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Stars Wars and the ‘reel’ war

In a galaxy far, far away, in 1977, a film broke all box office records that remains the highest grossing US film of all time. ’Star Wars’ (the one before the franchise) adjusted for inflation even outgrosses ‘Titanic’. Around the same time Robert Mckee's 'Story' (1979) became compulsory reading for anyone selling, or wanting to sell, a feature film script. His archetypal analysis defined the three act structure and inciting incident (the incident that starts the story), and sparked an industry demystifying the dark art of script writing: ‘Hero’s Journey’ Christopher Vogler (1990), ‘Save the Cat’ Blake Snyder (2005), and a recent addition ‘Your Screenplay Sucks’ William M Ackers (2008), a title so negative that my wife, finding a copy on my desk, retitled it with permanent pen.

What all these analyses have in common is that, while formulaic, they provide structure for screenwriters to write, and for producers, directors and executives to analyse film script story. A film script story is different from any other story in that it is written for the sole purpose of visual representation. At its best this produces Pixar’s output, which includes my recent favourite ‘Inside Out’ (2015). Rumour has it that all of the Pixar team have ‘Save the Cat’ on their desks. However, at its worst the same formula produces ‘Snakes on a Plane’ (2006). If you have ever sat in a darkened cinema, or pressed download and then got the feeling that the story you are watching seems vaguely familiar, it is. The reason for this is because everyone in the film industry is exposed to this plethora of analysis: every scriptwriter has read at least one of the tomes, or attended their seminars (for those interested McKee appears in London soon). Most writers would not attempt a script without it, if only to understand the development notes they receive. And perhaps one reason analysis has become so popular is that for the people with the money, having a map as to whether the writer’s pages contain treasure is gold in itself.

One area where the gurus concur, and with which I agree, is the impact film story has on the real world. Since cavemen sat round the campfire stories have a function: to reflect and inform us of our world. And, powerfully, the film stories we watch seem to bypass our frontal lobes and work directly on our subconscious. We watch blue monsters on fantastic planets, ships sinking in frozen seas, all with the suspension of disbelief, the primary principle of film making. And if the filmmaker has found the treasure we never question the story, and conclude we have been deeper informed of how our world works, even if the world we watched isn’t ours, or is populated by mini people in our heads. We are exposed to these stories from childhood and much of our construct of our adult world comes from our recollection of those stories. To the extent that Disney has been blamed for people’s unrealistic expectations of relationships and even our high modern divorce rates. Where’s the Prince? And who mentioned nappies, washing up and prenups? To fix this Disney employed Pixar chief John Lasseter and boom! got ‘Enchanted’(2007), SPOILER now there’s a prince!

What then of the cinematic portrayal of conflict and war? My middle child’s current favourite ‘Legend’s of the Guardians’ (2010) SPOILER contains an aerial action sequence that rivals ‘Battle of Britain’ (1969), my eldest had recurring nightmares after watching the first instalment of the misclassified (this is not a 12!!!) ‘Hunger Games’ (2012) SPOILER which resembles an extreme version of SAS selection, starting with a teen massacre in which our heroine is almost the sole survivor. ‘Lone Survivor’ (2013), an adult offering, continues in a similar vein, as did ‘Star Wars’ (1977) where our plucky pilots will win through in the end with only the unnamed characters (see the script) buying their farm on the way to the target. Our respective heroes in whichever movie then return to a hero’s welcome (see  Vogler), if they die they are immortalised (see Blake Snyder), and if the film has a message that is not positive about the war they fought it is an ‘anti-war movie’ (McKee). Though having been in two war zones myself I find it hard to think a war-movie can be pro-war, a contradiction that exists in most war movies.

So a ‘war movie’ is then just that, a movie. A movie, using structure and character development laid out in the various analysis for the purpose of entertainment. It is therefore a ‘story’ set against the backdrop of a war, it is in no way a representation of war, or even human conflict. However, since this impacts on us and our understanding of the real world and real war, is this a problem?

The Pentagon thinks so, and recently went to Hollywood to convene a seminar of influential Studio Executives to address the issue of the ‘Mooslims’, the two dimensional (literal, not character) portrayal of the bad guys in our current war on terror. I would argue hasn’t it always been thus? There used to be those pesky Reds (‘Red Dawn’ 1984, ‘Hunt for Red October’ 1990), and before them those Nazis (most war films before 1950). I argue that the bad guys are always the bad guys, and the problem the Pentagon has is not that the film bad guy is wearing a shemagh, or that he is employed by Putin, or even wears a swastika, but that the story response is wrong. Ask a soldier returning from Iraq or Afghanistan about their ‘hero’s journey’. How much influence do they feel they had on the outcome of events? Ask a Brigadier. Or even a General. The British paratroop commander of the ill-fated deployment into Helmand, Afghanistan in 2006 when asked why he didn’t protest about the mission famously replied that he ‘felt the train had already left the station’.

If on the strategic level the ‘war story’, our understanding of conflict and how to respond to it as taught to us by film is catastrophically wrong, then it is equally so on a personal level. My own personal experience on my first deployment to a war zone (Cambodia 1992) was that the majority of casualties and suffering were civilian, and my humming the theme to ‘Platoon’ (1986) did nothing to dispel the uneasiness I felt. To the modern soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan the ‘journey’ is not even beginning. Not all will suffer PTSD but will be affected by the abject failure of the mission in both countries, coupled with returning to understandable public apathy on the subject: Who were the bad guys? What was the mission? What is the story? 

Any self respecting development executive given the real script for Iraq or Afghan Wars would say go rewrite. The notes: Where is the hero? What is the conflict he is trying to resolve? What is his journey? There isn’t even a third act for &*@$ sake! Hollywood Story analyst, Jen Grisanti recently released a book entitled, ‘Change your story, change your life’. The industry should add a new analysis; ‘change your war story, change your war’.

Tom Petch's first film 'The Patrol' (2014) won Raindance Film Festival. His second feature is in development.

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