Morals, Ethics, Movies and Writing

Well, since its the Christmas break I have been doing some thinking – more than the usual amount of thinking and also there is a new movie channel Cinemoi available to me which just shows French movies, so encouraging even more philosophical thought.

I came across this quotation in a French Movie of the 50s or early 60s called ‘Le Petit Soldat’ (The Little Soldier) starring Anna Karina: ‘Ethics is the aesthetic of the Future’ from Hegel. I thought, ‘Hmmm, that’s interesting’ and have been pondering its veracity. Of course the sentence seems a little ambiguous at first: does he mean that the aesthetic of the Future informs Ethics or the other way around? But of course if the process is two-way and simultaneous then it holds true and I would guess that is what he meant. So then I wondered if my new book (unpublished yet) Iron, (also working title Too Bright the Sun), set in the future, has an aesthetic and if it does, is that informed by my Ethics. I realised that yes, it does have an aesthetic but so far, whether this is informed by my ethics or not eludes me.

1) I then wondered if it was possible to write a book without one’s ethics forming part of its ‘context’. One would think that allegory might manage it and simple tales of adventure. 2) I also wondered if War Movies, many of which I think great movies in their own right, have an ethical framework or if they avoid it.

On point 1) I think perhaps disaster movies and in particular post-apocalyptic movies can be virtually ethics free and perhaps this is why they are predominant and popular during times of ethical flux and instability in society (mid 70s, 90s and now, in the West). Good examples are Independence Day and the TV series The Survivors: in both cases the premise is one of extreme survival and basically from then on the characters have few, if any ethical choices to make. From a moral, and self-preservation point of view, they only have one option.

Many War Movies probably also fall into this category: one thinks of The Dambusters and many 40s and 50s films which simply assume that right is on the side of the main protagonists (seemingly usually John Mills or Richard Todd). Its only much later, in 1958, that Ice Cold in Alex takes a more sophisticated look at war, and includes a dash of alcoholism as Mills attempts to deal with the ethical complexity of a traitor among a group trying to survive against the elements.

Another interesting variation in 1964 is 633 Squadron: the main protagonist are all Commonwealth aircrew, and as such must have volunteered and gone out of their way to fight so early in the war (since they are all experience pilots by the time evoked in the film – 1942?) for the British. Thus Roy Grant becomes a figure who is grappling with many ethical issues before the film has really even got going. This is then further complicated by his decision to kill the brother of his girlfriend, partly out of mercy it seems.

Of course the great movie for Moral and Ethics is Bridge of the River Kwai (1957).
As far as I can tell the enduringly fascinating aspect of this movie is the contrast between the two main characters: Shears (William Holden) and Nicholson (Alec Guiness). Shears is a fraud, and trying to get out of risking his neck, by impersonating a superior office, while Nicholson seems the exact opposite, a man driven by stiff principles to do the right thing in all situations. In the end though, Shears does start to see the big picture, whereas Nicholson loses sight of it and becomes a prisoner of his own misguided ethics. Sticking only to his principles he misapplies his ethics: to go on building the bridge to a high standard rather than to destroy it. It seems that he has lost sight of the moral that demands he must do what is right in the wider sense, but at the last minute he regains his moral compass.

Later films like The Battle of Britain, pretty much revert to the old formula, whereby bravery and survival are really the main topics. Of course there are variations like a Bridge Too Far which covers incompetence on a grand scheme but its only later that war movies generally branch out into the more complex issues: films like Apocalyse Now and Platoon being good examples.

So in general, I think many war movies do avoid the ethical issue and thats probably why they can be easy to watch. You can let your brain just concentrate on the action.

On the subject of Hegel’s proposal? I am not sure yet. I am still thinking about it.

I would be interested in any other movies/TV series/books which illustrate either my point, or contradict it.


2 thoughts on “Morals, Ethics, Movies and Writing

  1. Let us not forget that many war movies are actually anti-war movies (The last two you mention [Apocalypse Now and Platoon being very good examples]). I recently watched The GreenZone with Matt Damon, also being a good example, and not to mention Hurt Locker which won picture of the year.When was the last time that America actually won a war. I mean, when was the last time we saw a ticker tape parade celebrating a great victory. Was Iraq a victory??? and look at what's happening now in Afghanistan!The only place the Yanks won Vietnam was in the movie theatres. Hell, if they had 10 Rambos and a dozen Chuck Norris characters the war would have been over in a month or so.America is now becoming a divided nation because of their wars. The days of John Wayne in the Green Berets is over.And if you've never seen Kubrick's 'Dr Strangelove' you've missed the quintessential Anti-war movie.


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