Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Counterculture commandos: war films from an anti-war decade

A Mad magazine-style poster for "Kelly's Heroes" by Mad's own Mort Drucker -- satire and caricature rule the day.

"The surest way to become a pacifist is to join the infantry." -- Bill Mauldin

The recent death of actor/director Brian G. Hutton, who made two of the most ridiculously overwrought war films of all time back-to-back – “Where Eagles Dare” (1969) and “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970) – prompted me to think about the curious topic of war films made during the height of popular anti-war sentiment. What made them so popular?

It seems to take about 20 years before traumatic historical events become treated by popular culture in America. In the 1960’s, bloodthirsty boys my age were inundated with stories and products that glorified armed combat, specifically that of World War II. We had G.I. Joes; we read comic books such as “Sgt. Rock” and “Star Spangled War Stories” and “Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos” and avidly followed the adventures of The Unknown Soldier, The Haunted Tank, The Losers, and Enemy Ace. On TV, we watched “Combat!”, “The Rat Patrol,” and “Twelve O’clock High.”

As a result, we were always playing war, on dangerous missions against tool sheds, water towers, building sites, and our little sisters. With meticulous planning, split-second timing, and ruthless execution, we disabled imaginary convoys, blew up tanks, massacred enemy columns, cut supply lines, and annoyed our little sisters. That is except when I, the youngest and weakest of my peer group, was forced to play the German – the beginning of my lifetime interest in playing villains, psychos, and otherworldly creatures. We were struggling to understand what society expected from us as men (our fathers modeled manliness mainly by working, drinking, smoking, and fixing stuff), and of what moral action consisted.

We were looking to commit morally justifiable mayhem, basically. Maybe that's what our veteran fathers were trying to teach us, too.

Mainstream American cinema’s take on the war genre has flipped-flopped considerably. A glimpse of America’s pastoral, pacifist, anti-interventionist stance can be seen in movies such as Griffith’s “Intolerance” and Barker, Ince, and West’s “Civilization,” both from 1916. Both films get it both ways – we see graphic violence and destruction, which is later denounced. In fact, “Civilization” was seen as a supporting factor in convincing the public to support Woodrow Wilson’s narrow reelection of that year, under the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” Of course, America’s entry into World War I five months later meant that “Civilization” was pulled immediately from distribution, as we moved into killing mode. It has since been lost to time, save for screenings by film scholars.

While Hollywood supported the war effort in 1917 and 1918, the mood after armistice rapidly turned sour. A more cynical and devastated Europe was quicker to condemn the bloodshed -- Abel Gance’s “J’Accuse” of 1919 was immensely popular. Reports from disillusioned American participants, beginning with John Dos Passos’ 1921 novel “Three Soldiers” and Anderson and Stallings’s play “What Price Glory?” of 1924 (Stallings started as an enthusiastic volunteer, and subsequently lost both his legs due to combat), helped to turn the U.S. mood back into an isolationist one. A steady stream of “war is hell” World War I sagas resulted – G.W. Pabst’s “Westfront 1918,” James Whale’s “Journey’s End,” Milestone’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and Howard Hawks’ “The Dawn Patrol,” all from 1930, suffice as examples.

As America moved toward participation in World War II, however, the pendulum swung back again. For a time, the major studios were reluctant to vilify fascism, worried about alienating the huge German market for U.S. films. However, reading the political wind, films supporting intervention and glorifying war began to be released. “Sergeant York,” again by Howard Hawks, with its emphatic anti-pacifist message, was the highest-grossing film of 1941 and won Gary Cooper an Oscar.

Then as always, movies were schooling us on how to think as a nation. The sociological subtext of the stereotypical World War II-era combat film was remarkably similar. In them, a coalition of various representative types (the naïve kid, the guy from Brooklyn, the drawling southerner, the Hispanic, and, towards the very end of the war, the black soldier – all wisecracking and nominally anti-authoritarian, of course) is forged into a cohesive, effective unit and led into battle by a square-jawed, right-thinking WASP male.

Role model Errol Flynn (standing) in "Objective, Burma!" (1945)
This propagandistic idealism was usually contrasted to the slaughterhouse principles of our grim, humorless, ethnically cleansed German opponents. Nazis made the best villains. They were articulate, monomaniacal, blatantly sadistic, and seemed to have all consciously chosen an identical inhuman ethos. A preponderance of war films of that era were set in Europe, the better to emphasize the ideological basis of the struggle.

Ironically, the racism espoused by the on-screen Nazis was imitated almost exactly by American films when it came to Japanese enemies. Over and over, in live-action and animated films of the period, “Japs” are characterized as grinning, bucktoothed, lisping monsters, subhuman, often equated with apes, insects, worms, vampires, and other creatures. This kind of thinking, and the institutionalized theft from and incarceration of Japanese-Americans that went hand-in-hand with it, would take decades to subside and be healed.

Sorry. This horrible type of racist imagery was common in America during WWII.

Almost the minute World War II ends, the mood changes again. Starting with novels such as “The Naked and the Dead” and “From Here to Eternity,” the questioning of the nature, dynamics, and results obtained by the American system, even when shaped to fight fascism, began.

In addition to Samuel Fuller’s consistently misanthropic tone in films such as “Fixed Bayonets!” and “The Steel Helmet,” and Stanley Kubrick’s persistent anti-war messages in “Fear and Desire,” “Paths of Glory,” “Dr. Strangelove,” et al, other movies asked questions, too. Aldrich’s “Attack!” (1956), Lean’s “Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957), Milestone/Peck’s “Pork Chop Hill” (1959), Hiller’s “The Americanization of Emily” (1964), and Wise’s “The Sand Pebbles” (1966) all proclaimed that not only was war hell, but that it was an insane and insupportable premise. Even actors such as Frank Sinatra and Cornell Wilde made pacifist statements as directors – in “None But the Brave” (1965) and “Beach Red” (1967), respectively. [Note: I am deliberately excluding the thin but persistent thread of explicitly anti-war films such as Mann’s “Men in War” (1957), Perry’s “Ladybug Ladybug” (1963), Seaton’s “The Hook” (1963), and Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun” (1971)].

Another thread of development was the “professionals only/men on a mission” subgenre. Born of the heist subgenre, foregrounded by the international success of Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” (1954), it was spearheaded in America by Howard Hawks in his “Rio Bravo”/”El Dorado”/”Rio Lobo” trilogy that began in 1959, and reinforced by the massive output of similar material by British author Alistair MacLean, whose narrative world is much more closely related to the Cold War vibe of cross and double-cross, shifting identities and allegiances, than the traditional war saga. The film adaptation of “The Guns of Navarone” (Thompson, 1961) became a defining template.

Additionally, as character-actor types began to supplant leading-men types, it became more normative for misfits and anti-heroes to act as film protagonists. Steve McQueen, an emblematic outsider-rebel, saves his squad in Don Siegel’s “Hell is for Heroes” (1962) precisely because he obeys no one and respects nothing.

The conflation of these three streams – a blanket cynicism, a rejection of the power of team playing and fellow-feeling, and the elevation of the misfit – all came together in Aldrich’s “The Dirty Dozen,” an immense hit from the day it was released – June 15, 1967, almost the chronological midpoint of the Summer of Love.

In it, an OSS major (Lee Marvin, who moved in his career from stock villain to emblematic nonconformist tough guy) is tasked with recruiting a bunch of military convicts, whipping them into shape as a fighting team, and leading them behind enemy lines to assassinate members of the German high command. Driven not by love of country but only the hope of pardon if they survive the mission, the “dirty dozen” are a “twisted, anti-social bunch of psychopathic deformities.” (The only cinematically reassuring presence in the entire film is Richard Jaeckel. He was seemingly contractually obligated to appear in every war film made over a quarter-century, from “Guadalcanal Diary” in 1943 through “The Devil’s Brigade” in 1968.)

The prime villain of the piece is not any given Nazi, but an American equivalent – the sadistic, bullying Col. Breed (Robert Ryan at his usual evil best). And, in the end, the suicide squad doesn’t fight other soldiers on the battlefield; it eliminates officers and women in a gasoline-soaked, grenade-barraged bunker. The Dozen are perfect for the job because killing is a job for lunatics – and in war, the most organized, well-equipped, and efficient lunatics win. (Marvin, a veteran of the Pacific front, was so disgusted by the unreality of the film that he refused other kinds of war-film roles for years -- save his turn in Fuller's relentlessly honest "The Big Red One" in 1980 --  not reprising his role as Reisman until 1985, when infamous "palimony" demands forced him to film a sequel.)

In “Where Eagles Dare” in 1969, Brian Hutton directs from an Alistair MacLean script (MacLean wrote the screenplay over a six-week period, having the template down pat by this time in his career). The uniting of two highly unlikely co-stars, the suavely sarcastic Richard Burton and the taciturn, inexpressive Clint Eastwood, was purely a marketing decision. The insanely convoluted plot, taut with uncertainty, is right out of the Cold War handbook. It throws in a couple of toothsome females (Mary Ure and Ingrid Pitt, the latter a Hammer horror scream queen), perfectly nasty Nazis such as Derren Nesbitt and Anton Diffring, and good old Michael Hordern as a friendly admiral.

And lots and lots and lots of killing. There is an informal count about 100 Nazis killed on screen – the highest ratio of any World War II or Clint Eastwood film made to date. The deaths are not graphic, and occur so frequently and in such large numbers that they are unreal, cartoonish. Of course, our heroes come through with nary a scratch. The dispensability of so many performers becomes gruesomely funny after a while. And sad. In a film about a war that was supposedly fought to preserve the sanctity of human life, human life has no value whatsoever.

A year later, “Kelly’s Heroes” throws all pretense of verisimilitude out the window. Screenwriter Troy Kennedy-Martin (creator of the beloved British cop show “Z-Cars” and “The Italian Job”) goes at the war-film clichés with gusto, and a side of fries. Eastwood is back again as the hero, accompanied by a gaggle of Hollywood’s finest character actors: Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Stuart Margolin, and Harry Dean Stanton. All are out to bust through enemy lines and steal millions of dollars in Nazi gold.

What ensues is a mishmash of satire, action film, and parody. Kelly enlists the aid of a band of hippie tankers . . . yes, you heard me . . . led by the emblematic portrayer of film hippies at the time, Donald Sutherland, as Sgt. – wait for it – Oddball. (Gavin MacLeod plays his second-in-command, the generator of “negative waves,” Moriarty.) Kelly’s “heroes” are lauded by their commander, General Colt (Carroll O’Connor), who is clueless as to their true intentions. A completely contemporary pop song in thrown in to boot (The Mike Curb Congregation's rendition of "Burning Bridges" became a hit).

Once again, a bloodbath prefaces the final showdown, and Germans tumble like tin soldiers kicked over in a child’s sandbox. To top it all off, a surviving German tank commander played by Karl-Otto Alberty (who bears a hilarious resemblance to Marlon Brando as Lt. Diestl in Dmytryk's 1958 “The Young Lions”) squares off against Kelly, Oddball, and Big Joe (Savalas) in a clear sendup of Leone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” right down to Lalo Schifrin's expert parody of Enio Morricone's spaghetti-Western soundtrack.

War is no longer an important concept nor a harsh necessity – it’s organized theft that differs from crime only in scale and sanction. It's a come-on, a joke, a farce. And the war film has finally become just a purveyor of the pornography of violence, the American Totentanz -- a great way for the emotionally retarded to get their Hate Boners on and stroke them to the sight of faceless goons, twitching, bloodlessly falling. It leads to the philosophical bloodbath of "The Matrix," the torture porn of "Saw" and "Hostel," and the goofy splatter of Tarentino.

Two other war films of that year sealed the genre’s fate for some time – Altman’s wildly popular “M*A*S*H” and Nichols’s adaptation of “Catch-22,” much less successful but vastly more unsettling today, due in large part for me to its cinematography that is calculated deliberately to give the film a look like Norman Rockwell on acid. Nobody could take heroics seriously anymore.

A single exception also made that year pointed the way toward the future of the American war film. Schaffner’s “Patton,” with its exceptional script by Francis Ford Coppola, allowed all the contradictions inherent in the genre to exist together, without devolving into either mindless sloganeering or black comedy. It would take almost a decade before America could start looking at itself, for better and worse, through that cinematic prism again.

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