What is left for any new war film to say today, after landmarks like these:
- The Deer Hunter and Platoon scratched open American society’s unhealed scabs over a pointless, unwinnable (indeed, lost) war.
- Dark comedies like M*A*S*H, Catch-22, and Blackadder Goes Forth ruthlessly mocked clueless generals, while still being compassionate towards those that sacrificed themselves.
- Saving Private Ryan permanently disrupted the war film formula, utilizing new storytelling techniques and filmmaking technology in service of empathy, viscerally placing the audience in the meat grinder that so many of the Greatest Generation were marched into.
- More recently, 1917 and Dunkirk both employed formal experimentalism to tell war stories on an individual and geopolitical scale, simultaneously.
I know there are many other key highlights in the genre (I didn’t even mention one of my personal favorites, Paths of Glory), but you get the idea: the best war movies have opened eyes and shifted public opinion.
Edward Berger’s 2022 adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front seems rather quaint in comparison, perhaps negatively affected by being seen mostly on small screens, via Netflix. It’s comprised of a series of vignettes that bluntly illustrate the obvious truths that every sensible person with a conscience already knows: what we think of as “war” is mechanized, industrialized slaughter on an obscenely huge scale, with soldiers as game tokens pushed around a map by armchair generals far behind the front line. As Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey famously satirized, despite thousands of years of civilization, war is a ritualized version of clans of cavemen having it out with clubs and rocks, for temporary control of a fetid pond, at least until the next famine, drought, or wildfire.
But then again, recent history has seen corrupt warmongers like George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin stage costly invasions for power and profit. So maybe every new generation of moviegoers does occasionally need new war films to rub their faces in the ugliness and brutality of war. But is All Quiet on the Western Front going to pierce the propaganda bubble in, say, Russia? And even if it did, would it change any minds that haven’t already been made up?
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