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Saving Private Ryan: Realism and the Enigma of Head-Wounds

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In Ernst Friedrich's Krieg dem Kriege there is a large section of photographs of survivors of World War I with the most hideous disfigurements of the face: jaws are missing, gaping slashes stare out where mouths should be. Friedrich leaves this gallery of ‘untouchables’ to the end of the book as if to achieve the maximum debasement of military glory and heroism. The head and face are obviously the most vulnerable part of the body in warfare – brutal wounds to the face and decapitations are common. In World War I, a number of hospitals were set up to deal solely with head-wounds, developing the basis of what we now know as plastic surgery. Yet, in the representation of combat on screen, even in the most candid and unsentimental of war films, such as Hamburger Hill and Platoon, injuries to the face are rare or nonexistent. This absence has something to do with the difficulty of producing convincing prosthetic wound-cavities on the head; blown-off limbs can obviously be created with ease through covering up the actor's extant limb with padded clothing; bloody disembowellings can be simulated with the judicious use of imitation innards and the illusionistic application of broken flesh, and so on. But the problems of modelling head-wounds clearly only half-explain the consistency of the absence.


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