Antony Beevor: the greatest war movie ever and the ones I can’t bear

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    He groaned at Valkyrie and despaired at Saving Private Ryan. The award-winning historian takes aim at the conflict cinemas that attain him furious and uncovers his own favourite

    For a very long time now, my wife has refused to watch a conflict movie with me. This is because I cannot stop grinding my teeth with annoyance at major historical mistakes, or harrumphing over corrects of period detail. She only made an exception when Valkyrie came out, with Tom Cruise playing Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg. Such a absurdity of miscasting was bound to be a hoot, and we were not disappointed, specially when Cruise honoured in that downward cutaway style as if he were still in Top Gun. But I was soon grinding away again when the administrator and screenwriter felt compelled to improve on history, by making it seem as if the 20 July plot to blow up Hitler had still very nearly succeeded.

    I despair at the behavior American and British movie-makers feel they have every right to play fast and loose with the facts, yet have the arrogance to imply that their version is as good as the truth. Continental film-makers are on the whole far more scrupulous. The German film Downfall, about Hitler’s last days in the bunker, respected historical events and recreated them accurately.

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    The dishonesty of fighting … The 317 th Platoon, regarded as’ the greatest campaign movie ever’ by Beevor. Photo: Allstar/ RANK

    In my view, the greatest war movie ever induced is The 317 th Platoon, a French movie from 1965 fixed during the country’s first Indochina war. This was the original” platoon movie”, whose format afterward administrators followed but failed to match in its portrayal of characters and their interaction, to say nothing of the moral options and the corruption of combat. It is followed closely by 1966′ s The Battle of Algiers, specified during the Algerian war of independence. This was one of the first campaign movies to adopt a quasi-documentary approach, and addressing the moral quagmire of torture justified by the need to save lives.

    More recent imitators absence all intellectual integrity. They hurl dates and place names on to the screen as if what you are about to see is a faithful reproduction of events, when they are simply trying to pass off their fiction as authentic. This is basically a marketing gambit that has developed over the last 20 years or so. Regrettably, fake authenticity sells. People are more likely to want to see something they think is very close to the truth, so they can feel they are learning as well as being entertained. In a post-literate civilization, the moving image is king, and most people’s knowledge of history is regrettably based more on cinematic fiction than archival fact.

    There are many examples of shameless deception, such as the notorious U-5 71, in which a US warship is shown to capture a German submarine and grab its Enigma decoding machine, thus enabling the Allies to win the battle of the Atlantic. Right at the end, in the credits, a brief text has recognised that in fact it had been the crew of a Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Bulldog, that performed the achievement- seven months before the US entered the war.

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    Shameless fraud … U-5 71 visualizes the US triumph in a campaign it had yet to enter. Photograph: PA

    When promoting Enemy at the Gates, a fictitious sniper duel set in Stalingrad, Paramount Pictures even had the gall to claim:” One bullet can change the course of history .” I hasten to add that, even though Jean-Jacques Annaud extended an invitation to come out to Germany to watch the filming, the movie had nothing to do with my volume Stalingrad and I was not an adviser in any form.

    The director was trying to woo me and persuade me not to be too severe on the question of fact, because we had found in the Russian ministry of defence archives that the whole story of the sniper duel- portrayed by Jude Law and Ed Harris- had been a clever figment of Soviet propaganda. I liked Annaud, but in the end I was not popular, of course, because Paramount had bought the movie as” a true tale “. His great line was:” But Antony, who can tell where myth begins and fact aims ?”

    The real problem is that the needs of history and the needs of the movie industry are essentially incompatible. Hollywood has to simplify everything according to set formulae. Its movies have to have heroes and, of course, baddies- moral equivocation is too complex. Feature movies likewise have to have a whole scope of staple ingredients in order to be able make it through the financing, production and studio system to the box office. One factor is the” arc of character”, in which the leading performers have to go through a kind of moral metamorphosis as a result of the experiences they undergo. Endings have to be upbeat, even for the Holocaust. Look at Schindler’s List and the sentimentality of its finale, revealing that in movies merely the survivors count.

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    The true narrative that wasn’t … Jude Law as a sniper in Enemy at the Gates. Photograph: Allstar/ Paramount

    I was asked by a large-circulation American weekly magazine to review Saving Private Ryan. My part was spiked because it did not share the widespread adulation, and I still shake my head in disbelief when it is regularly voted the best campaign movie ever. It is nevertheless a operate of intriguing paradoxes- some purposed, others not. Steven Spielberg’s storyline rightly dramatises the clash between patriotic and therefore collective allegiance, and the fight of the individual for survival. Those mutually contradictory values are, in many ways, the essence of war.

    Spielberg told at the time that he reads the second world war as the “defining moment” in history. One likewise suspects that he craved this film to be seen as the defining movie of the conflict. If so, it is a uniquely American definition of history, with no reference to the British let alone the Soviet role.

    Eight US rangers under the command of a captain, having was strong enough to survive the initial D-day massacre, are detailed to seek out and save a single humankind, Private Ryan. The Hollywood notion of creativity often takes the form of cinematic ancestor venerate- but in this case, it is images and impacts that are recycled. Spielberg may not even have included them consciously but, during the course of its landing, the blood in the sea in the first machine-gunning inspires remembrances of Jaws, another Spielberg film. And German Tiger tanks can indeed appear like prehistoric monsters, but when the voice effects of their approach later in the movie resemble that of the Tyrannosaurus rex in Jurassic Park, everything there is seems too much.

    After a truly extraordinary opening- probably the most realistic battle sequence ever filmed- everything the modifications and becomes formulaic. The climax combinations just about every cliche in the book, with a very mixed handful of men( almost a la Dirty Dozen) improvising weapons to protect a crucial bridge against an SS Panzer counterattack. The redeemed coward and the cynic reduced to tears- both ticking the” arc of character” container- are straight out of central screenwriting. The US air force arrives in the nick of time, just like the cavalry in 1950 s cowboy movies. And to cap it all, the final frames are of Private Ryan, standing in old age amid the rows of white traverses in a military graveyard, honouring his drop comrades as tears running around his cheeks.

    So what, apart from milking our tear ducts with both hands, was Spielberg genuinely trying to do? Was his revolutionary approach to realism- the special effects and stunt teams make up the most significant blocks in the credits- simply an attempt to conceal a profoundly conservative message, as some commentators claimed?

    It was not quite as simple as that. Amid the horror of war, Spielberg seems to be trying to rediscover American innocence, that Holy Grail that existed merely in the Rousseau-esque imagination yet was virtually incorporated into the constitution. Spielberg, like other Hollywood administrators of the time, came from a generation scarred by the moral quagmire of Vietnam. He understood the national require, in the post-cold war chaos, to reach back to more certain times, striving reassurance from that instant in history- the second world war- when the fight seemed unequivocally right.” Tell me I’ve led a good life ,” says the sobbing veteran in the graveyard to his wife.” Tell me I’m a good man .”

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    ‘ A stinker’ … Mel Gibson in The Patriot. Photograph: Allstar/ Columbia Video

    ” You are ,” she replies, and the music have started to swell, with drum beats and trumpets. This representative of American motherhood appears to be reassuring the US as a whole. She seems to be speaking to a commonwealth unable at that time to come to terms with its role in a disordered world, to a nation that, for all its power, can be bewilderingly naive abroad because it so badly needs to feel good about itself at home.

    Even movies ostensibly proving corrupt practices and criminality in the core of the CIA and the Pentagon have to end on a nationalistic note, with a tiny group of clean, upstanding American liberals saving democracy. And it is, of course, hard to forget The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson, that fearless emblem of Brit-bashing cinemas, whether at Gallipoli or all woaded up in the Scottish Highlands as Braveheart.

    Andrew Marr rightly called The Patriot, set in the American war of independence,” a stinker “. As he pointed out:” Black Americans, in fact destined to stay slaves thanks to the war, very many of whom enlisted with the British, are shown fighting shoulder to shoulder with their white rebel’ friends ‘. The British are portrayed as effete sadists and serial war criminals, just as in other American movies. The huge support of the Bourbon French, who helped win the campaign, is airbrushed out. And the fact that most settlers actually sided with King George is airily forgotten .”

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    We will fight them on the pristine beaches … Kenneth Branagh in Dunkirk. Photograph: Allstar/ Warner Bros.

    Patriotism likewise imbued those British campaign movies of the 1950 s and 60 s- The Dam Busters, Reach for the Sky, The Cruel Sea, The Heroes of Telemark, The Battle of the River Plate, Cockleshell Heroes. It camouflaged itself in self-deprecation, but the rousing marching music in the finale always braced our belief in the rightness of our cause. We have long stimulated fun of all the period cliches, unable to believe that anyone talked like that. But when researching my new book Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges, I found that German officers actually did say to the British paratroopers taken prisoner:” For you the war is over .”

    One of my favourite remarks, recorded at the time by a junior physician, is the reaction of Colonel Marrable, the head of an improvised hospital in the Netherlands, when Waffen-SS panzergrenadiers seized the building. Still puffing gently on his tube, he says to his medical staff:” Good show, chaps. Don’t take any notice of the Jerry. Carry on as if nothing has happened .” I have always been doubtful about the notion of” a national character”, but a national self-image surely existed during the course of its conflict and for some time afterwards. Perhaps that is partly why I do not react so angrily when watching cinemas of that age. Also, they never used that weasel assert” based on a true narrative “.

    Recent productions are a very different topic. Last year’s Dunkirk and Darkest Hour were strong Oscar contenders. Yet watching Dunkirk, you would have thought that CGI had not been invented. Where were all those 400,000 men and their discarded equipment on all those miles of empty, pristine beaches? The film also gave the impression that the air combats has just taken place at low level over the sea when, in fact, Fighter Command was counterattacking at altitude and well inland. It also implied that” the little ships”, as Churchill called them, rescued more soldiers than the Royal Navy warships. Wrong again.

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    ‘ He never specified foot on the Tube in his life’ … Gary Oldman takes the underground as Churchill in Darkest Hour. Photograph: Alamy

    Darkest Hour had even more historical inaccuracies. Gary Oldman amply deserved the best actor Oscar for his brilliant performance as Churchill, but those responsible for the script get” nul levels “. I fear that anyone who agrees to be a historical consultant for a movie is putting their reputation on the line. The ludicrous scene of Churchill in the underground( where “hes never” set foot in his life) was not the only howler.

    On becoming prime minister in 1940, Churchill remained in the Admiralty, but he liberally allowed Chamberlain to carry on in Downing Street. His respectful treatment of his former leader is important because- when it came to the crunch with Lord Halifax, over the question of asking the Italians to discover Hitler’s peace terms- Chamberlain supported Churchill and did not plot against him as the movie suggests.

    Also, why were so many scenes hit in the bunker campaign chambers when the Luftwaffe had not yet bombed London? I was so irritated, it was a good thing I saw it on my own. Another visit to the dentist, I fear.

    Read more: https :// www.theguardian.com/ film/ 2018/ may/ 29/ antony-beevor-the-greatest-war-movie-ever-and-the-ones-i-cant-bear

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