Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Let 'Em Burn

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Steven Spielberg first showed that he had a way with violence in 1975 with Jaws. The severed, sinking leg, the terrifying, almost surreal death of the Kintner boy, and the brutal end of Quint still have a strong impact today, but Spielberg rather quickly backed away from that (unless you count the deliberately pulpy fantasy violence of the first two Indiana Jones films, which I don't) and became known for many years as a filmmaker of grand family entertainment, whose occasional attempts to branch out into more mature films, for lack of a better term, were slapped away by critics and audiences (most unfairly in the case of Empire of the Sun). But in the 1990s, he suddenly became one of the most deft, unblinking and morally complex creators of violence on-screen. This is not the sort of thing that a filmmaker is generally given credit for, as such, but I'm nevertheless going to point out that Spielberg never gets credit for it. At best, his way with violence is ignored -- because it's too low a thing to be appreciated? -- and at worst he's badly misunderstood.
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Not always, of course, because nobody's going to claim that the violence in Schindler's List was out of place, and nobody's going to not mention it, either, because what would people say about you if you did either of those things? But what often goes uncommented on is the specifics of the violence, the details that carry the weight of those snuffed out lives -- in regards to Schindler's List, I'm thinking of a moment when several Jews are lined up back to back, in two rows, while two German soldiers square them up so their bullets will go through the first man, into the second, possibly into the third, thereby saving ammunition. It's the squaring up, though, and the delay before gunfire, and mainly the stiffness of the victims, accompanied by nervous fiddling, as if because they know they are about to die, they don't know what to do with their hands. Also going unmentioned are the bodies as they drop, like empty sackcloth, after the bullets have passed through. For most people, the fact that it's graphic violence is all that needs to be mentioned -- in what ways is it graphic, and in what ways it is shocking, don't need to be mentioned.
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Of course, in Schindler's List, there are no moral questions about the violence -- it's all unquestionably terrible, although the execution of Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) might carry a certain uncomfortable sting to it, the awkwardness of the moment -- the executioners have trouble kicking the stool out from under Goeth, the noose around his neck waiting to pull taught -- mirroring an earlier scene when Goeth fails, despite his best efforts, to murder an elderly Jew. But for me, that's just a bit of cold-hearted justice and I question the idea that Spielberg wouldn't back me up on that. My reason for this belief is primarily due to Saving Private Ryan from 1998, a film that, for all its flaws (if ever there was a weak, or even bad, script that was turned into a great film entirely due to the skill of the director, it's this one), must be one of the ballsiest films about violence, and violence in war specifically, ever made. In Saving Private Ryan, which is about a squad of eight American soldiers who are ordered, fresh from barely surviving the D-Day invasion, to find Pvt. James Ryan (Matt Damon) and issue him a ticket home as a PR move to offset the tragedy of Ryan's three brothers all dying in combat, Spielberg presents the violence of combat with all the same crushing ferocity of Schindler's List, but in this case the argument is that the violence is not always bad. Or rather, it is always bad, but it's not always wrong.
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At first, it seems like vengeance. After the Allied forces have broken through the German strongholds on Omaha Beach, we see a German bunker blasted with a flamethrower, and as burning men scramble for air, a GI yells to his comrades "Don't shoot! Let 'em burn!" Later, two Germans are attempting to surrender to two GIs who pretend they don't understand what the Germans want. Then the GIs shoot the German soldiers, and make jokes over the corpses. Tom Hanks's Capt. Miller witnesses this particular war crime, and the weary disapproval is clear in his face. The best excuse possible for those Americans shooting the two Germans is that after seeing their friends slaughtered around them (one of the most enduring images from Saving Private Ryan is a shot from behind a Higgins boat full of Americans getting chopped up by German machine gun fire before they've even been able to take a step towards the beach) they want payback that is more face-to-face than what they would typically experience by shooting a distant, fuzzy figure in an enemy uniform. And while Miller knows this is what war too often is, it's not what it should be, or what he would prefer it to be. Later, when the squad is searching for Ryan, Miller orders his men to engage a German outpost -- unnecessarily engage them, according to some of the men, as these Germans could easily be avoided, and in any case this is well outside of the boundaries of their mission. But Miller orders them, and in the ensuing battle, which occurs off-screen, the squad's medic, Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) is killed. One German soldier (Joerg Stadler) survives the battle, and is taken prisoner. However, he can't be taken with them on their mission to find Ryan, so what should they do with him? Kill him, according to most of the men, because to let him go would simply allow him to join back up with an enemy patrol. Cpl. Upham (Jeremy Davies) is adamant that the man should not be killed, and eventually Miller agrees, and the German, referred to as "Steamboat Willie" in the credits due to his spouting of WWII-era American pop culture references to try to get in his captors' good graces, is let go. Most of the squad considers this man at least partially responsible for Wade's death, and are outraged by the decision, but Miller explains that "every man [he] kills makes [him] feel farther from home," and the men, roughly speaking, accept the decision, and Steamboat Willie is gone.
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Later, after Ryan has been found and Miller and the remainder of his squad has decided to join Ryan's platoon to help defend the bridge they've been assigned to guard, two moments in the ensuing battle make clear Spielberg's approach to violence in Saving Private Ryan. At one point, Mellish (Adam Goldberg) is engaged in a life-and-death struggle with a German soldier, and Upham can hear what's going on. He makes a move up the stairs to help Mellish, but his combat experience and cowardice cause him to freeze, and Mellish is killed. When the German descends the staircase he sees Upham curled up in fear, and chooses not to kill him, as he doesn't consider Upham a threat, or even a soldier.
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The second moment comes when we see Steamboat Willie again. He has, in fact, joined up with another German patrol, one who is involved in the assault on the bridge, and it is this man who fatally shoots Cpt. Miller. So in these two moments we see a condemnation of cowardice in Upham's unwillingness, or mental inability, to deliberately engage in combat, in violence, a decision that leads to his comrade's death, and a condemnation -- and here's the real ballsy part -- of mercy. Miller and Upham both stumped for offering Steamboat Willie a beneficent hand, an olive branch, and it leads to Miller's death. When Upham finds Willie among the German captives after the battle, he coldly shoots him, unable to accept how cruelly his own mercy has been rubbed in his face.
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What seems to confuse some people about Saving Private Ryan (other than the mistaken idea that the German who kills Mellish is the same man who kills Miller; it's not, though, it's Steamboat Willie. I know this because Steamboat Willie and the man who kills Miller are played by the same actor, one who isn't the same actor as the man who kills Mellish. You just have to noodle it through) is that Spielberg takes this approach to total war while never pulling back from the horror of it. World War II was a just war, but just wars are every bit as ugly and hellish as the unjust ones. A Nazi can suffer with his guts blown out just as easily as an American GI -- what Saving Private Ryan is saying is that the Nazi needs to have his guts blown out. He may not need to suffer, but he will because that's what happens when you get shot. It would be dishonest to approach combat as a serious subject and then, when someone gets shot, have him simply grab his chest and fall backwards. Spielberg would rather lay it all out and say, of World War II at least, "This all needed to happen, and it was horrible."
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Saving Private Ryan takes the unusual stance, for movies anyway, that killing is sometimes necessary. On top of that, it piles on the point that killing is never anything but abominable. War movies in particular can quite often be divided into action movies and anti-war movies, and it's this latter type for which the genuine brutality is saved. Brutality is bad, so it should be used to portray things that are wrong. But that's not honest. Unless you're Nicholson Baker and therefore completely deluded, you know that World War II needed to be fought -- the alternative is not worth thinking about -- yet what should be so confusing about applying your understanding of real world violence to this historical necessity? On this matter, Spielberg, at least, keeps a clear head.
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This post is part of the Spielberg Blogathon, hosted by Adam Zanzie and Ryan Kelly.

7 comments:

Adam Zanzie said...

Bill, tremendous job well done. You saved me the trouble of having to do lengthy explaining of my own in my upcoming piece on Saving Private Ryan regarding the film's stance on war as well as the Steamboat Willie situation (plus the difference between Steamboat Willie and the Waffen-SS soldier who kills Mellish). Fans and haters of the film are still bitching at each other over these things today, so I thank you, compadre, for staring it in the face.

Watching Saving Private Ryan again yesterday allowed me to pay more attention to details in the D-Day invasion I had missed before. I always forget about the "Let 'em burn" part. It makes me cringe to watch that, but then again that's what soldiers did. They were angry enough to let others suffer. And watching the scene again where the GIs murder the two surrendering Germans, I noticed--for the first time--that bit where Miller looks angrily over at those GIs. Very important detail.

I like how you made a connection to Goeth's execution in Schindler's List, too. I'm glad people don't look at that scene and say, "Yeah! The Nazi fuck got his!" but more appropriately, "This was the normal consequence of war crimes back then." I think it's brave of Spielberg to humanize Goeth throughout Schindler's List even as he has murdered, raped, and committed other horrible atrocities. More than any other American filmmaker up to that time, Spielberg looked into the mind of the enemy. And that only half-describes what makes that film so masterful.

bill r. said...

Thank you, Adam, although I must say that when I watch Goeth get hanged, I do think some variation on "Yeah! The Nazi fuck got his!" I don't think it would be normal, after seeing what Goeth did, to NOT think that in some way. You might not be so celebratory about it, but some part of you must find some catharsis in that moment. And that includes the trouble of kicking out the stool. Let him think about a little bit longer.

Adam Zanzie said...

Well, I only enjoy the death scene in terms of it being a romantic death for a tragic figure. After all, every romantic tragedy calls for the tragic antihero's death.

bill r. said...

Amon Goeth as romantic antihero...that's one way to look at him, I guess.

John said...

Very nice. I don't think I'll ever like this movie (the script, the story, the in-your-face sentimentality, all worked against it, for me) but you do a good job here of presenting it in a different light, one that accentuates its undeniable strengths. Schindler's List, I think, is a much better example, on the whole, of this dark, cruel, mature side to Spielberg's vision, only let down by that single awkward moment of cheap bathos towards the end.

bill r. said...

Thanks, John. I'll be honest -- watching it again the other day, I winced like never before at the jokey interaction within the squad. Almost none of that stuff rings true, but I can't help but love what Spielberg does with Rodat's mess of a script, and the complexity inherent in some of Rodat's ideas that wouldn't have come through with anywhere near the power if Spielberg hadn't been so brutal.

Greg said...

(if ever there was a weak, or even bad, script that was turned into a great film entirely due to the skill of the director, it's this one)

I don't know how I missed this. I mean, the holidays are always busy for me at work and home and I check in here regularly but, somehow, didn't see this, ever. Anyway, that line I quote at the top of the comment is a pretty good summation of how I feel. I don't think it's great but I do think the reason it's not great is because the script calls for a lot of obvious set up and payoff motifs.

Spielberg does an excellent job and, indeed, it's the parts of the movie that contain no dialogue where, even with basic scenario outlining from the script by Rodat, is still mainly Spielberg. I think had anyone else directed this script it would have been pretty awful to watch.

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