J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for the ‘War’ Category

The Hurt Locker

Posted by J on January 8, 2011

The Hurt Locker is a pretty good attempt to realistically depict the War in Iraq (2003-???), which is probably the best reason to call it the best picture of 2009, which the Motion Picture Academy did.  It does not, however, say anything that older war movies haven’t.  The same kind of experience is depicted in Black Hawk Down, only better, because that movie offers a fatalistic, yet herioc approach for soldiers in a no-win conflict.  The message of The Hurt Locker ultimately falls far short and is even quite annoying.

The movie follows an army bomb squad through several of its missions, all of which involve disarming IEDs.  During each mission, the soldiers have to watch out for enemy Iraqi who might explode the IEDs, and so by default all Iraqis become enemies.  It is tough duty. Anybody disarming the bombs can be killed quickly, as the first mission in the movie shows.  After the bomb disposal expert dies early on, Sergeant William James takes over, and here the movie proceeds.

James becomes fearless, even reckless, in his attempts to disarm bombs.  While he gets the job done–living up to his name, which recalls the famous American pragmatist philosopher–he sometimes puts his team members in harm’s way.  This team, made up of two soldiers, Sanborn and Eldridge, recognize that James is addicted to adrenaline rushes.  But there’s nothing they can do about it.  This is particularly clear to us viewers, who see the men during their downtime play shoot-em-up video games and punch each other in the stomach for fun.

The movie depicts the war as an obvious colonial campaign.  Iraqis deal with that in different ways, but the soldiers ultimately must suspect everyone, pointing their weapons and shouting at everyone, which, as James says, creates insurgents out of innocents.  The best set of scenes is when James goes off-base by himself.  Thinking that a young Iraqi boy who sold DVDs on the army base has died, James ventures into the Baghdad night.  Where he ends up and how he gets back is probably the best part of the movie.

Despite the excellence of this movie, I violently disagreed with its ending, which will now be revealed.  The ending implies that James and soldiers like him cannot get enough of war, that despite having family (James has a wife and child), there is only “one thing” that James loves.  That is the adrenaline rush of disarming bombs.  Near the end, we see James in a grocery store, staring at the endless boxes of cereal. The point is that he gets no satisfaction out of consumerism, and perhaps that’s all the U.S. offers him.  We’ve heard that message a thousand times.  In the end, James goes back to Iraq to diffuse more bombs.  His fearless behavior got one of his team members seriously injured, a fact that doesn’t seem to make James remorseful at all.

I think the point here is that U.S. soldiers learn to love war, even in goalless conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq.  While it is true that men can get addicted to battle and killing–see Niall Ferguson’s book on WWI–the message that soldiers forsake home and family to find happiness in war is one entirely without hope.  Kathryn Bigelow had already made another war movie, K-19: The Widowmaker, in which soldiers were in a pointless, thankless situation. But in that movie she depicted Soviet soldiers as acting bravely and courageously, and banding together to respect their fallen comrades.  Why not offer a similar message here about James and his squad?  You will remember that in Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence kills and then learns that he loves doing so, but this is disturbing both to him and us.  In The Thin Red Line, there are many different human reactions to the battle on Guadalcanal.   I would even accept a stoical resignation to fate as a message over what The Hurt Locker tells me.  All I’m asking is for honor to be conferred on these soldiers, especially James, and I don’t think the movie does that.

Entertainment: 9

Intelligence: 5

Posted in Pretty Good, War | Leave a Comment »

Gone With the Wind

Posted by J on December 9, 2009

If Gone With the Wind serves any purpose, it should illustrate how quickly values can change.  They wouldn’t touch this movie today.  Rhett would have to be a Yankee spy trying to free slaves, and Scarlett would have to have several speeches on the evils of slavery.  It’s a wonder this movie is re-released every few years, this time (in 2009) on Blu-Ray.

This is supposed to be a American Southern epic which focuses on a Southern belle, who lives it up as a coquette during the antebellum years, changes for the worse during the Civil War, and then rebuilds her life after the war is over.  Of course, for her and everyone else, there is nothing like the good old days before the war, when the South flourished.  We are even told during the opening credits that the movie is about the last “Knights and Cavaliers” who roamed the earth, only to vanish forever during the Civil War.

The narrative focus is on Scarlett, which is useful because it means we the audience can follow her wherever she goes.  Since she’s not a man, she’s relatively free to roam because she doesn’t have to go off to battle.  Thus we have a behind-the-scenes Civil War movie.  The war only appears when it has to, when General Sherman’s army marches through Atlanta, which is where Scarlett happens to be.

Scarlett is a complicated flirt, desperate in the early moments of the movie to marry her beloved Ashley Wilkes.  Her problem is that Ashley is pledged to another woman, and then he goes off to war for five years.  Scarlett hangs on to Ashley as a sort of idol, marrying Ashley’s brother, hanging around Ashley’s wife, in part to remain close to Ashley.  In the opening half of the movie, she’s a combination of pluck, vivacity, selfishness, quasi-friendship, and connivance.

Then there’s Rhett Butler.  Like Scarlett he is fairly selfish — getting rich of a for-profit war business while living a luxurious life during the war years.  He’s also happy-go-lucky, and possibly in love with Scarlett.

The Civil War changes both characters in important ways.  Scarlett is taken to what for her is a low point.  She loses her husband and she misses Ashley, she endures the horrors of an army destroying the region she inhabits, her father “turns idiot,” and her Southern plantation, Tara, is reduced to almost nothing.  By intermission we see Scarlett desperate, but determined to rebuild the plantation and work as a farm laborer.  Rhett, on the other hand, gives up his independence and risks his vast wealth to become a Captain in the Confederate Army.

The post-war years feature the love story of Rhett and Scarlett, and since this is an American love story, you have a pretty good idea of what will happen to man and woman in the end (i.e., they can’t stay together).  For Scarlett, the most important earthly possession in the end is her land, Tara, the plantation that was the place of her birth.  When she realizes this, it’s yet another opportunity for nostalgia.

Thankfully, this movie is not quite a soap opera on an emotional level, though it has has many moments where the music swells and the actors overact in love scenes.  The reason to see this movie — whether you hate the portrayals of the old South or of blacks or not — is the Blu-ray restoration.  This is easily one of the best-looking movies we’ve ever seen, due to whatever they’ve done to get it on a Blu-ray disc.

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 4

Morality: 9

Posted in Great, Period Drama, War | Leave a Comment »

Valkyrie

Posted by J on May 23, 2009

It is hard to believe that Valkyrie is a Hollywood movie.  This is the industry where half the Best Documentary Oscars 200px-Valkyrie_postergo to Holocaust movies, and all of the major studio executives understandably have a tribal beef with Nazi Germany.  Valkyrie is fundamentally about Nazi officers — long-time Nazis — who at the end of WWII hatch a secret plan to assassinate Hitler and take over the German government.  The fact that these guys served the Nazi party for years is never explicitly mentioned and thus never questioned in the movie.  Never!  Quite unexpected.  A movie with this subject matter and with these lead characters has a 99.9% chance of containing at least one didactic, moral moment.

We’re not complaining, just amazed.  The major message of this movie — perhaps its only message — is that there was a German resistance, a supreme dislike of the Nazis by people in the Nazi party, and that this resistance cared deeply about its mother country.  The main character, Karl von Stauffenberg, repeats again and again how he is planning Hitler’s assassination for the sake of “sacred Germany.”  Think about that.  “Sacred Germany.”  We’ve all been taught to hate all Nazis, to distrust German history, to read into everything German that came before Hitler a deep wish for the Fuhrer’s “cleansing program.”  Yet Valkyrie wants to celebrate Germany, just without the Nazis.

That Valkyrie is slightly anti-PC doesn’t make it a good movie, and you’d think the fact that you know the ending of the movie before ever watching it would be sort of anti-climactic.  Suspense is what holds most $100 million-dollar-plus movies together.  This movie should have none, because you know that Stauffenberg fails and Hitler lives.  But no.  This movie is suspenseful, and it’s hard to imagine how it could’ve done a better job of keeping up the tension, even with a well-known ending.

One problem unaddressed here is what impact the assassination of Hitler would’ve had if Stauffenberg had succeeded.  This particular attempt — the last of 15 such attempts, we are told at the end of the movie — occurred in mid-1944.  Only nine months after that, Berlin fell and Hitler committed suicide.  So the impact of taking out Nazi high command might not have been as momentous as Valkyrie makes it out to be, though it’s a fun “What if …?” scenario to ponder for five minutes.

And it’s nice that a major motion picture dwells fondly on an old aristocrat.  Von Stauffenberg is an honorable guy, who in the movie is shown as deeply caring of his family and country.  There’s even a hint that he’s a Roman Catholic, and our guess is that he probably was.  Usually American movies diss aristocrats, even though American culture has its own faux-aristocracy made up of moronic celebrities and high-ranking politicians.  But von Stauffenberg is dignified and honored in Valkyrie, at least according to our redneck sensibilities.

During a pause late in the movie, C. turned to J. and asked, “Is this an all-time great?”  The answer is “no,” though it could crack a top-25 list of WWII movies.  But since C. is a female, who has a distinct taste for rom-coms but not one for war movies, this might be a good “guy” movie that you fellas can enjoy with your wives.

Entertainment: 9

Intelligence: 5

Morality: 8

This movie has nothing in it except one brief war scene and an F-bomb, which was carefully placed in the movie to keep it from getting a PG rating. Gotta love that idiotic ratings system! It’s otherwise a nice historical piece for the teenagers to see and learn from.

Posted in Pretty Good, War | Leave a Comment »

Ice Station Zebra

Posted by J on December 6, 2008

Finding Ice Station Zebra on the library shelf, we wondered why an old action movie like this had been long 200px-icestationzebraforgotten.  Just look at the poster!  John Sturges, director of The Great Escape and Bad Day at Black Rock.  Jim Brown with a rifle.  Nuclear submarines and gun battles at the North Pole.  This has promise.  You’d think it’d be a staple of Saturday afternoon TV, like Conan the Barbarian and First Blood.

But this movie is a pompous exercise in blockbuster action.  It starts with the prelude.  Whenever a movie makes you sit through five minutes of its score at the beginning, it’d better be good.  No go here.

Then Rock Hudson appears on-screen, and the entire thing falls apart.  It makes sense that the most famous thing this guy is known for is getting AIDS.  He’s a Cary Grant lookalike with no charisma.  Put him in the confined space of a nuclear submarine, and everybody in the audience feels like getting out real quick.

The movie has one excellent sequence in which the submarine plunges towards the depths.  If you have seen Das Boot, or any other submarine movie, you will have seen something similar.  The plot of this movie is not worth mentioning, except that the submarine at one point is sabotaged, only we NEVER find out who sabotaged it.  Huh?  We stopped watching this one at the intermission.  Yes, it has an intermission, which is an invitation to leave if you so choose.  That’s probably why there are no more intermissions in movies.

Entertainment: 4

Intelligence: 0

Morality: not worth bothering about

Posted in They Spent Millions on This?, War | Leave a Comment »

Stalag 17

Posted by J on November 15, 2008

Stalag 17 suffers from neglect because of its later spawn, Hogan’s Heroes and The Great Escape.  This is the 200px-stalag_17movie in which Sergeant Schulz first appears, that duddy German barracks officer who’s always the butt of American POW wisecracks.  If you know that fact alone before watching the movie, you’ll be completely surprised by Stalag 17‘s depth and its formal intricacies.  This is a great example of a well-made movie, a genuine classic.

The vast difference between this movie and The Great Escape is in its aim.  The Great Escape, a movie about American POWs in a German WWII prison camp, is all about escape.  It’s a fun action-adventure flick, with some colorful characters and charismatic actors.  It’s also a decent pickup in the $5 DVD bin at Walmart.  Too bad we’ve never seen Stalag 17 in the same bin.  It’s about escaping from a German WWII prison camp too, but it aims for the deeper themes of community and individualism, loyalty and betrayal, and justice and injusitice.  It also has Billy Wilder’s crafted, framed shots and a first-person narrator, which adds complexity that The Great Escape lacks.  Complex movies are rewatchable, which is why they’re a good deal for $5.

Frankly, to have made Hogan’s Heroes from this movie is like taking the Fool from King Lear and making him the star of a low-brow slapstick comedy.  Like any Shakespearian tragedy (though we don’t say this movie is Shakespearian or tragic), Stalag 17 has its comic moments, particularly with two bumbling bunkmates who have babes on the brain.  But there is tension and melancholy underneath the humor, since these POWs have a genuine dislike for the Nazis, and vice versa.  The Nazis are fine with playing nice, unless they are disobeyed.  Then it’s death by machine gun.  These American POWs look like they aren’t sure they’ll ever get home.  The best they can do is make a home at the prison camp.

The main issue in Stalag 17 is that there is a traitor in the barracks.  Somebody is tipping off the Germans about all that the American POWs do.  Who is it, the narrator asks?  It could be anybody, but one of the men is a loner and an opportunist.  Another is crazy, perhaps.  Whoever it is, he is responsible for the loss of important goods and a breakdown in community trust.

We won’t say who it is, leaving the analysis to you, but notice the way economics and sociology clash.  The opportunist makes money (cigarettes) on the community and accumulates a huge stash.  Seemingly jealous, the rest of the barracks is automatically suspicious of his success.  He is not contributing to their well-being, nor does he help himself with his aloof remarks.  This situation quickly turns into a problem of loyalty and justice — and it’s impossible to not abstract the particulars of the plot onto 20th century American history.  It’s a particularly interesting exercise to consider this movie in light of HUAC’s activities in the 1950s and Hollywood blacklisting.

Anyway, just remember this is nothing like Hogan’s Heroes, and probably tied with The Bridge on the River Kwai for the best WWII prison camp movie.

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 6

Morality: 9

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Rescue Dawn / Touching the Void

Posted by J on February 8, 2008

Incredible but true stories tend to make good movies. They are hard to screw up. If we took the barebones material of Rescue Dawn, for example–a German-born, Vietnam-era pilot shot down in Laos, captured by Vietcong, held prisoner with several others in a dense jungle, all planning to escape while starving and suffering from temporary dementia–we could only fail by adding too much to it. Like making it a hokey morality tale that prominently involves a swelling John Williams score.

As it is, Rescue Dawn doesn’t have enough added to it, though. Up until its conclusion, we waited for a push that it never quite gave us. The story of Dieter Dengler is almost solely about Dieter’s survival and unfailingly upbeat attitude during his trial. This attitude keeps him alive–in contrast to his other fellow prisoners–but what does Dieter learn? There are no character transformations or internal revelations that provide us, as attentive watchers, with meaning that can transform us.

This is not to disparage a good movie, but to say how a good movie just barely missed being far better. We’re tempted to argue that Rescue Dawn needlessly keeps us focused on the material world. The movie foregrounds the harsh reality of POW life and jungle escape–hunger, scum, bowel movements, vines, maggots, leeches. These are unsettling, but they’re all trumped when Dieter catches and attempts to eat a live snake. Dieter’s escape is providential and transcendent–fulfilling Dieter’s earlier request to God to save him–but the final scene concludes with a puzzling koan from Dieter to his Navy buddies: “Fill what is empty, and empty what is full.” This has no relevance unless Dieter means his stomach.

Touching the Void goes one step beyond Rescue Dawn in this regard, which makes it as moving as it is gripping. Sadly, while it’s a story of a kind of captivity and survival, it’s central turn is a moment of denial of God. In this way it is an anti-conversion narrative, though this is not necessarily due to the filmmakers’ prejudice and does not detract from the great lessons the movie has to offer.

Touching the Void is fundamentally a documentary, with reenacted scenes from the original story. This story is of mountain-climbing: two young Brits in the early 1980s (Joe Simpson and Simon Yates) decide to scale a previously unclimbed mountain in Peru, Siula Grande. The strength of Touching the Void is the two climbers’ ability to relate their stories, which they tell on-camera as they look directly at the viewer. What happens is best left untold here–you will thank us later for saving it. We can say that one of the climbers faces one of those ethical hypotheticals–like what would you do if you and another person were stranded on a raft in the Pacific without food–that never occur in day-to-day life. The other climber faces the consequence of his friend’s choice.

Dieter, Joe, and Simon are all admirable, but only Joe and Simon leaves us with afterthoughts long after the closing credits (indeed we’ve seen Touching the Void twice and the last time well over a year ago). Dieter smiles his way through Laos, but the other two–especially Joe–help us see others with pity and thankfulness. Most importantly of all, they remind us of grace given to us.

Rescue Dawn
Entertainment: 8
Intelligence: 5
Morality: 6 (some language)

Touching the Void
Entertainment: 10
Intelligence: 7
Morality — (one brief scene of language)

Posted in Documentary, Great, Pretty Good, War | Leave a Comment »

Zulu

Posted by J on November 30, 2007

The forgotten war movie of the last century, Zulu is an Anglophilic celebration of the heroism of British soldiers and a depiction of incredible military tactics. It is not filled with fluff, however, or emotional phoniness as so many post-Vietnam era war movies are. It is instead all guts.

The situation plays out simply at a small British supply station in present-day South Africa. After successfully attacking 1500 British soldiers, a Zulu army of 4000 warriors comes to attack the supply station at Rourke’s Bluff. With just over 100 men, several of whom are sick or injured, the British must defend their post from attack.

A simple situation, but a unique cinematic approach. There is almost no John Williams-esque music, complete with a pompous brass section, to overarouse a viewer’s emotions. Instead we wait and wait for the Zulu to arrive, while the two British commanding officers make tactical decisions. This results in a build-up to the battle with an interesting blend of anticipation, boredom, and anxiety. Zulu is the only movie in which being bored for a few minutes in the early going greatly enhanced the payoff at the end.

The movie’s lone misstep may be the inclusion of the missionary and his daughter, both of whom deplore the coming battle as a gross violation of the Sixth Commandment. The missionary comes off as a loony prophet and a scared drunk, who harbors far less aplomb and righteousness than the stiff-upper-lip British officers. He might’ve been better left out than included, but he also provides the lone voice that puts the forthcoming action in the context of Christian morality. He is also the only go-between for the Zulu and the British, who obviously do not understand each other’s military culture and instead harbor a different warrior ethos. That might be needed, because the movie gives an unusual amount of respect to “the other side,” which in this case are the Zulu.

Should we ever have to choose just two war movies to watch on a desert island, it might be Patton and this one.

Engagement: 8
Intelligence: 9
Morality: 9 **

** Note: The early moments contain National Geographic-like nudity, though it is not wholly superfluous. This is, we suppose, the exception to our house-rule of watching no movies containing scantily clad or less than scantily clad people. Do with this piece of information what you will.

Posted in Great, War | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Breaker Morant

Posted by J on November 15, 2007

Breaker Morant is the best movie about the Boer War. It is probably the only movie about the Boer War, but if they made fifty of them it still might be the best. This war, of course, was one of the nastier of modern colonial wars, wherein both sides lusted for diamonds and gold and the Brits began the modern practice of rounding up women and children and shoving them into concentration camps. It was a very complex colonial situation, with native Boers, native Africans, and Brits and British colonials all involved.

In Breaker Morant, this complexity is figured in the trial of three men–Lt. Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant and two Australians. The men are charged with murdering three Boer prisoners and a German missionary. They will be tried by a military court and, if found guilty, sentenced to death. Appointed to their defense is a native Australian who has never practiced law and has one day to prepare for the trial, in contrast to the British prosecutor, whose bushy moustache signals smarminess. The movie intercuts present-day narration (the trial) with past goings-on in the accused men’s military company, so that the historical truth from the perspective of the camera eye is contrasted with what at times is a sham trial with false witnesses.

Why is it a sham trial? There appears to be a cover-up. British high command, led by Lord So-and-So, had possibly ordered British companies that engaged Boer commandos to take no prisoners (i.e., kill them even if they wave a white flag of surrender). And the reality of Boer war battle is that guerrilla warfare tactics were used by both sides, so that no one in any situation could be trusted. Enter the German Missionary. An old man who claims to be spreading the Word of God in a warzone, he is not trusted by Morant and the soldiers, who think he’s spying. But is he really guilty of anything? And do they really murder him?

The answer to these questions complicates the moral position of this movie, which lays it on a bit thick about the culpability of British high command and the “just doing my duty, sir” of the three accused soldiers. These accused men and their noble defense lawyer claim to be scapegoats for the moral and tactical failures of British command. This command, they say, is part of a corrupt and falling empire, which, soddened by its own unChristian brutality, needs to be cleansed of its sins. What better way to “cleanse itself” than to lay blame for atrocities on colonial underlings paid to do the biddings of imperialists?

If Breaker Morant at all exemplifies cultural feelings, Australians must really loathe their past associations with the British empire. For a non-Australian, however, Breaker Morant can be appropriated to other contexts wherein empire is waning and its overseas efforts are destructive to all parties involved. Of course warmongering imperials–guilty of great crimes–tend to blame others for their failures. Although they may not receive justice in the moment, as in this movie, we know that they will indeed beyond this Earth.

Engagement: 8
Intelligence: 7
Morality: 8

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Black Hawk Down

Posted by J on October 3, 2007

When I go home people’ll ask me, “Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?” You know what I’ll say? I won’t say a **** word. Why? They won’t understand. They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand that it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.”

This apathetic philosophy of war, the philosophy that soldiers fight only for themselves and each other, is the prevailing message of Black Hawk Down. Spoken at the end, these lines sum up a movie that for its last two hours is nonstop war. Spoken by an Army Ranger who barely survives a modern urban warfare battle, it questions the entire point of the preceding events. Why are U.S. Army Rangers fighting Somali warlords in Mogadishu? What is their purpose in a Third World desert country? More generally, how did we get from the Battle of Bunker Hill on U.S. soil to a military and P.R. catastrophe on the other side of the world?

St. Augustine once formed the Just War Theory, founded in Biblical principles (admittedly mixed with natural law), which prevailed for the most part in the Christian West for well over a millennium. It has since been totally abandoned by modern states and empires, which practice warfare purposefully on civilian populations when convenient. We currently find ourselves in a “War on Terror,” but basic assumptions about this war are never addressed. What is “Terror”? What are the conditions of victory in this war? Can a state really be fighting a “war” against a non-state entity? How should Christians respond to such wars? In seeking answers, Christians do not to seek the church’s response because the church has no response of its own. It is far too weak. Instead, national loyalties are far stronger and more concrete than church loyalties, and in our experience, they tend to determine Biblical interpretation of both war and politics for individuals and church bodies.

In its own way, Black Hawk Down is about these issues. It does, however, appear simpler: the story involves the U.S. Army conducting a mission in Mogadishu, Somalia, when one of its Blackhawk helicopters is shot down and crashes into the city. The Army conducts an operation to extricate the downed soldiers, which is when the real shooting starts. This is because Mogadishu is controlled by Muslim warlords, not a national government. And the Army, ultra-powerful but inefficient, is controlled in part by Pentagon headquarters and the Geneva Convention. Getting the soldiers out involves all of these factors, plus the fact that Mogadishu’s urbanites have crude weapons and little affection for the United States Army. Such is usually the problem of colonizers and occupiers, as Britain found out in 1776.

We suppose, since this story is one incident, that others may extrapolate from it something wholly different from what we’re arguing. They may say that full support must be given to U.S. military operations. After all, the Blackhawk fiasco occured under the Clinton administration, which is perceived as liberal and therefore half-hearted in its support of the military. Yet, no degree of support ultimately matters in this Black Hawk Down situation. One side is a modern military that practices siege-and-occupy warfare, and the other is an undeclared entity that blends into populations. There is no “winning” when the enemy can’t be identified or represented; such an enemy can’t really be sieged or occupied, and a formal declaration of peace doesn’t do much good, if one could even be attained. Black Hawk Down depicts the tactical and theoretical faults of this sort of warfare. By doing so, it does not necessarily push us to turn to our Bibles to answer the basic questions asked above, but we hope that our readers will consider doing that anyway.

Engagement: 10
Intelligence: 7
Morality: 3 (lots of bullets and foul language, a lesser vice of soldiers)

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Pan’s Labyrinth

Posted by J on October 2, 2007

SPOILER: Plot revealed herein. It’s completely impossible to discuss this movie otherwise.

Despite its title and marketing, Pan’s Labyrinth is not wholly a fairytale. And despite its apparently redemptive ending, it is not pleasant. Ubiquitous critical praise for it makes you wonder how much darker and depressing well-loved stories can get. This movie arrives at a time when Oprah is pushing an apocalyptic story of a father and son running from cannibals. What, are suburban soccer moms eating bon-bons and weeping when they read The Road? Does Roger Ebert really want to see the “one of the greatest of all fantasy films” multiple times, wherein are many violent deaths and Alice in Wonderland is murdered? When Ebert and Oprah are pushing archetypical myths bleaker than most any other widely praised myth ever written, you know that the times are dark indeed.

Anyway, Pan’s Labyrinth isn’t exactly a fairytale because it’s grounded in historical reality, specifically in the tail end of the Spanish Civil War. In 1944, somewhere in the mountains of Spain, Francisco Franco’s henchmen are pursuing “rebels” or “freedom fighters.” They’re probably Communists, but we’re only told the positive angle, which is that they celebrate the fact that “we’re all equal.” The man who tells us this is the movie’s villain, Captain Vidal, who makes Hitler look like Mr. Rogers. Vidal is obsessed with two things that insane Fascists are always obsessed with in movies: the birth of his yet unborn son, so that he can preserve his genetic heritage, and murder, particularly the slow, unsightly kind. Vidal’s latter obsession leads to some unnecessary, grotesque scenes, which is the reason for this movie’s rating.

Vidal is the stepfather of our heroine, who we’ll call Alice in Wonderland. Alice enjoys fairy stories, much to the Spanish fascists’ disgust. One evening she visits the Captain’s garden labyrinth, where she encounters a faun, who tells her that she is the daughter of the King of the Underworld and that she must perform three tasks by the next full moon. The rest of the movie deals with Alice pursuing her three tasks, while Vidal and his goons try to murder all of the “freedom fighters.”

Now Alice’s visions and adventures tend to be in step with what will happen next in the movie. This leads to some interpretive questions. Is she dreaming? Does she have uncanny premonitions? Does she affect the future? The answers to these questions are key, because they influence how you interpret the ending of the movie. Pan’s Labyrinth suggests that, in the end, Alice is resurrected from the dead. (If she’s only dreaming about the afterlife, this movie is seriously depressing.) But what Alice is resurrected to is the problem. Being the daughter of the King of the Underworld, she of course becomes Princess of the Underworld by default. And the way she becomes princess is by playacting the right moral choice in her imagination . . . although it might not be just her imagination. Pan’s Labyrinth engages in a recent formal device we’ve noted before, which is the inextricable blending of fantasy and reality, so that we viewers don’t know which is which. The movie allows us to believe that either one (fantasy or reality) is more real than the other. Much of the critical praise heaped on this movie is probably due to this ambiguity, which, admittedly, is constructed far more complexly than Big Fish or Finding Neverland.

Since Fascist rule is the key concern of most of Pan’s Labyrinth, it seems to us that the movie’s emphasis is on an interpretation of fairyland rooted in politics. This kind of interpretation answers a constant, fundamental literature question: what do people mean when they write stories about fantasy worlds? Answers always vary. Stories can have implicit political, cultural, personal, or theological meanings. By setting fairyland in Franco’s Spain, Pan’s Labyrinth is using fairyland as a political critique of WWII Spain and our present-day global political situation. Thus, it seems to us that Pan’s Labyrinth, as a comment on fascism and its opponents, is a modern global democratic view of fairyland. It is therefore a different kind of fairyland. Compare it to any of the following scattered examples: the original Arabian Nights (Islam), Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (Japanese; Shinto), or Edward Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (Christian). In fact, think of any story where a boy or girl enters into a fantasy world. In nominally Christian fairy tales, Alice receives sound moral instruction, or the maiden becomes queen, or everybody lives happily ever after. But Pan’s Labyrinth–a liberal democratic fairyland–is the most dismal fairyland you will have ever seen. In the end, Alice is murdered in cold blood, and she either simply turns to dust or becomes the Princess of the Underworld. All possibilities in this fairyland of anti-fascist politics are totally bleak.

Engagement: 9 (well-done, though sometimes revolting)
Intelligence: 8
Morality: 0 (see review, and a bit of unnecessary language)

Posted in Clever but Immoral, Reality-Fantasy, War | Tagged: | 2 Comments »