I enjoy WW2 films and the late sixties produced a different variety of war film as attitudes about Vietnam were emerging in the arts. Play Dirty (1968) starring Michael Caine as British officer Capt. Douglas and Nigel Davenport as Cyril Leech, a former criminal turned gun for hire, is a nihilistic view of what most consider to be the successful war won by our greatest generation. There’s no point in reading on if you haven’t seen the film because I will be giving away too many details that result in the controversial ending.
With WW2 films you expect there to be suffering, dying, tragedy, killing–but all acceptable under the guise of patriotism. After all, Hitler had to be stopped, didn’t he? Play Dirty features a BP employee (yes, British Petroleum) with an honorary commission in the British army who is put into combat much to his dismay; his current place of operations was rather cushy and safe. He is paired up with an experimental army made up of criminals, two of which are affectionately gay–no judgment being made on their behavior (which I found surprising for such an old film, though maybe it was acceptable because they were criminal anti-heroes). The private army is already being lead by Cyril Leech who has a disdain for everyone but himself with no regard for tradition (apathy towards burying the dead) or even what we might consider honor (he allows fellow allies to be slaughtered without aid or warning).
The small band of men are sent to blow up a fuel depot in Rommel territory. If you don’t know who Rommel was, he was called “The Desert Fox” and was highly respected by both sides for his expertise in desert warfare. According to Wiki, he was also considered to be humane (for a Nazi) in that he refused orders to kill captured soldiers–even Jewish ones–and then later on was involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. Douglas and Leech butt heads all throughout the excruciating journey filled with blowing sand, chapped lips, blown tires, and injuries. The mission is an exercise in futility and what’s worse is that the home command sent them out as a decoy so they could send in another group of men for the “real attack.”
What we usually expect in war movies or action movies is that when soldiers are “used” by their command they prevail despite the odds against them. Capt. Douglas, despite Leech’s cynicism, manages to get only so far and then it all falls apart. That’s because after all the time spent conquering the desert, they find the fuel depot they were supposed to blow up is a fake–the decoy found a decoy fuel depot.
But Capt. Douglas is not deterred. He intends on finding at least one damn fuel depot to blow up. Only problem is that his command now wants them to desist in their efforts as the allies may have the opportunity to capture the fuel instead of destrying it. Due to lack of communication the callous decision is made to simply kill the private army by betraying them to the Germans. And thus all of the men are shot with Douglas and Leech surviving by appearing to be part of the German army and holding out in a stable for the night filled with goats.
At this point, the viewer is thinking, “Give me something here?!” At least shoot the commanding officers that betrayed everyone. …no relief. Morning comes, Douglas and Leech, hearing the invading allies storming in, decide to walk out with a white flag. They’re shot by an incompetent soldier who didn’t see the flag…shot by friendly fire.
Over the holidays I posted a comic strip featuring the Littlest Atheist questioning God’s plan. Freethunk got a comment on that strip from someone who wasn’t necessarily Christian but thought it was naive to think there was a plan and that the criticism by Bertrand (The Littlest Atheist) was essentially childish. I replied and said Bertrand was being rhetorical and that was the point exactly–there is no plan. Play Dirty, is both anti-war and admittedly pessimistic, because war it is a dirty business among men with no intervention by the gods. Mistakes are made, morals/ethics are often discarded, and while the bigger picture makes sense after the fact, the small stories that got us there are filled with dead ends (no pun intended). When Capt. Douglas and Leech are mindlessly shot at the end of the film we’re left with an empty feeling. They struggled and endured it all for nothing?
How do you answer a movie like that and not fall into the trap of nihilistic defeatism or fatalism? Christians who believe in God’s plan, feel free to comment.
As an atheist humanist I would say the point, the meaning of it all, is that we keep moving and that we have to admit that some lives are thrown away in vain as we move in a better direction. Is that mild nihilism? Nihilism is a broad subject as I find out every time I read about it, but I’m not sure I’m ready to concede that life is inherently pointless or meaningless just because there isn’t an intelligent designer? Or rather I don’t see why it has to be an all or nothing concept. When I refer to nihilism here it is in response to the common complaint that if there is no objective meaning–no intended plan– that we might as well give up and kill ourselves. That viewpoint annoys me to no end and I hear it from both Christians and Atheists.
I do think it is a lie we tell ourselves that every life serves an intentional purpose but it is also a lie to say everyone and everything is pointless. It begs the question about what actually is pointless. I think buttering toast has a point–it goes in my mouth (yes, sarcastically simple, but you see my point (ha!)). Purpose is attempted by many and just as many fail. However, to not attempt the struggle is futility–we could even say the struggle itself is noble and has a point, regardless of the outcome–and even the failures of others can be a foundation for the rest of us to succeed. But there is no plan by God. Christians may say lifeless mounds of bodies were part of God’s plan to destroy Hitler, but as The Littlest Atheist noted, “He must be the worst planner ever.” Did it make sense to have Rommel and his fellow German conspirators fail to kill Hitler? Did it make sense to even allow Hitler to be born? God’s purpose is not evident in wiping out six million Jews, who apparently went to hell if they remained Jewish until the very end. Man’s purpose is evident: kill Hitler to save the world.
I know there are both Christians and Atheists that believe in forms of nihilism/fatalism because apparently without God there is no meaning or objectivity to life. I thought the same way when I was a Christian (about atheists) and oddly enough when I lost my faith I seemed to have more purpose in this life and rejected my understanding of those forms of nihilism/fatalism in favor of optimism (maybe I’m naive, I do tend to talk out of my ass at times). I’ve humorously called my views cynically optimistic, as of course I have a healthy distrust of others, but our world is progressing; we just like to highlight the bad stuff on the evening news and avoid stepping back to see the broader timeline.
And to be clear, religious fatalism/nihilism is just as bad as the atheistic versions, though it often goes unrecognized. The reason for religious defeatism is that Christians consider themselves to be alien to earth (I’m not kidding about this) and that physical life on earth for them is actually meaningless with the exception of making more Christian followers for the afterlife (whether by procreation or proselytizing) to act like drones before the God who designed the whole scheme so he could be worshipped. If Christians were honest with themselves they would admit that they find the same kind of meaning I do on earth–friends, family, art, career, exploration, learning, etc. It is the lazy mind that is defeatist–we make and define meaning, and sometimes I wonder if the meaning is just there and we discover it. After all, the term “meaning” can be pretty abstract (which is why philosophy can hurt your head and spin you in circles).
Play Dirty leaves us feeling empty–you should consider why and what you would do to change that feeling instead of caving into it. …boy, that’s one hell of a tangent to go off on for a war movie, but then that’s what this site is about.