Gilbey on Film: the real Oscar winners

Suffering from awards fatigue? Our film critic has the antidote.

Awards fatigue, which descends around this time each year, has been alleviated slightly by last week's London Film Critics' Circle Awards. As a voting member, I was naturally thrilled to see the award for Film of the Year go to what I considered to be the right film -- A Prophet -- and even in the other categories there wasn't much to quibble with.

Let the Right One In and Fish Tank got some deserved love, and as for Avatar . . . well, let's just say that James Cameron probably spent Thursday evening eating a hell of a lot of comfort food and sobbing himself to sleep on a bed of $100 bills. We sure showed him.

But with the Baftas behind us and the Oscars looming, the cultural nausea returns. So, let me recommend an effective antidote in the form of those websites that revisit the scenes of past Academy Award ceremonies in the interest of righting wrongs.

The internet has successfully undermined the idea that history is written by the winners, proposing instead that it can be annotated, challenged and rewritten in favour of the losers. And nowhere is this more apparent than at stinkylulu, where Oscar rematches (or "smackdowns") in the Best Supporting Actress category are a regular and stimulating feature.

Cheer as Angelina Jolie's 1999 statuette for Girl, Interrupted is snatched from her livid fingers! Then gasp as it is handed instead, after much heated and knowledgeable debate, not to the deserving Chloë Sevigny (Boys Don't Cry), but to Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense).

Applaud as Josephine Hull loses the Oscar she won in 1950 for Harvey! Then guffaw wildly as it goes to Hope Emerson, whose portrayal of a sadistic prison guard in the trashy Caged makes Nurse Ratched look like Little Miss Marker.

One smackdowner, Ken, puts it brilliantly: "Built like Foghorn Leghorn, she's six-foot-two of slow swagger, prowling around looking for the next can of worms to pry open, torturing her victims with that slow-motion chuckle from Hell. Line up, you tramps -- and salute one of the great screen heavies."

You get the gist: it's a feast for anyone whose TV is stained from all the projectiles thrown at the screen each Oscar night. In the same vein is a new and, so we're promised, regular item at mainlymovies, where past Oscar categories are replayed with added wisdom, sanity and imagination.

So, instead of Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe (both in Platoon) battling it out with the eventual winner, Michael Caine in Hannah and Her Sisters, to be crowned Best Supporting Actor 1986, we get a far more inspired batch of nominees, including Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, Ray Liotta in Something Wild and Tom Noonan in Manhunter.

What a war of the psychos that would've been! My vote has to go to Liotta -- not just for his seductive, oddly sad menace, but for the way he wears his responsibility for changing the entire character of that fine film in its second half with such lightness.

Next to such delicious "what ifs", this year's "Cameron v Bigelow" Oscar contest looks about as exciting as Kramer v Kramer.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times