By Sam Carver
There are probably few films that are pure genre. Romance has comedy. Comedy has drama. Drama has humor. Historical period pieces have a love story and tragedies have had comedy relief since the days of Shakespeare and before. War intrudes on romance and drama on a regular basis. There have even been war comedies.
There is a certain kind of war film, that of the ground level view of combat seen through the eyes of the regular soldier, that seems to lean toward the genre of horror. And some horror films seem to have an element of war. It’s logical that a war film depicting sudden and gruesome death, dismemberment and gore would share a similar visceral reaction from its audience with that of a typical zombie holocaust. The wounded scream, the living recoil and fear is the dominant motif. A sense of dread pervades. Our stomachs churn as we watch and wait for something bad to happen.
The war film attempts to convey the experience of war using some of the same imagery as its horror counterpart. It is not much of a coincidence that The Walking Dead is not only the name of a popular cable TV show about a zombie plague but also a film about black soldiers in Viet Nam(directed by Preston Whitmore III, 1995). It’s not a particularly new phenomenon. The hero of Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front from 1930 shares a Long night with the corpse of French soldier.
It’s not only American films that do this. Andrej Wajda’s Kanal from 1957 features a unit of Polish partisans trying to escape German encirclement by wading chest deep through the labyrinth of sewers underneath Warsaw, a true journey through hell, only to find that hell as risen above ground as well. Kon Ichikawa’s grim Fires on the Plain(1957) shows starving Japanese soldiers in the Philippines, late in the war, resorting to cannibalism.
Not all war films lend themselves so easily to the comparison with horror. Films like Patton, MacArthur, Darkest Hour portray war from a certain height, where the real savagery of war is only implied or visited in brief. The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, Von Ryan’s Express and, to an extent, Lawrence of Arabia are films in the heroic mode, war as a Hemingwayan adventure. That being said, David Lean’s classic does have a sequence of relatable horror when Lawrence’s Arab troops take revenge on a detachment of Turkish soldiers in a frenzy of bloodlust.
During the sixties the world saw unprecedented images of combat from Viet Nam on television. After that there was no going back to the sanitary, bloodless depiction of violence that had been the Hollywood norm before. Also in the sixties was the independent film Night of the Living Dead(1968) by George Romero which plays out like a zombie version of the Alamo, with undead laying siege to a group of huddled survivors taking shelter in a house. Night of the Living Dead was hugely influential to cinema in general, but particularly to the horror and war genres.
The darkness and shadow that Romero employs to hide the fact that he has no money to work with, carry over into the climactic sequences of two important war films of the following decades. The assassination of Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now(1979) and the final attack by the North Vietnamese in Platoon(1986) directed by Oliver Stone take place at night with death hiding under cover of darkness.
These films and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan(1998) also employ a narrative technique shared by slasher films, but also a classic war movie trope. We meet a group of young people; sorority sisters, high school friends or a rifle squad. We get to know them, and perhaps like them, and then watch as they are killed off one by one in increasingly terrible ways by Jason, Micheal Myers, Freddie Krueger or the war.
There have also been films that consciously attempt mix the two genres. 1986’s Aliens directed by James Cameron features space marines in a running battle with the titular monsters and, again, we see them cruelly eliminated one by one. In 2002 director Neil Marshall UK produced Dog Soldiers showed a werewolf attack on a house in the Scottish highlands where a unit of British special forces have taken their stand. Marshall stated in an interview that he took inspiration from Cy Enfield’s Zulu(1964) a depiction of a historical event wherein a handful of her majesty’s troops defend a small South African outpost from thousands of Zulu warriors.
As this is being written Billy Ray’s Overlord is scheduled for a November release with a plot described as a horror story set on D-Day.
Just as madness is a key element in films like Psycho or Silence of the Lambs, war film often try to portray the damage done to the human mind and soul by combat as soldiers slip over the edge, as if bitten by vampires or mauled by werewolves, infected by war, they become the thing they feared. As Tom Berenger’s Sergeant Barnes says in Platoon, “I am Death.” His scarred face reminds us of monsters like those in Frankenstein or Phantom of the Opera.
In Apocalypse Now, Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz has become unhinged by the darkness of war and has gathered around him a private army of soldiers from all sides of the Viet Nam conflict who are as dead-eyed and soulless as any zombie horde.
On an episode of the syndicated movie review show Siskel & Ebert, Gene Siskel quoted Francois Truffaut as stating that there could never be an anti-war film because filmmakers always make war look like fun. Siskel responded by saying he wished Truffaut had lived long enough to see Platoon. It’s assumed that a film that serves up the kind of images that can also be found in the horror genre has a higher purpose than mere entertainment, that the filmmakers have some deeper thematic intent.
Most of what I’ve heard or read from the fans of horror seem to indicate that they just enjoy “a good scare,” a chill down the spine that dissipates in the familiar reassurance of the streets once they leave the theater.
Whatever we might tell ourselves about our attraction to the horror genre it’s effect almost certainly runs deeper than we imagine. The war film, with all its depiction of the horrors of modern combat, can probably be viewed as simply a bloody good war flick. It’s been twenty years since Saving Private Ryan’s Omaha Beach and maybe we’ve absorbed that film’s level of carnage, enough so that it’s lost it’s power to shock us. When we watch a classic from the films of the code era we may be tempted to laugh when a character falls from a gunshot without a trace of the damage a bullet can do to the human body.
Carnage is the norm now and we expect it when we enter the theater or hit play on our streaming devices- from our war films, from our horror films, from our thrillers, westerns and science fiction.
Maybe Truffaut was right in the long run. The image is only a shadow of the fact. Whether war or zombie, film allows us a taste of the experience without the consequences, the thrill without the cost of the real thing.