Last Sunday I was grumbling about how there are so many great books about war and not that many great war movies. That got a lot of readers lobbing in their suggestions for good war movies. One reminded me that I’d already mentioned a really great movie about 20th-c. war: Tae Guk Gi, The Brotherhood of War, a great, great Korean movie about two brothers who get dragged onto a troop train at the start of the Korean War. One of them makes it through, but you’ll have to watch the movie to see which one.
Tae Guk Gi has a dozen great scenes in it, from combat to massacre to just how dull it is to sit in a trench waiting to get attacked. There are bits of it you’ll never get out of your head, like when the Southern troops march north and see that the retreating Northern troops have hung villagers who they thought were class enemies. Not just hung them, but hung’em high, as Clint would say. There’s one woman hanging in that traditional Korean dress that looks like doll clothes, and I swear she’s about fifty feet in the air, revolving slowly.
One other thing Tae Guk Gi does better than most movies is show the instant electric switch from boring to terrifying you get in war. The platoon is sitting in the trenches bitching about the army and life in general, it’s hot, the food is lousy, and with no warning at all a volley of North Korean artillery lands right on them. You don’t hear the shells coming in, you don’t get those giveaway closeups of the guys who are about to die. Just one minute bla bla bla, the next kaboom. Totally random who dies that instant and who doesn’t.
A lot of the other movies you mentioned I haven’t seen. It’s hard to get Russian war films over here, though I did see one called Blockpost that someone from eXile sent back when they were based in Moscow. It was in Russian so I had to scrabble hard for every clue what was going on, but I think I got some of it. It’s about an outpost in Chechnya, manned by the classic squad of guys: the cool dude, the country bumpkin, the harmless little mascot comedy-relief that everybody babies and likes. They try to get along with the Chechens—in fact I suspect these actors are roughly a billion times nicer than actual scared conscripts would be when civilians fire on them—but eventually this cute Chechen girl who moonlights as a sniper gets one of them, although she sighs after doing it, like it’s a dirty job but somebody has to.
Just from what I wrote here describing the squad’s make-up, I bet any good war movie fan can tell me which guy gets it. That’s sort of the trouble with war movies, there’s a simple formula and people stick to it like Predestination.
Guess what Caine does with that helmet spike.
But there are some really surprising, unexpectedly cool war movies. Somebody mentioned The Last Valley, an old Michael Caine movie about a band of mercenaries in the Thirty Years War who stumble on an untouched, perfect valley in the Alps and decide to wait out the war there. I saw that as a kid and was seriously impressed. You can tell when somebody’s done their homework, even if you’re a kid, and whoever made that movie really had. I found out later James Clavell, the historical-novel guy who did all those books about Asia, wrote the story and directed the movie. That was where I learned a proper respect, more like total horror, for the Thirty Years War.
But I don’t want to give you the idea it was some dull textbook of a movie. This had action, serious action. In fact it had one of my favorite kill scenes in all the movies. Michael Caine, the captain of this band of mercenaries, has captured Omar Sharif, a wandering scholar. He’s going to kill Sharif, of course—that’s how you said hello to strangers in the Thirty Years War, slitting their throats—when Sharif blurts out some useful info in a last-ditch try to save his life. He tells Caine, “Wait, wait! Don’t just do the obvious, normal thing of killing me and everybody else in the valley, then moving on! Sure, that’s fun for a little while, but where’s it get you? Winter’s coming on, you don’t want to be down on the plains of Hell scavenging with all the other jackal packs! Stay here, live off the land, take it easy!”
Caine starts thinking it over, which pisses off his second-in-command, a serious Christian who gets sick at the idea of sparing heretics. He starts yelling at Caine—and he’s a huge hairy monster—when Caine, who’s holding his helmet in one hand, casually jams the spike of his helmet into his second-in-command’s gut. Shuts the guy up real quick. As this man-mountain slumps to the ground, Caine turns to Sharif and says, by way of explaining why he just terminated his associate’s career, “Goot ideazzz are rrrrrare.”
I’ve always loved that scene, and that line, “Goot ideazzz are rrrrare.” Of course there’s the question why a German in the middle of the German lands would speak English with a German accent, never mind one as bad as Caine’s. But listen, if you’re going to watch war movies at all, you’re going to have to accept the fact that Germans speak with a German accent, even when they’re supposed to be speaking German. Logically, you’d either have them talk in actual German and subtitle it in English, or have them talk in normal English and hope the people watching get the fact that this is happening in Germany among Germans and they’re actually speaking German. Instead most of the movies I’ve seen have German officers talking like Sgt. Schultz: English in a heavy accent with a couple of phrases left in German, usually the ones that sound military and obedient: “Jawohl, Mein General” and such.
Don’t even get me started on Mel Gibson’s accent in Braveheart, or Julia Roberts’s Irish one in Michael Collins. All the same, though, the actual scenes of medieval battle in Braveheart were good, and showed how crucial morale can be when battle is a matter of fighting with sharpened tire irons. And as for Braveheart being “anti-English”—which some reviewers said with a straight face—Oh my sweet lord Jesus, if those people had any idea, their heads would explode. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing. Oh, and a quick comment on Michael Collins, the movie: first of all, Mister Producer, you DON’T cast a sad-faced mope like Liam Neeson as a guerrilla leader. Leaders like Collins do it by infecting people with their own confidence. Neeson has the kind of face that tells you the biopsy doesn’t look promising. He’s the last guy to get men to go up against better-armed regular troops. Casting, damn it, comes down to casting.
Leigh in Flesh and Blood: Soooo Medieval!
But back to the Thirty Years War. Much later, they made another movie about European mercenaries called Flesh and Blood, starring a very weird cast with Rutger Hauer, the Blade Runner guy, as the leader of a mercenary troop and Jennifer Jason Leigh as the lady of the castle they storm. This movie was directed by Paul Verhoeven, who’s good—did some great fight scenes in Starship Troopers, which I guess was a war movie although it’s hard to take sci-fi seriously—but Flesh and Blood just doesn’t work, except as a medieval skin/rape flick–they should’ve called it Skin and More Skin to be honest about it. As a movie about the year 1501, it bombs,for a simple reason that every film director and producer needs to know right now: Some faces are pure modern world and can’t be backdated. I’m talking about Jennifer Jason Leigh here. She’s the lady of the castle? Come on, guys. The only way a face like that could get a castle is if she started out as a cocktail waitress at the airport Hilton and charmed, let’s put it that way, charmed her way into the heart of a degenerate jetset prince. There is just no way on earth Jennifer Jason Leigh’s flatline American voice—why is it American women try to iron out any little hint of inflection in their voices? Kansas is the Dolomites compared to a graph of their vocal range, I swear to God—there’s no way that voice could rule a late-medieval castle. Rutger Hauer, OK, he has one of those old faces. But Jennifer…when the mercenary band storms the palace and starts raping everybody, you expect her to yell in a Valley whine, “Whuturyou doin’ here, the lawn was just mowed on Tuesday and you don’t even look Mexican!”
It’s like Verhoeven, a smart guy, figured out Jennifer’s L.A. face wasn’t going to work, no matter how many snoods and damsel-veils he put on her, so he upped the violence level. I mean yes, there’d have been plenty of mass rape in a situation like that, but you’ll notice a lot of times in movies the directors up the graphic violence to make you believe you’re in another time, when anything could happen etc.. What’s much harder to do is make people believe they’re in another time, another world. And the way you do that is make it all look normal, because that’s how the world looks, any world, when you’re in it, when you’ve grown up in it. The screams are background noise if they happen every day.
I noticed that when I lived in a building by a busy street, not quite a freeway but almost. A girl was jaywalking and got killed one night. There were a few sirens and lights, everybody went back to the tv, and I walked by the spot where she got hit every day. I was pretty young and I thought there’d be something creepy about that spot. There wasn’t. No ghosts, spookies or voices. And if I’d driven by like about a million cars did every day, I’d never have felt a thing. Got me wondering how many other times I walked or drove over a massacre site (since massacres are much more common than battles) and never knew. It’s like we want to believe there are demons or something that get born from all the bad stuff, because that would be a kind of arithmetic that balances for us: so much death equals so many demons and ghosts. But as far as I know there’s nothing. I remember thinking, what if a kid had been run over every day on that spot of asphalt for a million years, would you get demons then? And knowing, just quietly knowing in every cell of my fat body: nope. Nothing. Lawsuits maybe, but no demons.
Our world feels normal, hit-and-runs and all, and we drive right over them. So did slavery, so did everything but the big sudden eruptions: The Mongols, the Plague. And I’d imagine after a while those felt normal too. You have to make a movie world feel normal too, to the people in it.
Black Robe also features the coolest dwarf shaman ever.
The movie I’ve seen that does that pretty well is this one about the French and Huron in Quebec in the 17th c. called Black Robe. It’s about a French priest who has to canoe a thousand miles upriver at the beginning of winter—the kind of assignment you got as a special favor if you were one of those gung-ho religion commissars they bred in Europe back then—with a band of Huron. They have to cross Iroquois territory to get there, and they’re captured—which they would be—and tortured—which they would be. The Iroquois go to work on the priest’s fingertips with dull-edged mussel shells. Then the chief tells the prisoners to get some rest with this little speech: “Today was only the first caress. We will peel the skin from you and you will still be alive.”
It’s all pretty hardcore, but when the French say, “The Iroquois are animals!” the Huron, not generally pro-Iroquois, shrug and say, “They’re just like us. If they show weakness they’ll be wiped out.” That’s the line a war movie has to try to walk, and it’s a thin one: showing all the gross weirdness but making it clear this is the normal world the people in the movie live in, have lived in all their lives.
That’s if you want to make a real movie about primitive/irregular warfare. You don’t always have to do that. Take Red Dawn…oh yeah, I can see you guys blushing, but admit it, you liked Red Dawn when it came out in the Reagan years! I know I did. The idea that Americans could be guerrillas was so cool, and John Milius had done a little homework—not a lot, but more than most Hollywood directors—on how guerrilla wars get their start under occupation. At least he showed a long line of civilian hostages getting shot in reprisal, although since it was a classic teen movie you didn’t really care about all those dull middle-aged hostages. In fact, it was kind of a relief to have the Dad-figure, Harry Dean Stanton as a classic redneck disciplinarian dad, get machine-gunned. That left the field wide open to the teen gang, and that’s what they were, a teen gang hanging around some desert National Park with prop RPGs. The Breakfast Club meets Stripes, but it was fun, admit it. You just wouldn’t want to use it as a blueprint for insurgency, that’s all, because guaranteed, Lea Thompson’s down coat would get puffed open by the belly gun of an Mi-24 a lot faster than it does in the movie. (Though that was another cool scene, the one where they’re lounging on scenic National Park red rocks when the chopper-whops start echoing around the canyon and the next thing you know Lea’s coat is exploding like popcorn. As I recall she dies for about ten minutes, because when you come down to it, Red Dawn is date-bait for teen war nerds. Not their dates—I imagine there were a whole bunch of furious Mormon Idaho girls who got taken to that movie by one of my brother war nerds in the expectation of post-combat romance, only to get orders to take her home NOW, and all that money on her Mickey D’s Big Mac meal just wasted. Such, like they say, are the fortunes of war.
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