Between the lines: The Hurt Locker may help reshape attitudes to warfare
This excellent article addresses the issue of how the approach to representations of armed conflict on celluloid has evolved over the years in the context of the release of the near-unanimously acclaimed Kathryn Bigelow film "The Hurt Locker". See my previous article for the trailer, though for once we seem to have a trailer that entices and introduces rather than gives away all the film's best bits. So don't worry if it seems a little underwhelming in comparison to the highly positive reviews.
Film blog | Guardian.co.uk 31/08/2009 09:25 David Cox
By distancing the soldiers in The Hurt Locker from the cause for which they're fighting, Kathryn Bigelow has devised a new martial ideology for an age that's suspicious of combat
Before cinema, war was something most people only heard about. Victorious leaders presented it in enthrallingly epic terms. Losers kept silent. Returning heroes boasted of their glorious exploits. The dead stayed out of sight.
It's television that's often credited with turning the realities of combat into images powerful enough to remould public attitudes. However, cinema got there first, and its impact could hardly have been more profound.
It's not surprising that the muddy, bloody slaughter of the first world war should have yielded films such as All Quiet on the Western Front, What Price Glory? and The Big Parade, projecting the message that war is hell. Maybe, though, their influence merely fed the enthusiasm for appeasement and resistance to rearmament that enabled Hitler to plunge the world into conflict once more.
Be that as it may, when the second world war arrived, its example of an apparently just conflict, justly pursued, reversed film-makers' attitudes. Perhaps, however, the endless celebrations of martial heroism that filled wartime and post-war screens helped set the stage for western intervention in Korea and south-east Asia.
Vietnam, of course, transformed things again. A futile conflict once more spawned films indicting the horrors of war. The darker mood favoured by The Deer Hunter, Casualties of War, Platoon and the like even infected attitudes to earlier "good wars". Catch 22 tainted memories of the second world war, while M*A*S*H* derided the Korean conflict. When the Gulf war came along in 1990, its apparently worthy purpose wasn't sufficient to dispel this air of cinematic disillusion. Jarhead's marines were cynical sadists. Three Kings showed America as treacherous rather than valiant.
Now it's the Iraq war's turn to hit celluloid. You might have expected this ill-augured conflict to entrench even further on-screen distaste for the arbitrament of the sword. There've been hints of such an attitude, but so far to no great effect. The Hurt Locker, however, is already a box-office and critical success. Its message will doubtless be correspondingly influential, yet it isn't what you might have expected.
Director Kathryn Bigelow has resurrected the ideal of the chivalrous warrior and burnished it further. Her choice of bomb-disposal experts as protagonists keeps them well away from cowardice, cruelty or prisoner abuse, and their demeanour suggests that they'd find such things unthinkable. Their interpersonal dynamics (responsible level-head versus dare-devil maverick) hark back to the conventions of mid-century screen heroics. These are unequivocally good, brave and inspiring men.
Necessarily, however, their virtue has nothing to do with the sorry cause for which they're fighting. It springs instead from single-minded commitment to their task and comrades that supersedes even the demands of family. Here is a portrait of warfare that finds no room for bloodlust, atrocity, token female combatants, survivor guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder or glum philosophising. Its lack of plot seems to mirror the lack of satisfactory purpose behind the Iraq war itself, but this isn't allowed to diminish the mission of its principals.
Simple-minded and out-dated as the resulting fable might sound, it's not just convincing but also surprisingly enticing. Perhaps it fits the needs of the age. We've grown used to wars of doubtful purpose, but developed a new appetite for the heroism they foster. A degenerate west, we were told, would never again fight a boots-on-the-ground war. Nor would it stomach regular casualties. Now it's more or less uncomplainingly doing these things in yet another imperfectly validated conflict, while according its young soldiers at the sharp end increasing respect.
Some have interpreted The Hurt Locker as an anti-war film. Nonetheless, when it contrasts choosing a breakfast cereal in an American supermarket with defying death in dusty Baghdad, it's the former that's found wanting. Bigelow has mythologised the nobility of soldiering even in a dubious cause.
Her film will colour efforts to muster support for an adventure in Afghanistan that some consider hardly more justifiable than the war against Saddam. It could help ensure that a future Congo or Rwanda catastrophe attracts the intervention from outside that bitter memories of the Iraq imbroglio might otherwise have denied it.For better or for worse. [From Between the lines: The Hurt Locker may help reshape attitudes to warfare]