Thursday, October 20, 2011

Down in the Trenches

“This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one's will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence.War is god.”
― Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West

I have an acquaintance from my days in the gun industry whose favorite movie is Apocalypse Now. I got into a discussion with him once about why he liked the film and his response was that it was "badass." He was particularly fond of Robert Duvall's character, but I think he also grooved on all the severed heads at the end of the movie. This underlines the essential risk of making war films, even war films that are ostensibly anti-war. Some audiences are going to groove on them for all the wrong reasons.

Apocalypse Now has the right idea. It deals with war as an abstraction, as an allegory. More importantly, it approaches warfare in its second half not as an action film or as a document, but as a horror movie, which may very well be the only idiom for dealing with the concept of war with anything approaching honesty. Unfortunately, it spends so much of its running time depicting the Vietnam War realistically before it makes this tonal shift that it doesn't quite turn the trick of turning off viewers like my friend. It horrifies, but it also thrills. I can't exactly fault the film for this--big budget films are entertainments, after all--but it does suggest to me that whatever its other merits, for some viewers, it goes awry.

But I don't want to write about Apocalypse Now, per se. The movie I want to talk about is a modest low budget horror film from 2002 called Deathwatch, directed by M. J. Bassett, set in that most horrifying of wars, The Great War to End All Wars. The movie reminds me of the war poets, who, while in the middle of it, created haunted allegories from the horrors around them. In particular, it reminds me of this:

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now ...

--Wilfred Owen, "Strange Meeting"

Deathwatch concerns a company who goes over the top of the trench only to suffer a gas attack. Their command thinks they're dead--and tells them so on a not so reliable wireless set--but they themselves have occupied a mysterious trench in enemy territory. Soon, odd things begin happening to them, including the sound of enemy attacks that never seem to strike home. This takes a toll on the company and soon, they begin to turn on each other. The catalyst of all of this is a captured soldier who claims that there's more to worry about than the enemy in their trench.

There's a moralizing element to this story given that the ostensible protagonist is Pvt. Charlie Shakespeare (Jamie Bell), who the movie paints in the early going as a coward and later as a pacifist. As the movie progresses, more and more pressure is put on him take up violence as a reasonable response to the situation, but Shakespeare holds to a principle of killing only when necessary and of forgiving his enemies. This is in stark contrast to Pvt. Quinn (Andy Serkis), who revels in war. He summarizes the point of the movie when he says that war makes them all murderers. It's a pretty simplistic allegory, I admit, but the filmmakers sell the whole thing on the strength of unusually good performances and some pretty strong imagery.

Let's face it: the imagery of the first world war, specifically of trench warfare, is terrifying. This movie ladles it on. Director M. J. Bassett has a hardcore pulp sensibility, and when she's presented with the opportunity to really hammer the audience, she takes it. None of this imagery can be thought of as "badass," unless the sight of a wounded soldier having his paralyzed legs devoured by rats, or the sight of piles of bodies in mud and shit splattered trenches fires your adrenal glands. This neatly defuses the thrill of the men on a mission war movie, because the presence of the characters in this movie seems to have no real military point. Instead, they live in a kind of twilight zone-y half life, where their worst traits come to life. This, the film seems to be saying, is war. And war in this movie, is literally hell.

Current tally: 17 films

First time viewings: 17

Around the web:

The Vicar of VHS sips tea at that maddest of English tea parties in Gothic.

Justin over at The Bloody Pit of Horror apparently doesn't sleep. He's back today with reviews of The Telegraphed Man, The Evil of Frankenstein, The Sister of Ursula, and Screamtime. I admire his dedication to the cause.

Mr. Gable at Mr. Gable's reality edges closer to the edge with Rest in Pieces.

Bob over at The Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind has a rundown of the Toronto After Dark festival, including screenings of The Innkeepers, The Woman, The Corridor, A Lonely Place to Die, Absentia, The Theater of the Bizarre, and Love. Please pardon my insane envy.

Tim over at The Other Side has a distinctly feminine line up over the last few days, with posts on Succubus: Hellbent, Red Riding Hood, and The Naked Witch.

Pussy Goes Grrr takes a close look at the crackerjack first twenty minutes of the 1978 slasher film, When a Stranger Calls.

And Eric at Expelled Grey Matter takes us from the sublime to the ridiculous with the kiwi horror farce, Black Sheep.

1 comment:

J Luis Rivera said...

I really liked this film, despite having what I think are stock soldier characters and really dodgy CGI. While no masterpiece, I count it as one of the wonders of 2002. What a year for horror cinema