Tuesday, September 17, 2002

the casualties of war

The first casualty of war is innocence screamed the tagline for Oliver Stone's brilliant anti-war film of memories Platoon. That film opened with an ironic quote from Ecclesiastes 11:9: rejoice o young man, in thy youth. The film proceeds to depict the most vivid and basic memory of Vietnam: going there and getting killed or watching people die. Any gung-ho patriotic fervour was shredded by the harsh reality and horror of war, blood and guts. All Quiet on the Western Front {which we completed yesterday: part One} made in 1930 focuses on similar issues, but the battleground is WWI. Stone's film brutally explored the descent of soldiers into a confused maelstrom of violence unleashed at both the innocent and the ostensibly guilty. Lew Milestone (as does Remarque's source novel, I would imagine) focuses on German youth (and our protagonist Paul, in particular) who have joined the war effort with patriotic fervour, stirred up by their school teacher. Soon they (as well as we) realise that war only about death, blood, smoke, bombs, guns, bullets and hunger. In one of the great scenes in the film, the group lightly ponders the cause of the war. The humour in the scene only serves to emphasise the futility of the war (there is a more gut-wrenching horrifying moment in Coppola's almost-masterpiece Apocalypse Now when Willard asks a soldier firing away, "Who's your commanding officer?" only to get a confused reply "Ain't you?"). The battle scenes are well done as are the performances.

To truly appreciate the film, it is important to understand when the film was made. As I blogged yesterday, the film bears the unmistakable influence of silent films in its staging. The dialogue, as is typical of the films of the time, is often hurried and the scenes seem 'artificial' in their cutting, especially because of the pauses that punctuate the dialogues across shots. Once we get that 'annoyance' out of the way, what we have is a great film that thankfully wasn't remade with a modern cynicism so evident in films like The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and Platoon.

The film ends with a poignant scene, and the makers are prudent enough to spare us the trumpets and rolls for the end title, giving us, along with Paul, the peace of silence. The effect of this scene, and other great moments in the film, may be diluted by the millions of clones we have seen over the last several years. This makes it difficult at times to appreciate the film for all its merits. Yet, it still stands strong as a great film.

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