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War, Empire, Conscription: 3 Films For Our Time

July 5, 2005

I've added three films to Films on Liberty and the State: The Americanization of Emily, The Man Who Would Be King and Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War dealing with war, empire and conscription respectively. Though spanning 40 years they are, I am afraid, all films for our time.

The Americanization of Emily (1964)

Sometimes under the guise of comedy, art is at its most brutally honest. A case in point is this delightful anti-war classic starring Julie Andrews and James Garner as cynical WWII military man Charlie Madison who has rejected the "nobility" of war. In one of several stunning bits of dialogue, he calmly explains, "It's not greed or ambition that makes war: it's goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny. Always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity. So far this war, we've managed to butcher some ten million humans in the interest of humanity. Next war it seems we'll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity."

In addition to Charlie Madison's penetrating comments on war, worth the film alone, there is also a hilarious send-up of the military high command. The film portrays them as more concerned about the women that Madison procures for them and inter-service jockeying than about the lives of the men they command. Despite, or because of, the brutal honesty this is a genuinely enjoyable film that confronts the issue of how to live free in a world of pointlessly fighting states. Unrated, but some risqué scenes. See Rick Gee's LewRockwell.com review.

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

Ironically based on a famous short story by Imperialist Rudyard Kipling, this film is a clever parable of Empire. Instead of a massive state invading a smaller country, this invasion consists of only two men. Peachy Carnahan (Michael Caine) and Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery) are the charming rogues who are going to make something of their experience as soldiers for the British Empire in India. When they explain to Kipling (cast as a character in the film played by Christopher Plummer) their plan to take over Kafiristan, they do not pretend to be doing it for Kafiristan's good. "It's a place of warring tribes, which is to say, a land of opportunity for such as we, who know how to train men and lead them into battle." Their plan is simple, "We'll go there. We'll say to any chief we can find, 'Do you want to vanquish your foes?' 'Of course' he'll say, 'go to it.' We'll fight for him, make him king, then we'll subvert that king. We'll seize his royal throne and loot the country 4 ways from Sunday."

It goes pretty much according to plan, at first. But eventually the unpredictability of the people they are conning and, perhaps deadlier, themselves undoes them. Daniel Dravot begins to believe his own propaganda and see himself as a true benefactor. A more charming and enjoyable way to show the evil of empire is hard to imagine. Highly recommended. Rated PG for violence and brief nudity.

Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War (2004)

A film seriously dealing with conscription! The hinge of this film is when younger brother Jin-Seok, the pride and hope of his family, is unwillingly impressed into the South Korean army to fight the Korean War. His older brother, Jin-Tae, races to take him off the train taking him away. When a soldier tells him he is drafted too for his trouble, Jin-Tae sensibly responds "Then who's going to look after my mother? You?" When Jin-Tae tries to leave with his younger brother, he is brutally beaten by several soldiers. The younger brother's heart condition is laughed at. The violence inherent in the system is made abundantly manifest.

From there, the film only gets darker. Both North and South Korean soldiers commit atrocities until finally the brothers are unable to stop the murder of Jin-Tae's fiancé by their own "side". When the South Koreans also apparently kill Jin-Seok, Jin-Tae decides to fight for the North instead. But that doesn't last either when his family is again threatened. Eventually, the logic of the brothers becomes clear. Family is for them, number one. Country and ideology literally mean nothing to them. They kill anyone who threatens their family. It would have been better for everyone if they had just been left alone. Rated R for language and horrifying violence.

Note: Sometimes in my reviews for the Mises film page, I say that a film is "absolutely devastating" or, as above, that a film has "horrifying violence". Please be assured that unlike some film reviewers I am not given to hyperbole. When I say "horrifying violence", I am being factual. You really should think twice before watching the film, not watch it with children and give fair warning to those adults who will watch the film with you. If you have doubts you can stomach it, please pick some of the less graphic fare from the list, of which there is plenty.

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