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The Philosophy of War Films


Edited by David LaRocca


The Philosophy of Popular Culture Series

Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2014

Hardcover. 529 p. ISBN 978-0813141688. $45


Reviewed by Colin Gardner

University of California, Santa Barbara





In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari make a key distinction between State or fascist war (whereby the war economy had ‘total war’ as its exclusive object), and the ‘war machine,’ which took in its charge a broader spectrum of politics, peace and the world order as a whole. Thus,

…fascist war still fell under Clausewitz’s formula, ‘the continuation of politics by other means’, even though those other means had become exclusive, in other words, the political aim had entered into contradiction with the object (hence Virilio’s idea that the fascist State was a ‘suicidal’ State more than a totalitarian one). It was only after World War II that the automatization, then automation of the war machine had their true effect.(1)

It is during the Cold War that we start to see a reversal of Clausewitz’s formula: ‘it is politics that becomes the continuation of war; it is peace that technologically frees the unlimited material process of total war. War ceases to be the materialization of the war machine; the war machine itself becomes materialized war’.(2)

Recognizing this transition becomes all the more pertinent when evaluating David LaRocca’s ambitious anthology, The Philosophy of War Films. On the one hand, LaRocca acknowledges that war films may take on a multifarious variety of forms (indicated by a detailed taxonomy of subgenres presented in the book’s Appendix, ranging from Medieval and Shakespearean epics to Cold War spy thrillers and Space Westerns such as Star Wars). On the other hand, the book’s essays are limited almost exclusively to combat films (and American ones at that). Thus, with the exception of LaRocca’s own incisive analysis of the humanistic sublime in Werner Herzog’s war films, which radically updates Kant’s more Romantic antecedent, and Holger Pötzsch’s examination of the deliberate absence of the Palestinian enemy in contemporary Israeli war films, there is precious little mention of important contributions to the genre from France, the U.K., the Soviet Union, Italy (whose neorealist output spawned Deleuze’s analysis of the indeterminate ‘any-space-whatever’ and time-image in Cinema 1 and 2), South America (Patricio Guzmán’s The Battle of Chile?) or colonial Africa (Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers is ignored entirely). Even Inger Brodey’s apt comparison of American Westerns to the Japanese jidaigeki or period film misses a golden opportunity to contrast these more censor-friendly films with Kon Ichikawa’s controversial insights into the Japanese defeat in World War II in The Burmese Harp (1956) and Fires On The Plain (1959), both of which afford a more Buddhist meditation on war and the futility which comes with a philosophy of fighting with honor at all costs.

Part of the reason for this bifurcation is the book’s overwhelming bias towards analytic philosophy at the expense of continental readings. A single exception is Garret Stewart’s excellent ‘War Pictures: Digital Surveillance from Foreign Theater to Homeland Security Front’, which explores the use of digital technology in recent ‘War on Terror’ films to show that war’s true regime is now predominantly scopic, albeit un-unifiable. This radically undermines Deleuze’s taxonomy (following Noel Burch) of the so-called ‘Large Form’ of the  movement-image because the traditional action hero has now become the passive vehicle for a predominantly surveillance-based scenario. As Stewart describes it, we have moved from Deleuze’s transformative S-A-S1 (Situation/Action/Situation1) to S-S-S1 Situation/ Spectation/Situation1). The latter has no duel/standoff/face-off ‘and stalls instead, mired in the diffuse nature of the terror and its terrorizing pushback, under the watchful panoptic eye – mostly offscreen, ob-scene – of satellite targeting’ [119]. Indeed, ‘War is so total that it is nowhere and everywhere at once, so that what the War on Terror film serves to picture is for the most part a soldiery without a genre’ [108].

This is potentially rich territory for a metamodelisation of the war film genre as a whole, whereby the scopic nature of the war machine folds back into the cinematic medium like a self-reinforcing moebius strip. Unfortunately the book devotes far too many chapters to this phenomenon, which has become commonplace in Iraq War films of the past decade. As LaRocca notes, ‘…the once provocative and almost tendentious nature of Virilio’s thesis (about what we might term cinemartiality) has lost some of its edge of surprise now that the equipment aspect of weapons delivery has conflated sighting and triggering in the same digital circuits’ [113]. One result is that a film like Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012) receives almost 40 pages of coverage while a bona fide classic such as All Quiet on the Western Front receives a mere three mentions. Another is that the reader suffers as much ‘digital fatigue’ as the ostensible film spectator and the diegetic characters themselves.

More importantly, this narrow focus leads to the exclusion of a number of philosphical approaches that are crucial to understanding French and British contributions to the genre. In the case of the former, the combat war film is inseparable from its necessary integration with the German occupation of France following the 1940 military defeat and its two main corollaries: resistance and collaborationism. In this respect, Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) is seminal, for it grounds France’s entire post-war (and especially post-May '68) identity in Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism with its implications of a philosophical ‘authenticity’ rooted in political activism. Following LaRocca’s own expanded taxonomy, Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’armée des ombres (1969) and Joseph Losey’s M. Klein would thus be classified as contrasting studies in an existential response to the Vichy regime. The book covers none of these films, not does it explore the connection (via the murderous policies of Maurice Papon) between Vichy and the battle of Algiers, which was a unique instance of war as police operation because of Algeria’s status as a département of France.

The neo-colonial ramifications that infuse French cinema throughout the 1960s and '70s should have afforded a detailed look at the work of Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, Agnès Varda and Alain Resnais, whether through their participation in the 1967 omnibus film, Loin du Vietnam, or their own personal projects. Combining Brechtian alienation techniques with a radical deconstruction of the language of cinema itself, Godard in particular attempted to ‘Vietnam-ize’ every film he made during this period, deterritorializing his depiction of French society into a more globalized war machine, indicting his own cinematic apparatus (as in the famous ‘Camera Eye’ sequence in Loin du Vietnam) as much as American imperialism and mercenary war-for-profit (Les Carbiniers). The book also fails to explore the recuperative project of Resnais and Marker, who both ground an affirmative, body-based ethics of difference and impersonal/immanent becoming in an unspeakably personal death of horrifying proportions: notably the holocaust and Hiroshima. While the anthology eschews coverage of Nuit et brouillard (1955) and Hiroshima mon amour (1959), Deleuze at least reminds us of war’s affective penetration of New Wave sensibilities, noting for example that

The character in Resnais’ cinema […] returns from death, from the land of the dead; he has passed through death and is born from death, whose sensory-motor disturbances he retains. Even if he was not personally in Auschwitz, even if he was not personally in Hiroshima … He passed through a clinical death, he was born from an apparent death, he returns from the dead, Auschwitz or Hiroshima, Guernica or the Algerian war’.(3)

Finally, British war films constitute an interesting philosophical back road insofar as they are often ‘disguised’ comedies. They invariably involve eccentric leading characters who seem to have stepped out of an Ealing Comedy but are now placed in life-and-death positions of authority, whether military or civilian. In this sense, Michael Redgrave’s Barnes Wallis in The Dam Busters (1955), the inventor of the bouncing bomb that destroyed the Ruhr dams in World War II, and Alec Guinness’s Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) are not that dissimilar to Michael Crawford’s inept but self-aggrandizing Lt. Goodbody in Richard Lester’s Brechtian satire, How I Won the War (1967). All lack pragmatic and empirical skills and need the more collective determinism of the war machine as a whole to turn their narrow (in Nicholson’s case, indulgent and myopic) flights of fancy into a viable tactical pay-off. In this respect, Dunkirk (1958), for all its narrative resemblance to Alexander Mackendrick’s Whisky Galore (1949) – a case of soldiers instead of booze is the perfect synthesis of the guts and glory of the little man (each offering the services of his boat to undertake the seaborne evacuation) and the necessity of collective organization to pull an unlikely ‘victory’ out of the jaws of defeat.

Overall LaRocca’s book is a useful contribution to the field provided one is willing to overlook its unaccountably narrow focus. Particularly frustrating is that even given the latter, a film like Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line is covered in two chapters (not surprising given Malick’s reputation as a Heidegger scholar), but both essays still manage to miss an all-important philosophical connection, namely that of Heraclitus. Thus, Pvt. Train’s final voice-over as the troops are evacuated from Guadalcanal:

Where is it that we were together? Who were you that Ilived with, walked with? The brother. The friend. Darkness and light, strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind, the features of the same face? Oh, my soul. Let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the thingsyou made. All things shining.

These words – as well as the final, ephemeral image of flowing water – are highly evocative of Heraclitus, particularly his dictum that, ‘One should see that war is common and justice is strife, and that everything is happening according to strife and necessity’. Which brings us back to the image of the war machine, where this review began, for as Deleuze points out, ‘Only Heraclitus foresaw that there is no kind of opposition between chaos and cycle.’(4)


(1) Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1987 : 467.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Gilles Deleuze. Cinema 2 : The Time Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson & Roberta Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989 : 207-208.

(4) Gilles Deleuze. Nietzsche and Philosophy. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson. New York:  Columbia University Press, 1983 : 28-29.



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