I grew up in the seventies and eighties, so back then ‘the war picture’ usually meant one thing – the black and white past. Epitomized by the likes of John Wayne or those grainy Sunday afternoon favorites like The Wooden Horse (1950) The Colditz Story (1955) or Above us the Waves (1955), it was about heroism, valor, sacrifice, and Jack Hawkins. Back then, they seemed out of touch with my growing fears of the atomic apocalypse, which felt like a distinct possibility. People seemed to enjoy those films with a kind of logic that seemed to suggest that it was better to think about a conflict that had already been won than one no one ever could. Then along came BBC TV movie Threads (1984), the horrifyingly bleak recreation of a nuclear attack on Sheffield. It presented us with a detailed examination of that end game – death, disease, and radioactive terror. It was the audio/visual equivalent of suicide pills served on blast scorched toast, and being forced to watch it at school when I was thirteen, I can safely say it scarred me for life, and while I have little motivation to return to it, it did at least teach me that the war film wasn’t the one thing I had been told it was.
Soon after, I became obsessed with Metallica’s ‘One’ video with its intriguing imagery. I began to seek out other more disturbing insights into conflict, destruction, and human nature. In fact, my love of esoteric, cult cinema partly grew out of that and has led me across the chaos of many a silver screen battlefield, and though, like many, I have loved and discussed more obvious entries in this genre like Apocalypse Now (1979), Full Metal Jacket (1987) and more recent offerings like Dunkirk (2017), for me, this distinct sub-sect of cinema is never more effective than when it is left to explode in slightly more unconventional surrounds.
To me, there was always something, about Shock Corridor (1963), Sam Fuller’s boldly dark glimpse into a damaged national psyche, that felt like a war film, not so much in the classic sense, but one that at least examined the after-effects of Whitehouse foreign policy, in an unexpected setting. Not only did it suggest, both subtly and not so subtly that the following of the American dream can only ever lead to the confines of a lunatic asylum – in a literal and figurative sense, but it also gave us an ahead of its time take on the unspoken of topic of PTSD.
The deluded Boden, (James Best), a brainwashed and broken Korean War vet, cut loose by the military to rot in padded cell hell, casts an uneasy shadow. His deranged flip-flopping between communist and right-wing patriot, oddly seem to mimic our divided 21st-century society, which is unable to find nuance in adult discussion and lurches between fascist raving and overly sensitive liberal knee jerk reactions. More importantly, the film’s underlying examination of warfare and mental health, make it an off-kilter forerunner for many other alternative battle-torn affairs. There is, of course, William Peter Blatty’s weirdly unsettling The Ninth Configuration (1980), a slightly demented yet deeply intelligent melodrama involving a military mental health unit, whose patients’ idiosyncrasies and explosive behaviors seem to reflect and embody a countries inability to deal with change and its humiliating withdrawal from South East Asia. This issue would be highlighted in a string of movies including Zac Snyder’s adequately expensive, yet slightly uninspired adaptation of Alan Moore’s superb graphic novel of the same name, Watchmen (2005). Set in an alternative universe where superheroes are a reality and America has won the Vietnam War, government-sponsored assassin The Comedian postulates in an on-point observation of ‘our’ reality, what would have happened if the conflict had gone other way ‘I mean,’ he slurs drunkenly ‘if we’d have lost this war…I dunno, I think it might have driven us a little crazy.’
But undoubtedly the most interesting take on the whole ‘that war really screwed us up’ sub-genre of a sub-genre, is Adrian Lyne’s decidedly trippy Jacob’s Ladder (1990). Written by Bruce Joel Rubin a good ten years before being greenlit, this Tim Robbins vehicle, a metaphysical tale of waking nightmares and half-remembered realities, was partly inspired by Dante’s Inferno, sections from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and of course Biblical Jacob’s dreamlike vision of where Heaven meets Earth. And yet its story involving a military vet’s chaotic breakdown and his descent into out and horror with its celebrated Twilight Zone twist ending possibly owes more to the likes of Heck Harvey’s woozy early sixties haunted palace flick Carnival of Souls (1963). It’s a genuinely scary affair, Robbins, in a pre-Shawshank appearance, expertly captures a forgotten casualty whose meaning and consciousness has somehow been lost between the cracks. It’s horrific, disquieting, and clever in all the ways that most films aren’t. As an audience, we witness Singers’ plight with a real sense of connection, unlike many of the less cerebral genre pics of that era, there is a real attempt to place us, if only momentarily within the mindset of the troubled protagonist, which stretches beyond the supplementary. His pain and confusion are fleetingly ours to experience and we feel because it might well be us, sinking into a hallucinatory limbo.
Of course, the war film can and should move beyond the realms of the American experience from time to time, to focus on conflicts from a much older era. One such look at the English Civil War was able to take the period drama to a different dimension, infusing it with psychedelic visions and 2001 style time-twisting insanity. Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England (2013), drew together various reference points like The Witchfinder General (1968), The Trip (1967) and the Peter Watkins pseudo-doc Culloden (1964) and fashioned them into a hellish acid trip come spiritual awakening, tinged with reality-bending sequences and a creepy black white form of British folk horror. It’s ensemble cast including The League of Gentlemen’s Reece Sheersmith easily elicit the film’s ragged band of deserters, cowards, and battle-scarred soldiers. Fresh from the ongoing fight, which still rages in a nearby meadow, the group bond together over food and mundane chatter, in an unlikely alliance, like the roar of cannons echoes in the distance. But after consuming ‘wild’ mushrooms and coming face to face with black magic warlock O’Neill, terrifyingly portrayed by Michael Smiley, the narrative distorts into a perception shifting outlandish freakout. The alarming developments are described perfectly in Richard Glover’s succinct observation – ‘I think I worked out what God is punishing us for. Everything.’
Another version of Hell, albeit a beautifully cinematic one, is presented to us in the smart, yet oddly underappreciated Miracle Mile (1987). Like Threads, the tale leads us into the coming apocalypse, but unlike the BBC film, the distinctly un-Sheffield surroundings of late eighties L.A. ease us into a fanciful love story, constantly providing us with humor, humanity and initially, a sun blanched kind of hope. Director and writer Steve De Jarrnat’s brilliantly intriguing premise sees protagonist Harry (Anthony Edwards) randomly answering a ringing payphone only to be accidentally informed that a nuclear attack on the states is merely fifty minutes away. What follows is a panicked effort for Harry to get himself and his newly acquired girlfriend, Julie (Mare Winningham) out of the blast zone range. The action, both comic yet fraught with real tension, dances along to the tune of a perfectly featured Tangerine Dream score, while a heady and hazy Los Angeles hangs tantalizingly in the background, as the bomb approaches. Tonally it moves between John Hughes comedy and paranoid satire, but any hints that this movie isn’t taking its subject matter seriously are blown away in its tragically horrible mushroom-cloud denouement.
No less daring is the wonderfully titled Panic in Year Zero! (1962). Directed by and starring Ray Milland as an odd sort of post-atomic Uber-Dad, this AIP B-feature, is a fast-moving, all-action take on the apocalypse. When L.A. (again) is involved in an atomic skirmish, Baldwin (Milland), on a camping trip with his family, is immediately charged with protecting his loved ones in the aftermath of the attack. Though never quite living up to the poster’s promise that the film is ‘Where Science Fiction Ends And Fact Begins’, it still delivers a gripping and highly addictive drama, which feeds on our base fears about what happens when civilization breaks down. Even if we put to one side it’s laughably unrealistic handling of the physical effects, what remains is a palpably edgy situation which forces a hitherto mild-mannered suburbanite to quickly transform into a gun-toting defender of his family. His usual adherence to truth, justice, and the American way is truly tested when he is driven to protect his wife, son, and especially his daughter from the ravages of lawless armed looters, hoodlums, and rapists. In essence, it’s a brilliantly bizarre and strangely real, (scientific inaccuracies aside) look at life when it is stripped to the bone. Here’s what happens when a society loses all reason. Baldwin as a representation of ‘us’ has to deal, not so much with radioactivity but fall out of humankind when any form of recognizable normality is snatched away in an instant.
That idea of one life being devastatingly transformed by a single blast is perhaps never examined so completely than it is in Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1971), based on his novella, of the same name, this First World War story about a young man blown to bits during a battle, can be seen largely as a thinly veiled allegory for the then continuing atrocities in Vietnam, however, it is also a brazenly kooky cult movie, laced with nods to other examples of mainstream and outsider cinema. I first came across this in the aforementioned video for Metallica’s ‘One’, the promo was packed with tantalising clips from the low budget film, which in pre-internet days was depressingly out of my reach. Still, those brief flashes became something of an obsession and in place of being able to see or buy the celluloid version, I sought out the original book and devoured that instead. I eventually got to see the movie years later. The premise of novella and films is despairingly simple. A soldier injured so badly by a shell, that he loses, his legs, arms, sight, hearing and the ability to talk, disappears into a fugue state, which allows us, the audience, to witness his backstory and the fantasy constructs of his panicked imagination. The fact that he can only communicate with the outside world by utilising his army training to elicit a crude form of head thumping morse code, is a typically sharp Trumbo touch. In some respects, as with its unfortunate protagonist, Johnny Got His Gun is, when compared to more recent examples of cinema, an unrecognisable mess. But of course, for me that is part of its charm, though it is clunky in places and the colour flashback segments never work as well as the stark black and white shots, which seem to prefigure Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), it is entertainingly raw and cosmically bleak, somehow switching between moments of human warmth and clinical cruelty. It’s a jarringly satisfying piece of work, a freak show bit of exploitation one second and a beautiful excavation of a tender soul the next, and more importantly, it’s a superlative exemplar of the alternative war film.
Which brings me back my original point that the war film never is or nor should it ever be ‘one thing’. This is not to say that I don’t return to those more traditional examples and enjoy them, but it’s important to look beyond John Mills occasionally and those more Poe-faced Vietnam efforts and search out something stranger now and again. Never mind the hero with the medals across his chest, go see what the weird guy on the edges of the parade ground is up to.