The Fatal Alliance: A Century Of War On Film by David Thomson Review – Blood, Guts And Popcorn

Film critic David Thomson. (Tony Bock/Toronto Star/Getty images)


Towards the end of a chapter on a Bertrand Tavernier movie set just after the first world war, David Thomson writes: “I doubt there is any such thing as an anti-war film.” In its context it seems hardly more than a passing observation, but in fact the thought is fundamental to Thomson’s project. For what the eminent British film critic is writing about, at some length and in compelling and often limpidly beautiful prose, is war itself and our ambiguous relation to it, or at least to its representation in moving images – moving in more senses than one.

But are we moved to sorrow and pity, sitting in a darkened cinema with our faces lifted rapturously to the light of battle flickering across the screen? At the pictures, everyone is 11 years old, and 11-year-olds glory in the mayhem going on up there, and the more blood and mangled bodies the better. Oh dear, the appalled adult in us murmurs, as the bullets fly and the arteries sever, oh dear, oh dear, but our exulting inner child silently shouts: go on, kill ’em all!

And who can blame us, bloodthirsty scamps that we are? Writing of The Bridge on the River Kwai, Thomson recommends “this rueful picture” but adds: “The attempt to describe our guilty past is a duty cinema has neglected: such scrutiny doesn’t sell, and its dismay is at odds with the glamour of battle and our mad longing to be aroused.” And he is right, of course; the glamour of it all is irresistible. While we should be aghast and ashen-faced before the actuality and immediacy of latter-day war movies, “in the dark we are counting off the kills with the relish picked up watching combat films. We have done our basic training.”

As quickly becomes clear, Thomson’s book is as much about war and our non-combatants’ attitudes to it as it is about war movies. This is the dilemma that he returns to again and again, “that there is a tension in all war films between the vivid peril on screen and our demure safety in the dark”. When we enter a cinema, we leave our sense of responsibility behind in the popcorn-strewn foyer. Thomson notes that in what he wonderfully describes as “the vain pandemonium of Hollywood moviemaking”, the playing field – the battlefield – is flat, with no rising ground.

In the second world war, German cinema churned out hysterical propaganda along with slushy romances – but Hollywood did, too. “So films like Objective, Burma! and Bataan competed with a golden age of comedies that declined to admit the concurrence of war: The Shop Around the Corner, The Lady Eve, His Girl Friday. How frivolous Hollywood was.” So it was, but it was the moviegoing public that required it to be so, in exchange for its hard-earned one-and-sixpences. The tickets cost more now, but it is still frivolity we demand.

True, when the flush of victory had dimmed sufficiently, film-makers set about showing what battle is really like: “If you have seen Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) and its Omaha beach sequence you have an idea of the damage, the death and the outrages to the body that took place there.” Yet does not that D-day sequence have us on the edge of our seats, gasping in the excitement of it all? It does, “because screen violence is a practice we would abhor and condemn in life, while luxuriating over in the dark”. And are we ashamed of ourselves? No, we are not.

Thomson acknowledges the genius of Spielberg and the vast talent of one of his most favoured actors, Tom Hanks; but he has his doubts. In considering the television series Band of Brothers, created by that “lovable pair”, he concedes the mastery of the thing, but condemns it for honouring “the humbug that America is a band of brothers, so everything will be all right if we stay enlisted. Spielberg and Hanks gave up on the risk of being artists for the gratification and reward of becoming an institution.” This is a grave charge, but Thomson here is dealing with grave matters.

He sees as the profoundest lesson of the second world war that the distinction between soldiers and civilians became so blurred as hardly to count any longer. There is, he goes so far as to say, “no more civilian life”, for in modern warfare all in the war zone are equally vulnerable. In more stately times, battles took place on battlefields – the public even went out to view the action, carrying parasols and picnic baskets. But after 1939 came the concept, and the strategy, of total war, as most horrifyingly exemplified in the siege of Stalingrad, and then Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and, in our time, in Mariupol and Aleppo.

And total war brought about the total war movie: think of the relentlessness of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, of the spluttering blood, the lopped limbs, the spilled guts. It was first shown in that fateful year, 2001. Thomson admires the film, but it makes him think – and this is a recurring theme in The Fatal Alliance – how much actual battle “resembles the process and scheduling of a film”.

This is not a frivolous notion. War films have been a large component of cinema in the century of warfare from 1914 to the present. Something in us, some dark and ultimately unfulfillable longing, is fed by images on a screen of soldiers slaughtering one another, and machines slaughtering soldiers, and cities toppling. In his superb and masterfully engineered book, Thomson – one of the finest living stylists in the English language – is unflinching in his contemplation of this disturbing hunger.

His aim, he writes, is “to describe how what we call the media have drawn up an order of battle and turned us from outraged citizens into numb spectators somewhere between safe and helpless”. No doubt this is so; but in that fatal alliance, we are willing, and more than willing, collaborators.