“David Thomson’s review of The Fatal Alliance is a gripping exploration of a century of war portrayed through film, filled with intense action, violence, and entertainment.”
David Thomson makes a thought-provoking statement in his chapter about a Bertrand Tavernier film set in the aftermath of World War I: “I question the existence of anti-war films.” This remark may seem brief and casual within its context, but it holds great significance to Thomson’s overall message. The distinguished British film critic delves into the topic of war and our conflicting emotions towards it, as portrayed through the medium of film – both literally and figuratively.
Can we feel sadness and compassion while sitting in a dim movie theater, gazing with excitement at the flashes of war on the screen? In this setting, everyone becomes 11 years old, reveling in the chaos unfolding before them, the more violence and carnage, the better. The responsible adult within us may express discomfort as bullets fly and bodies are torn apart, but our inner child cheers silently: keep going, kill them all!
We cannot reword.
It is evident that Thomson’s book not only focuses on war movies, but also on our society’s views towards war and its non-combatants. This is a recurring issue that he addresses, noting the contrast between the intense danger portrayed on screen and our comfortable and detached state in the movie theater. Thomson observes that when we step into a cinema, we leave behind any sense of responsibility and immerse ourselves in the spectacle of Hollywood’s chaotic productions. He describes the battlefield depicted in these films as a level playing field with no elevated terrain.
During World War II, both German and Hollywood cinema released propaganda films as well as romantic comedies. Despite the seriousness of the war, Hollywood also produced a number of popular comedies such as “Objective, Burma!” and “Bataan” that ignored the reality of the war. This frivolousness was a result of audience demand, as they were willing to pay for escapist entertainment during difficult times. Even now, as ticket prices have increased, audiences continue to seek out lighthearted films.
After the initial thrill of victory had faded, filmmakers began to depict the true nature of battle. The famous Omaha beach scene in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) gives a glimpse of the destruction, loss of life, and brutality that occurred during D-day. However, even as we watch with baited breath and excitement, we cannot deny that screen violence is something we would abhor and condemn in real life, yet we find ourselves indulging in it in the darkness of the theater. And despite this, we do not feel ashamed.
Thomson recognizes the brilliance of Spielberg and the immense skill of one of his favorite actors, Tom Hanks. However, he has reservations. In regards to the TV series Band of Brothers, which was created by the famous duo, Thomson admits that it is masterfully done, but he criticizes it for glorifying the notion that America is a united group of brothers and that everything will be fine as long as we remain enlisted. According to Thomson, Spielberg and Hanks have sacrificed the potential for artistic expression in exchange for the satisfaction and recognition of becoming an institution. This is a serious accusation, but Thomson is tackling weighty issues.
The author believes that the most important lesson from World War II is that the line between soldiers and civilians became blurred, making it difficult to distinguish between the two. He even goes as far as to say that there is no longer such a thing as civilian life, as everyone in a war zone is equally at risk. In the past, battles were fought on designated battlefields and were even considered public entertainment. However, starting in 1939, the concept and strategy of total war emerged, with devastating examples like the siege of Stalingrad, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and more recently in places like Mariupol and Aleppo.
The concept of all-out warfare resulted in the creation of the total war film, exemplified by the relentless action and graphic violence in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down. The movie premiered in 2001, a significant year. Thomson praises the film but also contemplates how real-life battles often mirror the production and planning of a movie, a recurring idea in The Fatal Alliance.
This is not a trivial idea. Movies about war have been a significant part of film history in the 100 years of warfare from 1914 to now. There is something inside of us, a deep and ultimately unsatisfiable desire, that is satisfied by watching depictions on a screen of soldiers killing each other, machines killing soldiers, and cities collapsing. In his excellent and skillfully crafted book, Thomson – one of the best writers in the English language today – does not shy away from reflecting on this unsettling craving.
According to the author, his goal is to illustrate how the media has organized a hierarchy and transformed us from impassioned citizens to desensitized onlookers, caught between feeling secure and powerless. This is most likely true, but in this destructive partnership, we are not only complicit, but actively participating.