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Battlefield Surgery – Three Wounded War Movies

Owen Wilson in Behind Enemy Lines (2001) / Jude Law in Enemy at the Gates (2001) / Mel Gibson in We Were Soldiers (2002)

Much like that it portrays, with the war movie there is always a thin line between success and failure. When dealing with such a hefty and complex subject matter, is one best suited to going on the offensive or holding back and forming a defensive line of conservatism? When dealing with real conflict involving real people, either by historical inspiration or factual invocation, are you making a drama or an action flick?

Regardless of which route one takes, this is a genre as susceptible to mediocrity and false hope as any other. Whether it be a great battle from history rendered obsolete by caricature or a teasing of genuine, shellshock events betrayed by insensitive thriller tropes, there will always be those that fail to hit the target when victory was so surely within reach. Intention is always undermined by incompetence.

Rather than look at the worst of the crop, Cinematic Surgery inspects three movies that for all the world should have been glorious but instead frustrated, disappointed and ultimately became forgotten. Then we ask just why it so was and explain how perhaps a timely medic could have changed the tide.

Vladimir Mashkov in Behind Enemy Lines (2001)Behind Enemy Lines

A glaringly blatant example of storytelling by committee, director John Moore’s 2001 debut Behind Enemy Lines is perhaps something of an apposite touchstone of an era; an early 2000s action thriller in which a young Hollywood darling is paired with a veteran celebrated actor and pure schlock commences, albeit on this occasion amongst accusations of jingoism, political bias and misrepresentation. Forget any idea of grit and pathos as horribly unsuited Owen Wilson lucks his way out of a series of desperate situations without even the decency to emote.

That the film’s multilevel absurdity flags it up as disposable early noughties pulp is a rather tragic thing though, since for all intensive purposes a B-movie conceit with an A-movie production stumbled upon a potentially golden ticket but stubbornly refused to capitalise. The subject of the Yugoslav wars, Bosnia in particular, were rarely picked up on by western cinema despite the obvious depth and significance of the material, and it is a trying indictment of said industry that THIS is one of the few such efforts made. Rather that try something meaningful or emotive, it is used as a beautifully shot backdrop and plot device for a routine chase thriller.

But the wasted potential goes beyond not using the subtext fully. Owen Wilson’s pilot, either by the patchy screenplay or bland portrayal, fails to ever react to the inhumanity he is surrounded by, instead pursuing his only goal of escape. This despite the fact that the material he has been stranded for is evidence of genocide. A potentially riveting plot setter in which an America recon jet is shot down is so over-abundant on CGI and flashy visuals that it becomes a headache inducing seizure of light and sound. The well chosen and visually captured Serb hunting pack exist as cool looking villains rather than real people. For every good aspect of the film there is a downside, and along with it three negatives.

Owen Wilson in Behind Enemy Lines (2001)The worst sin, and the decision that fully confirms that Behind Enemy Lines has no intentions beyond being cheap trash, involves the concept of ‘leave no man behind’; this philosophy, the driving force behind the film’s concept, is deconstructed superbly in a standout monologue by Joaquim de Almeida’s NATO heavyweight. After all, he states to Gene Hackman’s patriotic admiral, why should peace talks collapse to save one American when hundreds of Bosnians are being killed daily? It is a thoughtful and sombre question, and opens the door to a film with a greater emotional and ethical heft. It is then ignored when we get a ridiculously simplistic ending with jaw-droppingly horrific implications as the cavalry show up to wipe out the baddies and rescue Wilson, Hackman personally leading the charge.

In this depressing final ignominy, we see that brief spark emerge and then dissipate. The idea of a message is raised and then replaced by basic cowboy antics. If we are to take the film at face value, after it has already raised the issue itself, the moral is; “As long as one of us is in there, nothing else matters. One of us is more important than a thousand of them”. A rather excruciating irony given the paramilitaries are to be prosecuted for war crimes afterwards.

Why not cast an actor based on ability rather than popularity, somebody capable of delivering on weighty material, and write them as a three dimensional human being? He starts out as a maverick, gung ho adrenaline junkie, as one would expect from a jet pilot. His plane is shot down (in an understated and simplistic sequence) and his co-pilot is killed. He goes on the run, and with every crime against humanity he sees he changes, develops into an empathetic soul. Political implications mean he has no help but what he can get, which is from the Bosnian guerrillas. By the endgame, he would sooner join the fight than hit the trail. You know, some depth…

However, just as there is evil there is good, and in their new capacity as human beings the locals sneak him out of the warzone, photos too, and get him to safe zone. His eventual extraction by his compatriots is thus an emotionally charged, bittersweet experience, albeit one fused by the promise of justice. Would it be a masterpiece? No, of course not. But at least it might mean something while not drawing rage from insulted audiences, surely a basic requirement for any film, gritty drama or flashy action.

Jude Law in Enemy at the Gates (2001)

Enemy at the Gates

When describing Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, the late great Roger Ebert famously described it as “the Japanese [staging] a surprise attack on an American love triangle“. While one cannot find a more inappropriate romance story outside of the confines of said travesty, the same year’s Enemy at the Gates took a meaty swing at it, while also boiling down the infamous and earth shattering Battle of Stalingrad to a duel between two master snipers. Caught in the crest of two waves, attempting to emulate the respective successes of Titanic and Saving Private Ryan, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s historical epic does still retain some merits as well as pitfalls.

If the tepid and awkward love story of peasant marksman Vasily Zaitsev (Jude Law) and Rachel Weisz’s soldier does not appeal to a viewer perhaps more interested in big budget re-enactment of one of the most fabled battles of all time, throwing in a third wheel in the shape of Joseph Fiennes can perhaps be judged as a mistake. It is unfortunate, since it overshadows a far more intriguing twist on the material. Rather than getting straight into the trenches and blind alleys, Annaud has a keen interest in the political machinations of the battle, depicting Zaitsev’s continued success as perfect fodder for the Soviet PR campaign, his rise from unarmed cannon fodder to national hero orchestrated by Fiennes’s ambitious Commissar.

It is an excellent slant, particularly when contrasted to the inhumane manner in which the red army treats its own forces, with the sniper battles measured against suicidal zerg rushes and examples of valor at the barrel of a comrade’s gun. Much of Stalingrad’s importance wasn’t measured tactically or in terms of human loss, but as a showdown between two of the world’s greatest and most powerful egomaniacs. It is strange, then, than a screenplay (based on an actual account) can possess so much intelligence yet become so tawdry, not just with the ultimately pointless romantic angle (one that only enters the plot to form contrivance), but with a strange habit of insipid subplot and asinine dialogue.

Ed Harris in Enemy at the Gates (2001)Poor lines straight out of straight to video bargain basket find also find themselves right at home in the hands (or on the lips) of a clutch of talented actors poorly directed and seemingly disinterested in proceedings. While Joseph Fiennes is able to inject a little personality into the cowardly Danilov, his is a character who is a slave to the narrative and loses much interest in the final act. Law and Weisz struggle with the script, meanwhile, rendering their story even more tedious.

There are also small niggling issues which, as discussed before, only truly frustrate when they are allied to an unsatisfactory whole. While the depiction of Russians and Germans in an ultimately western production will always present problems, rarely is the issue handled as poorly as here. Law, Weisz and Fiennes speak English in their own accents while on-screen compatriot Bob Hoskinsmay he rest in peace – chews the scenery with a Rooskie drawl. Ron Perlman, seemingly attempting to match the status quo with a British voice of his own, sounds Australian. Wermacht soldiers vary from speaking German to English in German accents while their champion, an uncharacteristically wooden Ed Harris, retains his American pitch. For such a finessed and well dressed production to fall foul of such inconsistency as a symptom of the film’s desire for mediocrity while presented with a chance at greatness.

The sniper battle between Law and Harris makes up the film’s centre-piece, and as with much of the action is handled well (particularly the opening Volga crossing and the resulting charge on the banks) and serves as yet another intriguing and successful variation on convention, while also presenting an ingenious solution to portraying one of the second world war’s biggest conflicts on a relatively modest $70 million budget. Yet despite being the respite for soap-opera throughout much of the running length, it slides into the silliness by the end and features an anti-climax of a conclusion. It as if the film were beset by disassociate personality disorder, its fascinating soul finally conquered by the rampant BS.

Were it to be shorn of the love triangle and helmed by a director better suited to directing actors, not to mention cut down to more flatly portray the respective duel and PR battle, it would surely be worthy for consideration amongst the greater war films, and one with a much welcome new voice to add. Even while the people fall like droves, their masters are spinning and yarning and turning their deaths into ideological propaganda, exposing two men attempting to shoot each other across a ruined landscape of shattered lives as a farce. It is almost satire, rather than basically wasted.

Still from We Were Soldiers (2012)We Were Soldiers

Given its nightmarish properties and lasting source of pain and shame within American culture, it is little wonder that one has a hard time finding a film that paints a positive picture of the Vietnam War. This was a conflict that saw death, agony and the loss of innocence for a generation, an impossible battle fought for little and without closure. It was a sign of what was to come when the first major battle of the war, at Ia Drang in November 1965, resulted in a victory that felt like a defeat, so evocatively told in the book We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, written by two of the victors. In the hands of Michael Cimino, Oliver Stone or John Irvin, this tome translated to screen would undoubtedly be a sombre reflection of this. Randall Wallace is a different beast, however.

Promoted to director/writer following the success of Braveheart and teaming up again with his leading man Mel Gibson, Wallace approaches the gruelling and gruesome confrontation between the 1st Cavalry Division and the NVA with all the subtlety he displayed with his rabble rousing career maker and latterly with Pearl Harbor. The material is used to create a thunderous tribute to courage in the face of death and a celebration of great men fighting for their proud flags in a series of bloody, undoubtedly noteworthy scraps. Where it basks in it action, however, it manages to pour black and white paint all over a war riddled with complexity.

It is not just the lack of political intricacy that marks out We Were Soldiers as wastefully simplistic folly. Ill-judged focus on the home front, away from the carnage, exposes an at times horribly written screenplay rife with childish attempts at pathos (a housewife seemingly unaware of segregation; soldiers’ wives waiting patiently for death notices) that would perhaps have slipped by undetected otherwise. It is not just dialogue that produces inappropriate laughs as much as it is mind numbingly basic attempts to pull at heartstrings. For a film that is undoubtedly basic in its DNA, it somehow manages to lose further points by its pretensions of being greater.

Sam Elliott & Mel Gibson in We Were Soldiers (2002)Efforts to give some depth to the enemy, particularly during a well executed subplot featuring a young Vietnamese soldier that ends abruptly, are good in conception but do not mesh well with the flag waving. Portraying the unbearable stress of being a soldier, or a soldier’s family, is undermined by the film’s single-minded belief that nothing could be more honourable or unquestionable. The ‘war is hell’ visualisation of the bloodshed cannot click, not matter how one tries as Randall Wallace does, when you have so much conviction in its necessity. It all leads to a bafflingly immature conclusion that all of the savagery we have seen is justified and right, it’s just really really hard. If one is to tell this story, they must pick a stall and stick to it, rather than try to have their cake and eat it too.

In this regard, Wallace truly does a disservice and makes a mockery of his pledge to finally tell Hal Moore’s story correctly. This is particularly apparent during the film’s ending, depicting the battle’s conclusion as one ferocious American counter attack that finally defeated the NVA and won the day, an event that never happened. As with Braveheart, this is a writer twisting fact to better serve his picture, an understandable tact. Posing this as “finally telling the story right” is an insult on so many levels. The culture clash of old fashioned cinematic heroics of the John Wayne variety and more modern displays of brutality and ambiguous morality is like the collision of two missiles, with just as much chance of integration.

Regardless of the complexities and moral and ethical battles forced by depiction of such mixed emotions present in Ia Drang and the Vietnam War in general, a writer or director must know what they are meaning to say before they tell the story, whether it be there’s or not. In the event that Wallace stuck to his guns and twisted the truth for simplicity’s sake, he should have retained that spirit and, hopefully, ironed out the screenplay or passed it on to script doctor’s for treatment. Were he tell Moore and Joe Galloway’s tale “right”, however, he should have abandoned his pretences and angles and buried himself in the material. Talk is nothing, especially when it is so embarrassingly scripted.

Scott Patterson


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