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Military Movies and the Contradictions
of American Culture
Richard Maxwell

Making a military movie these days isn't easy. Viewers want to believe the old clichés but they know too much. The result is an emphasis on camp or nostalgic revivals: the fighter-pilot scenes of Star Wars, Lee Marvin's tough-sergeant act in The Big Red One, service-comedy hi jinks in Private Benjamin. Just this summer we had Stripes, a lighter-than-air farce starring Bill Murray as a slob who becomes a national hero. It is the way he becomes a hero that tells all. When his soldier buddies blun­der into some Iron Curtain country, Private Murray and a few pals use a top-secret army van to rescue them. Instead of annihilating inner-city rioters, as it was designed to do, the van is used on commies. American technology not only works, it saves hostages. Each and every one of the soldiers gets out alive and becomes a media hero.

This nonsense is predictable. Real-life wars are depressing. The blood tends to be one's own or one's friends'. Just a year or two ago Jim­my Carter talked as though all the male high-school graduates in America were destined to parachute into Afghanistan—or was it Iran? Reagan talks an even better battle. It may not happen but then again it may. In the meantime we can sit tight and watch Bill Murray or Goldie Hawn undergo basic training.

So much for the predictable part. Now to a weird and slightly periph­eral development, quite outside the trend I've described and a good deal more involving. Outcast war vet­erans had never been exactly prom­inent in American film—unless they came from the Confederacy, like John Wayne in The Searchers or Rod Steiger in Run of the Arrow (both 1956). By the late Seventies this situation had changed. Our friend the crazed Vietnam war veteran became an accepted icon of history's ravages. He was first beloved of anti-Vietnam audiences, who could en­vision him as either the agent of American imperialism or its helpless victim. He could also be used to in­flame right-wing sympathies: an exhilarating little film called Roll­ing Thunder had him enlisting a few old war buddies to wipe out the hip­pies and dopers who had massacred his family. With his all-American but unbalanced face, Bruce Bern made a specialty of the role; William Devane got off one or two good performances in the same vein, as did other young actors.

Somehow or other—and here is the odd part—this figure has survived its occasion. Crazed veterans had quite a respectable presence the last year or so, having appeared in Escape from New York, Breaker Morant, and Cutter's Way, to name three films I will touch on. To see these movies along with Stripes, which has no memory of Vietnam, can be an unsettling experience. They seem to have entered 1980 through a time warp. At a moment when our culture is, if anything, gearing up for war, they recall a military venture that was by everyone's standards disastrous and shoddy. I don't want to explain this persistence so much as contemplate it: it offers a beautiful study in the present contradictions of American popular culture.

John Carpenter's Escape from New York proposes that sometime in the indefinite future New York City has become a high-security federal prison, where particularly bad people are permanently incarcerated. You may find this idea funny or you may think it a nasty racist attack on America's crumbling cities. Either way your attention will be directed to the sinister figure of Kurt Russell, previously familiar as a Walt Disney star (Superdad, The Horse in the Grey Flannel Suit). In Escape Russell plays Snake Pliskin, a notorious veteran of World War III (yes, III) who talks just like Clint Eastwood and is thus chosen for a special mission. After a plane crash, the President (Donald Pleasance) is taken prison­er by the Duke of New York (bad Isaac Hayes), who holds him as a bargaining counter. Russell has to get the President out. His adven­tures are presented with scattered effectiveness: there is a pointed descent-into-hell feeling about the best parts of the film. Out of these scenes emerges Pliskin's character—Clint Eastwood all right, but with a twist that must be Carpenter's or Russell's.

World War III aside, Pliskin is that same old embittered Vietnam veteran, the man who once believed in the government but now thinks everything is a lie. He goes into New York as part of a deal—certainly not for patriotic reasons. Russell's personal life is relevant here. He says in a recent interview, "My generation couldn't stand me and I couldn't stand them. I believed in the work ethic, making money, and they all had this beef with the na­tion. Vietnam disappointed me be­cause we didn't win." Russell implies that he still thinks this way, but at the same time he finds Snake "a very appealing character . . . when he walks down the street, he's in control, an island, totally alone. I like that."1 All-American boy turns punk—or is it the other way around? The interesting thing about Snake Pliskin or Kurt Russell is that you cannot tell. Two contradictory figures are smashed together into one character, which is Russell's and Pliskin's alike. Escape ends by implying that Pliskin really does care about honor and freedom, al­though no one else in the world does. Institutions are rotten by defi­nition. It would seem that the film can afford its exaltation of military heroism—however alienated—only by asserting that every other alternative is corrupt.

It is embarrassing to be caught dis­cussing the meaning of Escape from New York. The film's murky politics hides behind the Pliskin character: it is embodied in a big scary guy who represents only himself. Breaker Morant offers no such disruptions. Here if anywhere is a movie meant to be discussed, a movie so eminently discussable that it seems to have been made for the classroom. This Australian film of a few years ago garnered awards in its native country and no doubt deserved them. It is earnest and beautiful—also a trifle hollow. It concerns the Boer War, sometimes called the first guerilla war. Making much of an implied comparison with Vietnam, Breaker Morant focuses on the court-martial of three British officers accused of killing prisoners—something the other side had been doing all along. Under pressure from the British government, the court convicted the officers, sentencing two of them to death.

This film's general sympathies are unmistakable. The politicians who run the war and make the peace are slimy, cowardly villains who sacrifice good soldiers for the sake of diplomatic compromise. On the other hand, the prosecuted officers are brave men who did what they had to under desperate circumstances. Anyone who got a chance to see Breaker Morant should turn to an essay by Richard Grenier in the May Commentary where this perspective is analyzed at length. After quoting an interview with director Bruce Beresford, Grenier concludes that Breaker Morant is a film made "in conscious defense of William Galley." That such a movie should have "received ovations" is an "historic event," he notes. On these terms an event like My Lai is an acceptable, indeed necessary consequence of a war where soldiers are disguised as civilians. Galley is the rightful hero of Vietnam just as Breaker Morant and his fellow officers were the heroes of the Boer War. These men, and others like them, do the work on which our civilization is based.2

Grenier's flawed but interesting essay digs a pit for itself by being more articulate than Breaker Morant. Slimy politicos and brave officers, yes—but Breaker Morant is not an issue of Commentary. It is more like Reader's Digest, vaguely conservative but with a little something for almost everybody. The film has a slightly liberal hero, the defense attorney played by Jack Thompson, whose stirring concluding speech is made in ignorance of his clients' real deeds. It also has a conservative hero (I guess), the officer Handcock who secretly picks off a minister he suspects of being a Boer spy. This action becomes the key issue in the trial. The film has, finally, a hero for nihilists—Breaker Morant him­self. Morant, the senior officer under prosecution, is a loyal and intel­ligent soldier who can tame horses, quote Byron, and fight.3 By the end of the film he is so completely dis­illusioned that he even refuses a chance to escape his execution. He is a death-obsessed man whose sensibility infuses the lyrical execution scene at the end of the movie. Snake Pliskin, move over.

Between Breaker Morant and Escape from New York, viewers may get enough of embittered lethal soldiers. The best, however, is to come. In August, Cutter's Way opened at the Biograph in Chicago; like The Stunt Man last year the film has become a cause celebre by garnering good re­views and just barely getting released. Directed by Ivan Passer, it is adapted from a fine 1977 novel by Newton Thornburg titled Cutter and Bone. For most of its length the movie faithfully follows its source. Alex Cutter (played brilliantly by John Heard) is a one-legged half-blind Vietnam veteran living in Santa Barbara, California. When his friend Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges, well cast) recognizes a powerful tycoon as a murderer, Cutter encourages Bone to press the matter, to expose the man or maybe blackmail him. From this point on, Cutter and Bone get into a lot of trouble. Cutter is at war with society. He uses the reluctant but amiable Bone—full-time hedonist, part-time gigolo—to prosecute the war. The best scenes in both book and movie show these friends struggling with one another: wild, satiric paranoia against spine­less calculation. A perfect match, it turns out: Bone always gets Cutter out of trouble by reminding people that his friend is a psychotic who was ruined by Vietnam. Cutter depends on Bone doing this and then mocks him for it.

As long as the film's script sticks closely to this relationship, Cutter's Way works. It evokes a time, a place, and a mood; it tells a story elliptically but effectively. So much the worse, then, that Passer throws out the last two hundred pages of Cutter and Bone, trying instead for his own symbolical slam-bang ending. The turning-point in the novel comes when Cutter's wife Mo perishes under mysterious circumstances—by suicide, accident, or just possibly as a threat from the blackmailed ty­coon. Mo dies soon after making love to Bone. Her death will change everything between Bone and Cutter, indirectly destroying them both. Passer, alas, gives us no time to take in this transformation. Where Thornburg's novel manages a series of frightening, revelatory turns Passer bets everything on one grandiose gesture.

Cutter and Bone crash a party at the tycoon's estate. When they are chased by security men, Cutter rides a white horse, no less, through the wall-sized window of his enemy's study. The charge kills him, leaving Bone to shoot the tycoon's brains out in the last frame of the film. Bone is finally forced to do Cutter's work for him. Unfortunately Passer never allows any hint of whether the tycoon is guilty. Thornburg's novel narrates a quest for vengeance that has a wavering, and thus tantalizing, basis in reality. Passer's film is fi­nally about baseless, suicidal para­noia, seen as the only heroism pos­sible to these protagonists in this time: a charge of the light brigade, Southern-California style.

Passer comes from Czechoslo­vakia: are we getting here an Eastern European view of the American scene? We might suspect so, except that the American Carpenter and the Australian Beresford try for much the same combination, black despair and finely-wrought nostal­gia, Alex Cutter on a white horse. It would seem that the figure of the Vietnam veteran cannot easily be divested of meaning (as Stripes, Star Wars, etc., trivialize their military images). Instead directors end up struggling with it. Typically, in 1980, symbolic characters like Cut­ter, Morant, and Pliskin are so over­loaded with ironies and hedgings-about that we seem to witness a whole ideology right at the moment of collapse. A 1960s dilemma is viewed from competing perspec­tives, as though these films had stumbled upon a sort of uninten­tional cubism. None of them, not even Cutter's Way, comes off as a left-wing venture but then none al­lows a conservative statement, Reagan-style, to dominate. History is revealed, is evaluated, by the im­agined anger of its survivors. This curious affair makes me wonder what's next for military movies—of which we will, I suppose, see a good many more in the near future.

 

Notes:

1. Village Voice, July 8-14, 1981.

2. See esp. p. 76 of Grenier's review. Grenier is not quite straight with his reader He (plausibly) condemns liberals for abusing Vietnam soldiers as baby-killers, then argues that baby-killing is what modern wars are neces­sarily all about. This is one of those cases where journalism is more bloodthirsty than soldiering. Grenier, by the way, wants to link his attitude with Rudyard Kipling's, but strangely fails to cite "A Sahib's War," the Kipling story that best substantiates his point.

3. Morant's Byron quote is the little poem titled "Stanzas," beginning: "When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home/Let him combat for that of his neighbours/Let him think of the glories of Greece and of Rome/And get knock'd on the head for his labours." The poem was written in Italy, at a time when Byron was under danger of arrest for his contacts with nationalistic revolutionaries. Morant, on the other hand, was fighting as a representative of British empire. A confusing juxtaposition.

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