The Lens of the Camera: War and Image

Paul Norris 3 April 2019
Image Credit: Game of Thrones

I can’t think of any experience more different from student life than war. Despite the     baffling popularity of study videos on Youtube, student life is not cinematic, while the spectacle of war is, perhaps unfortunately, uniquely suited to the screen.

All war art is polemic. Paintings and tapestries of battles were intended to intimidate opponents and celebrate victory. Although seldom explicitly violent in content, ancient and medieval war art is violent in that it reinforces the position of the victor. Since the advent of photography, control of war imagery has been further decentralised. Modern art explicitly about real wars tends towards opposing conflict, but when violence is distanced by a fantastical setting it can fascistically endorse the exercise of violence.

Early photographs were intended to serve the war machine: Roger Fenton’s pictures of Crimea were intended to celebrate the dignity of war, but his images speak for themselves. The public image of Crimea could not exclude the mud, blood and alcohol which stain early photographs, and photographs lent weight to journalistic attacks.

Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Valley of the Shadow of Death, by Roger Fenton, United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division (not the same valley as the Charge of the Light Brigade)

Early photographs of war could only depict stationary objects due to long exposure times. War appeals to modern filmmakers for its complex planes of movement. Yet this can of course be tiring; Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) is exhausting, not only for its chauvinism, but also for the number of things which fly and collapse and explode.

Kubrick’s war films are remarkable for their restraint. Movement in Barry Lyndon (1975) and Paths of Glory (1957) is slow and mechanical. When the British army skirmishes against the French in the former, the camera follows the soldiers as they march in line to repetitive drum and pipe music. Lines of soldiers dressed in complementary colours (white with red rather than the British red with white) fire their rifles at each other. Despite the threat of death, the scene is oddly banal.

In Paths of Glory, there is a corresponding scene when soldiers in World War One surmount their trench and charge across no man’s land. Here, the soundtrack is artillery, machinegun fire and an officer’s whistle. Unlike Barry Lyndon’s flat meadow traversed by colourfully dressed soldiers, this landscape undulates with craters, and the palate is black and white, lending some dignity to the drabness.

In both scenes the perspective is predominantly side-on, with the camera moving at the same speed as the soldiers. We are conscious of each film’s protagonist, but the camera doesn’t do much to privilege them. We seldom see straight ahead, conscious more of the movement as a fact in itself than as a means of getting towards the target. In both cases, the target is never reached: the camera follows Barry as he carries away an injured officer, and the attack on the German position is abandoned. So despite the incremental deaths (neither dwelled on nor interrupting the march), the movement seems as though it could go on forever.

Image Credit: Game of Thrones

Compare this with the ‘Battle of the Bastards’ in Game of Thrones (2016), where the perspective is always centred on a single character, and we see exactly what he sees. This cinematography is clearly influenced by a video game’s perspective, lurking behind a single agent. When this character is mired in a sea of injured soldiers, he emerges above them, gasping as if nearly drowned, a heroic individual aristocrat, over his nameless fellow soldiers.

This television battle scene is very capably produced, but politically regressive. It figures war as a testing ground for the powerful, and as a terminate episode with a defined outcome, no different from a game. Like metaphors which personify armies as their commanders’ bodies (‘Caesar crossed the Rubicon’, for instance), the soldiers in this battle are simply limbs, extensions of the aristocratic leader’s body.

Image Credit: Game of Thrones

Soldiers act like members of a body in Kubrick’s films too, but they are not reduced to a single figure leading them. His battle scenes are disturbing because they are like dances, with men falling balletically, as if part of a performance. Many of his most iconic scenes rely on movements like this, which seem as if they could continue endlessly: the spaceship docking to a waltz in 2001 (1968); the astronaut’s centripetal running in the same; the tricycle scene in The Shining (1980).

Image Credit: The Shining, Stanley Kubrick

Many of these scenes are beautiful, but all are a little unnerving. In both the centripetal and tricycle scenes, we share the character’s perspective, but cannot see what is ahead, as the tricycle twists through the corridors of a hotel, and the astronaut runs around a giant wheel so that the floor is always rising in front of him. The predominantly side-on perspective of the battle scenes in Barry Lyndon and Paths of Glory means that they share the sense that anything could emerge from the corner of the screen. Although the camera is placid, the viewer never is.