War is Hell... Pass the Popcorn
This article originally appeared in Issue# 39
Historian Nancy Hollander traces the impact of war movies over three decades.
Q: You mentioned that there have been more war films made than any other genre through the decades. How do you account for the popularity of films with war themes?
A: Today, particularly, I think there's a desire to go back to an era when men were men and women were women, Of course, war films also say that violence and killing are O.K. They also frequently reflect the frustration and sense of helplessness that affects everybody in modem life. A Rambo or James Bond character, for example, is appealing because of his ability to control his entire world.
Q: In thinking of some of the ideas presented by the films of the 1950s, what do you think they signified?
A: I think they show very clearly the way in which war films of all decades represent an exciting and real alternative to the ordinary lives of males. You can see this very clearly in two 1950s films that weren't about actual wars but were about the contrast between the military and civilian life. In one of them, The Best Years of Our Lives, an immediate post-World War II (1947) film, the conflict centers around the main characters' reentry into civilian life. One of the main characters, who works as a high bureaucrat in a bank, is very critical of his position in life. He finds it difficult to reassume his civilian job and reassert himself as the head of the family. Basically he just wants to be a little boy, get drunk and be irresponsible. He longs to be back in the military.
Another instructive film, From Here to Eternity, shows the military as a positive alternative to domestic, civilian life, The two main characters are both married to the military. They're also in love with women who are presented as oppressive, and who represent pressure on them to be something they don't want to be. Ultimately, the only male character who survives is the one who knows how to make it in the military as an "organization man," a subject of concern in the '50s.
Q: Is the point then, that war films share a common thread but reflect the concerns of each era?
A: That's right. In general they are analogues for the society at large while presenting military life as a positive alternative to civilian society.
Q: But many films — Dr. Strangelove, Apocalypse Now, Platoon — present a negative view of war.
A: If you're talking about the '50s, I think you'll find that the anti-war films are anti-nuclear films like Dr. Strangelove. There are exceptions, but films about conventional wars are still presented as adventures. The films began to change with the reaction to Vietnam, and today there's more of a dichotomy. Today's war films fall into two categories: those that reinforce a consensus for an aggressive, xenophobic U.S. position in the world and those that ask us to question this posture.
Q: And films like Rambo and Top Gun would be an example of the first kind?
A: Especially Rambo, of course, which is a prime example of a film designed to maintain a consensus for an irrational and unreasoned foreign policy. Top Gun, with its romanticized view of air gunnery, is a good example of the war film as alternative lifestyle.
Another current film, Iron Eagle, shows an Air Force kid and a retired black officer, played by Lou Gossett, Jr., single-handedly taking on an entire Middle Eastern country. It is an exciting tale of rescue, American bravado and ingenuity.
The "we can lick any 10 of them" mentality is typical. The racism that existed in war films about Korea is replicated in a film like this in which two American men try to take on an entire army of inept, stupid, crazy, bloodthirsty Middle Easterners.
Q: What about the more serious films, the ones that ask us to question U.S. foreign policy?
A: I honor the intentions of the creators of films like Salvador and Platoon, but I question their ultimate effectiveness. Platoon, for example, is ostensibly an antiwar film, but I don't see that it provides us with a way of understanding much about the social and political context of the war so that we can say without ambivalence that this war was really bad. Instead, it falls into the kind of trivial formula of the extraordinarily good soldier vs. the embodiment of the bad soldier. The film unfortunately refrains from putting blame on the decision makers of war and instead tells us that each soldier has a debt to pay to society because of his participation in the war.
I heard someone in the audience say "this is not an anti-war film; this is a war film," and I think he was right. Although this film definitely shows the horrors of war for the participants, there just was too little analysis and very little attempt to explain the specificity of this particular war.
Q: Instead, it just concentrated on showing that "war is hell?"
A: Right, but the problem with that is it tends to leave the viewer hopeless, with no feeling of responsibility for changing our foreign policy. I like much better a film like Under Fire, made in the late 1970s, which presented two journalists covering the Nicaraguan civil war and having to make a moral choice about whether to keep their journalistic objectivity (in the film depicted as the acceptance of the status quo), or help the rebels. There are some problems with historical accuracy in that film, but it offers the audience a moral choice with which to identify.
Q: Would you say, then, that there's no such thing as an antiwar film? Or that anti-war films shouldn't be made?
A: No. But for filmmakers interested in. understanding what can really reach people, the task is to understand the nature of our cultural values in general, and the current political climate, and them to try and assess within that context how' a film and its themes are likely to affect the consciousness of the viewing public.
The manner in which a film represents; the country where war is being fought is; also quite important. A film like: Salvador, for example, falls into the common trap of reinforcing the general sense we tend to have of Latin America and the rest of the Third World — that it's a kind of violent place where people are out of control and can't deal with their own lives. As Kelly, the U.S. ambassador in the film, says at one point, "There are pathological -------s on the right, and God-knows-what on the left, and a godless middle." The viewpoint of the film doesn't challenge this perspective which is the basis of current U.S. policy. No positive alternatives are presented. That's why it's very important to consider the cultural contexts of these countries on their own, and not just their relationship to the United States.
Q: What kind of guidance would you want to give for viewers of these movies, especially younger people who are apt to see mass media films such as Rambo?
A: I would say it would be very important for teachers and counselors to encourage groups of young people to see specific films and then have discussion groups in which they try to analyze their themes — to try and figure out for themselves how they are constructed and what messages they communicate.
The important thing to remember is that there's no such thing as "it's just entertainment." Entertainment contains all kinds of ideology that either reinforces or challenges our basic value system. We owe it to ourselves to be conscious of the ways in which we're influenced to think and feel.