We just watched A Bridge Too Far, the star-studded 1977 WWII film.
I have not seen it in years; I am not sure I've ever seen it from front to back without interruption like tonight. What a marvellous idea--get a top notch staff, film on location, add all the plot geegaws and chummy dialogue of a valor-filled heroic war movie, and use it to tell a story of the effort to use paratroopers to take Arnhem, a miserably failed, needless, vainglorious effort unworthy of its planners, and wasteful of the many lives lost in pursuing it. Other movies, such as Gallipoli and Patton, use the war movie conceits to tell an anti-war story. But A Bridge Too Far takes the conceits at their heroic best, squeezes all the life out of them, and still leaves the watcher absolutely aware of the incredible, mindless horror of war. If there "was ever" a necessary war, the war against the Nazis qualifies. Yet a Bridge Too Far shows that even a "necessary" war is a horrible thing to contemplate. Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan tried to punch this idea home, but A Bridge Too Far wisely uses the Hollywoodization of war to its advantage in a more effective way to my eyes than the "realism" of the wonderful but lesser Spielberg film. If my memory is correct, the world of 1977 was not eager for this movie. But Attenborough did something that mattered here--a heroic movie about the anti-heroic nature of war. He manages to render the soldiers as admirable, even as the ironies of their dilemma are so pungent.
The two 20th Century world wars both made such an impact on our culture. I was reading today a history of the Surrealist movement, a movement that, in my opinion, might have been a footnote but for the First World War. The First World War's senseless beginning, middle and end, a slaughterfield built on vainglory, changed the way we looked at the "civility" of western culture, which could adjust its pince nez onto its face, and send men out to kill senselessly, in the name of "civilization". The "rebels" in art and literature merged into our broad culture, as their message mattered so much. The German chaplains in the WWI trenches produced the finest of our 20th Century theologians. These were men like Tillich for whom the traditional God, and in Tillich's case, most aspects of conventional social and sexual morality, no longer had meaning in a world that could wreak such carnage. The result, by dozens of theologians, was to try to lead us from a world in which religion was a rosary, an artificial comfort by a "God up there", to a world in which religion must confront what modern man had become. The "lost generation" was comprised of men scarred by the First World War. One would have imagined that a calamity like Ypres or Passchendale would cure a culture of war. Yet, less than three decades later, the Nazis were marching under the Arch de Triomphe and erecting Belsen. Post-WWII, the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki loom over us all.
I can no longer claim the grace of pacifism. But tonight this big budget Hollywoodish movie reminds me that although war is often the pursuit of the brave in search of the noble, in fact our "civilized" western culture capped off its colonial era with two of the most brutal wars in history; one by ludicrous vanity, one to stop a very westernized madman. When we arrogantly boast how advanced we are, we should pause to see the cloud rising overhead, and imagine shadows silhouetted in sidewalks, where the bomb has been.