Hilarities of War: Five Films

Thank goodness for the brave souls who would die protecting our safety, for they grant us a precious liberty, to ask: Who will protect our safety from the earnest pieties of war movies? Does it ever become inhumane to belabor war’s horrors? Mercifully, there are comedies of war, too. The best combine clear-eyed outrage at the abhorrent, gracious deferral to the absurd, and indomitable empathy for the afflicted. Herewith, a few suggestions.

Duck Soup, the quintessential Marx-brothers romp from 1933, is a landmark of anti-authority, anti-war and anti-seriousness, cinematic or otherwise. The plot is basic—two silly countries go to war over a woman’s love—but it’s the tone that matters. And the beautiful brute force of farce. Here’s Groucho, as a snappish dictator, to a young soldier: “You’re a brave man. Go and break through the lines. And remember, while you’re out there risking your life and limb through shot and shell, we’ll be in here thinking what a sucker you are.”

In 1940’s The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin works his iconic resemblance to that era’s other notable mustachioed man into a supreme piece of ridicule, at once belly-laughable and balletic. It was the first movie that allowed audiences to hear Chaplin’s voice, in two roles: the eponymous caricature, a creature of blathering, hilarious tantrums; and the humble Jewish barber who, through mistaken identity, inherits the dictator’s bully pulpit—only to issue an eloquent plea for human kindness. The film’s bleeding-heart-on-sleeve naiveté is at once its shortcoming and its terrific power.

When a crackpot general initiates a nuclear holocaust in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Cold War masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Peter Sellers (in various roles) takes on the Rooskies with great aplomb—and with help from a wily George C. Scott. “Gentlemen!” shouts Sellers, as the conspicuously named American President Merkin Muffley. “You can’t fight in here. This is the war room!”

War itself isn’t the target of Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, of which a new DVD edition has just been released, so much as the broader problem of insufferable human smugness. Hence, the shock and awe of this 1970 film’s fierce and contemptuous intelligence always seems timely. Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould play frolicsome Army surgeons of the Korean War, soaking themselves in blood, by fate, and martinis, by choice.

The indie-forged director David O. Russell, often too clever for his own good, might never top 1999’s Three Kings, in which soldiers George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube blunder through the post-victory chaos of Gulf War I in search of Saddam’s stolen gold—to steal it themselves. Russell’s great service, like that of his forebears, is in proving that wit, conscience and the screwball instinct endure. War may get old, but good comedy doesn’t.