The evolution of war films is heavily influenced by the advances made in real life. With new technology comes new wars, and in turn this brings new war films. Human beings are predisposed to quarrel and so war films directly connect us to a feeling of patriotism and our innate interest in a fight (and the drama it includes). War films are an intrinsically masculine genre which, for many, allows them to remember wars and the pride they felt in fighting for their country. In the course of this essay, I will discuss various war films, beginning with D. W. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation, leading up to more recent subjects such as the two World Wars, Vietnam and the various ‘War on Terror’ conflicts in the Middle East.
The historical film genre is more popular today than ever before: our obsession with re-imagining historical events through film has resulted in a wide-range of films focusing on everything from the beheading of Anne Boleyn to the creation of Facebook. In the post-modern age of Hollywood where executives are struggling to come up with original ideas and relying heavily on sequels, prequels, re-makes and Marvel comic movies: wars represent a wealth of subjects for films. The recent fascination with the conflicts in the Middle East has spawned films such as Hurt Locker, In the Valley of Elah and Three Kings, focusing on the various issues surrounding these events and the controversy hounding their origins and continuation. War films that discuss recent conflicts are often designed to make a political comment too, but films that reflect much older wars are made in the name of entertainment and reminiscence.
The film, Birth of a Nation, is a 1915 silent film that follows the story of two families in Civil War-era America: the pro-Union northerners: the Stonemans, and the pro-Confederacy southerners: the Camerons. It follows two families whose eldest sons are school friends and who each fall in love with the other’s sister: it is a wonderful commentary on how two families remain close, despite their differences. Its focus is less on the action of the war, and more on the two families and how the war affects them and other families of the time. In 1915, film was in its relative infancy and audiences were less comfortable with images of graphic violence and horror, meaning that this film would have been less focused on the actual fight and more on the politics of the Civil War, and how it affected the individuals involved.
This is a far cry from 1998’s Saving Private Ryan which depicts the Normandy landings. This scene is known for being extremely uncomfortable viewing and for reflecting the very realistic events of Omaha beach. Steven Spielberg, the films’ director said the actual events had been a “complete foul up” and said: “I didn’t want to glamorize what happened, so I tried to be as brutally honest as possible.” (Bennett 91) With the film’s tagline of, “The movie that inspired the world to remember”, there was no doubt behind the imagery’s motives. The graphic images portrayed in this scene were significant in the evolution of war films because audiences were faced with a gripping, scary and very real representation of what happened during World War One. Soldiers were killed, there were men missing and presumed dead, and there were horrors on a daily basis: war films had come of age and were portraying this in full color and surround sound.
It naturally follows that war films will evolve with the actual act of war itself: the civil war, for example, was a series of battles whereas World War One was all-out warfare with bombing at any time, covert missions to suss out enemy ground and men were away from home for months and years at a time. If war films were to move with the time and continue to attract audiences, they needed to evolve with actual, real-life events. However, films about World War Two tended to reflect the heroic men and women with a heavy dose of patriotism.
Prior to Saving Private Ryan, there was a succession of films about America’s Vietnam War. These films were less focussed on patriotism and heroics, and more focused on the sweat, blood and tears that went into the nineteen –year siege in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. (Lembcke 148) From the 1970s to the early day, films depicting the events of Vietnam and the home-coming of their veterans, have been extremely popular, and presented war as being horrific rather than heroic. Films such as 1979’s Apocalypse Now depicted the war on the front line:
“More than just a literal journey into depths of the southeast Asian jungle, the film was also a figurative exploration of the characters’ descent into a hellish, “heart of darkness” into their depths of their capacity for primitivism and evil.” (Devine, 182) This new exploration of war, depicted events as being deeper and explored the ideas of labelling theory and our behavioral responses to being labelled as ‘soldier’ and ‘fighter.’ The whole setting for the film is dark, furthering the image of the setting and background as having an underlying ‘uneasiness’ which so accurately characterized the events of the Vietnam war, and the controversy which surrounded it. The ‘hallucinogenic’ atmosphere throughout the film also neatly reflects its hazy, 1960s setting.
More recently, war films have focused on the political backdrop for the causation of war. In particular, films such as the re-make of The Manchurian Candidate added a ‘sci-fi edge’ to the backdrop of the conflict in the Middle East, with the idea that the American government have used mind-control to force soldiers to act in a certain way. While this is a science fiction fantasy, the satirical message that lies beneath is palpable. These are films which reflect our cynical and questioning age: we do not simply accept our governments’ actions as being the gospel truth now; instead we question everything and query how necessary it is. The protests prior to the Iraq war are evidence of this.
However, the succession of Iraq war-centric films have been relatively unsuccessful at the box office and this is largely because people would prefer to simply not think about it. This is largely because war films have evolved to a point where the films are being made faster than the war’s progress: 2007 saw countless Iraq-based films and their success rates were limited: “It’s hard to make a feel-good war movie when a country’s reputation falls as its body count rises.” (Hilliard 45)
War films have evolved with real-life events: their audience want entertainment and with the current events happening in the world today: it is extremely difficult to sit through a war film about Afghanistan and allow yourself to enjoy it. These are films which feel as though they ought to be documentaries rather than dramatizations of events that are happening in sync with the times at your local cinema. The evolution of the war film has traversed the last century by following the events, political opinions and controversies that shaped it and they will continue to for as long as the human race insists on tearing itself apart.
1. Bennett, George Henry. Destination Normandy: three American regiments on D-Day. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007. Print.
2. Hilliard, Robert L. Hollywood Speaks Out: pictures that dared to protest real-world issues. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2009. Print.
3. Lembcke, Jerry. The Spitting Image: myth, memory, and the legacy of Vietnam. New York: New York University Press, 1998. Print.
4. Devine, Jeremy M. Vietnam at 24 Frames per Second. Texas: University of Texas Press, 1995. Print.
5. Saving Private Ryan. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Tom Hanks, Matt Damon and Tom Sizemore. Amblin Entertainment, 1998. Film.
6. The Birth of a Nation. Dir. D.W. Griffith. Perf. Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh and Henry B. Walthall. David W. Griffith Corp, 1915. Film.
7. Apocalypse Now. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando. Zoetrope Studios, 1979. Film.
8. The Manchurian Candidate. Dir. Jonathan Demme. Perf. Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Live Schreiber. Paramount, 2004. Film.