[Marxism] Stealing Images of the "Good Fight"
lnp3 at panix.com
Sun May 30 14:28:58 MDT 2004
Yoshie Furuhashi wrote:
> Geoffrey M. White, professor of anthropology at the University of
> Hawai'i and senior fellow at the East-West Center, writes that "the
> 'new' American patriotism being produced in the post-9-11 era frequently
> invokes earlier forms of patriotism, especially in images of World War
> II, the 'good war'"
"Saving Private Ryan"
The only thing surprising about "Saving Private Ryan" is how
conventional it is. I fully expected a much more "noir" vision of WWII
along the lines of Oliver Stone's "Platoon." What I saw was an updated
version of such 1950s classics as "Walk in the Sun," written by Robert
Rossen, the CP'er who named names.
"Walk in the Sun," also known as "Salerno Beachhead," just about defines
this genre. A group of GI's are out on a patrol and they get killed off
one by one. The enemy is faceless and evil. Our soldiers, by the same
token, are good boys who are just trying to get home. The reason that
CP'ers were so adept at turning out this sort of patriotic pap is that
they had bought into the myth of FDR's "fight for freedom." So patriotic
were the CP'ers that they also backed the decision to intern
The buzz about Spielberg's movie is clearly related to his decision to
make battle wounds much more graphic than ever before. This decision
roughly parallels the breakthrough made by Bertolucci in "Last Tango in
Paris" to depict sexuality openly and honestly. The question of what is
more jarring--Brando in full-frontal nudity or a soldier's intestines
spilling out of his midsection--I will leave to others.
A war movie ultimately relies on the same dramatic tensions as slasher
or science-fiction movies. The audience is at the edge of its seat
waiting for the next sniper's bullet to tear through the flesh of one of
the "good guys." The suspense is similar to that which awaits us for the
next moment when "Halloween's" Michael Myers will come barreling out of
a closet with a kitchen knife in hand. Who will get slashed in the
throat next? The most interesting variation on this theme is the film
"Aliens" which blends monsters from outer space and "Walk in the Sun"
war movie conventions. The acid-spitting monsters of this film are
stand-ins for Nazis or Japs. All the soldiers want to do is complete
"their job" successfully and return home, in this case planet Earth.
Since the aesthetic dimensions of "Saving Private Ryan" are so
underwhelming, the more interesting question becomes one of Steven
Spielberg's motivation in turning out such a retro movie. What would
compel a director working in 1998 to recycle themes from the immediate
It is not really too hard to figure out. When Spielberg is not turning
out escapist fantasies like the lovely "ET" or "Close Encounters of the
Third Kind," he is functioning as a latter-day Frank Capra spinning out
morality tales to mold public opinion.
Movies like "Amistad," "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" all
basically put forward the same message, namely that the wealthy and the
powerful are the ultimate guardians of what's decent and humane. In
"Amistad," this role is assigned to John Quincy Adams who stands up for
the slaves. In "Schindler's List," it is the industrialist who delivers
General George Marshall, while a secondary character in "Saving Private
Ryan," puts the dramatic narrative into motion through his decent and
humane decision to remove Private James Ryan from the battlefield after
his three brothers have been killed in action. Marshall tells his fellow
officers that he didn't want to be in the same situation that faced
Lincoln when he informed a mother that all of her sons had been killed
in Civil War fighting.
Once this decision is reached, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and a group of
soldiers are sent on their way to track down Private Ryan and send him
back home. Their trek through hostile territory is familiar territory to
anybody who has sat through the 1950s classics. Unfortunately, "Saving
Private Ryan" does not even achieve the level of character development
of a film like "Walk in the Sun." The stories about life back home are
much more interesting in Rossen's screenplay. This should not come as
any great surprise because the Hollywood Reds were some of the most
accomplished writers ever to work in tinseltown.
Standing above this film like a canopy are a whole set of assumptions
about American "decency." Not only is General George Marshall decent
enough to rescue a single GI from the fighting, the GI's themselves are
also more decent than the despicable Nazis. There is one plot device
that drives this point home. Hank's men have captured a German soldier.
They want to kill him but Hanks says that this would not be right and
sends him off. In the climax of the film, this soldier turns up again
and plunges a knife into one of the "good guys" in hand-to-hand combat.
After he is captured once again, a GI shoots him in cold blood. The
moral of the story is that it is forgivable to shoot Germans in this
manner because they are embodiments of pure evil, just as they were in
There is no doubt that Spielberg decided to make such a patriotic movie
because he is concerned about the widespread erosion of confidence in
elected officials in American society. Warren Beatty, another Hollywood
mover-and-shaker, tackled the same job in "Bulworth." "Bulworth"
attempts to restore people's belief in the system by holding up a
"contrary" politician as an example. This politician decides to tell the
truth no matter what. This, of course, is pure Capra territory.
The reason that WWII is so important to Spielberg is that this period
was the last time when genuine national unity prevailed. People rallied
around their President and were willing to lie down their lives. Good
workers were like good soldiers. They went to work in the factories
without demanding "excess" raises. Anybody who struck during WWII was a
traitor. After WWII the "bad guys" changed identity. No longer was it
the sneering blond beast of the Wehrmacht. Instead it was the fanatical
Chinese soldier or Russian superspy.
In order to get people thinking in this mode once again, Spielberg can
not churn out conventional narratives of the 1950s style. Instead they
have to be gussied up with trendy camera work and a pulsating film
score. It is also necessary to draft the most likable actor in Hollywood
to play the lead. If there is one thing you can say about Tom Hanks, it
is that the public finds him easy to like. Although speaking for myself
I would have to say that after Hanks's recent gee-whiz promotion of Nazi
party official Werner Von Braun's NASA and this latest patriotic pap
served up by Spielberg, it seems like he is angling to become the new
John Wayne. (Wayne, like Hanks, never served in combat.)
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