Why Isn’t There a Children’s Day?

When children are at an early age, they learn about Mother’s Day.  About a month later, they learn about Father’s Day. Actually, Father’s Day is just another Mother’s Day in disguise. You see, if it were really a holiday for Dad, Mom would let him go to the pool hall or bowling alley and swill beer all day with the other fathers.  But no, Dad has to stay home and play the role of the fully domesticated male, whose life centers around the family, which is just the way Mom wants it.

In any event, it doesn’t take long for children to ask, “Why isn’t there a Children’s Day?” to which the standard answer is, “Every day is children’s day,” by which is meant that parents spend their lives doing stuff for their children, so if the kids think they are going to get a special day on top of that, they can forget about it.  Now, there is such a thing as Children’s Day, but not in the sense that children have in mind.  That is, they see Mom get a present on Mother’s Day and Dad get a somewhat less expensive present on Fathers Day, but they themselves never get presents on Children’s Day, and without the presents, the so-called Children’s Day is just a lot of talk.

And maybe the children have a point.  Adults get special treatment and consideration, if they have children.  For example, I have heard stories of parents getting off work to take care of their children while their single coworkers have to stay late and make up the difference.  Moreover, I have heard of criminals getting leniency if they have a child they have to take care of.  In other words, having a child can get an adult benefits that his or her childless counterpart does not.

All this is anecdotal, however.  I have no statistics.  I don’t have any children either. But what I do have is the movies.  And since art reflects life, and life reflects art, then from what I see in the movies, I figure something must be going on.

There was a time when the heroes of crime dramas and westerns were mostly bachelors.  Occasionally, a child might be featured to give the audience something to worry about, as in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), or to provide a point of view, as in Shane (1953).  But mostly, children were marginal characters, if they appeared in a film at all.

In the 1980s, heroes started becoming family men, as in Lethal Weapon (1987) and Die Hard (1988), and children played larger and larger roles, as in Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2 (1991), both of which feature heroes who are mothers. In fact, God himself became a child in Exodus:  Gods and Kings (2014).

Recently, however, the villains have started having children too.  Now, it was one thing when the heroes were portrayed as having children, for that was only supposed to make us love and admire them even more.  But when the villains have children, it definitely interferes with our natural desire to see them come to a bad end, and so much so, that they typically get away with their evil deeds.  How can we enjoy seeing a villain get what he deserves, whether by being killed or sent to prison, if we know that there is a little girl left behind, crying because Daddy is gone?  That is why in Shane, the Riker brothers do not seem to have wives or children.

Of course, when I say “children,” I am referring primarily to prepubescent children.  In My Darling Clementine (1946) and other Wyatt Earp films, we are not bothered by the fact that the chief villain, Ike Clanton, has sons, because they are all adults.  Conversely, if we are suspicious of a man’s character in a movie, the fact that he has no children, even though he is married, only adds to our misgivings, as in the movie Whispering Smith (1948).

We were able to forgive Vito and Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972), for instance, because they both loved their children.  But that movie was, at that time, an exception. Usually, gangsters died the way the title character of Scarface (1983) did.  Scarface might have been married, but that did not impede his glorious, blood-splattered death, especially since his wife was a sourpuss. If they had had a child, however, the final scene where Scarface introduces the horde of killers to his “little friend” would have been spoiled by our misgivings on that account.  Actually, one of the reasons we liked Scarface was that he refused to fulfill a contract, because it would have meant killing the man’s wife and child too. But as long as the child was not Scarface’s, we still got to see him pumped full of lead.

For this reason, villains seldom had children in the movies.  But that has changed. Now villains have children much more often, and such is the sanctifying nature of those children that these villains are redeemed.  In other words, villains are purposely being given children so that they can get away with their crimes with full audience approval.  In fact, they even get to live happily ever after.

For example, in Gone Girl (2014), a woman fakes evidence to make it look as though her husband murdered her, so that he will go to prison.  She leaves town with a lot of money, but when she is robbed, she needs to figure out another plan. She looks up an old boyfriend and goes to stay with him.  They start having sex, and just as he is getting to the good part, she slits his throat. Then she tells the police the guy abducted her. Normally, she would be punished for her crimes, as she rightly deserved.  But at the last minute, she turns out to be pregnant. Oh well, that changes everything.  Now her husband takes her back, and they live happily ever after.

Because this pregnancy saves this woman at the last minute, we are abruptly jolted from wanting her to get her just deserts to wanting her to get away with it all on account of the baby she is going to have.  Other movies, however, let us know about the children in advance, so we know to pull for the bad guy right from the beginning.  Moreover, they usually provide us with a throwaway villain who doesn’t have children, so that we can still enjoy seeing him come to a bad end, while allowing the villain who does have children to get away with it.

For example, in Hell or High Water (2016), which is a modern western, two brothers rob banks.  We really aren’t worried about the banks losing money, because wasn’t it the banks that caused the Great Recession somehow? Anyway, one brother is mean and vicious. The other is basically a nice guy. Guess which one has children. That’s right, even though innocent people are killed in their crime spree, the one with the children gets away with it, especially since he only wanted the money for those children.  There is a hint that the surviving bank robber will eventually get his just deserts at the hands of a retired sheriff, but we don’t really buy it.  If it didn’t happen on the big screen while we were watching the movie, it just didn’t happen.

In the movie Logan Lucky (2017), the main character plans a heist of a race track vault.  Just as bankers seemed to be fair game in Hell or High Water, so too do race tracks seem to be fair game as well, so we figure he just might get away with it.  But the fact that he has a little daughter, whom he adores and loves to spend time with, absolutely guarantees that he will not come to a bad end.  And just as there was a hint that the sheriff in Hell or High Water might eventually arrest the bank robber who had a child, there is a hint in Logan Lucky that the FBI agent, who shows up in the local bar at the end, might someday crack the case, but we don’t buy that either.

In the movie Don’t Breathe (2016), there are three villains.  One villain is really disgusting, obnoxious, and mean.  We know that he has been put in the movie to satisfy our need for justice, to see a bad guy get what he deserves. Needless to say, he doesn’t have children.  A second villain is a nice guy, but he doesn’t have children either, so he too is doomed.  Being nice is not enough.  A third villain, a young woman, has a young sister that she takes care of, all motherly like, so we know she is going to get away with her crimes.

These three villains burglarize houses.  They decide to escalate to a home invasion of a blind man, who they figure has lots of money stashed away in the house.  The blind man lost his daughter in an automobile accident, so that makes us really feel sorry for him.  Turns out, however, that this guy has the woman who killed his daughter chained up in the basement, so he is a villain too, actually a worse one than the three burglars. The blind man got the woman pregnant, because he wanted a replacement child.  Oh, well that’s different.  I mean, if he wants a child, he must be all right.  Except, we are a little bothered by the idea of his raping the woman he has chained up. But never fear.  He didn’t rape her.  He artificially inseminated her.  When that woman ends up getting killed, he plans on making the female villain take her place, artificially inseminating her too.  But she gets away. So, in the end, the female villain gets away with her crimes, because she has a little sister she loves and takes care of. And the blind man who is a monster gets away with his crime, because he lost a child and just wanted another one.

And so, if these movies are any indication, having a child will let you get away with murder and other such horrible crimes.  At the very least, they give you an excuse to get off work early. Therefore, it is time for adults to show their appreciation and declare a national Children’s Day.  And I mean one in which the children get presents.

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.