Year-End Sub Promo Film Comment Film Society of Lincoln Center

Bombast: It’s War

By Nick Pinkerton on August 06, 2014

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Last week I finally saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a film which takes place in a world where the handful of humans who’ve survived a devastating simian flu epidemic band together in the grandiose ruins of civilization. I couldn’t have chosen a more apt setting for watching it: the sparsely populated Ziegfeld Theater on 54th Street, one of two single-screen moviehouses remaining in Manhattan.

My colleagues in the crit racket beat the drum for Dawn for the most part, but it left me dissatisfied, dispirited, even a little depressed. For a clue as to what was missing, I looked to the dissenting opinions. Among these was that of The New Yorker’s ever-precious Anthony Lane who, writing of the apes’ forest refuge, notes that its “residents communicate in a blend of gestures, grunts, and very plain English, not unlike the customers in a sports bar,” said very much in the manner of someone who has never set foot in a sports bar.* Later, Lane identifies the missing element in Dawn as “wit”—a quality he seems to believe is evident in spades in that sports-bar crack—though I think he’s closer to pinpointing the film’s deficiencies when he compares it unfavorably to its predecessor, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in which “the dramatic balance between man and primate was precise.”

Both of the Apes movies are motion-capture makeovers of familiar genres. Rise was a prison-break movie played out inside a primate shelter, replete with cell block bullies and brutal guards. Dawn is a war film, though it belongs to a category that might be called the reluctant war film, while the outpost, edge-of-civilization setting gives it Western overtones. Showing the brokering of a tenuous peace between two hostile peoples, undermined by the actions of determinedly belligerent parties on both sides, it shares its basic narrative elements with Delmer Daves’s 1950 Broken Arrow, if practically nothing else.**

Cowboys and Indians are too hot to handle these days, not to speak of the fact that they’re box-office poison—though it seems like film culture will stop at nothing short of pinning me to the ground and sitting on my chest until I admit that Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger is an unfairly maligned film maudit. Questions of quality aside, by providing a safe sci-fi proxy where questions of tolerance, oppression, and resistance can be worked through without directly touching politically inflammatory issues, the new Apes films work much the same territory as the film franchise that they’re “rebooting,” the first installment of which appeared in 1968 Anno Domini, that year of assassinations, urban riots, and unrest, making monkey overlords and human chattel an elastic metaphor for any and all contemporary caste systems. Today, history cloaked in flexible metaphor and sci-fi togs seems to have overtaken historical fiction. In writing about Edge of Tomorrow, for example, Lane’s New Yorker colleague Richard Brody noted that Doug Liman’s film, which revolves around a beachfront invasion in northern France, was opening on the seventieth anniversary of D-Day. And sure enough, underneath the Warhammer 40,000 body armor and building-a-Call of Duty-cheat-sheet plot, we can discover traces of one of the crucial tests of the American century.

I don’t know if anyone has seen fit to similarly note that Dawn, in which mutually destructive hostility is sparked by a political assassination, was released within a couple weeks of the hundredth anniversary of Archduke Franz Ferdinand getting murked in Sarajevo, but there it is all the same. The Museum of Modern Art, at least, isn’t letting the occasion pass without note: yesterday marked the beginning of a Bismarck-sized program titled “The Great War: A Cinematic Legacy.” Perhaps the folks on 53rd Street feel they owe the war a debt of gratitude, for it is difficult to imagine modern art without the great upheaval of 1914 (I discussed this, and various sundry titles, in a write-up of the series for Artforum).

In his own review of Dawn for Reverse Shot, Adam Nayman speaks to the film’s internal conflict, noting that “the script makes a show of having characters on both sides of the divide try to bridge the gap . . . when all we’re really waiting for is the commencement of hostilities.” When these begin, they don’t disappoint, the highlight being bellicose bonobo Koba (Toby Kebbell) taking on a human tank singlehandedly, killing gunner and driver with his bare mitts and then hopping off while the unmanned vehicle punches a breach in the human stronghold’s defenses. This occurs in a single take, with the POV constrained as though fixed to the tank’s turret, an elaboration of the backseat car-crash set-piece in director Matt Reeves’s 2010 Let Me In, which is the one thing that he can undeniably be said to do well.

The particular push-pull that Nayman mentions—dread of war, anticipation of war—is hardly unique to Dawn. Indeed, you can find it in a great many of the “Great War” titles at MoMA, and it is endemic to the war film itself, which says War Is Hell while at the same time tacitly reconfirming that it makes for hellaciously good cinema. “Go home! A long life eating porridge is best!” Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) admonishes at the end of Yojimbo—and while director Akira Kurosawa may have believed this, little in his filmography*** suggests that he believed that porridge-eating made for compelling movies.

This leads me to a point that I’ve repeated so often that I ought to create a keyboard shortcut to paste it: a film isn’t “problematic” because it is open to multiple interpretations or appears differently to different viewers, unless you insist that films be programmatic in order to “work.” And if you’re not capable of holding two opposing ideas in mind at the same damn time, you might do well not to address something so slippery and treacherous as moving images, the basic material of movies. In the case of screening combat—and its collateral damage—the opposing ideas in question are as follows:

1. That even the war that is deemed most just and inevitable is a tragedy that will result in the destruction of property and the fracturing and displacement of lives, including those of non-combatants caught in the crossfire—and this is among the lucky survivors, who will carry the insuperable burden of their memories to the grave.

2. This same state of war, which is awful if not, historically speaking, aberrant, creates a crucible for the testing of one’s mettle and provides opportunity for the expression of attributes which are widely considered to be desirous, among them courage, selflessness, and cooperation. It is also, at least sometimes, presumably exhilarating—for it is doubtful that an activity which had nothing at all to recommend it would be so consistently popular through the centuries.

A great deal of second-guessing nevertheless surrounds the issue of “How to Tell a True War Story,” to borrow the title of a 1990 short story by Tim O’Brien, formerly of the 3rd Platoon, Company A, 5th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Division. O’Brien tries to distill his Vietnam experience in prose, arguably a simpler task than working in those disobedient images. At least this would seem to be the view of some who suggest that it’s better not to put the camera-eye directly to a subject as sensitive as war at all, for risk of falsifying if not ennobling. This is the position put forth in Level Five, a 1997 essay film by Chris Marker which will be having its premiere New York theatrical run beginning August 15 at BAMcinématek. The spine of the film is a series of video-diary entries from a computer programmer (Catherine Belkhodja) working on a World War II strategy game, and her musings are used as a springboard with which to reach cosmic concerns. The game she is making reproduces the conditions of the Battle for Okinawa, theoretically creating the possibility of reaching other outcomes in what was, as a matter of historical record, an unmitigated disaster, the intense fighting accompanied by mass suicides that depopulated and devastated the island. Here is a snippet of the narration, recorded by Marker himself:

“Mabuni Museum**** [in Okinawa] shows war as chaotic, hard to represent, and unpresentable. But—as in the books and films—the smell of battle is missing. Until we get ‘Smellies,’ like ‘Talkies,’ war films don’t exist. Just as well. I swear there would be no audience.”

One might not think of Marker and Sam Fuller, the gauche American director of pulp-historical gutpunches, as kindred spirits, but Fuller closely echoes Marker’s point in his posthumously published 2002 autobiography, A Third Face.***** A veteran of the United States Army 1st Infantry Division who was a firsthand witness of many of the major engagements of the European theater, including Omaha Beach, Fuller writes:

“There’s no way you can portray war realistically, not in a movie nor a book. You can only capture a very, very small aspect of it. If you really want to make your readers understand a battle, a few pages of your book would be booby-trapped. For moviegoers to get the idea of real combat, you’d have to shoot at them every so often from either side of the screen. The casualties in the theater would be bad for business.”

Regardless of the admitted impossibility of the task, Fuller wasn’t dissuaded from portraying war. His breakout movie, 1951’s The Steel Helmet, was one of the first to depict the ground soldier’s experience in Korea—in fact, Los Angeles’s Griffith Park—and time and again his films would return to the heat of combat, or to the immediate aftermath of struggle and strife. While operating from the same assumptions, Fuller and Marker embody two opposite tactical approaches to representing the unrepresentable: one between the eyes, the other abstract, esoteric. When Fuller, an American Jew who was present at the liberation of the Falkenau concentration camp, wants to show the horror of the Holocaust, as he does in his 1959 Verboten!, he has an adolescent German Nazi sympathizer (named Franz Schiller!) made to sit in on the Nuremberg Trials, where he must bear witness to real images from the camps, the eyes of the persecuted, taken from stock footage, boring into actor Harold Daye, who is seen in a series of sweaty, oppressive close-ups.

To this we may contrast the tack taken by Alain Resnais who, shortly after making his essayistic study of black art with Marker and Ghislain Cloquet, 1953’s Les Statues meurent aussi, completed Night and Fog, confirmed as the fourth-best documentary of all time by Sight & Sound magazine’s first-ever documentary poll. Resnais draws upon much the same photographic evidence that Fuller will, but undercuts these images with testimony to the ultimate insufficiency of his means, in language very near to that which Marker uses over 40 years later in Level Five:

“What hope do we have of truly capturing this reality? The wooden barracks where people slept three to a bed, the burrows where they hid and ate in furtive fear and where sleep itself presented a threat. No description, no image can reveal their true dimension: endless, uninterrupted fear.”

I find both Fuller and Resnais/Marker’s approaches moving in their own ways, and can discover no hard and fast rule as to what “works” with regards to communicating something of the historical horror of warfare, or the wanton slaughter that is its byproduct. To return to the Great War: by age 11, the horror of the trenches had been firmly established in my mind by no less a text than the BBC comedy Blackadder Goes Forth. I haven’t revisited Blackadder Goes Forth since it was rebroadcast in the States on PBS, but I can still quite clearly picture the staggeringly depressing last shot of the series, in which the beloved cast of characters go over the top and hurtle towards almost certain death, which makes that Seinfeld finale seem like pretty timid stuff. I was watching Blackadder in the first place because, as I have had occasion to shamefacedly admit in the past, I was a preadolescent Anglophile. This extended to a fascination with the English martial tradition, from the Crusades to the rout of the Armada and well into the “Sun never sets” Empire period. I was recently discussing this with a friend who, as a boy, had been similarly afflicted by the appeal of the romantic redcoat ideal—the whole Rudyard Kipling, Four Feathers thing. It’s not hard to understand the allure of the concept retrospectively, we agreed, for it gives lip service to really admirable virtues to which a boy aspires: bravery, loyalty, modesty, self-discipline, dutifulness, and all of that tommyrot. If you visit the sarcophagus of Horatio, Lord Nelson, in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral, you will feel yourself to be standing at the very nerve center of a great national self-romance, bound up in the credo of God, Queen, and country, and it is difficult not to be moved. The problem being, of course, that behind all of this is the historical reality of British Imperialism, of which the best anyone can say is that it was slightly less needlessly destructive than some other strains of the same sickness.

I was still an unreformed wannabe Bombardier when I first watched, with rapt attention, Zulu. The 1964 film is a reenactment of the real Battle of Rorke’s Drift, which occurred on January 22 and 23 of 1879 in the Natal Province of Cape Colony (part of present-day South Africa). Through day and night, some 140 British Army regulars, many of them wounded or ailing before fighting commenced, repelled a few thousand Zulu warriors from their redoubt in a remote mission serving as a supply depot. This victory was much touted in the press, not least because it provided cold comfort for the humiliation that the British had been dealt at the Battle of Isandlwana, in which 1,800 troops had been routed by indigenous forces with superior numbers but far inferior firepower. (These events are at the center of the 1979 “prequel” Zulu Dawn, co-written by Zulu director and co-writer Cy Endfield.)  

I recently rewatched Zulu for the first time since I was a boy. Arguably I was watching it for the first time, as I was seeing the full breadth of the Technirama frame instead of the cropped, pan-and-scan image that I would’ve been exposed to on VHS.****** Technical specs weren’t the only essential differences between viewings, though, for rather than seeing again the celebration of Her Majesty’s Army’s battlefield prowess which I’d taken in as an apolitical child, now I was forced to reckon with the image of slain black bodies being stacked like cordwood before the bulwarks of white defenders.

Zulu will be playing Los Angeles and New York dates in August, as part of the UCLA Film & Television Archives’ program “Hollywood Exiles in Europe” and Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Red Hollywood and the Blacklist,” respectively. The film is included in these series because of the vicissitudes of Endfield’s career: a native of Scranton, Pennsylvania, he was blacklisted from Hollywood in 1951, and subsequently went to the United Kingdom to rebuild his career. While never a card-carrying Red, Endfield had been a member of the Young Communist League as an undergraduate at Yale University in the 1930s. Let us presume that his interest in the Party in these years was prompted not by a desire to sell Washington to the Kremlin but because he was a decent and fair-minded young man, and the Communists were the only political organization who were outspoken on the issue of lynching, still then a regular occurrence in these United States.    

Zulu is one of six collaborations between Endfield and star Stanley Baker, a son of the Rhondda Valley whose “otherness” as a Welshman and working-class roots were very much a part of his star persona. Endfield wrote the screenplay in collaboration with John Prebble, himself a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1930s, adapting an article called “Slaughter in the Sun” that Prebble had published in Lilliput magazine in 1958.

How did three men with sterling leftist credentials go on to make this straightforward paean to good old God, Queen, and country? Well, they didn’t, exactly. God is principally spoken for by the Swedish missionary played by Jack Hawkins, a secret tippler who tries to break the morale of the garrison’s men, and who hardly cuts a heroic figure. The nearest we come to patriotic commiseration is the moment when, listening to a Zulu battle song and bracing themselves for a final charge, the survivors of Rorke’s Drift raise their voices in a chorus of “Men of Harlech,” a Welsh standard which describes the siege of Harlech Castle by Yorkists during the War of the Roses. Any swig of temporary triumph is accompanied by an ashen aftertaste: when Pvt. Hook (James Booth), a thief and a shirker, is finally forced into action, his delirious superior officer shrieks “That’s my boy, Hook! You’re a soldier now! I’ve made a soldier of you!”—all the while burning to death under fallen, flame-wreathed crossbeams. Later, surveying the corpse-littered ground around the depot, second officer Lt. Bromhead can only congratulate himself by saying “I feel ashamed.”

Bromhead is played by a very young Michael Caine, whose celebrity would soon eclipse Baker’s. The Welshman stayed on to make two more films in South Africa. Dingaka (64), for South African director Jamie Uys, who would later make The Gods Must Be Crazy, reads in synopsis as an earnest attempt at social cinema (“…the story of a tribesman, Ntuku Makwena, who avenges the murder of his daughter according to custom tribal laws. His act of revenge leads him to be tried under government laws, where justice for black people does not exist.”). For Sands of the Kalahari (65), Baker reunited with Endfield, only 50 but already approaching the end of his directorial career. His last completed feature was 1971’s staunchly antiwar Universal Soldier, which can be viewed in full here.

None of the abovementioned films had anything near Zulu’s box-office success—nor, for that matter, did Zulu Dawn. One may chalk this up to the fact that none of those films had anything like Zulu’s black body count—and a brief perusal of the Internet suffices to confirm that the film is beloved of crypto-racist military history enthusiasts. But Endfield’s Zulus, to borrow Quentin Tarantino’s description of John Ford’s Indians, are anything but a “faceless” enemy as met in close quarters, and the movie is something more complex—problematic, if you prefer—than a white-supremacist tract. For one thing, it lays bare the apocalyptic undertones of the Anglo-European militaristic ideal. (From Cloquet, Marker, and Resnais’s Les Statues meurent aussi: “The whites already projected onto the blacks their own demons as a way to purge themselves of them.”) For another, it risks valorizing the colonized other. Here is hip hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa, in a 2000 interview, speaking of the inspiration for forming his nonviolent youth organization the Zulu Nation:

“I got the idea [from] . . . this movie called Zulu which featured Michael Caine. [The Zulus] were proud warriors and . . .  fighting very well against bullets, cannons, and stuff. They fought like warriors for a land which was theirs.”

Dawn—…of the Planet of the Apes, that is, not Zulu—seems unlikely to stir similar principled responses, for it removes war to the abstract plane of world-building, which is the favored battlefield of the modern blockbuster. We’re more likely today to see man pitted against simian, alien, robot, Kree, or some combination thereof than against fellow man, thus shaking off the mantle of (potentially audience-alienating) historical precedent. If we can’t tell a true war story, it seems, today we’ll settle for the most fantastic falsification.

* I am indebted to the Reverse Shot blog for picking out another Lane classic, from his 2006 review of Mission Impossible: III: “The grand finale? A fistfight, after which somebody gets run over. Listen, if I want to see that kind of action, I don’t go to Shanghai. I don’t even go to the movies. I go to the South Bronx and stand outside a bar.” Sure you do, Anthony.

** If you are interested in war films by a truer disciple of the great Daves, you could do much worse than the work of Bertrand Tavernier, about whose historical epics Saul Austerlitz wrote well some years back in Moving Image Source.

*** I have not recently re-viewed The Lower Depths or Dodes'ka-den, but I reckon they might contain some porridge.

**** I have not been to the Mabuni Museum seen in Marker’s film, but I have visited The National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial in Kansas City. Last time that I checked, Kansas City is quite a ways removed from the Western Front, but the museum endeavors to get one closer with a section of simulated trench for visitors to enter, not unlike the simulacrum of a Japanese foxhole which Marker shows at Mabuni. (There’s something very similar as well at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library in Staunton, Virginia.) Standing in the trench for a few minutes doesn’t, alas, get one much closer to the stench of gangrenous limbs and the moans of wounded men being masticated by rats in their sleep, but the Liberty Memorial is nevertheless worth a visit, even if, like myself, you’ve never wholly agreed with the United States’s decision to involve itself in a dispute between crowned heads and colonial powers an ocean away. I recall one displayed object in particular, a telegram to President Wilson from a man who had lost his wife and mother in the torpedoing of a commercial vessel by a German U-boat, who states that if the United States will not involve itself in the fray, he will “take a man’s chance” and enlist in a foreign army. Such artifacts drive home the emotional stakes behind American intervention.

***** For Fuller completists: for a week beginning this Wednesday, August 6, MoMA will be running daily screenings of daughter Samantha Fuller’s A Fuller Life, which features an odd mix of characters (Jennifer Beals, James Toback, Tim Roth, Constance Towers) reading selections from A Third Face. This comes smack in the middle of the museum’s weeklong Fuller series.

****** Or perhaps I haven’t seen it yet—I was watching the new Blu-ray from the boutique DVD company Twilight Time, though the film will also be making the rounds in a 50th-anniversary restoration by Rialto Pictures. (Maybe I’ll never see it—the restoration is DCP, rather than the 35mm of the original exhibition format!)

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