Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's" (Matt. 22:21). The concept is simple enough, but Christians have applied it in different ways, particularly where warfare is concerned.
To some, God is the author of life, the one whose image dwells in every person, and no human, not even Caesar, has the right to kill another. But in Sergeant York (1941), Gary Cooper played a real-life pacifist who, on reading this verse, came to believe that he owed it to the government ("unto Caesar") to kill German troops during the First World War.
That film came out just as the United States was about to enter the Second World War, and it was clearly meant to prepare Americans for the conflict. Many more films were to come; Hollywood was at the peak of its mythmaking powers, and the line between good and evil had never seemed so clear. Images from the war have since influenced moviemaking from Shakespeare (check out Ian McKellen's 1995 adaptation of Richard III) to science fiction (note the "stormtroopers" in Star Wars). "World War II is my favorite war," declares an entertainment junkie in Small Soldiers, Joe Dante's uneven satire of pop-culture jingoism; and who can blame him?
Now, for the first time since the 1940s, three films set during World War II are competing for the best-picture prize at the Academy Awards.
Life Is Beautiful is a tragicomic send-up of fascism set partly in a Nazi concentration camp during the last days of the war. It shines a light on the reason why many feel the fighting in that war was necessary: without the deaths of many Allied and Axis soldiers, more Jews would have met their own deaths in the gas chambers or worse.
Saving Private Ryan—the unlikely blockbuster that billed itself as a film about "the last great war"—makes only oblique references to the genocide behind enemy lines, but it tackles the morality of combat head-on. It recognizes, but refuses to settle for, the cold mathematics of warfare, introducing instead the perversely idealistic notion that a single ordinary grunt can be worth a rescue mission, even if it costs the lives of several other men.
The film is justly famous for its opening half-hour, which dramatizes the intense, horrific D-Day invasion of Omaha Beach. The film has also been criticized for its sentimentality—a typical complaint where director Steven Spielberg is involved. To be sure, Spielberg does lay it on thick at times, particularly in his portrayal of Private Ryan's family and in his veneration of dead American presidents, something he tried with less success in Amistad. But as in that film, so in this one: the story begins with brutal violence, then goes on to justify the bloodshed in the name of freedom.
If Spielberg manipulates our emotions, he also lays out the basic conflict at the heart of all warfare, namely, the tension between the value of individual human beings and the tendency of armies everywhere to reduce their men to statistics. Spielberg gets us to think in clear, if contradictory, terms about this moral tension.
In The Thin Red Line, an adaptation of the James Jones novel about the battle for Guadalcanal in the Pacific, director Terrence Malick is less interested in the actual combat than he is in his vaguely pantheistic world-view, wherein love and war are both mysterious parts of this nebulous thing called nature. The Thin Red Line extols a strangely indifferent spirituality. The many pretty images—the camera frequently stares up at the trees or sky—are supposed to be thoughtful and poetic, but they come off as pretentious and nave. In one intense battle scene, Malick pauses to show a wounded bird struggling along the ground, as if to say that only men (and out-of-touch-with-nature white men, at that) are capable of causing such harm. (Has Malick never owned a cat?)
The soundtrack frequently lets us peek into the minds of the film's characters, who ponder such questions as, "Maybe all men got one big soul that everybody's a part of—all faces of the same man, one big self." The problem here is that all these narrators end up sounding like one big voice; they're all faces of the one big self that is the film's director. Malick may not realize it, but it's precisely this negation of individuality that makes war possible in the first place.
Peter T. Chattaway is associate editor for B.C. Christian News in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Copyright © 1999 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Find hope and historical insight. For a limited time, explore 60+ years of CT archives for free!
- Daily devotions from Timothy Dalrymple during this pandemic.
- Hundreds of theology and spiritual formation classics from Philip Yancey, Elisabeth Elliot, John Stott, and more.
- Thought journalism that inspires you to think more deeply about your faith.
- Learn more