Life against Death with popcorn
This is a follow-up to my post last Sunday and a question in long form.
Last week, in Kelly’s Heroes are my heroes, I compared the 1970 Clint Eastwood war movie and another war movie released the same year, M*A*S*H:
…the two movies share thematic similarities, character types, and attitudes. M*A*S*H began life as just a service comedy, Sergeant Bilko with doctors and sexy nurses. Kelly’s Heroes has some of the same service comedy elements: Soldiers as wisecracking wheeler-dealers and con men pitted against brass that’s out of it, lost in their own pet projects, schemes, vanities, ambitions, or delusions of military grandeur. Kelly’s Heroes is missing the authoritarian types who are in love with rules for the rules, own sakes or for the opportunities rules provide them to boss others around. Carroll O’Connor is in there as a general who is a borderline crackpot, but his role isn’t to get in Kelly’s way; it’s to cheer him on, although without knowing what he’s really rooting for Kelly to do. So the movie doesn’t share M*A*S*H’s anti-authoritarian streak, exactly. Its view is that authority is an illusion. The brass—the ruling class, the bosses—only think they’re in charge.
What’s in charge is chaos and death in the form of War. And all that opposes it is the individual’s determination to survive and make enough order for himself as he can manage.
Both films are products of their time and are commentaries on Vietnam as much as they are about World War II and the Korean War. They’re anti-war films. According to this article on the Turner Classic Movies website, Kelly’s Heroes was more overtly anti-war until timid studio bosses got their mitts on it and edited out some scenes. But they are not anti-the War. They are anti-all war. Both have strong anti-authoritarian streaks, although as I said, they have differenent opinions on what’s the matter with authority, but the real enemies in both movies aren’t officers or politicians, they’re Chaos and Death.
The fight is between the individual insisting upon his humanity and the forces that would rob him of it, either by killing him outright or making him a self-less accomplice in the robbing of other individuals of their humanity.
They’re both very existential in this way, and for some reason I think of this existentialism as very much a guiding spirit of the 1960s.
But watching Kelly’s Heroes got me wondering if I have misplaced it in time. Perhaps this existentialism as I think of it wasn’t a product or a by-product of the 60s but a cause. (I was a little kid during the 60s and my father was a little kid during World War II, so I have no personal connection to either war or zeitgeist.) Maybe what the ideas I’m thinking of, which percolated down to me through teachers and the older brothers of friends, weren’t the result of a generation of college students reading Sartre and Camus. Maybe they were brought home from the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific a generation earlier.
And the anti-authoritarianism I thought of as being a 60s phenomenon, maybe that is something else that really belongs to the World War II generation too.
The idea that when authority is corupt and lawless, lawlessness—outlaw behavior—is the moral response is an attitude that permeates movies from the 60s and early 70s. But I’m wondering if the filmmakers weren’t speaking for the kids against the War in Vietnam, but were finally getting around to making truthful movies about World War II.
“And let it here by noted,” writes World War II vet Kurt Vonnegut, “that when the best-known members of my literary generation, if they wrote about war, almost unanimously despised officers and made heroes of sketchily educated, aggressively unaristocratic enlisted men.”
For most soldiers fighting the war, authority was a 22 year old lieutenant ordering them to do something stupid and dangerous for no reason the lieutenant could explain—because he didn’t know. He’d just got there, as a replacement for the last 22 year old lieutenant who also had no clue because he wasn’t there long enugh himself. 22 year old lieutenants didn’t last long. Those who were good at their jobs and weren’t killed right away were promoted in a hurry. This left the men to figure things out for themselves. They either ignored the lieutenant or passive-aggressively forced him to do things their way. When real authority appeared on the scene it was to order them to do things that made no sense except as ingenious ways to get a lot of the men killed. Even among officers in the field, real authority was distant and out of touch. Orders came down from nowhere, apparently, and were mutually contradictory. The brass were careerists who saw the war in professional terms—it was a way to advancement. They were often only a presence in the men’s lives when they gave orders and lay down rules they did not obey themselves.
(In Kelly’s Heroes, the platoon is left in the complete charge of Telly Savalas’ character because his captain is off delivering a commandeered yacht to his uncle, the General, in Paris. The captain’s last words to Savalas as he rides off on the trailer hauling the boat away are, “Remember, the penalty for looting is death.” That may be the most true to life scene in the movie.)
We won the war with a civilain Army, an army of amateurs. Training was as thorough as we could afford time enough to make it—which is to say it was minimal. We scattered a million men on battlefields all over the world, with no clue, no real authority, and said, “Fight!” For much of the time, they were making it up as they went. And they were at it for years. The result was a generation of young men who had been disabused of their illusions and faith. They weren’t just unidealistic, they were suspicious of idealism in others. Ideals were traps set by authorities that wanted to kill you. Authority was stupid, self-serving, uninterested in the consequences of its own orders and rules. Rules were arbitrary expressions of bullies’ and hypocrites’ willfulness and obstacles to getting the job done. “Morality” was a joke. Issues of Right and Wrong were directly related to surviving another day and their definitions had to be worked out on the fly.
Nothing I’m describing here is necessarily a good thing. This kind of anti-authoritarianism can describe the attitude of a crooked businessman as well as that of a nurse turned peace activist.
But like I said, it’s an attitude that I had always thought of as growing out of the 1960s. So, please read everything I wrote above as questions. Am I wrong? Was it how I described it? Is that what happened? Are that existentialism and anti-authoritarianism, the two lasting ideals of the 60s, really two more gifts of the Greatest Generation?
After all, the original Hell’s Angels were all World War II vets.