The Years of Watching Avidly

MEN IN WAR — January 10, 2017


Chris R-0040.jpg Image by Christine Renney

‘MEN IN WAR’ – Directed by Anthony Mann (1957)

A man whose politics were left-wing, Mann made some of the most interesting Westerns ever produced, and many with James Stewart who was a renowned believer in hard right politics. Mann is spoken of as the director who endowed his works with psychological insight by not relying on the Hero of the West mythology as mined by people such as John Ford. By turning the ‘charm’ of Stewart on its head in films such as ‘Winchester ‘73’, ‘The Man from Laramie’ and ‘Naked Spur’ Mann achieved a degree of manic coldness not usually present in Stewart’s past performances.

In ‘Men In War’ set during the Korean engagement Mann achieves the same turnabout with (the personally liberal) Robert Ryan, whose career was founded on his playing characters who were cruel, bullying and prejudiced (see ‘Crossfire‘). This is not the Ryan we see in what could have been a formulaic war film but which in fact, as much due to limited budgets and therefore lack of hardware such as tanks, had to become a study of the interaction between the characters, their varying personalities and the puerile waste of life for a cause which was to repeat itself in the equally brutal conflict in Vietnam some two years after the truce between the North and South Koreans.

The premise of the narrative (officially scripted by Philip Yordan but it is believed he was a front for Ben Maddow who was blacklisted) is that Lieutenant Benson (Ryan) has to lead his Unit to capture Hill 465 but they have become separated from the battalion with whom the radio operator is trying to contact but with no luck. The men are surrounded by the North Koreans who are able to steal up on them – one young soldier is bayoneted to death and no-one is any the wiser until it is his turn to take guard duty. This feeling of being watched but isolated and therefore vulnerable, is something that is beginning to undermine the men who, because of the waiting and not knowing, have begun to lose some faith in themselves. We see Zwickley (Vic Morrow) suffering from shellshock and Killian (James Edwards) encouraging and helping him as a brother or father would. We become family at these times. Further evidence of the need to establish close relationships comes in the form of Seargant “Montana” (Aldo Ray) whose unit has been decimated and who is left alone with his Colonel who is also suffering with shellshock. Montana has become the carer of this man for whom he has the greatest respect and who, it is later revealed, Montana views as the father he never had.

Montana appears to be gung-ho in contrast to Benson but he is an experienced soldier and one who has learnt the way his opponents think, rather than the language, as Benson is doing. Montana’s anger at the effect on the Colonel informs much of his apparent risk-taking, such as when he fires on and kills three G.I.s, which horrifies Benson, until the bodies lay at their feet and are clearly North Koreans. Benson, shocked by this act irrespective of who the dead men are, finds it difficult to relate to Montana and tries to make things as difficult as possible – he views Montana as expendable because he is as dangerous to the unit as the enemy.

This depiction of the differences between the two men, which is at the heart of the film, is well executed and shows how a team or unit needs to build on the strengths of the individual and support the weaknesses. Mann’s experience as a director of film noirs also shows in the photography of Ernest Haller, who had worked with some of the great actresses of Hollywood and was the DP on ‘Mildred Pierce’.

The ending of the film is harrowing and this is where we question whether the capture of what is after all just a hill can be worth the cost in lives and minds. After all, both in ‘Men In War’ (which is an excellent title and holds a significant meaning) and in real battles such as the Somme in WWI, the world forgets in a blink of an eye what it was all for.

THE LOOK OF SILENCE — January 7, 2017


chris-r-1110840 Image by Christine Renney

THE LOOK OF SILENCE (2014) – Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

Whilst I had been vaguely aware of the military coup which took place in Indonesia in 1965, I never had any real knowledge or understanding of what exactly occurred. You know, another coup another country – we shrug and we move on but this film, which follows on from the astounding ‘The Act of Killing’ by the same director and which deals with the same issues but from a different perspective, demonstrates the importance of showing the world what does take place in such times. The gifted directors and writers do so in multiple ways, harnessing both fiction and documentary styles to deliver their message to their audience. Some films are made for very specific groups but ‘The Look of Silence’ is made for us all.

We follow Adi, a 44 year old Indonesian optometrist, whose brother Ramli was butchered in this turbulent period when anyone suspected of following the communist creed was seen as the enemy of those who continued to follow their religious beliefs. Ramli died two years before Adi was born but this dreadful experience and loss has informed Adi all his life, hence his decision to make what is clearly a dangerous journey for himself and his family as he questions those who are responsible for both Ramli’s death and the million others who perished alongside him. The perpetrators are, as Oppenheimer tells us in the interview with Werner Herzog and audience at the Berlinale 2015, initially boastful when describing their ’techniques’. This is demonstrated very effectively in the earlier film when the murderers are easily encouraged to re-enact the atrocities they committed in a bizarre musical setting which ends with the main protaganist on a hillside singing ‘Born Free’ surrounded by beautiful young women. The ease with which Oppenheimer accessed this strange situation shows just how desensitised the men are.

It is this desire to be seen as celebrities and gangsters from Hollywood movies such as The Godfather rather than Little Caesar who pays the price for his evil ways, that is so frightening. It is the same banality created by the Nazis who looked to the Heimatfilme genre to tell their story. However, unlike Hitler et al, the killers of Indonesia remain in power, certainly up to the time the films were made and released and this placed the whole crew and Adi and his family in danger to such a degree that Oppenheimer cannot return and a safe home elsewhere in Indonesia was secured prior to the release of both films.

It is interesting that whilst some remain boastful of their actions others wish to bury it and the idea of Truth and Reconciliation remains remote at this time. However, there is one moment in the film when Adi visits a man who now has a dementia and whose daughter is caring for him 24 hours a day. During this interview (and this act had been mentioned before) he reveals how he, and others, had drunk the blood of their victims in order not to ‘go crazy’. His daughter, who has always been proud of her father’s standing in the community suddenly realises that she does not know him at all and she asks Adi to forgive her and her father for this sin, which Adi does. But she is the only person we see who really listens and reacts appropriately.

As Herzog says at the end of his interview – see these films and tell your friends to see them too. To end on a heartening note both works have been screened, and continue to be so, in Indonesia and perhaps the coming generations will not let it be hidden away as the bodies are of so many of its people.