The military in storytelling
In the cliché finale of countless Hollywood Westerns, heroic cowboys find themselves defending pacifist settlers from a Native American Indian attack. The Native American Indians ride around a circle of upturned wagons. Massively outnumbered and short of ammunition, the cowboys can’t hold on much longer. Suddenly, as if appearing out of nowhere, a detachment of US cavalry – dressed in blue, the stars and stripes flying – ride into view. The Native American Indians flee, and the settlers are saved.
In classic Westerns the US Military were presented as heroes: bravely protecting innocent and defenceless civilians from brutal ‘savages’. By the 1970s a new consciousness had spread across America, and Revisionist Westerns like Little Big Man (1970) were more sympathetic to the Native American Indians than the likes of the US Cavalry. The portrayal of the military echoed the so-called ‘counter culture’ of the times, hippies, disillusioned students and other disaffected segments of society: Americans unhappy with US ‘imperialism’ and its involvement in the Vietnam war.
Now the military were more likely to be viewed as amoral, part of a ‘fascistic’ ‘system’. In Avatar (2009), a science fiction re-imagining of the Pocahontas story (set on a distant, and exotic, planet), the mercenary, military force, represses the giant blue natives, and causes ecological catastrophe on the planet through its profiteering mining activities. The military are portrayed as arrogant, macho, ‘gung-ho’, out-of-balance, fuelled by violence and money – psychotic. It feels like a criticism of the so-called US ‘military industrial complex’, the tight-knit overlap between projected military power, and it’s corporate support: massive resources, impressive technologies, and mass-production.
The perception of the military as macho and psychotic is echoed in The Abyss (1989), where they are isolated and threatened, unable to call on their command structure, they begin making dangerously rash and illogical decisions. The stake is always higher in wars, or situations involving the military, because lives are at stake and people are walking around with weapons. In The Thin Red Line (1998) military conflict in the Pacific, during World War Two, provides an arena for shocking violence: this is contrasted against the spiritual ‘cathedral’ of the natural world. The military is presented as a corporate-industrial machine where officers fret about the politics of promotion, and willingly sacrifice their men for personal career advancement; and where decent officers try to save those under their command from slaughter. The soldiers are numbers in a brutally choreographed business of war. Individual characters experience different outcomes: their own learning, discoveries, and sacrifices.
The horror of war provides the focus for Paths of Glory (1957) where the military are depicted with largely incompetent and decadent officers leading brutalised soldiers who are treated as canon fodder, and accused of cowardice for not acquiescing to their own slaughter. Here, the military is a kind of monster, led by the ruling elite, which is feeding off the sacrifice of the working class.
In Attack (1956) a US Army soldier must fight the Nazis, and his incompetent, cowardly officer (who has been promoted as the result of a corrupt favour, not through his own competence). The unpleasant politics of war provides a grim reality distinct from heroics or death.
Downfall (2004) chronicles the last days of Hitler’s life in the bunker below Berlin, surrounded by his Generals and high ranking Nazi Party members. The scenario is one step on from Paths of Glory – here the mayhem and destruction that the ruling elite has brought on its own and other people is finally catching up with them. This denial-filled world is crowded with impossible military objectives, and deluded notions of snatching a glorious victory only moments before an ignominious defeat. War is futile: this is the theme of Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) where a British Army Officer attempts to create meaning and pride, as a Japanese prisoner of war, by successfully building a bridge for his captors – only to realise that in his quest to rediscover meaning as a POW he has lost all wider perspective of the war. The military is often associated with rigid conformity and harsh, dehumanising training programmes that crush individuality, and personal meaning.
Films like Platoon (1986) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) explore the military training process, the brutality, and camaraderie. The craziness of war can lead to a lack of perspective, and complete mental breakdown. In Apocalypse Now (1979) a US Army Colonel must be assassinated because he has gone insane. His insanity is almost indicative of a collective American sickness. And in another Vietnam War film The Deer Hunter (1978), a former steel worker's experience of combat and being a prisoner of war takes its toll on his mental state. While in Waltz With Bashir (2008) an Israeli soldier comes to terms with his part in a civilian massacre perpetuated by a Christian militia in Lebanon. But there is another side to war, distinct from misery and death.
In Das Boot (1981) the micro-world of a German U-Boat is explored, along with the Captain’s leadership skills and the comradely spirit of the crew fighting a war underwater. And in Ice Cold in Alex (1958) enemies discover that the real adversary is the desert, not each other. While other Second World War stories like The Dam Buster’s (1955) celebrate the dedication of Army, Navy and RAF personnel, British ingenuity and resilience. Being in the military can also be fun, even during a violent conflict.
In The Virgin Soldiers (novel 1966, film 1969) young conscripts go through a coming-of-age experience, have sexual experiences for the first time and generally learn about ‘life’. The comic side of being in the military underpins M.A.S.H. (novel 1968, film 1970, TV series 1972), which is set in a medical unit during the Korean war; and Bilko (AKA The Phil Silvers Show, 1955, and Sgt. Bilko 1996) in which a charismatic and likeable crook uses his time in the army to steal and sell army supplies for his own profit. Here corruption is admired as capitalistic resourcefulness, whereas in Attack it’s treachery.
Continuing the theme of war stories as celebrations, films like The Guns of Navarone (1961), and Where Eagles Dare (1968) present the war story as mainstream adventure entertainment, something along the lines of a theme park ride, rather than a realistic representation of the horrors of combat.
When nine Louisiana Guards trek into the bayou and one of them foolishly antagonises the Cajun locals, a straightforward navigation exercise turns into a terrifying fight for survival. Southern Comfort (1981) comes from the same production stable as Alien (1979) but, unlike its famous sibling, it was neither a commercial success nor has it garnered cult status.
With a simple plot – the hunters becoming the hunted – and the striking backdrop of the bayou, it’s surprising that Southern Comfort didn’t make more of an impact; and it hasn’t been given a second chance with a critical re-evaluation. Looking for possible explanations, one might point a finger at the script, which has a slight stage play quality about it, the relentlessly close-in nature of the bayou, a ‘macho action’ story with guns that mostly fire blanks, and the odd choice of needlessly setting a contemporary story in the preceding decade, which accentuates the Vietnam War resonance for a movie that isn’t about the Vietnam War.
While Southern Comfort is not a Vietnam War film, and the bayou is not the jungle of South East Asia, the terrain and group interactivity has unavoidable resonance with the Vietnam War sub-genre. Southern Comfort is a film about male relationships, male bonding, macho stupidity, and bad leadership. It’s also a story about stupidity, arrogance, and a ‘bunch of city boys’ out of their depth in an unfamiliar landscape, one populated by locals with an innate suspicion of outsiders. This follows the tried and tested ‘city folk’ in the countryside scenario that includes films like Deliverance (1972), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and Wrong Turn (2003). In these stories fun seekers, holiday goers and people innocently passing through are forced into contact with a tight-knit rural community, which results in a violent showdown. The drama unfolding in Southern Comfort – much like the horror stories using similar plots – sees city people (the film’s audience) pitted against the barbaric ‘other’: often portrayed as inbred and ‘backward’ country folk. In this landscape the alien ‘other’ are dominant. They are the hunters and the visitors are the prey.
Southern Comfort is a celebration of a value based friendship and a warning about unexpected danger lurking within the wilderness.
The little known American TV show, Profit (1996), was a decade ahead of its time, exploring social taboos, stolen identities, sociopathic behaviour in the corporate world, and a psychologically damaged protagonist.
The central character, an anti-hero, whose eccentric behaviour retains the audience’s sympathy in spite of his shocking behaviour. Secretive, manipulative, and calculating; Jim Profit hopes to control Gracen & Gracen, a corporation he is obsessed with, to the point where he calls it a ‘family’. Profit is a corporate shark taking out his competition one by one, playing the game, bending the rules when it suits him – damaged by his abusive father, and dysfunctional childhood, he now lives under a stolen identity. He uses spin to his advantage, playing it with a poker face, completely disingenuous, and yet disarmingly honest in his secret dialogues with the audience.
Jim Profit – an outsider, fighting the corporate world – appears to be the living embodiment of The Art of War. In the superficially glitzy and glamorous environment, with its glass skyscrapers, and slick designer attire, the series exposes the superficial respectability of corporate executives, who are themselves riddled with corruption, vanity, and sordid secrets. Alone in this world, armed only with his cunning and his computer hacking skills, Profit is a harbinger of doom, sent to wreak havoc on the people he encounters in corporate America – a world that we have already sub-consciously pronounced: ‘guilty’. Profit is the audience’s psychologically disturbed agent of retribution, sent to eradicate self-serving corporate executives.
Jim Profit has no real friends – apart from us, the audience, who he talks to every night before he goes to sleep, and even says ‘Good night’ to. We are, in effect, by suggestion, part of his internal conversation. Profit’s attraction as a character is that he is a survivor, having survived an abusive father who brought him up isolated, in a cardboard Gracen & Gracen box, fed on scraps, with only a television for social contact with the world. Profit strolls around his minimalist apartment, naked, watching the fish in a large fish tank (which has echoes of Ben’s fish tank in The Graduate), detached and cynically observing the business world around him, who he views as tainted. This is an America that is literally selling itself lock stock and barrel to the Far East – the post-American dream, twenty years before the Donald Trump presidency and the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’. Something is palpably wrong in this world, more than that, almost everything is wrong. But, unlike the other executives, who are greedy, vain, and power obsessed, Profit genuinely loves and believes in Gracen & Gracen (G & G).
Profit’s darkly amoral character predates many of the anti-heroes that appeared later appear on American television: Dexter Morgan, Don Draper, and Walter White, for example. These characters are outsiders, surviving in an alien world, poisoned by it perhaps; fighting it in the only way they know how. They win the audience over with their candid observations, and their ability to see it for what it is – and, perversely, despite the destruction they bring to those around them, they are less immoral than their adversaries and rivals.
The high school teacher, Walter White, in Breaking Bad, learns to operate in the criminal underworld, producing and selling drugs to support his family. Don Draper in Mad Men, like Profit, has assumed another man’s identity, and places supreme importance on his family, as does Walter White. Stylistically, Profit is a product of its time, with its Lawnmower Man (1992) style virtual reality graphics, and its soap opera-like production values. But it was also a harbinger of the television protagonists that would appear a decade later, and an indication of a dysfunctional America – a vision of a self-serving corporate America, and financial irresponsibility – the portrayal of a USA where things had already gone wrong, long before the global financial crisis of 2007 – 2008.
The conspiracy story
The classic conspiracy stories – as we know them today – have their origins in the mystery and adventure tales of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. They play on the British fear of being overtaken by rival industrial nations. In John Buchan’s novel The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), set in the prelude to the outbreak of World War One, the hero encounters a shadowy organisation (later revealed to be German intelligence). When the hero allows a desperate stranger to hide in his apartment, and this man is murdered, the hero flees, realising he will be framed for the murder. The Thirty-Nine Steps incorporates many of the ‘classic’ conspiracy story components: an initial chance encounter (in this case with a stranger who is murdered) provides the call to action; the hero is framed for murder and must go on the run to prove his innocence; an enemy that has mastered subterfuge and has successfully infiltrated the system; paranoia, and the fear of not knowing who to trust, or what to believe; a chance encounter that shackles the hero to the love interest (literally, in the case of The Thirty Nine Steps); an extended chase sequence that occupies much of the narrative; and dire consequences are expected for society and democracy should the hero fail.
Other notable early examples include: The Riddle of the Sands (1903), an adventure, mystery, and conspiracy story, that involves the unmasking of German plans to invade Britain (when an amateur sailor happens on secret dredging activities in the sands), and The Lady Vanishes (1936) which is centred around a missing train traveller in a Germanic speaking, continental country (alluding to a fear that the Germans are not ‘playing fair’).
During the 1970s, with the West in crisis, and the morally dubious, or downright illegal activities of governments – deliberately circumventing democratic accountability – a wave of public scepticism spread about ‘the system’, government, and big business. This led to paranoid conspiracy thrillers with unclear, sometimes cynical endings: even when the hero ‘wins’, the shadowy organisation is able to regroup, and start again. The conspiracy story reveals the hero’s resilience, emphasised by his lack of resources, and being outnumbered by the shadowy organisation that can appropriate government manpower, and materials. The hero exemplifies the idea of ‘one man against the system’. The conspiracy story is a metaphor for fear, even if it celebrates the hero’s audacity, it remains, fundamentally, a warning. The shadowy organisations (or renegade sections within legitimate ones) are modern monsters eating away at democratic transparency, and circumventing due process – threatening to spread their corrosive influence on everything they encounter.
Luckily, there are heroes out there willing to stop them. In the conspiracy story, a hero (sometimes a small band of heroes) fights a powerful organisation that wishes to keep their covert activities, or malpractice, hidden from public view. That activity can vary from organised crime, to incompetence, corruption, or a threat to the nation. Knowledge of this secret information places the hero in direct conflict with the organisation. ‘Knowledge can be a dangerous thing’: this is the hero’s dilemma. They must decide what course of action to take – or not to act at all. Obviously, for the story to progress they need to act, and if the disturbing knowledge, which they possess, fails to motivate them into exposing the organisation, the plot usually adds the murder or mysterious ‘disappearance’ of a friend to goad them into action.
The hero may have a ‘mentor’, this is usually a wise person who has experienced something similar if their life, and this turns out to be related to the hero’s dilemma. The mentor is a prophetic character who guides the hero, advises him on how to evade, and tackle, the shadowy organisation. He may also save the hero, sacrificing himself to add further motivation for the hero to expose the conspiracy. Along the way, the hero may create his own team, or, more likely, work on his own. He may have a helper inside the shadowy organisation, or a journalist, who is able to provide limited assistance. The protagonist may have a ‘buddy’ with a moral conscience, or some peripheral contact who turns out to be incredibly useful (by providing access to a secret facility, equipment, or information).
Another support character, the love interest, assists him and may act as his public face (when he is in hiding), as well as providing an external reaction to his inner emotional turmoil. The hero’s goal is to expose the lie, sometimes this is also the basis for another story genre, the disaster movie (for example, the hero notices the danger of inadequate safety, which the organisation refuses to admit). Once the truth is exposed – with the all-important evidence to back it up – the organisation, or renegade group within it, automatically capitulates, or flees: because ‘the game is up’ for them and they know it. The remaining ‘dark’ forces are either killed or rounded up by the authorities, who finally realise what has been happening. The shadowy group, or organisation, is a modern ‘monster’ that must be overcome. It can only be slain by exposing the lie.