On back-to-back Fridays, Cheryl and I took in a couple of movies: first “WarHorse” and then “RedTails.”
Both are war movies, though they focus on different wars. Both are moving and well-made movies. Both have famous producers/directors who have made blockbuster movies – Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. But the two movies tell uncommon stories of the wars.
In “War Horse,” I was deeply moved by the story that focuses on a horse and his master, Albert. Joey is a beautiful horse, fit for racing, but ends up owned by a family that needs a plow horse.
When the family suffers financial hardship, Joey is sold to the military and becomes the cavalry horse for a British officer.
We see World War I essentially through the eyes of Joey, who becomes the property, at least momentarily, of a British officer, a couple of young German soldiers, a young French girl, then again the German army (pulling massive guns), and then miraculously is saved from “no-man’s-land” between the German and British trenches by the shared efforts of a British and a German soldier.
It is a story of loyalty and bravery; it serves as a witness against the glory of war.
I had focused on the loyalty angle as I was watching the movie, but reading a reflection on the movie by psychologist Richard Beck, I was introduced to another side of the story.
As Beck points out, in the course of the movie, the lines between “us” and “them” are blurred. Joey becomes the symbol, Beck suggests, of the “war horse” that all participants become.
Thus, Joey isn’t the only war horse in the film. Joey is a symbol of something much darker. The first war horse in the film is actually Albert’s father. And Albert soon follows.
Everyone, German and British alike, is found to be a “war horse.” And we leave the film thinking that the real enemy isn’t the man in the other trench. We’re all just war horses, we come to realize. The real enemy is war itself.
“Red Tails” offers a different kind of story. War isn’t the enemy, necessarily, in this movie. Instead, the enemy is prejudice.
At a time when the U.S. military still considered African-Americans unfit for duty, these men proved themselves to be brave and competent, becoming one of the most decorated units in the Army Air Corps.
“Red Tails” is the story of highly skilled and determined men who are fighting for a nation that refuses to recognize their full humanity.
This is not just the story of a war, but about a struggle for dignity.
And in the course of the movie, we see how this struggle emboldens, empowers and, yes, liberates young men from the bonds of an American culture that was then deeply entrenched with bigotry.
Ultimately, these young men’s efforts lead Harry Truman to desegregate the military, which leads to the process of desegregation in America.
The “Red Tails” not only helped win a war, but they helped set in motion societal changes that changed the face of America.
You will likely watch these two movies with different sets of lenses.
One calls us to recognize the horror that is war.
The second movie calls us to recognize that military service often calls forth from human beings their best, and their efforts can have a salutary effect on humanity. War remains hell, but out of the pit of hell comes something good.
After watching both movies, we must recognize that war remains with us, and that the opposing sides in these conflicts – the soldiers in the trenches – are human beings.
We must also recognize that as much as the efforts of these young men served to change the way Americans understood race, bigotry remains part of our national fabric.
Thus, gratitude must be expressed to Spielberg and Lucas – people who know how to entertain us – for telling stories that challenge heart and mind.
Bob Cornwall is Senior Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Troy, Michigan.