Carnal Knowledge: a great new war movie, and Mike Nichols


Our cinemas are full of exciting product this month. There was the Babadook around Halloween, an above-average creeper, then Interstellar, which packed a lifetime’s experience into its galactic proportions (and by some accounts it felt like it), and Mr Turner with the grunting Timothy Spall. Currently there is The Imitation Game, another exploration of the code-breaking activities at Bletchley Park, with the now fully consecrated presence of Benedict Cumberbatch in the role previously assigned to the merely adequate Dougray Scott. Yes, your local multiplex is simply groaning with pre-Christmas morsels to tempt you, as distributors get ahead of the annual awards season, where often we have to wait till the New Year to see what has been released stateside in time for the end-of-year deadline. Naturally, if you are prepared to be patient you can view many of these at the Film Theatre in Ipswich and other local screens around the county.

The film that most impressed me last month was Fury, you know, the one with Brad Pitt and the tank. If you are none the wiser, Pitt helms a Sherman tank making its way through Nazi Germany during the closing days of WWII. This is post-Battle of the Bulge, when the Wehrmacht was decidedly on the backfoot, having dealt its last great offensive, but still had some fight left in it, as the Allies discovered at Arnhem. It’s a period rarely dealt with in the movies, lacking any notable grand engagements – The Bridge at Remagen (1969) is a worthwhile exception – but it is ideal for affording a backdrop to more abstract reflections on the nature of warfare: the feral determination of weakened foes slugging it out to the last sits queasily alongside compromised morality and the spectacle of a civilisation turned upside down: children recruited as soldiers, dissenters strung up from telegraph poles, housewives resorting to prostitution.

The film negotiates this tightrope walk quietly but effectively, from its opening scene in which Pitt’s character kills a German officer with his bare hands, through the key central episode where he shares a brief idyll of domesticity with a German woman and her younger cousin to the film’s mythic conclusion, which depicts the last stand of the tank’s immobilised crew against several hundred SS troops. Here the film inevitably evokes tales such as the 300 Spartans, the Alamo and the Wild Bunch, but does not erase memories of the humanism we have glimpsed earlier: throughout we have had the troubling proposition thrust before us, that however brutalising war might be, men carry on fighting ultimately because they enjoy it. Or the Nazis had to be stopped, no matter what the cost. The film lets you take your pick, and as such is one of our profoundest war movies in many a year.

Last month also saw the passing of one of the most noteworthy directors in modern American cinema, Mike Nichols. He was very much a man of New York sensibilities, his work with Elaine May showcasing his comic talents in the 1950s, and his films invariably having that air of sophistication one associates with the East coast. If your first four films are Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, Catch 22 and Carnal Knowledge, then you have a lot to live up to, and it is true that he never quite achieved those heights again. Each of these films cogitates on what it is to be a human being, a grown-up responsible person in a compromised, feckless world, and he at times aspired to repeat the magic of those days, with films like Silkwood and Closer. The former lacked the subversive wit and sparkle, and the latter’s attempt to be a less coy Carnal Knowledge just made it seem meretricious. Then there were the shots at politics, with Heartburn, Primary Colors and Charlie Wilson’s War. Good things in all of them (he never made a really bad picture), but they are not All the President’s Men, or Bob Roberts, or even The Ides of March. Still, as I say, look again at those first four, and maybe it was beginner’s luck, or the words of Edward Albee and Buck Henry, or the sheer alchemy of casting, but for a moment there, Mike Nichols had his place in the sun.