Friday, 27 September 2019

What irks me about A Bridge Too Far



With all the attention on Operation Market Garden at the moment I thought I'd write a post on some of my observations about the film A Bridge Too Far. As much as I have enjoyed watching the film over the years, like so many cinematic attempts to tell a historical story it falls short.

Every film is about something and while that seems blindingly obvious the story line is often only a creative device to convey the perspective of the director and writer. On the surface A Bridge Too Far is a big budget, star-studded, Hollywood war epic about Operation Market Garden, but while that’s the dramatic device to drive the narrative I don’t think that’s the story the film is trying to tell.

Let’s start with the general premise, this is a film about a major Allied operation in the Second World War where the good guys lose. That alone makes it a quite unusual choice of subject matter, we tend to like films where the good guys win, don’t we? What is more interesting is the film doesn’t seem to suggest they lost because they were outfought by the bad guys. No, the key message emphasises the defeat as a result of their own actions and more particularly because of the hubris and arrogance in the high command. This is very much the conclusion of Cornelius Ryan's book and much of the historiography of the operation.

The film then appears to be about brave men sent on an impossible mission by an ambitious, arrogant and egotistical higher command. Dare I say it, it appears to be a film about ‘lions, led by donkeys’.


That shouldn't come as a complete surprise. Why? Because the director of A Bridge Too Far is also the director of the film adaptation of Oh! What a Lovely War. Originally a stage play from the 1960s it is a powerful anti-war satire about the First World War, although I'd argue it tells you a lot more about the anti-war, anti-establishment sentiments of the 1960s than it ever will about the First World War. It is a classic example of taking a narrative and using it as a vehicle to convey a sentiment or perspective about something else entirely.




The director Richard Attenborough is an accomplished actor and Oscar-winning film director who had a long and distinguished career. He was an active member of the British Labour Party and a committed pacifist. In many ways his work as a director was a product of the terrific creative furnace that was the 1960s and much like others working in that period he was anti-establishment. Before I go any farther, I’d like to stress that I am a great admirer of Attenborough both creatively and because I share many of his political views. This is not an attack on him because of his left-of-centre politics but an attempt to understand his creative output by framing it in the context of his world view.

This sets up an interesting perspective for A Bridge Too Far. Here we have a left-leaning, anti-establishment pacifist making a Hollywood blockbuster war movie. In many ways it doesn’t really make sense. I don’t believe Attenborough wanted to make a film that helped people understand the military events that led to and occurred during Operation Market Garden, I think he set out to make a more subversive film using the traditional war movie as his vehicle. It would be an epic, action adventure with a subtext akin to his world view.


There’s absolutely nothing unusual about that. If we look at another British war film of similar vintage, in this case Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, made a little earlier in 1968, we can see a number of parallels. Here is another film with a focus on a military disaster. Once again we see the arrogant, aloof senior officers, almost caricatures of the British ruling class, sending fine young men to their deaths. It's not a good film about the Crimean War or about the battle of Balaclava. On the other hand it is a good vehicle for someone wanting to make a film about class politics and reflect on the notion of lions led by donkeys. A look at Tony Richardson’s other films such as Look Back in Anger as well as the political affiliations at the time of his wife Vanessa Redgrave help to put this in context.


If we lump the three British war films together – Oh! What a Lovely WarA Bridge Too Far and The Charge of the Light Brigade it is easy to see a pattern of authorship that reflects the personality of the directors as much as the times in which the films were made. If you consider that Attenborough was also the director of the Oscar winning Ghandi, with its strong anti-imperial and anti-British establishment themes, then perhaps it becomes easier to see what it was in the story of Operation Market Garden that so appealed to him.


With that in mind certain scenes in A Bridge Too Far make more sense. Some are obvious like the very condescending way that Browning deals with the intelligence officer and dismisses his concerns. The intelligence officer is based on Major Brian Urquhart but his name was changed to Fuller for the film so as not to confuse audiences with Major General Urquhart, played by Sean Connery. Fuller is played as a slightly nervous man with a Northern English accent as a marked contrast to Browning's well spoken Queen's English. Browning comes across as a well mannered but slightly sinister, public school bully. In fact Urquhart attended Westminster School and Oxford and so was hardly a working or middle class lad from the north of England, but the decision to cast and juxtapose the two different class types draws attention to Attenborough's intentions for much of the film.  


The one scene that always irks me is James Caan’s depiction of SSgt Charles Dohun (renamed ‘Eddie’ in the film). While this is based on a true story, in timeless Hollywood fashion it has been somewhat embellished and dramatised (there was no chase involving a jeep, for example). To be honest that doesn’t bother or surprise me, but what I do find strange is the amount of time dedicated to this one solitary story line. Dohun’s action is not representative, in fact it was highly unusual. So why give it so much time and what does it tell us about Market Garden? Nothing really. At its heart it is about a man fighting back against the system, against authority and military regulation. I think it is given such a long treatment because this is more what Attenborough wants the film to be about.



The Dohun scene celebrates individuality and revolt against authority. It contrasts well with a scene that comes in the latter part of the film - the supply drop that features the canister of red berets. This is a powerful sequence played for full emotional impact. The final words come from one of the watching paratroopers as he cries in anguish ‘Oh Jesus Christ’ and the camera lingers on the dead soldier and the red berets blowing uselessly in the wind. This is a dramatic pause in the pace of the film and it’s the filmic equivalent of underscoring or putting words in italics. In many ways with his anguished cry he is speaking for everyone watching and it is perhaps this scene more than any other that sums up Attenborough's thesis.

Without a doubt the thought left with the audience is ‘what a terrible waste’, which then begs the question, who could have allowed this to happen? The canister of berets is a powerful device used to emphasise how out of touch those in command are from those in the front line and it carries potent echoes of the 'chateau generals' of the First World War. Several earlier scenes with Browning set in a very chateau-like HQ do nothing to dispel that illusion.

The film has been applauded for its accuracy and when it comes to elements like equipment, uniforms and weapons I think it is well deserved. A lot of time and effort was put into getting the right look and feel and while the treatment and realism of war in the cinema has changed with the advent of films like Saving Private Ryan there’s no doubt A Bridge Too Far made a concerted effort to get things right.


However, looking realistic and being good history are not necessarily the same thing. In fact that’s just the problem, the more realistic a film looks the more inclined we are to take what it is saying as real or true. The problem is any film is much like a book or a play. It is an artistic interpretation, written and directed by people who set out to tell a particular story. They will have an opinion and a view of the world that will inform how they interpret that story. Choosing to depict Operation Market Garden demonstrates this very well because there was simply no way the full story of the operation could be told in a three hour film. It wouldn’t have been possible in a twenty hour mini-series. At some point a series of storylines have to be selected and those that are selected will be those that best support the premise of the film the writer and director have set out to make. What to keep in and what to omit? That all depends on what story they want to tell and what impressions they hope to leave on the audience. 


For a film about a major operation in WWII it strikes me the Germans don’t really play a key role. They are simply the foil. The major dramatic tension is between the British and the Americans. Attenborough seems to use the Americans to emphasise the rigid, class bound nature of the British. To that end it seems he was comfortable playing loosely with history in order to suit the thesis.


Sir Antony Beevor said recently he has seen a letter written by Colonel Julian Cook to Cornelius Ryan, the author of A Bridge Too Far and a consultant on the film, in which he objects to how Redford played him. "Most men would have been flattered," Beevor said. Before the river crossing Redford’s character describes the mission as "a real nightmare".

Another scene sees Cook berating a British officer for his inactivity. "Those are British troops at Arnhem. They're hurt bad. And you're just gonna sit here and... drink tea?" This is a powerful moment in the film that reflects badly on British conduct of the operation and yet the man who purportedly made the statement was not at all happy about how that was portrayed.

The fictitious character Colonel Stout played by Elliott Gould and by all accounts based on Robert Sink is the embodiment of American impatience and vigour. His character seems to spend as much time pushing against the British military bureaucracy as he does fighting the Germans.


The Americans are set up as the counterpoint to the British. Browning makes an easy villain and Dirk Bogarde plays the role to the hilt. If there’s an evil character in the film then it’s not a German, it’s actually a British officer – Browning. Our anger and bitterness is not directed at the Germans, but oddly enough it’s directed at one of the Allied commanders. That’s not to say Browning is without blame for much that happened during the operation (and history has generally judged him harshly), but is he really the villain of the piece? I think he is a useful character for Attenborough to use to embody all the higher command and while Montgomery is conspicuous by his absence it is perhaps more than coincidental that Browning is the conduit for Monty’s thoughts during the film.

What's also interesting is that Cornelius Ryan never interviewed Browning for his book. Neither did he interview Dempsey or Horrocks, which strikes me as rather odd, especially given how much time and correspondence he had with other commanders, particularly Gavin. However even Ryan didn't go in for the character assassination that screenwriter Goldman and director Attenborough carried out in the script for A Bridge Too Far. Every story needs a villain and so while it might have made for a good story I'm not sure it made for good history. 

Cultural events such as films, books and plays can do much to influence our perceptions of history. They can feed prejudices and entrench myths. Many of the popular perceptions of the First World War were fostered during the 1960s with films like Oh! What a Lovely War and the attention given to poets like Wilfred Owen (who was not a popular poet during or immediately after the war, only rising to prominence much later). If you are looking to tell an anti-establishment story what better vehicle to use than the military and what better device than an example of military incompetence. Operation Market Garden appears to fit that narrative rather well.




Does all this make A Bridge Too Far a terrible war movie? On a superficial level the answer is no, it delivers in spades with plenty of very well executed action scenes. What’s not to like about Anthony Hopkins’ Colonel Frost calling ‘Bring up the PIAT’? Or the 82nd Airborne crossing the Waal River?


Despite all that I don’t think it’s a great film about Operation Market Garden. From a historical point of view the film leaves many questions unanswered. For example why was it even necessary for an elite paratroop unit to conduct a river crossing under fire when the principal use for airborne troops is surprise and coup de main?

However that is to assume A Bridge Too Far is a history lesson, when actually it’s a piece of dramatic entertainment that uses the events of 1944 as the vehicle for a commentary on the British establishment and a message about the futility of war. In that sense it certainly succeeds. The fact it is also a high quality, action-drama film should not surprise us, after all Attenborough was a masterful story teller.


24 comments:

  1. Funnily enough, I am currently reading Sir Antony Beevor's book on Arnhem, and so far, he is setting up the undoubted tensions between the British and the Americans pretty well. His opinion of Montgomery appears to tally pretty well with other accounts of how the man behaved, especially when it comes to his rivalry with the American generals, as well as his hugely egotistic opinion of himself. Much has been made over the years about the uncharacteristic nature of Market Garden as a Montgomery operation, and I think that this is the elephant in the room when it comes to the film version in A Bridge Too Far. However, as you say, the film is there as a dramatic tale based upon actual events, and in that sense it is a triumph, but I always feel that one should never look to the silver screen to understand history. Liberties are always taken in the interests of the narrative. There is a telling point made early on in Beevor's book, right at the end of the first chapter. He writes that "Montgomery refused to acknowledge what almost all other senior British officers had understood. Britain was now the junior partner in the alliance.........", going on to say that "The idea that Britain remained a first-rate power was a fantasy that Churchill desperately tried to promote, even though he knew in his heart that it was not the case."

    Perhaps that is the real, harsh light in which we need to see and understand Market Garden? It is certainly a view that chimes with Attenborough's filmic version of events. Browning is definitely portrayed as the villain of the piece, but the real problem is that the whole operation was doomed to fail simply because the objectives it set were always going to be impossible to achieve, both militarily but also politically. It is significant that it was 1st Airborne stuck at the end of the road, because, as Beevor makes plain, politically the Americans were never going to let a US Airborne division be the victims of a botched British operation with little real chance of success.

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    1. Carole thanks for taking the time to make such a considered response. I was partly inspired to write the piece by the number of times I hear people in podcasts and other discussions make reference to the film, on some occasions almost using the film as the reference point rather than the actual history. Much is surrendered to the film narrative and this I completely understand (I have worked in the film industry for over twenty years, so understand much that drives a production). Of course, as you note, the history of Market Garden is still being written and much remains controversial and debatable, which makes the treatment of it in film of great interest. If people saw it as a drama film set during Market Garden that might be a better way to look at it rather than see it a film about Market Garden, if that makes sense.

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    2. Yes, that makes perfect sense. No film on this huge scale is ever going to be a reliable source of evidence, because of the sheer complexity and the many simultaneous stories unfolding. I have pretty much finished Beevor's book now, and I think that he brings out aspects of the operation that I don't remember from Ryan's book. I think that from a historical perspective, the failure to fully support XXX Corps by VIII Corps and XII Corps really need to be brought into the analysis to a much greater degree. Of course, there were perfectly rational explanations why that never happened, but the delays exposed XXX Corps to attacks all along Club Route that could possibly have been avoided. I think that you are right. The history and analysis is far from complete. Perhaps it will always remain so?

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    3. "the real problem is that the whole operation was doomed to fail simply because the objectives it set were always going to be impossible to achieve, both militarily but also politically."

      I disagree. The operation was not inherently unwinnable. The Allies made mistakes in planning and execution.

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  2. An interesting and thought provoking post indeed!
    Thanks
    Matt

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  3. Really interesting post – thank you! I very much enjoyed reading it, and the comment by Carole. You wrote: “ I don’t believe Attenborough wanted to make a film that helped people understand the military events that led to and occurred during Operation Market Garden”. I’m not sure I completely agree, because that depends on what you think of as being the “military events”. I agree in part with your point – because a number of the events in the campaign are folded and bended to fit the narrative which Attenborough creates. And you have spotted skilfully where Attenborough’s narrative was heading in the timeline of the 1960s and 1970s anti-establishment theme! But there are also some clear signs that the narrative being followed in the film (and Ryan’s book) is at least a plausible narrative of historical events, even if that narrative is being re-told through a pacifist lens.

    Could I also play ‘Devil’s Advocate’ a little bit, please? Which war film does help a viewer understand military events? Not just human experiences of war, but military events in and of themselves? I’m not sure many do. It’s hard enough deciding what the key elements of military success, or failure, are (Geography & terrain? Logistics? Finance? Command?), without them showing them dramatically on the screen. I know that’s not quite your point - but if Attenborough’s film had been more “accurate” (and, as you know, that’s a subjective term), would it have been a better film to watch? It might have led people to understand more about what Gavin might have been doing (or not doing) at Nijmegan, or how disastrous Frosts’s curious personal reconnaissance was – but would giving more detail of those events, important though they are, have made the film more dramatic, more enjoyable?

    I think any film has a narrative intent, and war films are no different. Part of the fun of watching is figuring out the unstated intention of the director – and then you can see if you like that point of view or not. And, yes, you spotted Dickie Attenbourgh’s intent very well in “A Bridge Too Far”!

    One great point you make – which I completely agree with – is that the more realistic the film ‘looks’, the more you tend to trust it. Like all great reviews, you also made me want to watch the film again – and there’s no higher praise for any review!

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    1. One thing about Gavin and his (in)action during Market-garden to follow up on. Criticism of Gavin pretty much only became widely discussed in the narrative after his passing, just as with Bradley. At the time of both the book and the film, Gavin's decision making had not yet been subjected to much scrutiny. I think Geoffrey Powell in his "The Devil's Birthday" ca 1984 was the first author to raise some criticisms re the US command decisions but that was still pretty veiled. Once Gavin had passed, the critical analysis became more trenchant. Certainly by the turn of the century, it was something that drove many Market-Garden studies from the outset.

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    2. "or how disastrous Frosts’s curious personal reconnaissance was" - do you mean Urquhart rather than Frost? If so, his decision to leave his HQ to see what was going on with 1st Parachute Brigade was certainly very odd and had serious consequences especially as he left within minutes of summoning Freddie Gough but not leaving any message for him (mind you, that did mean that some Recce men did make it to the bridge).

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    3. Thanks Sidney for those great comments. I tend to agree with you on how a film can help a viewer understand military events, or not as is more usually the case. As I said to Carole the film is probably best viewed as a drama set 'during' Market Garden rather than a film 'about' Market Garden. Occasionally a dramatic treatment can get it right and I think a few episodes of Band of Brothers manage to convey the mechanics of tactical level combat quite well, but generally that's not what war films are about, it's the human drama that drives them. Finding the right balance between the history and the drama is never easy and when you throw in the need to make money at the box office and the personal viewpoints of the director and writer it's often a miracle we get a cohesive story at all!

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  4. An interesting post. There were definitely some odd choices made about incidents to include, which in hindsight do fit in with the film having a (somewhat) anti-war premise, the Sgt Dohun sequence being one.

    The telling of the story definitely suffers from having to compress into three hours a week of planning and nine days of the operation, with about 60,000 allied and 30,000 German ground troops involved. Obviously many things couldn't be represented and some things had to be merged (particularly characters).

    Did Browning come off badly in the film? Yes. Was it unfair? Yes and no. On his dismissal of intelligence about Bittrich's 2nd SS Panzer Corps being present in the area he can't really be blamed fully as he wasn't aware of confirmatory evidence - Bletchley Park had passed ULTRA intelligence to Monty confirming their location and status, but he had dismissed it; the intelligence was never passed on to Browning. However, he doesn't appear to have warned Urquhart that there might be SS Panzer troops in the area; had he done so the division might have put a greater priority on taking anti-tank weapons then they did.
    In the film, he does get off very lightly over his treatment of Sosabowski whom he (along with Horrocks and Thomas) chose to scapegoat for the failure before the remnants of 1st Airborne were evacuated from the Oosterbeek pocket.

    As for Gavin and the Nijmegen bridges, there are many issues that deserve to be addressed. Was he to blame for not prioritising their capture? Yes and no. His Operational Orders from browning specified 3 primary objectives - the Grave ridge, the Nijmegen bridges and the Groesbeek heights, plus a number of smaller crossings as secondary objectives along with securing a much longer stretch of the road than the 101st (and with less troops than them in the first lift). He was also guided by the intelligence reporting German Panzer Divisions in the Reichswald area near to Groesbeek (probably Bittrich's corps which was actually around Arnhem). I suspect that is why he focused so much of his force on securing the heights. There is certainly debate about whether he had issued verbal instructions before the jump to Lindquist to send a battalion to capture the bridges - Lindquist has contradicted himself. If the battalion had been sent to do the job as soon as they landed, they would almost certainly have captured the bridges. However, they probably couldn't have held them when Grabner's unit arrived and when elements of 10th SS Panzer Division joined them.

    I still enjoy watching the film, possibly more so these days for spotting the inaccuracies. It's still much more accurate than the 1946 "Theirs Is The Glory".

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    1. Thanks Tamsin, that's a very considered reply. We are more fortunate than Attenborough or Ryan as we enjoy considerably more research, scholarship and debate around MG than was available back in the 1970s. As with any event mired in controversy no one will be completely satisfied with the interpretation and when you consider that this is all in a mainstream Hollywood feature film it's little surprise those historical issues aren't addressed in a satisfactory way. I've seen just as many documentaries on MG that I would also take issue with, so little surprise ABTF struggles.

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  5. Yup I would agree with you about the general tone of the film which in a way is subliminal and pushing the writers own beliefs. Having done Ginkle Heide with Col John Waddy when I did a painting of the drop of the 4th Brigade for him I had the chance to discover and go over the whole battlefield. I did 'Hells Highway' a few weeks ago. As you say the element of surprise was lost as units were dropped to far from the objective. The only bridge taken immediately was grace because they were dropped with in easy reach. Interesting the film does not go into the issue of why the American Airborne units sat down for two hours when confronting German blocking forces near the Son Bridge. They failed to take Son Bridge and then delayed getting to Nimeigen Bridge. The RAF take some blame as they would not drop forces near the objectives. There are those who say it easy to say in hindsight but most of the British Airborne officers were not happy about it at all. Surprise is the key and they should have dropped much closer to the objective.

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    1. The film goes into great detail to explain certain decisions such as those over the intelligence, but it entirely skips over others. Some of this is to do with sticking to Cornelius Ryan's book and some is to do with conscious decisions about what storylines to keep in the film. To be honest we expect too much of a film whose main aim is to make loads of money at the box office and where the bulk of the audience was happy to see big name actors performing in spectacular action sequences.

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  6. A fantastic appraisal of a fantastic film about a fantastic part of ww2. I agree entirely that the film exudes an anti war anti establishment sentiment. As an aside this continued in print form with Charleys War in the weekly Battle comic of the 1970s and 80s. Great story telling with THE best comic artist of all time Joe Colqhoun, presented a mouth watering visual banquet with a subversive anti war undertone. Ironically it led to me joining the Parachute Regiment. Go figure.

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  7. Good appraisal of an excellent film and I'm sorry, but there's no way the Fuller character has a "Northern English accent". It's generic, English "posh".

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    1. You're dead right, I've just watched it again and I don't know why I thought he had a northern accent. I think it's the slightly nasally whine he has in his voice that had left that impression. Good call.

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  8. Rely after the war a film of this was made and featured the actual men who fought there. Cannot remember the name sorry

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    1. Theirs Was The Glory is what I think you are talking about.

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    2. "Theirs Is The Glory", filmed in '45, released in '46. A good mix of footage taken during the battle and scenes shot with troops who had been there (not always playing themselves).

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  9. Funny was just about to mention 'Theirs is the Glory'
    Top stuff - although I don't mind ABTF - but this is the reality - can be found here
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fiFeYxlPYy4

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  10. Thank you for a very interesting piece in the first place and thanks to those who have taken the trouble to respond so constructively.
    It's been a very rewarding read.

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  11. Sorry being so late to the party (think of me as the XXX Corps of commentators!). Another factor to take into account re. Borwning's culpability is that, afterwards, he took full responsibility for the failure of the Arnhem part of Market Garden - a fact that "Dickie darling" Attenborough conveniently ignores. Compare this to the American commanders falling over each other to claim "I did my bit, it was you losers who let us down". The sad fact is that the UK film and tv industry is overrun with people with leftist views - in fact, it's hard to think of anyone with alternative views who has ever had a decent career in the industry. And whilst it is all very well saying we can allow for this, the fact is that if it is the only view you ever get, and that even centrist views are excluded, it becomes next to impossible to teach people genuine history, or to acknowledge nuance and context. A classic case in point is the (in)famous Falklands War radio play, showing (shock, horror!) Margaret Thatcher giving an all-too-human reaction to the losses at Goose Green (a well-documented fact). It was banned for decades, despite the author (Curteis) being a very well respected playwright whose previous efforts for the BBC had ALL been made into programmes. Subsequent revelations showed that the BBC had (a) tried to alter the depiction of Thatcher, and (b) had lied about the reasons for it being "held back". Meanwhile, the anti-Thatcher/anti-Army drama "Tumbledown" (which contained several fallacies, some of which led to the writer being sued) was not only continued with, but the BBC even tried to show it during the 1987 election. Sadly, this is what happens when you allow just one political view to be presented in the media.

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    1. Thanks Brendan. It’s one reason I find it hard to enjoy so many war films. So many directors choose a war theme or a military theme because it’s a suitable vehicle to convey their anti-military, anti-establishment or political views. The military history side of the story or the actual facts are far less important. The films are dramatic fictions set during a historical period to lend them some sort of authenticity or legitimacy. Ironically I’ve always thought Marxist film criticism has the best phrase for expressing this, they refer to films that try to look real and so convey the impression they are telling a ‘truth’ as bourgeois illusionism. In other words a con trick, cinematic sleight of hand to fool the audience into thinking what they are watching is real. We often mistake what looks realistic with what is real. This makes all our cultural artefacts open to interpretation by both sides of politics and audiences need to approach everything critically. I’m always telling my kids, everything comes from something, it’s important to understand what that ‘something’ is.

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