Battleplans: Looking back at Robert Aldrich and Sam Peckinpah after the Second Gulf War

Only a fool would fail to see that war and tragedy go hand in hand, even if the keenest hawks in the Bush administration have seemed to be that foolish in the last 18 months. Filmmakers, however, as far back as Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and especially since the catastrophic farce of Vietnam, have rarely been so blind. Indeed, films have been partly responsible for teaching us how to accept the tragedy of warfare with a bleeding heart and a tear in the eye. Ridley Scott in Gladiator (2000) and Black Hawk Down (2001), Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Terence Malick in The Thin Red Line (1998) all drenched their battlefields in gore, pyrotechnic camerawork and mournful strings on the soundtrack. These movies force home an uncomfortable realisation: mass death electrifies at the same time as it horrifies, and the speechlessness each of these films aims to induce derives as much from awe as from repulsion.

The comfort in that lesson, a comfort necessary in the long process of healing the deep social wounds caused by the events of 1965-1973 – the war’s cost, its human loss, its duration, the opposition and division it caused – is in its assertion that even if the end is death, as it was for Russell Crowe’s Maximus and so many of those troops on the Normandy beaches of Saving Private Ryan and Guadalcanal in Malick’s botched epic, there is still the promise of transcendence, of posthumous glory; the chance to heed a warning for the future, and to make movies as memorials to the vanquished.

The trouble is obvious: that revelation is a flat-out lie, and the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq show how much a submission to faked emotion and weak insight it really is. The American military have spent the 30 years since the end of Vietnam, and particularly the 12 since the fall of the Berlin Wall achieving only one purpose, brutally achieved at Kabul and on the streets of Basra. It was to never be able to lose again. Outside the unimaginable extermination of nuclear conflict, the American army can now only win with varying degrees of speed – and that sense of inevitability and overwhelming force is bad news for Hollywood’s merchants of war, and their high-end, conscience-sapping, adrenaline-fuelled films.

War theorists from left to right, from post-Marxist French philosopher Paul Virilio to liberal moralist Michael Ignatieff to the ultra-conservative Thomas Donnelly, have all seen modern war as the product of speeds of thought – like the responsive tracking devices that latched onto Saddam Hussein in the Baghdad suburbs and ordered a missile strike from 200 miles away in under a second. By contrast, the first 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan seem almost painfully slow compared to the new technologies of battle – a vain attempt to illustrate the human cost of war in real time, when pace, precision and courage was everything. Saving Private Ryan’s nostalgic longing for an era of warfare which offers the opportunity for nobility and magnificent defeat is pointless: it’s a truth whose time has already passed.

Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line tell one history of war in the movies, but maybe there’s another one that makes more sense. In another more neglected WWII film, Too Late the Hero, made during Vietnam in the tumultuous year of 1968 by Robert Aldrich, director of Kiss Me Deadly, there is a mood of gloomy resignation when Cliff Robertson and Michael Caine and a band of mouthy Scottish soldiers go off on a hopeless mission into the Pacific jungle – a mood that’s become increasingly relevant again. It’s an atmosphere that pervades many films from of the period, and which seems directed not at the state of war itself, but warfare’s worst ethics – and it offers some kind of resistance to the solemn triumphalism of the last 18 months, which seems to survive even when the characters do not.

Like Sam Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch (1969) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Aldrich’s best films concern men who arrived too late, who missed the chance to escape a life of destruction and have to tarry for a last battle they can only lose. Too Late the Hero is no exception. Its best scenes happen close to a British camp, isolated in no-man’s land between the distant sea and the endless rainforest where the Japanese snipers crouch just out of sight. Returning from any mission, the Allied soldiers have to run across an empty bit of dusty land where the snipers’ bullets relentlessly track them down. Only the lucky get through, and in the end it’s Cliff Robertson’s character that fails to make that scramble, and the film fulfils the promise of its title. Aldrich would repeat its message four years later in his greatest film, Ulzana’s Raid (1972) which ends with Burt Lancaster, as a half-dead Indian Hunter, stuck in the same space of no-man’s land, too badly wounded and concussed to escape the revenge of the Indian warrior Ulzana and his men. Lancaster’s famous cold blue eyes stare out and it’s only a terminal failure he can see, a state in which combat has dragged out, seemingly forever, and finally exhausted itself.

Even Peckinpah, whose movies invariably depend on the spectacle of slaughter conducted in slow motion for their climactic denouements, could not ignore that sense of war fatigue. The sense of disappointment, of disillusionment, and of pointless waste that undermines the death of The Wild Bunch, or the end of Billy the Kid, or of Steiner in Cross of Iron stem directly from the interminable war in Vietnam, and precisely illustrate the horror from which America’s military planners have been in flight from for all these years – the nagging fear that in war, no matter how noble or how justified, there are no winners.

The major films of Vietnam – Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) – try to capture the relentlessness of the conflict and the madness of fighting in a jungle war, far from home, where there were no clear enemies. But in the passage from their films to those of Spielberg and Malick and Ridley Scott, it is honesty about the cost of ‘collateral damage’ which has diminished. Now that the American army has proved it can win in the mountains of Afghanistan where Russia and Britain failed, and in the deserts of Iraq where civilisation was nurtured, the spectre of defeat that has haunted America’s collective consciousness since Vietnam has been exorcised. Everyone can be assured, thanks to their technological, military and economic might, that the last great superpower will prevail. But at what cost?

That films like The Wild Bunch and Too Late the Hero were made by American directors, in American studios, funded by American money, seems barely conceivable after the events of the last eighteen months. They are films which seem barely American at all. In acknowledging that in battle the American soldier can lose, Aldrich and Peckinpah’s best films suddenly seem oddly innocent. History and technology have, at lease for the foreseeable future, proved them wrong. On 9/11, the American military was made a victim on its own land, and hated it. Its retaliation will go on. Peckinpah and Aldrich and directors like them had already foreseen that state, and the only source of comfort they could offer was that the pain of victimhood, of sacrifice, and of suffering in war was universal. Knowing you can be beaten remains the truest sign of dignity, and the surest promise of peace. Whether dying on a battlefield, or in a city suburb under a hail of bombs, there is no excitement, no crescendo, no swelling of strings – but in the clamour of voices and exploding missiles that has echoed almost continually since 9/11, it’s a lesson that seems to have gone unheard.