by Heath Holland
“Turn that war movie off!” --Heath Holland
I’ve got a confession to make: there is no cinematic genre that I’ve struggled with more than the war film. I have liked plenty of war movies in the past, but I also have a really hard time with them, especially when they get too “real.” I have this memory of being a little kid at a buddy’s house and his older brother watching a Vietnam movie on television. I was too young to really understand what was going on, but when one of the soldiers in the movie stepped on a land mind and was blown to bits, I was horrified. Why? Why would someone put this in a movie? Movies were for having fun! That memory has stuck with me, and war movies often make me really anxious, sometimes almost panicked. To be fair, I’ve seen many of the most popular “modern” war films, from Platoon to Saving Private Ryan and enjoyed them for what they were, but my exposure to the vast breadth of this film category has been embarrassingly deficient. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve watched even fewer war movies because I have decided that I don’t have to watch anything that I don’t want to. Being an adult is great, because you can completely close yourself off from things that push you outside your comfort zone. You never have to challenge yourself again! Hooray!
Captain America, because war was merely the setting, not the entire subject. I couldn’t approach movies that tackled war head on and showed massive battles and carnage. Even thinking about those kinds of things now raises my pulse.
In my thirties I somehow decided that I didn’t really care for war films because they glorified human suffering for our entertainment. I have a hard enough time with real wars going on every day, but now we’re going to make films about them using movie stars with air conditioned trailers, on sets with craft services? I came to think that these movies allowed us to distance ourselves from the actual suffering on the screen and experience the horror of war from the safety of our theater seat or our own couch. Is there a bigger insult to those who have lived and died on the battlefield than to experience their trials through a filter of popcorn and soda? Why in the world would I intentionally choose to watch a movie that details the deaths of countless human beings FOR ENTERTAINMENT? As much as a movie may try, it cannot depict the absolute terror and atrocity of war, and by trying to shoehorn in things like romance or what the soldiers’ lives were like “back home,” (as many do), they fictionalize and make more palatable what should never be palatable in the first place. I did not like this.
My views on war films have changed considerably, and feel like I have to make up for lost time. So far, the movies that I’ve enjoyed (it feels weird to use that term) the most are those that came during and after World War II because they feel really pure and focused, and this era of filmmaking is one of my favorites. I’ve also really enjoyed catching up on some Vietnam-era films. More difficult for me has been modern war films because I just don’t have the hindsight on current and recent wars that I’m afforded by those that ended decades ago and have been decided worthy or unworthy by history. Newer movies don’t have the benefit of presenting facts as black and white like all those old black and white movies. The bad guys are just a little harder to label, and invisible men behind the scenes now play an even more critical role. But again, maybe that’s the point. When the world makes no sense, our movies exist to give meaning to that which seems to have none.