Although Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film, Les Carabiniers (a.k.a. The Carabineers) was among my favorites when I was a film student in the late 1960s, I approached TCM’s recent screening with trepidation. Not only had Godard’s work after Tout va bien (1972) become incomprehensible, but I had discovered that the films I once adored often didn’t age well. I watch with increasingly jaundiced eye as fellow cinephiles approach revered classics as though time has stopped – apparently in the belief that “masterpieces” in this most ephemeral medium are eternal. Squirming, agonized, through films that I had once thought of as indispensable, I was rewarded with sighs – even snores – from students or friends, who kindly taught me that movies have the seductive staying power of pop songs current when one first falls in love. It’s a dash of cold water to realize that the central attraction of old movies is … nostalgia.
I had seen a big slice of world cinema at London’s National Film Theatre by early 1969, including many famous war films, some of which were billed as “anti-war”: Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937), George Franju’s Thomas l’Imposteur (1964), Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) and his satirical masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove (1964). Later efforts such as Johnny Got His Gun (1971) and Francine Parker’s and Jane Fonda’s FTA (Fuck The Army) (1971) updated liberal sentiments towards war. Countless other films such as Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967), championed war while sounding fragile notes of liberal regret. The most popular war for cinematic portrayal was World War II, a.k.a. “the good war” in which only 65 million people died. All these films were masterful expressions of the film maker’s art.
The film maker’s art is the issue. No matter how horrible war is shown to be, no matter how dreadful its human price, there’s something in a vivid depiction of war that whispers what Renata Adler called the “seductive yes.” Televised boxing exhibits a similar effect: watch for a few minutes and it’s increasingly hard to turn away; you may find yourself drawn in, your hands slowly forming fists. Most war movies, despite their humane pretensions, inadvertently promote war. Les Carabiniers manages to avoid this common trap.
America’s criminal invasion of Vietnam sparked unprecedented opposition to war on campuses and in streets across the western world. The most educated generation in history had discovered that war was neither virtuous nor inevitable. We recognized that the belief system that underpinned willingness to “defend” (read “aggress on behalf of”) one’s country (America) was instilled by an elite who were generally unwilling to contribute their own sons in the fight for “freedom.” By conscious design, the tools of poverty, religion, nationalism and ignorance always made other men’s sons widely available.
The heightened generational consciousness that questioned motives for attacking other countries produced many fine anti-war films in the post-Vietnam era. Francis Coppola stunned audiences with his epic Apocalypse Now! (1979), which many regard as anti-war (although it focuses on the absurd incompetence of the American corporate war machine’s leadership, combined with dark mystification about human capacity for evil). Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy, beginning with the ferocious Platoon (1986), focused on working-class-boys-as-cannon-fodder with clear precision. Joel Schumacher’s Tigerland (2000) featured an almost-mythic contrarian hero who called into question every aspect of the brutalizing basic training faced by American conscripts. And Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) bravely illustrated the inadequacy of liberal objection to war while symbolically pointing to the primal fears underlying patriarchal war-making. But all these films are both artistically audacious and conventionally entertaining, and the alert viewer may be discomfited by the realization that, as usual, s/he’s having a good time at the movies.
Taken together, the political sophistication of America’s Vietnam films combine to somewhat date Godard’s brave Les Carabiniers. Who will be surprised by the crude propaganda that seduces its imbecilic protagonists into killing? Yet history proves repeatedly that men (and currently, women) who are far more “educated” and privileged than the film’s protagonists succumb to similarly transparent blandishments. The allure of rape, torture and plunder is irresistible to these witless peasants who obediently comply with “the King’s” every wish in one of the blackest comedies ever made.
However, it’s the sly combining of form and content that makes Les Carabiniers uniquely powerful. Working with a budget that’s probably dwarfed by many student films today, the minimal cast and bleak locations work small thematic miracles. Unable to paint a war-torn landscape with the often savage beauty depicted by Hollywood, Godard uses real contemporary locations – mostly grey winter landscapes – to magnificent effect: the two soldiers’ attacks on ordinary civilians in town and country illustrate the banal horror of war imposed on innocent populations caught in the act of daily life.
And the missing “riches” promised by their recruiters are brilliantly and ironically realized on the two men’s return from war: they bring nothing home to their eager wives except a suitcase full of postcards. The complex symbolism of this extended sequence is a triumph for Godard’s intellectualized cinema. As Michelange reads each card’s subject like a schoolboy reciting pig-iron quotas, the gush of imagery ratches up the political commentary in a tragic summation of capitalist culture. It exposes the substitution of commodity images for the real thing, and the fetishization of those commodities as substitutes for an unobtainable lifestyle: Why show a thimbleful of shampoo when a slow-motion beauty can toss her hair in gleaming sports cars with dazzling lovers? It spoofs the manipulation of history (by its “winners”) and the trivialization of popular culture – especially by Hollywood. And, it presciently foreshadows an information age that strives to bury dissent in a deluge of trivia – a corporate dystopia on whose doorstep we barely stood in 1963.
Sticking to his rigorous guns, Godard refuses to make his evening of cinematic entertainment a conventionally pleasant experience. Its “ugly” cinematography lingers beautifully in the mind, its clumsy editing and choppy soundtrack masterfully Brechtian. Viewers must be thoughtful and engaged to have a good time with Les Carabiniers (if your date likes this movie, hang on to her/him: you’ve got a winner!). At the end, its heroes are executed in an off-hand (off-screen) manner that defies conventional empathy. Godard had the courage to make anti-art in a culture so in love with itself that it was oblivious to the suffering it caused – and continues to cause – around the world. It can’t even make an anti-war film that doesn’t subtly promote war. But Godard refused to make “art” out of war. The didactic becomes art by virtue of its artless depiction of activities that are the antithesis of art, and in that, Les Carabiniers is the greatest anti-war film ever made.