Monday, March 31, 2008

The mendacious military

A few days ago, I came across a fascinating article from The Atlantic magazine comparing the outlook of the movies of today (especially movies about Iraq) to the movies of the decade that followed the Vietnam War. I've long felt that there's too much influence on today's culture by the people of the 1968 generation, who seem to want to view everything through the lens of events that happened between the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the resignation of Richard Nixon. (If you don't believe me, ask yourself why, when a football team is caught illegally taping its opponents, we have to have the goddamn -gate suffix attached to the name of the event.) I was reminded of this article last Friday when I was watching It Came From Beneath the Sea.

In the movie, Faith Domergue plays a female scientist who is called in by the military to investigate what turns out to be a giant octopus (courtesy of Ray Harryhausen) attacking boats at sea. At first, she really chafes at having to do the investigation -- and when the military brass are incredulous at her and her male colleague's hypothesis that they are facing a giant octopus, her initial reaction isn't to think it might be natural for people to disbelieve something so shocking, or even to think that they're simply having a fit of incompetency. No, she implies that they're disbelieving her with malice aforethought.

Now, military incompetency is nothing new. Humorists, and men in uniform, have been good-humored ribbing at their superiors for decades, if not centuries. Consider service comedies like Operation Petticoat, or even the dark humor in movies like Wake Island and Guadalcanal Diary. But this scene from It Came From Beneath the Sea struck me as one of the earliest I can remember in which a studio movie tried to portray the military as deliberately mendacious and unfeeling. It's de rigueur now, especially if it can be mixed with identity politics. (Indeed, one of the first movies which struck me with its presentation of military evil was Outbreak, in which smart female scientist Rene Russo outwits dumb male Dustin Hoffmann, and has to stop the military from bombing an entire town, which happens only through the intervention of the one black officer around, Morgan Freeman.) Considering the experience many in the 60s had with the unpopular war and draft in Vietnam, and the resulting politicization of culture that the 1968ers inflicted upon us, that's not necessarily surprising. Nowadays, of course, it's unoriginal and tedious, but I can't help but wonder if it was a surprise to the audiences of 1955. (Then again, they were probably all at the cinema for the Harryhausen effects.)

Are there any other earlier movies that show such intentional mendacity on the part of the US military?

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