July 16, 2008

Genre study: the war comedy

War: dead soldiers everywhere. Brutality against civilians. Explosions. Destructions. Families torn apart.


Sure. If you ask some directors, war can be a goldmine for comedy (usually of the dark variety). But when do these comedies toe the line of bad taste? Let us examine some standout contributions to the genre.

Civil War

1. The General (1927). This Buster Keaton silent film is more of a showcase for his comic abilities than any particular scathing indictment of war (although the plot is based on true events). One might argue today that the Civil War was so long ago that nobody's blood will boil over it anymore, but at the time of this film's release, the time that had elapsed since the war was about the same as WWII to now. There's also the fact that for American audiences, there's no external force to villainize. Because the North won, it may be a bit difficult to sympathize with Keaton's Confederate-affiliated character, but he's just an everyman trying to get by. This film could have taken place anytime, from the Roman Empire to space wars of the future, but it's really just about Buster being Buster.

Offensiveness cringe scale (from 0-5): 0. The only real politically charged element is that Keaton's sweetheart basically says that he's not a real man if he doesn't enlist.


2. The Great Dictator (1940). Charlie Chaplin was always ahead of his time, and could get downright edgy (in Monsieur Verdoux, he played a lady-killer). Making a film (his first talkie) about WWII before it started? Brilliant. Playing the dual roles of a Jewish barber and a crazed Hitler stand-in named Adenoid Hynkel, Chaplin foreshadows the devastating effects of the war to come. If laughing at Hitler seems a little uncomfortable to you, Chaplin's cartoonish portrayal makes it hard not to, from speaking gibberish as German to his famous ballet sequence with a globe. The Jewish barber is in a hospital for many years with amnesia, and his innocent befuddlement upon returning to his old neighborhood is both funny and tragic. Unlike Keaton, whose war backdrop was more incidental, Chaplin's was completely deliberate. He was a known pacifist who ended this film with a lengthy and well-known speech pleading for peace.

Offensiveness cringe scale: 1 - because it's Hitler, and also because this film was eerily prophetic.

3. To Be or Not To Be (1942). Ernst Lubitsch adds his "Lubitsch touch" to this sparkling comedy about stage actors in Poland during the war. It's a clever premise: the acting troupe keeps playing different roles of figures in the Nazi government to further their cause. Unlike other war films, there is no serious message here - it's all fun. Hard to believe, since WWII was in full swing at this time and star Carole Lombard died right after production in a plane crash. It was a pretty bold move of Lubitsch not to sermonize with this film.

Offensiveness cringe scale: 3. Even though none of the protagonists sympathize with the Nazis, some of the things they say while pretending (or some of the things the Nazis say) are a bit much, particularly the line "Concentration camps - we do the concentrating, the Poles do the camping!" It also portrays Nazis as womanizers trying to seduce people over to their side, and the lack of a serious message lets the comedy keep its full sting. It's still hilarious though.

4. Catch-22 (1970). I could not get through this book. I tried. Twice. But the film is entirely another story, featuring an all-star cast that includes Alan Arkin, Anthony Perkins, Jon Voight, and Orson Welles. The focus of the film is the insane bureaucracy surrounding war, and the measures participants go to in order to stay sane. It also marked a unique piece of cinematic history: it's the first American film to show an actor sitting on the toilet, in the hilarious scene where Martin Balsam's character nonchalantly has a conversation with Perkins while sitting on the john.

Offensiveness cringe scale: 2. It's not intrinsically offensive - more blasphemous, in that it paints the heroic men of WWII as deranged, heartless, wimpy, or manipulative. But is that just the plain truth?

Vietnam War thinly disguised as Korean War

5. M*A*S*H (1970). Korean War? Bitch, please. We know what was really going on here. Robert Altman's film is a curious mix of serious subjects, medical gore, and satire. In contrast to Catch-22, which came out the same year, Altman's protagonists are careless swingers who happen to be really good surgeons. They're kind of like Steve Carrell's character on "The Office" - he has completely the wrong attitude and ethic for the job, but at the end of the day, he surprises everyone by actually being a good salesman.

Offensiveness cringe scale: 3, largely for the characters' misogyny. Again, you don't necessarily feel that Altman endorses these sentiments, but they're there nonetheless - lines like "It's a good thing you have a nice body, nurse, otherwise they'd get rid of you quick."

Cold War-ish

6. Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Stanley Kubrick turned Cold War paranoia on its head in this riotous and outrageous satire. Featuring Peter Sellers in a multitude of roles so convincing that I initially didn't know they were all the same actor, both overzealously patriotic Americans and Soviets are lampooned mercilessly. The best-known line of the film summarizes its circular logic: "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here. This is the war room!"

Offensiveness cringe scale: 3, again with the Hitler. The titular Dr. Strangelove has a condition where his hand involuntarily salutes Hitler. (This is actually a real condition, called agonistic apraxia and nicknamed "Dr. Strangelove Syndrome.") Some may also be offended by the glib and, shall we say, "explosive" finale.

War on Terror

7. Team America: World Police (2004). Right from the self-righteous title you know this movie is gonna be trouble. Your second indicator is that it was made by the creators of "South Park" (Trey Parker and Matt Stone). A film this topical can be hit or miss (Postal, anyone?), but the key is making fun of the right things. And as far as I'm concerned, Parker and Stone hit a home run in that department. And with an all-puppet cast, no less!

Offensiveness cringe scale: 5. This film mocks everyone and everything - from Kim Jong Il to...Matt Damon?! It also boasts catchy songs like "America...Fuck Yeah!" It's probably most known, however, for the filthy sex acts involving puppets that should make anyone with an ounce of decency blush. And yet, like an episode of "South Park," it's a lot smarter than you think.

Basically, the world needs war comedies -whether to lift spirits during a hard time or heave a hearty laugh at how ridiculous we can be. Because as the saying goes, "If we can't laugh, then our enemies win."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'd like to hear your thoughts on the recent John Cusack film, War, Inc. It didn't get the best of reviews and is no where near my favorite High Fidelity, but I still enjoyed it.