War. HUH. What is it good for?

Spoilers ahead about ‘1917’, ‘Full Metal Jacket’, ‘Platoon’, ‘Gallipoli’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’.

I’ve not been to war myself (too worried about getting shot) but close enough to know that for many there is an irresistible attraction to that most extreme and vivid of human experiences. There’s an intensity there that normal life just can’t match.  Which makes it a drug that can be hard to give up (the core subject of Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘The Hurt Locker’) and also explains a bit about why war remains such a powerful setting and subject matter for dramatic stories.

In a recent storytelling training session with the press officers of the EPP Group (as interesting and talented a group of people as you’d ever wish to work with) we found ourselves having a discussion about Sam Mendes’ First World War film ‘1917’.  Despite the incredible cinematography and the tension of the action sequences the film left me just a bit flat, without that sense of cathartic release that is the neurochemical end-point of really successful storytelling (more on this here).   There’s no shortage of physical and mental challenge thrown at the protagonist of the story.  And there’s no lack of empathy generated between him and the audience.  So what is the problem?

In ‘1917’, our protagonist Lance Corporal William Schofield starts the film sitting under a tree, exhausted by the war.  We learn that he has already fought at the Battle of the Somme where he won a medal for bravery. He hasn’t kept the medal – he swapped it with a French soldier for a bottle of wine.  So his start point in the story is disillusionment, after deep and traumatic experience of the worst that warfare has to offer.  He does his duty now both from habit but also because of his commitment to his friend and comrade Tom Blake.  At the end of the film he has done that duty, managed to halt the doomed attack that was their mission (for a more moving treatment of a similar plot try Peter Weir’s ‘Gallipoli’).  But Schofield is still disillusioned and exhausted by war.  Even the visual symmetry of the film accentuates this – the film ends the same way that it began, with Schofield sitting war-weary against a tree.  Extreme though his struggle through the story has been, it seems to have left him pretty much where he started.

And that’s where I think the problem with the film lies. Really compelling stories, whether documentary or fiction, short or long-form, involve a protagonist who is irrevocably changed by the challenges that they have had to grapple with.  The challenges that they face lead to personal transformation and fundamental internal change.  If the story has not changed the character, then what was the point of it?

Compare ‘1917’ with Oliver Stone’s ‘Platoon’.  The film’s protagonist Chris Taylor starts as a naive young private, a volunteer determined to do his bit.  As he moves through the story he must face his own central conflict, represented by his two sergeants Elias (the humane soldier) and Barnes (the brutal soldier).  In the final battle of the film Chris finally fully experiences the primal joy of violence in combat (what Arthur Conan Doyle called ‘the uncontrollable red depths of the soul’).  Yet he chooses to symbolically slay that part of himself by killing the wounded Barnes.  And as he is evacuated he tells us of his realisation that war is an act of terrible self-harm.  Chris has lost his naivety, experienced the conflict in the human spirit and made the choice to reject the violence in himself.  His final words are “We did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves… We must try with our lives to find a goodness to this life”.  He has irrevocably changed.

In Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’, Private Joker is a natural subversive who bucks against the authority of the military.  His journey through the experience of training and combat seeks resolution to the same internal conflict as Chris’ in ‘Platoon’ . In one of the film’s funniest scenes Joker tries to explain to a Marine Colonel why he is wearing both a badge with a pacifist symbol and a helmet marked ‘Born to Kill’.  Joker doesn’t come to the same end-point as Chris, though.  At the beginning of Full Metal Jacket he tells us that the Marines want killers, men who are not afraid.  And at the film’s climax Joker kills a helpless and wounded young girl, an enemy sniper.  In the final resolution scene, as he and the other marines return from the battle of Hue, they sing a children’s song as they march.  Joker is smiling as he sings and we hear his thoughts. “I’m in a world of shit yes but I am alive and I am not afraid”.  The subversive and frustrated pacifist has become a killer and a marine.  He has learned to love war and will never be the same again.

And finally, maybe the greatest war film of them all, ‘Apocalypse Now’.  Captain Willard starts the film as a hardened killer, a special forces officer who willingly submits himself to the army as an assassin.  He is a lethal weapon in human form.  His commanders send him on a mission to terminate Colonel Kurtz, a fellow officer driven insane by the war.  Through the experience of his journey up that dark river to Kurtz, and the captivity he endures at its destination, Willard comes to realises that Colonel Kurtz’ loss of sanity is in fact the only sane response to the war and the way that they have been commanded to fight it.   Willard kills Kurtz not because he is carrying out his army’s orders but as a mercy to a man who has seen the truth and stepped beyond sanity.  In the final scene Willard turns off the radio that keeps him in contact with his HQ.  He has gone from being an unquestioning weapon at the command of others and recaptured his independence.  Even if Willard does make it back down the river, there can be no going back to the life he had at the beginning of the film.

So fundamental change matters in storytelling.  And to my mind that’s why ‘1917’ doesn’t have the emotional impact that could make it a real story masterwork.

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