In the space of about a month I saw both Miracle At St. Anna and Passchendaele and found myself facing a conundrum: what I admired about both films was so good that I wanted to recommend them, but what frustrated me about them was bad enough that I just couldn’t bring myself to give either a better than mixed review. My problem with both films is essentially the same. I thought the battle scenes in both were top-notch, but the stories themselves were subpar. Given that a film’s longevity owes less to its theatrical run than to the various formats in which it will be available after it leaves theatres, and keeping in mind that the intensity of battle sequences will be lessened in the translation from big screen to small, my question is this: can a war movie stand on battle scenes alone?
There is no shortage of movies about war and even the worst can generally boast of some level of technical proficiency. For example, Pearl Harbor is an awful movie but it nonetheless possesses some impressive scenes of warfare. The skill displayed in these scenes isn’t particularly surprising because while Michael Bay isn’t good at much, he’s an expert at blowing shit up. However, these scenes are no match for everything which surrounds them, namely a listless romantic triangle, cardboard characters, and inane dialogue, including one line that sent me into a spasm of anger and annoyance (“I think World War II just started,” says Danny in 1941). Given all the bad things about Pearl Harbor, I’ve never felt compelled to see it again, not even for the good things hidden deep within it.
Battle scenes are the showcase of any war movie, but they can’t be the point of those movies. Those which are unsuccessful are the ones which focus all their efforts on staging explosions and firefights and then cobble together a story out of clichés to fill in the blanks. Movies like this rely on a false sense of patriotism to manipulate you into caring about characters who’ve been afforded no depth, who become little more than shallow symbols of what the film claims to be about. If the characters don’t stay with you, if their struggles are forgotten the moment the credits begin to roll, how can the film itself have any value? To borrow a line from a man whose characters have endured centuries and whose battles always took place off stage, these are stories “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
The great war movies, the ones which really stand out, are the ones which combine strong battle sequences with compelling stories and characters. Movies like Saving Private Ryan, Platoon, Downfall, The Big Red One or Lawrence of Arabia are as gripping in their quieter moments as they are during their scenes of combat. While these films aren’t without their flaws they do have something which the two films that inspired this post lack: focus. Movies like Miracle At St. Anna and Passchendaele want to be about everything and in the process of throwing plot threads at the wall to see what will stick, seem to lose their initial purpose. Passchendaele? Not really about the battle for Passchendaele. Miracle At St. Anna? Not really about the massacre at St. Anna. War movies cost a lot of money and the people who make them tend to have very personal reasons for doing so, but they should never become mere vanity projects. The reality they try to invoke and the horrors they revisit are too important and ought to be given more than cursory attention rather than be relegated to an afterthought by a filmmaker too mired in self-importance that he or she fails to recognize the limitations of effective storytelling. I guess what I’m saying is that I want a war movie to be about what it claims to be about because if all I wanted to see was stuff blowing up and limbs being torn off there’s no shortage of mindless action movies made to cater to that.