The term “war film” tends to conjure in the popular imagination one of two images: 1) that of the sober-faced “band of brothers” toughing it out together somewhere in Europe or in the Pacific isles during the Second World War (à la Saving Private Ryan , Band of Brothers , or The Pacific ); or 2) that of the shellshocked soldier in green fatigues stumbling out of the Vietnamese jungle wearing a thousand-yard stare (à la Apocalypse Now , Platoon , or Full Metal Jacket ). These images also reinforce the two different “approaches” or “tones” that films of the genre tend to take regarding the subject matter: either a kind of admiration for the unique sense of brotherhood among combatants found in times of war, or a critical look at the hopelessness and futility of war altogether. Thus, in recent years, the “epic war film” genre has been further subdivided into “war film” and “anti-war film” categories to accommodate these tonal nuances. Yet both images, the band of brothers and the shellshocked jungle warrior, reinforced in the collective conscience by wildly popular video games such as Call of Duty, are exclusively American images, and reflect a dichotomized look at the historical record.
Can violence, with respect to the epic war film umbrella, ever be redemptive? Well, the answer seems to depend on which approach one takes. Set out to explore the dynamics between soldiers who forge a kind of surrogate family with their “brothers in arms,” then, yes, it can be redemptive — but only the context of echoing Jesus’s words that “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 KJV). However, if the goal is to show the cost of war, the futility of bloodshed, and the meaninglessness of human life thrown away, then no, violence is, ultimately, pointless and war is fundamentally nihilistic. Few major films have tried to cross the treacherous no man’s land between these two approaches, one notable exception being Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (2016). And now Edward Berger’s 2022 reimagining of All Quiet on the Western Front (nominated for nine Oscar awards) marches flint-faced into the same territory. The end result is less than spectacular.
This Postmodern Realities episode is a conversation with JOURNAL author Cole Burgett about his online-exclusive article, “Finding Empathy in the Trenches: A Review of Netflix’s All Quiet on the Western Front“
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