War and Human Cost Depicted in Movies
Posted on January 1st, 2011

Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge

All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front is a powerful movie that was based on the World War one veteran Erich Maria Remarque’s personal experiences. Directed by Lewis Milestone, All Quiet on the Western Front recounts the realistic and horrific nature of the trench war. Paul Baumer a naƒÆ’†’¯ve German lad who was fascinated by the nationalistic speeches and positive motivation by his high school teacher Professor Kantorek   joins the Imperial German Army.  After a short military training, he was sent to the Western Front to fight the French and the English.  In the war front, Paul sees the reality of the war that was not romantic and heroic as Professor Kantorek described. He sees the brutality and annihilation. He hardly sees the unit cohesion and brotherhood.

During their military training Sgt Himmelstoss – a ruthless instructor put extreme pressure on the recruits and uses savage methods to punish them.     Because of these harsh treatments, as Remarque describes the soldiers see their true enemy as the unit Sergeant and the superior officers not the French or the English soldier.  

In the Western Front Paul Baumer witnesses the shellfire, mustard gas attacks and violent deaths. The soldiers are exhausted, under fed, freeze   by the winter cold and anticipating agonizing fate in the muddy trenches. His conscience was shattered when he was compelled to kill a French soldier in the war.  After killing the enemy, Paul finds the dead man’s identification papers.   The victim’s   name was GƒÆ’†’©rard Duval, and he was a printer by trade. Paul further checks the dead soldier’s belongings and finds GƒÆ’†’©rard Duval s family photo- his wife and children. When Paul saw the photograph, he gets nostalgic feelings about the war.

After spending many months in the war front Paul comes home for a short vacation. His personality was changed and the innocence was lost. He was not the naƒÆ’†’¯ve young German lad anymore. These are the very words of Paul Baumer after experiencing the war trauma.

“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.” We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war.”

In the eyes of laymen, soldiers are heroes because they challenge death and their actions are considered as adventure. In All Quiet on the Western Front Erich Maria Remarque says that death is not an adventure for those who stand face to face with it.   Although the death is often glorified in War, it is a meaningless tragedy for the soldier and his loved ones. Paul Baumer sees the death and destruction in the Western Front. Most of his friends had gone. By seeing the tormented war front, he is emotionless. He mutters to himself. 

Kemmerich is dead, Haie Westhus is dying . . . Martens has no legs anymore, Meyer is dead, Max is dead, Beyer is dead, Hammerling is dead . . . it is a damnable business, but what has it to do with us now””‚we live.

 The Liberation ( Osvobozhdeniye)

 Yuri Ozerov’s great epic movie The Liberation ( Osvobozhdeniye) was based on the   Great Patriotic War that was launched to free the Soviet Union from the Fascist German invasion.   The unexpected German invasion of the USSR in 1941 violated the German Soviet non-aggression pact or the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement. The invasion leads to immense mobilization of people and resources by the Soviet Union. 

 The Liberation narrates the atrocities committed by the NAZI s and the heroic efforts of the Red Army soldiers to free the motherland. The movie was produced in during 1968 – 1971 and has five parts.

 The invasion of the Soviet Union was code named – Operation Barbarossa and took place on the 22nd of June 1941.   It was the largest military operation conducted by the German Army. The film one – Fire Arc is based on the Battle of Kursk. The Kursk was place where the biggest tank battle of WW2   took place and it crippled the German war machine beyond repair. Kursk signifies the downfall of Hitler’s regime.

 The second film is about the liberation of Orel and Belgorod and Kharkov that was tormented under the German occupation. The film three is the story of Belarusian offensive and the complete liberation of the Soviet territory. The part four is the main battle on the outskirts of the German capital.   The part five portrays the final days of the World War 2.

 The epic movie   Liberation is significant for the historical facts as well as for portraying the magnitude of destruction that was caused during the WW2.  It is a movie about collective tragedy, which was resulted due to Hitler’s   megalomaniac ideology. 

 War is Hell

 Burt Topper’s 1963 movie War is Hell was based on the events that occurred during the Korean War.  The Korean War began on the 25th of June 1950 and lasted until 1953. Nearly 6.8 million US Forces served during the Korean War and 54,200 US soldiers died in action.  As General Omar Bradley once stated Korea was the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.

 The movie -War is Hell is about an egocentric Sergeant who had forgotten the rules of war, value of the lives of his men and kills for medals. Sgt Garth sends his platoon to enemy lines to capture bunkers.  Although at the time of the offensive cease-fire has just been declared Sgt Garth does not inform his soldiers about the cease-fire. His prime aim was to capture the bunkers and win gallantry medals. He does not consider the human factor and lives of his men.

The platoon had to face fierce fighting and casualty numbers increased with a short period. . Still Sgt Garth had no idea to retreat and save the lives of his soldiers. Driven by an insatiable desire of war medals Sgt Garth risks the lives of his men. Eventually the platoon secures the bunker, and the glory-hunting sergeant Garth attempts to take credit for their actions and accuses the surviving fighters of cowardice.

 Burt Topper’s movie tells us how individual motives works in a mass conflict like war. Even though war is a collective trauma for some people it’s a path to satisfy their selfish needs and achieve greatness by jeopardizing the lives of others.

Apocalypse Now

 Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now is about the magnitude of personality decay following combat trauma. It is a movie about lost solders or Les soldats perdus. Captain Benjamin Willard “”…” a Special Forces Officer who was troubled by war trauma and flashbacks sent on a classified mission to eliminate a renegade Green Beret Col Walter E. Kurtz. Col Kurtz was believed to be collaborating with the enemy and operating in Cambodia.

Francis Ford Coppola’s   Apocalypse Now is a metaphorical elucidation how war affects human psyche. How a person can become numbed, indifferent to human emotions and derive satisfaction by extreme means.  The words of Capt Willard echoes’ the emptiness of life.

I’d wake up and there’d be nothing. I hardly said a word to my wife, until I said “yes” to a divorce. When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle. I’m here a week now… waiting for a mission… getting softer. Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute Charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger. Each time I looked around the walls moved in a little tighter.

The paradox of war is the main theme of Apocalypse Now. The Air Cavalry Regiment commander Lieutenant Colonel William Kilgore was so enthralled by the air attacks. He plays Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries during a helicopter attack in the beach against the Vietcongs. He says to Capt Willard “I love the smell of napalm in the morning. Smells like, victory“,

For some young US soldiers to fight in Vietnam was an excitement. These youth who belonged to the lower social strata   were sent   20, 000 miles away from home to fight Communism. Some were drafted and some of them were   trapped between the civilian lives and military lives.  Unable to realize the noxious environment of the Vietnam War they were mesmerized by the Rolling Stones (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction song. One foot on the grave,   these youth enjoy their lives disregarding incoming enemy bullets.

Captain Benjamin Willard finds Col Walter E. Kurtz in a jungle in Cambodia.  He is surrounded by a native tribe who treat him like a Demigod. His order is to terminate Col Walter E. Kurtz “with extreme prejudice” Knowing Willard’s intentions Col   Kurtz tells his murder

You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that… but you have no right to judge me.

The killing was insane. Col   Kurtz was dead many years ago and there was no human portion left in his soul. Both the killer and the victim were dead long ago and they were Les soldats perdus.

 Courage Under Fire

Edward Zwick s Courage under Fire is a powerful movie about courage and honor in the battlefield.  Copter pilot Captain Karen Walden crash-landed in a hostile territory in Iraq and faces life and death situation. One of her remaining crewmembers wants to flee leaving the wounded men behind. But Captain Karen insists that they should stay together until the reinforcements arrive. During the confrontation, a NCO shoots Captain Karen and he takes the initiative.  The survivors managed to escape and they conceal the incident making a cover-up story.  

When the survivors came home, a special investigative team was appointed to scrutinize the events that occurred in the Gulf. LT Colonel Nathaniel Serling the special investigator finds many gray areas in the story and mystery in Copter pilot Captain Karen Walden’s death. He questions the survivors separately and finds some contradictions in their story.

The special investigator LT Colonel Serling suffers from traumatic combat events too.   During the Gulf War, he served as a tank battalion commander and engaged the enemy.  When the enemy tanks infiltrated his line, he erroneously gave an order to fire at his own tanks. As a result of the friendly fire    his buddy Lieutenant Boylar dies. The incident was totally covered up and Boylar’s parents were told that their son was killed by enemy fire.

With the past memories of his dead friend Lt Boyler , LT Colonel Nathaniel Serling now investigate the death of Copter pilot Captain Karen Walden and finds a lot of inconsistencies between the testimonies of the witnesses. In an intricate investigation, LT Colonel Serling finds the truth. After the crash,   Captain Karen Walden fought bravely protecting the survivors until   the last moment and she was accidentally shot by a crewmember. Based on LT Colonel Nathaniel Serling s findings Captain Karen Walden was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.

After the investigation, LT Col Serling meets his dead buddy Lt Boylar s parents and tells them the truth – what really occurred on that night in the Gulf War.  After meeting with the parents, he visits Lt Boylar s grave. Serling removes his Silver Star medal from his uniform and places it on Walden’s headstone He salutes at Walden’s grave.

Courage Under Fire recounts the unsympathetic realism of War. Soldiers get killed and cover up stories are made. Fake citations are submitted  to the top and some claim gallantry medals. Sometimes renegades become heroes and true heroes never speak back. Because they are dead. 

 Take This Road

Sri Lankan Film director Asoka Handagama s Take This Road is an artistic testimony of the prolonged armed conflict in Sri Lanka. The film portrays the destiny of three families from three different ethnic backgrounds affected by the war. Although the cultural roots are different, their suffering is universal. 

 The Sinhala family goes to Jaffna via the newly opened A9 road to see the Northern Peninsula. The Sinhala family consists of father, mother, daughter and son. The father is a psychological casualty of the Central Bank bombing that took place in 1996 in which   nearly 90 civilians lost their lives. The father suffers from startling reactions, hyper vigilance and flashbacks. Sometimes he goes into pathological dissociation and disconnects from the reality.

 The Muslim family is visiting the North after many years and their intention is to see the lost property. In 1990, they were forcibly expelled from the North along with their community by the LTTE, which was an act of ethnic cleansing.  The family lost their livelihood, identity and dignity. They came to Puttlam, and lived many years as refugees. When they come to their village the houses are in ruins and uninhabited. What they labored for a lifetime had gone. Vanished without a trace.

 The Tamil family who lives in the North underwent many hardships as a result of the armed conflict. The head of the family a retied government servant witnessed how his enriched Tamil culture turned in to a totalitarian cyanide culture. One of his sons joined the LTTE and obsessed with hate and retaliation. The family undergoes war trauma that is beyond usual human experience. Ruined infrastructure, land mines, fear, uncertainty become the critical components of their lives. They have a foreshortened future now.

 The war in Sri Lanka has traumatized the people and made communities dysfunctional. People became suspicious of each other and lived in fear maintaining a deep conspiracy of silence. The war affected   every layer of the society and every ethnic group, mostly up to the individual level.  Although the film recounts human trauma, and social maladies Take This Road gives a powerful message to the viewers.  Despite the suspicion, ethnic rivalry and deep-rooted hate people from different ethnic groups are able to cherish life and can feel the sense of brotherhood at the end. It is the very essence of being Sri Lankans.  

7 Responses to “War and Human Cost Depicted in Movies”

  1. aravinda Says:

    Thanks good Doctor, for bringing forth memories of a Great Book, Erich Maria Remarque’s ” All quite on the Western front”. Books like these should be made compulsory reading in schools, to deter men, from taking the path of arms.
    I remember reading that that was one the books which was marked down to be burned by HITLER. I read this over 25 years ago, but still recall parts of the last passage.

    “He died in October 1918, on a day Army report was a single sentence. ALL QUITE ON THE WESTERN FRONT. He fell as sleeping without any expression, his dead face said that he was glad that the death has come.”

    I don’t remember the exact words, but surely it left everlasting impressions on a young mind.

  2. Lorenzo Says:

    War is bad and must be avoided whenever possible.

    However, avoiding war at the expense of considerable economic resources or political power over valuable territory is foolish. Surrender what is peacefully ours is much worse than war.

    Resources are limited whereas human population is growing unlimited. Multiply this by limitless human wants of every human being. This leads to war naturally. What matters most is to avoid war using military might (called deterrence) and if not face war and win it. Denying war is to live in a fool’s paradise.

    When conducted properly, war leads to peace. There are thousands of examples from the history of mankind. Still it is better to avoid it whevever possible without surrendering what is peacefully ours.

  3. Fran Diaz Says:

    We must all be ever vigilant to the CAUSES OF WAR. In a relatively small country like Sri Lanka we have to be ever mindful of just how many people can live together in security and reasonable comfort given the resources, diversity and size of the country.

  4. M.S.MUdali Says:

    SL is a small country producing tea for WHITES only. That is the only case for others. Who cares about the culture and history of Lanka? No one.

    Some time some asshle from the west tell you that “Oh Lanka, good”. Are you all happy about it?

    Try to live with neighbours in peace!

  5. Fran Diaz Says:

    Mudali : Oh, but look at the foreign exchange we make off our Culture & History in Tourism, not to mention the Tea ! Now Organic Tea is in demand, so we will grow that too ! What do you suggest we so to make foreign exchange for Lanka ?

    Our neighbor, Tamil Nadu, is only interested in a piece of real estate in Lanka, and off loading some of her Tamils of Dalit origin here. How do you propose Lanka protect herself ?

  6. Lorenzo Says:

    Mudali:

    SL’s neighbours are India, Pakistan, etc. Not Tamil Madu. Tamil Madu is not a nation it is only a part of India.

    Did the Sri Lankan army fight with the Indian army? No. Tamil Tigers on the other hand fought with both the Sri Lankan army and the Indian army (Those were the days thambi! You know what I mean). So who cannot live in peace with the neighbours, SLs or Tamil Elam buggers? Who killed the ruler of SL and the ruler of India?

    Also look at the number of Tamil Elam cowards arrested and sent for prison for 25+ years in Canada, USA, Singapore, India, Sri Lanka, Canada, UK, Australia, etc. Now who cannot live in peace with neighbours? Tell me Mudali, Son Of IPKF.

  7. Lorenzo Says:

    Mudali:

    Tea?

    So that’s why the Dutch and Brits brought down Tamil Nadu people to cultivate tea, tobacco and tamil?

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