Which is it, war or peace?

Lubna Abdel-Aziz, Tuesday 14 Jan 2020


The prestigious Golden Globe Awards, held on 5 January, launched the award season of Hollywood awards, applauding the best of the best.

Many awards by syndicates, organisations, guilds follow until the climax of the Oscars — sometimes anti-climax.

The Golden Globe awards are different than all others. They are not selected by peers, but by a group of foreign journalists, members of the Hollywood Foreign Press, delivering an impartial view of motion pictures and their impact.

Unswayed or influenced by the powers of Hollywood, unlike the Academy Awards, it is important they give their awards before the Oscars. They have included Television and have divided the categories to Drama and Musical or Comedy films, which seems only fair.

It is the second most coveted award to the Oscars and it is said that the ways the “Globes go, so do the Oscars”.

While not entirely true, we fear it may just be so in 2020.

The Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Film was 1917, yet another war film, directed by Sir Alexander Samuel Mendes, better known as renowned Oscar winner Sam Mendes. Mendes is no small fry. He is a highly respected British stage and film director, educated at Cambridge and won five Oscars for his first film feature American Beauty, including Best Picture and Best Director, not a small feat for a first film. With a very impressive filmography, the Daily Mail ranked him 15th on their list of 100 most powerful people in British culture.

Now why would he make another war film?

True, it is somewhat biographical, loosely based on the true story of his grandfather Alfred H Mendes who served with the British army in WWI and told him fascinating stories as a child.

In the spring of 1917, two corporals, Blake and Scofield, small and nimble, are assigned to cross through enemy lines of German territory to deliver a warning to British troops of a German ambush in northern France — seems all but impossible. Urgency is added as Blake’s brother is in one of the two battalions, of 1,600 men, who would surely be massacred.

Their labyrinthine journey lasts throughout the entire film.

Mendes’ grandfather, Alfred, a man of diminutive stature, was chosen to be a messenger on the Western Front.

While historically accurate in facts and events, is that reason enough to make yet another war film? Why do we need another war film?

Why is Hollywood obsessed with war? Why can we not get enough of it? Have we grown too fond of it? Perhaps.

Was it not Homer who said “Men grow tired of sleep, love singing and dancing sooner than war”? He was right.

This genre has inspired a century of cinema. Does it prevent wars?

If a war movie does not warn against the horrors of war, what purpose does it serve?

 Seeing the atrocities, destruction and bloodshed on the big screen or in our living rooms has not prevented any wars. To the contrary, it may have even glamourised it.

In 1973 the great French director Franҫois Truffaut said, “I have never seen an anti-war movie. Every film about the war ends up being pro-war.”

There is an impulse to making war movies, why? Because we enjoy them.

War seems to be baked in human existence.

“A war film’s objective, no matter how personal or emotional, is to make a human feel war,” says director Sam Fuller, and that is the purpose of thousands of Hollywood war movies.

Do we really want peace as we loudly claim?

The 20th century was a warring century. A peace movement is in motion and yet the 21st century is just as warring. Why do we have better, more efficient, more accurate more deadly equipment now? It gets better and better with the years. Are we to use it or let it become rusty and obsolete?

How about those drones? Getting ready for WWIII?

Even movies that are not about war are about war. We can go back to Sergeant York (1941), From Here to Eternity (1953), The Great Escape (1963), The Train (1964), Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Patton (1970), and Das Boot (1981), and on and on, up to the present crop. Not directly but indirectly about the brave men, sent by less brave men to fight, suffer and die. And for what? War has no winners.

A definitive film on war was made by the late, great Akira Kurosawa’s Ran in 1985. Ran translates into “Chaos”, a one man’s tragic end of his horrifying life in a rush of reflection and regret. War settles nothing — that was the director’s intention. His powerful hero, Hiderta, watches the destruction of everything he built and realises too late how little was accomplished and how little it mattered, how much he’s cast aside and how time humbles even the proudest.

Kurosawa’s message was that all the fighting and death accomplished nothing. That should be the message of every war film, if we must have one.

Now that 1917 has won the Golden Globe Award for Best Picture, there is a surge of interest in war movies and if tradition holds true and Oscar mimics the Globes, 1917 might grab the Oscar as well. “Oh, the pity of it.”

Carl Sandburg once reflected, “Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.”

I suggest you do not hold your breath.

“War is like love, it always finds a way.”

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 January 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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