The Fatal Alliance: A Century of War on Film 
by David Thomson.
Harper, 435 pp., £25, January, 978 0 06 304141 7
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David Thomson​ is best known for a series of surveys of the history of cinema as Olympian in scope as they are in evenness of tone, the most notable being his indispensable Biographical Dictionary of Film from 1975, subsequently updated in a series of editions as the New Biographical Dictionary of Film. His latest book, The Fatal Alliance, is every bit as commanding in its succinct description and analysis of a wide variety of films, good, bad and (mostly) indifferent. But its tone veers and jags as he attempts to cut through to what he perceives to be the moral and political heart of the matter.

This is a book about war, an attempt to describe the dynamic in film that has been so infatuated with battle. But battle and war are not the same: war is a malignancy in our nature and society, the deep expression of our fear; while battle aspires to adventure and a thrill, like going to a movie, and trying to believe that we can handle fear.

There can’t be many histories of cinema as a mass medium which seek to examine and address a ‘malignancy’ in human nature and society. Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler (1947), about Weimar filmmaking and the rise of Nazism, would certainly count. The Fatal Alliance is in select company.

The charge Thomson lays against war films is the obvious one: they make it all too easy to experience the thrill of battle while remaining safely out of harm’s way, to relish the violence, to gorge or feast ourselves on it (he does like a culinary metaphor). People have always found ways to do that. Thomson, however, is prepared to put the blame on a particular institution. The ‘onset of the movies’, he argues, may well have proved the ‘most influential’ of all innovations in the ‘process’ of modern warfare. The fact that the enduring tension between martial fantasy and an awareness of damage done is unlikely to be resolved any time soon adds a flavour of hellfire sermon to the book’s encyclopedic intent. ‘I’m warning you,’ Thomson says at the outset. ‘This book will not be comfortable … Ask yourself whether you are up for it.’

‘In two world wars,’ he observes, ‘the American homeland was calm; its industry thrived; its stories swelled in grandeur. But it longs to be the leader and a star in war studies. So America has had few rivals in the making of exciting war movies, or in the ingenuity and expressiveness of its military expenditure.’ Thomson has always been as interested in the way films are made as he is in their appearance on the screen, and he gets down to business with some intriguing thoughts about the ways in which the process and scheduling of a film might seem to resemble the ‘order of battle’. Both require advance planning, a firm control of logistics, and, above all, an absolute faith in the ability of the various members of the ‘unit’ – task force, or cast and crew – to work together to get the job done.

The example offered is Black Hawk Down (2001), a blockbuster based on a book by Mark Bowden about the near disastrous military operation that culminated in the hasty retreat of US forces from the centre of Mogadishu. Thomson tells us that he has felt compelled to watch the movie over and over again – a guilty pleasure – thanks to the performance not of Sam Shepard as the general in command but of Tom Sizemore as ‘the sergeant hacking his way out of the labyrinth’. Sizemore is in fact playing a lieutenant colonel, but he might as well be a sergeant (as indeed he was in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan), because we only ever see him in the absolute thick of combat. It’s up to him to get the job done without asking what on earth they’re doing in Mogadishu in the first place. To that extent, Thomson suggests, the sergeant figure could be seen as a kind of director, ‘expert and committed, yet uninterested in the nature of the mission’. The sergeant Hollywood called up for this particular assignment was Ridley Scott, son of an army officer, who had by 2001 acquired a handy reputation for ‘getting difficult and novel adventure pictures done’. The US army provided the helicopters and a week or two of basic training for the cast.

Thomson reckons it was Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) that first established the grammar of the ‘good battle scene’: high-angle points of view, a ‘tracking motion’ to ‘animate or excite’ the progress of an attack, an editorial ‘cut and thrust’ to match that of hand-to-hand combat. All Quiet, mixing elegant master shot with brutal close-up, does not ‘shrink’ from the ‘doom or futility’ of combat. Indeed its release could be said to have represented a last chance to ‘act upon’ a full understanding of what warfare entailed in the era of tanks, planes and heavy machine-guns. Yet the techniques it pioneered soon became, and still remain, the basis of the ‘American model’ of war film. The relentlessly thrilling Black Hawk Down never loses its ‘constitutional faith’ in the unit to get the job done. Unlike All Quiet, it denies any ‘responsibility’ for the ensuing mayhem.

The Fatal Alliance is to some degree autobiographical: ‘I was born in February 1941, in a London being bombed, and I was told by everyone in my childhood that it was a good thing “we” had won the war.’ To the visceral pleasures of the battle scene could now be added the moral intoxication of victory in a ‘just’ war: a war there had been no good way not to fight. Thomson’s father took him to see Laurence Olivier’s Henry V in 1945, the year after its release. ‘He said it was a matter of duty.’ The standard British movie fare of the day had plenty of ‘syrup’, he recalls, to ladle over the ‘suet pudding’ of tremulous national morale.

Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), in which John Wayne plays the ‘fearsome yet admirable’ Marine Sergeant John Stryker, introduced him to the American model. ‘If you look at films like that, buttered with message, it’s easier to comprehend the unguarded innocence that was still active in 1945.’ The feast, once so eagerly devoured, now sits uneasily on his stomach. Viewed from a different angle, the ‘just war’ is just war. No surprise, then, that Thomson should be at his very best when discussing films which, rather than merely acknowledging the chaos unleashed by combat, actively explore its nature and consequences: Humphrey Jennings’s Fires Were Started (1943), Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent (1977), Bertrand Tavernier’s Life and Nothing But (1989), Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old (2018). He captures to vivid effect the distinctive lyrical anguish filmmakers like Jennings and Shepitko bring to their portrayal of the damage that war does to people and places; and, like any good historian, he has a trick or two up his sleeve. There’s Ted Post’s Go Tell the Spartans (1978), for example, a ’Nam movie set in 1964 during the early stages of American involvement, which tests the All Quiet-plus-sergeants model to absolute destruction. Burt Lancaster, a sergeant in Fred Zinnemann’s era-defining From Here to Eternity (1953), now the officer in command at a besieged outpost, puts in a performance laconic enough to remind you of that term’s origin in the terseness of Spartan rhetoric. Thomson has as ever cast his net widely. I’m about two hours into Masaki Kobayashi’s epic The Human Condition (1959-61), with a further seven to go.

I thought that one way to get to grips with the American model would be to watch a film I’d not seen before that earns a chapter to itself in The Fatal Alliance. Fury (2014), written and directed by David Ayer, is a coming-of-age saga set for the most part in the shuddering interior of a Sherman tank. The Sherman, produced in vast numbers, was at once one of the weapons that won the Second World War and a potential death-trap, highly vulnerable to anti-tank fire and to the superior performance of the more advanced Wehrmacht models. In the British army, Shermans were apparently known as Ronsons because, like the celebrated cigarette lighter, they lit ‘first time, every time’. In Fury, Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a recruit as green as they come, joins a battle-hardened crew under the leadership of Sergeant Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier (Brad Pitt). It’s April 1945, and they’re about to drive like hell into the heart of Germany. For the next hour or so, Ellison learns his trade the hard way under Wardaddy’s unforgiving gaze.

Altogether less expected is the scope of the extra-vehicular ‘education’ Wardaddy seems ready to offer the young man. As the crews relax after taking a small town, Wardaddy leads Norman into a building where they find two women, Irma (Anamaria Marinca) and her young cousin Emma (Alicia von Rittberg). While Irma fries the eggs Wardaddy has managed to scavenge and boils some water for him to shave in, Norman and Emma repair to a convenient piano (he plays, she sings, they bond). Wardaddy now has his top off, so Thomson is able to poke some gentle fun at Pitt’s ‘enviable torso’ (then there’s the haircut: that tank must have been carrying a crate-load of gel). He’s right to draw attention to the star’s beauty. But quite a lot else happens in the scene. We realise that Emma and Norman are gazing in rapt attention at Wardaddy, who now has his back turned to them. We were expecting a further dose of enviable torso. What we get instead is a mottled fretwork of deep scarring. At some point in his eventful career, Wardaddy has evidently had to extricate himself in a hurry from a blazing tank. Thus dignified by suffering, he can proceed to pass on the rest of what he knows to his apprentice. ‘If you don’t take her to that bedroom,’ he tells Norman, ‘I will.’ The scene takes place exactly halfway through the film. It lets us know that Wardaddy, marked as a sacrificial victim by the damage done to his body, is unlikely to make it to the end of the campaign. Norman is already odds-on to survive. The fury to come (including the film’s battlefield raison d’être, a climactic last-ditch stand in the now disabled tank) carries an air of redundancy. Here’s a war film in which the representation of battle – ‘Night is falling,’ Thomson observes, ‘so the gunfire will be prettier’ – is at once the whole point and a complete waste of time.

Born and raised in London, Thomson is now an American citizen. As the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the audience he has primarily in mind is that of his fellow citizens. These are the people who must continue to ask themselves if they’re up for it. So there’s no avoiding Vietnam. Thomson’s at times excoriating critique of the best-known ’Nam films – The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986) – is both shrewd and heartfelt. Indeed, starting as it does on page 299 out of 384, it seems like a significant clenching of the book’s mood and tone. It’s followed immediately by a chapter on Mel Gibson, star of We Were Soldiers (2002) – ‘a triumph of combat and the most deplorable Vietnam picture ever made’ – and more recently director of a series of films notable for the lively interest they take in the infliction of ‘damage and pain’. Gibson’s world is ‘a place where cinema meets anthropology’, Thomson declares, ‘and the plain bloodlust in audiences – in us – is set free.’ No more so than in Apocalypto (2006), an epic saga of ambush, enslavement and escape set in the last days of Mayan civilisation. Apocalypto is ‘Trumpian cinema’, Thomson remarks: you can feel Gibson’s ‘contempt for us’ and ‘shudder at the power it may attain’. After some further discussion of the more benign version of the All Quiet-plus-sergeants model delivered by Hollywood’s pre-eminent ‘unit’, Spielberg and Hanks, The Fatal Alliance concludes on a note of menace. ‘That is war’s weather system, the idea of being under control. Oppressed, yet sort of safe? Warn yourself.’

The chapter on Gibson includes a revealing aside. To put violence on screen is a ‘laborious’ business, Thomson points out, ‘boring almost’. You can scrap the ‘almost’ when it comes to the final forty minutes of Apocalypto, which chronicle the hero’s escape from captivity. The cinematography is sumptuous, and the performances brim with conviction. But the resulting ‘rush of brutalism’, as Thomson puts it, can’t altogether conceal the fact that the sequence amounts to a long wait for the carefully calculated unveiling of a series of stunts – multi-pronged deathtrap, slo-mo duel, oh-shit leap over the edge of a precipice – which have surely seen better days. These sequences depend on a steady escalation of effect, and thus on overload. Their chief characteristic is the necessary occlusion of significant detail. It’s striking that Thomson couldn’t find any battle scenes to include in his illuminating guide to Moments That Made the Movies (2013). I can only recall two such moments from Black Hawk Down. Both occur during the uncanny hiatus created when a civilian strays into the line of fire. Thomson certainly has me warning myself. But I also think that there’s a great deal more to be said about those war films which know perfectly well that gunfire is boring.

My introduction to patriotic filmmaking came in the shape of The Guns of Navarone (1961), adapted from a novel by Alistair MacLean and directed by J. Lee Thompson. By the beginning of the 1960s, the war’s most photogenic episodes had all been used up: The Colditz Story, The Dam Busters, Sink the Bismarck! It was time to let the old action adventure format loose on some vaguely plausible military scenarios. In The Guns of Navarone, a team of crack saboteurs led by Major Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle) makes its way across a notional Aegean island towards a fortress which houses deep within it a battery of big guns. Franklin breaks a leg and has to be left behind, so the rather more wolfish Captain Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck) takes over. The team is harried all the way. Someone has been revealing their movements to the enemy. The finger points at a young partisan, Anna (Gia Scala), whom Mallory has evidently fallen for. It can’t be her, surely. The proof of her loyalty lies in a brutal whipping at the hands of Nazi interrogators infuriated by her refusal to talk. But hang on a moment. No one has ever actually seen the scars. Time to have a look. The effect when the back of Anna’s dress is pulled roughly open is the opposite of the pivot Pitt executes in Fury. We’d hoped for a redemptive disfigurement. What we get instead is a glimpse of flawlessness. Scala’s back, unencumbered by anything as fussy as a bra strap, proves to be as beautiful as Brad’s front; which means that Anna is indeed a traitor.

This isn’t just an interlude of erotic theatre before the killing resumes in earnest. The killing does resume, but only as a diversion. Lured out of the fortress by some cunningly spread disinformation, the garrison is to be kept busy by means of ambush and sniping while Mallory slips in to spike the guns. The military feint is also the film’s. For its narrative climax concerns the ingenuity about to be displayed by Mallory’s urbane companion, the explosives expert Corporal John Miller (David Niven, thank goodness, when it was meant to be Kenneth More). Anna has somehow contrived to destroy or remove key elements of Miller’s kit, including all the fuses and timers. So it’s down to him to improvise a solution with what he has left. The enemy, alerted to their presence, hammers at the door. Mallory can only scurry around aimlessly as the dapper sapper booby-traps the hoist used to ferry ammunition from the magazine below. It’s a taut little scene. Niven, up to his waist in water, fell seriously ill while filming it. The suspense, as we await the outcome of these experiments, is real enough – and almost entirely abstract.

The Guns of Navarone is of course by no means unique in the delight it takes in improvisation. Prisoner-of-war movies, an enduringly popular subgenre, consist of little else. Thomson would no doubt want to remind us of the lethal consequences of wartime inventiveness. He’s rightly struck by the grim elegance of the scene in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987) in which young Jim Graham (Christian Bale) sees a ‘dazzling light in the sky’ that he isn’t yet able to identify as the detonation over Nagasaki. But his overriding emphasis on the guilty pleasure induced by scenes of battle does detract to some degree from the war film’s capacity to reflect on the sorts of long-term social and cultural change that improvisation in a time of emergency might be thought to have encouraged. I’m not sure, for example, that he entirely fulfils his promise to make as much as he can of ‘women at war’. Given his strong interest in films set in occupied Europe, it’s odd that he has nothing at all to say here about Claude Chabrol’s Une affaire de femmes (1988), which earns warm commendation in the New Biographical Dictionary. The heroine, Marie Latour (Isabelle Huppert), is based on Marie-Louise Giraud, who lived with her husband and two children in a run-down area of Cherbourg. Giraud was guillotined by the Vichy state on 30 July 1943 for performing 27 illegal abortions. Une affaire takes an unflinching look at wartime improvisations in both business and pleasure (Chabrol was obsessed with Madame Bovary). It’s also a film about battle in which barely a shot is fired. The men who betray, prosecute and punish Latour believe that a moral crusade is the only way to restore national pride after devastating military defeat. In punishing her, they have taken revenge, as one of them puts it, on their own cowardice.

Thomson​ does speculate at some length as to whether or not the military ‘unit’ will remain an exclusively male preserve. There’s an entertaining paragraph on Demi Moore as a female warrior in Scott’s G.I. Jane (1997), ‘buffed and cropped and going through intense training tests to prove a girl could do it’. Buffing and cropping is, however, only one of the many roles war has encouraged or obliged women to undertake, since the shape of battle changes too. Cinema has long found a subject in the emergence around 1900 of the figure of the female go-between or medium: a figure by then as necessary to the smooth functioning of the secretarial pool, telegraph office and telephone switchboard as it was to that of the séance. Women, it turned out, were good – more efficient than men, less obtrusive – at transcription, at encoding and decoding.

Filmmakers cottoned on quickly. The protagonist of the Selig Polyscope Company’s American Civil War drama Pauline Cushman, the Federal Spy (1913) is a Union spy who hacks into the Confederate army’s communications system by holding between her teeth one end of a ramrod, while the other end has been pushed through a wall and up against a telegraph sounder in the next room, ‘so receiving the vibrations of the dots and dashes as they are ticked off’. The onset of the First World War rapidly accelerated the feminisation of data transfer. Between 1915 and 1919, more than six hundred women were recruited to work alongside male civil servants and military personnel at MI5’s London headquarters. The foundations had been laid for Bletchley Park.

Mata Hari may have been the most celebrated female spy of the First World War, especially as played by Greta Garbo. But the more thoughtful retrospective accounts put the stress on ingenuity. The opening ten minutes of Victor Saville’s Dark Journey (1937) constitute a user’s guide to the strategies appropriate to the clandestine transfer of information across national borders. It’s the spring of 1918. Madeleine Goddard (Vivien Leigh), a couturier travelling on a Swiss passport, is returning to Stockholm, where she owns a shop, after a business trip to Paris. She has a trunk full of dresses to back her up. The dresses are the key. Or, rather, they contain the key. It’s not long before Goddard is displaying one of them to a room full of German intelligence officers in a luxurious mansion somewhere on the Swedish coast. Aligning this gauzy creation with a map of the Western Front etched on a lampshade, she is able to read off a series of numbers and placenames that reveal the current positions of the Third and Fourth Groups of the French army. This information is transmitted by means of a portable optical telegraph to a yacht offshore, and thence by wireless to Section Eight of the German secret service in Berlin. What matters is the efficacy of the code, not the means by which it has been transmitted: a dress is as good a method as an optical telegraph or a wireless set. We may also have noticed, however, that as her initial message is relayed up the chain of command, control over its transmission passes from a female exponent of technique to a hierarchy of male exponents of technology.

That was to change, in the real world, and then in cinema. In Charles Crichton’s Against the Wind (1948), a team of SOE agents led by a Catholic priest (Robert Beatty) is parachuted into Belgium for the purpose of rescuing a local resistance leader from captivity. The team includes a radio operator, Michèle Denis (Simone Signoret), and an older man, Max Cronk (Jack Warner). Cronk is a double agent: a discovery not made until they’re already on their way to Belgium. The decisive scene takes place in the kitchen of the remote farmhouse where the team has assembled. As the others disperse, Denis remains at the farmhouse with Cronk, awaiting the first radio transmission from London. She’s seated in front of the sewing machine which contains the radio set, while he shaves in a mirror at the far end of the room. The technology of data transfer has been feminised as thoroughly as its technique. Denis is in control. The editing isolates the protagonists in an equal and opposite ignorance. Then it switches for the first time to a two-shot, as Denis begins to decode and transcribe the message she’s receiving from London, which unmasks Cronk. There’s a gun in the sewing machine too. Denis waits until Cronk has turned to face her and pulls the trigger.

Bloody hell, I thought when I first saw the film, she’s just shot Dixon of Dock Green. Warner was to appear in all 432 episodes of the celebrated BBC series of that name about everyday life in a London police station, each of which begins with him delivering a homily from its doorstep (‘Evening all’). He had already made his name as the embodiment of imperturbable Cockney good humour and worldly wisdom in It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) and Easy Money (1948). Like the few other British war films released in the years immediately after 1945, Against the Wind no longer feels under any obligation to maintain morale. But it’s not yet ready to indulge in the nostalgic myth-making of The Dam Busters or The Guns of Navarone. How might its original audience have felt as they watched the moment that makes it? Not oppressed, I’d imagine – but not exactly safe either.

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