Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Worldbuilding with Fire And Ice Part 5: The Great Raid
we began looking at the 2005 film, THE GREAT RAID and ended off allowing a week to find it and watch it carefully. Now I will assume you've seen it recently enough to remember it. You will remember it differently than I do, and you will remember different scenes than I do. Comparing our descriptions of this film, and its highlights, will reveal something important about storytelling.
War is all about death, yes, but it's about survival too. More, it can also be about defeat and/or victory.
The key historical record of the Pacific in World War II was originally titled BATTLE FOR THE PACIFIC, and it was a TV series decades ago when TV was new. HBO has redone it, and now you can get it on Amazon by episode or by season, watch it on your Kindle Fire. The old title now has been co-opted by a video game, which odd fact (co-opting) actually says something about the writing craft topic we're discussing.
The Iwo Jima battle depicted in THE GREAT RAID is only a small part of that overall war theater's action, but anyone who wants to write fiction should have a working knowledge of how that war for the islands was fought. It's strategy and tactics melded to drama, and you can use it to shape a similar battle on another world. In fact you can use it to go to an alternate universe, then back in History, and write a whopping love story that knows no bounds. Here's a (long and still going) series that does a great job of that by Taylor Anderson:
When you write about death, you come face to face with the inevitable human questions about "what comes after death?"
I can't answer that question -- at least not any better than you can! So the rest of this discussion will be on fitting your worldbuilding into the audience's mindset and changing assumptions.
Remember how Gene Roddenberry employed the writing-rule of not answering questions with his Star Trek episodes, but just ASKING the questions - posing the conundrum or riddle for viewers to gnaw on.
Again here's Part 4 - which has links to previous parts of this series.
That question, "What Comes After Death" and the need to ask it with its imperative to answer it somehow, is one course of bricks in the foundation of all human culture. That's why we are currently innundated with novels about Vampires and other long-lived or immortal Beings. Our culture has been disturbed. Religions have been challenged, some displaced, some fighting back, some evolving, some disappearing, and some new ones being founded. This is far more than a "disturbance in the Force" -- this is a disturbance in culture.
If, in your worldbuilding for your story, you are going to build a culture (rather than use what you think you know about contemporary culture around you), you must have a "course of bricks" for each of the layers of bricks your readers' culture rests upon. That congruence of shape and size between the cultures of your imaginary world and your readers' "real world" experience gives your story verisimilitude.
If you build the imaginary culture in the same size and shape as your reader's real world culture, the reader will feel subliminally comfortable there, and every crazy thing you include will be plausible and entertaining not distressing or confusing. The potential power this gives writers over readers' subconscious minds is obvious. Pause for a moment of awe about that then use that power wisely!
To suck a reader into your world using the power of verisimilitude, you must first learn the world your reader lives in. Most of us are blissfully unaware that we have a culture, nevermind what it actually is! We bandy the world culture about as if we all mean the same thing by it. We don't.
"The Silent Language" -- and your eyes will open.
From the perspective of the cultural anthropologist, Atheism per se is a "religion." Agnosticism is the position which allows for "I don't know" as the answer to most of the ineffable questions about Death. But even that position can be hardened into a superstitious dread, a flinch from all religion and even just spirituality which isn't formalized into a verbalized system of beliefs.
The writer who is a worldbuilder has to take into account what seems plausible and entertainingly novel to the target audience.
There's not much that's "novel" about death, but we are in an era when death is a riveting fascination, not something hidden offstage. In our current TV and film fiction, blood doesn't just appear on a wall, we see the living person decapitated, the blood fountain in drops, THEN the blood on the walls.
Look at all the violent videogames -- the thesis is that if there's a problem where someone wants to do something other than what you want them to do, the ONLY solution is to kill them. The better killer wins and is celebrated, covered in glory.
But we hold a contradictory philosophy at the same time: "stay safe at all costs." Oddly, this philosophy is showcased in THE GREAT RAID, too. Keep in mind that this film came out in 2005.
In 2012, putting anyone in danger of anything is immoral. More on that in Part VI of Worldbuilding With Fire And Ice.
In 2005, the release year of the film THE GREAT RAID, near the end of the film, there's a line of dialogue defining what the commander of this group of US soldiers understands about what they're doing there. He says his men deserve their chance at glory, and when challenged defines glory not as the opinion others have of you, but the opinion you have of yourself for the rest of your life because in the moment of challenge, the moment of facing death, you did the RIGHT THING.
Now this is a philosophy, and it underlies most of this film very solidly making it a good 10-star level film.
The one hole I might poke in it could be from the actual real-life, true story it's based on, and that is the "senselessness" of who dies. In a fictional story, if someone dies "senselessly" (without good reasons being depicted in show-don't-tell), the editor sends it back for rewrite. But in "real life" people die with no apparent reason in sight, and in war the "senselessness" almost becomes the point of the story -- war is senseless. The best people die for no reason.
The HEA or Happily Ever After ending requires that there be sense and reason driving destiny, so that when a "happy" point in life's arc is reached, the characters got there in a way they can understand. With that understanding comes confidence in foreseeing the far vista of their future unrolling in sensible and understandable ways. Therefore they know they will be "happy ever after."
Finding that pattern and those "reasons" in real life and laying down the foundation for them congruently in your story is difficult because life, as we know it, just doesn't seem to have that sense to it. The business of the artist is to find that pattern in real life, just a shadowy hint of it is enough, and replicate that in fiction in such a way that readers can find that shadowy shape in their own lives. That's the secret to writing the re-readable book or the classic film.
We are studying THE GREAT RAID because I think it is just such a classic film. It shows us something we would not otherwise look for in real life.
This is a war film. It's about who survives and who dies, not really so much about why. So as such it deserves 10 stars, or the highest IMDB rating -- because the only thing that's missing is the "poetic justice." That lack is very revealing of that shadowy pattern we need to discern.
Note again the release date - 2005. That means the film represents the views of the target audience -- a broad swatch of the public -- around the year 2000 when it was being marketed and developed.
In the twelve years since 2000, the American pubic has undergone a sharp and drastic reversal of philosophy. The most visible symptom of this reversal is the way all mention of God has been labeled as unacceptable in public -- almost the way any mention of the word "sex" was banned in public in the 1940's (the era this film depicts).
Now naked sex scenes are required in print and on film, and any gesture or word depicting faith, God, or any religion except maybe satanism is banned.
I'm not commenting on whether that public reversal of values is "good" or "bad" -- I'm focusing on how public values of that kind affect a professional storyteller's worldbuilding choices, as well as plot elements placed in the foreground and plot elements placed in the background.
The 2005 film is a terrific example of this change. It makes no comment on that change directly. Its commentary on the subject is totally "off the nose" (film scriptwriting term you must master. See Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! series).
THE GREAT RAID tells the story of a group of US soldiers rescuing 511 US soldiers who were held prisoner by the Japanese on Iwo Jima for three years.
Those soldiers came to believe they were utterly forgotten, written off as dead by the USA -- until their encampment was left unguarded for a little while, and they broke into the Japanese command station and discovered a warehouse fulll of Red Cross boxes filled with food that had been meant for them. Then they realized the Japanese were eating well and deliberately starving the American prisoners. The prisoners were riddled with malaria, and survived on the small amounts of quinine smuggled to them by the Philipine Resistance fighters. Many prisoners in this camp were unable to walk. The able bodied had been taken elsewhere.
Meanwhile, we follow a group of raw trainees, essentially farmboys drafted into the war, who've never been in a real battle. They are assigned to run ahead of the invasion by US forces (the battle of Iwo Jima that is so famous) and get the US prisoners of war out of the way of that impending battle.
Sweep a random few dozen men off America's streets today, and you won't be able to 'whip them into shape' in 6 weeks as was done during World War II. The typical American male of fighting age today is not in good enough physical shape to do this kind of work (not many "farmboys" left). (That statistic from an article I saw recently on the problems the Armed Forces are having recruiting - it's not a lack of volunteers but a lack of robust health among the volunteers.)
In THE GREAT RAID, the prisoners are held in an encampment full of tanks and armed Japanese, a prime strategic target the US forces must neutralize in order to take that island. But in doing that, they would also be slaughtering those US prisoners. There are no experienced US forces to spare to rescue the prisoners. So they send in the raw team that's well trained but never seen battle. Do or die they must get those men out of the area before all hell breaks loose. If they fail, they themselves will be sitting on ground zero of an area slated for destruction.
WATCH THIS TRAILER VIDEO:
It's important to watch that video especially if you did just watch the whole movie. Note what's excerpted, and how the concept can be set out in just a few words of dialogue. Just 29 seconds of the trailer and you know what that entire movie is. That's a CONCEPT.
Remember, this is WWII -- there are no computer chipped munitions that only kill what they are aimed at, and all targetting was kinda approximate.
The Love Story is between a prisoner in the camp who has malaria and (unknown to him) the woman he loves who is married to someone else. She's a nurse, and who has stayed behind in the Philipines to run a resistance cell that smuggles quinine to the POW's. The casting is great. She's a tall blonde among these short-dark folks, really conspicuous for a spy!
The thesis in this film is that old saw, "There Are No Atheists In A Foxhole" -- that saying is from WWI, and it essentially means that when facing death amidst horror, suddenly the most skeptical among us will pray, whether they believe or not. It's probably not 100% true today, and it's certainly not "politically correct" to suggest it is 100% true, but it's a real life observation. This 2005 film makes the point that in the 1940's this saying was still very true.
In one scene, there are two solders about to go into this battle. One has one of those Catholic devotional cards in hand. He gives it to the other solder saying he has plenty. The other guy asks what he should do with it, kiss it? He tucks it away. After the battle, he offers to buy the card for $10 (a small fortune at that time!) but the owner refuses to sell. He says his mother gave it to him and he only has the one. The other guy complains, "But you said you had plenty of others." "I lied."
This exchange straddles the values of the 1940's (he wouldn't have lied in 1945), and the values of the 2000's when he would have lied, but wouldn't have given him the card. Today, the headlines are full of armed forces officialdom putting major obstacles in the way of religion in the military. Even the Chaplain corps which was sacrosanct in the 1940's has trouble today.
Another such cliche scene that straddles the values is the cliche scene where the hostile occupation forces storm a church and a lone priest stands in the door, or the street intersection, and holds up a hand.
In older films, the charging forces STOP. In the 2005 film, the charging forces just run right over the priest, batting him aside with casual cruelty.
Perhaps half the audience now responds to that casual, symbolic batting aside of impotent religion as a good thing, as "progress." I'm not saying here whether this is good or bad, only that it is a kind of visual symbolism that writers must master. It keeps the "philosophy" off the nose. It keeps the discussion of values as subtext which different viewers interpret differently -- thus enlarging the potential audience.
Half the audience gasps at the sacrilege proving the occupying force is evil, and the other half gasps at the brilliant proof that silly superstition can't stand against armed might. To win the videogame, you have to be faster and better at killing the opposition regardless of right or wrong. Understand your audience, and speak to them in all their languages.
In several scenes, especially the cliche scene where the captors shoot 10 prisoners because 1 prisoner tried something against the rules the captors imposed, you see US soldiers cross themselves. Mostly, they get killed right after that. But religious display is not going to be seen in many near future films (Tim Tebow notwithstanding.)
In the middle of THE GREAT RAID, we see the malaria ridden prisoner getting help writing a letter (in pencil on scrap paper) to the woman he loves, and a bit of their story is discussed but not shown. We understand this love story instantly. It's a cliche so that they can just plant it and spend no scenes detailing it. But it does say that love doesn't stop just because of war. Lovers torn apart by war is a seminal theme, and you can use it in any fictional universe you build and it will work without explanation.
At the end of the film, the malaria ridden soldier is rescued, but by the time he's transported to the town now captured and held by US forces, he dies just moments before the woman he was writing to (the nurse, resistance leader) gets to him through the chaos in the streets. His friend hands her the letter he helped write, the letter where he ends off confessing he loves her.
It's a tear-jerker scene, and it's a cliche war-movie scene. In fact the whole movie has to be labeled cliche. How could it not be a cliche? It's about the battle for Iwo Jima. How many films, books, stories, have been made about that? It's all been done and said many times, so it's cliche by definition.
But in 2005, there were already a lot of young people who hadn't studied all the details of World War II, in both theaters of war -- Europe and Pacific. The first time you see a well worn cliche, it's fresh, startling, brilliant and can change your life forever.
In the process of becoming a cliche, a scene or situation gets written and practiced many times, all the awkward bits worn down until the modern version is polished smooth and shiny -- better than the original if you haven't seen all the intermediate drafts.
THE GREAT RAID does the cliche scenes very well, which is why I give it 10 stars.
But it also depicts the pivot point where our public values spun into a new direction.
Pick out a few lines of dialogue you think represent that values twist-point and we'll discuss them next week in Worldbuilding With Fire And Ice Part 6: Values Twist.