A Time for War -- In Two New Movies, Too
Henry Kissinger once remarked that American foreign policy debates sound like theological discussions.
He didn't mean it as a compliment. America has fought more wars than most of us realize and our attitude toward warfare is different than that of other nations. Realpolitik usually takes a back seat to idealism, however misguided.
Two recent releases examine some of the larger purposes that have motivated us. The Quiet American, based on Graham Greene's 1955 novel, casts a cold eye on the reasons for our involvement in Vietnam. Gods and Generals, a prequel to the 1993 hit Gettysburg, shows how religion and patriotism inspired both Union and Confederate soldiers during our Civil War.
The Quiet American, adapted by screenwriters Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan and directed by Philip Noyce (Patriot Games), is set at the beginning of our Vietnam commitment. Just before the French are defeated, the United States is engaged in a kind of nation-building that resembles our recent activities in Bosnia and Afghanistan — and may soon be replicated in Iraq. We are trying to do good, through the construction of roads, schools and hospitals, while at the same time taking firm control of all the instruments of force.
Both Greene's novel and the filmmakers view America's idealistic intentions with a world-weary skepticism that has much currency today. Donald Rumsfeld aptly characterizes it as “old Europe.”
The movie dramatizes this political message by means of a love triangle. Fowler (Sir Michael Caine in an Oscar-nominated performance) is a veteran British journalist who's in love with the same Vietnamese woman, Phoung (Do Thi Hai Yen), as Pyle (Brendan Fraser), an American aid worker who's also a CIA operative. Their romantic rivalry is meant somehow to parallel the Great Powers’ struggle for Vietnam.
Pyle advocates an American-led, democratic third force as an alternative to colonialism and communism. Fowler sees him as a dangerous innocent “impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance.”
Pyle is masterminding our support for a South Vietnamese general whom Fowler believes is massacring peasants allied with the other factions. The filmmakers perceive America's goals as just as bad, if not worse, than the communists'; they justify Fowler's participation in the Viet Congs’ assassination of Pyle.
Even if one believes, as I do, that America's actions in Vietnam were a mistake and at times morally wrong, it's difficult to sustain the movie's point of view after what has happened since the fall of Saigon. The communists’ subsequent tyranny has brought us boat people, killing fields and forced reeducation camps.
Greene was as deluded about the Viet Congs’ true intentions as America was about the possibility of a democratic third force. But the filmmakers have learned nothing from the events since the novel's publication and persist in arguing his case.
Greene's Catholic faith, unorthodox though it may have been, raises his story above the level of a tired, left-wing tract in one regard. Fowler has a Catholic wife back in England who refuses to grant him a divorce. This prevents Fowler from marrying Phoung and complicates his romantic quest. His wrestling with his conscience also suggests a transcendent moral code through which we can view the nonstop political scheming and hedonism.
The action in Gods and Generals, based on Jeffrey Shaara's novel, is driven by men who are certain there's a divine order in human history. The story follows the same set of soldiers on both sides of the Civil War through three battles from 1861 to 1863 that precede Gettysburg: First Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.
Writer-director Ron Maxwell (Gettysburg) and producer Ted Turner (late of AOL Time Warner) have the courage to present a politically incorrect view of the Civil War in which religion is never mocked and both Unionists and Confederates are given equal time to articulate their causes. It is never the good guys versus the bad guys.
The central figure is the daring Southern general Thomas “Stone-wall” Jackson (Stephen Lang), whom Gen. Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) calls “my right arm.” Jackson is depicted as an Old Testament warrior with New Testament beliefs. He prays often before battle — and not just for victory, but also to discern God's will. But his love of combat is palpable, and he delights in the righteous slaying of his enemies.
Stonewall sees himself as a defender of his homeland. “Just as we would not send any of our soldiers to march in other states and tyrannize other people, so we will never allow the armies of others to march into our state and tyrannize our people,” he says to his troops. “Though I love the Union, I love Virginia more.”
Opposing him is a man of equal charisma and gravitas, Maine's Col. Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), who is the film's conscience. “I do question a system that defends its freedom while it denies it to others,” he says of the Confederacy's embrace of slavery.
Sadly, the filmmakers don't seem to know when enough is enough. Jackson, Chamberlain and Lee are given numerous overlong speeches that portentously explain the action. Civil War buffs may not mind because of the well-staged battles that follow. But many viewers will be bored.
Both these movies raise important questions about our nation's character. We may quarrel with their methods or their answers. But each in its own way can help focus the mind as we ponder our options in dealing with terrorism and rogue nations armed with weapons of mass destruction.
John Prizer writes from Washington, D.C.
- March 9-15, 2003