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Cinema of Shadows

By PETER KEOUGH  |  June 6, 2007

Indeed they did, but for artistic or commercial reasons they took a roundabout way of doing so. If the current war was too loaded, there were plenty of others available for making the same points. Well before The Godfather (1972) and Apocalypse Now (1979), Coppola penned the script for the Franklin Schaffner–directed Patton (1970), a portrait of the most flamboyant and victorious American general in World War II. Whether Coppola intended the Oscar-winning hit (best picture, screenplay, director, and actor — for George C. Scott in the title role — among others) as an argument for maverick, brutal approaches to achieving military goals or as a cautionary tale about the dangers of hubris, legend has it that then-president Nixon watched the film the night before he ordered the invasion of Cambodia.

But veteran director Aldrich had already made the link between Vietnam and World War II with The Dirty Dozen (1967). That film clearly lauded the practicality of ruthlessness in combat, as a commando team comprising convicts violates most of the principles of the Geneva Convention in order to wipe out a chateau full of Nazi generals. Audiences loved it; critics condemned it; few noted that it might represent America’s uneasiness with the escalating engagement on the other side of the world.

Films like The Dirty Dozen reflected not just impatience with military tactics, but growing contempt for military institutions and authority in general. Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970) made this sentiment plain. Set in a frontline medical unit during the Korean War, the film set up a new war-movie paradigm: the “enemy” wasn’t the bad guys; they were barely seen. Instead, it was the army itself and the people responsible for the war.

Like other wars, other genres could be employed to provide neutral settings for subversive ideas. The Western, for example, served as a good stand-in. Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965) fought a version of Vietnam in Mexico with Apaches filling in for the Viet Cong and with Charlton Heston in the title role of a Union officer employing Patton-like tactics. Ralph Nelson’s Soldier Blue (1970) and Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid (1972) drew even more dismal analogies.

The nadir was reached, appropriately, with horror movies. A few months after the country was shocked by reports of the My Lai massacre, in which US troops slaughtered hundreds of helpless civilians, George Romero released Night of the Living Dead (1968), in which the deceased rise to devour the living in graphic carnage. That the film drew on fears that the savagery unleashed on Indochina might come home to roost was underscored by obscure knockoffs such as Dead of Night (1974), in which a vet returns home as a zombie. After these exercises, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) seems like a post-facto walk in the park.

History repeats
Would these Vietnam-era strategies — of filtering filmmakers’ preoccupations through other wars or genres — work today for the subject of Iraq?

Not through analogy with World War II, apparently. Clint Eastwood bombed at the box office with his Oscar-nominated and widely hailed diptych, Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), the latter in particular serving as bleak commentary on Iraq and the futility of war in general. Commenting on this failure in a May 27 New York Times article, critic Charles Isherwood concludes “Iraq (and Afghanistan) is so much with us these days that maybe audiences have no inclination to engage with stories from old battlefields.”

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Related: The pain hits home, Examining the state of Iraq's democracy, The way they tell stories, More more >
  Topics: Features , Politics, U.S. Politics, Francis Ford Coppola,  More more >
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