A Spate of War Films, Each with Its Own Eerie Twist

François Truffaut once observed that all war movies, however antiwar their rhetoric, promote a vicarious desire in the viewer to be a brave soldier in battle. Even when the visceral violence is subdued, as in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937), who among us would not yearn to join Jean Gabin, Marcel Dalio and Pierre Fresnay in their daring plot to escape from a German prison camp?

The same element of fantasy fulfillment goes all the way back to such classic martial epics as King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925) and Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), both set in World War I; John Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945) and William Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), set in World War II; and Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), about the Vietnam War.

Of course, the credibility stakes for war movies have risen much higher since 9/11, but three recent examples of the genre have proven to be eerily prophetic. The most strikingly coincidental of these is Elie Chouraqui’s Harrison’s Flowers , from a screenplay by Mr. Chouraqui, Didier Le Pecheur and Isabel Ellsen, based partly on a book by Ms. Ellsen. This story of an American photojournalist lost and presumed dead while covering the Serbo-Croatian war in the former Yugoslavia was made before the recent kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, but the release of the film at this time cannot help but have its theme of journalists under fire influenced by the real-life tragedy of Pearl.

The title is derived from the hobby of Harrison Lloyd (David Strathairn), ace Newsweek photographer, who raises exotic flowers in his greenhouse. When Lloyd is reported missing on what was supposed to be his last assignment, his wife Sarah (Andie MacDowell) insists against all the available evidence that her husband is still alive, and goes all the way to war-torn Croatia to find him. She is eventually assisted by three of her husband’s journalistic colleagues, Kyle (Adrien Brody), Yeager (Elias Koteas) and Stevenson (Brendan Gleeson).

What Sarah and her friends encounter in Croatia is a horror show of ethnic cleansing that is mini-Holocaustal in its ferocity. Sarah is nearly raped at one point, and all four lives are in constant jeopardy from the rage-filled armies on both sides. Sarah is undeterred by the carnage and atrocities around her, and proceeds all the way to Vukovar, where her quest is completed. Her almost maniacal adventure holds the narrative together, but the bulk of the spectacle is devoted to one of the most harrowing depictions of hellish anarchy ever reconstructed from historical reality in a fictional film.

The cast fits very convincingly into the nightmarish landscape of a ravaged country. But as with A Beautiful Mind , I find myself more in tune with the film’s sublime conjugal passion than most of my colleagues, many of whom seem to admire Black Hawk Down a little extra for its complete exclusion of women. Black Hawk Down has been around for a while, but its impressive reproduction of an American military fiasco in Somalia seems to have anticipated the recent real-life abduction and murder of an American soldier in Afghanistan amid the downing of Army helicopters (or “Black Hawks,” as they are menacingly named).

Still, the most strategically timed anticipation of the war in Afghanistan is to be found, curiously enough, in a revisionist revisiting of American soldiers in the Vietnam War. Randall Wallace’s We Were Soldiers , from a screenplay by Mr. Wallace, based on the book We Were Soldiers Once … and Young , by Lt. General Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway, is even more violent and yet more tactically coherent than either Black Hawk Down or Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan , which raised the bar in 1998.

With We Were Soldiers , I was prepared for the widespread outrage over the collagen in Madeleine Stowe’s lips and the prominent roles played by the Army wives in the film–in fact, as I settled into my World War II memories, I found myself strangely moved by even the corniest and most hackneyed contrivances. But I was not prepared for the respect and even admiration shown for the enemy, hunkered all the way down in his command post in the endless tunnels that correspond to the Al Qaeda caves of Afghanistan.

One criticism of the film I don’t get is the denigration of Mel Gibson as attempting to imitate John Wayne. I don’t think the comparison is fair to Wayne, and I don’t think it’s fair to Mr. Gibson. The implication is that both actors were in the habit of playing all-conquering superheroes like Rambo or Indiana Jones. For stars of their magnitude, both Wayne and Mr. Gibson often played roles of poignant pathos and emotional vulnerability. Neither one ever shrunk from dying in a film, or from suffering personal reversals in battle.

Besides, Mr. Gibson’s portrayal of then-Lt. Colonel Hal Moore is infused with a religiosity and an erudition that separate him from the traditional knucklehead commander in Vietnam War movies. He actually reads books to learn why the French failed to defeat the North Vietnamese a decade earlier. To a certain extent, therefore, the movie may appeal more to Middle America than to the elitist fringe that still waves protest banners in its sleep. It’s clear that the authors of the book from which We Were Soldiers was adapted did not approve of the war or the strategy dictated from on high to fight it. The purpose of the book, and the movie, is to redeem the honor and courage of the soldiers who fought and died bravely in the first engagement between massive American and North Vietnamese forces. At the time I opposed the war on general principles, but I was a little sickened by the spectacle of S.D.S. types with their academic draft deferments screaming at American soldiers disembarking in San Francisco and calling them murderers of women and children.

This is not to say that We Were Soldiers is any kind of unalloyed masterpiece. Early on, Mr. Wallace intimates that even an integrated Army had to face a segregated society off the base in the South as late as 1965, but he fails to follow through with any painful confrontations to prove his point. Still, he does raise it, which no previous Vietnam War movie has. Similarly, not since World War II has there been such a massive concern for the women widowed by the fortunes of war.

Oddly, we are now engaged in a war in which our superior technology attempts to overcome the resistance of a fanatical enemy, but this time no one over here is insulting our troops over there. But then the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was one thing, and the obliteration of the World Trade Center quite another.

A Not-So-Delicate Balance

Justine Shapiro, B.Z. Goldberg and Carlos Bolado’s Promises records the reactions of seven Palestinian and Israeli children between the ages of 9 and 13 in Jerusalem, Palestinian communities and Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Promises was shot primarily in 1997, 1998 and 2000, a period of comparative calm, though not without its Palestinian suicide bombers, the stone-throwers of the Intifada and the retaliation of the Israeli army. Though Ms. Shapiro and Mr. Goldberg are Jewish, the film seems to veer, perhaps inescapably, more toward the plight of the Palestinians than to the attitudes of the Israelis. The only men in uniform we see are Israeli soldiers and policemen. The only checkpoints are manned by the Israeli military; the only men with rifles are Israeli soldiers.

What I found most interesting in the film is the description of the ethnic makeup of Jerusalem, and the remarkable proximity of Israelis to Arabs. I suspect that Ms. Shapiro and Mr. Goldberg are much more in sympathy with the Peace Now movement than with Ariel Sharon, and they are far from alone in their preference. Still, I wonder what the reaction of Israelis will be to this supposedly evenhanded presentation. By limiting their inquiries to the children, the filmmakers foster the impression that secular Israelis feel closer to the Palestinians than to the Orthodox Jews in their midst. I don’t doubt that the filmmakers feel the same way. But even the secular Jewish children seem frivolous and complacent next to their embittered and impassioned Palestinian neighbors. We notice once again how much these two deadly foes share the same Semitic features, only partially differentiated by their different modes of dress. But one might say the same for the Serbian and Croatian antagonists in the Balkans.

One extended episode of a Palestinian grandmother smuggled with her grandson by the filmmakers past an Israeli checkpoint to the ruins of her ancestral home in Israel illustrates the fallacy of dramatizing an individual case of perceived injustice without providing the larger context that divides the Israelis and the Palestinians at the peace table. Even as an ethnic outsider to the conflict, I can understand the reluctance of the Israelis to allow five million Palestinians to swarm into Israel in search of their lost properties. One might as well export all the Israelis to Madagascar, as was once proposed after the Holocaust. Consequently, the feelings of one Palestinian grandmother must be multiplied by five million to bring her pain into the realm of political discourse.

On the whole, the Palestinian children evoke more sympathy than the Israeli ones. Whether or not the filmmakers chose to impose this emotional imbalance is of less consequence than their reluctance to provide any background commentary explaining the Israeli position in the face of the unending chorus of abuse from the Palestinian children. In the end, the two sides meet briefly and then separate forever. And one feels more depressed than ever about the prospects for peace in the Middle East.

A Spate of War Films, Each with Its Own Eerie Twist