Antony Beevor: My favourite war movie – and the ones I can’t bear

I groaned at ‘Valkyrie’, ‘Darkest Hour’ and ‘Dunkirk’, and despaired at ‘Saving Private Ryan’

Antony Beevor’s favourite war film: Bruno Cremer in The 317th Platoon, Pierre Schoendoerffer’s 1965 movie

Antony Beevor’s favourite war film: Bruno Cremer in The 317th Platoon, Pierre Schoendoerffer’s 1965 movie

 

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

I despair at the way 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 re-created them accurately.

In my view the greatest war movie ever made is The 317th Platoon, a French film from 1965 set during the country’s first Indochina war. This was the original “platoon movie”, whose format later directors followed but failed to match in its portrayal of characters and their interaction, to say nothing of the moral choices and the corruption of combat. It is followed closely by 1966’s The Battle of Algiers, set during the Algerian war of independence. This was one of the first war films to adopt a quasi-documentary approach, and tackle the moral quagmire of torture justified by the need to save lives.

Folly of miscasting: Tom Cruise in Valkyrie
Folly of miscasting: Tom Cruise in Valkyrie
The Battle of Algiers: Jean Martin in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film
The Battle of Algiers: Jean Martin in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film

More recent imitators lack all intellectual honesty. They throw 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 ploy that has developed over the past 20 years or so. Unfortunately, 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 postliterate society the moving image is king, and most people’s knowledge of history is, regrettably, based more on cinematic fiction than on archival fact.

There are many examples of shameless deception, such as the notorious U-571, in which a US warship is shown to capture a German submarine and seize 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 admitted that in fact it had been the crew of a British navy destroyer, HMS Bulldog, that performed the feat – seven months before the United States entered the war.

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 invited me to come out to Germany to watch the filming, the movie had nothing to do with my book 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 truth, 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 story”. His great line was: “But Antony, who can tell where myth begins and truth ends?”

Shameless deception: U-571, the 2000 film directed by Jonathan Mostow
Shameless deception: U-571, the 2000 film directed by Jonathan Mostow

The real problem is that the needs of history and the needs of the movie industry are fundamentally incompatible. Hollywood has to simplify everything according to set formulas. Its films have to have heroes and, of course, baddies – moral equivocation is too complex. Feature films also have to have a whole range of staple ingredients if they are to make it through the financing, production and studio system to the box office. One element is the “arc of character”, in which the leading actors have to go through a form 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 only the survivors count.

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

Saving Private Ryan is a uniquely American definition of history, with no reference to the British let alone the Soviet role

Spielberg said at the time that he sees the second World War as the “defining moment” in history. One also suspects that he wanted this film to be seen as the defining movie of the war. 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 survived the initial D-Day bloodbath, are detailed to seek out and save a single man, Pvt Ryan. The Hollywood notion of creativity often takes the form of cinematic ancestor worship – but in this case it is images and effects that are recycled. Spielberg may not even have included them consciously, but, during the landing, the blood in the water in the first machine-gunning prompts memories of Jaws, another Spielberg film. And German Tiger tanks can indeed appear like prehistoric monsters, but when the sound effects of their approach later in the film resemble that of the Tyrannosaurus rex in Jurassic Park it all seems too much.

After a truly extraordinary opening – probably the most realistic battle sequence ever filmed – everything changes and becomes formulaic. The climax combines just about every cliche in the book, with a very mixed handful of men (almost a la Dirty Dozen) improvising weapons to defend a vital bridge against an SS Panzer counterattack. The redeemed coward and the cynic reduced to tears – both ticking the “arc of character” box – are straight out of central screenwriting. The US air force arrives in the nick of time, just like the cavalry in 1950s cowboy films. And, to cap it all, the final frames are of Pvt Ryan, standing in old age amid the rows of white crosses in a military cemetery, saluting his fallen comrades as tears run down his cheeks.

Truly extraordinary opening: Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film
Truly extraordinary opening: Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film

So what, apart from milking our tear ducts with both hands, was Spielberg really trying to do? Was his revolutionary approach to realism – the special effects and stunt teams make up the largest blocks in the credits – simply an attempt to conceal a deeply 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 only in the Rousseau-esque imagination yet was virtually incorporated into the constitution. Spielberg, like other Hollywood directors of the time, came from a generation scarred by the moral quagmire of Vietnam. He understood the national need, in the post-cold-war chaos, to reach back to more certain times, seeking reassurance from that moment in history – the second World War – when the fight seemed unequivocally right. “Tell me I’ve led a good life,” says the weeping veteran in the cemetery to his wife. “Tell me I’m a good man.”

“You are,” she replies, and the music begins to swell, with drumbeats and trumpets. This representative of American motherhood appears to be reassuring the United States as a whole. She seems to be speaking to a nation 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.

Andrew Marr rightly called The Patriot, set in the American War of Independence, a stinker

Even movies ostensibly showing corruption and criminality in the heart 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 symbol of Brit-bashing films, whether at Gallipoli or all woaded up in the Scottish Highlands as Braveheart.

The British journalist 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 ‘brothers’. The British are portrayed as effete sadists and serial war criminals, just as in other American films. The huge support of the Bourbon French, who helped win the war, is airbrushed out. And the fact that most colonists actually sided with King George is airily forgotten.”

Patriotism also permeated those British war movies of the 1950s and 60s – 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 march music in the finale always braced our belief in the rightness of our cause. We have long made 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 really 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 doctor, is the reaction of Col Marrable, the head of an improvised hospital in the Netherlands, when Waffen-SS Panzergrenadiere seized the building. Still puffing gently on his pipe, he says to his medical staff: “Good show, chaps. Don’t take any notice of the Jerries. Carry on as if nothing has happened.” I have always been doubtful about the notion of “a national character”, but a national self-image certainly existed during the war and for some time afterwards. Perhaps that is partly why I do not react so angrily when watching films of that era. Also, they never used that weasel claim “based on a true story”.

Wrong again: Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film
Wrong again: Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film
Historical inaccuracies: Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour
Historical inaccuracies: Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour

Recent productions are a very different matter. 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 kilometres of empty, pristine beaches? The film also gave the impression that the air battles took 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 British navy warships. Wrong again.

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

On becoming prime minister in 1940, Churchill remained in the admiralty, but he generously 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 film suggests.

Also, why were so many scenes shot in the bunker war rooms 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. – Guardian

Antony Beevor’s Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges, 1944 is published by Viking

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