Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The Trench and The Brotherhood of War

Somehow a movie about a few days in the life of British soldiers in middle of World War I called The Trench escaped my notice for about 14 years, despite the fact that it stars a pre-Bond Daniel Craig. It's a trenchant, mercilessly honest feature about a small group of guys, accents from all over the British Isles, on the lead up to going over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The movie ends with that moment of tactical stupidity, with the results needless for me to say.

In the course of the movie, these young men show everything you would honestly expect to see in these conditions... homesickness, comradery, cruelty, stupidity, cowardice, bravery, and, of course, a fatalistic resignation. There are some good, solid performances here, particularly Craig's tough but fatherly Sgt. Winter. A modern audience, post-WWII and Vietnam, is left to sit watching in anger and outrage as pigheaded orders we know will send thousands needlessly and stupidly to their deaths are blithely issued. Most of the men know it too but hope against hope it won't be as bad as they imagine. Of course, it was.

The movie has a particular resonance for me because my great-grandfather died in the Battle of the Somme. He was a corporal, a little older than most of the recruits because he was a career soldier. He was in the Hampshire Regiment that was massacred at the Battle of Albert, one of the first actions in the larger Battle of the Somme; he died that day, July 1, 1916, leaving behind a widow and two infant daughters, one of them my Irish-born grandmother. Though it would have meant nothing to him, it was Canada's 49th birthday as nation-state.


Another movie I discovered recently was the Korean-filmed (and English-subbed) The Brotherhood of War, which is about the Korean War. The story is told from the point of view of two ordinary young men from Seoul, who are brothers; Lee Jin-tae and Lee Jin-seok... principally, from the perspective of the latter. Like Saving Private Ryan, it opens in the present day at a dig in a battlefield in South Korea. An artifact is found and a phone call is made to an elderly man, who is invited to come around and make an identification. The movie segues back to 1950. Just prior to the start of the war, Jin-tae is a cobbler and shoe-shiner making a living to support his widowed mother, his fiancee and her little sisters, and his own slightly younger brother Jin-seok.

The war begins abruptly and in the course of feeling Seoul, the family encounters an army shanghai gang, and Jin-seok is drafted on the spot and put on a troop train. In trying to rescue him, Jin-tae also ends up drafted. The movie goes on to tell the tale of Jin-tae's heroism in his efforts to earn Jin-seok an exemption from service, and how his heroism degenerates into pure vicious cruelty by degrees. [Spoiler alert! Select text to view] At one point, Jin-tae, who feels betrayed by his South Korean comrades due to the killing of his fiancee, is captured by the North Koreans and turns coat, becoming their celebrated killing machine instead. While I suppose this is strictly possible, it seemed highly unlikely to me and robbed the movie of some of its credibility. It seemed more like a device to force the brothers into actual combat, which it does, before a Luke-and-Darth Vader moment at the end of the film. The movie loses something in making too literal a point about fighting between actual brothers, and faintly insults its audience by suggestion that otherwise, we won't see the metaphoric irony in Koreans savagely murdering other Koreans simply because someone took advantage of the fact that a line was drawn between one group and the other a couple of years before. Still, the somewhat naive twist in the tail towards the end notwithstanding, it's an excellent view of a truly pointless and vicious civil war—one that's technically still on—and a commentary on the dreams and rationalities of mid-20th century Korea. It's also one of those rare opportunities to see an approachable story told from the point of view of a different culture, with slightly different emphases and outlooks, while at the same time experiencing their common humanity. It's worth seeing.

At the time of writing, you can find both of these films on YouTube.

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