Robert here, with my new series Distant Relatives, where we look at two films, (one classic, one modern) related through a common theme and ask what their similarities and differences can tell us about the evolution of cinema. Two Best Picture winners for today.
There are about as many themes and concepts explored by war films as there are war films. Still, they can be generally be narrowed down to three types. There are films about the physical toll of war (Saving Private Ryan), the mental toll of war (Apocalypse Now) and the spiritual toll of war (The Thin Red Line). Both The Deer Hunter and The Hurt Locker fit into the second category, but they're special. We're not talking about Colonel Kurtz level madness here. In fact, we're not talking about madness at all. What both films are most interested in is the "hook" of war, the adrenaline rush. The Hurt Locker doesn't beat around the bush here. It starts with the quote "for war is a drug" from Chris Hedges' essay "War is a force that gives us meaning." The Deer Hunter and The Hurt Locker are about two men whose worlds were torn clean of meaning by the nihilism of war and then gifted with meaning by the rush of war.
There are a lot of surface similarities between the two films. Both follow three men, one of whom sustains a physical injury, one of whom comes to the realization of his absent legacy back home and one of whom can't bring himself to leave the battlefield. Interestingly enough, both films find the excesses, and sterilized nature of a grocery store an apt contrast between war and home. But unlike most war films, neither The Deer Hunter nor The Hurt Locker are interested in traditional extended battle scenes. The emphasis instead is on moments that feature the slow build of suspense, eventually the release of survival.
Game of Chance
Other films have dabbled in the idea that soldiers find themselves compelled to return to or remain in war. Yet few films can really make us understand why that is. But a speech given late in The Hurt Locker by Sargeant James to his son makes it pretty clear. There is only one thing left that he loves. Why? Because he's good at it... very good. He's dismantled eight hundred and seventy three bombs successfully. But can the same be said of The Deer Hunter's Nick? Certainly his endeavors into Russian roulette yield enough money to send wads and wads back to his friends. In this case, skill may not be required, but the exhalation of winning and living is still the same. It's that exhalation that seems to have made the lasting difference. Even Sgt. James box of souvenirs that almost killed him aren't there to remind him that he almost died. They're there to remind him that he lived.
What back home can compete with such an experience? Is it hard to believe that the enhanced reality of facing death daily and surviving is preferable to a reality of not facing death at all? The idea of enhanced reality in both films (and many war films in fact) suggests that normal feelings just don't cut it any more. There is a sense in that the characters have been numbed and require over-stimulation to feel again. This is perhaps why Nick self-injures, or why the men of Operation Liberty punch each other for fun.
Welcome to the Soldiers' Side
One of the primary differences between The Deer Hunter and The Hurt Locker is rooted in the influence of outside social factors. In 1978 making an anti-Vietnam film wasn't exactly a bold statement. But in 2009, The Hurt Locker opened after a long line of anti-Iraq films that were received coolly by a divided public. The film dodged controversy by focusing not on the question of the moral righteousness of war but simply on it's effect on soldiers. Contrastingly, the 70's cultural climate gave Michael Cimino such a free hand to declare the Vietnam war wrong, some viewers felt he overdid it, specifically by inventing the factually inaccurate device of North Vietnamese soldiers forcing prisoners into Russian roulette games. Still, the protesters outside were not enough to keep the film from winning Best Picture.
While it's hard to make an argument that subtlety is making a comeback, these two films, each in their respective political climate are a lesson in the softening touch of a message. Could you imagine The Hurt Locker closing with a sad rendition of "God Bless America?" Equally it shows far less of the characters' home lives than The Deer Hunter (which it needs for the most extreme possible contrast). Nick's mental state is far more deteriorated than Sgt James', and his end is far more dramatic. But in addition to the political climate, you could argue that in the thirty years between the films, audiences have broadened their scope and definition of what constitutes the meaningful effect of war on its participants. So as it becomes more difficult to deliver an overt anti-war message it becomes easier to display the subtleties of its lasting impact.
There is one more important distinction is perhaps the difference between a film about a war that's ended, where Nick's fate is known and one that has not, where Sgt. James' fate is up to you or me. The Deer Hunter tells us how things ended. The Hurt Locker asks us to wonder how we'd like things to end.