I Saw A Film!
War produces two kinds of stories, one, the Audie Murphy to Saving Private Ryan revelation of heroic necessity in a time of demand. We bow to those elders who took upon themselves the life-risking tasks of accomplishing the massive and horrible duties of soldiering under fire. Bloody horror surrounds them, yet they are able to put aside their fear and direct their energy toward a mission. Then there are the stories, Company K to Catch-22 that encompass the reality of conflict, human nature, dumb careering officers, wholesale waste of human life for the bureaucracy of national interest, and the meaninglessness of terms like freedom, liberty and devotion when the soldiers are of course no more free or welcome to express themselves as the enemy’s. When it becomes clear that the “inhuman” enemy has more in common with the enlisted men, expected to die horribly for their superiors resumes, than they do with those officers commanding them.
This old James Jones book is a classic of the form. Not as heavy handed as Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, and not as outrageously darkly comic as Catch-22. The book outlined the humanity of the soldiers, good and naturally inept, as well as the tragic atrocity seemingly implicit in warfare. As we sit in the comfort of our homes judging the actions of young men under fire. We’ll move on.
Half of 1998s version of this story is the beauty of the natural Pacific world that our young soldiers were dumped into with barely an understanding of their own asses, let alone a universe of nature and people a whole half a world away.
It follows, for a while, the typical war film tactic of making the enemy faceless. Jones’s book does not do this, he in fact includes much of the misery the Japanese soldier faced, left behind, expected to give their lives to the end, not even left with a decent amount of food. Their empire treated them with even fiercer disregard for their humanity. We are let in, and not that the details are explicitly described, we see their bedraggled condition. The horror comes from both sides of course. And then we’re looking at the swaying grasses of an inviting hillside. Green and silver hues of the sunny Guadalcanal countryside. Hidden in that gorgeous setting is, we know, we know, piles of explosive, tracer-laden, rotten death.
Nick Nolte is in amazing form as the over-looked colonel staging his rise with the accomplishments of Company C. His Captain however has become less effective at giving deadly orders. He no longer wants to cradle dying soldiers in his arms, and there are few more reasonable arguments. War, of course, calls for us to drop our humanity. We can’t worry about the soldiers we send up the hillside into gunfire. When they die we have to shrug and send some more. It’s not our fault after all, it’s a result of enemy action.
There are a pile of recognizable actors and a few not so familiar sets of eyes in haggard dirty faces. Extreme anxiety is emphasized by the edgy and sparse musical touches. It’s always fun to imagine other music in some of the more terrifying scenes, some Metallica as the hand-to-hand starts, entirely changing the intention. Modern war films struggle to remain of the first sort I mentioned above, a celebration of courage and righteousness. Mainly because empathy and universal education have begun to eclipse the parochialism of such limited worlds of 60 plus years ago. Our old GIs could not see Japanese people as people, at least, until they were stationed there and began to realize that they were women and children and culture worth respect and love.
This is running free on Hulu right now, and I wonder if we’ll ever get the full on Japanese side of the story. The pressure of the fanaticism. The desire for empire, and eventually, the island fortresses and the slow dying on the vine with katanas meant for their own necks.