Hollywood: Back to Making War Seem Simple

Mr. Briley is a teacher at Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

On a rainy Sunday night in Albuquerque, I trudged to the High Ridge Cinema to catch a screening of No Man's Land, a Bosnian film which was recently honored with an Academy Award for best Foreign Language Picture. Director Danis Tanovic, who worked as a photographer on the front lines of the war in Bosnia, presents a gritty, realistic, and unheroic portrait of war. It is too bad that I was the only one in the theater.

On the other hand, mainstream American films dealing with war have been doing big time business in Albuquerque and around the country. Cinematic blockbusters like Ridley Scott's Blackhawk Down and Randall Wallace's We Were Soldiers had their release dates pushed up to take advantage of American patriotism in the war on terrorism.

However, America's recent engagement with cinematic warfare dates back to Steven Speilberg's Saving Private Ryan and commemoration of the Normandy invasion. While Ryan provides some innovative war footage in the film's first twenty minutes, it tends to revert to the cliches of the American combat film genre. Ryan's embracing of World War II has found cultural resonance with the writings of historian Steven Ambrose (despite allegations of plagiarism) and journalist Tom Brokaw, as well as the cinema of Pearl Harbor and HBO's Band of Brothers. This re-connection with World War II, and what many term the good war, may be perceived as a national cultural effort to place the ambiguities of the Vietnam era behind us.

Thus, most Americans are more comfortable with the moral absolutes of good vs. evil embodied in President Bush's assertions that one is either with us or the terrorists. In Blackhawk Down, the heroism of American soldiers is extolled, while scant attention is paid to the plight of an estimated five hundred to a thousand Somalis who died, caught in a cross fire at a crowded marketplace. Honor and duty are celebrated by director Randall Wallace in We Were Soldiers. Building upon the notion of heroic sacrifice in his screenplays for Braveheart and Pearl Harbor, Wallace reduces the moral dilemma of the Vietnam War to the leadership principle. Referring to Lt. Colonel Harold Moore (portrayed by Mel Gibson), Wallace described his latest film as". . . a story about incredible leadership and the men who went and fought knowing they would probably never get out alive. Everyone of them went into battle because their leader would have never left them and they wouldn't leave him." This camaraderie of war provides no context for questioning the morality of the American military intervention in Vietnam, which seems to have achieved the moral equivalence of World War II in the hands of Wallace. Nor does such an approach encourage critical thinking and asking tough questions of American military and foreign policy goals in the war on terrorism.

However, Tanovic's No Man's Land, in both its title and subject matter, takes us back to the disillusionment of World War I and such antiwar statements as All Quiet on the Western Front. In Erich Maria Remarque's novel and Louis Milestone's film adaptation, Paul Baumer and his young friends are betrayed by their leaders, elders, and blind patriotism. War serves no higher moral purpose. In this vein, No Man's Land tells the story of Bosnian soldier Ciki (Branko Djuric), whose relief column becomes lost and is ambushed by Serbian units. The wounded Ciki becomes stranded in no man's land, where he captures a Serbian soldier Nino (Rene Bitorajac) who is placing land mines under dead Bosnian soldiers. However, the friend of Ciki under whom the mine is placed proves to be wounded and not dead. Ciki and Nino establish a balance of terror as they seek to escape no man's land and find help for the injured soldier lying on the mine. Ciki and Nino argue over whether Serbs or Bosnian Muslims are responsible for the conflict, but they also discover they have much in common. They have even dated the same girl, and when they strip to their underwear, discarding their uniforms, their respective sides are unable to discern whether those caught in no man's land are soldiers or non-combatants. However, their mutual mistrust eventually consumes them. Meanwhile, the United Nations intervention and media attention summoned to save the Bosnian soldier lying on the land mine comes to naught. The reporters are seeking sensationalist violence for ratings, and the UN is terrified of shedding its neutrality. The young soldier placed on the mine, which just proves to be an American product, is abandoned. His next move will be his last.

No Man's Land offers no images of heroic self-sacrifice in the pursuit of a noble cause. The bloodshed of Bosnia in the early 1990s witnessed by Tanovic removes such illusions from his depiction of war. Tanovic's film deserves an audience, for its grim realities serve as a useful antidote for the cultural embrace of war found in the work of such filmmakers as Randall Wallace. American veterans have made sacrifices in war, just as the policeman and fire fighters in New York City put their lives on the line last September; however, stirring cinematic background music should not obscure the real face of war which has not just an international as well as American component. Just ask Ciki, and the residents of the Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Israel, and Palestine.

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scott murdock - 7/21/2002

I have to agree with you Tom, in as much the book was very much about the young Americans on the ground in one particular battle at a particular time. It seems as if the author feels as if filmmakers should feel some sort of moral imperative to tell the "bigger picture", as if telling a tale of individual heroism and perserverance is not good enough for the viewing public. I'm sure that the filmakers intent was to tell the story as it was told in Gen Moore's book, just as Scott did with Mark Bowden's "Blackhawk Down".

Maybe this is nitpicking as well, but the author mentions Stephen Ambrose's writing and the HBO series "Band of Brothers" in the same paragraph without seeming to acknowledge that the series was directly based on Ambrose's work of the same title.

Rick Glowaki - 4/26/2002

I agree with Rawson wholeheartedly. In addition, some people of Briley's ilk might not feel there is anything noble or glorious or exhilarating about war, but sometimes to many it can be all of those things. Fighting with a cause behind you, having the courage to put your life on the line for the principles you believe might be foreign to Briley but there are millions of Americans who understand. War can be hell but it is also neccessary when the bad guys want to mess with you or yours. Read any of the incredible biographies of Teddy Roosevelt to understand an American who clearly understood that sometimes a man has got to do what a man has got to do and why not embrace the adventure and derring do that can go hand in hand with it.

Tom Rawson - 4/25/2002

Actually I think the author doesn't get it. Mr. Briley missed the more complex point being made by the rather simplistic movie "We Were Soldiers Once". He had a chance but didnt see it - so caught up in pop culture - too bad.

The term "revisionist" sort of comes to mind when reading much of what has passed for history of the Vietnam experience. Many who have written had an axe to grind - depending on their personal culture and point of view - maybe even the decison they made to participate or opt out. Not sure of where Mr. Briley falls with regard to any of that or whether he was just lazy.

The Vietnam story from the soldiers point of view has not been well told. It is complex. It starts with the circumstance of the individual soldier. It then gets layered by the South Vietnamese "allies", North Vietnamese "enemy", status of US military management, US political leadership and society at large.

"We Were Soldiers Once and Young" - the book, is an amazing tale and unfortunately the movie doesnt quite capture it. But to unravel the story we have to start somewhere......

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