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Peter T. Chattaway

The Movies Go to War

The moral messages and political overtones of war films

When Tears of the Sun opened in theaters in early March, just a few weeks before American and British troops began their invasion of Iraq, director Antoine Fuqua insisted his film had nothing to do with the impending conflict in the Middle East. Sure, his film depicted American troops getting involved in a foreign war despite clear orders not to do so, and sure, it ended with a title card quoting that famous Edmund Burke line to the effect that evil succeeds when good men do nothing. But Fuqua maintained that the point of his film, which is set in a fictionalized Nigeria, was not to encourage the war on terror but to draw attention to the plight of Africa, a continent beset with tribal violence and the famines and plagues that follow. Be that as it may, Tears of the Sun did come out at a time when the public was pondering military intervention abroad, and it went further than most films in delivering an explicit message and seeking some sort of religious imprimatur for it.

Filmmakers have always reflected or tried to shape public opinion on the major political issues of the day, and they have often appealed to religion to make their point. Typically, however, faith has not motivated the politics of any given film so much as it has provided a stamp of approval for a political position that has already been figured out. The Thomas Ince film Civilization provides an unusually telling example: produced in 1916, at a time when many Americans wished to stay out of the Great War, the film depicted Jesus and President Woodrow Wilson on the side of peace; but when the United States joined the war a year later, Ince's film was re-cut so that Jesus now came out in favor of the war effort.

After the disillusioning carnage of World War I, the prevailing mood shifted again, and American films in particular reflected a reluctance to get involved in foreign affairs. As late as 1938, the titular hero in a film like The Adventures of Robin Hood could be unfailingly loyal to his king yet criticize him for getting involved in conflicts far beyond his borders; if King Richard had not been distracted by the Crusades, then Robin would not have had to protect England from the evil Prince John.

But the coming of World War II heralded a change in perspective. While the nation stayed out of the war for its first few years, filmmakers did their part to create a climate that would be more conducive to joining the war effort. In 1941, Sergeant York told the true story of a Christian who puts his pacifism aside and joins the army during World War I after his Bible opens to the verse about rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar's; this epiphany is accompanied on the soundtrack by a hymn, which then quickly segues into a patriotic anthem. And thanks to his expert markmanship, which he acquired during turkey shoots back home, York goes on to capture an important German position and become a decorated war hero.

Despite the fact that they served as propaganda, some of the films produced during the war were remarkably complex in their treatment of politics and religion, and they contained an interesting element of self-criticism. Perhaps the most fascinating specimens in this regard are the British wartime films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Forty-Ninth Parallel, for example, follows a group of German U-boat officers who take the war to North America by sailing into Hudson Bay, and then promptly lose their ship when it is sunk by Canadian planes. Led by Lt. Hans Hirth (Eric Portman), the survivors trek across Canada, but instead of heading directly south to the still-neutral United States, they meander through several provinces and encounter a cross-section of Canadian culture. The people they meet include a proudly Catholic Quebeçois fur trapper (Laurence Olivier), who tells Hirth the Allies will have to send missionaries to Germany once the war is over, and a prairie colony of Hutterites, who disappoint Hirth by placing their faith ahead of their German heritage.

Part of the genius of this film is that it tells the story from the Nazis' point of view, thus allowing us to sympathize with at least one officer who considers putting the war behind him and converting to the Hutterites. But what is most remarkable is how the film makes note of the cultural tensions within Canada itself. At one point, Hirth tries to sway the fur trapper to his side by promising liberation for French Canadians once the Nazis have won the war. And while the Hutterites extol Canada for giving them the freedom they could not find in Europe, they sadly acknowledge that innocent members of their own community have been sent to internment camps within Canada, simply because the nation is at war with the Germans.

Similarly, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, released in 1943, acknowledges that the earliest concentration camps were built by the British during the Boer War. The film, which takes its title but little else from an anti-establishment cartoon character created by David Low, spans four decades in the career of an officer, Clive Candy (Roger Livesey), who is increasingly bewildered by the social and political changes of the 20th century. Committed to noble principles yet a bit oblivious to the world around him, Candy dismisses reports of the terrible treatment of South African prisoners as just so much German propaganda; and during World War I, he blithely leaves captured German troops in the hands of a South African interrogator—an interrogator whose prominent facial scars suggest that, if he is at all brutal with his prisoners, it may be due in part to his suffering at the hand of the Brits some years before.

Not surprisingly, Winston Churchill tried to suppress this film, but his efforts just gave it free publicity, and it became a box-office smash in Britain. Churchill needn't have worried. Whatever its criticisms of British policy in the past, the film came out strongly in favor of the current war effort. In one scene, a retired Prussian officer (Austrian actor Anton Walbrook), an old friend of Candy's who has fled Hitler's regime and is now a refugee in England, argues passionately that the British must abandon their notions of gentlemanly conduct and stop treating combat like a sport; instead, he says, they must do everything they can to defeat "the most devilish idea ever created by a human brain—Nazism."

The new post-September 11 mood is reflected in war movies in a variety of ways. Some films, like Black Hawk Down, eschew political reflection and celebrate military camaraderie for its own sake, while others, like Behind Enemy Lines and Tears of the Sun, clearly advocate U.S. intervention, suggesting that Americans have stood by and stayed out of foreign conflicts for far too long—a marked departure from the stance of many films inspired by the war in Vietnam. Both Behind Enemy Lines and Tears of the Sun focus on American military personnel who try at first to stay aloof from civil wars (in Kosovo and Nigeria, respectively) but who ultimately feel compelled to set aside their apathy or neutrality and become personally involved.

What sets Tears of the Sun apart from other recent films of its ilk is the degree to which it invokes God-language to give its political stance the force of a moral imperative. Directed by Fuqua, a music-video maestro who has worked his way up from boilerplate action films like The Replacement Killers to the Oscar-winning corrupt-cop drama, Training Day, the film stars Bruce Willis as Lt. A.K. Waters, a Navy SEAL who is sent into Nigeria—depicted here as a country in full-scale civil war, with Muslim Fulanis killing the president's family and slaughtering Christian Ibos—to evacuate Lena Kendricks (Monica Belluci), a widowed American doctor who works in a Catholic mission. Waters and his men have orders to stay out of the conflict, but Lena insists on saving as many of the locals in her charge as possible. To lure her away from the mission, Waters lies and says he will grant her request. "Go with God," the priest tells Waters before he leaves with Lena and the others, and the cynical soldier replies, "God already left Africa."

It is only after Waters throws Lena into a helicopter and flies away, leaving the others behind, that he has a change of heart. When his helicopter flies over the mission and he sees that it has been destroyed by a militia group, Waters turns around and sends as many of the Ibo refugees back on the helicopter as possible; the rest, he decides to lead to the Cameroon border on foot. At first, Waters intends simply to protect a ragtag group of refugees, but soon he and his men are avenging a village that has been raped and pillaged by rebel forces, and then they end up saving a man who may be the key to Nigeria's political future—although, because he is the tribal "heir" to the country's democratically elected president, it is not clear just what sort of government he might represent.

In all of this, Waters' change of heart is never explained, even when one of his men asks for a reason. ("When I figure it out, I'll let you know," he replies.) One minute he is just following orders, the next he is acting on some higher principle. But the film leaves us in no doubt that Waters is doing the Right Thing. "God will bless you," an Ibo woman tells Waters when he returns to rescue the native Nigerians, and she tearfully repeats this sentiment at the end of the film, after the seals have taken her and her fellow refugees safely to Cameroon, sustaining casualties along the way. "I will never forget you. God—God will never forget you, Lieutenant." And then the refugees gather around the "heir" to their country's presidency—a man who, incidentally, does nothing in the film to indicate that he is capable of political leadership—and raise their fists, hopefully, in the air.

One might think there would be serious repercussions once a soldier takes it upon himself to rewrite his country's foreign policy and involve his men in a war he knows nothing about, based on nothing but his own gut feeling—but if there are, we never hear of them. Act now, think later, seems to be the film's motto. Let us hope things are different in the real world.

Peter T. Chattaway lives in Canada and writes about movies.

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