Francois Truffaut once said that it’s pretty much “impossible to [really] make an anti-war film.” Presumably, what he meant by this is that the cinematic medium is one that thrives on embellishment, exaggeration and heightened dramatic stakes, and can therefore not be relied on to give an accurate, honest-to-God reflection of how horrific war can be. It’s an important question: can any war film actually be “realistic” and still be entertaining? Is the relentless violence of films like Steven Speilberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” and David Ayer’s “Fury” a faithful tip of the hat to the brave men and women who fought for our country, or is the splashy cinematic treatment of wartime atrocities itself a fundamentally disingenuous thing? In helping us to ponder the question, a brand spankin’ new video essay from Now You See It looks at the many visual representations of war in film, and also elaborates on what exactly makes a film pro or anti-war.
The argument that the narrator makes, it must be said, I find to be somewhat problematic, even if the discussion itself demands to be had. The attempt at recreating the almost mythic horror of war is not in and of itself an irresponsible act, although most Hollywood war films are smart enough to showcase the unthinkable agonies of wartime along with all the loving re-creations of famous battles and set pieces. The essay spans the spectrum of the last half-century or so, beginning with clips from the John Wayne-starring “They Were Expendable” and bringing us up to speed with more modern offerings like “Waltz with Bashir,” an animated film that concludes with real-life footage from war-torn Lebanon and Clint Eastwood’s divisive “American Sniper,” a film that unmistakably endorses American military might but, like all of Eastwood’s films, is primarily concerned with the psychological toll that violence can take on those who choose to wield it.
It’s a tight tightrope these films walk, and there’s always the risk of making war look glamorous (there’s the famous instance, quoted in the video, of the legendary Samuel Fuller dismissing Stanley Kubrick’s vivid, violent “Full Metal Jacket” as “just another goddamn recruitment movie”). The video here poses a lot of troubling ethical questions that are probably worthy of a much longer, more in-depth discussion, but this is a fine primer and a fascinating glimpse at the history of war in cinema. Watch below.