Cinema has tackled the issue of war in various forms. It is interesting and frightening at the same time that during times of war most of the movies are usually pro-war and serve as propaganda. Anti-war films usually take place after the event. And as it often happens, the propaganda movies disappear into nothingness, but the ones that stick out and receive recognition are those movies that reveal the absurdity and horrors of war.
For the following purposes, I have chosen three movies to discuss. It is a very random sample and I am excluding brilliant movies like Apocalypse Now (1979) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), or even Paths of Glory (1957) and La Grande Illusion (1937). All these movies do an excellent job of showing the effects of war, but I am limiting my reflections to the subsequent three movies because they use recurring symbols and themes to express the absurdity and randomness of war.
The Symbol of Reckless War in Bridge on the River Kwai
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) lives strongly on the performance of Sir Alec Guinness as Col. Nicholson. He is the perfect and noble gentleman officer filled with dignity and justice. In fact, he is ready to accept cruel treatment and punishment by the Japanese commanding officer to gain benefits for his officers and soldiers. It may be trifles from our point of view, such as officers not supposed to do manual work as a Prisoner of War, but Col. Nicholson insists on this issue with such steadfastness that he amazes the Japanese commanding officer, someone who is equally stubborn and rigid when it comes to dignity and discipline.
The movie thrives, at least for its first half, on the clash between the strong adamant wills of these two officers on different sides of the spectrum. When the Japanese officer finally gives in to the demands, Col. Nicholson becomes fully devoted to and involved in the Japanese project of building a crucial bridge. He motivates his crew to do their best and to create a steady bridge instead of sabotaging the whole effort.
Why? Because he acts as any self-respecting person would do. He wants to be remembered for his efforts. In fact, the crucial moment of pride and jubilation is when they put up the plaque taking credit for all their efforts. Unbeknownst to him, the allies are planning to destroy the bridge. The bridge becomes the symbol of lost efforts, of false hope because noble causes and dignity become mixed up and confused in the smoke of war.
War as Claustrophobic Space in Das Boot
Most war films dealing with the Second World War have been made in Hollywood. However, there are occasionally a few movies that reach international fame and that show us a different perspective of war. In fact, the excellent German movies Das Boot (1981) and Downfall (2004) give a glimpse of how the “bad guys,” the Nazis saw and dealt with war.
What the two German movies have in common is both a claustrophobic, doomed and fatalistic atmosphere. Das Boot is about a submarine that enters the zone of war. At first, the crew is bored and misses the thrills and actions of war because nothing happens and there is no enemy in sight. However soon enough, they are shot at and have to fight desperately for survival.
Das Boot makes us feel the pain and despair that soldiers feel; regardless which side they are fighting for, they share the same humanity. It is within instants that the hunter becomes the hunted. This submarine is the pride of the German army, yet it undergoes vicious trials. The crew becomes one with the submarine because for all of them it is their vessel of hope and salvation.
Similar to the bridge, the submarine is a sign of human accomplishment, but it is tightly connected to destruction as well. The crew becomes trapped and disillusioned. They had imagined war differently. They realize and experience firsthand that destroying other ships at the push of a button has devastating consequences. War is not a game, and many lives are at stake whether you are fighting on ground, in the air or at sea.
War as Russian Roulette of Personal Destiny in The Deer Hunter
The movie The Deer Hunter (1978) makes a humanistic statement about the Vietnam war. It demonstrates the regular suburban lives and how the experience of war alters and even destroys the lives of the soldiers involved. The first half shows us a jovial and fun-loving group of friends who work in a steel mine and have beer and go hunting deer in their free time. Life is simple and a traditional wedding is the highlight of their experience before they enter the war, full of hopes and aspirations.
Suddenly the movie throws us into the throes of war, without explanation. It is like entering an unknown country without a map. The friends find themselves in the hands of sadistic enemy soldiers that derive pleasure from playing Russian Roulette with their prisoners.
In fact, you never know when the bullet will be triggered, when you will die. It is the unexpected outcome, just like the sword of Damocles that dangles over your head and can end your life at any moment. War is like a grinning madman holding the gun to your head and spinning its chambers. Some will survive and others will not, and it all comes down to nothing but sheer luck.