"Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place."
After World War II was over with, we could finally tell the truth about it with our arts. At the same time that Italian Neorealism was telling the story of the poor masses and their day to day lives, certain films around the the world cast a backward light into the depths of our societies, and especially our societies at war. Films like Late Spring told the story at home as well as any thus far in the history of film, while one of art cinema's most beloved films, The Third Man, wove a mystery that continues to fascinate. The widening gyre of what was acceptable as a film continued to elongate, ready to burst at the thin-stretched edges. Enter The Small Back Room.
History is a tale of battles. Most of the battles aren't documented as they occurred at a tribal level long before there were any forms of documentation. Recently, our populations have exploded and we've gone to war in huge groups known as nations. World War II is by far the most large scale of these wars, especially considering the Mongol Conquest happened over 100+ years. In hindsight, it's difficult to understand how a nation was spellbound by a psychopathic leader, but I'd simplistically argue that The treaty of Versailles at the end of the first World War is the single biggest factor. The concept of history being a battleground of ideas in which the winner of the battle has their history written most loudly seems to be an easy way to summarize history.
Our protagonist, Sammy Rice, has no interest in winners and losers, in beating his chest in dominant ways, or any of the other bizarre testosterone rituals of warfare. He simply wants to save lives. He has a bum leg from what seems to be a past military incursion, and he understands the toll of warfare, both physically and especially - as we will come to see - psychologically. We have a man here who is sensitive and talented, and not content to live in the way many males do. We also have a man who is struggling with his vices. Perhaps there is a correlation between these two?
The lush black and white photography, rich characterization, and at times avant-garde use of storytelling draws you into the struggle that Sammy faces day-to-day. His bitterness toward authority and war create part of the draw toward alcoholism. Indeed, when our emotions aren't particularly adaptive, or useful (as Sammy's are too rich, too vibrant, too complex to be of use in a wartime situation), and when he can't buy into simply talking to a controlling wife on the telephone day-after-day, or focusing on the numbers of war operations - including body counts and slight gains on the field - as his coworkers do, he is forced into dulling his reactions toward this. Emotions were designed to spark our actions toward certain benefits, and there can be no benefit gained from collapsing in an injured, defeated, bitter, and caustic heap, as Sammy is wont to do.
The climax is likewise intense, and provides an ample history that follows in films like Paradise Now and The Hurt Locker. Mentioning these further reminds me of Dil Se.. and Divine Intervention and the relationship between bombs and human love. The red queen hypothesis is in full affect.
What evolutionary lessons are to be learned here? The most obvious is that war is huge in our history and will probably - most unfortunately - continue to be so in our future, despite its slow decline. Next, we evolved to satisfy our pleasure centers and we've become way too good at it for our own benefit. We must try to maintain the Greek ideal, the even keel. Finally, peace, love, and understanding are goals worth seeking out. We learn lessons too late, and we must deal with damage that makes our learning not only harder to apply but that stands as a constant reminder of our past failings. This is humanity.
Dil Se..., 1998, Ratnam
Divine Intervention, 2005, Suleiman
Late Spring, 1949, Ozu
Paradise Now, 2005, Abu-Assad
The Hurt Locker, 2008, Bigelow
The Small Back Room, 1949, Powell & Pressburger
The Third Man, 1949, Welles
-An Evolutionary Perspective On Substance Abuse, Nesse, http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/31367/0000279.pdf?sequence=1
-Discussion, on Snopes.com, of "history is written by the winners," http://msgboard.snopes.com/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic;f=101;t=000374;p=0
-List of Wars by Death Toll, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_by_death_toll
-The Red Queen hypothesis, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Queen_hypothesis
-The Treaty of Versailles, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Treaty_of_Versailles