Epic war films are genres focusing on battles either on land, water, or air. Their themes may be military operations, undercover operations, prisoner rescues, or even personal revenges. Hence, the genre may be based on a true story, fictional, historical, or a docudrama. Caldwell (106) narrates four elements listed by John Belton that are crucial in identifying a successful war film in Hollywood. They are: focus on collective goals, as opposed to individual ones, absence of human morality during war times, recuperation of veterans shown, and either rivalry between groups of men or objectification of women. Also, Caldwell (123) asserts that in the genre opposing themes are depicted, such as, war and peace, civilization and savagery, or good and evil.
Therefore, the three films selected for analysis of this genre are Saving Private Ryan (1998), 300 (2006), and Braveheart (1995). Saving Private Ryan is a film that tries to paint the picture of life at the battle front for American soldiers during the Normandy invasion of World War II. The movie is directed by Steven Spielberg. Similarly, 300 is a war film, but fictionalized to depict the ‘battle of Thermopylae’. In the battle, King Leonidas of Sparta leads an army to face the vast army of Persia lead by King Xerxes. The film is directed by Zack Snyder. Braveheart (1995) is a film directed by Mel Gibson screening the 13th century Scottish battle against England under King Edward I.
Even though, the three films are from the same genre, the elements are differently portrayed in each film. The elements to be analysed are as character types, dialogue, space setting, lighting, camera placement, and musical styles. Character types in the film, Saving Private Ryan, are mostly depicted as reluctant heroes, where they did not want to save Private Ryan, but were bound by duty to do so. In the film Braveheart and 300, the lead characters are heroes since they want to liberate their respective kingdoms from oppressors. In this case, oppressors are Persians in 300 and the English in Braveheart.
Dialogue is also brought out differently in the films. In Saving Private Ryan, dialogue is effected by an older Private Ryan who remembering the happenings of Normandy invasion. It is noted that the realistic and graphic happenings of evens in the film are what the director uses as dialogue. In 300, a survivor of the War, Dilios, narrates what happened in the battle; hence, voice-overs are used to narrate the story. In Braveheart, the dialogue is similar to that of Saving Private Ryan where events in the film communicate what the next scene will be like.
Space setting for Saving Private Ryan is in the 1944 setting. For instance, communication is mainly by a telegraph as seen when General Gerald Marshal in Washington D.C is informed through a telegraph of three brothers dying in the Normandy invasion. Guns used in the film also bring out the World War II setting which were mainly M1 Garands, a common weapon in the war. In 300, the setting is of medieval Greece where there is a parliament that has the power over the King, architecture of Greek cities, and references of Greek gods. The same is also seen in Braveheart. In the 13th century, the Scotland culture was mainly rural, while English an advanced monarchy. This is seen in the film with the English treating the Scottish as inferior and in turn annexing their lands.
Musical styles are also brought out differently. In Saving Private Ryan, music is reduced to almost nil. Instead, natural sounds such as crickets creeping and rustling of leaves are introduced to promote the realness of the film. 300 film has minimal music to promote the effect of turning fictional scenes into real like events, and enable human reaction voices to be heard clearly. Especially during battles no sound tracks are heard so as to make the viewer focus more on happenings on the battle ground. However, in Braveheart, soundtracks are introduced to add more emotion while viewing the film.
Lighting is used to great effect in the three films. In saving Private Ryan, the lighting is exceedingly bright for viewers to see facial expressions and surroundings clearly. Similarly, the shots were mostly close up subjective point of view to depict the atmosphere of the scene through facial expressions of the actors. In 300, the film was shot using blue and green screen backgrounds (300 film). The numerous shots were then heavily manipulated to come up with realistic effects. In the movie, lighting is simple and naturalistic so as to makes sure that an earthy feeling is created. Colours in the film are also muted and flesh of actors at the battle front pale. These have an effect of placing the film in its historical context, and showing the poor health status of participant of the war. The camera angle in the film ranges from mid to long view to show surroundings and the effects of the war. Close view is shown in the last scene where Wallace is about to be executed. The close view was effective in showing the bravery of the main actor even in death.
Apart from the differences brought out the three films also show elements that are common to all of them. The commonalities are also helpful in classifying the films as epic war films. The theme of the three films is the desire to liberate a party from oppression or danger. This is in accordance of Caldwell’s (43) analysis of an epic war films where the aim is collective as opposed to individual. In Saving Private Ryan, the collective aim is to make sure Mrs Bixby—Ryan’s Mother—does not lose all her four sons in War. Similarly, in 300, the collective good is to prevent Sparta from being annexed and colonised by Persia. Lastly, in Braveheart, the collective good is to free Scotland and its people from English rule.
The three films also have a signature where the main character dies. This is consistent with the genre where the fate of the character cannot be pre-determined. For instance, in Saving Private Ryan, Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) is the lead actor who dies in the process of saving Private Ryan. King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) is also killed in the war despite his intention of saving Sparta from the Persians. Also, in Braveheart, Wallace who leads the revolution dies so as to inspire others to continue with the freedom war.
In conclusion, epic war films are aimed at depicting the atmosphere of a battle ground. Even in fictional films like 300, the focus still remains to make the battle ground experience as real as possible. Therefore, despite the differences in film elements discussed above, the three films show a similar opposing theme of war and peace.
300. Dir. Zack Snyder. Per. Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Dominic West, Vincent Regan, Rodrigo Santoro, Michael Fassbender. 2006, Warner Bros.
Braveheart. Dir. Mel Gibson. Per. Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan, Angus Macfadyen, Brendan Gleeson, Catherine McCormack. 1995. 20th Century Fox
Caldwell, Thomas. Film Analysis Handbook: Essential Guide to Understanding, Analysing, and Writing on Film. Victoria; Australia: Insight Publications. 2005. Print. : 43-140
Saving Private Ryan. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Joerg Stadler, Dennis Farina, Paul Giamatti, Ted Danson, Matt Damon, Jeremy Davies, Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Tom Hanks. 1998. Dreamworks Pictures