Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers dips below the 400-screen mark this week (362 to be precise). It seems to me that the response to this film has been polite, but not particularly enthusiastic, and so it should be interesting to ponder it a bit further.
When I reviewed this film over a month ago, I found it useful to consider the last time Eastwood directed a war film, which was exactly 20 years ago: Heartbreak Ridge. The two films couldn't be more different. Heartbreak Ridge is a gung-ho tale about a tough-as-nails soldier (Eastwood) who drinks and smokes and disobeys orders, snarling at those wimps that want to do everything by the book. Flags of Our Fathers also questions the official, by-the-book record of things, but does it in a more thoughtful, more mature manner. It's clear that Eastwood has grown up.
But at the same time, I find that the two films are very much products of their times. Heartbreak Ridge appeared right in the thick of the Rambo/Reagan years -- a simple time, when it felt good to kick some butt and raise a cheer. Flags of Our Fathers appears in a rather more complex time. On the one hand, it wants to criticize the fruitless, stupid nature of war, but on the other hand it doesn't want to appear unpatriotic or to criticize those who have nobly given of themselves to defend our country. This attempting to bridge the gap by pleasing both sides has frankly crippled most war films from the past ten years. Now a war film comes tightly wound, terrified and exceedingly serious. Even a silly action movie like The Guardian (332 screens), based on the Coast Guard, has strangled itself before it has a chance to breathe.
Looking over some of the recent war films gives an idea of just how frozen and petrified they are, afraid to move a fraction to one side or the other: The Alamo (2004), Alexander (2004), Amen (2002), Beyond Borders (2003), Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001), Charlotte Gray (2001), Cold Mountain (2003), Dark Blue World (2002), The Four Feathers (2002), Gods and Generals (2003), The Great Raid (2005), Harrison's Flowers (2000), Innocent Voices (2004), Jakob the Liar (1999), Joyeux Noel (2005), King Arthur (2004), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), The Last Samurai (2003), The Patriot (2000), Pearl Harbor (2001), Train of Life (1999), We Were Soldiers (2002) and Windtalkers (2002). Just reading through this list makes my eyes glaze over.
Of course, there have been a number of fine war movies, especially the low-key ones that come in under the radar like Joel Schumacher's Tigerland (2000), William Friedkin's Rules of Engagement (2000), Gregory Hoblit's Hart's War (2002) and Eytan Fox's Israeli film Yossi & Jagger (2002). These four films revisit a time when war movies were little more than shoot-em-ups, usually lumped in with the Western as a male genre. Samuel Fuller was the master of these kinds of films for several reasons; he was actually in the war, on the front lines, and he was a smart, gutsy filmmaker who was able to find a balance between patriotism, commentary and action. Very simply, he trusted us to like his flawed characters, much like Eastwood once trusted us to like Sergeant "Gunny" Highway in Heartbreak Ridge.
Fuller's masterpiece The Big Red One (1980) opened in its restored, 158-minute version in 2004, close to how Fuller originally intended it. This amazing film begins with an unforgettable image. A sergeant (Lee Marvin), in the final days of World War I, strikes down and kills an enemy soldier, but then learns that the war has actually been over for several hours. Does that make his killing into a murder, or is it still an act of heroism?
Eastwood asks a similarly subversive question in Flags of Our Fathers, but deflects it with his heroic battle footage back on Iwo Jima. Fuller included moments of humor in his films, but Eastwood does not go that route with Flags of Our Fathers. Humor is deemed offensive nowadays, rather than the automatic defense mechanism it can be used for in times of war.
In 1930, Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front powerfully balanced the horrors of war with the call of patriotism, but part of that movie's success was the general naïveté the public had about such matters. In the age of television and the Internet, everyone is an armchair soldier, and it's harder to figure out exactly what to say in a war movie, much less how to say it.
But there's another problem. If war films decide to loosen up and make a move back toward Heartbreak Ridge, then we'll have the equivalent of recruiting films once again. There's a powerful scene in Sam Mendes' Jarhead (2005) -- surely one of the best recent war films and one of the most misunderstood -- in which soldiers sit down to watch such powerful films as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, and get a charge out of the violence. Francois Truffaut once wrote that it's impossible to make an anti-war film because the nature of cinema automatically glorifies the violence. The current approach gets close, but in sucking the life out of the battles, they're sucking the life out of the films as well.