Sunday, December 23, 2012

"Lord of the Rings" and the World Wars

In preparation for “The Hobbit,” which I enjoyed a great deal, I watched all three of the original "Lord of the Rings" (LOTR) movies again.  While I’m relying to some degree on the faithfulness of director Peter Jackson’s interpretation of the novels, the shadows of World War I and World War II, two of the central events of J. R. R. Tolkien’s life, clearly leave a major mark on the epic saga.

Tolkien served in the British military during World War I and fought at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, one of the bloodiest battles of the “war to end all wars” that ushered in modern war.  Trench warfare and advanced weapons like machine guns produced higher casualties than previous conflicts, leaving soldiers with tremendous psychological scars.  Steven Spielberg depicted this new kind of fighting well in “War Horse” (2011).  See href>>

By the end of the three films, Frodo Baggins is not remotely the same person he was when he left the shire at the outset of the “Fellowship of the Ring.”  Haunted by his wounds, both physical and mental, he suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), or shell shock, as it was called during World War I.  This dynamic is clearer now that it was when “Return of the King” premiered in 2003, as the Iraq/Afghan wars were still in their early stages, and the media has been saturated with stories regarding PTSD as those wars have wound down.

Throughout the movies, characters talk of the menace growing “to the east,” and Mordor likely represents an allegory for Nazi Germany, which lay east of England and France.  Furthermore, in “Fellowship” there is discussion of Mordor rising once again, just as Germany did following its defeat in World War I; Sauron could also easily be seen as a stand-in for Hitler

Haunted by the memory of the Great War, the leaders of the major powers in Great Britain, France, and the United States took extraordinary steps to avoid another conflict during the 1930s.  Allegories for this war-weariness are heard throughout the movies. In the “Two Towers,” the Rasputin-like Grima warns about the “warmongering” of those in King Theoden’s court, a charge frequently leveled at Winston Churchill and others who disagreed with the conventional strategy of appeasing the Axis powers.  Once Gandalf frees Theoden from the evil Saruman’s control, the king still wants to avoid open war with Mordor and takes the people of Rohan to the shelter of Helms Deep.  Finally, despite the clear danger posed by the alliance of Saruman and Sauron, Treebeard doesn't believe that he and his brethren in the forests are threatened.

Fearing the armaments race that led to World War I, Western leaders did not prepare militarily as the threat from Germany and Japan mounted during the 1930s, as a young John F. Kennedy demonstrated years ago in Why England Slept (1940).  Indeed, isolationist sentiment was so powerful in the United States that the U.S. Army was the 17th strongest in the world as late as 1939, a mere two years before Pearl Harbor.  France, which had suffered the most during World War I, developed an extremely defensive posture with its Maginot Line.  In “Return,” Gandalf is frustrated when he finds a Gondor completely unprepared for war, even as the Orcs march toward the kingdom.

Once World War II began, the Nazis often found eager allies in the countries they occupied.  Locals such as Marshal Petain in Vichy France and Vidkun Quisling in Norway cooperated with Hitler either for selfish reasons or out of a misguided attempt to avoid bloodshed.  Indeed, “Quisling” became a new word for “collaborator.”   In LOTR, the key quisling is Saruman, whose betrayal of Middle Earth and alliance with Sauron seems to spring from a belief that the Dark Lord cannot be defeated and that he can attain power by working with Sauron.

Tolkien always denied that LOTR was an allegory for World War II, though that seems difficult to believe after watching the three films.  As “The Hobbit” proceeds, it will be interesting to see the influences on that novel, which was published before the war began.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

"Homeland," Season One

I just finished watching the first season of Showtime’s “Homeland” and the show easily lives up to the hype generated by its sweep of this year’s Emmys.  Powered by strong performances by Clare Danes, Damian Lewis, and Mandy Patinkin, it provides another interesting commentary on America as the nation moves into our second decade of the post 9/11 era. (HUGE SPOILERS TO FOLLOW)

Developed by “24” writers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, “Homeland” replicates the tension of that ground-breaking program, but is dramatically different in its approach to terrorism.  The show’s protagonist, Carrie Mathison (Danes), is not a field agent but a CIA analyst who is more Jack Ryan than Jack Bauer.  Like Bauer, though, she is relentless in her desire to keep American safe at all costs, breaking protocol and laws to do so, even if she does not engage in torture in every other episode.

Echoing the original “Manchurian Candidate” (1962), the pilot begins with the return of Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Lewis), a presumed dead American soldier who was captured in the early stages of the Iraq War in 2003.  Having been told by a source that the other side has turned an American POW, Mathison begins a relentless pursuit of Brody, believing that he has become an agent for Al Qaeda.

Like many recent programs such as CBS’s “Person of Interest,” “Homeland” focuses on the psychological costs of the decade-plus war on terror on those fighting it as well as the threats posed by terrorism.  Haunted by her failure to foresee the 9/11 attacks, Mathison is obsessed with preventing another domestic strike.  In the pilot and then again in each week’s opening credits, she tells her boss and friend Saul Berenson, “I missed something once before.  I won’t…I can’t let that happen again.”  He replies that it was ten years ago and that “everybody missed something that day.”   Played by Patinkin, Berenson himself is so fixated on his job that it has destroyed his marriage.

“Homeland” also shows the strain the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have put on military families, who have been carrying the burden of multiple deployments in the dual conflicts over the last ten years.  Like many Iraq/Afghan veterans, Brody comes home with a serious case of post-traumatic stress syndrome.  Upon his return, the government tries to make Brody a popular symbol of the increasingly unpopular wars.

“Homeland,” like the latter seasons of “24,” also explores the critiques of the war on terror that have emerged as the nation has gotten further away from the attack on the World Trade Center.  Brody’s disaffection with the government is crystallized by a drone attack in Iraq that results in the death of a terrorist’s son he is teaching to learn English.  Now allied with the Bin Laden-like Abu Nazir, Brody wants to take revenge on the Cheneyesque vice president who ordered the attack when he was head of the CIA.  

While “Homeland” offers an extreme take on the anger over the drone attacks, many have questioned their wisdom.  As the US has withdrawn ground troops from the Middle East in recent years, drones have become our primary weapon in the battle against Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Still, some have questioned if the civilian casualties caused by these attacks are offsetting the gains the U.S. has made by killing terrorist leaders such as Anwar al-Awlaki, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Season one concludes with Brody unable to follow through on a suicide bombing that would have killed the vice president as well as much of the cabinet.  Nevertheless, he remains a candidate for Congress with close access to national leaders.  Perhaps the arc of the show will now follow the plot of the remake of the “Manchurian Candidate” (2004), with Brody eventually running for high national office.