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The Perfect Modern Gladiator is Tom Hanks (Part Two)

Tom Hanks at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival
Tom Hanks at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival

Continuing on from Part One

There is an adage that says there is nothing new under the sun. If the Romans needed to process their thoughts on mortality, war, imperialism and courage through educational entertainment, then so do we. We’ve just changed the medium.

The Romans didn’t consciously enter amphitheatres keen for a homily on masculine virtues, the ideology behind the arena was subconsciously digested. Romans learned how to be brave and face death via osmosis. As far as they were concerned, a day at the amphitheatre was one of relaxation. They happily took their seats hoping for a good show, snacks in hand (Larks' tongues! Wrens' livers! Chaffinch brains! Jaguars' earlobes! Wolf nipple chips! Get 'em while they're hot, they're lovely! Dromedary pretzels, only half a denar. Tuscany fried bats!) Is there truly much difference in how we queue up at the cinema for popcorn, soda and M&Ms, sit back in the velvet chairs and prepare to enjoy a movie?

There’s one genre in particular that screams “ideology via osmosis” to me in the same way that Roman spectacle does, and that’s the War Movie.

Think of the Top Gun movies - blatant American propaganda vehicles, made with the blessing and aid of the US military who set up recruitment booths in cineplex lobbies. The latest film, Maverick, has spawned many a think piece about its reflections on American politics and ideology*.

But Tom Cruise is not my modern gladiator. He’s wearing too much plot armour.

No, I have chosen Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan.** His character, Captain Miller, is an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. But for the war, he would be safely back in Pennsylvania teaching high school English. When he is required to take on a new wartime role, he solemnly steps up to the plate.

We have chosen to watch members of his squad, their comrades and their opponents, die. They bleed. One has his intestines hanging out, one has his legs blown off, some are set on fire. We see an enormous array of grisly deaths; the body count of the movie is 243 - 103 deaths are in the visceral Omaha Beach scene alone. And we do this primarily for entertainment.

Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan
Captain Miller's last stand.

Saving Private Ryan is often considered an anti-war film because it doesn’t seek to glorify war, and shows the grim reality of warfare without perceptible varnish. However, whilst I agree it hardly glorifies war, it definitely glorifies Captain Miller. Throughout the entire film, Hanks’ character tries his best to remain stoic and get the job done. He makes a concerted effort to hide his nerves and apprehension. He is an excellent soldier, an excellent leader, and is clearly depicted as an excellent man (he misses his wife! He coaches the baseball team!).

Captain Miller serves as our exemplar of what to do and who to be when you find yourselves transplanted into a violent situation. His death scene is the epitome of the gladiatorial ideal. During a German assault, and having already sustained an injury to the leg, he nevertheless breaks his cover to try and reach a detonation device that would blow up a bridge and slow the German advance. As he hobbles towards it, he is shot in the chest. He then drags himself up to a sitting position where, completely exposed, he takes his sidearm and musters his last remaining strength to fire at a tank.

His is the last death we see in the film, and perhaps you may recall some of the others. Note that in comparison, Miller doesn’t cry. He doesn’t hyperventilate. He doesn’t call for his mother, he doesn’t beg for morphine and he doesn’t pray.

He fought until the end, and he accepted his death without argument.

Miller isn’t the audience surrogate in Saving Private Ryan; most of us, if we’re honest, probably would relate more closely to T-5 Timothy Upham who spends large periods of time in the film hiding, cowering, and summoning the urge to step up, which he does, albeit eventually.

Spielberg himself has said that Upham is who he identifies with most closely. Miller is instead an aspiration, and an achievable one at that. Moreover, the manner of his death is offered as aspirational. Miller’s function is not only to teach the audience how to fight, but how to die. And who does that remind you of?

Gladiators taught the Romans that even the most unlikely men - the enslaved, the criminals, the prisoners of war, the have-a-go pleb with nothing left to lose - could, with a disciplined mentality, fight as elite warriors. They faced their own mortality without fear and accepted death with equanimity. War films provide exactly the same lesson; even the most unlikely cinema-goer could, if required, adopt that same mentality and elevate themselves from mediocre to extraordinary, if only they adopt the ‘correct’ mindset. When the chips are down, who will you become?

Gladiators from the Zliten mosaic. c. CE200
Gladiators from the Zliten mosaic. c. CE200

We can pretend, if we like, that the modern era invented mass entertainment that provokes deeper thought. Hollywood shapes our ideology by stealth, it influences our thoughts on everything from imperialism to family dynamics, and yes, it influences how we think about courage, virtue, and confronting our own mortality. It’s not a case of whether you, as a reader, are pro or anti war, just as it doesn’t matter if the movie is explicitly pro or anti war - the camera ask the same question as the arena: if you were thrown into this situation, how would you think, how would you act, do you have what it takes to kill? Do you have what it takes to die in the way the cinema and amphitheatre are telling you you should?

And if you doubt you have what it takes, here are some helpfully provided examples of men you should emulate. Test your mettle, but do it vicariously, from the comfort of your seats.

A war movie is not just 90 minutes of watching two hundred men fighting with metal sticks that go bang any more than a gladiator fight was watching two men fighting with metal sticks with sharp edges; it is a thought experiment, an education, a surreptitious vehicle for ideology, packaged and promoted as a fun way to spend your leisure time.

There truly is nothing new under the sun.

* Isn't it fascinating to see Top Gun: Maverick nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture alongside the new adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front!?

** See also: Practically the entire casts of Band of Brothers and The Pacific, Wardaddy in Fury, the crew in Master and Commander, SAS Rogue Heroes, Bruno Gaido in Midway, even Jojo Betzler in Jojo Rabbit… the list is endless.

Further reading:

For Cannae:

Polybius has a great account of the prelude in his Histories (Book 3,) but the account of the battle itself is sadly lost. Livy’s full account however thankfully survives in his History of Rome in Books 21-30. Oxford World’s Classics and Penguin have excellent and accessible translations of both. For a modern take, try Adrian Goldsworthy’s 2007 book Cannae.

For gladiators, have a look at Kyle’s aforementioned 1998 book Spectacles of Death or Thomas Wiedemann’s Emperors and Gladiators from 1992.

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