Film and Television Features

The Duality Of Man

With the recent passing of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, its coverage on television and national newspapers makes any attempt at avoiding the devastation of the event pretty impossible. While delving into the stories that the brave soldiers hold deep in their psyche, there seems to be a noticeably interesting notion that partners their reminiscence of a time when death was a lurking presence in every day existence.

As well as the veterans looking back with horror at the past, there is also a strange fondness towards the memories of a bond with their fellow service men that only war can create. With this in mind, it becomes apparent that such a mental duality has been replicated in war films since the development of the medium; for example Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) as Pfc. Doll states the extrinsic qualities of evil, “who’s killing us, robbing us of life and light” and Captain Miller in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) cites “every man I kill, the farther away from home I feel.”

In fact, it is the case that many war movies echo and reinforce this theme of the contradicting nature of war and humanity, a truth that makes the genre one of the most vital and important when questioning the treatment of human life in warfare.

One example is Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). Considered one of the best war movies ever made, the core of the film is based upon hypocrisy, found in the main story line itself with Willard’s (Martin Sheen) mission to kill Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) drenched in contradiction, assassinating someone because they have “murdered” another. Yet where is the line between murder and duty? As humans we have taught ourselves that the act of killing is wrong, and only until it is labelled under the title of war is it made acceptable.

Coppola’s focus on the idea of sanity is one that questions this sociological barrier. The movie’s build up sets Colonel Kurtz up as a psychopath, with a great deal of time spent in devotion to Willard’s examination of Kurtz’s reports; through this devotion, Coppola brainwashes the audience into thinking that what has been said about the character is factual, therefore leading to a trust in Willard’s advisors. Through this reliance comes a disregard towards the stupidity of the meaningless, catastrophic devastation of the U.S army, in particular Lieutenant Kilgore’s (Robert Duvall) napalm strike, called in order for him to take advantage of the fantastic “surf” available in the Vietnamese water, which for the audience is more comedic than shocking.

Only until the end of the movie does Brando’s dialogue inform the viewer that they too, as Willard is, a victim of societies deception towards the acceptance of violence towards a fellow human being, particularly that of political authority; Kurtz’s reciting of T.S Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” perfectly representing this notion. An example of this is again Kilgore’s actions; only due to the fact that it was a commanding American Lieutenant who demanded a careless napalm strike, all connotations of its devastation are forgotten for the viewer, as we do not witness its direct impact on its victims. Much like the impact of war on the human psyche, the audience are blinded by the sole purpose of Willard’s mission, yet Kurtz’s character is used by Coppola to remind us of not only the disregard to simple human nature but also the hypocritical actions of the armed forces. In this sense Coppola’s film reinforces the idea that the whole nature of war is one that saps every inch of humanity, as well as masking humanities core.

Amongst the surge of films based around the Vietnamese War towards the latter part of the twentieth century such as Deer Hunter (1979) and Platoon (1986), Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) also appears to reverberate the contradictory nature of war and humanity as seen in Apocalypse Now. As well as this being achieved most prominently with Pvt. Joker’s (Matthew Modine) contradictory appearance, exhibiting a peace symbol and the words “born to kill”, the gradual development of the central character from a naive, inexperienced soldier to a full blown killing machine is in itself the visual representation of the disintegration of humanity. Specifically in one of the final scenes in the movie when Pvt. Joker kills the young female Vietnamese sniper, the low key lighting cast by the flames causes the peace badge attached to his jacket to disappear, while the words born to kill are still visible.

Though the idea of a loss of altruism has been explored in a number of Kubrick movies, such as A Clockwork Orange (1971), the director appears to be directly addressing how unnatural the process is that the soldiers face in preparation for duty. This is highlighted through Kubrick’s decision to spend a considerable amount of time with Sgt. Hartman on Parris Island. Much like Coppola used Kurtz as an explanation of corrupt authority, so too does Kubrick use Sgt. Hartman as the visual representation of the way in which recruits are wrongly dehumanised for battle. The implication of this brutality is replicated directly through the character of Pvt. Pyle who eventually commits suicide under the scrutiny of Hartman’s authority.

Ultimately, Full Metal Jacket feels like an expansion on the concept of dehumanisation that Kubrick picked up on over two decades earlier with Dr. Strangelove (1964) which unlike most war movies focuses on political decisions rather than explosive action on the battlefield. In the same way Full Metal Jacket deals with the robotic like functions of American soldiers, Dr Strangelove loosely picks up on the idea of dehumanisation in a war situation; “perhaps it might be better, Mr. President, if you were more concerned with the American People than with your image in the history books.”

Though war movies are typically the hub for on screen stars and heroes, it is interesting to notice a theme that stems its way through a great deal of war films, particularly those based around the Vietnam War. In the specific cases of both Kubrick and Coppola, they appear to have recognised both how unnatural the situation of war is for humanity, and the innately gentle quality that particularly veterans demonstrate after their time in combat.

It is through this contradiction that causes the war genre to be of high importance in a world that is still witness to conflict and war; and this class of cinema will forever question the purpose and effectiveness of physical warfare in international political clashes that cost the innocent lives of soldiers.