On back to back Fridays, Cheryl and I took in a movie. We saw War Horse a week ago and then yesterday we went to see Red Tails. Both are war movies, though they focus on two different wars. Both are moving and well made movies. Both have famous producers/directors who have made blockbuster movies -- Spielberg and Lucas. The two movies tell different sides of the story of wars.
When we went to see War Horse, we actually thought we would see Sherlock Holmes, but I had mixed up the times, and so we "accidentally" saw War Horse. It was much different than I expected, and I was deeply moved by the story that focuses on a horse and his master. Joey is a beautiful horse, fit for racing, but ends up owned by a family that needs a plow horse. When the family suffers financial hardship, Joey is sold to the military, and becomes the cavalry horse for a British officer. We see the war essentially through the eyes of Joey, who becomes the property, at least momentarily of a British officer, a couple of young German soldiers, a young French girl, then again the German army (pulling massive guns), and then miraculously is saved from "no-man's land" between the German and British trenches by the shared efforts of a British and a German soldier. In the end the horse ends up with the British, and ultimately to Albert, his original master, who is now a soldier. It is a story of loyalty, bravery, and serves as a witness against the glory of war.
I had focused on the loyalty angle as I was watching the movie, but reading a reflection on the movie by Psychologist Richard Beck, I was introduced to another side of the story. As Beck points out in the course of the movie, the lines between "us" and "them" are blurred. Joey becomes the symbol, Beck suggests, of the "war horse" that all participants become.
In all this we begin to see that Joey isn't the only warhorse in the film. Joey is a symbol of something much darker. The first warhorse in the film is actually Albert's father. And Albert soon follows.
Everyone, German and British alike, is found to be a "warhorse." And we leave the film thinking that the real enemy isn't the man in the other trench.
We're all just warhorses, we come to realize. The real enemy is war itself.
Red Tails offers a different kind of story. War isn't the enemy, necessarily, in this movie. Instead, the enemy is prejudice. This is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black fighter wing that distinguished itself with gallantry and success during World War II. At a time when the U.S. Military still considered African Americans unfit for duty, these men proved themselves to be brave and competent, becoming one of the most decorated units in the Army Air Corp.
Red Tails is the story of highly skilled and determined men who are fighting for a nation that refuses to recognize their full humanity. This is not just the story of a war, but about a struggle for dignity. And in the course of the movie, we see how this struggle emboldens, empowers, and yes, liberates young men from the bonds of an American culture that was then deeply entrenched with bigotry. And ultimately, it is the efforts of these young men that lead Harry Truman to desegregate the military, which leads ultimately to the process of desegregation in America. The Red Tails not only helped win a war, they helped set in motion societal changes that changed the face of America.
You will likely watch these two movies with different sets of lenses. One calls us to recognize the horror that is war. The second movie calls us to recognize that military service often calls forth from human beings their best, and their efforts can have a salutary effect on humanity. War remains hell, but out of the pit of hell comes something good.
After watching both movies, we must recognize that war remains with us, and that the opposing sides in these conflicts -- the soldiers in the trenches -- are human beings. We must also recognize that as much as the efforts of these young men served to change the way Americans understood race, bigotry remains part of our national fabric. Thus, gratitude must be expressed to Spielberg and Lucas, people who know how to entertain us, for telling stories that challenge heart and mind.