A Pacifist’s Love Of War Movies

I call myself a pacifist.  I’m pretty sure that there isn’t a time when killing swaths of your fellow humans could be justified.  I can’t think of a war that 1) couldn’t have been avoided if the right people were in charge, 2) didn’t go terribly wrong in terms of casualties, civilian and military and 3) bring out the worst in human behaviour.  But I have a dark, dirty secret (that isn’t so secret to those who know me well)…I LOVE war movies.  I don’t just mean the anti-war classics like All Quiet On the Western Front and Paths Of Glory.  I mean good old-fashioned jingoistic flag-wavers with John Wayne and Van Johnson.  I mean modern classics like Saving Private Ryan and Platoon.  I know this seems like a disparity and I suppose it is, in a way.  But in war movies, I often see men (and women) rising to humanitarian heights, overcoming physical limitations and demonstrating partisanship and cooperation, bringing out the man’s best in the worst of circumstances.  This week is Remembrance Day here in Canada and in Britain and Veteran’s Day in the United States and at this time, I always feel led to watch a few of my favourites as well finding one or two I may have overlooked.  As I grow older however, I become more aware of my mortality and more appreciative of the sacrifices made  by others who chose to go into harm’s way for the ideal of freedom and this year in particular, I have been thinking of people I have known who were connected to war in some way and of course, the movies their situation brings to mind.

Although my dad was a couple of months shy of active service in World War 2 (he joined up on his 18th birthday but all he saw was basic training outside Toronto and weekend furloughs in Toronto), I have several uncles who saw a great deal of action.  My uncle Mike was shot down behind German lines early in the war and sat through the war in a POW camp.  As a child, when he and my aunt Kaye would come over for a swim and he would take off his shirt, I would marvel at the foot long scar rippling across his left shoulder from stray bullets during his capture.  The Canadian military was ultimately very generous, providing him with a pension and a cushy job chauffeuring military types around Southern Ontario until his retirement but that would be a small price for the indignities he must have suffered and horrific sights he must have been privy to in those years in the German camp, as in the quintessential POW movie, The Great Escape.  Although this rollicking and exciting adventure strays sometimes from the source material, the book by Paul Brickhill that outlines his own experiences as a prisoner at the infamous Stalag Luft II, the truly amazing thing is that the most unbelievable parts in the film are those that actually happened with Steve McQueen’s unpredictable behaviour and demands accounting for the bulk of the changes from the book.  Another great movie (and book) from this same event is the British classic, The Wooden Horse, the true-life story of how an escape tunnel was dug essentially using only a wooden gymnastic horse and the ingenuity of dozens of prisoners.

My uncle Harry was one of the 76,000 Canadian troops that participated in the invasion of Sicily and ultimately Italy and spent many long months working his way north to free Italy from the fascist grip of Mussolini.  On a recent trip to Italy, we were in Salerno, where the disembarkation of the Allied invasion of Italy took place and and as I walked on the boardwalk next to the Mediterranean, I couldn’t help but think of the thousands of young men who lost their lives where I was walking.  The invasion of Sicily brings to mind the Oscar-winning film about the man who led the great invasion, Patton.  General George Patton was an imposing, brash, egotistical man but a brilliant tactician and the ideal fodder for a movie biography.  Francis Coppola and former military man Edmund North wrote a terrific script that perfectly captured the enigma that was Patton.  George C. Scott would not give a better performance, even if he felt it necessary to turn down the Oscar that came with it and the movie would famously become Richard Nixon’s favourite.

Many years ago, I watched what was essentially another rip-off of The Dirty Dozen, The Devil’s Brigade.  An entertaining romp, this one held a place of importance  and pride to me though because it concerned a ragtag U.S. commando unit drummed into shape by Canadian Special Forces officers, led by Cliff Robertson.  For once, the Canadians were the real heroes.  It was many years later that my dad informed that not only was the Devil’s Brigade a real World War 2 unit, but the best man at my parent’s wedding, George Stocking, was a former member of the Devil’s Brigade.  I promptly rushed home and watched it again and got a copy for my dad, who had never seen the movie.

My favourite war sub-genre is the submarine movie.  The idea that a small group of men from every background works together for the greater good (and their own safety) inside a giant tube, constantly facing stress and danger is a formula that never gets old for me.  Purists will list Das Boot and Run Silent Run Deep as the classics of the genre but my favourite is a propaganda piece that may lack in realism, but more than makes up for it in heart, Destination Tokyo.  Released at the start of the Second World War to give audiences a glimpse into the heretofore unknown world of the silent service, it stars Cary Grant as the skipper of a sub that has the unenviable task of sneaking into Tokyo Bay on an espionage mission, providing us with humour, pathos, excitement, and sheer bravado in spades.  Yeah, it’s old-fashioned but it’s old-fashioned fun.

Many may feel, even with the advent of ultra-realistic movies like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, that war movies diminish the great sacrifices the men and women who have served have made but I know that during virtually every war movie I watch, I have at least a moment of reflection when I’m thankful uncles Mike and Harry and all the other uncles, fathers, brothers, sisters, wives and aunts were willing to make the decision to serve their country so that pacifists like myself can enjoy the freedom they fought for.


13 thoughts on “A Pacifist’s Love Of War Movies

  1. I thank you for your thoughtful piece. I have never known a pacifist, but I have known those who were afraid—I do not call them cowards—but I do not think you are part of that coterie, whether afraid or cowards. Pacifism is a real phenomenom, just one in which I have a problem relating to in the real world.

    I gave some thought to the three classifications you listed. I don’t have a significant argument with you over the second two, but with the first “could have been avoided with the right people in charge” I have a major problem. I go back to the previous designation “the real world”. The world is what it is, and all we can do is hope to change it for the better. How do we do that? The idea that violence never solves anything is naive in the extreme. Just ask the Dodo, the Passenger Pigeon—or the former residents of Carthage and Hiroshima.

    It is certainly possible that if Hitler wasn’t ascendant in Germany at that time in history, the Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, and other such groups would not have been targeted. The fact remains that he was and they were. What would have been a reasonable response? Hitler, in simplistic terms, was a megalomaniac. The idea that you philosophically objected to his world view would have bothered him not at all, except to try and eliminate you.

    You thank your uncles for their service and commitment, yet you don’t seem to, at a primal level, recognize that their sacrifices were necessary, and that if it had been your time to make the commitments they did, Hitler would have won.

    Am I overstating this? I don’t think so, but I would love to read your response.

    1. Thank you for your informed response. This is a difficult and possible divisive area (after all, it does fall in the realm of one of those things we shouldn’t discuss in polite company, politics.)

      Pacifism, like most ‘isms’ is an ideal. Virtually all of these don’t go according to plan in the ‘real world’, but they are a starting point and like all ‘isms’, there are fundamental problems that humankind will invariably feed off and use to their advantage. To coin a phrase. ‘it all sounds great on paper’. I am neither afraid nor a coward (although in a battle situation I would definitely feel fear). I simply grew up as a Christian and went to university at and lived in the Mennonite community, which preaches an even more extreme form of pacifism than I practice so I was influenced by my environment more than anything.

      When I referred to ‘the right people’ being in charge, I meant those in charge BEFORE going to war. I live in Canada, a country that historically believes that diplomacy is always better than action and hence, has been involved in many ‘peacekeeping’ missions but never offensive missions. I don’t believe that you’ll ever ‘change the world for the better’ through violence. As Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam (well, the list goes on) proved is that violence is not the answer. It most often begets more violence and the situation worsens.

      While a pacifist, I do believe that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one and that often if you cut off the snake’s head, the body will die. So, yes, Hitler was a megalomaniac and perhaps the best course of action would have been to covertly remove him. It certainly couldn’t have made the situation worse.

      As for my uncles, you are in part correct because perhaps I don’t see their sacrifices as necessary. After all, in Canada, they were conscripted, forced to go to war, which in a way is even a greater sacrifice since it wasn’t a choice they could make. However, it always seems to there are many more willing to fight, even in an unjust war, than there are those unwilling. Maybe it’s just human nature, the more unpleasant, bloodthirsty aspect of it, that drives us to feel the need to eradicate those who don’t see the world as we do. After all, most wars are started because of an inability to accept another’s cultural differences, often differences that are much more long-standing than our own, ie. ‘that’s not the way WE do it so it MUST be wrong’.

      I hope this answers some of your queries and again, thank you for reading my blog so thoughtfully.

  2. Besides the obvious propaganda appeal of war films (for whichever side or persuasion) what appeal do war films have for community/society? In short, why are they made and re-made?

    By the way:
    “I can’t think of a war that 1) couldn’t have been avoided if the right people were in charge…”

    Wouldn’t you agree that to be in charge during war is already to have failed in being the right person for the job? Put another way: it’s the people that start wars that are most attracted to and successful at acquiring the positions from which they can initiate war (and other injustices). Without leaders, would war happen?

    1. I feel war movies are popular because they show ordinary men doing the extraordinary, they show how humankind can pull together for some greater purpose and sometimes because they are simply great adventure stories.

      And yes, I agree that often the people who are in charge (politicians) are the most flawed of all of us. They are obviously over-ambitious or they wouldn’t have gotten to the place where they are. They see advantages in war, financial and otherwise, that we, further down the totem pole, don’t see or perhaps would approve of (Haliburton?). It takesa certain kind of person to be a leader, but often those very characteristics that make them great are ones that don’t lend themselves to steering away from war.

  3. Great piece as well. I too recently caught”The Devil’s Brigade” for the first time and it quickly became one of my favorites desipite the few inaccuracies in it.

  4. I don’t believe that All Quiet On The Western Front and Paths of Glory are anti war films. These films do show the stupidty of it and the miltary politics of it. You failed to mention The Sand Pebbles,starring Steve McQueen (at his best) The Steel Helmet, Starring Gene Evans( a very contriversial movie if ever there was one. Saving Private Ryan was an OK movie at best but did have a couple of excellent scenes that almost saved it the special affect were awesome.
    There are a number of other films to mention but that would drag things out. There are very few places to discuss in detail all the films mentioned here.

    But i can be contacted if you like.


  5. Re: 1) “The invasion of Sicily brings to mind the Oscar-winning film about the man who led the great invasion, Patton.” & 2) “…a ragtag U.S. commando unit drummed into shape by Canadian Special Forces officers…”

    Get your knowledge of history corrected:

    1) Patton was the commander of the American units comprising the Western Task Force in the invasion of Sicily. Montgomery was Commander of The Eastern Task Force comprised of the British 8th Army bolstered by the 1st Canadian Infantry Division. Overall command of Operation Husky was Eisenhower.

    2) The First Special Service Force was comprised of both US and Canadian troops. However, the Commander of the Unit was an American Robert T. Frederick followed by another American, Edwin Walker later in the war. Both Canadian and American military instructors trained the unit, not just Canadians alone as you state.

    When one offers up bad history as fact, it makes it very difficult to believe anything else they may say.

    ‘The Devil’s Brigade’ was a very enjoyable Hollywood version of events but it was not historically correct and it should not be quoted as such.

    Whether one is a pacifist or warmonger, when history is misquoted or made up by either, it makes them look most foolish.

    1. Thank you for your corrections. It’s true that I’m neither an historian nor a war lover so my history is basic. I was simply using some basic information that reminded me of some movies (since this is a movie blog essentially). My intent was not to look ‘foolish’ but to pay some respect to those who served as well as drum up some interest in the movies mentioned. I also understand that the movie version of Devil’s Brigade is inaccurate but the movie portrays the Canadians drumming the Americans into shape and again, I was expressing pride in the viewpoint of the movie, not the actual history. Thanks again.

  6. Words from another pacifist who thinks that Hitler could have been talked out of his genocidal actions. Likewise, if we have been friendlier to Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot they would have seen the error of their ways and stopped slaughtering tens of millions.

    Dear Lord, please stop sending us such idiot pacifists.

    1. If you had read my replies to previous responses, you would have learned that I beleive that are options other than talking genocidal megalomaniacs out of killing millions. And are all pacificts idiots?

  7. I, too, am a pacifist who loves war movies (although I may not completely live up to the ideal, as I’m fairly certain I would use violence if necessary in self-defense or in defense of my family). As far as the pervious arguments you’ve received that suggest violence or war is inevitable, I agree with the line from the movie Ghandi, where he is asked during WWII if nonviolence could be used against someone like Hitler. “Not without great sacrifice and much pain. But is there no sacrifice in your war? No pain?”

    I love war movies primarily because the extreme circumstances of war create an opportunity to examine the whole range of human behavior: cruelty and violence and cowardice and blind obedience, but also heroism, bravery, perseverance and sacrifice.

    Although the opening sequence to Private Ryan was probably the most realistic depiction of battle ever put on film, I almost don’t think of it as a war movie but as a philosophy movie. What is the worth of one man’s life?

    In the movie Glory, the final scene has Matthew Broderick’s troops flinging themselves again and again against an essentially impregnable fort. It is a perfectly titled film, because in a strangely perverse way the scene IS glorious, in spite of the futility and the incredible waste of human life.

    Patton is fascinating mostly because of his personality, but it’s also just a whole lot of fun because we know the “good guy” are about to beat the “bad guys”.
    And then in Letters to Iwo Jima, we find ourselves relating to the “bad guys” because we recognize that, essentially, the individual soldiers are sons and brothers and fathers just like we are.

    As an American, the main group of war movies I find distasteful are the (let’s be honest, racist) older cowboy and Indian movies. (Although there were a few of the early ones that depicted white treachery accurately, like Broken Arrow with Jimmy Stewart.)

    Fun subject, thanks for your blogpost.


  8. I think that it’s the extreme that attracts people to war movies the same as it draws them to the edge of a cliff. At the extreme there is no time for philosophy, quaint conversation or any equivocating. It’s life and death and right now; who’s got your back, who betrayed, who are you facing, what do you have to do to help your brothers in arms survive the engagement, the day, the war. People want that extreme moment when they rise above every petty aspect of their existence to do something of a high ethical, spiritual, whatever you want to call it, nature.
    The next field of endeavour to that would the firefighters, the rescue teams, EMTs, ER staff. That draws your attention. They’re on the extreme. Face it, daily life is murder to a soul – why do you think the Matrix was such a hit? And Equilibrium wasn’t. Those are the kind of lives we want to get away from, far away. We’d all rather be heroes than drones or clones roboticly grind through life.
    That’s why I watch war movies, adventure, horror, science-fiction, thrillers and even comedies because you get to “live” at that extreme. Isn’t that why we go to movies?
    PS: Not a movie but Band of Brothers was brilliant and very true to the book and expanded on it. Can’t wait to see Flag of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. For war movies I would also count Jacob’s Ladder.

  9. I just want to say, I’m not a pacifist. I’m a conservative (some may describe me as a neocon, but I don’t believe I am). Yet some of my favorite movies are pacifist leaning movies. It’s just a contradiction. To get the full sense of what I mean I feel you must know me as I am unwilling to divulge some of the more personal aspects of my life over the Internet.

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