Eastwoodian Aftermaths

From The American Spectator

It once took some degree of restraint for movies to deal with the aftermath of war, and the psychology of the warrior, rather than the much more exciting business of combat. But that was back in the days when it was OK for serious people to regard images of combat — or “violence” as we have been taught to call it by such moralists as Clint Eastwood — as exciting. Nowadays, we may still find them exciting but we seem to feel the Eastwoodian imperative to attach a moral rider to examples of cinematic mayhem to the effect that violence, while often interesting and entertaining to watch for those who are fortunate enough not to be its victims, is also deplorable. Just in case you didn’t know. That’s why most war movies today are more about the aftermath of war — and especially the psychic aftermath — than they are about war itself.

Last autumn, Mr Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers presented us with the reductio ad absurdum of the Aftermath movie by taking, as I pointed out in these pages of our December number, the largest and most momentous struggle in human history so completely out of its political and military context that it was reduced to random and senseless episodes of violence. This was done, I imagine, in order to increase the pathos of the post-war anguish of the three surviving veterans of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. Suffering is always enhanced by senselessness. Now in the companion piece, Letters from Iwo Jima, that will doubtless be known to generations yet unborn as the Eastwood diptych, he’s done almost the same thing again, but with a twist. The twist is that the story — much more militarily coherent than the one in Flags — is told from the Japanese point of view.

That in itself removes the necessity, if you’re working the senselessness angle, for quite such a wrenching out of context as Flags was guilty of. From the point of view of the Japanese, the war was already senseless, because lost, and they were only fighting on for the sake of honor. Only! Students of Clint’s recent form will have no trouble guessing what he does with that fat, juicy, succulent bit of moral significance. Just watch him scarf it down! His whole movie is structured around a series of galumphing contrasts between hollow, heartless invocations of honor and patriotism and the Emperor and the warmth and humor and humanity of those — especially the simple baker and simpler soldier Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) — who are allowed to be honor-skeptics, albeit (and necessarily in the circumstances), surreptitious ones. When one character mentions the honor of dying for one’s country, another will cite the case of a friend who died of “honorable dysentery.”

True, the hero of the film, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) is allowed to express honorable sentiments without becoming the victim of Mr Eastwood’s heavy-handed ironies, but this is merely a concession to his exoticism as a Japanese officer of the old school. No American would be allowed to get away with it. And even he is made into a sort of honorable honor-skeptic. “It’s strange,” he says meditatively. “I promised to fight to the death for my family, but the thought of my family makes it hard to keep that promise.” What on earth is strange about that? I imagine such a promise would be pretty hard to keep even without the family’s being taken into consideration. But always running just beneath the surface is that stream of facile Eastwoodian pathos, palpable in movies from Unforgiven (1992) to Mystic River (2003) to Million Dollar Baby (2005), that is forever clucking and cooing sorrowfully, what a tragic waste . . . all so unnecessary. . . all so senseless. Why can’t we all just get along?

In other words, Letters from Iwo Jima, like Joyeux Noël (2005) by the French director Christian Carion, adopts the sentimentalist’s view of human conflict as resulting from mere ignorance of other cultures. At one point it portrays some Japanese soldiers listening to an English-speaking officer translate and read out to them a letter found on a dead American from his mother. “Do what is right because it is right,” mom has written. This comes as a revelation to the humble Japanese soldiers standing around and listening. “I believed that the Americans were cowards . . . savages,” says one of them to another. But “his mother’s words were the same as my mother’s.” D’oh! In other words, people are really just the same, aren’t they? So (presumably) all they have to do is learn about each other, recognize their common humanity, and they’ll always be able to do what’s right — by not fighting.

Put thus baldly, such babyishness might bring a blush even to the cheek of Clint Eastwood, though it is what his film amounts to, morally. Whatever may be true about human conflict, we know that that multicultural pipe dream can’t be true. In war as in families it is often the case that the better you know someone the more likely you are to fight. In any case, there’s too much fighting in human history for it all to be the result of misunderstanding. Though common soldiers quite often are ignorant of the enemy — and this is at least partly a cultivated ignorance, to make killing him easier — the causes that put the two men in the field against each other are always infinitely more complex than this. The film makes the point itself with its flashbacks to Kuribayashi’s happy years in America and his obvious admiration for Americans, all of which doesn’t prevent him from making a last futile Banzai charge on the American lines that he knows will result in his and his men’s deaths.

But the sentimentalist’s view or something very like it is a near inevitability in Aftermath movies. The temptations to a movie director of the pathos in lives shattered by combat is just too great. Look at Irwin Winkler’s Home of the Brave which came and went seemingly overnight around Christmas-time. Unlike Mr Eastwood, Mr Winkler at least mentioned the political reasons for the Iraq war, if only to disparage them and suggest that it’s all about oil. But both these auteurs assume that, whatever the reason the soldiers they portray went to war in the first place, it weighs as nothing in the scale against the sufferings it causes them. These include but are not limited to insomnia, nightmares, alcoholism, drug-dependency, irrational and violent bouts of anger, criminal behavior, unemployment, divorce and other family and “relationship” dysfunctions, crippling guilt feelings and suicide — all the classic signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

War has ceased to interest American film-makers except as spectacle and as the occasion for soap operas like Home of the Brave — or documentaries like The Ground Truth, which preceded it by three months on last year’s general release calendar. Of course, the purpose of that film was pure propaganda, yet by interviewing self-identified sufferers from PTSD who had returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, Patricia Foulkrod’s film didn’t even have to be as overtly political as it was. Without any context for suffering, its cinematic portrayal must always make an absolute, unarguable statement against whatever has caused it. And that, in turn, must suggest that there is some simple solution, some more or less easy way to remove the cause and make the suffering go away. Thus it is interesting to look back — way back — to the days when movies were expected to be pro- rather than anti-war, and how the context for death or suffering was supplied when convention required it.

The post-World War II version of Home of the Brave (1949) was more of an early polemic against racism with a bit of amateur psychoanalysis of survivor’s guilt thrown in as makeweight. The Iraq-war version much more closely resembles — and, indeed, seems to have been modeled on — William Wyler’s The Best Years of our Lives which won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay for the year 1946. That movie has aged better than Home of the Brave, though it still hasn’t done so particularly well. There were those even at the time when it was considered such a landmark picture — notably Robert Warshow — who pointed out its own kind of sentimentality and avoidance of all the most difficult problems posed by the social phenomenon of the returning veterans. But looked at in retrospect, it seems chiefly notable for its rejection, not of PTSD, which didn’t exist as a concept yet, but of the whole idea that, as Wilfred Owen famously said, the poetry of war is in the pity.

The movie is, in fact, a hymn to repression, though of course it doesn’t call it that. Whatever else it sentimentalizes, it doesn’t sentimentalize suffering. It doesn’t seek our pity for the victims of war’s after-effects — which include such classic manifestations of PTSD as alcoholism, nightmares, divorce, unemployment and anger episodes as well as adjustment to physical handicap in a man who had lost his hands (played by a man, Harold Russell, who had really lost his hands) — nearly so much as it tries to inspire us with the men’s success in living a “normal” life in spite of them. Warshow was right to point out that Wyler makes this success look easier than doubtless it would have been for real veterans in this situation, but looking at the film from the post-post traumatic stress era, we may prefer that kind of over-simplification of war and warriors to that of Messrs Eastwood and Winkler. It may even inspire us to use once again that anachronistic Japanese term: honorable.

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