The Perfect War for an Antiwar Movie

I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier,
I brought him up to be my pride and joy,
Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder,
To shoot some other mother’s darling boy?

Well, it is Mother’s Day, after all.  And since we naturally think of mothers as being opposed to war, this seemed like a good day to reflect on antiwar movies.  But while I was pondering which antiwar movie was the best one I had ever seen, it occurred to me that some wars are more suitable as a setting for an antiwar movie than others, and this led me to wonder what the perfect war is for an antiwar movie.

First of all, the war should take place since the Age of Reason, which began in Europe in the 17th century.  Though wars were probably more ghastly in ancient times, what with Joshua’s genocidal slaughter of everyone in Canaan, the routine putting-men-to-the-sword in the Peloponnesian War, the destruction of Carthage, and many other atrocities too numerous to mention, yet we just have a hard time working up antiwar sentiments when watching movies set in those days.  There are a few antiwar movies set in the ancient world, such as The Trojan Women (1971), which involves mothers again, but they are the exception.  More common is a movie like 300 Spartans (1962), in which we enjoy watching some real manliness in the face of overwhelming odds.  When King Leonidas is told that so many Persian arrows will fill the sky that they will blot out the sun, he calmly replies, “Then we will fight in the shade.”  But what really sets the mood is when a Spartan mother tells her son, “Come back with your shield or on it.”  Now, how are you going to have an antiwar movie when Mom has an attitude like that?

The Mediaeval Period is not much better, perhaps because romantic figures like King Arthur, Richard the Lionhearted, and Charlemagne are not conducive to making a good antiwar movie. Apparently, we need to be in the Modern Period, where men are expected to be a little more civilized and educated, in order to find wars suitable for the making of an antiwar movie.

The second thing that is needed is a war in which many people were killed. It is fortunate that since World War II, the number of soldiers dying in American wars has been decreasing, but the fact remains that the relatively fewer casualties make these recent wars less than ideal for an antiwar movie. It is not that I have forgotten about MASH (1970), Apocalypse Now (1979), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Black Hawk Down (2001), and others, good antiwar movies all.  But the wars in which these movies were set just don’t have the numbers needed to make it to the top of the list.

At this point, I cannot help but think about the Civil War.  It certainly has the numbers, for with 620,000 deaths, it by far is the deadliest of all the wars America has fought in.  Deadliest for Americans, that is.  America has fought in wars where many more people died, such as World Wars I and II, but American deaths were less than that of the Civil War.  This American element is important.  Hollywood still dominates the movie industry, and is primarily geared toward an American audience.  Therefore, a good war for an antiwar movie should be one in which Americans are involved, or failing that, Europeans.  In other words, no matter how many people might be slaughtered in a war in Africa or Asia, if neither Americans nor Europeans are involved, it just will not hold our attention.  So American or European involvement is the third condition that must be met for the setting of a good antiwar movie.

The fourth ingredient for a perfect antiwar war is that there should be a lot of naïve optimism and dreams of glory on the part of the young men in the beginning, only to be crushed as the war progresses.  And here again, the War Between the States would seem to be a good candidate, as in Gone With the Wind (1939).  Several scenes come to mind:  The Tarleton twins becoming horrified when Scarlett tells them there isn’t going to be any war; the talk about licking the Yankees in six weeks; the young men hollering with glee when news comes that war has finally broken out; Scarlett in the hospital, where a woman writes a letter dictated by a dying soldier to his mother (mothers again); and Scarlett walking across the railroad yard to find the doctor to help deliver Melanie’s baby (another mother), as the camera pulls back, revealing a panorama of wounded men.

But while the Civil War meets all the conditions considered thus far, it has one unfortunate flaw.  It had a noble purpose, which was ending slavery.  A perfect war for the setting of an antiwar movie must be one that is pointless. Of course, it was pointless from the southern point of view, which is why the antiwar theme works in Gone With the Wind, but the larger context of ending slavery makes the Civil War less than ideal for an antiwar movie. Wars that either were fought for a noble cause or had a beneficial outcome just do not make for good antiwar movies.  Correct me if I am wrong, but there has never been an antiwar movie set during the American Revolution. I guess the British could make one from their point of view, but even so, if there is such a film, I have never seen it.

The Napoleonic Wars might be a good candidate.  Americans were not involved, but Europeans were.  There was an enormous loss of life, the most pointless of which was the invasion of Moscow, where Napoleon started out with 500,000 men, was easily victorious, and then lost all but 50,000 men trying to get back home in the freezing weather.  And in War and Peace (1956), one of the many screen adaptations of Tolstoy’s novel, Prince Bolkonsky (Mel Ferrer) says of his participation in the Battle of Austerlitz, “I delayed, for ten minutes, a retreat in a battle that was lost, in a war that was lost.”

There is just one problem.  Because the Russians and the British were victorious in their war against Napoleon, who was clearly an aggressor, the war seems morally justified from their point of view.  The war is more suitable for antiwar treatment from the French point of view. But that won’t work either. Remember earlier when I said that even if a war did not have American involvement, it might still be worth considering as a good antiwar war if it involves Europeans, because we readily identify with Europeans? Well, that is certainly true, unless they are French.  Then we just don’t identify so well.

I must no longer tax the reader’s patience.  He or she has known for several paragraphs running where we would end up.  The war to end all antiwar wars is obviously World War I. Set in the Modern Period, on the European continent, it involved a great slaughter, and even though I have read several books on the subject, I still can’t figure out what the fighting was all about. It had something to do with entangling alliances, imperialism, revanchism, and assassination, as best I can tell.  But it all adds up to one big pointless mess. Woodrow Wilson said it was to make the world safe for democracy, but the Europeans didn’t know what he was talking about.  I sometimes think that is why they changed the name from the Great War to World War I:  by making it seem like a prequel to World War II, which had the noble purpose of defeating the Nazis, it seems to acquire some purpose and justification by the association of ideas.

Furthermore, WWI began with the required naïve optimism and dreams of glory.  I remember reading somewhere that one of the generals observed that there had been a definite change in attitude on the part of the troops from one world war to the next, saying, “The doughboys sang songs, but the GIs made wisecracks.”  If that is true, then this cynicism is another reason why the Second World War is not suitable for an antiwar movie.  And it is also a reason why the Vietnam War cannot be the perfect war for an antiwar movie either.

In All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), we see young men being inspired to go to war by their teacher.  Since they are WWI Germans, it is all right for Americans to identify with them. In Gallipoli (1981), the main character sees the war in terms of a great moral purpose, and he is most apprehensive lest he will miss out on something that is larger than life.  Since he is an English-speaking Australian, we even more easily identify with him.  Paths of Glory (1957) is a good antiwar movie, but since all the soldiers are French, identification is difficult.  This difficulty is overcome by having the bad officers played by actors that are obviously French or at least foreign, while having the good officer and the unjustly accused defendants played by American actors.

Actually, this brings out the fact that some distancing is a good thing.  A good antiwar movie must be full of fools and knaves.  In particular, the fools are the young men who vaingloriously march off to war, while the knaves are the officers who send them to their death.  Americans don’t like to think of themselves as being either fools or knaves, so it is better to let the Europeans take those roles.  That is why the best WWI antiwar movies do not involve Americans at all.  Regarding All Quiet on the Western Front, Danny Peary makes the following remarks in his Alternate Oscars:

My feeling is that the film has always been well received in America because it shows Germans—our enemies in World War I—coming to their senses in a losing war effort. (Importantly, none of their victims is identified as an American.)  … I doubt if American audiences would have received it so well over the years if, with few script changes, these soldiers who question giving up their lives for uniform, flag, and country were Americans.

In other words, one of the things that makes WWI the perfect antiwar war is that Americans were involved, but only as reluctant warriors, as in Sergeant York (1941), while it is the Europeans who get to play the parts of idealistic young men being sent to their death by callous officers.

Finally, since we are talking about movies, there must be memorable imagery. It is not enough to just pile up the bodies.  The destruction of human life must have cinematic value.  The Crimean War provides us with the Charge of the Light Brigade, giving us one poem and two movies.  But while the imagery is right, its significance varies from being noble and glorious to being insane and futile.

The imagery in WWI, however, is unequivocal:  men climb out of their trenches, run toward the enemy line, and are cut down by machinegun fire. When it comes to antiwar movies, it doesn’t get any better than that. In Gallipoli, my favorite part is when the commanding officer tells the soldiers to remove all the bullets from their rifles before they charge. “Bayonets only!” is the command.  I guess the idea is that if you have bullets in your rifle, you might want to take aim at the people who are shooting at you, thereby slowing down the charge.  But with an empty rifle, your only hope is to run as fast as possible toward the machine gun and stab the man who is firing it.  That was the plan.  I don’t suppose I need to tell you how the plan worked out.

By the way, just as a side note, has there ever been a movie set in WWI in which it is the Germans who climb out of their trenches, run toward the French or English positions, and get massacred by machineguns?  The Germans in the movies never seem to do that, not even in All Quiet on the Western Front.  Surely they must have actually done so from time to time, but not on the big screen.  Presumably, because the Germans were our enemy, watching them get killed in great numbers might not instill the same antiwar feeling that we have come to expect from a WWI movie.  And so, when it comes to the movies, it is the fate of the Allies to climb out of their trenches and charge toward the Germans, never the other way around.

In any event, World War I is the perfect war for an antiwar movie.  And so I’ll end where I started, with a mother’s lament in fearful anticipation of that war:

What victory can cheer a mother’s heart,
When she looks at her blighted home?
What victory can bring her back
All she cared to call her own?
Let each mother answer
In the years to be,
Remember that my boy belongs to me!

Happy Mother’s Day.

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