Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” is about the fences that divide us, both externally and internally.Property and territoriality being a metaphor for that toxic blend of materialism and inner turmoil.Jean Renoir’s 1937 classic La Grande Illusion was also about dividing lines and the existential struggle within; the riddle of humanism that humankind cannot seem to reconcile. Fewer than half-a-dozen shots are fired in La Grande illusion, one of the greatest of war films, and there are no combat sequences… the fireworks and discharge of ordnance is on another level.
In the final scene Two World War I French prisoners have escaped from the Germans and have just made it to neutral Switzerland. A German patrol has been following their tracks in the snow and a soldier wants to shoot them, but his commander informs him that the two have crossed the border and are now safe. The viewer can see no border, however. The snow stretches in an undifferentiated plane. Humans make boundaries and then engage in horrendous bloodlettings to maintain them. Nature, like the frozen groundswell that doesn’t like Frost’s wall, is impervious to boundaries. This is just one of many boundaries in the film…
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
In Jean Renoir’s World War I film drama “Grand Illusion, the narrative follows a group of French officers who are imprisoned by the Germans and are plotting their escape. The film’s antiwar message still resonates today; in fact, little has changed except the lethalness of the toys. A central message is that categories of “race, class, ethnicity, religion, nationality are not what matter. What matters is the individuality of each person.”
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
Of all the wars, the first world war seems the most emblematic, and the one which probably lends itself best to cinematic treatment. As no other war seemed as futile, it was easier to make convincing anti-war statements. Yet, paradoxically, great films on the subject have been few and far between since Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937), a paradigm for all subsequent films on the subject. Only Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) can be mentioned in the same breath as the films of the 1920s and 1930s.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to kn
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Thus, although La Grande Illusion came out of a tradition of anti-war films,such as Lewis Milestone’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” and William Wellman’s “Wings” , the exuberance and escapism of the roaring twenties led to a fading of the genre; “Illusion’s ” release in 1937 was the first for some years and coincided with Germany and Italy’s glorification of their armed forces on screen. Jean Renoir’s masterpiece is not only a moving anti-war statement but a rich exploration of class loyalties and transcending friendships. Yet Renoir film is quite unique in terms of point of departure; it shows nothing of “war-is-hell” fighting, neither does he resort to any rhetoric, inspirational speeches, or simple sentimental pleas for universal brotherhood. War is a backdrop or pretext for more profound issues for human kinds, incoherence, and contradictory inner conflicts in which no armistice has been declared.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.” ( Robert Frost, Mending Wall )
The speaker of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” begins by asserting that there is something out there in nature that doesn’t seem to agree that a wall should remain in tact. The opening line appears to refer to causes that the speaker cannot name, but about which he is curious. They are always there, these places where the rocks have fallen off for no apparent reason, and they must be mended.So the speaker calls his neighbor, and they arrange to meet and mend the wall. As they go about their mending, his neighbor stays on his side and the speaker stays on his own, and they exchange rocks across the wall that belong to each other.
Then the speaker describes the ritual, what he rocks look like, “some are loaves and some so nearly balls.” And they are sometimes difficult to get back into place.The speaker at his point, possibly out of boredom, remarks that this process is little more than an “outdoor game” like tennis or badminton: “One on a side.” It’s not more important than an outdoor game, because his neighbor’s property has only pine trees and his own property has only apples trees. And so the speaker chides his neighbor by saying, “My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines.” To this his neighbor says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
He could understand the need for fences if they had cows that might wander onto the other’s property and do damage, but since neither has any livestock, it seems questionable to keep a wall between them. If building walls were up to the speaker, he would want to be sure it was worth walling something in or out, plus he would want to ask his neighbor about it to make sure he wouldn’t be offending him. Because these walls don’t seem to want to stay repaired, the speaker repeats his opening line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” to which he now adds, “That wants it down!”
The speaker, again mischievously, wants to say to the neighbor, maybe it’s elves that keep bringing down this wall. But he leaves off the “elves” part, wishing hat the neighbor would respond with such a colorful notion. But the neighbor repeats, “Good fences make good neighbors.” The speaker thinks his neighbor lacks a sense of humor and is so set in his ways that he can’t “go behind his father’s saying.”
The end of “La Grande Illusion” as they trudge across the border “to live to fight another day” is only the beginning of a new war. As Aeschylus pointed out in his Greek tragedy “Oresteia” , the violence of the war with Troy did not terminate with Obama’s rather limpid “end of combat operations” speech on Iraq. If anything, the spectre of war in domestic life is more savage than the cost of war on the battlefield. The violence of combat is at least simpler, a more justifiable than the domestic battlefield. Homer’s “The Iliad” is a poem of pure savagery, but everything is in black and white. . Men kill men and enslave women; the survival of the fittest. The cleanliness of the epic slaughter is transmuted, after the return home, into a tragic cycle of revenge and family murder. The clash of the mightiest transforms itself into a paralyzing neurosis.
The lesson of Agamemnon,the Trojan killer of “Oresteia”, if indeed there is a lesson in the middle of all this gore, is that war doesn’t end when we say it ends. The war ends when the Furies we have unleashed become restrained. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced an unprecedented number of survivors. The official tally of dead is five thousand, if thats to be believed, but the number of wounded has topped 32,000 and that doesn’t include sufferers from post-traumatic stress disorder or related psychological traumas.
You don’t have to go back to the future of Troy to see this ancient truth acted out. The 1946 Oscar laden film “The Best Years of Our Lives” , is far from a celebration of the men’s triumphant return from victory over the Nazis in Europe. It is an honest, stark study of the agony of homecoming. The drinking habits in that film make “Mad Men” look like a conclave of Franciscan monks. And Vietnam produced dozens of films on the subject of the impossible return from war, notably “The Deer Hunter” and “Taxi Driver” to name a few.
Fortunately, the history of the fall of Troy is not entirely a history of despair. Even the defeated Trojans, after years of wandering under the leadership of Aeneas, found Rome. The greatest epic of all, “The Odyssey” all,offers a vision almost approaching hope. After ten years at war, and another ten years of wandering the oceans, Odysseus massacres the suitors who have been pursuing his wife and reclaims his rightful spot on Ithaca. Reunited with his family, he is permitted, momentarily, happiness. But then he must wander the Earth looking for a place so far from the sea that the people there have never heard of an oar. We can only hope that the soldiers coming home from this war are so lucky, but that is most likely another “Grande Illusion”