While I haven’t watched the latest iteration of All Quiet on the Western Front, based on what I’ve seen from other war films, I largely agree with his assessment.
In fact, the only REAL anti-war WAR film I can think of is The Deer Hunter. While it does depict Robert DeNiro torching a guy with a flame thrower (in what I think is it’s most out of place scene), replacing the horror of war with several rounds of Russian Roulette is about the only time I’ve seen filmmakers deprive the audience of the spectacle of battle. The ending, I think, should be taken ironically; we use patriotism to mask our grief.
(I’d also say that Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory might be a true example of an “anti-war WAR film)
In my view, the reasons why movies have trouble maintaining the guise of “anti-war” is because film is fundamentally a visual medium. When movies are confined to “showing and not telling”, it’s almost impossible to not become spectacle.
And war is the ultimate human spectacle.
Understanding this, the only time a film can become truly anti-war…while simultaneously depicting war…is if it becomes a dark, dark comedy; almost to the point where it goes over the heads of the less sophisticated.
At least this is how I’ve always interpreted Apocalypse Now.
You know what the internet needs? Another list of greatest movies.
So, in no particular order:
–The Deer Hunter (1978): I’ve discussed this movie at length numerous times. I think it’s the greatest example of the power of filmmaking.
–Robocop (1987): For the simpletons, this is just another 80s action film. For those that know better, it’s the greatest satire ever made. But each time I watch it, the more horrified I become. The idea of “Robocop” is terrifying. Imagine getting killed in the most violent way, then you get revived and made property of an evil corporation and begin to struggle to understand who or what you are. Hollywood is a lesser place without Paul Verhoeven.
-The Thin Blue Line (1988): This, along with Errol Morris’ (currently known for directing Chipotle commercials) Vernon, Florida are my two favorite documentaries. This is the story about a killing of a Dallas cop and a man getting rear ended by the justice system. I love Randall Dale Adams. He’s an everyday dude that took an unfortunate trip to Texas. We’ve all been there.
–Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982): Yes, I’m a Trek fan. While every nerd has seen this movie dozens of time, I don’t think it gets the credit it deserves. It’s not really sci-fi, it’s more of a Shakespearean tragedy in space. In many ways, this film revived Trek. And director/writer Nicholas Meyer, who knew nothing of Star Trek prior to this, deserves credit.
–Dances With Wolves (1990): I will go to my grave saying Kevin Costner deserved his Oscar. Fuck Martin Scorsese.
–Taxi Driver (1976): We all know Martin Scorsese is a genius. And Paul Schrader may be the greatest screenwriter of all time. In the era of angry, lonely young men roaming the internet, this movie was well ahead of its time.
–2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): if you’re gonna do science fiction, do it right. Everybody knows this movie. And because this movie rightfully gets the credit it deserves, we take it for granted. But, to this very day, it is the most ambitious film ever made.
–The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974): I love movies that satirize a very serious situation. It’s kinda like Dr. Strangelove, albeit this film is dealing with a much less serious subject: the taking of hostages. Every actor is great, but Walter Matthau was an unusual talent. His face alone could carry a film.
–No Country For Old Men (2007): The best movie made in the last 20 years. Cormac McCarthy may be the greatest living author and it ain’t easy adapting his work for the big screen. The nihilism, the existential themes, Javier Bardem, the vast, empty Texas landscape… “okay, I’ll be a part of this world.”
–Blood Diner (1987): Most fans of the B-movie, cult genre are familiar with this film but it should be more widely known with general audiences. Probably the funniest fucking movie I’ve ever seen.
So I was listening to some podcast while huffing glue and the two hosts introduced an interesting concept: if a film director makes two unquestionably great movies, then they belong in the canon of great directors.
It seemed like a sound enough argument. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it a hundred more times: it is extraordinarily difficult to make ONE good film. If a filmmaker can make one good movie, then replicate that impact in a subsequent film, then it’s obvious that the director knows what he/she is doing.
But the more you think about it, you come across some problems: specifically what it means to be “great”, or even a “Director”. Because if this criterion were true, then we find that a few questionable directors would belong in this canon.
Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Stop Making Sense)
John McTiernan (Predator, Die Hard, HuntFor Red October)
George Lucas (Star Wars, American Graffiti, THX-1138)
Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator)
Robert Aldrich (Kiss Me Deadly, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Dirty Dozen)
William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer)
Etc, etc, etc
While there are a bunch of notable films on those director’s resumes, would any of those directors be considered “great”? (IMHO, I would say “yes” for Friedkin, Aldrich, and McTiernan. “No” for the others.)
A “three film” criteria would fix this: Ford, Hitchcock, Wilder, Lean, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Coppola, Scorsese, Tarantino, and Spielberg would easily hurdle this barrier. But what about directors that made ONE unquestionably great film?
The Deer Hunter is arguably the greatest film ever made. And it was the only great movie that Michael Cimino directed.
But here’s another example: Orson Welles.
Citizen Kane IS unquestionably the greatest movie ever made. Now name another movie he made that had a similar impact? The Magnificent Ambersons? Touch of Evil? The Lady From Shanghai? Sure, they were good to VERY good. But were they CitizenKane…or even Deer Hunter…great? Yet every cinephile would undoubtedly place Welles as one of the greats in film history.
And what about the niche directors…David Lynch, Paul Verhoeven, John Carpenter, Sergio Leone, and even Paul Schrader, etc etc? I’d argue that it’s these directors that have the greatest influence on younger audiences.
What about the directors that aren’t auteurs? Some operate more as “CEOs” in their craft. George Lucas is one of these guys. Ridley Scott is too (and Spielberg to some extent). My personal fav is John Sturges, who directed such bangers like The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and Bad Day at Black Rock (a forgotten classic).
So I don’t know, the “two film” rule doesn’t seem to work (neither does the idea of a “canon”). It’s all too subjective.
As a side not, I didn’t mention very many European directors or auteurs of other nations. That’s obviously my American bias. Like it or not, cinema is the one (and only) contribution that the US has uniquely made to the arts. Nevertheless, these filmmakers deserve a shoutout. The Japanese, Korean, and Italian directors have a distinctiveness that I greatly appreciate and I regret not mentioning more of them. The Mexican film industry is criminally underrated. British directors, at least with their mainstream work, mimic their American counterparts. Tarkovsky, Costa-Garves, Wim Wenders Fellini, Herzog, and Pasolini are all incredible as well.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (James Horner)- Listen to that opening track. Then listen to it again. James Horner (RIP) had a distinguished career, and this is where he started to get noticed. And honestly, he never really topped it.
Star Trek: First Contact (Jerry Goldsmith)- Some say Goldsmith was phoning it in during the 90s. That’s okay. Everyone was. But he kinda zigged here when any other composer would have zagged. Many consider this Trek film as “Die Hard in space” so anyone else would have done their best Michael Kamen impression. Goldsmith didn’t do that. He went right for the emotional gut and it worked.
Dances With Wolves (John Barry)- When playing this on the piano, I like to mix it with Goldsmith’s First Contact score. That’s all I got to say about that.
Blade Runner (Vangelis)- Man I love the crash that kickstarts the opening credits. Vangelis is the only one that could have done this film justice. Tears in Rain is one of the best songs in electronic music history. Speaking of Vangelis….
Alexander (Vangelis)- The screenplay is godawful, Colin Farrell is terrible, and Oliver Stone is out of his league in this one. But despite all of that, I’d still say that this is an okay film. But Vangelis’ soundtrack gets overlooked. It’s different in that Vangelis tries to do a traditional score with his use of strings, but there are some electric elements that are worth looking out for.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Ryuichi Sakamoto)- The only reason people know this movie is because of the soundtrack, and for good reason. But the film as a whole is an overlooked gem.
The Deer Hunter (Stanley Myers)- You get one song and one song only on this soundtrack. But that’s all that’s necessary.
The Last Temptation of Christ (Peter Gabriel)- Gabriel’s international sound puts a modern spin on a familiar story. Every track slaps, but A Different Drum might be the standout.
Along with Tourette’s Guy and Randall Dale Adams, Michael Cimino is my spirit animal.
And The Deer Hunter is Cimino’s finest hour. Nay…the finest hour in film history.
I always love it when filmmakers buck tradition. Now I love James Bond as much as the next guy. But honestly, I’m glad they killed Bond in the latest movie. I hope they do it in every Bond movie going forward. Don’t give the audience what they want. Give them what YOU want.
And The Deer Hunter does that.
So why does no one mention it as one of the great classics of 70s cinema…up there with The Godfather, Taxi Driver, and Apocalypse Now?
Michael Cimino probably has something to do with that. His notorious flop Heaven’s Gate ruined his reputation forever. But as I mentioned, Cimino doesn’t give the audience a rewarding cinematic experience.
There’s a wedding scene that takes 9 hours for fuck’s sake.
But I’ve said this once and I’ll say it a thousand times: The Deer Hunter is not a film. It’s a fever dream.
You know…you’ve had those dreams that were so powerful that you feel forever changed when you awake. But you can’t explain it to others.
So you don’t talk about it again.
That’s the Deer Hunter.
That’s why it sort of gets lost in the shuffle when the subject of greatest movies ever made is discussed. You can’t explain it.
What’s it about?
It’s about coming back from Vietnam.
But is that what it’s really about?
I suppose it’s subject is of family, of friendship…of surviving…and it’s all loosely held together by a plot of three friends going to Vietnam, getting separated, then coming home.
When the the Deer Hunter is brought up, it’s usually in reference to the Russian Roulette scene. And that is a DAMN GOOD scene, perhaps the most tense in all of film. But the ending is perfect.
Is it meant to be sarcastic? Hopeful? Pessimistic?
It all ends ambiguously and unresolved.
Much like a dream.
Michael Cimino might have been a one hit wonder, but damn…
Orson Wells, John Huston, John Ford, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan….
The director of the Deer Hunter (1978), who immediately after hoisting the Academy Award for Best Director began work on dismantling a major movie studio by staring production on the Heaven’s Gate (1980)…the greatest Hollywood flop of all time.
The Deer Hunter, Cimino’s magnum opus, is without question one of the great American films. That is if we can call it a “film”. It’s more like a fever dream. Characters drunk as shit drive from Pennsylvania to Washington state, shoot a deer, and drive back…all within 48 hours. Robert DeNiro torches a guy. And the three main characters are forced by a bunch of racist caricatures to play Russian Roulette. It’s an undeniably powerful film that accurately captures the American psyche post-Vietnam.
With the success of the Deer Hunter, Cimino had carte blanche in Hollywood to do whatever he wanted. He chose Heaven’s Gate, produced by United Artists, a story about an obscure dispute in Wyoming in the 1800s and staring a hot, Hot, HOT Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, and Isabella Huppert (John Hurt’s hot too I guess). It was to be the greatest western of all time, solidifying Michael Cimino as one of the great auteurs.
When production started, problems instantly arose. Doing his best Kubrick impression, Cimino demanded take after take from his actors. He’d delay production to get the perfect shot of the Montana landscape where the film was shot, or demand that sets be torn down and rebuilt to exact specifications. He’d also charge the studio absurdly high rent to film on land that he allegedly owned (respect). The budget soared and United Artist was getting nervous.
Was it all worth it?
Heaven’s Gate infamously flopped. Critics hated it. And it financially ruined United Artists (the James Bond franchise, arguably their most lucrative property at the time, would ultimately bail them out).
Despite attempts by internet and European critics to say it’s secretly a “masterpiece” 40 years after its release, Heaven’s Gate simply…doesn’t…work. The film looks like shit (sorry Vilmos Zsigmond fans), scenes go on longer than they should, and obviously Michael Cimino was feeling himself a little too much. If wasting money and being pretentious is an art form, then yes, Heaven’s Gate is a masterpiece.
Michael Cimino changed Hollywood. Gone were the days when auteurs ruled Hollywood. It wasn’t until John Landis killed three people (later acquitted) on the set of the Twilight Zone that Hollywood finally put the kibosh on artistic freedom.
Cimino would go on to direct some crap in 1980s, but his legacy was secure. That’s not worth nothin’, and I believe that’s worth honoring.
Michael Cimino passed away in 2016.
While I regard The Deer Hunter to be his finest work, one can’t forget the time Cimino, horribly disfigured by plastic surgery, roasted and mocked the entire crowd at Locarno Film Festival.