War Movies 8: “American Sniper.”

Chris Kyle (1974-2013) had a rare talent at shooting, joined the Navy SEALS at the beginning of global terror’s war on us, did four tours in Iraq as a sniper, wrote a book about his experiences, and was killed by a disturbed military veteran he was trying to help.

Warner Brothers bought the movie rights to the book and signed Bradley Cooper to star. First, David Russell (“The Fighter” (2010), “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012), “American Hustle” (2013),) was going to direct; then Stephen Spielberg; and finally Clint Eastwood.[1]

Kyle’s father instructs his son on shooting and in manly conduct: “there are three kinds of people: sheep, wolves, and sheep dogs.” Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) takes the message to heart. He is determined to use his skill to save the lives of endangered American troops in Iraq. A chance encounter with his younger brother, who had enlisted after 9/11, drives home the importance of this mission. The younger man is skittish and eager to be gone from Iraq. This sense of duty leads him to serve four tours in Iraq. He becomes a legend among the common soldiers and Marines. A dead insurgent plunges off a rooftop into the midst of an American patrol. An officer casually remarks “that’s the over-watch; you can thank him later.” Increasingly, Kyle becomes obsessed with an insurgent master sniper called “Mustafa.”[2] He returns for his final tour in hopes of killing Mustafa. He succeeds and comes home.

The price is very high: Cooper plays Kyle as “calm and confident,” so he doesn’t emote much about stress. He’s just increasingly distant, uncomfortable with the emotions of other people (both his wife’s and those of grateful veterans), with flashes of rage. Eventually, this self-contained man makes his way home by finding a new means to “save” fellow soldiers.

The movie has been criticized from the Left for de-contextualizing Kyle’s story. Eastwood portrays Kyle as motivated by the Al Qaeda attacks on the American embassies in East Africa and by 9/11; then the events in Iraq focus on the effort to kill Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. How the United States came to invade Iraq is scrupulously left out. The critics are mad that this wasn’t about the lies that led us to war. That would be a different movie. Indeed, it has been. Several times. All of which were flops. “Rendition” (2007, dir. Gavin Hood); “Lions for Lambs” (2007, dir. Robert Redford); “Redacted” (2007, dir. Brian de Palma); and “Green Zone” (2010, dir. Paul Greengrass) all lost money or fell short of earning expectations. That says something about audiences and what they’re willing to acknowledge. . In contrast, “American Sniper” is well over $200m in the black.

“American Sniper” falls into a different category of war movie from the ones that haven’t succeeded with American audiences. “The Hurt Locker” (2008, dir. Kathryn Bigelow) and “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012, dir. Kathryn Bigelow) became huge hits by focusing on driven individuals, the personal price they pay, and on the shameful American indifference to the human costs of wars waged by their country.   However, “American Sniper” ends on a different note than do Bigelow’s two movies. In her work, the protagonists (played by Jeremy Renner and Jessica Chastain) are lonely souls, estranged from their less-driven colleagues, cut off from home, and unknown to their fellow Americans. “American Sniper” ends with Kyle’s funeral procession across Texas. On a rainy day masses of people line the highway and the overpasses, fire-engine ladder trucks hoist huge American flags, Stetsons and baseball caps come off as the cortege passes. Eastwood is in his eighties. This may be his last movie. Hell of a way to go out.

[1] “American Sniper” (2014, dir. Clint Eastwood).

[2] It’s worth noting that the film portrays Mustafa (played by Sammy Sheikh—who has portraying evil Muslims down to a fine art) as an insurgent version of Kyle: skilled, committed, and with a family that is shut out of his work.

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“The Battle of Algiers” (1966).

Saadi Yacef was born in Algiers, the capital city of Algeria, in 1928. He learned the trade of baker, but didn’t learn to read or write. Yacef became involved in nationalist politics from 1945 on. From 1947 to 1949 he was a member of a secret nationalist para-military organization. The French stomped on this organization. Escaping the round-up, Yacef went to France for three years. While working as a baker, he thought a lot about what he had learned about conspiracy. He returned to Algiers in 1952. When the Algerian war for independence broke out in 1954, Yacef joined up. From May 1956 to September 1957 he commanded the Algerian nationalist forces inside the city of Algiers. The French captured him in September 1957, then kept him in prison until the end of the war in 1962. In prison he purportedly wrote a memoir of the Battle of Algiers. That memoir became the basis for the screen-play of the movie “The Battle of Algiers.”

Enter Gillo Pontecorvo, who was born in Pisa, Italy, in 1919. Well-off, Jewish, and trained in science, Pontecorvo fled Mussolini’s Italy for France in 1938. While scratching out a living as a journalist, he met a lot of interesting people in Paris and got started in the movie business. After the Second World War broke out, Pontecorvo returned to Italy to join the Communist Party and the Resistance movement. He led the Communist Party’s resistance organization in Milan from 1943 to 1945, so he knew a good deal about living on the run and blowing up things. After the war, Pontecorvo taught himself to make movies. He remained a Communist until 1956, and never stopped being a “man on the Left.” His movies had a strong anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist strain in them. So he was a natural for the Algerians who were seeking a director to tell the story of their war against the French.

Pontecorvo had his own style. He shot the movie in black-and-white. He shot it on location, with the eager assistance of the post-colonial Algerian government. The combined effect is to make it look like a documentary. He liked using amateurs, whose faces looked right for the scene, rather than professional actors. (His one exception in this movie was Jean Martin, a former member of the French Resistance and a paratrooper in the Indo-China War, who plays the commander of the French paratroopers.) You can see he had watched a lot of Eisenstein.

Colonel Mathieu, the para commander is a composite of several real French officers (Jacques Massu, Marcel Bigeard, Yves Godard). Many of the other leading characters are based on real people: Andre Achiary (the mustached police officer), Ali “la Pointe” Ammar, “le petit Omar,” Hassiba Ben Bouali, Djamila Bouhired (who later married Klaus Barbie’s defense attorney), and Zohra Drif (actually Yacef’s girlfriend at the time). Some of them are still living.

The movie came out in 1966. The French government banned it for five years; Fidel Castro’s Cuba awarded it a big prize. So that’s a wash. The movie deserves to be evaluated in its own right as a work of art. More to our purposes is the reception it has received from professionals in the insurgency line of work. Andreas Baader, one leader of a 1970s German terrorist group, claimed it was his favorite movie. Israeli audiences flocked to see the movie in 1988 when it was shown at the same time as the Palestinian “First Intifada” broke out. In Summer 2003, shortly after completion of the major military operations phase of the Iraq War, the US DoD’s Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict sponsored several showings of the movie in the Pentagon. So, a lot of people at the sharp end of the business thought that it had some lessons to teach. What are they?

All Quiet on the Western Front.

Carl Laemmle (1867-1939) was a German Jew who migrated to the US in 1884. He worked as a book-keeper, but got interested in movies when they were a new thing. So did a lot of other people. In 1912 Laemmle and some of the others merged their companies into Universal Films, and then moved to Hollywood. Universal Films turned out to be very successful in the Twenties and early Thirties. However, in 1928 Carl Laemmle made the mistake of bring his son, Carl, Jr. (1908-1979), into the business as head of production. Carl, Sr. had been a book-keeper, so he paid attention to what stuff cost. Carl, Jr. had been a rich kid, so he never paid attention to what stuff cost. This could work out OK if the spending produced a huge hit, so Carl Jr. and Universal were always on the look-out for a potential huge hit.

Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970) grew up in a working class family in Germany, but had some hopes of becoming a writer. He was drafted into the German Army in 1916. After his training, he served six weeks on the Western Front before he was wounded. He spent the rest of the war in hospital. After the war he took a swing at teaching, then wandered between different types of jobs. He still wanted to be a writer. In a burst of creativity in 1927, he wrote All Quiet on the Western Front. It became a hit when it came out in 1929.[1] Universal bought the rights.

First, Universal needed a screen-writer to adapt the novel into a movie. They hired Maxwell Anderson (1888-1959) whose career is a novel in itself: he was a poor kid and son of an itinerant minister; a school teacher[2] and newspaper writer (fired many times in both careers, usually for not toeing the company line); and then he became a successful play-write, who turned to doing move screenplays on occasion. In 1924 his realistic war-play “What Price Glory?” had been a hit on Broadway. Carl, Jr. hired Anderson to adapt the novel.

Second, they needed a director. Lieb Milstein (1895-1980) grew up poor and Jewish in Kishinev, a city in pre-Revolutionary Russia. Kishinev wasn’t a good place to be either poor or Jewish, so Milstein did what everyone else who didn’t have rocks in their head did: he migrated to the United States. Upon arrival he changed his name to Lewis Milestone. He had been in the US for five years when America entered the First World War. Milstein enlisted in the Army; the Army taught him the film business as part of its propaganda and training work; and Milstein moved to Hollywood after the war. He soon became a director, with a Best Director Oscar in 1928. At the top of his profession, he was much in demand for big pictures. Carl Jr. hired him to direct “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

Third, they needed a bunch of actors. The “extras” weren’t hard to find. Oddly, there were several thousand German war veterans living around Los Angeles. Carl Jr. hired a lot of them. For the lead role of Paul Baumer, they hired Lew Ayres (1908-1996). Ayres didn’t have much acting experience (and he wasn’t really much of an actor). He was young and innocent and impressionable looking, which was the whole point.

The movie cost $1.2 million to make and earned $1.5 million at the box-office. That was enough profit to tempt Carl Jr. into more big-budget movies. Most didn’t do so well. In 1936 he and Carl Sr. got shoved out of Universal.

Lewis Milestone won the Oscar for Best Director. He got black-listed in the Fifties, then went into television work. Ayres became a conscientious objector/medic in World War II.

[1] Remarque wrote ten more novels, but his first remains his most famous.

[2] You notice that both Remarque and Anderson were school teachers? So was William Clark Quantrill. On the one hand, it didn’t used to be a respectable profession, so all sorts of flakes tried their hand at it. On the other hand, anybody with some brains can learn how to do it.

War Movies 6: “The Lost Command.”

Jean Pierre Lucien Osty (1920-2011) came from a French-peasant-moved-to-Paris background.  War became a central experience of his life: he served in the French Army at the start of the Second World War; then escaped from Vichy France to North Africa by way of Spain; and fought in Italy and France.  Earning an officer’s commission, he then served in the Far East, including a stint in Korea.  Then he became a war correspondent.  His experiences provided the basis for a string of book, published under the pen-name of Jean Larteguy.  One of these books was the novel The Centurions (1963), about the war in Algeria.

The Centurions became a huge best-seller in France, then was translated into English and had a wide readership in the United States as well, many of those readers were Army Special Forces officers.  Larteguy sold the movie rights to the book to Americans.

The book is sprawling as it tries to cover a half-decade of complex action.  Nelson Giddings, who wrote the screenplay, and his frequent collaborator Mark Robson,[1] who directed the movie as “Lost Command” (1966), had to greatly simplify the story for a two-hour movie.  It is a classic statement of the American liberal anti-Communist point of view.  They shot the movie in Spain because they could find there the same dry, scrubby Mediterranean countryside and the European looking cities that prevailed in Algeria.  (Thank you Fernand Braudel for the insight.)  Also, labor costs were low under a right-wing dictatorship, and that met a pressing concern for progressive people making a movie about the evils of oppressive government.

Basically, it is a very conventional war movie, dressed up with some awareness of current issues.  It has standard stock characters: Colonel Pierre Raspeguy, a plain-spoken Basque peasant who has risen to become an officer in an army led by aristocrats;[2] Captain Philippe Esclavier, a well-intentioned aristocratic officer who recognizes that things have to change; Lieutenant Mahidi, an “assimilated” Algerian Muslim army officer who is driven to support the rebels by the abuse of his people; his very wiggly sister Aicha,[3] who becomes Esclavier’s lover; and Major Boisfeuras, a Franco-Chinese half-caste who is an exponent of counter-insurgency.[4]

It begins in the doomed French fortress of Dien Bien Phu.  In brief compass, Dien Bien Phu falls; Raspeguy’s men return from the Vietminh prison camp just in time to join the Algerian War; Raspeguy is restored to a command thanks to the machinations of a French countess with political influence who is swept away by his manly charms; Raspeguy’s unit fights the Algerian rebels in the “bled” and in Algiers, but they start to have doubts when they discover that people like Mahidi and Aicha are on the other side, that Boisfeuras uses torture, and their scummy aristocratic commanders will leave them to bear the blame for any failure.  Raspeguy has to fight against both sides while maintaining his honor.  He wins the “Battle fo Algiers” as well as a final shoot-out with Mahidi.  “Lost Command ends with the enlightened Frenchman shaking hands with the enlightened African medical officer in a foreshadowing of France’s loss of empire.  So, Hollywood, except that Esclavier doesn’t get Aicha (although Raspeguy may get the countess).

The movie got so-so reviews, but Larteguy’s novel has continued to command the attention of people concerned with counter-insurgency warfare—like David Petraeus.


[1] Robson specialized in directing adaptations of middle-brow literature.  He had directed the war movies “The Bridges at Toko-ri” (1954); “Von Ryan’s Express” (1965).  He had directed “Home of the Brave” (1949) and “Trial” (1955), which are attacks on racial prejudice, the latter as an entering wedge for Communism.   He became confused by American culture in the late Sixties and Seventies.  That is true of many of us.

[2] Raspeguy is modeled on Marcel Bigeard, as is Colonel Jean Mathieu in “The Battle of Algiers.”

[3] Played by the very wiggly Claudia Cardinale.

[4] Boisfeuras is standing-in for the French theorists of “revolutionary war” David Galula and Roger Trinquier.

War Movies 5: “Dresden.”

In retrospect, the Cold War loomed at the end of the Second World War.  This has led to speculation that the Americans and the British unleashed extraordinary air-borne violence against the enemy as much to impress the Russians as to end the war.  In the American case, it was the atomic bombings.  In the British case, it was the fire-bombing of Dresden.

Dresden was a beautiful city (“Florence on the Elbe River”) in eastern Germany.  From 13 through 15 February 1945, 1,200 British and American bombers dropped almost 4,000 tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs on the city.  Although the Nazis claimed that the bombing and the fire-storm it set off killed 200,000 people, the current best estimate is 22,000 to 25,000 dead.  One of those who survived the attack was the American POW Kurt Vonnegut.

“Dresden” (2002) is a German television movie about being on the receiving end of “strategic bombing.”  The movie’s plot is melodramatic and conventional.  A German nurse falls in love with a downed British bomber pilot on the run; her father and her German fiance are diverting morphine meant for the patients onto the black market through a corrupt official so they can buy a hospital in nice safe Switzerland; the nurse’s best friend is a Gentile married to a Jew; the nurse’s little sister is a Valkyrie look-alike having it off with the corrupt official; Mom is popping pills (cue Mick Jagger); the British bomb Dresden, with the downed pilot’s best friend leading the attack; and fire and death rain down on the city as the nurse, her German fiancé, and her British lover try to escape through the inter-connected cellars of the old city.

What do we see in this movie?  There is the prolongation of the air war against cities until the last stages of the war as the Germans launched V-1 and V-2 rockets against London and the Allied air forces bombed, then re-bombed every possible target.  There is the hatred felt by the German civilians for the British air-crew, who sometimes were lynched as “terror-flyers” when they had to parachute onto German soil.  There is the savagery of the dying Nazi regime toward anyone who showed the slightest hint of defeatism.  A woman arrives at the hospital with a head-wound, then the military police arrive to finish the job for having sheltered her deserter-husband.

There are the air-raid precautions as Germans turn off the gas to the stove, gather their possessions, and head for the shelters in the basement of the apartment block when the air-raid sirens sound.  There is the experience of being in the shelters while fire rages above and just outside the sealed doors, and the ground rocks with the explosions.  People pray, comfort frightened children, and light candles as a warning of carbon monoxide, while the bloc-warden tries to maintain order and morale.  There are people sucked into the fire by the draft a 1,000 degree fire creates.  There is the horrific aftermath of an air-raid, with dazed survivors wandering through rubble-choked streets or chalking messages on the walls of their wrecked homes, and the bodies turned to cinder.  There are the rare moral doubts felt by the flyers and senior officers.

What we don’t see in the movie is the successive attacks.  For dramatic reasons, everything is shown as one great attack.  This hides the reality that successive attacks were partly meant to catch the firemen and the EMTs out in the street—and kill them.  Nor do we see the controversies that have swirled around the attack since almost as soon as it happened.

War Movies 4: “The Star.”

The Germans invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941.  By Christmas they were near Moscow, where they stalled for the winter.  In Summer 1942 they attacked again, this time in Southern Russia.  Eventually, the German Sixth Army fought its way into Stalingrad.  There it got trapped and had to surrender in early 1943.  After more fighting in Summer 1943, the Russians were ready to go over to the attack in Summer 1944.  Operation Bagration was the greatest battle of the Second World War.  By the end of the summer the Red Army had destroyed the German Army Group Centre and reconquered the Ukraine, Belorussia, and eastern Poland.

“The Star” (2002) is set during the preparations for “Bagration.”  Red Army commanders want to identify the location of important German troop units before the attack.  They want to target the German units with air and artillery attacks before launching their own offensive.  In this particular story, they want to find the Waffen SS armored division “Wiking” (part of Himmler’s private army).  A local commander details a captain (who looks like the Russkie Tom Cruise) to lead a small patrol behind German lines to find “Wiking.”

The movie is conventional in one sense.  The scout team is made up of “representative” figures from the multi-ethnic Soviet Union of the time.  The captain and his side-kick are Cossacks (they are shown riding horses easily and the sidekick has a fur hat, so they’re Cossacks); there is a Tatar sharpshooter who practices as a shaman on the side; there is the wimpy college-boy radio operator-translator who mans-up in the end; there are three other guys I can’t place because I don’t speak that much Russian, but I’m sure that they are representative “types.”  In this sense, it is just like any American war movie: struggle against a common enemy dissolves difference and creates unity.  Also, at the other end of the radio link is a young woman named Katya.  She has fallen for the Cossack captain and rebuffs the commander who ordered the patrol when he wants to make her his “field wife.”

It is less conventional in other ways.  For one thing, this is a post-Communist Russian movie.  There are pictures of Stalin and Lenin on office walls, but none of the men are Communists.  For another thing, there is nothing hi-tech about this mission.  They have camo smocks to wear over their uniforms and a little radio-telephone to lug around so that they can report to headquarters.  (Nobody knew Morse code because it took too long to learn.  All training was pretty bare-bones compared to what Americans got.)  Other than that, they have sub-machine guns and pistols and knives.  Mostly, they skulk in the woods and report what they see.

For yet another thing, the movie is casually explicit about the brutality of the war.  There’s a boot with a leg in it; there’s a river full of corpses of Red Army POWs murdered by the Germans; there’s a brief tracking shot that runs from bucolic idyll-to-burned farmhouse-to-hanged peasant family; there is a German with a bayonet shoved all the way through his neck.  Conversely, the Russian patrol habitually kills the Germans they capture along the way.  It isn’t out of revenge.  They just can’t take prisoners along on a secret mission.  Until they capture an SS general.  Of course, that brings the Germans after them in hot pursuit.  Will they succeed in their mission?  Will they escape?

War Movies 3: “Hamburger Hill.”

“Hamburger Hill” (1987) follows the misfortunes of a squad (the smallest Army unit) of the 101st Airborne Division[1] in the Spring 1969 fighting in Vietnam, Republic of.

The squad is led by Sergeant (Sgt.) Frantz, an able veteran who is returned to the unit after the military police arrested him for over-staying leave.  His squad mixes blacks and whites; and “short-timers” (men counting down their year-and-a-day tour of duty), veterans, and “FNGs” (Fucking New Guys who don’t know how to do anything and who will be killed or cause other people to be killed through their ignorance).  The constant bickering inside the group reflects these tensions, but slowly gives way to group solidarity; the FNGs rapidly mature into good soldiers.  In both cases, it is the shared experience of combat that changes men.

The squad forms part of a platoon, nominally under the command of a new lieutenant named Eden, but actually run by the veteran top sergeant, Worcester.  That is as far as visible authority goes in the movie.  The higher order–company, battalion, regiment, and division—appear only briefly as disembodied voices on the radio.

One common image of the Vietnam War is of a guerrilla war: suspicion of a civilian population that seems uninvolved in the war and only interested in gouging money out of the G.I.s; big sweeps through the boonies by American forces searching for contact with the Viet Cong (VC, Victor Charlie); brief fire-fights before the enemy fades away into the jungle.

That is not what happens in this movie.  Instead, we witness an assault on a heavily entrenched position defended by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars.  The “American way of war” portrayed here relies upon the use of technology.  On the one hand, soldiers ride to war in helicopters that move them rapidly over long distances.[2]  On the other hand, the Americans apply massive firepower.  The infantry spray fire from automatic rifles (M-16s), light machine guns (M-60s), and grenade launchers (M-1s); they call in “fire missions” from artillery (whenever they talk to “Coldsteel” on the radio); they are supported by airstrikes from helicopter gunners and jets dropping napalm (jellied gasoline).  Even so, it all comes down to the “grunts.”          References to American popular culture of the era show the men to be part of mainstream culture: they listen to Motown or country-and-Western music (which is meant to show the distortions of military recruiting); they admire muscle cars in Road and Track and the Zeppelin-breasted models in Playboy.  Yet the references to “hairheads” and college students back home, and the lack of support from both politicians and the media show a growing estrangement from that society.  Back home, people were discussing the “Generation Gap.”  In this movie we see a different gap, one that continues to trouble us to this day: the gap between those who do military service and those who do not.[3]  What can a country ask of it citizens, what does a citizen owe?


[1] The “Screaming Eagles,” are also at the center of the HBO series “Band of Brothers.”

[2] The origins and first use of this method is portrayed in “We Were Soldiers” (2002), based on the book We Were Soldiers Once…and Young (1992) by Lt. Gen. Harold Moore (ret.) and Joseph Galloway.

[3] Former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican Senator John McCain, Democratic Senator John Kerry, and former Democratic Senator Bob Kerry all served in Vietnam.  Former Presidents Bill Clinton, Democrat, and George W, Bush, Republican, did not.  Nor did I…nor did anyone I know.