War movies follow usual outlines, blending together action, heroism, sacrifice, emotions. Because they work better if there’s a good vs evil dichotomy in which you can relate. It’s easy to find it in World War II, where identifying the axis Germany-Italy-Japan with the wicked is even too easy: Spike Lee tried to break that in Miracle at St. Anna, showing the human side of nazi soldiers, and he received critics. Moving among political and historical reasons of other conflicts is more complex, but most of the filmography is American, so a classic enemy is communism. You can understand it in an explicit way, like in all movies about Cold War and Vietnam such as Rambo, or subliminally, like Stars Wars saga, with the Evil Empire and other references to the Space Shield and similar.
Stanley Kubrick’s cinema is nothing like this. Three movies on war that are totally unconventional. First thing first, he didn’t deal with WWII, but is not all. Even if Full Metal Jacket and Paths of Glory are from the frontline, they don’t show particular action. Dr. Strangelove takes place in the button room and like in the first two films the enemy is inside, not outside. Kubrick doesn’t strengthen a collective feeling, because he question too much to accept the simple fact that everything is black or white. Who knows if he would try to challenge himself about 9/11 and war on terror, that would have been interesting.
Let’s start, chronologically, with Paths of Glory, 1958 movie boycotted by France, which first denied the permission to shoot the scenes, then censored it until 1975. French army during World War I, general Mireau orders the platoon of colonel Dax a suicide action trying to occupy a fundamental German emplacement, the so called “anthill”, to conquer like a woman – the recurring of eros&thanatos, love&death. Part of the soldiers refuses to leave the foxhole and to punish the insubordination a hundred of them, randomly, will be executed. Dax/Kirk Douglas, a lawyer before the conflict, will take their defense in front of the martial court. There’s not a single German soldier in all the movie, is all an inside issue. The only German “enemy” is a lady prisoner of war, forced to sing in a tavern packed with soldiers. They expect something sexy, but the struggling song will move them, even if they don’t understand a word. They feel empathy to just a person, not an enemy, deprived of freedom, far away from home.
Dr. Strangelove is in full Cold War, it leaves the drama behind even though the entire world is in danger, not just some men or a Nation. The paranoid general Jack D. Ripper order a nuclear attack against Soviet Union. The Pentagon can call back all B52s, except for one, headed to Laputa (la puta in Spanish, that means “bitch”). Here we go again with eros&thanatos, but is not the only reference. The name chosen for the American president is Muffley and the Russian diplomatic is Kissoff. Anyway, the risk is a chain reaction based on nuke bombs, the great fear of those years. A maniple of English soldiers is sent to Burpleson military base to convince general Ripper to give the codes of communication with the last plane, and we’re back with the inside enemy. Ripper, as said, is paranoid, he locks himself in a building shooting every allied coming his way.
And finally we get to Full Metal Jacket. Here eros&thanatos is more blatant, from the songs during the drill in Perris Island to Joker’s final monologue, and in between with Vietnamese prostitutes and the female sniper, the only battle of the movie – if it’s really a war battle: the anthill and Laputa, feminine sexual metaphors, are now made in the flesh. The inside enemy is in the first part of the movie, at the end of marines training. Gomer Pyle is sure incompetent, but everybody hate him way too much, because sergeant Hartman punish them all for Pyle’s mistakes. The key scene of Pyle’s homicide and suicide takes place in the bathroom of sgt. Hartman, which got the sign “head” on the door. Yes, head means also chief, boss, but Kubrick take us into a journey in the mind. The enemy couldn’t be more inner.
While the bad guys keep missing, too bad for those who need a hero to support or to emulate. In Stanley’s war there aren’t good ones.