I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones. Albert Einstein
In the year 1966, when I had just started my university education, and Hollywood films were very much a part of our entertainment and distraction, a film titled The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming had just been released. A fictional war comedy, it dealt with a Russian submarine that is inadvertently stuck in a sandbar just off the coast of New England in the United States of America. The resultant capers involving Russian soldiers getting entangled with the local island citizenry (pop. 200) provided much cause for cinematic merriment. Those were the days when Russia was America’s public enemy number one and vice-versa, long after Hitler’s Germany was laid to rest. Sounds familiar? Being a Hollywood production, I offer no prizes for guessing who the good guys were. It set me thinking. Things are no different in 2022. The Russians are coming, have come, with a vengeance to Ukraine while the United States and the rest of world do not seem to have the foggiest notion of what to do about it. Plenty of collective head-shaking and hand-wringing but little else. What’s more, this is no flippant war comedy on celluloid. This is the real thing with state-of-the-art fighter jets, bombs, T-14 armoured tanks, AK 47s and hundreds of thousands of foot soldiers; to say nothing of the ever-present danger of a nuclear attack looming. Whatever else it may be, it is not funny.
However, the purpose of this piece is not to delve deeply into the whys and wherefores of the present conflict in Eastern Europe, its global ramifications, the subdued role of NATO, trying to second guess canny China’s likely response, where India fits in, if at all, in this axis of meaningless and bloody conflict. Our television screens and newspapers are so full of the Ukraine-Russia battle that we have actually become inured to it. If it were not for India’s young students being unfortunately caught up in Ukraine and our government’s efforts to ferry them safely home, our thoughts could have so easily turned elsewhere. State elections and the Covid situation, which so occupied our media space, are all but forgotten. I daresay they will resurface again when poll results start coming in shortly, along with the clamour over the steep hike in fuel prices, which is as certain as night follows day. Hopefully, a forlorn hope at that, the Russian aggression by then would have started receding and the warring factions will sit across the table and start talking to each other, even if they will be talking from the side of their mouths. Hope springs eternal.
So much for serious stuff. Let me get back to what prompted me to write this column in the first place. It was a movie title of over five decades ago that spurred me to think of the present imbroglio. Or perhaps the other way round. More to the point, I thought it might be an interesting idea to look at other movie or book titles and examine what relevance they have for us today. Writers and movie producers have no idea when they launch into their creative efforts that, several years down the road those selfsame books, songs and films would strongly resonate with a public, most of whom may not have even been born when these magnum opuses were first released for public consumption.
A popular song by The Beatles during the late 60s that instantly springs to mind, in the present scenario is Back in the U.S.S.R, a jaunty number with a resonating chorus line that goes like this – The Ukraine girls really knock me out / They leave the West behind / And Moscow girls make me sing and shout / That Georgia’s always on my-my-my-my-my-my mind. Well, I guess when The Beatles wrote that song way back when, things were quite hunky-dory and oojah-cum-spiff, to pinch a Wodehouse copyright, between Ukraine and Russia, as they were all part of the homogenous Soviet Union bloc. And speaking of songs, how can we forget Sting’s feelingly sung ode Russians, in which he says, We share the same biology / Regardless of ideology / What might save us me and you / Is that the Russians love their children too. Prescient.
Still staying with the 60s, which was probably a decade that made the greatest impact on me for a variety of reasons, director Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy classic from 1964, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, made a deep impression. Shot in evocative black and white and starring Peter Sellers and George C. Scott (of Patton fame), the storyline deals with an unhinged U.S. general who orders a first strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, and how the best brains of the American and British defence establishment try and prevent the crew of a B-52 bomber from unloading its deadly arsenal on the Soviet Union and start a disastrous nuclear war. The film was widely considered to be one of the best satirical films of its genre ever made. If you, dear reader, are a film buff and have not seen Dr. Strangelove, you could do worse than search your cable networks and reel it in. It will be time well spent.
Then there was Russia’s venerated writer Lev Tolstoy, whose first name was conveniently changed by the English-speaking world to Leo Tolstoy. Now what is so dashed difficult about pronouncing Lev that it needed to be changed to Leo, even if the anglicised equivalent is justified? Beats me. It’s the same baffling non-reasoning behind why Chennai became Madras, and reverted to the original name later. I have Google-searched and spoken to a couple of notable historians, but to no avail. Some say the city was named after a fishing village called Madraspatnam, but no rigorous, historical facts of substance are adduced to support the claim. Even Wikipedia is stumped. I am open to being corrected by superior minds on this subject. But I meander. Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, a novel of such prodigious length that you were better off watching the film version, of which there are many. Even then, I got the distinct impression that there was much more war than peace in the narrative. At the risk of being cynical, one must conclude that the blood, gore and pumped-up, rah-rah patriotism makes war a far more saleable concept than somnolent peace. What is it with the Russians that at the least pretext they decide to take up arms and go to war? Vladimir Putin is merely keeping the hoary traditions of Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev alive. Remember Cuba? One can quickly add that their arch rival, the United States is no different. The world is their theatre of conflict.
To continue with my random thoughts on war as a mode of entertainment, what about those handy, little illustrated war comics that were freely available during our school days? In tune with Hollywood war movies, these comics invariably celebrated the bravado and brilliance of the allied forces during the Second World War, making the Germans look like grotesque, villainous caricatures of themselves. We kids lapped it up because we were well and truly brainwashed. ‘Take that, you nasty Krauts. BLAM, BLAM, KA-BOOM and KAPUT.’ Not to mention the German commander threatening a captured allied soldier with a pair of live electrical cables, ‘Ve haf vays to make you tok, you Yankee pig / English dog. ACHTUNG! ACHTUNG! SCHNELL! SCHNELL!’ Naturally, the brave American or British soldier is daringly rescued, more BLAM, BLAM leaving behind a pile of dead German corpses. KAPUT. Didn’t we just love it! I have little doubt that Russian muscle-flexing and aggression will soon become the hottest theme for a slew of forthcoming Hollywood releases. Step forward, Steven Spielberg.
Lest we forget, that brilliant satire that lit up the 80s on the British government machinery, Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, in one of the episodes, did a rib-tickling send up of the possibility of a hypothetical nuclear confrontation between Britain and Russia. Fictional Prime Minister James Hacker’s utter confusion on being questioned on how he views the concept of a nuclear deterrent involving Russia, or even Germany and when would be the right moment ‘to press the button’ makes for arguably some of the funniest scenes one can wish to witness, superbly scripted and acted, as only the British can. Speaking of which, one also recalls with fondness BBC’s hilarious Dad’s Army television series, loosely based on the UK’s Home Guard during the Second World War, that so captivated audiences during the late 60s and 70s. The present-day Ukrainian common man and woman taking up arms against the mighty Russian invaders put me in mind of Dad’s Army’s doddering village folk who attempt to stave off the invading Germans with hilarious results.
I guess what I am trying to really get at is this. Rather than watch our dreary television news channels gloating about flying out a slew of correspondents with a camera and telling all of India how brave they are to be right there in the thick of things, and how each one claims to be the first to reach the scene of action, you are better off reading the newspapers and getting a more informed view. There’s simply too much sound, fury and noise on the TV channels, such that the viewing becomes painful in the extreme. Instead, divert your attention during the long evenings by watching some great war films like Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day, Bridge on the River Kwai, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, The Hurt Locker, The Dirty Dozen and so many more. Not to be outdone, the Russians recently produced a hagiographic biopic on Mikhail Kalashnikov, the man who designed and developed the iconic AK-47 assault rifle, and after whose name the weapon is sanctified. It is now an accepted axiom that war benefits not only the armaments and allied industries but the film world has also done very well by conflicts that have occurred since time immemorial. If American singer-songwriter Edwin Starr is known for nothing else, he will be remembered for his 1970 hit, War / What is it good for / Absolutely nothing.
I think we can all sing along with that. Altogether now…