War has always been a part of the movie lexicon. From “The Birth of a Nation” and “Wings” to “Apocalypse Now” and “The Hurt Locker,” stories of people thrown into the cauldron of armed conflict have been used in as many ways as there are reasons or excuses to take up arms — as a way to measure courage, to bolster nationalism, to reveal atrocities, to satirize government policy, indeed to assess our humanity. With many around the world about to commemorate Veterans’ Day — 11/11/11 no less — and as conflict continues to swirl, it’s useful to take a look
at how Hollywood through the years has portrayed war and its consequences.
The demonstration of a new mass medium ready to entertain the world hinged on films like “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), set during the Civil War; “Shoulder Arms” (1918), with Chaplin as a doughboy; D.W. Griffith’s “Hearts of the World” (1918), a sentimental love story set against the Western Front and hostile to every German character; “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (1921), in which Rudolph Valentino’s playboy goes to fight and die in France; King Vidor’s “The Big Parade” (1925), the story of an American soldier and a French girl; and William Wellman’s “Wings” (1927), which took the first Oscar for best picture and set standards for how to dramatize the war in the air.
In their day, many of these films were regarded as being startlingly realistic. Wellman, who had flown as a wartime fighter pilot, employed real planes and surviving fliers. Vidor and Griffith believed they had taken pains to re-create the true look and feel of war, an event more fully described in newspapers, fiction and poetry than in newsreels. In “The Big Parade,” hero John Gilbert shows us the price of war: He has lost a leg in the conflict.
While “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930), which depicted trench warfare from the perspective of a German soldier fighting the French, became the second war film in Oscar’s first three years to win best picture, it wasn’t until WWII, which linked a just and necessary war to the halcyon days of moviegoing, that the propagandistic march of cheerfully bloodthirsty and jingoistic films began to flourish.
Look at the preserved prints on Turner Classic Movies — “Sergeant York” (1941), “Mrs. Miniver” (1942), “Casablanca” (1943) or “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” (1944) — and after the rousing stories, you are likely to find “Buy War Bonds as You Leave This Theater” in the end credits. The movies were part of the culture and economy of war.
Such films are classics despite their white lies: Gary Cooper’s Oscar-winning performance as the real hero Alvin York lets him remain a soulful, rural pacifist as well as a deadly rifleman; and in “Casablanca,” one neat makeup scar on Paul Henreid’s brow stands for his character, Victor Laszlo, having been in a German prison camp. In 1943, the public was hazy about what that meant. It was more thrilled by the movie opening just as Allied forces took the real city of Casablanca.
These were action or suspense films, full of vivid characters, courage and decisiveness. As recruiting tools, they were radiant with the promise that war would be an adventure in good company for a righteous cause. When Bogart’s Rick set aside personal romance to join the fight for liberty, he was selling the principle of war to the ideal soldier — the energetic young, the inexperienced and the patriotic.
By war’s end, however, those who served knew its realities — the ordeal of service, the constant fear of death, the variable competence of the officers. Politically, the fruit of that disenchantment was palpable when Winston Churchill — a famously heroic wartime leader thanks to his own eloquent spirit and to judicious propaganda — lost power in a landslide victory for the Labour party in 1945 because ordinary soldiers had grown to hate and mistrust the officer class (essentially the Conservatives that Churchill led).
Very quickly after 1945, Hollywood served up the bitter truths. “Crossfire” (1947) is not a combat film, but it understands the society of bored soldiers preyed upon by a cruel bigot (played with frightening insight by Robert Ryan). In “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946), soldiers return to find their jobs gone, their women unfaithful and the cliche of “best years” turning sour. One of those survivors is a sailor who has lost his hands; director William Wyler cast Harold Russell, a real-life amputee, as a way of keeping the damage right in front of the audience’s eyes. “Twelve O’Clock High” (1949) admitted that stress could undermine morale.
Still, there were still films proud of the victory and its bond of male companionship — “Battleground” (1949) and “Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949), with John Wayne as a give-’em-hell Marine sergeant who makes men of his boys.
No film is more telling of the postwar mood-shift than “From Here to Eternity” (1953), a portrait of the men at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, waiting for a war they couldn’t have predicted. James Jones, who wrote the novel on which the movie was based, had himself served at Schofield. It has few illusions about the Army or its corruption: Pvt. Prewett (Montgomery Clift) is pressured to join the regimental boxing team; and Sgt. Warden (Burt Lancaster) plays the bureaucratic system like a cynic.
Another soldier, Maggio (Frank Sinatra), is beaten to death in the stockade by a sadist (Ernest Borgnine). Yet despite their hardships, they do not give up the service — out of duty, the pressure of war, but out of habit, too. It’s the germ of a profound idea: that in the new world after 1945 (with the atomic bomb, the Nazi concentration camps, the onset of the Cold War), we were all citizens in a state of undeclared war.
It was the specter of nuclear holocaust that inspired an increasingly bleak or satirical view of the military in movies. Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957) set in WWI France, mocks distinctions between courage and cowardice, and exposes the hypocrisy of its officer class and of those who lead men into war. A few years later, in the blackly satirical “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), Kubrick depicted Gen. Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) as a war-happy militarist; many believe the character was based on Gen. Curtis LeMay, Air Force chief of staff during the Cuban missile crisis, who urged President Kennedy to bomb the nuclear warheads the Soviets kept there.
By then, the U.S. was beginning its involvement in Indochina, seeing a sweeping international threat, instead of a struggle for national independence. Despite being the object of protest in the streets and on campuses, Vietnam made its way to the bigscreen slowly, though Westerns like Sam Peckinpah’s “Major Dundee” (1965) and Arthur Penn’s “Little Big Man” (1970) could be read as metaphors for Southeast Asia. Set during 1950-1953 Korean conflict, Robert Altman’s “MASH” (1970) was also a thinly disguised look at the impact and madness of Vietnam.
War footage ran daily on TV’s network newscasts, where its raw impact polarized liberal and conservative America. Hollywood played to the hawks at times: John Wayne’s “The Green Berets” (1968), featured a gung-ho attitude toward the conflict. But by the mid-1970s, a cynical America was suffering from a Vietnam war hangover, and films of the era reflected the disillusionment the nation was experiencing.
“Coming Home” and “The Deer Hunter,” both with their own, quite different themes in opposition to the war, nevertheless managed to divide the two films’ supporters as they competed for the best picture Oscar that year. “Apocalypse Now” (1979) is a stunning experience, yet it runs the risk of believing movie eloquence is more important than war.
It was in the nature of the draft during the Vietnam years — and has become even more so during the current volunteer Army — that few American filmmakers have been in uniform. One exception is Oliver Stone, whose anguish overwhelmed audiences with “Platoon” (1986), a gripping account of U.S. war crimes, and a parable on the contrasting influences of two sergeants — one fierce and ruthless (Tom Berenger), and the other a friend to his men (Willem Dafoe).
Vietnam was still being contemplated and rethought throughout the 1980s and ’90s. Even as late as 2002, Randall Wallace directed Mel Gibson in “We Were Soldiers,” not just a lucid and harrowing picture of close combat, but a film disposed to regard the Vietnamese as equal warriors in a shared tragedy.
By the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan brought a philosophy of American exceptionalism to a psychologically battered country, films like “Top Gun” — a glossy version of Cold War brinkmanship — spoke to young audiences who grew up with war on TV but had no real knowledge of the consequences of war.
Filmmakers have often found ways to make combat intelligible and even beautiful — there is an attack in “Birth of a Nation” that is stirring still, and must have seemed awesome in 1915. But on real battlefields, who has the calm or the vantage to notice beauty? Visual order can be a lie or glamorization.
These days, we live in an age of special effects, where bodies are fitted with small powder charges that explode in spurts of stage blood, and computer-generated imagery has permitted immense slaughter in which we are encouraged to be connoisseurs. That technical excellence has informed films from Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) to Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” (2001). No one doubted the narrative force of “Ryan” or the shock of its D-day scenes, but its book-ended message, in which future generations were asked to be grateful for the sacrifice, felt pious and self-satisfied. Had war been staged as a moral lesson for our “greatest nation on earth”? Or does America’s proclivity for starting small wars look like reckless arrogance to the rest of the world?
Some of the coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan has been deglamorized or documentary-like. Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” (2008) suggests a new conscience about action movies and war.
Troublingly, the videogame has brought combat into the living rooms and hands of America’s children, through games that are militaristic adventures that reward little more than the ability to quickly kill massive numbers of faceless enemies.
Still, even as these games rob enemies of their humanity in order to make them easier to kill, so some films are helping us walk a mile in the other man’s shoes. “Syriana” (2005), bears out our ignorance of why we are fighting to begin with, and who the “good guys” really are. And Clint Eastwood’s Japanese-language “Letters From Iwo Jima” (2006) personalized doomed Japanese soldiers on an indefensible island about to be overrun by American troops.
Films like these suggest that the nation that believes it should reform other countries through military adventure and the example of war movies has begun to acknowledge its own problems and culpability, and leaves Americans to wonder how movies play to fantasies of control and power, and whether wars can indulge precarious dreams of manhood and courage.
While space has not allowed for a complete list of many of the films that may include your favorite, suffice to say that as long as movies drama is driven by a need to tell the stories or ordinary people in extraordinary situations, war will be among the themes directors turn to for inspiration. The only question will be what motivates them to consider it.