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War, What Is It Good For? Movies, It Seems.

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As Hollywood rolls out Oscar hopefuls over the next two months, there's a curious thread developing: Many of these films are set amidst the backdrop of wars — especially wars involving Great Britain.

From the World War I cavalry charge in Steven Spielberg's War Horse, to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's ordering of a naval attack to reclaim the Falkland Islands in Iron Lady, to Ralph Fiennes' camouflage-and-tanks version of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, filmmakers are offering a kind of master class in the history of warfare, interpreted through everything from classics, to spy novels, to biopics and kids stories.

Spielberg's War Horse is the most conventional of these films, about a young man and his horse, separately drafted into service in WWI. Possibly because of its origins in a children's novel by Michael Mulpurgo, the tale depicts warfare in relatively simple terms. Though the scenes of battle are grim, the soldiers on both sides are depicted as behaving in essentially civilized fashion.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is also based on a novel — a classic spy novel by John Le Carre — about an entirely different sort of conflict: The Cold War. Here, everything is covert, paranoia reigns and the only rule seems to be trust nobody, suspect everybody. It's mostly a war of nerves.

Then in the film Iron Lady, we see what amounts to the end of the Cold War; a conflict that suddenly turns hot when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) sends the British navy halfway around the world to reclaim the Falkland Islands from Argentina. The men around her accuse her of leaping too quickly into armed conflict, because as a woman, she doesn't understand warfare. She responds that for that very reason, she's had to battle all her life.

Lastly, in Ralph Fiennes' contemporized Coriolanus, it's another woman — the title character's bloodthirsty mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave — who propels the action toward ever-greater violence. The setting is still "a place calling itself Rome," but it's pretty clearly modern Serbia, complete with ethnic cleansing and long-simmering hatreds.

In short, these four films traverse a path from war fought by men who are capable of understanding each other, to war that's devolved into pure barbarity.

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