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4:30 pm
Sun December 18, 2011

War, What Is Good For? Movies, It Seems.

As Hollywood rolls out Oscar hopefuls over the next two months, there's a curious thread developing: Many of these films are set amidst the backdrop of wars — especially wars involving Great Britain.

From the World War I cavalry charge in Steven Spielberg's War Horse, to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's ordering of a naval attack to reclaim the Falkland Islands in Iron Lady, to Ralph Fiennes' camouflage-and-tanks version of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, filmmakers are offering a kind of master class in the history of warfare, interpreted through everything from classics, to spy novels, to biopics and kids stories.

Spielberg's War Horse is the most conventional of these films, about a young man and his horse, separately drafted into service in WWI. Possibly because of its origins in a children's novel by Michael Mulpurgo, the tale depicts warfare in relatively simple terms. Though the scenes of battle are grim, the soldiers on both sides are depicted as behaving in essentially civilized fashion.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is also based on a novel — a classic spy novel by John Le Carre — about an entirely different sort of conflict: The Cold War. Here, everything is covert, paranoia reigns and the only rule seems to be trust nobody, suspect everybody. It's mostly a war of nerves.

Then in the film Iron Lady, we see what amounts to the end of the Cold War; a conflict that suddenly turns hot when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) sends the British navy halfway around the world to reclaim the Falkland Islands from Argentina. The men around her accuse her of leaping too quickly into armed conflict, because as a woman, she doesn't understand warfare. She responds that for that very reason, she's had to battle all her life.

Lastly, in Ralph Fiennes' contemporized Coriolanus, it's another woman — the title character's bloodthirsty mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave — who propels the action toward ever-greater violence. The setting is still "a place calling itself Rome," but it's pretty clearly modern Serbia, complete with ethnic cleansing and long-simmering hatreds.

In short, these four films traverse a path from war fought by men who are capable of understanding each other, to war that's devolved into pure barbarity.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. As Hollywood rolls out the Oscar hopefuls over the next two months, there's a curious thread developing. Many of these films are set against the backdrop of wars - to be precise, British wars. From the Cavalry's charge of World War I...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WAR HORSE")

RAZ: ...to the naval attack to reclaim the Falkland Islands.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "IRON LADY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Character) The Argentinean troops are demoralized and ill equipped.

RAZ: Our Bob Mondello is here with a preview of these British war stories. Bob, from "Coriolanus" to "War Horse" to "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," something's going on here.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: I felt like I was getting a sort of a seminar in British thinking about warfare through the ages. It's actually been a fairly interesting period. It's all over the place.

RAZ: Mm. OK. Let's start with the Spielberg film "War Horse." This is coming out on Christmas Day. It's set during the First World War. And this is the story of a horse's journey through the British Cavalry. Let's hear a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WAR HORSE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as Character) Look at that horse. Look at the muscles he's got, them long legs.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as Character) I mean, for running horses, running away from danger, running away is all they have. And yet we taught them opposite, running into the fray. War horse. War horse.

MONDELLO: Now, this is a really smart horse. And the regiment that he's put with is not as smart. They head into war, at least in the initial battle, really stupidly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WAR HORSE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (as Character) Numbers?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (as Character) About 600 infantry. Twice our size.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: (as Character) Regiments of horse and men. The advantage is ours.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (as Character) And we have surprise on our side. But the sooner we move, the better we have no assurances we'll be there tomorrow morning.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: (as Character) Right.

MONDELLO: Well, so much for surprise because the Germans retreat to an array of machine guns and unload on the Brits.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WAR HORSE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: (as Character) Do you think that a garrison on open road would go undefended? Look at yourself. Who do you think you are?

MONDELLO: Now, I - as far as I'm concerned, this is a really interesting children's view of what war is all about, that...

RAZ: It's based on a children's story, right?

MONDELLO: That's right. "War Horse" is a children's story. It also inspired a current Broadway show. And it is kind of a simple look at war. And there's actually a scene in the middle of the film where the German forces and the British forces are looking across a sort of a no man's land and decide to team up to help the horse.

Now, what I kept on thinking was this is all very civilized. And I guess that is how I picture warfare back in that era.

RAZ: All right. Let's talk about the next film. This is about a different war, the Cold War, my personal favorite war, Bob. "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." This is the remake, of course, of that classic BBC miniseries that came out in the '70s starring Alec Guinness, of course. This time, you have Gary Oldman, and he is playing the lead role of George Smiley.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY")

GARY OLDMAN: (As George Smiley) We're not so very different, you and I. We both spend our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another's systems. Don't you think it's time to recognize there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?

RAZ: Oh, wow.

MONDELLO: Ooh.

RAZ: Here is a pure Cold War paranoia. And by the way, Bob, I noticed that John Le Carre, who wrote - of course wrote the novel, was a producer on this film.

MONDELLO: Yeah. And apparently quite likes what Gary Oldman is doing with the part. This is a picture about war where everything is covert, everything. There are almost no guns in the course of the story.

RAZ: Right. Right.

MONDELLO: And it's intriguing because, again, if you go from what warfare had been to the previous generation to this, which is everything undercover, everything covert...

RAZ: In the shadows.

MONDELLO: ...yeah, in the shadows, it's a different look at what warfare is like. And it actually explains where we're going with the next picture.

RAZ: Which is a film about a stalwart of the Cold War, Bob, Margaret Thatcher played by Meryl Streep in the film "The Iron Lady." Let's hear a little bit of her performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE IRON LADY")

MERYL STREEP: (As Margaret Thatcher) No matter how I've tried, and I have tried, to fit in, I know I will never be truly one of them.

JIM BROADBENT: (As Denis Thatcher) You've got it in you to go the whole distance. Absolutely.

STREEP: (As Margaret Thatcher) What? Prime Minister? Oh, no. No, no. In Britain? There will be no female Prime Minister here. Not in my lifetime. No.

RAZ: This, to me, Bob was a pitch-perfect performance.

MONDELLO: Isn't she amazing?

RAZ: I - incredible.

MONDELLO: And there are places where you can't see her at all, where you don't see Meryl Streep at all. You just see Maggie Thatcher.

RAZ: It's amazing.

MONDELLO: Yeah. She's pretty incredible.

RAZ: And I would say, Bob, it's not - I mean, it's certainly a sympathetic portrayal of Thatcher, and her critics may not like it, but it's not entirely uncritical. I mean, you come away from this film thinking that this was a person who was totally convicted. I mean, she believed in what she believed in. But of course, it didn't always work out.

MONDELLO: Yes, exactly. And she really pushed things. And actually, this particular war was a really good example of that. I mean, at one point, the Americans were very upset with her. What is she doing, you know, gallivanting off thousands of miles away in this little tiny island where there are almost no Brits? And she says...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE IRON LADY")

STREEP: (As Margaret Thatcher) Just like Hawaii, I imagine.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: (as Character) I'm sorry?

STREEP: (As Margaret Thatcher) 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, did America go, cap in hand, and ask Tojo for the peaceful negotiation of terms? Did she turn her back on her own citizens there because the islands were thousands of miles away from the mainland United States? No. No. No. We will stand on principle or we will not stand at all.

RAZ: That was great. And we have to assume that Meryl Streep is going to be nominated for this role.

MONDELLO: Yeah. This is one of the absolute sure things.

RAZ: Yeah. Bob, I know you wanted to throw one more in there. This is not exactly a British war, but it is based on the work of an Englishman who certainly knew something about war, William Shakespeare, and the film is "Coriolanus."

MONDELLO: Which is Ralph Fiennes doing a contemporary soldiers in camouflage version that's set in what is pretty clearly Serbo-Croatia the - although it's Shakespeare's story, they say something about it being a place that calls itself Rome. The weapons, however, are modern. The language is pure Shakespeare.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CORIOLANUS")

RALPH FIENNES: (As Coriolanus) If any think brave death outweighs bad life and that his country is dearer than himself, let him alone, or so many so minded, wave thus to express his disposition, then follow Marcus. Make you a sword of me.

MONDELLO: And when all hell breaks loose in the warfare, it's absolutely, clearly 21st century. And what is interesting to me is that we get five periods in these four films. They take us from what I was describing earlier as a civilized war, World War I, to war undercover, the Cold War, to war as kind of showboating for Maggie Thatcher, the Falklands, to war as pure barbarity of ethnic cleansing. It's a real downward slide.

RAZ: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED film critic Bob Mondello. Bob, thank you so much.

MONDELLO: Oh, it's always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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