Films and Television shows should not be made dramatizing ongoing conflicts
Recent films such as Nick Broomfield’s “the Battle for Hadditha” and Brian De Palma’s “Redacted” have courted a lot of controversy in the US and the UK for dramatizing the ongoing conflict in Iraq. In the past films made during the time of conflict have either been criticised as being naked propaganda, defeatist or promoting negative attitudes in society at large. Should such films be made?
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Such films can often present a very one sided case about the conflict
In the past when films have been made about ongoing conflicts, even when they have tried to be objective or critical about the conflict, they have manifestly failed because of prevailing concerns about public morale. A classic example of this is Noel Cowards “In Which we Serve” which, although being lambasted at the time for its supposedly critical stance and showing dying British sailors on screen, is in fact little more than a piece of jingoistic propaganda, made at a time when the Battle for the Atlantic was not going well for allied forces. More current examples include films such as “Rambo III”, made in 1987, which put an incredible gloss on US support for the Taliban in the 1980’s
All the criticisms aimed at films made about contemporary conflicts can equally be applied to dramatisations of conflicts long past. It is not simply a concern for 'public morale' which prevents filmmakers from taking an 'objective' stance on a conflict. A sense of patriotism, as much as we may try to escape it, is deeply ingrained in our culture and this colours the popular view of historical events.
We support our own country in sporting events like the Football World Cup or the Olympic Games. The idea that our nation and our government are essentially in the right is tied to our identity as a citizen of that nation. Thus we have a tendency to cast our own culture in the 'hero' role, whether dealing with contemporary or historical conflicts.
If we take 2001's blockbuster Pearl Harbor as an example, we can clearly see that a national perspective influences the presentation of conflict. From the imagery of the star spangled banner floating among the wreckage to the heroic figure of the U.S. pilot popping over to Britain to help out his slightly rustic European allies, America is the wounded hero of the piece. The war that had raged in Europe for two years prior to American involvement, or the comparatively enormous sufferings of the other Allies are ignored to romanticise the single tragedy that affected the U.S.
Widening the historical gap, 2006's 300 depicted the stand of a small band of Spartans against Persian attack in the battle of Thermopylae. Despite the thousands of years that separate us from these events, they are not dealt with 'objectively'. The European culture of the Greek Spartans, despite our historical knowledge of the crueller aspects of Spartan civilisation, is portrayed as heroic. Meanwhile, the portrayal of Xerxes' Persian Empire as a fascist freak-show has come under fire for aligning Middle Eastern culture with tyranny. Aeschylus’ play Persians, written in 472 B.C. and only a few years after the Battle of Salamis which it describes, arguably takes a far more ‘objectively’ sympathetic view of his Persian opponents than our 21st century film.
At the end of the day, there is no such thing as completely ‘objective’ history; only a series of interpretations which are inevitably coloured by our national or political stance. We cannot expect films and television programmes to eliminate all bias, whether they are commenting on current affairs, recent history, or ancient events. And nor should we. For why should it be the role of film and television to take a critical stance in the first place? Films are a form of entertainment: they use historical events to form a narrative, which involves conflict between ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies.’ If these designations are not exactly fair in light of the historical context, that needs not necessarily detract from the entertainment value of the story. The greatest meaning in artistic depictions of conflict comes from the insight they offer into the human condition rather than any political judgement.
Such films can also dangerously undermine public morale
Whether the dramatization of the conflict is positive or negative, films of conflicts currently raging have a seriously detrimental impact on public morale. Dramatization, unlike news reports, gives the narrative of the conflict a personal dimension to people and does not serve as helpful contribution to the debate about the conflict. The recent films about Iraq tend to set narrative where all US forces are associated with the killing of civilians and war crimes. By association this can taint the military in the public’s mind and add undue weight to actual stories of military brutality. This can intensify the phenomenon of uniform revulsion - where the public sees everyone in a uniform negatively.
People pay attention to issue when events are dramatized on film or on television and such a dramatization can serve to raise awareness among the wider population of the events of a particular conflict. During the Korean War there was no television or radio coverage of the conflict on a day to day basis which lead to the population ultimately becoming disconnected from the conflict.
Such films are important contributions to society
In a free society it is important for art and entertainment expressing different view to flourish as without this one side of any given argument gets implicit weight. The government already has controls on what can be broadcast on the news media by being able to censor photos from combat zones, using official secrets legislation and using ministerial press releases. Art is a refuge for independent opinions and debate: that’s why it exists separately as art and not within news media.
Art works about society often form part of social memories and experience
Picasso’s Guernica is one of the most important images from the Spanish Civil War for a reason: it portrays what people at the time felt about the incidents that were going on around them. The images we have from World War Two of how the British lived through the Blitz- chirpy cockneys, rationing and ill fitting uniforms – all stem from war movies made at the time. Cutting out this form of entertainment would deny us a valuable piece of cultural history. It is also important to note that movies such as Brian De Palma’s “Redacted” whilst receiving a lot of criticism have also been highly praised by some significant sections of society. After all, given the current strength of feeling against the Iraq war, it is important that there are art works depicting these feelings.
It is crucial that we allow such films to criticise Foreign policy.
By no means am I arguing that Hollywood or independent film makers are the primary means of criticising Foreign policy, but they remain an excellent and vital method of criticising/supporting a Foreign policy.
Freedom of expression is a fundamental right, upheld by Article 11 of the ECHR, and to restrict filmmakers to conflict that is not in the present would curtail that right horrifically. Undermining public morale should not be a defence to any form of ban, as the public should have a right to know what their country’s policy is abroad. Even if not wholly accurate a film about present conflict may bring the point home about how horrific war actually is and the effects on civilians and soldiers alike. Filmmakers have the right to speak their mind as much as anyone else, and although in a privileged position to offer their view, we are seeing a wide range of war films being produced which may glorify war, or in many cases, condemn it wholeheartedly. If your government were involved in an immoral or outrageous foreign conflict, would you not desire to see the conflict examined and criticised as much as possible?
The abhorrent goings on in Iraq have been brought to light by some very informative films and documentaries including the Bridge to Haditha and Redacted. Indeed it is often from varying viewpoints of different films that the public may get a general picture of what is taking place in the conflict and the watcher can then form his/her own moral judgement.
Such films can provide excellent criticism of a disastrous or inhumane foreign policy and provide further pressure on governments to change their policy. They are a superb way of fuelling debate and bringing immoral policies to light. Imagine the impact on America’s involvement in Vietnam if Oliver Stone had been allowed to make Platoon during the conflict or The Deer Hunter likewise (neither of which glorify war and indeed expose its horrendous fallacies)? Only the action of the present can change the policies of the present and to release a critical film after the conflict has no effect but that of hindsight. We have seen too many times in History such failings happen. I whole-heartedly support the making of war films during conflict and it is essential the right is not denied to appease some authoritarian Government.
Films remind people this is happening!
In the modern world technology allows us to transport troops rapidly, fire missiles long range and cause maximum destruction abroad with minimal domestic disturbance.
Conscription is not in place so the average family does not wave goodbye to their main bread winner at the station when war is declared like they did in 1918 and 1939.
All this means that the average person is so distanced from the realities of war that he or she could easily forget it is going on. With young men dying abroad at the whims of their leaders we would do well not to forget their sacrifice, and that is what these films remind us to do.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
What do you think?