

This created an extremely complex situation as this movie attempts to illustrate.

After the war had been won from a military point of view it was lost from a political point of view. De Gaulle decided to let Algeria go. What a waste of lives. In future years it was silenced. One was not to speak about it which weighed heavily on the returning soldiers. No one to turn to, no one to listen. As a psychiatrist once told me, it was the general tragedy for men returning from a war before Vietnam, that they had no one to turn to. Not even psychologists or psychiatrists. Post-traumatic stress was just not cured at the time. Ok, this is not totally correct, it was treated but only insofar as the soldier was meant to go back to fight (one of the major themes of Behind the Lines aka Regeneration) but those for whom the fighting was over were meant to knuckle down and shut it.

Considering that an apparently (haven´t seen it yet) very outspoken movie like The Battle of Algiers aka La Battaglia di Algeri (1966) was banned in France until 1971 we can imagine what it was like for soldiers having participated in a war that a) was no war b) wasn´t to be spoken about and c) didn´t officially happen… And absolutely no one to thank them when they came home.

The whole complexity of the situation is shown in Intimate enemies. Algerians who had already fought during WWII sided with the FLN, the Liberation movement to fight France. Others fought on the side of the French. During the war many changed sides both ways. (The highly acclaimed Days of Glory tells the story of four Algerians who fought during WWII).

One very horrible trait of this war was the intelligence´s use of torture. Funny enough, many of those soldiers who tortured were by far the most traumatized upon returning to France. Since my father was just a simple private he did not have to do it but apparently his brother, some years older and a lieutenant was part of the intelligence unit. I never liked the guy so I never bothered talking to him. Just heard he´s been under medication since the late 80ies on account of serious problems with his conscience.

Does this serve him right? There is an interesting scene in the movie where lieutenant Terrien talks to the intelligence Sgt. and is being told that he will come around and understand these methods.

However not only the French used torture, the Algerians did as well. And terrorism. And cruelty. I remember my father telling me of a march through the desert when they started to see something in the distance and thought it was a Fata Morgana that looked like  dancing crosses. Upon their coming closer to that place they discovered that it was a whole convent of nuns having been tortured, killed and nailed on wooden crosses. There would be other things I could add here but this is not the place to do so.

The main theme of the movie is a somewhat Platoon-like juxtaposition of a very humane, just and friendly lieutenant and some hardened old-time officers and soldiers. Lt. Terrien fights cruelty whenever he can. He refuses to torture or execute. When someone explains that torture has been ordered he says that you shouldn´t follow an order when it is morally unacceptable. What is usually not much spoken about either is the use of napalm during that war. Terrien questions the use of napalm, and unmasks the contradiction of this non-war by quoting the officials who state that napalm is only to be used during a war. “This is no war”, says Sgt Dougnac, ” and we don´t use napalm.”

All in all: a war with a very ugly face.

Now back to the movie. It is  well done and absolutely worth watching. It will definitely broaden the horizon of any war movie aficionado used to mainly watch movies of WWI, WWII and Vietnam. On a scale from 1 to 5 I would easily give it a 4.5.

One of its most outstanding achievements is to show neither side as being worse than the other. And it wants to make us understand that often diplomacy could save us from going to war.

All the Algerians wanted was the same rights as the French. And their independence of course. Is that too much to ask for?

The war ended in 1962 but only in 1999 the French government officially admitted that it had taken place. 2 000 000 mostly young French soldiers had to participate in this war.  I´m sorry for all of them and for their Algerian counter parts. I had the opportunity to see what it does to soldiers.

My father returned to France in 1959. To this day his nightmares haven´t stopped.

What is the worst thing you dream about I asked him once: “All those dead men”, he says “They all come back and haunt me.”

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The Pacific versus Band of Brothers: Should we compare?

I finally got to watch the last episode of The Pacific. Even though I had an entry on it a while back I didn´t feel like writing about it before I had seen the whole series. It proved to be  a good decision since I couldn´t really appreciate it at first. I couldn´t help myself, like so many others, and compare it constantly to Band of Brothers. Apart from being a HBO miniseries produced by Spielberg and Tom Hanks, opening with men who were there talking about their experiences, those two series have nothing in common. Sure they both show a lot of very intense and gruesome infantry combat scenes but that is that.

Band of Brothers, as the title eloquently indicates, was about a close-knit group of men, one Army Infantry Company. This is not the case in The Pacific. The Pacific focuses on three main characters, the three marines Sgt. John Basilone, PFC Robert Leckie and Eugene B. Sledge. The last two wrote books about their experiences. The first episodes focus on Leckie, whereas the last ones tell Eugene aka Sledgehammer´s story. This last detail is based on the fact that Eugene went to war much later than the others. He missed Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester, one main battle and one major experience of the war in the Pacific.

The mini series shows a lot of off the battle ground episodes. Soldiers on leave in Australia, Leckie´s stay at different hospitals and later we see Sledge back home. Many of this off the battleground parts look at the symptoms of post-traumatic stress of which both Leckie (in a very physical way-peeing himself-) and Sledge (more psychological-he´s depressed and has endless nightmares) suffer intensely.

The series has  many crucial moments. Truly gory battle scenes.  Endless rain on Cape Gloucester that grinds down the morale. The realization that all they learn is “killing Japs”.

There is one key scene, the moment when the two friends Sidney and Sledge meet as one leaves and the other arrives in the Pacific. Sledge wants to know from Sidney how it is to be fighting but he doesn´t get an answer. This is actually a recurring theme in war movies (there is a scene like that in The Deer Hunter and in many others): the inability of those who have experienced it to tell those who are about to experience it what it is like to be in combat. Or maybe it is not so much an inability as a refusal. They have been there, they know it´s no use. You cannot talk about something that is so completely different from anything you imagine. No one who hasn´t been there will ever know what it is like and there are no words to really convey this, nothing that equals the experience. All you have got in the face of the innocent and ignorant is silence. The Pacific shows this very well.

I would like  to point out specifically one further scene. It is related to one of my major points of interest namely Death. In The Pacific we see one of the most touching deaths in the history of war movies. I don´t want to spoil anything so I´m not going to tell you who is dying. What makes this scene so different is the way it is shown. We do not see the actual dying, we hear that the person died and then the corpse is being carried  by some soldiers and transported through the lines of men standing there paying tribute and crying. This is a genuinely heartfelt and sad moment. A display of utter futility.

Something else is very different from Band of Brothers. Even though it was WWII, this wasn´t the same war. This is not about a bunch of soldiers freeing occupied countries and captives. We have no rewarding moments like the one in Band of Brothers when they liberate people in a concentration camp. The war in the Pacific seems much more futile at moments. And senseless. And it lasted longer. The war in Europe was already over, Germany had surrendered but Japan had not. Only after Little Boy and Fat Man did this war stop. This must have been some sort of an anticlimax. By the time those soldiers came home, the whole world had already been celebrating the end of the war. The party was over and they had missed it.

Needless to say that this influences the tone of the movie.

For all these reasons I do not think it is doing The Pacific any justice to compare it to its older brother.  It really has its moments this series.

One last thing needs mentioning though and it is something I did not enjoy much. The Japanese are never ever shown in a positive light. You truly get the impression that they were a bunch of murderous automatons. If anyone wants to see a more honest depiction I suggest you watch Tora Tora Tora (1970) or Letters from Iwo Jima (2006). They both try to and  succeed in doing the Japanese justice.

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Two Movies on Nordic Resistance: Flame & Citron (2008) and Max Manus (2008)

Two movies on the same theme, Nordic Resistance, yet how different their tone. While Max Manus (aka  Frihedskæmperen Max Manus) is a hero story with tragic and uplifting moments, Flame & Citron (aka Flammen & Citronen) is depressing and full of angst. Both movies are based on true stories and illustrate aspects of lesser known WWII history.

Max Manus tells the story of the Norwegian saboteur Max Manus and his resistance group. After having fought in Finland against the Communists he joins the norwegian resistance. They fight the Nazis very effectively by blowing up supply ships, stealing documents and shooting people. They are hunted down by the Germans and many lose their lives, only Max escapes miraculously every time which fills him with survivor’s guilt but at the same time gives him an aura of invulnerability.

Flame & Citron is the story of two very famous Danish Nazi assassins. Where Max attacks mostly buildings and objects, they shoot Nazis and their allies, mostly execution style up-close.Early on it is evident that this weighs heavily on their conscience. Especially Citron has a hard time to kill.

At one time Flame says: “I almost forgot we are not shooting people but Nazis” as if to take the humanity away from the enemy makes the deed easier. Here lies their problem and this is very obviously the source for the depressing heaviness of this film. We watch two good people doing very bad things although for a just cause. After a while they really doubt that what they do is right. But worst of all they can´t trust anyone and see themselves surrounded by double agents and traitors.

Like the more famous Black Book (aka Zwart Boek 2006) these movies show that there was very effective resistance in the Northern European countries, like the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway. It seems as if it took those countries quite a long time to tell their own story. All three movies are in original language with subtitles. They are all convincing.

Black Book ist the most entertaining, Max Manus is thoughtful and uplifting but I liked Flame & Citron best. I found it the most honest. The pictures are very beautiful and apart from that the acting is great. Mads Mikkelsen (King Arthur) as Citron is just brilliant and so is Thure Lindhardt as Flame.

Why Saving Private Ryan´s Movie Poster is so Convincing or War Movie Posters Part I

I have been looking at a lot of war movie posters and there are quite a few I like because of their esthetic qualities. But these were probably not necessarily the most successful ones. After awhile I realised that many of the best ones share a few common themes.

First we do see a juxtaposition of the individual and the collective or the personal and the impersonal. You often see a few faces of soldiers whose story is told in the movie, like on the Saving Private Ryan one and additionally you either see a row of dark silhouettes or one dark silhouette like in this case that stands for the whole body of soldiers. This juxtaposition is actually also the key to all successful war movies and not only to their posters. Take a historical event in which a great number of people is involved and then pick one person and tell his or her story. The fact that millions of Jews have been killed during WWII as horrible and tragic as this is doesn´t suffice to make us sympathize. But take Anne Franks destiny, think of Schindler´s List or The Pianist… That´s quite a different story. We identify and sympathize.

This is exactly what great war movie posters manage to symbolize. The anonymous mass versus the individual destiny.

Of course there are other ways to interpret these posters. Loneliness in the event of a tragedy. Comradeship… The figures seem small against the background, huddled against one another.

A Soldier´s Story (1984) or Racism in the Military

The worst thing you can do, in this part of the country, is pay too much attention to the death of a negro under mysterious circumstances. (Colonel Nivens)

Norman Jewison´s movie A Soldier´s Story (1984) shows you what great acting can be.

It is one of Denzel Washigton´s first movies. Although he is not the leading actor you can already tell what he´s capable of. What is very obvious, that´he´s not only a movie actor but one hell of a good theater actor as well. The story is based on a theater play and almost the whole cast is from the original ensemble.

The movie takes place in a base in Louisiana during WWII.

Sgt. Waters, a black sergeant, is found dead and an army attorney is sent from Washington to investigate the murder. What no one suspects, least the white commanding officers, is the fact that the attorney is also Afro-American. The base which consists to a great extent of black Americans has never seen a black decorated officer before. They are awed whereas the white officers are outraged. It´s one of the best moments in this movie.

Soon it is obvious what a contradictory character the victim was. However the investigation is hindered by uncooperative officers and fearful soldiers. Bit by bit,shown through flashbacks, the victims true character and the actual events are revealed. The shocking truth is that the killed sergeant though African-American himself was a racist at heart and punished every act that he deemed unworthy of other black people, notably singing and dancing.In his own words:

You know the damage one ignorant Negro can do? We were in France in the first war; we’d won decorations. But the white boys had told all them French gals that we had tails. Then they found this ignorant colored soldier, paid him to tie a tail to his ass and run around half-naked, making monkey sounds. Put him on the big round table in the Cafe Napoleon, put a reed in his hand, crown on his head, blanket on his shoulders, and made him eat *bananas* in front of all them Frenchies. Oh, how the white boys danced that night… passed out leaflets with that boy’s picture on it. Called him Moonshine, King of the Monkeys. And when we slit his throat, you know that fool asked us what he had done wrong?

He was cruel, unjust and unfair. He wasn´t liked by neither white nor black soldiers and officers and really had it coming.

The character portraits in this movie are all extremely convincing, the acting is outstanding, the tale is gripping and it really doesn´t leave you untouched. This is a 100% convincing anti-racism movie and one of the few movies about racism in the military. A must-see.