The Semiotics of Strategy: A Preliminary Structuralist Assessment of the Battle-Map in Patton (1970) and Midway (1976)

Paul Ryder, Daniel Binns


The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought. — Sun Tzu

World War II saw a proliferation of maps. From command posts to the pages of National Geographic to the pages of daily newspapers, they were everywhere (Schulten). The era also saw substantive developments in cartography, especially with respect to the topographical maps that feature in our selected films. This essay offers a preliminary examination of the battle-map as depicted in two films about the Second World War: Franklin J. Shaffner’s biopic Patton (1970) and Jack Smight’s epic Midway (1976). In these films, maps, charts, or tableaux (the three-dimensional models upon which are plotted the movements of battalions, fleets, and so on) emerge as an expression of both martial and cinematic strategy. As a rear-view representation of the relative movements of personnel and materiel in particular battle arenas, the map and its accessories (pins, tape, markers, and so forth) trace the broad military dispositions of Patton’s 2nd Corp (Africa), Seventh Army (Italy) and Third Army (Western Europe) and the relative position of American and Japanese fleets in the Pacific. In both Patton and Midway, the map also emerges as a simple mode of narrative plotting: as the various encounters in the two texts play out, the battle-map more or less contemporaneously traces the progress of forces. It also serves as a foreshadowing device, not just narratively, but cinematically: that which is plotted in advance comes to pass (even if as preliminary movements before catastrophe), but the audience is also cued for the cinematic chaos and disjuncture that almost inevitably ensues in the battle scenes proper.

On one hand, then, this essay proposes that at the fundamental level of fabula (seen through either the lens of historical hindsight or through the eyes of the novice who knows nothing of World War II), the annotated map is engaged both strategically and cinematically: as a stage upon which commanders attempt to act out (either in anticipation, or retrospectively) the intricate, but grotesque, ballet of warfare — and as a reflection of the broad, sequential, sweeps of conflict. While, in War and Cinema, Paul Virilio offers the phrase ‘the logistics of perception’ (1), in this this essay we, on the other hand, consider that, for those in command, the battle-map is a representation of the perception of logistics: the big picture of war finds rough indexical representation on a map, but (as Clausewitz tells us) chance, the creative agency of individual commanders, and the fog of battle make it far less probable (than is the case in more specific mappings, such as, say, the wedding rehearsal) that what is planned will play out with any degree of close correspondence (On War 19, 21, 77-81). Such mapping is, of course, further problematised by the processes of abstraction themselves: indexicality is necessarily a reduction; a de-realisation or déterritorialisation. ‘For the military commander,’ writes Virilio, ‘every dimension is unstable and presents itself in isolation from its original context’ (War and Cinema 32). Yet rehearsal (on maps, charts, or tableaux) is a keying activity that seeks to presage particular real world patterns (Goffman 45). As suggested above, far from being a rhizomatic activity, the heavily plotted (as opposed to thematic) business of mapping is always out of joint: either a practice of imperfect anticipation or an equally imperfect (pared back and behind-the-times) rendition of activity in the field. As is argued by Tolstoj in War and Peace, the map then presents to the responder a series of tensions and ironies often lost on the masters of conflict themselves. War, as Tostoj proposes, is a stochastic phenomenon while the map is a relatively static, and naive, attempt to impose order upon it. Tolstoj, then, pillories Phull (in the novel, Pfuhl), the aptly-named Prussian general whose lock-stepped obedience to the science of war (of which the map is part) results in the abject humiliation of 1806:

Pfuhl was one of those theoreticians who are so fond of their theory that they lose sight of the object of that theory - its application in practice. (Vol. 2, Part 1, Ch. 10, 53)

In both Patton and Midway, then, the map unfolds not only as an epistemological tool (read, ‘battle plan’) or reflection (read, the near contemporaneous plotting of real world affray) of the war narrative, but as a device of foreshadowing and as an allegory of command and its profound limitations. So, in Deleuzian terms, while emerging as an image of both time and perception, for commanders and filmgoers alike, the map is also something of a seduction: a ‘crystal-image’ situated in the interstices between the virtual and the actual (Deleuze 95).  To put it another way, in our films the map emerges as an isomorphism: a studied plotting in which inheres a counter-text (Goffman 26). As a simple device of narrative, and in the conventional terms of latitude and longitude, in both Patton and Midway, the map, chart, or tableau facilitate the plotting of the resources of war in relation to relief (including island land masses), roads, railways, settlements, rivers, and seas. On this syntagmatic plane, in Greimasian terms, the map is likewise received as a canonical sign of command: where there are maps, there are, after all, commanders (Culler 13). On the other hand, as suggested above, the battle-map (hereafter, we use the term to signify the conventional paper map, the maritime chart, or tableau) materialises as a sanitised image of the unknown and the grotesque: as apodictic object that reduces complexity and that incidentally banishes horror and affect. Thus, the map evolves, in the viewer’s perception, as an ironic sign of all that may not be commanded. This is because, as an emblem of the rational order, in Patton and Midway the map belies the ubiquity of battle’s friction: that defined by Clausewitz as ‘the only concept which...distinguishes real war from war on paper’ (73). ‘Friction’ writes Clausewitz, ‘makes that which appears easy in War difficult in reality’ (81).

Our work here cannot ignore or side-step the work of others in identifying the core cycles, characteristics of the war film genre. Jeanine Basinger, for instance, offers nothing less than an annotated checklist of sixteen key characteristics for the World War II combat film. Beyond this taxonomy, though, Basinger identifies the crucial role this sub-type of film plays in the corpus of war cinema more broadly. The World War II combat film’s ‘position in the evolutionary process is established, as well as its overall relationship to history and reality. It demonstrates how a primary set of concepts solidifies into a story – and how they can be interpreted for a changing ideology’ (78). Stuart Bender builds on Basinger’s taxonomy and discussion of narrative tropes with a substantial quantitative analysis of the very building blocks of battle sequences. This is due to Bender’s contention that ‘when a critic’s focus [is] on the narrative or ideological components of a combat film [this may] lead them to make assumptions about the style which are untenable’ (8). We seek with this research to add to a rich and detailed body of knowledge by redressing a surprising omission therein: a conscious and focussed analysis of the use of battle-maps in war cinema. In Patton and in Midway — as in War and Peace — the map emerges as an emblem of an intergeneric dialogue: as a simple storytelling device and as a paradigmatic engine of understanding. To put it another way, as viewer-responders with a synoptic perspective we perceive what might be considered a ‘double exposure’: in the map we see what is obviously before us (the collision of represented forces), but an Archimedean positioning facilitates the production of far more revelatory textual isotopies along what Roman Jakobson calls the ‘axis of combination’  (Linguistics and Poetics 358). Here, otherwise unconnected signs (in our case various manifestations and configurations of the battle-map) are brought together in relation to particular settings, situations, and figures.  Through this palimpsest of perspective, a crucial binary emerges: via the battle-map we see ‘command’ and the sequence of engagement — and, through Greimasian processes of axiological combination (belonging more to syuzhet than fabula), elucidated for us are the wrenching ironies of warfare (Culler 228). Thus, through the profound and bound motif of the map (Tomashevsky 69), are we empowered to pass judgement on the map bearers who, in both films, present as the larger-than-life heroes of old.  

Figure 1.

While we have scope only to deal with the African theatre, Patton opens with a dramatic wide-shot of the American flag: a ‘map’, if you will, of a national history forged in war (Fig. 1).  Against this potent sign of American hegemony, as he slowly climbs up to the stage before it, the general appears a diminutive figure -- until, via a series of matched cuts that culminate in extreme close-ups, he manifests as a giant about to play his part in a great American story (Fig. 2).

Figure 2.

Some nineteen minutes into a film, having surveyed the carnage of Kasserine Pass (in which, in February 1943, the Germans inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Americans) General Omar Bradley is reunited with his old friend and newly-nominated three-star general, George S. Patton Jr.. Against a backdrop of an indistinct topographical map (that nonetheless appears to show the front line) and the American flag that together denote the men’s authority, the two discuss the Kasserine catastrophe. Bradley’s response to Patton’s question ‘What happened at Kasserine?’ clearly illustrates the tension between strategy and real-world engagement.  While the battle-plan was solid, the Americans were outgunned, their tanks were outclassed, and (most importantly) their troops were out-disciplined. Patton’s concludes that Rommel can only be beaten if the American soldiers are fearless and fight as a cohesive unit.  Now that he is in command of the American 2nd Corp, the tide of American martial fortune is about to turn.

The next time Patton appears in relation to the map is around half an hour into the two-and-three-quarter-hour feature.  Here, in the American HQ, the map once more appears as a simple, canonical sign of command. Somewhat carelessly, the map of Europe seems to show post-1945 national divisions and so is ostensibly offered as a straightforward prop. In terms of martial specifics, screenplay writer Francis Ford Coppola apparently did not envisage much close scrutiny of the film’s maps. Highlighted, instead, are the tensions between strategy as a general principle and action on the ground. As British General Sir Arthur Coningham waxes lyrical about allied air supremacy, a German bomber drops its payload on the HQ, causing the map of Europe to (emblematically) collapse forward into the room. Following a few passes by the attacking aircraft, the film then cuts to a one second medium shot as a hail of bullets from a Heinkel He 111 strike a North African battle map (Fig. 3). Still prone, Patton remarks: ‘You were discussing air supremacy, Sir Arthur.’ Dramatising a scene that did take place (although Coningham was not present), Schaffner’s intention is to allow Patton to shoot holes in the British strategy (of which he is contemptuous) but a broader objective is the director’s exposé of the more general disjuncture between strategy and action. As the film progresses, and the battle-map’s allegorical significance is increasingly foregrounded, this critique becomes definitively sharper.

Figure 3.

Immediately following a scene in which an introspective Patton walks through a cemetery in which are interred the remains of those killed at Kasserine, to further the critique of Allied strategy the camera cuts to Berlin’s high command and a high-tech ensemble of tableaux, projected maps, and walls featuring lights, counters, and clocks. Tasked to research the newly appointed Patton, Captain Steiger walks through the bunker HQ with Hitler’s Chief of Staff, General Jodl, to meet with Rommel — who, suffering nasal diphtheria, is away from the African theatre.  In a memorable exchange, Steiger reveals that Patton permanently attacks and never retreats. Rommel, who, following his easy victory at Kasserine, is on the verge of total tactical victory, in turn declares that he will ‘attack and annihilate’ Patton — before the poet-warrior does the same to him. As Clausewitz has argued, and as Schaffner is at pains to point out, it seems that, in part, the outcome of warfare has more to do with the individual consciousness of competing warriors than it does with even the most exquisite of battle-plans.

Figure 4.

So, even this early in the film’s runtime, as viewer-responders we start to reassess various manifestations of the battle-map. To put it as Michelle Langford does in her assessment of Schroeter’s cinema, ‘fragments of the familiar world [in our case, battle-maps] … become radically unfamiliar’ (Allegorical Images 57). Among the revelations is that from the flag (in the context of close battle, all sense of ‘the national’ dissolves), to the wall map, to the most detailed of tableau, the battle-plan is enveloped in the fog of war: thus, the extended deeply-focussed scenes of the Battle of El Guettar take us from strategic overview (Patton’s field glass perspectives over what will soon become a Valley of Death) to what Boris Eichenbaum has called ‘Stendhalian’ scale (The Young Tolstoi 105) in which, (in Patton) through more closely situated perspectives, we almost palpably experience the Germans’ disarray under heavy fire. As the camera pivots between the general and the particular (and between the omniscient and the nescient) the cinematographer highlights the tension between the strategic and the actual. Inasmuch as it works out (and, as Schaffner shows us, it never works out completely as planned) this is the outcome of modern martial strategy: chaos and unimaginable carnage on the ground that no cartographic representation might capture. As Patton observes the destruction unfold in the valley below and before him, he declares: ‘Hell of a waste of fine infantry.’  

Figure 5.

An important inclusion, then, is that following the protracted El Guettar battle scenes, Schaffner has the (symbolically flag-draped) casket of Patton’s aide, Captain Richard N. “Dick” Jenson, wheeled away on a horse-drawn cart — with the lonely figure of the mourning general marching behind, his ironic interior monologue audible to the audience: ‘I can't see the reason such fine young men get killed. There are so many battles yet to fight.’ Finally, in terms of this brief and partial assessment of the battle-map in Patton, less than an hour in, we may observe that the map is emerging as something far more than a casual prop; as something more than a plotting of battlelines; as something more than an emblem of command. Along a new and unexpected axis of semantic combination, it is now manifesting as a sign of that which cannot be represented nor commanded.

Midway presents the lead-up to the eponymous naval battle of 1942. Smight’s work is of interest primarily because the battle itself plays a relatively small role in the film; what is most important is the prolonged strategising that comprises most of the film’s run time. In Midway, battle-tables and fleet markers become key players in the cinematic action, second almost to the commanders themselves. Two key sequences are discussed here: the moment in which Yamamoto outlines his strategy for the attack on Midway (by way of a decoy attack on the Aleutian Islands), and the scene some moments later where Admiral Nimitz and his assembled fleet commanders (Spruance, Blake, and company) survey their own plan to defend the atoll. In Midway, as is represented by the notion of a fleet-in-being, the oceanic battlefield is presented as a speculative plane on which commanders can test ideas. Here, a fleet in a certain position projects a radius of influence that will deter an enemy fleet from attacking: i.e. ‘a fleet which is able and willing to attack an enemy proposing a descent upon territory which that force has it in charge to protect’ (Colomb viii). The fleet-in-being, it is worth noting, is one that never leaves port and, while it is certainly true that the latter half of Midway is concerned with the execution of strategy, the first half is a prolonged cinematic game of chess, with neither player wanting to move lest the other has thought three moves ahead. Virilio opines that the fleet-in-being is ‘a new idea of violence that no longer comes from direct confrontation and bloodshed, but rather from the unequal properties of bodies, evaluation of the number of movements allowed them in a chosen element, permanent verification of their dynamic efficiency’ (Speed and Politics 62). Here, as in Patton, we begin to read the map as a sign of the subjective as well as the objective. This ‘game of chess’ (or, if you prefer, ‘Battleships’) is presented cinematically through the interaction of command teams with their battle-tables and fleet markers. To be sure, this is to show strategy being developed — but it is also to prepare viewers for the defamiliarised representation of the battle itself.

The first sequence opens with a close-up of Admiral Yamamoto declaring: ‘This is how I expect the battle to develop.’ The plan to decoy the Americans with an attack on the Aleutians is shown via close-ups of the conveniently-labelled ‘Northern Force’ (Fig. 6). It is then explained that, twenty-four hours later, a second force will break off and strike south, on the Midway atoll. There is a cut from closeups of the pointer on the map to the wider shot of the Japanese commanders around their battle table (Fig. 7). Interestingly, apart from the opening of the film in the Japanese garden, and the later parts of the film in the operations room, the Japanese commanders are only ever shown in this battle-table area. This canonically positions the Japanese as pure strategists, little concerned with the enmeshing of war with political or social considerations. The sequence ends with Commander Yasimasa showing a photograph of Vice Admiral Halsey, who the Japanese mistakenly believe will be leading the carrier fleet. Despite some bickering among the commanders earlier in the film, this sequence shows the absolute confidence of the Japanese strategists in their plan. The shots are suitably languorous — averaging three to four seconds between cuts — and the body language of the commanders shows a calm determination. The battle-map here is presented as an index of perfect command and inevitable victory: each part of the plan is presented with narration suggesting the Japanese expect to encounter little resistance. While Yasimasa and his clique are confident, the other commanders suggest a reconnaissance flight over Pearl Harbor to ascertain the position of the American fleet; the fear of fleet-in-being is shown here firsthand and on the map, where the reconnaissance planes are placed alongside the ship markers. The battle-map is never shown in full: only sections of the naval landscape are presented. We suggest that this is done in order to prepare the audience for the later stages of the film: as in Patton (from time to time) the battle-map here is filmed abstractly, to prime the audience for the abstract montage of the battle itself in the film’s second half.

Figure 6.

Figure 7.

Having established in the intervening running time that Halsey is out of action, his replacement, Rear Admiral Spruance, is introduced to the rest of the command team. As with all the important American command and strategy meetings in the film, this is done in the operations room. A transparent coordinates board is shown in the foreground as Nimitz, Spruance and Rear Admiral Fletcher move through to the battle table. Behind the men, as they lean over the table, is an enormous map of the world (Fig. 8). In this sequence, Nimitz freely admits that while he knows each Japanese battle group’s origin and heading, he is unsure of their target. He asks Spruance for his advice:

‘Ray, assuming what you see here isn’t just an elaborate ruse — Washington thinks it is, but assuming they’re wrong — what kind of move do you suggest?’

This querying is followed by Spruance glancing to a particular point on the map (Fig. 9), then a cut to a shot of models representing the aircraft carriers Hornet, Enterprise & Yorktown (Fig. 10). This is one of the few model/map shots unaccompanied by dialogue or exposition. In effect, this shot shows Spruance’s thought process before he responds: strategic thought presented via cinematography. Spruance then suggests situating the American carrier group just northeast of Midway, in case the Japanese target is actually the West Coast of the United States. It is, in effect, a hedging of bets. Spruance’s positioning of the carrier group also projects that group’s sphere of influence around Midway atoll and north to essentially cut off Japanese access to the US. The fleet-in-being is presented graphically — on the map — in order to, once again, cue the audience to match the later (edited) images of the battle to these strategic musings.

In summary, in Midway, the map is an element of production design that works alongside cinematography, editing, and performance to present the notion of strategic thought to the audience. In addition, and crucially, it functions as an abstraction of strategy that prepares the audience for the cinematic disorientation that will occur through montage as the actual battle rages later in the film. 

Figure 8.

Figure 9.

Figure 10.

This essay has argued that the battle-map is a simulacrum of the weakest kind: what Baudrillard would call ‘simulacra of simulation, founded on information, the model’ (121). Just as cinema itself offers a distorted view of history (the war film, in particular, tends to hagiography), the battle-map is an over-simplification that fails to capture the physical and psychological realities of conflict. We have also argued that in both Patton and Midway, the map is not a ‘free’ motif (Tomashevsky 69). Rather, it is bound: a central thematic device. In the two films, the battle-map emerges as a crucial isomorphic element. On the one hand, it features as a prop to signify command and to relay otherwise complex strategic plottings. At this syntagmatic level, it functions alongside cinematography, editing, and performance to give audiences a glimpse into how military strategy is formed and tested: a traditional ‘reading’ of the map. But on the flip side of what emerges as a classic structuralist binary, is the map as a device of foreshadowing (especially in Midway) and as a depiction of command’s profound limitations. Here, at a paradigmatic level, along a new axis of combination, a new reading of the map in war cinema is proposed: the battle-map is as much a sign of the subjective as it is the objective.


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Map; Cartography; Representation; Sign

Copyright (c) 2017 Paul Ryder

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