War machine

What can more movies tell us about war? Plenty � if they don’t star John Wayne, reveals Brian Case in our D-Day special

Contemplating the multiplicity of D-Day events bearing down upon us to commemorate the 60th anniversary, one gets an inkling of how it must have been to man a German pillbox on the Normandy beaches. The greatest amphibious operation of all time is to get wall-to-wall media coverage, with every resource ransacked to provide documentary footage. There’s too much information � the Imperial War Museum alone houses two million Second World War negatives. Today’s children may be struck by the abundance of cigarettes in the landing barges, while tomorrow’s scientists may present a case for linking selfless courage and smoking. The veterans, who must by now have been picked clean by every passing decade, will again do their best to take us back to June 1944. Every so often, however, something striking surfaces that would elude any film-maker � one pilot, flying above the panorama of ships, recalled that: “The Isle of Wight was surrounded and appeared as if it was being towed out to sea.�

The statistics surrounding Operation Overlord are as huge as the hype surrounding a summer blockbuster. It was the largest armada yet assembled: there were more than 1,000 warships, 4,000 landing craft with a further 1,000 in reserve with supplies, 12,000 planes, 175,000 troops, 1,500 tanks, 5,000 Jeeps and trucks. The instructions for the invasion covered 700 pages of foolscap. There were 558 correspondents, photographers and film-makers.

Confronted with these juggernauts, the mind tends to take refuge in the trivial. Devised in great secrecy at Norfolk House in St James’s Square in London, the plans for D-Day blew out of the window, but were handed in by a man who claimed that his eyesight was so bad that he had no idea of the contents. In the weeks before D-Day, the words Utah, Omaha and Overlord appeared in The Daily Telegraph crossword. The war correspondent Alan Moorehead wrote of the strain of waiting in a sealed coastal camp, the cold cabbage and fixed apathy: “The invasion was already like an overrehearsed play.� Winston Churchill had to be persuaded by King George VI not to accompany the first wave on to the beaches. When he arrived six days later, Churchill wrote: “We are surrounded by fat cattle lying in luscious pastures with their paws crossed.�

Drama! Heroism! Lights! Action! Movies thrive on war, and have sought to portray it for a variety of motives. Darryl F. Zanuck needed a hit, and his The Longest Day (1962) attempted to equal the scale of D-Day, boasting three directors, 60 leading roles (including the rock stars Tommy Sands and Paul Anka) and thousands of troops on loan from the French and American armies. It was filmed on the Île de Ré, and President de Gaulle threatened the local oyster bed owners with imprisonment when they complained. The film’s final line comes from Robert Mitchum’s General Cota, who tells his driver after they’ve taken the beach: “OK, run me up the hill, son.� Richard Attenborough’s epic about Operation Market Garden, A Bridge Too Far (1977), was more of the same.

The First World War had seen the waste of the flower of youth in a stalemate of slaughter. The Oscar-winning 1930 movie All Quiet on the Western Front carried an anti-war message, which quickly became de rigueur. Even films such as Paths of Glory (1957) and King and Country (1964) fell into step. But the Second World War was the “good war�, carried out by the greatest generation. “Myth,� wrote Roland Barthes, “is a kind of ideal servant. It prepares all things, brings them and lays them out. Then the master arrives and it silently disappears.� All disturbing things have been removed. But, as a soldier in James Jones’s novel The Thin Red Line comments: “No one in a war would remember it that way.�

Terrence Malick’s movie of Jones’s book was released five months after Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), and suffered by it. Spielberg was promoted heavily as “the� chronicler of the Second World War. The posters proclaimed that this was “The film that inspired the world to remember�. Spielberg himself saw it as “a morality play�. Malick’s film was set against the struggle for Guadalcanal, but since it was ambiguous, demythologising and amoral it was hard to market. “If you die, it’s gonna be for nothing,� says a sergeant in the film, emphatically not a Second World War sentiment. Besides, the director hadn’t made a film in 20 years and was associated with the freewheeling 1970s, before Hollywood fell into the hands of agents. Spielberg then followed up with a collaboration on the TV mini-series Band of Brothers in 2001.

It had once been possible to get funding and a postwar audience for films that were not so obsequious about the Second World War, such as the satirical Catch-22 (1970), the nihilistic Cross of Iron (1977) and the eerie A Midnight Clear (1992), based on novels by Joseph Heller, Willi Heinrich and William Wharton, but the commercial drive was towards heroism in a good cause. “Form in general is the record of a war,� wrote Norman Mailer, and it ’s as true of what happened in Hollywood as it is of the geopolitical shape of Europe after the war.

Movies are useful to governments. Spin, propaganda and censorship shape the public memory. In the early days of the war, Britain’s Ministry of Information Film Division hoped to get America involved. In Which We Serve (1942), directed by David Lean, and starring its writer, Noël Coward, was dedicated to the Royal Navy. It was semi-documentary in tone, though Coward’s Captain Kinross was unmistakably him. On the bridge, a junior officer points at the sunset: “Someone sent me a calendar like that last Christmas, sir.� Coward replies: “Did it have a squadron of Dorniers in the upper right-hand corner?� But it was a realistic war film made in wartime, with class divisions crystal-clear as Britain went it alone. The film impresario Alexander Korda, who was friends with Churchill, was able to use his influence to get In Which We Serve and Michael Powell’s One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) released in the US. But Powell wasn’t biddable for long. Churchill tried to get production stopped on his The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), and A Canterbury Tale (1944) � both films, it seems, were too outré for the war effort.

Hollywood’s wartime product, such as Objective Burma (1945), was often racist. But after the war Japan became such a lucrative market for the US that Hollywood largely desisted from making films about the war in the Pacific. Wartime Washington wanted stories about teamwork and fighting groups, and in Wake Island (1942), The Fighting Seabees (1944) and Story of G.I. Joe (1945) it got them. John Huston’s documentary The Battle of San Pietro (1944) was cut by a third because it was too fatalistic, but John Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945), which was dedicated to the US Navy’s torpedo boats, was released as intended. Ford was gung-ho and, besides, his photographic unit had been at Normandy.

The touchiness between Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery was echoed in the scrabble for national exclusivity in films such as The Dam Busters (1954), which had the RAF escorted, for American audiences, by Flying Fortresses. The Soviet Union had helped to turn the course of the war by defeating Hitler’s armies at Stalingrad, but it did not have a box-office cinema to commemorate it, any more than the triumphant Vietnamese later had.

Kolberg (1945) is an entertaining example of a celluloid war effort that went wrong. In the disastrous second half of 1944, Hitler allowed Goebbels to commandeer 187,000 soldiers from active service to feature in an epic colour film about national heroism. It depicts the defence of the small Baltic town of Kolberg against Napoleon. Hitler, a believer in propaganda, saw it as potentially more useful than military victory. It cost a fortune. Nine railway boxcars of salt � then scarce in Germany � were transported to the set for a Christmas snow scene. It was completed in January 1945, and the premiere was held in the besieged French town of La Rochelle because all of the German cinemas were kaput. The film had to be dropped in by parachute. Goebbels wrote in his diary: “Yes, the town is surrounded, but a premiere is a premiere.� Goebbels tried to screen it in the Führer’s bunker nine days before his suicide, but there was no appetite.

A few American directors have tried to tell it like it is. Sam Fuller, wounded twice in the Second World War, refused to make war films with a message. “Can you think of any subject that surpasses death? That’s war.� His rules for making a war film, though, are usually ignored.

“Don’t have girls in war films. And no flashbacks. If you can’t show a man’s character without showing what he’s like at home, cut him out of the script. Don’t let the actors make too much of it. Eighty per cent of actors in war films are no good. They don’t want to be soldiers, they just want to show off. Never allow a dying GI to bring out his wallet to look at his fiancée’s photograph. That never happens.� Fuller made one of the best Second World War films with The Big Red One (1980), and dreamed of firing live ammunition over the heads of his audience to bring it all home.

But in terms of true reportage, books and photographs are usually ahead of films. The novelist James Salter flew F86 fighters against MiGs in Korea, and The Hunters anatomises his personal disintegration as combat eludes him. Similarly truthful and equally without takers in Hollywood, The Last Enemy is Richard Hillary’s story of his own passage from RAF fighter pilot to hideous casualty in the Battle of Britain. Hillary was patched up and flying again before being killed in combat in 1943, which justified his sense of fellowship with the dead, though whether they stamped their ideals for ever on the future of civilisation is an open question.

Every war correspondent writes with indignation about deserters and collaborators. The 700 American soldiers who died off Slapton Sands in Devon during a mismanaged D-Day rehearsal never get a mention. For the general public, images define war. “Omaha Beach was a nightmare,� recalled General Omar Bradley. “Even now, 30 years later, it brings pain to recall what happened there on June 6, 1944.� Eisenhower addressed correspondents at a military club in London: “It will be no basket of roses.� Robert Capa, the veteran war photographer, bought a Burberry army overcoat, a silver flask and condoms to protect his film and camera lenses. He was covering for Life magazine, and was in the first wave of the 116th Infantry at Omaha Beach, the most heavily defended beach in history, which would later provide the opening sequence for Spielberg’s film. It was a shooting gallery. Capa wrote: “My beautiful France looked sordid and uninviting. A German machinegun spitting bullets around the barge fully spoiled my return.� Up to his waist in sea, the veteran of the Spanish Civil War intoned in Spanish: “This is a very serious business.� Almost all of Capa’s photographs were spoiled in the laboratory, but he correctly defined the survivors. “A cut out of the whole event which will show more of the real truth of the affair to someone who was not there than the whole scene.� He always wanted his pictures to say: “I was there.�

Don McCullin, a seasoned photographer of later wars, was hired to take pictures and advise on the Vietnam film Hamburger Hill (1987). “I had one scene where I had a buddy who dies in my arms and I asked him how I should play it,� said one actor. “He told me it wasn’t a big grieving scene, it should be puzzlement, just staring and taking it all in. Almost curiosity. Almost how a dog is puzzled when it hears a high-pitched whistle.� McCullin concurred. “Yes, there’s not a lot of time in war to feel emotion. Things happen painfully slowly or wickedly fast. You go into yourself. Fear dehydrates the body so you drink a lot of water. The thing you’re most afraid of is losing concentration, because if you want to stay alive you have to concentrate.�

Still, the Second World War exerts a pull over all of us that neither the Korean War nor the Vietnam War can match. The pre-Oliver Stone attempt to make a hero-flick of Vietnam, John Wayne’s The Green Berets (1968), caused demos across America. Cinemas were picketed and campuses rose up, but it made money. Wayne himself had avoided conscription in the Second World War, but retrospectively was turned into a myth. General MacArthur proclaimed him the model of an American soldier and the Marines gave him their Iron Mike award. He was just the sort of heroic combat figure that the war photographer David Douglas Duncan specialised in. Wayne’s justification for the US’s involvement in South-East Asia was that “they need us and want us�. America was philanthropic, fighting for the free world and to give South Vietnam a chance at democracy. To adapt Saint-Just: “What constitutes the democracy is the total destruction of what is opposed to it.� Napalm, Agent Orange and My Lai were airbrushed out. D-Day, by contrast, has none of the filthy practices or dubious morality of modern war from Vietnam to Iraq. The Second World War still represents a crusade; massed armour, still shining, plumes, unacceptable losses. This may change � there is no forever about victories. It’s a flow. This year, the Service of Remembrance at Bayeux includes, for the first time, the German Chancellor.

The American novelist Kurt Vonnegut was a PoW in Dresden during the Allied firebombing, and his experience went into his novel Slaughterhouse 5. Explicitly, he tried to make it unfilmable (and succeeded, as proved by George Roy Hill’s unwatchable 1972 movie), with no possibility of a part for John Wayne. Was it anti-war, asks a film director, of the book, within the book? It was. “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?� Ernest Hemingway, wounded in the First World War, remarked that after all the hot air about duty and patriotism, the only words that still retained the power to move were the names of battles. By the Second World War, he was liberating the Ritz Bar in Paris ahead of the US Army and demanding “about 72 martinis� for himself and his irregulars.