Here are two films about World War II that approach the conflict from unusual vantage points. No Normandy, no Pearl Harbor, no Iwo Jima (neither movie is about America, after all). These stories capture the devastation of war without visceral battle scenes, without much violence of any kind. That’s because they focus on the perspectives of children — young boys who feel the same excitement that leads young men into military service but who are not yet prepared for the consequences. War films have sometimes stumbled trying to reconcile the paradoxical reality of war, its allure and its horror. Maybe the secret of this reality can be found inside the mind of a boy.
Ivan’s Childhood was the debut film by Andrei Tarkovsky, and as lofty as his subsequent work would get, it might be my favorite. It tells the story of a Russian boy who joins the fight against the Germans as a spy after his family is killed. Much of the “plot” of the film consists of Ivan arguing with Soviet officers who are understandably hesitant to put him in harm’s way. Instead of a conventional narrative, Ivan’s Childhood is a tapestry of dreams, memories, and observations. Gorgeously shot in black and white by Vadim Yusov, the film shows the resilience of nature against the onslaught of mechanized combat. Impressionistic dream sequences fill in Ivan’s backstory, showing the carefree happiness that he has since lost. These images blend seamlessly into the rest of the film, so that the dreams have a tangible quality and the “real” events have the texture of a dream. One of my all-time favorite shots involves a soldier helping a nurse over a trench but stopping to kiss her as she dangles — an image at once romantic and deeply troubling. Elsewhere, Ivan observes the anguish of a farmer whose home has been destroyed, and later reads the words that captured soldiers carved into a wall before being executed. These sights only strengthen his resolve to do all he can to help defeat the enemy.
Ivan, played by Nikolai Burlyayev, is something else. Driven by vengeance, he will stop at nothing, running away from a boarding school and threatening to escape again if the officers send him to a military school. He knows the chain of command, and he’s been around enough to know something about Nazism, as well. Precocious, resourceful, and compassionate, Ivan has a lot of potential. But the war has hardened him, made him angry and terrified, blasted away all his illusions. In short, Ivan makes Bruce Wayne look like a spoiled brat.
Speaking of whom…
Jim, the main character in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, is played by a 13-year-old Christian Bale. Like Ivan, he is thrust into the reality of the Second World War when he’s separated from his family. Unlike Ivan, Jim can’t make any active attempts to strike back against the enemy. His only goal is to survive his time in a Japanese internment camp. Drawing on the Hollywood tradition of POW camp films, from Stalag 17 to The Great Escape, Spielberg paints a stark portrait of lost innocence and a harsh introduction to the adult world.
The film’s title contains a double meaning. Primarily, it refers to Japan’s ambitions of conquest. But it also recalls the British Empire, on which “the sun never set.” Jim and his family’s presence in Shanghai at the start of the film is a relic of that empire, which the war would play a role in dismantling. The imperial pomposity is effectively captured by the sight of English men and women dressed for a costume party, riding in hulking vehicles through streets swarming with locals. Jim is a smart boy with a passion for aircraft, but naturally he is even less prepared for what’s about to happen than his overconfident parents. Coming face-to-face with illness, death, and opportunism in the internment camp, Jim’s rude awakening hardens him just as much as Ivan’s did. Spielberg offers this film almost as a self-rebuke. The story rejects the kind of fairy tale endings he was famous for, specifically the resurrection of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. When Jim assists a doctor by giving chest compressions to a dying patient, he is shocked when her eyes suddenly turn to look at him — an image at once magical and horrifying. Despite this bluntness, it’s hard to miss the “Hollywood” nature of the film when seen back-to-back with a Soviet movie. Spielbergian sentimentality and humor are sprinkled throughout, the John Williams score guides the viewer’s emotional response, and the film concludes with American forces flying to the rescue. After two and a half hours, the general impression is of suffering and loss, but the film definitely ends on more of a triumphal note than Ivan’s Childhood.
These two movies are at least as much about boys becoming men as they are about war. Developing the desire to fight for what you believe in, building a personal moral code, learning to support yourself — generally speaking, these are the processes that make the coming-of-age transition happen. Circumstances sometimes dictate that a boy won’t have the cushion of an entire adolescence to finish growing up. This is one of war’s many tragedies, but those who can make it out of the crucible have a head start on the rest of us. There is always hope in that.