Lone Survivor: just because a film shows the ugly side of war, doesn't mean it's an anti-war film

Anti-war films often aren't because they still glamourise combat, or fail to ask questions about the wider political reasons for nations to go to war.

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Propaganda by way of stylised militarism is a tradition as old as cinema itself, ranging all the way back from John Wayne’s pro-Vietnam War movie The Green Berets to the true-life tale of Marcus Luttrell in Lone Survivor, and 2012’s Act of Valor, which starred real-life Navy SEALs. They are movies born out of aggressive nationalism and a pro-military world where a celebration of chaos and horror has replaced thoughtful consideration and criticism. These are films that flat-out glamourise warfare and depict soldiers as noble heroes regardless of their actions, but even the greatest war films - your Full Metal Jackets and your The Thin Red Lines - are split into good guys versus bad guys, and whilst the villains may not be cartoonish racist caricatures the message is still the same: war will make you a hero.

I think back to a comment made by Steven Spielberg in the aftermath of the release of Saving Private Ryan: “every war movie, good or bad, is an anti-war movie”. What I think he means with that comment is that as long as war movies depict war as violent and horrifying then they are depicting war as bad, therefore being anti-war. Obviously nobody who watched Saving Private Ryan would leave the cinema thinking the Normandy landings were a jolly and a laugh, just as obviously nobody watching The Green Berets sits there thinking Vietnam looks like a party. Indeed, the only film I can think of that makes war look like "fun" is Top Gun, with its 80s pop rock and unintentional homoeroticism.

But Spielberg is forgetting something. War movies are action movies: they feature huge awe-inspiring set-pieces, they’re blockbusters designed to dazzle and, most of all, they are exciting and thrilling. And if you show war as exciting and thrilling, then, even inadvertently, you are condoning it. Even when not strictly glorifying war, it is never condemned or discouraged - it’s just there, seemingly as a necessity that cannot be avoided.

All war movies feature heroes because the action genre calls on a protagonist to root for, but what movies like Lone Survivor and Act of Valor have done is transform them into superheroes that are completely infallible unless they come up against an entire army. In the case of Lone Survivor, a film full of highly stylised carnage that acts as little more than a recruitment video, the message seems to be that dying at war is a noble deed and will make you a hero amongst your fellow man. I can’t think of a more pro-war message.

Lone Survivor is the most troubling war movie I’ve seen in some time, and a film I expect to not be a million miles away from it (American Sniper, a biopic of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in US military history) is to be released soon. That these films tend to be very popular means the studios making them aren’t going to stop. Lone Survivor has a porno aesthetic: it’s loud, hammering and takes voyeuristic glee in its many money shots. This is a pitfall only a handful of war films manage to avoid. Directors like Peter Berg do not want to humanise these soldiers, doing so would reveal them as flawed and conflicted and would ask whether the war they are fighting is just or ethical, such a move would risk the idea of offence and is there a really an audience for a film where the military are anything but superstars?

Which brings us to the question of "what does an anti-war movie look like?" In my mind it looks like Apocalypse Now or Elem Kilmov’s extraordinary masterpiece Come and See, a story of a Belarusian boy who joins the Soviet resistance in the Second World War; they’re both films about terror and how war corrupts us all to the point of insanity. They’re two great anti-war pieces of art, haunting to the point of nightmare, and never "exciting". Even the extravagant set-pieces of Apocalypse Now are underlined with a surrealism and an insidiousness that makes them impossible to enjoy - it’s more you’re the observer of this eternal chaos that destroys the souls of men.

That so many American war films fail to acknowledge or critique any of the political reasons that lead to soldiers having to fight at all is doubly galling in the context of all of the terror – from Abu Ghraib to drone strikes – that the US government is itself responsible for, and it in turn makes the recent batch of glorious, heroic war movies even more toxic. The end result of these kinds of war films being made is, deliberate or not, that more men are going to be joining the armed forces, be it here, the US or wherever else these films get mass distribution (which, when your film stars Mark Wahlberg, is pretty much all over the globe). There isn’t much, or any, art in a cinema which acts mainly as a recruitment tool for the army.