Conflict brings out the best and worst in humanity
February 1942: Take 104 – the noise of the transport ship’s engines formed a noisy barrier to sleep, even as the waves rocked me from port to starboard, port to starboard… Many of my nursing sisters cradled a child (an orphan in the making?) as we cast away (forever?) from the fallen stage of Singapore. Half-dazed and somewhat stunned, I floated amongst a sea of shallow characters. There wasn’t room for all in the bunks below, so we sprawled and languished where we could. Golden lighting bathed the deck but I had found myself a comfortable shadow in which to feign my unhappiness and loss. Like a forgotten accomplished actor at a Hollywood awards ceremony I masked my misery well, but I could not easily ignore our setting. We were refugees from a hostile invasion, and I despaired of the inhumanity of man.
My sweet sisterly crew; they shared casual narratives for the innocent, practised smiles for the ignorant, even a naughty flash of skin for the strong uniforms bustling around us. A flashback to simple solaces, or careless days, or perhaps even past censorious pleasures? I tried my best to present my made-up mask of serene fortitude. In war, strength must be summoned from our deepest reserves, and comfort must be taken when and where grace grants the…
Suddenly sirens pierced the fragile peace; fighters screamed out of the sky spitting horror; the deck exploded with life and death; the wings of fear were upon us. I saw him approach on a murderous line and felt the cross-hairs look upon me. The angelic child stood alone when all others had dropped to safety; she was like a beacon for bravery in a pink dress, oblivious to danger as she stroked her baby doll, and without hesitation I leaped to save her. Somehow I grasped her in the instant: an extraordinary split second frame of courage under fire. Around us the bodies of women and children danced and leaped beneath the hail of bullets.
But when I sat up and smiled at her, she was as lifeless as the toy she had admired when oblivion came for her. Courage had failed to foil carnage; grace had lied to me, and led the lost angel along the Paradise Road™… (Cue crescendo: “I Vow to Thee My Country”).
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To exercise an unfortunate expression that I’ve rather come to like: what a crock of snot. The fact is that the closest most people get to conflict is Row K, with a box of popcorn in their lap and a strong but controlled urge to belt the tweeting Twitterer in the cushioned seat in front of them. I vividly remember watching “Saving Private Ryan” with my veteran grandfather – a former staff sergeant and Rat of Tobruk. For the extraordinary scene in which the Allied-American forces storm the beach at Normandy Steven Spielberg created an extremely powerful experience of bombs exploding, bullets zipping, and bodies being butchered and even blasted into nothing more than a bloody mist. As far as special effects go – and this was and remains the furthest special effects have gone thus far for this genre – the director was able to present to an audience how conflict can have disastrous results, and how conflict is an entirely destructive force upon humanity.
The experience of that scene for my grandfather, however, was rather more affective. Benjamin, at 80 years of age, seemed to have picked the only vibrating chair in the cinema: he jumped at every explosion, ducked away from speeding bullets, and cried openly at the terrible bloodshed. I was absolutely horrified.
What I wish to present through this anecdote is not an exact answer to the prompt. With respect to my grandfather, I would not wish to assume if the effect of WW2 divined his best human qualities (courage, love, honour etc…), or just subjected him to the worst (blood and battle). I would not ever or honestly believe he acted dishonourably, unjustly, inhumanely, and do not intend to discuss it. Instead I present that with respect to Ben and “Private Ryan”, I know that the film revived the worst of his life-long memories, and I was able unlike many theatre-goers to make (only) a tenuous vicarious connection with a dismal reality: a connection between the horror of war and the feature presentation. I don’t believe that everybody else in the audience could do the same, even if many theatre-goers (long?) commented on and discussed the violence of that scene. As such, there is no way that the film truly brought humanity out at all – it was merely a spectacle for a generally passive and disconnected consumership.
Consequently, the majority of us should only genuinely consider a certain kind of crime against humanity when we speak of war and conflict, which brings me back to discuss the disgraceful, false and formulaic film “Paradise Road”. It’s only to be expected of Hollywood that they create simulacra of experience – that their imitations of life, conflict, and the best and worst of humanity are artificial – but when it’s done really badly the theatre-goers will jump out of their seats faster than my shell-shocked grandfather. Most audience really empathised with Glenn Close, but only when her character announced “It’s an adventure I could sadly do without.”
Bruce Beresford and his script-writers might have understood their target audience (the baby boomers) a little better. This elderly generation grew up with veterans, refugees, survivors who knew the truth; they engaged with a school curriculum that knew General Macarthur’s legacy and the stories of “The White Mouse” and “A Town Like Alice”; they even sang the wistfully sad songs of the Great War, such as “We’ll Meet Again”, “Lili Malene” and “The White Cliffs of Dover”. The theatre-going audience had demonstrated their connection with war stories and appreciation for such narratives many times over in the past; the audience believed it could recognise and understand genuine issues for humanity through well-directed spectacles set against the historical context of war (and so do I, but only to a point!).
The problem with “Paradise Road” though, was that it was so apparently contrived. Some commentators have noted, “The story of the nurses on the Vyner Brooke did not become a favourite of teachers, parsons and politicians on ANZAC Day, perhaps because it was so awful.” Even so, an informed audience could only be astonished that the director had chosen a more sanitary version of events that entirely overlooked the massacre of the walking wounded and the murder of the seriously injured soldiers and nurses on the beaches of Banka Island, even if to include such an important historical scene in the film “based on true events” would have been too dramatic too early in the feature for the public’s appreciation. Instead we have appropriately climactic (and wholly fictional) narrative events such as: the torching of a sympathiser; secret choir meetings and stirring surprise concerts; a seemingly sinister rifle-bearing brute who brings hope rather than death into the jungle in the form of a melody; the painful, spike-circled torture of one of Australia’s most popular actors. Indeed, the premise of the film which was supposed to inspire its audience, that “The will to survive is very strong. Stronger than anything,” and that even under almost unendurable conditions we can “Show the Japanese we’re still alive. Still got some spirit left,” hits a flat note. It’s patently ridiculous to hinge our capacity to show the best of humanity in the face of the very worst on the performance of a star-studded, sensational choir.
Sure Bruce, let the fat lady sing, but don’t expect us to believe your sirens, and don’t expect us to consider your text worthy of our fascination.