Rob Edelman: War Is Hell, Indeed

Nov 5, 2012

In so many Hollywood films of yesteryear, American soldiers and war veterans-- particularly those of the World War II era-- are depicted as valiant, well-adjusted warriors who have fought for their country. They smile, even if they are wounded. Upon coming home, they are ever-willing to be embraced by their loved ones while disappearing into the mainstream and getting on with their lives.

Rarely if ever are they shown to be jarred by their combat experience. Yet how are these fictional portrayals different from the various public service ads presented these days on television that feature warm, picture-perfect images of veterans of Afghanistan or Iraq being reunited with families who will love them and nurture them?

None of these depictions seem to me to be completely real. Something is missing here. Sure, a soldier may come from a loving family, but what is conveniently ignored in these spots is the psychological baggage that the GI may have picked up during his or her time in battle zones.

I want to cite one current film and one current television series which offer portraits of combat soldiers that are far more sobering-- and far more authentic. The film in question is Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER. One of the central characters is a young man, played by Joachim Phoenix, who is a veteran of World War II. We do not see him in combat. We do not see first-hand what his wartime experiences were. But we do know that he is deeply disturbed. At the outset, he is seen in a psychiatric hospital where the psychological issues of soldiers are being addressed. Soon, he re-enters civilian life. On the surface, he seems average and normal, but if you say or do something that does not please him, well, you will see that he is the equivalent of a time bomb about to explode.

The TV series in question is HBO’s BOARDWALK EMPIRE. Two of the featured characters are World War I veterans who become gangsters, and who show not an iota of emotion as they shoot to kill. The soul of one of them, who is played by Michael Pitt, has been permanently scarred by his time in the trenches. The face of the other is horribly disfigured, and he wears a mask to hide his deformity.

Interestingly, this character is played by Jack Huston, who is the grandson of John Huston, the director of LET THERE BE LIGHT: a 1946 documentary, produced by the U.S. Army Pictorial Services, that was long-suppressed by the authorities precisely because it shows veterans who clearly are psychologically unhinged.

Additionally, at a Toronto Film Festival press conference, Paul Thomas Anderson observed that he had LET THERE BE LIGHT in mind when he was devising the scenes in THE MASTER that are set in the psychiatric hospital.

What all this is leading up to is the citing of a low-budget, independently-produced film that was made almost six decades ago and that has just come to DVD courtesy of Kino Lorber. The film is titled FEAR AND DESIRE, and it is the first feature directed by the legendary Stanley Kubrick.

FEAR AND DESIRE is the tale of four soldiers who are caught behind enemy lines and are wandering through a forest. We do not know who they are fighting for, who their enemy is-- and that hardly matters. But we do get a sense of who these men are as they float across a landscape that is at once surreal and dangerous. And one of them, who is not so much a man as a boy, is clearly out of his mind.

FEAR AND DESIRE offers up a point of view that was extremely radical for its time. That is that, if you are a combat soldier, war will kill a lot inside you. And it surely will change you.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of  Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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