Small Wars Journal

Why Hollywood Can’t Do It

Why Hollywood Can’t Do It

Keith Nightingale

A staple since movies were invented is the “war movie.”  The just concluded Oscars placed an Iraq war issue on our front burners of cinema success and social discourse. A war movie, if high quality, thrills us, amazes us and it grabs our hearts and minds.  But it’s not real.  It’s a movie.  Our cinematic history is replete with great dramas and even comedies regarding people at war in a depicted combat condition.  But it’s not real.  All Quiet on the Western Front, Apocalypse Now, Sands of Iwo Jima, Pork Chop Hill, Saving Private Ryan, Blackhawk Down and American Sniper-to mention a very few-have captured our imagination and our hearts.  Transported by the artistic effect of the movie crew, we momentarily think them real, but they are not.  Those that have truly been there know that.  Some scripts cannot be rewritten and cameras cannot capture some scenes.

Movies scratch our hearts, stir our conscious and act as a lubricant to our imagination.  We can be moved to perform identity transfers with the screen subject and feel transported to the place and situation depicted.  But it’s not real.  For those that may actually have been there, it misses the mark-which is probably a good thing.

People might ask a vet-What was war/combat like?  What movie depicts it best?  How did you like Movie X?  Most anyone who has been seriously shot at will provide a polite answer or simply say, “It wasn’t like that.”  Why not?   A discourse for the movie moguls striving to light our imaginations, attract a large audience and show us “how it really was,” will display some contradictions between reality and desire. 

A movie requires that a broad scene be shown so the audience can see the setting, identify and relate to the participating personalities, become immersed in the story and drama and then detach sufficiently so the audience can watch the action from the rear-so to speak-out of harm’s way.  But to the soldier/Marine actually fighting there-the vision is much smaller and more focused.  In combat, each participant is essentially alone with his own immediate personal world.  While he acknowledges and takes comfort within his entire element, when bullets fly-he has a very narrow field of view-much less than a camera likes.  Cinematographers and directors know that large is a “grabber” and small is a downer and dark-or at least if the shot is more than cursory for effect.  While Hollywood sees the battle scene of the entire squad, the real participants see only a “tight shot” to their front.  They will live or die depending on their management of that part of the real set and they know it.  No one can yell Cut and the action stops.

After an event, the troops will conduct quiet personal inquiries-“What happened to you? Did you see this or that?  When this guy did X, I thought it was all over.”   Yet they may have been together in the same position or only a scant few yards apart.  The camera lens cannot discern the difference with each person’s private war though the participants clearly can.  Reality is that everyone fights alone but all together and cameras have a hard time defining that.

A wise man said that all combat is small unit.  The 140,000 men who stormed Normandy 71 years ago landed as part of a large whole but each of them essentially, viscerally,  fought alone.  They did as all combat participants do, succumb to the necessities of the symbiosis of survival-Do your job within the context of the larger element and you might live to see tomorrow. Do what you are trained to do.  Don’t think.  Act. There is no script.  A camera cannot capture that.   

Movies enjoy showing the great scale, scope and drama of the entire Omaha Beach at 0632 that grey morning.  But they have a much harder time showing the vision of overweight, out of breath and adrenalin-fired,  BG Norm Cota holding the equipment straps of a PFC he is hauling and gaining the cliffs with the first American soldier to stand there.  They have an even harder time showing the abject fear, hollow eyes and accumulating overwhelming primordial senses of the PFC as he labors to live in an environment that he sees so many others have not.

Saving Private Ryan thoroughly captures our minds and imaginations and transfixes us with a story of human endeavor and selfless sacrifice for fellow soldiers.  It doesn’t show the absurdly small view that each man possessed on Omaha Beach looking through his personal lens obscured by sand, saltwater and smoke-aware of only the noise and obscuration and deep seated visceral fear that this was his last moment on earth.  A camera cannot see that.

Pork Chop Hill shows the entire hill, its configurations, distributions and competing movements.  It fails to capture the sight and smell of two shivering soldiers crammed together in an intensely cold exposed position, skin raw from exposure with arms jammed between legs or under armpits with only the smallest exposure of eyes above the dirt line attempting to perform responsibly while skirting the very narrow edge of survival.  The scene would bore the camera and die on the cutting room floor. 

Hamburger Hill does a great job of showing the broad green canopy and the smoke of many impacts on the crest. We are caught up with the immensity and frustrations of the task and we fail to be shown the keys to success-a mud covered thoroughly sweat and rain drenched soldier cradling an M60, pushing himself up the greasy slope who sees in his narrow frame of vision a head with a pith helmet to his immediate front-he squeezes off a quick three rounds with bloody dirt-caked fingers and sees the head fall.  He then sees the crest and its beckoning sky.  He doesn’t see or sense his companions to his right and left who are constrained by the same “tight shot” as he of the vision and the limits that human exertion allows.  He collapses on the crest and personally Fades to Black for a moment. No one yells Cut for a reshoot or rest.  The movie is an artificial drama; the soldier’s lens is real and much less forgiving and will be continuously so.

Blackhawk Down retains our attention and rivets us with the action because we are not there and can enjoy the moment without being part of it.  If we were, we would just see the intense focused view of a medic and his patient’s bloody exposed thigh and the pumping deep purple-crimson liquid over his index finger as he probes for the Femoral artery-and then the slow extraction of the same dripping finger as he realizes the patient had expired.  We will see the entire room and its exertions but we will not see what the medic sees and always will.

In front of the Ranger is skinny small boy.  He holds an RPG launcher and it is pointed at the Ranger.  In the lexicon of the movie set, it fills the camera.  The Ranger pulls the trigger of his rifle and all he can see in the constrained optics of his sight is the head of that boy and its sudden disintegration as he swings to his next target.  This reel will be played endlessly but on a very private basis. The movie is an R rating but to the participant it is beyond a category.  Not Suitable For Viewing.  

In American Sniper, we see a man and his condition but can only touch the surface for his acquired mental angst.  A skillful writer can translate that to the screen but he cannot penetrate the labyrinth of sight and scope that resides within the subject.  A sniper usually works in great isolation other than with his spotter.  He may be contained within a larger element but his mind and focus is detached and blank-a camera always attaches the broader view to its intended audience-something he has worked very hard to suppress.

His mind and emotions are necessarily detached except for the small field of vision his scope permits.  A camera would see him, his associates and the broad area in which he works-but it would not see what he sees-that would be too boring and undramatic for the casual viewer.  What he sees-and is totally absorbed by-the  building with the blue and silver water tanks on the roof , third floor, window two from the right, as his spotter whispers to him.  The camera will see much more than he cares for-it would be a distraction as he sorts out the shadows and forms in that small aperture.  His scope gives him some clarity and his partner sets the range as he adjusts the knurls on the scope.  What the camera cannot see, is his mental calculation as to wind direction, bullet drop and density currents that will affect his bullet.  These are personal intuitive calculations that only he can know through experience.  He adjusts his optics and continues to search deeply into that aperture so far away. The time spent on the task would be far more boring than any director could accept.  A shape, a shadow and moment of clarity appears.  He takes a deep breath, reduces the slack on his trigger and with skillful even pressure fires his weapon.  The camera will capture the moment but it can’t capture his mind.  Only he can truly see the effect of the bullet in his own mind as he reloads and awaits the next sighting.  What he saw, and its accumulated repetitive multitudes, the camera can grossly visualize. But what stays with him for endless repeating lifetime loops, the camera cannot capture. That would be too editorially depressing.

Vision is a fleeting momentary sensing for the participating combat soldier but the mind stores the scene forever- as in perfectly preserved reels in a hidden vault.  Sometimes, in a dark place, the reel is re-opened and the greatest detail is reshown with the perfect clarity of the original moment-a Director’s dream.  In the mind of the custodian of the reel, the theatre is always in operation and the choice of not viewing is never an option or one to be enjoyed.   

Wars do not do well in movies if the picture is too small and the scope too narrow-but that is what combat truly is.  Screens demand large long shots with overarching music to transport the audience to quickly feel and imagine something they have not experienced.  Soldiers do not have music as they work.  The sound effects are all deadly, individually indiscernible and at the worst moment-fall to total silence when the personal screen turns blank.  Only when the ability to hear individual sounds is restored, is the soldier aware that he may still be alive.  The song that a combat soldier hears has many composers.

Combat is intensely personal and the truths do not lend themselves to a large screen or the most competent director attempting to appeal to the mass rather than the minuscule.  The reality is even less inviting to a large and varied audience.  The participant has as much an issue of having the moments brought personally to mind as he would have had the world access to the same scenes.  While acting is personal, these scenes are the most deeply personal of all.   But movies demand as many people as possible watch to return the investment.  The scenes are developed to better build that audience. Combat as a film brings every emotion to the mind of the viewer but the one that overarches reality which is fear and the individual deep visceral primordial strengths to overcome it and still perform.  This is a truth that a camera cannot capture.

While the combat participant wishes to suppress or eradicate the scene, the medium fervently hopes to find it and expand it. To himself, a combat participant has great angst with these long filed reels brought back to his own vision-bringing them to an unknown and vast audience would be a violation beyond description.  Issues of guilt, fear and emotional balance invisibly fill those moments of his mind.  The casual moviegoer absorbs, imagines and transforms the scene to his or her own vicarious participation.  The real participant wishes to eradicate that clip forever.  What the combat soldier would kill on the cutting room floor, the movie editor would treasure.

We should enjoy any movie made that shows the sacrifices and services of our combatants.  But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that after viewing, we understand.  It’s only a movie.