J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Posts Tagged ‘War’

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.

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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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Drums Along the Mohawk

Posted by J on September 29, 2007

Frontier life is a favorite dreamland of the typical American historical narrative. Its cinematic depiction never needs to be true, and it never needs to be realistic, but it does have to strictly conform to contemporary expectations. Fittingly, you get what you pay for with John Ford’s 1939 Drums Along the Mohawk. It’s the ultimate stereotype of frontier life, complete with drunken Indians, log cabins, and a whole lot of the American flag. Given contemporary political and social attitudes, there’s a lot to offend everyone. Show this at a diversity rally, for instance, and you could start a riot.

Now, to be fair, we should consider the historical moment of the movie’s release. Ford made Drums Along the Mohawk at a time when American avoidance of WWII was a fairly popular idea. And frankly, who could disagree with that, seeing as how the Stalinists and the Nazis were about to obliterate each other well in advance of Pearl Harbor? The problem of American entrance into WWII is taken up by Drums Along the Mohawk, but that topic is distanced by the historical setting of the movie: upstate New York circa 1776. Ford is in favor of American entrance into war, sort of. Basically, he shows how national defense–and defense of Freedom with a big capital F–is of utmost importance against the tyranny of oppressors. These oppressors, of course, are no less than Evil Incarnate. They include Indians and British stooges, led by a man with an eyepatch, but they might as well be Nazis or Orcs or Imperial Stormtroopers.

(Yes, it’s always the handicapped who are the most evil of all. Whether the handless Captain Hook, the legless Long John Silver, the six-fingered man in The Princess Bride, the eyeless man in this movie, the asthmatic Darth Vader . . . we could go on. When you see a deformed individual in an older story, you can bet he’s a little bit twisted. More fuel for the diversity rally riot. But we digress.)

Anyway, this upstate New York frontier–derived from the pages of history books–is about as real as Middle-Earth. For instance, our wealthy main characters, Gilbert and Lana Martin, get married in Albany and head straight to their backwoods log cabin. Why they leave the good life for the rugged life, we never find out. Then, as soon as they get to where they’re going, there it is, the log cabin, already built and ready for family life. No hardships, no troubles, it’s all rich and plentiful out in the backcountry.

Later, two drunken Indians show up in the house of the sassy widow, Mrs. McKellar. They take several swigs from a jug, as Mrs. McKellar upbraids them for setting fire to her house. She commands them to take her precious bed out of the house, which they both attempt to do, while drunk. Several minutes later, the entire Mohawk valley experiences an Indian invasion. Whether all 2000 of them are plastered or not the movie never says, though a number of them get hit by 18th century rifles firing from several hundred yards away.

Now, if you like this sort of thing, go for it. Frankly, despite our lack of sensitivity, we were annoyed with the portrayals of the following:

1) Gilbert and Lana Martin’s marriage. This is adequately symbolized by one moment, wherein Gil proudly places a cane above the fireplace, given to him because “if women act up, they need beatin’!”

2) The Indians. Either they’re drunk or they’re comic relief. There’s a Christian Indian, the only friendly one (looking more Apache than Iroquois), who constantly shouts “Hallelujah!” like Sloth from The Goonies.

3) The Reverend Rosenkrantz. He acts like a pious fraud and it’s supposed to be funny. For instance, during a sermon he advertises for a general store and then announces a that there will be a military conscription, concluding while praying to God, “Any man failing to report to duty will be promptly hanged. Amen.” Sounds like John McCain’s dream pastor.

4) The weeping and wailing over the consequences of militarism. This is a tradition that goes back at least to Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps, where the people who froth at the mouth for battle have to, at some other time, tell us how horrible war is. It always seems short-sighted or hypocritical, and it seems doubly so when Henry Fonda is reading his lines.

There’s more ridiculousness where that came from. As we said, there’s something to offend or annoy anybody. We first saw this movie in a 7th grade history class in public school, so we’ve had two different reactions to it. Back then it was boring. Today, it’s dumb and it’s boring.

Entertainment: 3
Intelligence: 0
Morality: 4 (some simplified heroism, but moronic characterizations of everybody)

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