Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31 Number 16 July 16, 1968
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.
Doom just round the corner
In the past few years we have had a large spate of spy movies, although it seems to have fallen off recently as the cold war atmosphere has given way to new political and social conflicts. The success of this short-lived wave and nurtured by the cold war and its strategic implications: there was always threat of war but none eventuated. Films as entertainment have always provided action and war, and the one-man spy war became the ideal substitute for the elusive "big" war.
The spy film quickly gravitated into polarised groups. The escapist with its paranoid implications and superman fulfilling all our own fantasies. This is most obviously seen in the James Bond films which have varied in quality, but keep strictly to the proven formula. The other pole, which concerns the more serious directors, attempts to come to terms both with the success of the spy-fantasy character and at the same time examine the spy game along the lines of the many real-life spy exposes. Depending on country or origin, these have naturally all identified with the West, although in some cases there has been some sympathy and understanding for individual Communists, but not in the system.
The first large commercial venture into the realistic spy word was Martin Ritt's film of the highly-successful John le Carre novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. As is sometimes the ease in Hollywood, a serious film can be distinguished by its lack of colour, although it must be said that Ritt's choice of monochrome was justified when we had hitherto been accustomed to our spies in Technicolor. After Ritt, the realistic spy film no longer needed justification, nor did it have to he black-and-white.
Le Carre's novel concerned a disenchanted British agent who is reluctant!) persuaded to go on another mission to East Germany. Also included among the characters was a young British communist woman, admittedly and idealist who becomes sorely disillusioned (not surprisingly) but at least it was the first attempt in films (except of course Morgan) to sympathetially examine the western communist mind. East Germany (because it presents the cold war conflict at its extreme) is an attractive setting for spy films. Hitchcock's Torn Curtain attempted to bring drama and excitement to a rather lame story about an American scientist who is to defect in order to obtain secret information. Hitchcock ruined his film by easting Paul Newman and Julie Andrews and by a vulgar "goodies" and "baddies" attitude.
The most recently seen film which examines once again East Germany is the French-German production. The Defector (l'Espion) (Warners Seven Arts) directed by the late Raoul Levy, best known for his productions of linearly Brigitte Bardot films. The Defector (1968) is the best spy film of the realistic camp. It concerns an American scientist who is blackmailed by CIA agent Roddy McDowell into doing a mission in East Germany while he is visiting the restoration work in various art galleries.
The two main protagonists are Montgomery Clift, the American scientist and Hardy Kruger as a young East German scientist who finds himself pressured by his Government into extracting information From the American. Of course East German security have a go also, and in one nightmare sequence Clift undergoes psychologial torture from some weird and exciting visual effect As the film seen here was 8 minutes or so shorter than the original, it is safe to assume that this sequence was heavily cut Other sequences are also cut.
In his last role Clift looks Sick, yet Suitable. This was his only film since his enforced retirement in 1962. He is barely audible at times confused and deranged, only able to survive his escape back to the West by a determination that can only be explained in has emotional awakening by delectable East German doctor's assistant, Macha Meril, star of Godard's banned (NZ) Une Femme Mariee. Godard himself appears briefly . . . the nearest well ever get?
Levy's direction is controlled, and despite complexities of event and motivation, the plot continues strongly through to the stalemate where the attempt to get Clift to defect is failed and the "defection" of Kruger to the West is cut short by his death (suicide?) before his interrogation by the CIA. His last words are the classic refrain: "Maybe it's better this way". The Defector does not aspire to say all that could, but probably never will, be said about the cold war and espionage, but its modulated tension and plausibility make it superior drama.
Raoul Coutard's colour photography, he also did de Broca's Male Companion, lives up to his reputation as Europe's best. The bleak, beautiful Munich snowscapes are a delight. He uses filters to enhance natural hues, restrained lighting to highlight suspense. His visual effects in "doom room' hotel episode are equally masterful little wonder that Godard has used him on most of his films.
The Defector seems destined to release on the bottom half of double bills to audiences unused to European film-making. The "art" connoisseurs will miss it, but those who do see it will be pleasantly surprised.