Peace As Style
How films talk peace in style and theme

   by Don Thompson

With the current war in Iraq, the time is ripe to talk about peace movies. Films about peace, with peace as their central theme, speak to us in times of war, reminding us of alternatives. Peace films speak out against the atrocities of war, to be sure, but sometimes within the context of an overarching violence that is their stylistic core. Other times peace is embodied in both the style and theme of a particular film. Whether or not stylistically violent or peaceful, these films drive home the issues of war and the nature of peace in a way that provokes us, prods us, changes us. Moreover, some films show us a peaceful style within the context of a violent story. These films, in their own way, comment on violence and the Hollywood style that often supports it.

If popular films have dealt with issues of peace, they have often done so within the context of war films: Oliver Stone’s Platoon, Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (both about Vietnam), and Carol Reed’s The Third Man (the aftermath of WW II) being three prime examples. These films heighten or even satirize the reality of war in order to rail against it, or to critique the unrelenting tendency of war to dehumanize. Both Platoon and Apocalypse are in a sense cop-outs, however, in that they are addicted to the power of violence as a dramatic device, use it to the utmost, squeeze us emotionally and mentally through the unrelenting presence of it, but yet do so in a way that fundamentally reminds us that violence is dehumanizing. Unlike modern films that glamorize violence, these films use violence as a tool to explore the human face of war. When Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando) drops the de-capitated man’s head in the lap of Willard (played by Martin Sheen) at the end of Apocalypse, Willard is horrified to the core and shaken by the brutality of the act. Kurtz, who has gone beyond remorse to a pathological sense of numbness, has become both superman and subhuman simultaneously, having stepped outside the bounds of humanity. Kurtz becomes both the detached father-God of heaven, distributing justice without care for the concerns of humanity, while at the same time becoming the sub-human, the demon, whose very nature is self-destructive. This Yin-Yang nature of war, and of its affect on the human psyche, has been at the heart of the post-modern critiques of the realities of war. In Platoon, Charlie Sheen’s Taylor and Willem Dafoe’s Grodin both struggle to maintain their humanity under very de-humanizing circumstances and stand in contrast against the Kurtz-like Barnes, played by Tom Berenger.

Coppola’s version of Kurtz (derived from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) is not unlike the character of Harry Lime in The Third Man, another dark anti-hero who is very much a product of the system. Both The Third Man and Apocalypse dealt with their dark anti-heroes in the same way: they were killed off by “good” men who did not lose their moral bearings in the struggle. In Apocalypse, Martin Sheen as Willard played the role of “approved” executioner, mirroring Joseph Cotton’s Holly Martins, who killed Orson Welles’ Harry Lime in The Third Man. I’m quite sure Coppola was influenced by The Third Man in writing the end for Apocalypse. (Interestingly, Welles’ had written an un-produced script of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and was definitely attracted to the persona of Kurtz). In both cases, Harry Lime and Kurtz stepped over the bounds of conventional morality, but at the same time retained enough of their former selves to condone their own destruction by their respective protagonists –- the “good men” or better, the “good American” represented by Willard and Holly Martins. That Brando's Kurtz reflects on a river in the United States, “filled with the smell of Gardenias,” that was Willard’s home state is no accident –- the heaven of America (and by inference the "goodness" of Willard) is contrasted to the hell of the river (and the "evil" of Kurtz) in SouthEast Asia.

The tendency of the American consciousness to require a pathological warrior to execute its atrocities, and then to disavow that warrior and ultimately destroy him, is a ritual of sacrifice played out every day in the Iraq War. However, today’s Holly Martins or Willards are not fictional but very real in the minds of documentarians like Michael Moore, who with his Fahrenheit 9/11 is the foil to our dark heart as personified in the also very real Bush family. Moore would of course very much like to sacrifice Bush in the electoral sense, even if Bush did what ultimately a majority of Americans felt needed to be done -– remove Saddam Hussein. In a sense Moore is trying to take the responsibility of the Kurtzes of the world back to their origins: the leaders that create them. Again, both The Third Man and Apocalypse have this theme as central to their narratives -- both Kurtz and Harry Lime are as much a product of war, a necessity of war if you will, rather than evil per se.

In Michael Moore’s landscape, the real evil lies at the top, where the Bushes are cast with a dark and de-humanizing influence. Their minions are in turn mini-Kurtzes, and in Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, we see these de-humanized soldier’s face to face, playing their heavy metal music, seeing the enemy as a video game, reigning fear and terror down upon them with a devilish delight -- much like Kilroy (played by Robert Duval) did in Apocalypse Now. It is not the warrior motivated by the goodness of the cause, but rather by the adrenaline rush of the kill. This corporate warrior (and I don’t pretend that all of our solders in Iraq have this attitude, but commenting specifically on some of the soldiers seen in Moore’s film and also evidenced in the Abu Graib prison abuse) has a different attitude than warriors of the past (at least the way they are romanticized). It is as if the empty core of the rationale for the war in Iraq, as well as in Vietnam (our last quagmire), provokes an attitude among the soldiers that must either make them monsters or destroy them psychologically (there is a large amount of evidence that suggests the later is happening at a rapid rate).

That Fahrenheit 9/11 -- our modern version of Apocalypse Now -- has moved from a fictional narrative that sacrificed its pathological soldier to keep the corporate and political sponsors safe, to a new landscape that traces war back to the leaders and directly challenges them is, in many ways, remarkable. Hard as it may be to believe to many on the left, it shows the resilience of an American society which may be beginning to look inside of itself to find the root causes of its obsession with war, violence and domination. Moreover, we as a society can now tolerate a gadfly like Moore without persecuting him. Rather than persecute him, he becomes a millionaire, much like peace-promoting rock stars became rich during Vietnam. If Bush wins re-election, it will be interesting to see what happens to the Michael Moores of our society, and if this tolerance will continue.

While American peace films about war make use of violence to weave their stories (violence is in fact their raison d’etre) other filmmakers take a different route stylistically and thematically when dealing with peace. These films subvert both the idea of war and the idea of violent filmmaking as a requirement of the Hollywood studio method. At the core of this violent filmmaking is violent and quick, “kinetic” editing that moves the narrative forward in an unrelenting fashion and forces the viewer forward like a runaway train. This editing style, almost taken to the point of absurdity these days with MTV, advertising and hyper-violent movies, all of which make it difficult to reflect on an idea or image, and a lot easier to manipulate somebody to your point of view. It is an ideal style for advertising and for cable channels like Fox.

Filmmakers interested in subverting this violent and manipulative style may even do so within the context of genre. Hitchcock is the best example of this, particular with films such as Vertigo or Rope, where languid tracking shots and/or the lack of editing as in Rope, protested against the violent style of Hollywood even as he (Hitchcock) dealt with stories that primarily focused on mysteries and crime. Hitchcock was very much a stylistic subversive.

The master of anti-Hollywood style is Michelangelo Antonioni. Many of his earlier films, such as L’Advventura, would be impossible for modern audiences to sit through without squirming in anxious pain (they were difficult enough for audiences in the 1950’s and 60’s). Antonioni would spend minutes on the spinning of a fan or wind through the trees, such as in Blow Up. The heirs to Antonioni are numerous, not the least of which is Theo Angelopolous, with films such as Ulysses’ Gaze (starring Harvey Keitel), or Eternity and a Day (winner of the Palm d’Or at Cannes).

My own experiment in peaceful narrative, Clouds, certainly had the influence of Antonioni. In many ways Clouds was an anti-Hollywood narrative both in terms of style and the “passive” nature of its male protagonist (as a result men sometimes felt uncomfortable with the film). In terms of big budget Hollywood films, the most remarkable stylistic homage to Antonioni was Castaway, whose (general) lack of musical score, long tracking shots of the natural landscape of Tom Hank’s island prison made me literally gasp that director Robert Zemekis was able to pull it off. I think Zemekis was able to do so because he recognized the longing many people have for nature, for nature directly expressed and unmediated and unedited, and that it is getting harder and harder for people to find the peace associated with a pure and unmediated experience of natural beauty. People certainly would not generally sit down in front of the Grand Canyon for two hours and watch its colors change: audiences will, however, pay 10 dollars to sit and watch Tom Hanks on an remote Island for two hours, if nothing else because it’s Tom Hanks, and not the vagaries of their own mind, they have to deal with.

Films that promote a peaceful style do as much to force us to question our attitudes toward violence as do films that overtly deal with violence and war. Antonioni, not much in vogue today although his influence continues (again, Castaway being a good example) was the prime mover (along with Jean Luc Godard) and proponent of the anti-Hollywood style (though Godard for different reasons) whose films often dealt with issues of peace -- both inner and outer. Antonioni will in my mind remain the quintessential art film director who confounds audiences and delights cinephiles who love his bravado and courage to buck the easy out of a Hollywood style that traces its roots back to D.W. Griffith and The Great Train Robbery.

Peace can be both a stylistic and a thematic force. Peace can be forwarded by the style, and subverted by the story, or vice-verse. Perhaps one day we will again see films that are both films about peace that embody a peaceful style. We don’t see much of that today, for our addiction to Hollywood editing keeps us glued to films that stylistically give us little room to think and very little peace. It seems to me somebody probably likes it that way.

-- Don Thompson

Buy the films mentioned in this article [click here]

Don Thompson is a filmmaker/producer and co-founder of SolPix. You can find out more about Don by going to the website for his production company nextpix. You can also email him at

Copyright Web del Sol, 2004


Film and Fiction Home

film reviews
Project Exchange
SolPix Picks


Euro Screen Writers Articles on Euro film, research, plus a great cache of interviews with such directors as Godard, Besson, Agnieszka Holland, Peter Greenway, and Fritz Lang.

Done Deal: A current list of the latest industry script sales.

UK's Film Unlimited Truly unlimited, one of the best film sites going. Plenty of news, reviews, special reports, features, and PREVIEWS

Screen Writer's Utopia! What are they, who wrote them, who's doing them, and what you can expect.