Life During Wartime: How Do Filmmakers Respond To Crisis?

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covid crisis wartime movies filmmaking

With COVID making appearances in our fictional filmscapes, when is it ‘too soon’ for filmmakers to respond to a crisis?

“Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the Plague.” The viral ‘motivational’ post circulated recently on my lockdown stomping-grounds, LinkedIn and Twitter, in an apparent attempt to spark inspiration or productivity while we were all pulling our hair out. Honestly, I don’t give a rat’s ass about King Lear, or Shakespeare for that matter, despite the cultural significance. I do, however, think about films (sometimes more than I’d like to admit) that are products of hardship, grief or crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many film festivals online over the last year, leaving many film lovers gazing longingly at the slew of new films from a virtual prison bar. From my outsider position, I noticed many releases either focusing or featuring the COVID pandemic—Songbird and Locked Down, for example—but having seen Borat Subsequent Moviefilm and Host, I was mentally prepared for a tortuous fictional re-imagining of 2020. I just did not expect it so quickly. 

COVID-19 has certainly had its unique effects on filmmakers: halting film production, limiting filming to smaller crews in smaller locations and some features being cancelled altogether. Even so, comparison calls—how have filmmakers responded in the past to global crisis through their works? 

The Great Depression, 1929: financial ruin swept America. Filmmaking was a turbulent business, but productions adjourned. Come 1931, when the acuity of the Depression hit full force, James Whale’s Frankenstein was the first blockbuster-esque release. The Wall Street Crash or citizens thereof were not explicitly centred, so the feature offered fantastical relief and simultaneously channelled darker emotions. Alms like Dracula and King Kong, paired alongside Frankenstein, ushered in a new age of blockbusters, a mainstream tonic for hurting audiences. In the same year, comedic everyman Charlie Chaplin provided similar ideals in City Lights with his iconic Tramp character, echoing relatable sensibilities not apparent in his 1914 debut, Kid Auto Races at Venice. Then, 1936 saw a true feature to comment and combat the Depression, Modern Times, intensifying the fight for survival in a contemporary but fiscally torn America. The understrata of American melodramas such as Gold Diggers of 1933, American Madness, or Wild Boys of the Road danced with Depression anxieties, fore-fronting personal stories and the lengths characters would go to secure an income. 

World War II, on the other hand, had an immediate worldwide effect, not solely impacting American audiences. France, for example, was under Nazi occupation, who ordered the destruction of all films made prior to 1937 and refused to showcase features made outside German jurisdiction. Therefore, post-war French audiences were gifted with hindsight when criticising the movies they missed, noting a darker shift in tone especially within their prestigious melodramas.

Paul Schrader, in Film Comment’s ‘Notes on Film Noir’, emphasised the pessimism and harsher inflection, perhaps due to post-war disillusionment. With this newfound realism, film noir and crime thrillers alike shifted from high-class affairs to “the streets with everyday people,” beckoning a new era of crisis cinema. The events of Pearl Harbour, for example, ricocheted through America and determined their involvement of the war. 1943’s Air Force was one of the earliest American propaganda films, characterising Pearl Harbour and the patriotism required to fight back. Casablanca, however, was an earlier release responding to the 1941 attack: a fictitious albeit familiar picture with Humphrey Bogart’s Rick embodying America’s relationship with a war-torn Europe–haughty. The film concludes with Rick’s transition from distant to engaged, signifying America’s recent commitment. 

filmmakers apocalypse now
Apocalypse Now (1979)

These wartime sentiments continued into the Vietnam War too. Originally, pictures like A Yank in Vietnam, The Green Berets and The Visitors promoted patriotism; they were ‘rallying the troops’ films, the sort to encourage, energise and empower. Independent filmmakers made low-budget satires, such as Brian De Palma’s Greetings. Starring a young Robert De Niro, bookshop attendant Jon Rubin is a draft dodger, a young male determined to avoid the war. Right wing bigotry and anti-war behaviour is rife in De Palma’s picture, poking fun at the government and the perpetuity of the war resulting in a counter-culture exemplar. But in retrospect, filmmakers who were irritated at the US government’s hidden agendas emerged. Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, released post-war, highlighted the mental and physical turmoil endured by soldiers. Governmental distaste fuelled art of the time; films were not afraid to aggravate the clandestine attitudes of authority figures. 

9/11, as a crisis, was handled much more sensitively. Western audiences were still traumatised and so films were more cautious, in stark contrast to the thriller boom of the 1990s that heightened anxiety around contemporary threat: see Enemy of the State, The Peacemaker, Face/Off or Air Force One. Filmmakers at the time made movies that were far removed from reality, and cinema was majorly populated by blockbusters. Franchise pictures such as The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Jurassic Park III dominated cinema screens, an escapism dream. This newer cinematic model was a strange beast. Producers were comfortable catering for the masses, but tentative with their newer releases. There was the infamous Lilo and Stitch re-edit swapped a cityscape chase sequence for a rainforest; marketing for Spider-Man featuring the web-slinging vigilante between the Two Towers; or Nosebleed, a Jackie Chan flick starring the Kung-Fu master as a window cleaner foiling a terrorist plot, was cancelled considering the potentially insensitive plot. Furthermore, pre-9/11 films, dating as far back as 1974’s King Kong, were re-issued with the World Trade Center digitally removed. 

filmmakers spike lee
25th Hour (2002)

One of the earliest fictional 9/11 debuts was Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, an adaption of the novel by the same name. Lee shot the film in Summer 2001, but paused production in the wake of the attacks. Afterwards, he integrated 9/11 semantics into the core motivations of the film: overlooking a floodlit Ground Zero or Edward Norton’s rant against Osama Bin Laden, Dick Cheney and George Bush. Synonymously, the central motifs from the novel, such as self-reflection and fate, converge with how audiences reacted to 9/11.

Reactions to crises encompass the sensitive and harsher sides of the spectrum. A major difference between the crises of past and COVID, is we do not have access to cinemas but instead are consuming releases through newer streaming services. Our release calendar is larger than ever, with plentiful platforms to sate our appetites. These endless online connections mean endless media consumption too, so the fatigue we’re feeling is perhaps more elevated than before.

So hostility against COVID-related media is understandable. Lacking nuance and hindsight, targeting releases to surpass the crisis itself and reach similar heights of Casablanca or Apocalypse Now is impossible, especially regarding how heavily cinema has been hit. I’m sure Locked Down or Songbird or even CoronaZombies won’t receive recognition in a couple of decades, so audiences are finding solace in works not directly linked to COVID, but subtle enough for cathartic viewing. Palm Springs, for example, a time-loop comedy tussling with repetition and boredom, or the ebullient American Utopia, reminded audiences of the joys of concerts, people and life. Though it is hard to predict how filmmakers will tackle COVID-19, it may be some time before audiences are ready to relive the pandemic explicitly on-screen.

Words by Tommy James


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