ClandesTime 160 – Why Doesn’t Hollywood Make War Films Any More?
Hollywood doesn’t make war films any more. This isn’t entirely true, but compared to the post-WW2 period there are a lot less war films being made today. In this in-depth episode I offer a brief history of war movies and anti-war movies, and how the Pentagon’s policy on supporting films depicting war seems to have changed over time. I highlight some of my favourite anti-war movies, along with the most anti-war films the DOD has supported. We finish up looking at why it doesn’t matter that Hollywood doesn’t make many war movies any more, and how the underlying psychology of war movies is still present in much of our entertainment.
What happened to war films? In the Golden Era of Hollywood, war films were the original action movies, with big climactic battle sequences, death and glory. Today most action films – even those involving the military – are not war films, as such. We see them fighting massive robots, aliens, giant monsters, recreated dinosaurs and so on, but we almost never see one army fighting another. So what changed? How did we go from war movies being a staple of Hollywood’s output to what we have now, where arguably the Transformers franchise is the next best thing.
Indeed, I think cinema is the perfect medium for depicting war. While literature has described wars for over 2000 years, and visual arts (first paintings and sculpture, then photography) have captured moments, cinema is the only medium to combine words, images, sound and music, thus it can offer a more realistic version of war than any other medium can. I should also say that I am not a big fan of war films, I’m no expert in the genre and, obviously, I wasn’t born until maybe 20 years after war films peaked.
WW1 and Hollywood
One useful way to approach this is to divide up cinematic history into several distinct periods – pre-WW1 and during WW1, the inter-war years, WW2, the early Cold War, the Vietnam and post-Vietnam period and the post-Cold War/War on Terror/War on Drugs period that we’re in now. Let’s start at the beginning. In the early days of Hollywood, where silent films were typically accompanied by a live band or orchestra in the movie theaters, war was an obvious subject. The Spanish-American war of 1898 was likely the first to be recorded via short film clips, which were sometimes combined with staged re-enactments.
In terms of what we would now identify as war movies, DW Griffith’s 1910 motion picture The Fugitive is one of the earliest. It is set during the American Civil War, but is not a pro-war film as such, as it depicts a Union soldier seeking refuge in a Confederate family’s home after he kills a Confederate soldier. Another significant film was The Battle Cry of Peace in 1915, which showed what it would be like if the US was invaded and wrecked after getting involved in WW1. The following year, Thomas Ince’s Civilization portrayed Jesus Christ – in his first Hollywood appearance – showing a senior military officer from a fictional country the horrors of war, and extolling the virtues of peace.
At this point Hollywood was making both pro-war and anti-war films in large numbers, and it was having an influence on politics. Woodrow Wilson successfully ran for re-election as President on an anti-war platform, promising to keep the US out of the war in Europe. He credited Civilization with helping him get re-elected, because it captured the mood of the American public at the time and helped articulate their isolationist views.
Also in 1915, DW Griffith made Birth of a Nation, with large-scale support from the US government and the military. It was criticised for perpetuating racist stereotypes, and for glorifying the Ku Klux Klan. Griffith’s next movie was Intolerance, a 3 ½ hour anti-war epic on man’s inhumanity to man, which was possibly the most expensive movie of the time. It initially did well at the box office, earning over $1 million dollars and turning a good profit for its investors.
However, box office takings took a hit when Wilson – only weeks after being inaugurated – declared war on Germany. Public opinion – aided by Hollywood propaganda – had shifted from isolationism to interventionism. From that point on, very few anti-war films were made and the entertainment industry threw its weight behind the war effort, with movie stars helping to sell war bonds, and popular singers producing songs in support of the ‘noble crusade’.
One of the best sources for information on the early decades of Hollywood is a 1980 documentary series by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, titled simply Hollywood. It is widely available online, and episode 4 Hollywood Goes to War covers the WW1 and inter-war periods. It notes how cameramen who captured footage of the brutal realities of war were subject to censorship, because the government wanted to encourage recruitment. The US Army insisted that all camerawork be carried out by the Signal Corps – military intelligence – and they recruited technicians from Hollywood to help them produce propaganda films and newsreels.
Meanwhile, the British and French governments hired Griffith to produce Hearts of the World in 1918. He was the only film-maker permitted to tour the trenches, and he re-enacted battles on Salisbury Plain with the help of the British military. Even though they were short of shells on the front lines, they fired off dozens of them so that Griffith could capture the desired footage. Even though Griffith himself said the war was a horrible disappointment, lacking the thrill and glory of previous wars, his film had the opposite tone. Indeed, Hearts of the World may well be the first fully military-sponsored film about a war that was going on at the same time as the film was being made.
The documentary also records how towards the end of the war the propaganda shifted. Hollywood had been doing very well portraying the Germans as ‘bestial hun’ who regularly committed atrocities. But as things started to wind down Woodrow Wilson wrote to Hollywood, asking them to reduce and tone down the atrocities because they were making peace negotiations more difficult. Indeed, given the way Germany got totally screwed at the end of the war, crippling its economy and providing the circumstances in which Nazism could rise, one could argue that the depiction of Germans in pro-WW1 movies helped cause WW2.
The Inter-War Period
However, once the war was over popular opinion shifted again. Americans had grown tired of war, and of war culture. If you look at Wikipedia’s fairly exhaustive list of war films you’ll notice that after 1918 Hollywood stopped making them for several years – not just about WW1, but war films in general took a nose-dive in popularity in the late 1910s and into the 1920s. In a deeply ironic twist, it was the anti-war film The Big Parade in 1925 which made war-themed movies popular again, as documented in Hollywood Goes to War.
(25:43 to 34:00)
What makes The Big Parade especially interesting for our purposes is that it was supported by the DOD. Even though it shows the death, mutilation and horror that resulted from WW1 for some reason the military agreed to provide full production assistance. The DOD’s Hollywood database says:
The Big Parade was the first great movie about the Army in World War 1. Most people consider it an anti-war film, but film ends happily with the boy getting the girl. King Vidor filmed most of movie in Los Angeles. However, for the great advance to the front, he sent a second unit director to Texas to shoot the long line of troops and equipment moving to the front in a straight line. Commander said no straight roads in France and provided men, planes, and equipment for sequence on curved road. Vidor went back, got same support and filmed advance down a straight road. Most significant help until Wings in 1927.
This note was added to the database in 2004 so it was either Phil Strub or someone from his office who wrote it, and I am amused by their attempt to make it sound like the DOD didn’t accidentally support one of the most anti-war films of all time. From my viewing of the movie the fact the story ends with the ‘boy getting the girl’ is bittersweet at best given what comes beforehand. It is clearly an anti-war movie, but it did help reopen the market for pro-war films, so thanks to a big helping of historical irony it actually helped the DOD. You could argue that it normalised large-scale production assistance, which in turn normalised having a permanent large-scale military, and thus this anti-war film actually helped bring the DOD into existence.
A couple of years later we got Wings, which was very much the Top Gun of its time. Wings is a historically important movie for all sorts of reasons. One is that the US never actually sent any planes into action during WW1, but Wings rewrote that history and made out like the US Army Air Forces were key to the victory. It was one of the first films to feature nudity, probably the first to include sound effects alongside the orchestra within the movie theater, and the first to feature product placement. It was also the first film to win Best Picture at the inaugural Academy Awards.
The DOD’s database notes just how massive the military support for this movie was, commenting:
First academy award for best picture which set standard of cooperation for all services. Army and Army Air Corps provided assistance in Texas for nine months, including use of virtually entire complement of airplanes.
WW2 war films
Perhaps more than any other movie, Wings made pro-war films popular again, and the 1930s saw a flurry of films about WW1. There were plenty of movies about other wars too, including the Russian Revolution and Civil War. The 1930s also saw the birth of the spy movie genre, where it was typically communists who were portrayed as the bad guys.
For several reasons, the 1930s did not see a repeat of the 1910s, when the Germans were portrayed very negatively. One reason is the controversy towards the end of WW1 where the government believed Hollywood was making it harder to negotiate a ceasefire. Another is that the German ambassador to Hollywood put a lot of pressure on the government, the studio heads and especially on the Production Code Administration to censor negative depictions of Germans. I will get into the question of Nazis in Hollywood in another episode.
The upshot of this was that while the British government were engaged in predictive propaganda on the British public to encourage them to see the forthcoming war as a good thing, there was no equivalent in the US. They were caught up in the Red Scare, primarily a political intelligence struggle rather than a military one. So while there was a contingent of the American public who were pro-war, for the most part people didn’t want much to do with WW2 prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
However, once they were in, they were in all the way. Both the British and American militaries provided support to films, for propaganda and recruitment purposes. Even while they were fighting a war on four continents they still found time and resources to help make movies such as The Lion Has Wings, In Which We Serve and The Way Forward. The US government commissioned the documentary Why We Fight, directed by Frank Capra, and supported films including End of Darkness, Thirty Seconds over Tokyo and They Were Expendable.
One interesting film is Dive Bomber, released in 1941. The DOD’s database says:
Navy preparedness film which received full cooperation. Story of how Navy aviation medical doctors tried to solve the problem of pilot blackout during high speed dives. Made in full color. Some people objected to the death of some pilots as bad image making, but Navy argued film showed how service was trying to solve the problem and if film only showed positive side, it would be labeled propaganda.
Similarly, To the Shores of Tripoli was described as:
Marine preparedness film, shot at recruit depot in San Diego. Pearl Harbor occurred before film was released, so tag added showing Marines boarding ships for action in the Pacific.
The 1943 film Air Force also has an interesting entry in the database:
Army Air Corps provided full assistance at an air base near Tampa for film about the Mary Anne which arrived in Pearl Harbor on December 7. Hap Arnold provided the technical advisor with a card he showed when he needed to use bombers and fighters. Film made in Florida to avoid having planes with Japanese insignia flying over southern California.
Other films were made without military support, such as 1944’s Purple Heart, which the database says ‘helped war effort by showing evil enemy.’ Meanwhile, only a handful of anti-war films were made, including Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, a pastiche of Hitler and a satire on war of all kinds. And in my opinion one of the best films of the 1940s, and probably Chaplin’s greatest film. 1945’s Pride of the Marines is also considered to be an anti-war film, but like The Big Parade it enjoyed military support. The database says:
Story of marine, Al Schmidt, blinded during fire fight on south Pacific island. Received medal for valor. Film story of his rehabilitation and ultimately marriage to girl back home. In fact, Schmidt was not a hero. His buddies had made up story because of his wound. However, the film helped explain to the American people how disabled soldiers would be helped to return to civilian lives.
So the major difference between WW1 and WW2 in Hollywood is that by the time WW2 came along the military-Hollywood relationship had developed to the point of almost excluding anti-war films entirely. We can see the legacy of this in the post-war period. After WW1 Hollywood didn’t make another big war film for several years, whereas following WW2 they continued. Over 200 war films were produced in the 1950s, and a similar number in the 1960s. Many of them were based on real events during WW2, and firmly established the notion of WW2 as a good war.
The Cold War
Both the British and particularly the American militaries supported numerous films and other entertainment products at this time. Statistically speaking, in terms of the sheer number of films they were helping to produce, this was probably the peak of the Pentagon-Hollywood collaboration. It was also the peak in the production of war films. Of course, if we include TV and other media then we are currently living through the most militarised period in pop culture, but if we just look at films then the 50s and 60s were the zenith.
Things didn’t always go smoothly. For example, in the 1952 film One Minute To Zero, a romance set in the Korean War and the last film Howard Hughes produced himself, the database says:
Army provided full cooperation to film about opening days of Korean war. However, service then objected to closing sequence in which officer calls down artillery on line of refugees infiltrated with north Korean soldiers. Howard Hughes refused to delete or change sequence since it was crucial to story. Hughes did check to make sure pentagon would not cancel his defense contracts if he refused.
Similarly, on 1962’s The Longest Day the DOD provided full support and it was produced by Darryl Zanuck who was friendly with both the military and the CIA. But the database records how:
Army, Navy, and Marines gave full cooperation to recreation of D-Day. However, massive scale of production support resulted in congressional scrutiny and criticism. ASD (PA) Arthur Sylvester ordered an investigation of whole process. His new regulations really changed very little except that filmmakers now had to reimburse the DOD for costs. Also, military extras must be in a leave or off-duty status, and be hired by the production company. Some post production controversy arose because producer Darryl Zanuck refused to remove a scene in which American soldiers kill some Germans trying to surrender.
1959’s On The Beach has quite an amusing entry, with the database recording:
Navy had major problems with script, particularly the implication that the us. Might have caused World War III. Yet portrayal of Gregory Peck as American submarine captain is very positive. Navy gave director Stanley Kramer a ride aboard nuclear sub and art dept access to sub. Refused to send a sub to Australia. Kramer secured use of Australian sub. After filming done, American sub did show up, but too late.
One final example, 1959’s Pork Chop Hill. The database entry reads:
Army gave full cooperation to story of assault on unimportant hill in Korea during final stages of truce negotiations. Both sides knew hill was of no value except for American demonstration of willingness to keep fighting if necessary. Men knew this, but obeyed orders and took hill. Producer made movie to show futility of war and to show that blacks had fought bravely despite stories to the contrary following the battle.
I’m sure you’re getting the idea – the first two decades of the Cold War were littered with films about WW2 and the Korean war, and a large proportion – possibly a majority – were made with military co-operation and support. Despite the public hunger for war films in this period quite a few of these movies contained scenes or plot points that were critical of war, or even explicitly anti-war.
Herein lies a simple but rarely acknowledged truth – a film can be pro-military and anti-war at the same time. All of these films were supported by the US military, and for the most part they were happy with the end results. They portrayed the military as necessary to defend the US against a hostile world, helped boost recruitment and to maintain the war budget. So in this period pro-war and anti-war movies somewhat coalesce, or at least there are numerous examples of generally pro-military movies containing anti-war themes or messages.
On the other hand there were some films like Dr Strangelove that the Pentagon hated, and would never have supported no matter how much Kubrick might have tweaked the script. Kubrick also made Paths of Glory in this period, which is one of my favourite films from the 1950s.
Nonetheless, the number of anti-war films in the 50s and 60s is dwarfed by the number of overall war films, almost all of which are pro-military and most of which are broadly pro-war. The British and American militaries were both fully engaged with the film industry in order to cement their status among the foremost military powers of the 20th century.
Vietnam War Movies
So what changed? What happened? What went wrong with the military-Hollywood propaganda machine?
In a word, Vietnam. While the Korean war was moderately popular, and not many people knew much about it, Vietnam threw a massive spanner in the works for the military-industrial complex and for its entertainment propaganda apparatus. Things started well enough with movies like The Green Berets in 1968. The DOD’s database entry on the film notes that:
John Wayne originally wrote directly to president Johnson, saying he wanted to make a pro-Vietnam movie, showing why we had to be there. Long negotiations, original script showed Green Berets going into north Vietnam, which army required be deleted. After approval, Army allowed filming on Fort Benning, Georgia. Charged $18,000 for all help.
The Air Force also provided the production with a skyhook – the same technology the CIA provided to the producers of Thunderball a couple of years earlier. This is where you inflate a balloon on the end of a rope, a plane comes in, aims below the balloon and snags the rope, lifting the person off the ground. These were actually in use in both Korea and Vietnam by Army Special Forces and by the CIA.
However, Wayne wrote the film because of the anti-war climate that was growing in the second half of the 1960s. After the failure in Korea, to many Americans Vietnam seemed like more of the same, and the notion of preventing the spread of Communism in South-East Asia, on the other side of the Pacific, wasn’t a top priority. Nonetheless, The Green Berets was a commercial success, and even today people are still watching and talking about it.
Most Vietnam war movies, especially those depicting combat rather than merely using the war as a backdrop, are very anti-war, are very negative about the US involvement in Vietnam. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1970s, several years after the war finished, that Hollywood started making Vietnam war films on a regular basis.
Again, there are several reasons for this. For one thing the film industry was in a bit of a crisis, financially, creatively, and socially in terms of censorship and classification. The 1960s were a tumultuous time for the movie industry, so taking on a serious subject like US foreign policy wasn’t high on their to-do list. Also, unlike WW2 the Vietnam war was extremely divisive, with strong opinions on both ends of the spectrum. Thus, it was difficult to make a film about Vietnam without pissing off half the audience, regardless of what angle you took. Finally, the US military wasn’t motivated to help make anti-war films, and aside from The Green Berets they didn’t receive many requests for pro-Vietnam war movies.
One trope that is fairly consistent in cinema throughout the 60s and 70s is what we might call the Taxi Driver trope, that of the tortured or disturbed Vietnam veteran who returns to America and commits violent crimes. Motorpsycho, Targets, Forced Entry, Rolling Thunder and Rambo all fit into this category, and it is certainly true that there was a high incidence of violent crime in Vietnam veterans. Obviously the military didn’t want their soldiers portrayed as either mentally broken or as sociopaths so none of these films were supported by the DOD.
Not that I’m condemning them – a huge proportion of veterans of that war suffered from various mental illnesses, resulting in violence, alcoholism, drug addiction, depression and suicide. I will be getting into how the Pentagon censors all this, probably in the next episode.
Despite this, the Vietnam war is clearly a preoccupation for the DOD, because it was not only a military defeat (of a sort) but also because it ruined the nice thing they had going in the earlier Cold War period, when Hollywood was getting the public on side and keeping them there. I don’t think they anticipated just how quickly, and en masse, the public would turn against them, and this was a real shock to the system. There isn’t time to go through every comment in the DOD database about Vietnam, but I’ll pick a few out for you to consider.
The 1964 movie The Americanization of Emily (written by Paddy Chayefsky, who would go on to write Network) is listed in the database but it was neither approved nor denied for military support – it is listed under ‘other’. The entry says:
First American movie to show a military man as a professed coward and proud of it. James Garner is a “gofer’ for his admiral in the weeks before D-day. The admiral decides the first dead American on Omaha beach should be a Navy man. Garner ultimately becomes a hero and Emily approves, thus the title. No record of company seeking cooperation given the portrayal. However, film is important since it contained anti—war arguments as Vietnam was heating up.
The 1967 movie Beach Red initially qualified for assistance but then the Marine Corps changed their mind. The entry reads:
Marines liked script and provided combat footage which Cornel Wilde restored. However, the corps then concluded the film would make an anti-war statement at a time when Vietnam was escalating and declined to provide actual assistance. Instead, the production company used the Philippine army.
So in the early years of the Vietnam war they were already concerned about opposition to the war and about anti-war messages in films. They continued this pattern of refusing support to movies with any kind of anti-war or anti-Vietnam themes pretty much up until the present day. Here are a few examples.
Limbo, 1972, was rejected because it showed POW’s wives being unfaithful, and the film would be shown in North Vietnam at the same time as it was released in the US. The DOD commented, ‘Wives’ infidelity would hurt POW morale especially if film had received military support’. The following year Cinderella Liberty was rejected because the navy felt it ‘perpetuated negative image of Navy resulting from the Vietnam war-even though Vietnam is not mentioned and is not subject’.
The Boys in Company C in 1978 was also rejected because ‘of plot and portrayals, lack of discipline within unit, insubordination, incompetent leadership, excessive vulgarities’. They note that it was the ‘first major combat film about Vietnam to reach screen after end of war’.
Nonetheless, they did occasionally support Vietnam-themed movies, such as 1977’s Heroes, with the database recording:
Henry Winkler plays a deranged Vietnam vet who escapes from VA hospital and heads cross country to start a worm business with a buddy from Vietnam. When he arrives at home, parents tell him their son was killed in Vietnam which triggers Vietnam flash back-good realistic fire fight sequence. Army allowed film-makers to film sequence at recruit station in Times Square. Winkler tries to dissuade boys’ enlistment. First film to receive any Army assistance, however limited, after end of Vietnam war.
This policy continued into the 80s and beyond. In 1983 the film Blue Thunder was rejected by the army because it, ‘shows a Viet Cong being thrown out of a helicopter.’ Likewise the 1987 TV movie In Love and War was only given limited support by the DOD, despite being based on the book by James Stockdale, a vice-admiral who had spent 7 years in Hanoi as a prisoner of war. The database says:
Approved not all the requests, only the request for stock footage. Problem was admiral Stockdale’s claim that no North Vietnam ships attacked the American destroyer in Tonkin gulf. Contrary to official policy. Footage given because of Stockdale’s heroism and reputation, but no other help.
Note that they don’t say that Stockdale’s claim about the Tonkin Gulf isn’t true, merely that it is contrary to official policy. One of the problems was that Stockdale was a naval aviator at the time, he was in the sky when the North Vietnamese P-4 boats supposedly attacked a US warship. He says he saw nothing of the kind, that ‘There was nothing there but black water and American fire power.’ This is supported by an internal NSA history called Spartans in Darkness which also says the attack never happened. But official policy is official policy, and the DOD couldn’t be seen supporting this narrative, even if deep down they knew it to be true.
A few years later in 1993 the former Secretary of the Navy James Webb – who also wrote Rules of Engagement – wanted to make a Vietnam war movie called Fields of Fire. But it contained numerous scenes that the DOD found problematic including fragging, a Marine posing for a photo with his arm around an enemy POW who had just been burned to death with napalm and Marines torturing and murdering a couple who they suspect of torturing and murdering two other Marines.
There are many other examples but I’m sure you’re setting the picture. Once Hollywood started making films that were critical of the Vietnam war, the floodgates opened and the DOD were rejecting requests for support on a continual basis.
One final film that did get DOD support was Hanoi Hilton, the 1987 film about American POWs. The database comments that:
An unusually fine script according to DOD at the time. Benefited the military by presenting very realistic depiction of events, although the story itself is fictional. Positive portrayal of POWs showing torture, fortitude, and condemnation of a Jane Fonda-type (replicating one of her visits to Hanoi). Screening in March, 1987 at Pentagon.
The War on Terror in film
Despite technically winning the Cold War, the US public maintained a fairly large and vocal anti-war movement up until the election of Obama. Things did start to change then, as leftists and liberals tripped over each other to show how much they could support the first black president even as he expanded the war on terror to include overthrowing the government of Libya using terrorists. While some anti-war types migrated over to supporting Ron Paul for some unknown reason, once his campaign fell apart it seems they just gave up. These days, with Trump in the White House and all the Russiagate allegations, most liberals are pro-war against Russia in order to prove how anti-Trump they are. Many leftists have also jumped on this bandwagon, and it seems the anti-war right who voted for Trump will just go along with anything he says and does.
As to how the War on Terror has been portrayed in cinema, my first observation is that there aren’t very many movies to choose from. Compared to the hundreds being made in the 50s and 60s, and the large number of Vietnam war films made from circa 1977 onwards, there simply aren’t that many big budget films about the war on terror. There are exceptions such as Iron Man, but on the whole blockbuster action movies aren’t about war. They are still often very pro-military, such as the Transformers franchise, but not necessarily pro-war.
Instead it has been lower budget productions that have been set in the War on Terror, with the pro-war films mostly featuring special forces (Zero Dark Thirty, Lone Survivor, Captain Phillips, 12 Strong, 13 Hours) while the more critical films (The Hurt Locker, Green Zone, Home of the Brave and so on) lack the Pentagon support necessary to portray full-scale warfare. While there are no end of films about D-Day there are basically none about the invasions of Afghanistan or Iraq.
As per usual, there are several reasons for this. The military no longer supports films with distinctly anti-war messages. The last one I can think of was Gardens of Stone, which the DOD database calls possibly the most anti-war film they ever supported. That was in 1987. Then there’s the industry tendency towards action movies focused on a single hero or a small band of heroes, a trend that began in the 1980s and was encouraged and supported by Reagan’s White House. While it used to be that there were a thousand good guys and a thousand bad guys, now there’s between one and a dozen good guys, and hundreds if not thousands of bad guys. It’s usually a special forces unit, or just one guy, up against what Michael Parenti called the ‘Swarthy Hordes’. The good guys have to be outnumbered by the bad guys, to make it seem like they’re up against the odds and not an overwhelming force.
(07:00 – 10:55)
That was Michael Parenti talking in the late 1980s, but he might as well be talking now in 2018. The trends haven’t changed much. But they have changed a little. Inasmuch as we get pro-War on Terror propaganda it mostly comes via spy stories on TV rather than war films in the cinema. As the warfare state has evolved into the military-intelligence security state, cinema has evolved to reflect this. The underlying idea that the West is somehow up against it, outnumbered by the Swarthy Hordes, is still present, but exactly how the West is embodied in characters has changed somewhat.
One entry in the DOD database encapsulates this, on their support for an episode of 24. They comment:
Approved filming for one day with two Marine Corps F/A-18 aircraft to simulate attacking and destroying a terrorist helicopter that threatens the main character, federal agent Jack Bauer (played by Keifer Sutherland).
So we have the lone hero, attacked by a terrorist enemy with great force – using a helicopter. Our hero is up against the odds, and the military rescue him from that opposing enemy force. The symbolism is quite clear – we need the military to save us from the Swarthy Hordes. Indeed, military rescues are becoming a fairly common feature in movies – think of the end of Apollo 13 or Goldeneye or Jurassic Park III. The military arrives dramatically and helps people out of danger, like they’re some non-violent public service.
By contrast, when the military is shown in full-scale warfare it is almost always against a fictitious enemy like in Battleship or War of the Worlds. Indeed, the DOD changed the costumes worn by the military in War of the Worlds to make them more like those worn by US service members in Iraq. Clearly they wanted people to connect War of the Worlds with real-life wars, and to equate a massive invasion of Earth by a hostile alien enemy with the threat from Saddam’s Iraq.
Why has this happened? Why is it that we still make incredibly pro-military films but rarely make pro-war films? One of the reasons is that geopolitics shifts so quickly that Hollywood can’t keep up. For example, the 1988 HBO TV movie Steal the Sky was rejected by the Pentagon because:
DOD and the NGB found the film to be blatantly anti-Iraqi and not in consonance with our current policy toward the country.
Similarly, the 1991 film Flight of the Intruder was supported, because it was ‘one of the most positive movies about US military in Vietnam’. But the DOD’s note comments that the film:
Failed at box office because it appeared at the time the Gulf War was being fought on television.
One final example – the entry on Top Gun (one of the most successful of this new brand of pro-military non-war movies) says:
Film completed rehabilitation of the military’s image, which had been savaged by the Vietnam war.
So they were well aware by this time – the end of the Cold War – of the interplay between public opinion, Hollywood films, foreign policy and box office receipts. The notion that they rejected a film in 1988 because it was too anti-Iraqi, when just three years later they went to war against Iraq, shows how quickly the winds can change. Given the lead time for a movie is often two years or more, by the time the film comes out the political situation might have changed and the depicted enemy might now be a friend.
This is one of the reasons shows like Homeland – perhaps the premier pro-War on Terror propaganda of the last decade – try so hard to produce ‘ripped from the headlines’ storylines. This is why they consult with government officials so closely, and even use Additional Dialogue Recording to change their scripts in post-production to adapt to changing events in the real world. Because otherwise the ground might shift, and suddenly your well-written script goes from being right on the political button to being an anachronistic irrelevance.
Films take much longer to produce, so they run the risk of portraying enemies in the real world who, upon the release of the film, might no longer be enemies. This is what happened with Rambo III, don’t forget, which was made at the end of the Soviet-Afghan war but by the time it came out the Soviets were withdrawing from Afghanistan and no one really cared any more.
Therefore film-makers have moved onto fictional enemies, often robots or aliens or alien robots, as their preferred enemy image. These enemies function as metaphors for whoever we’re told are our enemies in real life, and hence the psychology of fearing and hating the enemy can be maintained even as the precise enemies shift and change so rapidly. The important thing is that the enemy is perceived as real, as ‘out there’ somewhere, as large in number and as desiring our destruction. As long as the enemy image fulfils these criteria it doesn’t matter if it’s an experimental AI computer hacking into the power grid or transdimensional lizards coming through a portal at the bottom of the Pacific ocean. The news media tells us who to perceive as a threat, and even if it’s radically different to what they told us yesterday it doesn’t matter, because the mentality of fearing the enemy image and lusting after its destruction is so firmly embedded in our entertainment.
In conclusion, Hollywood doesn’t make many war films any more. There are exceptions, like the recent flurry of WW1 films ‘commemorating’ the centenary (while avoiding any critical view of that horrific and pointless war). But Hollywood also doesn’t make many anti-war films any more, which is why the war mentality is winning. Because our postmodern war movies are fought against fictional enemies there is no cultural resistance. Who would bother to make a film criticising a war against giant alien robots that don’t really exist? Whereas back when we made war movies about real wars, people did bother to make films criticising those real wars.
I am not saying the DOD planned this, but they have certainly encouraged it. By refusing to support the majority of Vietnam war films they effectively killed off the conventional war movie genre. By supporting the films Hollywood came up with to replace conventional war movies, they encouraged producers to make more of them. That is how we’ve reached a point where our entertainment is saturated by pro-military products, and virally infected with the war mentality, without actually making war films. The result is that the audience is even less likely to recognise what’s being done to them.
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