In the '60s and '70s, it was a convention of war movies that war was not just hell, but absurd. After decades of politely showing soldiers charging and shooting and falling down dead but whole and heroic, Hollywood decided, with Vietnam, to show that war is unlovely. Movies such as "M*A*S*H" and "Catch-22" (turned into a film in 1970) began to assault the audience with severed limbs, spurting blood and open bellies.
Graphic realism was not just a visual device. It carried a political message: anything this terrible can have no meaning. In such circumstances the very idea of heroism was crazy. The gentlest movie of this genre made the point with embarrassing bluntness. "King of Hearts," which ran for a decade in that breeding-ground of the American intelligentsia, Cambridge, Mass., was a parody of World War I in which the only sane characters were inmates of a lunatic asylum, and everyone else -- soldiers mostly -- was, naturally, insane.
Oliver Stone has, to much acclaim, carried this anti-heroic tradition into the '80s with "Salvador," "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July." In "Fourth of July," for example, the hero accidentally kills one of his own men and is himself wounded stupidly in firefights that are all confusion and stand for a war equally confused and devoid of meaning.
Yet something is now changing in movie war. Apart from Stone, the anti-heroic convention of the war movie is in decline. The absolute requirement of realism cum anti-heroism has been broken -- and without sacrificing the hyper-realism that is now demanded by audiences that have seen worse real footage on television. The new heroism manages the remarkable, one might say post-modern feat, of combining heroism with battle realism without resort to the sappy sentimentality of the pre-'60s war movie.
"Glory" and "Henry V," for example, both celebrate martial heroism without flinching from the horror that is the reality of war. "Glory," the story of the 54th Massachusetts, a black Civil War regiment, opens with a sequence of the battle of Antietam so graphic that it features a Yankee head being blown off. The new "Henry V" features a long, wordless rendition of the battle of Agincourt, which captures brilliantly the terrible savagery and coarseness that is hand-to-hand combat knee-deep in the mud of a French wheat field.
This kind of gritty realism was best captured in print by John Keegan in "The Face of Battle," the classic study of the infantryman's view of war. Keegan is the master of the humbling, at times degrading, detail of battle (such as men in armor slipping in the mud and simply drowning, too heavy to right themselves). And yet there is no mistaking Keegan's admiration for the men and respect for the enterprise of war.
What Keegan managed to do in print, "Glory" and "Henry V" have now done in film. They give you the utter realism of war and at the same time leave you filled with admiration for the warrior. "Glory's" finest moment, for example, is not the heroic charge at the end, which borrows a little from John Wayne, but the almost inadvertent skirmish in which two regiments, one Union, one Confederate, meet in a wood and shoot it out. The scene powerfully and subtly conveys the feeling of surprise, ambivalence and terror that constitute the encounter of two groups of men respectfully bent on mutual annihilation.
The thirst for heroism is strong. It shows itself as well in film in contexts other than war. "Mountains of the Moon," for example, is an intensely heroic portrayal of Burton and Speke's search for the headwaters of the Nile. It too is distinguished by an unstinting realism, this time about the dangers and the brutality of 19th century African exploration. The torture is graphic, the native battles savage and an insect crawling into Speke's ear sparks madness and mutilation. This is no Dr. Livingstone, I presume.
Which is not to say that this cultural wedding of heroism with realism has been fully consummated. As yet, liberal Hollywood is not entirely comfortable with the idea. "Glory," though beautifully done and otherwise politically correct, was snubbed at the Academy Awards. Hollywood could not quite bring itself to honor a movie that did such honor to war.
Moreover, lower-brow movies and television are still suffused with random violence, violence as mayhem, violence as recreation. "Die Harder" -- Ninja Turtles for adults -- has no more to say about violence than that it can be fun.
Nonetheless, the point is that until recently even films with serious intentions were required to echo this nihilistic view that violence is pointless (though a serious film, as proof of seriousness, would be required to deplore rather than celebrate pointless violence). What's new about the new heroism is that it can portray war unflinchingly and still leave you with the feeling that even hell, perhaps especially hell, can be the ground of glory.