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Through the looking glass: Wars and their aftermath

The portrayal of J. Robert Oppenheimer, ‘the father of the atom bomb’ in Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer, raises existential questions that continue to bother us in modern times, says Ranjita Biswas. Although films at different times have reflected the futility of war and the inhumanity associated with it, they seem to make no difference on the ground, she says

Christopher Nolan’s latest film Oppenheimer,which is making waves, is a biopic with many dimensions. Nolan portrays J. Robert Oppenheimer, ‘the father of the atom bomb’ (Cillian Murphy) with warts and all. But it is much deeper than a portrayal of a genius; through the protagonist, he raises existential questions that continue to bother us in modern times. Of science’s breakneck speed that can have a flip side, too. “Three centuries of physics turned into a weapon of mass destruction,” Oppenheimer says in one scene. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are everlasting examples of the horrors of war.

As the physicist watches the orange flames rising over the desert sands on July 16, 1945, after the successful denotation, he quotes the Bhagavad Gita which he had read among other non-science books: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”, reflecting his dilemma as a scientist in pursuit of discovery and being aware of the horror he was unleashing, though he also believes that the weapon was so destructive that it would prevent wars  of the dimension of the two World Wars (holding true till now, but who knows!)

The genie science lets out of the bottle is sometimes hard to put back in. Leaving aside speculation, films at different times have reflected the futility of war in many ways. Cinema, the most modern of the art forms, cannot be cocooned in an ivory tower after all. Even Hollywood with its glamorous image has produced films on this serious theme.

Last year, Netflix’s All Quiet on the Western Front, the new German version of Erich Maria Remarque’s eponymous book (earlier version 1930), walked away with major awards at BAFTA, Golden Globe and the Oscars. At the acceptance speech at BAFTA, director Edward Berger said how the film, though set in the battlefields during the First World War, is basically ‘anti-war’. Indeed, as you watch the horrific conditions at the French front and the disillusionment of the young Germans ‘brain-washed’ into thinking that war is all glory and bravery, you realise that the film and the book is an indictment of the macho image of war.

For his brutal portrayal of the truth, Romarque, who himself served at the front, was hounded by the Nazis, the book was banned, and he chose to live in exile in Switzerland and later in the US. Ironically, this all too familiar scenario has not seen its last even today when speakers of unpalatable truths face persecution.

In 1957, Stanley Kubrickco wrote and directed Paths of Glory, based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb. Kirk Douglas (Colonel Dax) stars as a World War I French colonel who confronts the army’s ruthless top brass as his men are accused of cowardice after being unable to carry out an impossible mission. In a dialogue in the film, Dax sums up the film’s core message: “The loss of empathy is the greatest casualty of warfare.”

When anti-Vietnam protests shook America in the 1970s, how could celluloid remain aloof? The Deer Hunter (1978) was one of the first mainstream films to tackle the pointlessness of the Vietnam War. Male bonding, unquestioning patriotism – they are all there, but at the core is the tragedy of how war affects people. Back home away from the gun and smoke of the battlefield, the GIs find it difficult to adjust to a ‘normal’ lifestyle, devastating families and relationships in the process and leading to isolation and even suicide in one case. As you read about the number of soldiers committing suicide, even inflicting violence on fellow beings after returning home from say, Iraq or Afghanistan, the reality of war – the dehumanising effects – emerges to shock us all.

Talking about war, one cannot forger Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic Apocalypse Now (1979). It is another film on the effect of the ill-advised Vietnam War. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) takes a dangerous journey upriver to find and terminate Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a once-promising officer who is said to have slipped into madness. It is actually a metaphoric journey into the heart of darkness as we contextualise Joseph Conrad’s book, Heart of Darkness, set in colonised Africa and reflect on man’s degradation in conflict situations. In the film, recall Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore’s callous words as he orders Willard to strike a Vietcong-controlled coastal village: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” 

Immediately, the photograph of a nine year old girl, naked, fleeing the chasing fire of the napalm bomb, comes to mind. This horrific photo is now displayed at the WarRemnants Museum in Ho Chin Minh City. The story of Apocalypse Now is also an allegory for a journey into the self and how in the face of war, things darkens beyond recognition. As they move upriver, Willard and the crew become more agitated and are in a schizophrenic frenzy as conflict rages in the mind (internally) and confronts it (externally) in surroundings ravaged by killings. Each man experiences his own kind of mental breakdown.

“The horror, the horror!” Kurtz utters his last words as Willard slaughters him with a machete.  As the film ends, you are left with an empty feeling and a kind of sadness, musing that wars through the centuries have not taught man to recognise the meaninglessness and the cruelty of it all.

Waltz with Bashir (2009) treats the subject through animation but it’s in no way less effective in narrating the trauma of war. It is an autobiographical documentary where the film’s Israeli director, Ari Folman, reflects on his involvement in the 1982 Lebanon War with Israel. The massacre at a Palestinian refugee camp by a Christian militia still raises questions. Who was to blame? Who ordered the shooting? Or was it done by the militia of its own will?

Folman tries to piece together the story with the help of interviews she had with Israeli soldiers who were there at the front and from his own vague recollections. He found that animation was the only way the horrific story could be told, perhaps shielding real people, some of whom suffered from the trauma of witnessing so many innocents people slaughtered and had nightmares. The film title refers to an Israeli soldier who loses his equilibrium and fires indiscriminately on a street with posters of the just-assassinated Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel.

Today, as sirens rattle the sky above Ukraine, one is reminded of the cliché, ‘History repeats itself’. All the novels, poems, films that depict the inhumanity of war seem to make no difference.

(The writer is a senior journalist who lives in Kolkata.)