Not long ago, your scribe found himself languishing in a motel on the outskirts of Ithaca, N.Y. After a smart supper, I was ready for a modest tipple of claret and a bit of telly. But as soon as I turned on the box, I was confronted with trouble.
Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter was just moving into its second act. Yes, that one, when Christopher Walken and Robert De Niro are hauled out of the water of a POW-camp betting parlor for a game of Russian roulette. The Vietnamese captors are cartoon villains, hopped up on Miller High Life and hubris. As we all know, the Americans prevail — De Niro becomes a war hero; Walken stays in Saigon because he’s addicted to pointing a gun at his own head. This infamous scene is a real nail-biter, but is it realistic?
The next day I trundled to Rochester, N.Y., to the George Eastman Museum where the photographs of photojournalists killed during the Vietnam War were on display. No De Niro or Walken in sight. Just a lot of boys from Oblivionville, USA, scurrying through the muck and jungle thousands of miles away from apple pie, mom and baseball. In one series of photographs, a young medic with his head almost completely swaddled in heavy bandages nonetheless tends to soldiers during a firefight. Here is war with none of the glamour but all the valor.
Vietnam was the war that Americans didn’t want to see. Or rather couldn’t bear to see. Thanks to advances in media technology, suddenly the battles were on the 6 o’clock news in full color. Long gone were the days of huddling around the radio to listen to Edward R. Murrow wax patriotic on the victories of the day. World War II was a war left to the imagination; Vietnam was the equivalent of the re-education program from A Clockwork Orange — always on, always awful.
And yet, what are Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line but attempts to re-evaluate World War II via the graphic horror of Vietnam that we’ve learned so well from movies and television documentaries? The first half-hour of Saving Private Ryan — a sickening exposé in blood and guts on the landing at Omaha Beach — is the epitome of this phenomenon. Then the plot introduces an existential quest story that could have been pulled straight into Platoon: The military asks Tom Hanks to risk the lives of a dozen men just to find the surviving son of a mother already bereaved at the loss of three others. Only in the final moments of the film, complete with Pvt. Ryan (now an old geezer, bawling his eyes out) and a silvery Stars and Stripes flapping in the cemetery breeze, does Spielberg spirit us from Oliver Stone into the arms of Tom Brokaw, the de facto hagiographer of “the greatest generation.”
I’ve made 14 attempts to muddle through The English Patient but have never succeeded. Even now I can’t exactly say why. It’s certainly a well-mounted production, albeit a far-fetched one. Casablanca might have been a fly-by-night patchwork of clichés but the characters at least seemed to have some connection to reality. You could believe the personal travails that had brought them to Rick’s. The English Patient is a study of clichés and ciphers. A half-hour into the film, you get the uneasy feeling that no one is who they say they are, not because they’re mysterious but because no one’s home.
Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche and Kristin Scott Thomas look ravishing the way models do when dressed up in designer period costumes and posed on immaculate sets tricked out with exotica and a slight frisson of danger. What book editor in Soho wouldn’t die to have Fiennes’ terribly arty journal that so intrigues the women of the film? The English Patient is a high-gloss travel brochure for a romantic getaway to World War II. Look at the locations! — Tuscany and the mysterious sands of North Africa as seen from the wings of a propeller-powered plane. I’m surprised the New Yorker hasn’t started giving out free DVD copies with every subscription renewal.
Nostalgia, even when it’s manufactured, seduces. When we think of Europe in 2001, we think of Old World charm, sophisticated romance and, yes, getaways to Tuscany. The English Patient sells us Europe as an ideal. Saving Private Ryan (along with Spielberg’s World War II twin, Schindler’s List) remind us that Europe holds darker vibrations.
The Continent gave us two diabolical conflicts in which millions died on the battlefield while millions of others died like cattle in the slaughterhouses of bigots. Even if our old World War II movies prettied up the picture for the sake of patriotism or to spare the box office, the truth was out there waiting to be put on the silver screen. Sadly, it took yet another exercise in human savagery to make that task a possibility.Timothy Dugdale writes about books and visual culture for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org