Treasonous Truth

Questions . . . lots of questions

All Hell: A War Film Theory

What makes war quite possibly the subject of more films than any other single topic? What makes one film staunchly anti-war and another unabashedly pro-war? Is there really any way to spin hell on earth in a positive light on the silver screen?

A friend1 of mine recently commented, “The world just looks better through a camera, crisper, better-ordered, with tidy moral delineations and people of agency and action. Film can make anything look great.”

But only at first glance, I would add.

There’s no doubt that war is great for cinematic purposes and has contributed to some of the most memorable scenes in the history of film. William Wallace’s stirring speech in Braveheart, combined with the costuming of his Scottish troops and the imposing English army advancing across the moors, certainly makes for breathtaking cinematography.

But the camera’s pan over the battlefields of Chancellorsville, Antietam, or the shores of Iwo Jima — with even the slightest degree of historical accuracy — must needs be a silent protest against the horrors of war. For a beach to be strewn with half the 54th Massachusetts regiment after a failed assault on Fort Wagner, or Normandy littered with countless young men wading directly to their death; for the limp and lifeless body of the protagonist to be thrown into a mass grave, or zipped into a body bag, touches a cord of mixed tenderness and revulsion deep in the heart of man.

To be sure, there is a distinct shift in films that deal with modern warfare: Korea, Vietnam, and the present senseless conflicts overseas, handily facilitated by a distinct shift in how these wars are waged. The days of huge engagements on vast fields went out with the trenches of World War I, which themselves began to disappear in the blitzkrieg-like battles of World War II. These further disintegrated into the guerrilla war of Vietnam, and out of those swamps rose modern special operations units, which have firmly solidified their places in history in Afghanistan and Iraq.

All that to say, it’s a lot easier to make modern warfare look cool. Jumping out of a plane at midnight deep into enemy territory, sneaking in to kill the bad guys, and extracting by boat makes for a great, action-packed film. I remember seeing the Imax film Fighter Pilot for the first time years ago and being awed by supersonic jets as they streaked through the sky and maneuvered through canyons, dropping bombs and wreaking havoc below. Snipers shoot to kill from unimaginable distances, snuffing out one life after another with chilling calculation. The faces of those dying are harder to see; the cost in human lives a bit more difficult to figure; and a clean, sanitized story easier to come by.

Why is it that war films have to “leave out the boring parts, or the parts that are especially morally repugnant”? Why don’t more films “focus on the claustrophobia and gut-wrenching suspense and ugly fear”?

What if the music didn’t swell when Scarlett discovers the aftermath of the Battle of Atlanta? What if there were no epic soundtracks, patriotic parades, or moments of intense heroism for us to cling to?

What would happen if all that was stripped away? Would we still sit up a bit straighter in our seats if there were no music to cue us? Would we cheer on the protagonist as he bids farewell to his mother if there were no on-screen crowd setting the example?

Perhaps the trappings of soundtracks, parades, and heroism are necessary to desensitize ourselves to the “objectively bad war-related nastiness,” to “somehow make it all look horrible, but in a dangerously thrilling way” that pulls us in, excuses the horror, and makes us clamor for more.

We’ve been conditioned to admire dirt-streaked faces, a final set of the jaw, and one last charge at the enemy. If the protagonist comes out alive, three cheers for him. If he doesn’t…well, his name on a monument is gratitude enough for his “ultimate sacrifice.”


If we lean in and listen between the swells in the music to the agonizing cries of the dead and dying, of the grieving and bereft;

If we step from behind the camera long enough to observe the heartache and shell shock not captured in the frame;

If we see past the closing credits to the aftermath of war, to the injured whose lives are forever changed, to the families left behind, and to the generations who will never be, then…

It is, as Sherman said, “many…look on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.”

And when considered in that light, all war movies, regardless of the director’s intent, become anti-war films.

  1. Unless otherwise noted, quotes throughout should be attributed to my friend Hannah.

1 Comment

  1. Ah this is great!
    It occurred to me today while I was thinking about this, that maybe the reason why few war movies, especially classic war movies, can’t go into full horrordeath mode is because of simple censorship issues. “Gone with the Wind” can have “Swanee River” in a minor key, but it has to stop short of showing actual intestines. So for a long time filmmakers had to take a roundabout way to convey their message.
    Anyway, the thing I had in mind when I was thinking about pro-war/anti-war movies are this page on TVTropes, about the Misaimed Fandom that many movies end up with–where movies are seen as celebrating the thing, person, or idea they’re trying to condemn, I was also reminded of this quote by George Orwell,

    “[Fascism is] psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life …
    Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said
    to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them, ‘I offer
    you struggle, danger, and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings
    itself at his feet … We ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.”

    I’m…not saying that the military consist of Nazis. I’m also trying not to invoke Godwin’s Law here, so just mentally replace “Fascism” and “Hitler” with “war,” because the toxic appeal is the same. Both promise an existence where you can pour all your life and will and suffering into something that (they assure you) is worthwhile, instead of leading a self-directed but aimless life. And the effect is compounded by the way that a camera loves its subject. It sort of makes every moment of the beleaguered soldier’s screentime into a small martyrdom, like one of those old hagiographies that recounts in gory detail all about the inventively hideous death of a particular saint. A story like that isn’t meant to put people off the idea of dying for a higher cause. It seems paradoxical, but it’s meant to inspire the faithful to be bold and true no matter the cost.

    Dulce et decorum est…if you step away from the screen, you see the truth, but the old Lie is just more aesthetically pleasing, and it lets beauty and ugliness blend together in a way that makes for a great movie.

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