Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31 Number 16 July 16, 1968
All's not fair in war and gore
All's not fair in war and gore
War is people killing people, usually for simplistic, somtimes for necessary, reasons. War movies show people being killed, but their purpose is different. They can be entertainment or propaganda. Although war films have been out of fashion for some time, occasional box-office successes guarantee that the genre will never be completely eclipsed. These are generally of the "action-adventure" sort in which a group of people set out on a mission, the more improbable the better, and then proceed to complete it with only one or two survivors.
There have, of course, been notable war films which are more than this. These are rarely recognised and infrequently come along. One recent example was the Sanders brothers' Warhunt (1961) set against a Korean war background. The actuality of killing and conflict between the two forces was far removed from the reasons for the war. The men were helpless to prevent it. They only wanted to survive. The only man dedicated to killing was a mystery to his fellow soldiers. His violent death was inevitable. As for the survivors, they only felt relief that what they had been required to do—powerless to do otherwise— had been done and they could not get out. Warhunt was probably the nearest American filmmakers have got to questioning post-1945 American foreign policy and its self-appointed role as the world's Guardsman against revolution.
Like all successful war films, Warhunt concerned only a small group of combatants. It was not a big message film about the High Command, politics, or anything of that sort. It was small, unresolved, personal.
Cornel Wilde's Beach Red (Theodora for United Artists) is the most successful anti-war film since Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1958). The latter was based on events in World War I, the former the Pacific war 1941-1945. A large force of Americans suffer heavy casualties during one of those mass beach landings in order to capture some Japanese-held territory. But this is merely a backdrop. For both the Americans and the Japanese the enemy is that which threatens survival. Neither understands the other; neither are interested. But both sides are people with the same thoughts, presented in flashbacks (often subliminal) mainly of sexual experience. The lyrical stylism of these flashbacks—done in soft-focus, stop, slow and normal motion, are reminiscent of Sunsilk TV Ads-is deliberate, idealising the soldiers' thoughts of home. It is not sentimental, out aggressively sensual.
Sex is what soldiers miss most in war: it is the antithesis of war. Masturbatory fantasies substitute for it— one soldier recreates the female body with a large stone and two coconuts. The bloody carnage of the invasion gives way to soft, lithe, naked female flesh. When one soldier dies his memory of his last woman is blurred and finally destroyed by blood flowing down the screen. These are direct but not clichetic.
As we expect from Wilde, the war sequences are brutal and real. No wheeling and aarghs here, but fulsome gore, agonised death, mercilous gunfire. Once beyond the beach the war consists of furtive manhunts and ambushes in the luxuriant but deadly forest. Diseases, animals, insects: none are more dangerous than man—this is the message that is repeatedly nammered home until the audience can feel none of the glory of victory that routine war films provide, but a genuine loathing and disgust. A fleeting chance at mutuality between enemies is cut short by another soldier thinking a packet of cigarettes is a grenade a potential understanding is rudely shattered.
The supporting cast, largely anonymous unknowns, is more that adequate. Rip Torn, an outstanding heavy at any time, appears as the repulsive plug-chewing sadist, and two newcomers, Burr DeBenning and Patrick Wolfe, are impressive. The photography (in colour!) dwells on verdant forest and bloody human slaughter contrasting the post-card with actual. The makeup team have a field-day One soldier staggers to his feet with his shot-off arm left lying on the beach. Bodies are consumed by flame throwers with the same effect as napalm in Vietnam.
We dare not ask for more films of this sort: it would be too much. But films like Beach Red have to be made. It isn't entertainment, it won't be popular. It wasn't made with the co-operation of the US Army, but in opposition to it. For Cornel Wilde—surely the Great Primitive of the cinema, e.g. The Naked Pray (1965)—we hope that he has said all he wants to on this topic. But if violence is now an aesthetic not a moral problem, then we can be assured that Wilde's subsequent films will extend us again.