This week Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk came sputtering into cinemas with all the empty pomp and circumstance of a victory parade. The film is an immersive hour and forty-seven minutes of impressively shot action and tension underpinned by a hackneyed and didactic score. Despite all the means imaginable Dunkirk fails to convey anything about the Miracle of Dunkirk or war itself that isn’t contained in anecdotal knowledge of Operation Dynamo. With no characters beyond allegorical figures of the soldier, the father and the general, Nolan actively cuts the viewer off from having any connection with what happens on screen and one is left with a kind of moodboard of slick cinematography and vintage machinery. After my initial bafflement at the thunderous reception Dunkirk has received I came across comments from Nolan stating that Dunkirk isn’t so much a “War Film” as a “Survival Film”. Such a distinction doesn’t change my reaction to Dunkirk but it did get me wondering; what does it actually mean to be a “War Film”?
First off, it’s unclear whether “War Film” is a genre at all. There are war comedies, war musicals, war epics. Do all of these fall under the same umbrella? What about films that focus in on one particular aspect of a war like Son of Saul where the focalisation is so strongly with Saul in the concentration camp that the finer political implications of wartime seem irrelevant? Furthermore there are hundreds of films where the war is the backdrop to events but is far enough away from the characters, be that in distance or time, that it’s really nothing more than set-dressing. I would consider this to be the case in films such as Gone With the Wind and Frantz.
What makes something a war film for me is the portrayal of people navigating experiences and events that only exist in war. This means that it doesn’t have to be a film directly about soldiers, battles or even the political actors of war. Civilians in a war zone, prisoners of war, families dealing with the absence of their soldier sons and even army officials with desk jobs all fall into this category. The category is, admittedly, vast, but limiting how we talk about war exclusively to front-line action would be dishonest and one thing I love about films is their capacity for honesty.
Most recently this honesty blew me away in Ang Lee’s 2017 film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. After the poetic opulence of Life of Pi, this film had all the same visual mastery with none of the whimsy. Billy Lynn, a young soldier in Iraq whose actions in the heat of battle have earned him and his comrades a victory tour of the United States, encounters a much less pleasant America than the pageantry would have us believe. Hidden barely a scratch under the surface is a society built on insincerity and insensitivity that knowingly exploits the hopes of those in need and those who serve. The film builds to a flawless and terrifying set-piece; the half-time performance at a baseball game, where the gulf between the treatment returning soldiers need, and what they receive, is felt more and more with every uncomfortable passing second. Lee lures the spectator in with tales of heroism and spectacle before opening a much-needed dialogue on PTSD among veterans and the struggles of America’s working poor.
This is a great quality of war films, to reveal the ugliness in what is normally dressed up as heroism. The very premise of war is that there is an enemy to be defeated but this can, and often is, turned on its head by the end of the film. Take two great films about the Vietnam War. In Apocalypse Now we are thrown into the action so completely that we don’t even get opening credits during which to get our bearings. Instead we open on a hopeless soldier who is only going to have more to endure. The mission to be carried out starts impossible and grows to become a grotesque over-simplification of the horror. Through sequence after sequence Coppola allows us to travel into the darkness and absurdity of the dense, dark jungle. The enemies are omnipresent, on his side, on the other side and potentially even inside himself. On the other hand there is Good Morning Vietnam where over half of the film focuses on the trials and tribulations of a rebellious DJ (Robin Williams, in one of his most touching turns). It just so happens that this DJ is on the radio in Vietnam’s demilitarised zone. This backdrop of relative peace allows him to form personal relationships with Vietnamese locals. As such he enters into a complicated middle ground where he is friends with the Vietnamese, reviled by his military superiors and adored by the thousands of troops who listen to his show. Good Morning Vietnam is light without being flippant. When the brutality of war finally rears its ugly head in the third act it is rendered all the more terrible by the joy that preceded it since the enemy is no longer a faceless aggressor.
All of these qualities and more are present in Empire of the Sun. It’s not Spielberg’s best-known film, hell it’s not even his best-known war film, but it’s my favourite by a long way and holds a place in my top three films of all time. Featuring the best performance from Christian Bale before The Big Short, Empire of the Sun is the adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical story of coming of age in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. The war is abstract and out of reach yet permeates every action the young boy, Jim, can take. We see him wrestle with his identity, sexual discovery, betrayal and good and evil all at once. The changes are irreversible and the film is a poignant reminder that while we may carry some things with us the vagaries of time and circumstance are beyond our control and that one has to keep up with this irreversible current or be swept away.
The War Film has the potential to be and say so many things. It seems therefore a strange label for Nolan to be shying away from especially with a film that so boldly refuses any context or grounding apart from war from the very get-go. Survival is obviously important, but it’s the prerequisite to telling war stories, not the story in and of itself.