Study Guide

Life Is Beautiful Tanks

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From video games to backyard campaigns with tiny green men, children and toy enthusiasts have played with tanks for the better part of a century. But these machines were designed to turn the tides of WWI's trench warfare and, you know, kill people. Isn't it a little odd that we've turned these weapons of war into toys for kids?

Maybe, maybe not. We're not here to debate the point; we're here to discuss how Life Is Beautiful turns this interesting part of childhood into a symbol, one representing Guido's desire to protect his son's innocence.

We see Joshua's interest in tanks right away. When we're first introduced to him, he's complaining that he lost his toy tank. Later, when his grandmother visits, he asks if the present she'll bring him is a new tank. It isn't, but we can clearly see that this kiddo is obsessed with front-line armored combat vehicles.

After Joshua, Guido, and Eliseo are brought to the concentration camp, Guido gets his inspiration to hide their situation from Joshua by pretending it's all a game:

JOSHUA: What game is this?

GUIDO: That's it! It's that game where…it's the game…we're all players. It's all organized. The game is the men are over here, the women are over there. Then there's the soldiers. They give us our schedule. It's hard, you know. It's not easy. If somebody makes a mistake, they get sent right home. That means you have to be very careful. But if you win, you get first prize!

JOSHUA: What's the prize?

GUIDO: Uh, first prize!

ELISEO: It's a tank.

Just like Joshua playing with his toy tank in the greenhouse, Guido's turned the horrors of war into a game. Later, we learn that the concentration camp is forcing the prisoners into hard labor in the factory. Their job? To make a real tank for the war effort.

We can see that the imagery of the tank connects the reality of war with an innocent, childish understanding of war. On the one hand, we see the suffering the tanks brings to the prisoners as they're forced into backbreaking labor building one. On the other hand, we see the joy the toy brings Joshua when he thinks about playing with it.

In order to protect his son's innocence, Guido takes the imagery of war (the tank) and strips it of its horrible implications, turning it into the game/toy version of itself.

And it goes beyond the tank. Guido lies about why he and the other prisoners are tired (playing games all day), keeps his son from realizing his life's in danger (it's a game of all-day hide-and-seek), and twists the truth about the inhuman treatment they are suffering (the serial tattoo is his number to play the game).

All of this is wrapped up in the image of the tank. And it works, too. At the end of the film, Joshua sees the American tank and believes it's his prize for having won the game. In his mind, it's still a game, his innocence preserved.

Although, we have to ask, what happens when he has to give that tank back to the Americans?

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