September 05, 2011

No way to wage a war

During one of those free preview weekends (Cinemax, I believe), I was watching Avatar (the most expensive anime film ever made) in short bursts (until my rolled eyes made it impossible to see), and came to three realizations:

  • When it comes to sermons about noble savages and the white man's burden, Dances with Wolves gets it pretty much right.
  • Though Avatar is more a remake of Independence Day and The Last Samurai.
  • The intelligence with which fictional cinematic wars are waged cannot exceed that of the writer and director.

Costner especially gets the scale right. Dunbar doesn't rise to the top of a huge, established feudal order (nor one that unlike any other feudal order in history is mysteriously united in purpose). Dunbar's prior training is commensurate to the task. He doesn't magically acquire skills out of whole cloth.

Costner doesn't ignore history. In the long run, the U.S. Army would not be defeated. Not even close. They would return with overwhelming force and a really bad attitude.

In glaring contrast to Dances with Wolves, Edward Zwick's ahistorical The Last Samurai demonstrates how desperately dumb Hollywood can get in its search for exotic noble savages and angsty white Americans to heroically shoulder their burdens.

I go into greater depth here, but the Battle of the Southwest was fought against a nascent democracy to preserve the feudal privileges of an aristocratic order, and was led by a man who quit the government mostly because it didn't invade Korea fast enough (they got around to it a few decades later).

Not to mention that Americans never served as military advisers or arms suppliers to the Meiji government. If anybody, that honor goes to an adventurous and enterprising Scotsman, Thomas Blake Glover (a way more interesting person than any fictional character in any of these movies).

An American Civil War veteran, Captain L. L. Janes, was hired by the Meiji government, but to set up a school for "western learning" in Kumamoto.

So I suppose James Cameron came up with the ideal solution and invented his noble savages out of whole cloth, making sure the black hats were naught but black and the white hats were bluer than blue, and every conflict was absolutely unresolvable by any rational means.

But the real formula being shamelessly exploited here is the classic underdog story. Except that Rocky going up against Apollo Creed is one thing. Having the good guys win grossly mismatched military conflicts is quite another.

In desperate, headlong attacks, victory depends on pinning down and overwhelming the opposition. The Indians at Little Bighorn were at least as well-armed as the 7th Cavalry and outnumbered Custer's men by two or three to one (but like the charge of the Light Brigade, it proved a Pyrrhic victory).

In a prolonged engagement, the only proven way to survive being hugely outgunned and outnumbered is with guerrilla action. Though facing off against a strategically overconfidence and tactically foolish foe (Custer at Little Bighorn, Lee at Gettysburg) can go a long ways to evening the scales.

Until Gettysburg, Lee got the better of larger, better-equipped Federal forces by keeping his greatest weapon close at hand: George McClellan. Once Lincoln put Grant and Sherman in charge, Lee's only hope was for McClellan to get elected president and offer an armistice. The fall of Atlanta ended that.

In Avatar, Cameron, borrowing from Roland Emmerich and George Lucas, evens the scales by manufacturing stupidity on a scale that makes McClellan and Custer look like freaking geniuses.

At the root of the problem (as discussed here) is the utter lack of moral sophistication on the part of the bad guys. If the bad guys really are that bad to the bone, if the ends justify any means, then dispatching the good guys would be a piece of cake.

  • Star Wars: the planet-destroying Death Star (talk about useless overkill) is defended by WWII-vintage anti-aircraft guns? What, they couldn't spring for an Aegis fire-control system?
  • Independence Day: nuke the Earth from orbit. The aliens wouldn't have to waste money on actual nukes, only pick up a few asteroids along the way.
  • Avatar: more asteroids. Or drones, cruise missiles, fuel-air explosions, poisonous gas, mines that turn those floating mountains (that look like the ones in Excaflowne) into big hand grenades.

Movies like Avatar push all the James Bond villain buttons in my brain.

In bubblegum entertainment terms, I can give Independence Day and Star Wars a pass. Blame the writers for creating stupid weapons platforms, but at least they give us protagonists who plan, strategize, and figure things out. And in Star Wars, a literally magical "force" is posited.

What exactly is the strategy in Avatar? What gets figured out? You know, basic military stuff like feints, flanking movements, diversions, sieges and subterfuge?

As far as I can tell, this is the essence of the deeply thought-out plan the good guys in Avatar come up with: let's all charge the machine guns and then the good white guy (and his babelicious blue girlfriend, mostly sans clothes and all sans body armor) will get really, really, really lucky and the bad white guy won't!

Yeah, that always works.

There's a simple reason movie directors turn every cinematic military engagement into The Battle of Britain or The Charge of the Light Brigade, regardless of technological advances: because it looks good on film.

So the climax of Avatar has a bunch of video game and anime characters reenacting the latter (the Light Brigade did briefly overrun the Russian positions, just as Pickett's men briefly breached the Union line). The Last Samurai has a bunch of samurai cosplayers reenacting the end of Gallipoli.

During the real Battle of the Southwest, Saigo Takamori wore a western-style military uniform, his men fought with guns, and in the end they got wiped out by an unromantic artillery barrage without charging anybody.

Let's keep in mind as well that Tom Cruise's character in The Last Samurai "embeds" himself with a bunch of medieval wannabees, studies the culture, masters the languageā€”and yet learns nothing useful and teaches them nothing useful. In fact, he helps get them all killed.

I don't think that was supposed to be the moral of the story, but it ought to be.

Related posts

The Big Bad
Dances with Samurai
Escaflowne: A Girl in Gaea

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# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
9/05/2011 3:03 PM   
On a side note, the British officers on a higher ridge who watched the charge of the Light Brigade--the result of miscommunication and a vacant mind--were aghast. They wept as they watched; they could tell by the way the lines closed ranks how many men were being lost.

Ironically enough, the vacant-minded man who led the charge survived, and he never really understood what he'd done wrong. He had been thrown out of the military before the Crimean War; he got back in due to nepotism and a failure of the uppity-ups to listen to the rank-and-file military officers (who knew he was a numbskull).

As Eugene says, this sort of thing looks good on film but it sure does get a lot of people killed.

Don't even get me started on Ewoks!