Roger Simon tries to understand why antiwar movies have been doing so badly at the box office. Brian de Palma's Redacted recently grossed so little worldwide it has excited the pity of even amateur movie makers. The artistic failure, Simon believes, is rooted in the distance between the film-maker and the subject. They don't care about the great perils facing the world. They don't care about the history of war-torn regions. They don't care about the causes of the war itself except as a backdrop to make a political statements. The action of Redacted might be located in Iraq, but everyone knows it is really set in Vietnam. A curtain descends between the artist and his subect, a "curious distance, almost alienation" prevents an accurate portrayal of human dilemmas of war. When the primary goal of the cinematic narrative is to portray the United States as Nazi Germany and Bush as Hitler, a cartoon without humor becomes the inevitable result.
What enables a war movie to stand the test of time and achieve critical and commercial success is that it should be first of all about the War. And achieving that is harder than it seems. Very few of the hundreds of war films produced between 1941 and 1945 were really about the war. Beyond scenes of Hellcats taking off and landing from aircraft carriers, or actors pretending to be soldiers in some recently reported battle, many were nothing but soap operas or B-movie thrillers in exotic settings.
It's not surprising that one of those few movies that was actually about the Second World War emerged as the war movie per excellence. Casablanca had no combat footage whatsoever and was set almost entirely inside a saloon. But because it explored the great issues of a civilization torn between barbarism and freedom and the dilemmas of people caught in its tides it became, by popular acclaim, the greatest war movie of the 20th century.
Every line in the script was devoted to the War and its effect on the fugitives trapped in Rick's Cafe. It was about "small people whose troubles didn't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world"; about trying to be a man when you didn't have a country ("It says here you're a drunk. Oh? Then I'm a citizen of the world"). It was about salvaging a last memory before plunging into the abyss ("you've brought back Paris"). It was about great issues, the ones than endured. And therefore Casablanca has remained true, as propaganda never could, even as time went by.
Since September 11, 2001 only one film has come remotely close to being the Casablanca of the war on terror: the Lord of the Rings trilogy. This is not as surprising as it might seem. JRR Tolkien was a combat veteran of the Great War; of the Somme in fact, and John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War carefully argues that Middle Earth was the canvas upon which he projected all the experiences that the Great War had imprisoned within him. John Cofeld, reviewing Garth's book at Amazon wrote:
The heart of this book deals with the influence of the War on Tolkien's writings on Middle earth. I will never be able to read of the Fall of Gondolin again without thinking of the Somme, and never think of Eressea without remembering Tolkien returning home on a hospital ship to see the green hills of England once more.
It's the themes that speaks to us. And it should not have been surprising to hear, in Peter Jackson's film, echoes of so many of the lines that I learned by heart in the endless screenings of Casablanca at the Brattle Street theater in Harvard Square. Here are Humphrey Bogart and Sean Astin delivering essentially the same lines.