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Hollywood goes to war

Stephen Maurer, director, IT & Homeland Security Project, public policy | March 2, 2010

You might not consider war movies surprising in wartime, but you’d be wrong.

Take a random sample, for example, Moviefone’s Top 25 War Movie list.  Only five of the titles were released in years when the US was actually at war. And none of these titles made the top twelve. War movies, it seems, are a robustly peacetime phenomenon.

Now the country spends more time at peace than otherwise, so I suppose you could put this observation down to chance. But that seems unlikely. Movies, after all, are relentlessly topical with producers ripping stories from the headlines.  So why should war movies be different?

Clear answer: Because some topics hurt too much for immediate consumption. Go to the World War I monument in any French village and you will see that it was constructed in the mid- to late-1920s. Trying to hold a dedication ceremony in 1918 would have been unbearable.  Trying to dedicate a memorial in 1938 would have found people preparing for the next war. Check out the Moviefone list and you’ll see that movies, too, peak a decade or so after their respective wars.

This is not to say that wartime never leaves its mark on movies. Plainly, it has. Consider the so-called “Women’s Pictures” – less politely “Chick Flicks” –  that flooded the country during World War II. It’s pretty clear that these films were a response to the War, the genre wasn’t nearly as strong before or afterward. Strangely, though, the War is hardly ever mentioned and when it is it usually occurs off-screen. But that doesn’t save the heroine. Instead, she undergoes horrific over-the-top suffering – Dying of a brain tumor (Dark Victory), say, or going to jail for her repellent offspring (Mildred Pierce), or renouncing the one man she can ever love (Now, Voyager).  When the War does make an appearance, it’s not enough for her to lose a husband – her son has to die too  (White Cliffs of Dover).  My own personal favorite is a comparatively cheerful Spencer Tracy/Irene Dunne vehicle called A Guy Named Joe. In that one, Dunne loves bomber pilot Tracy, but he’s killed over Germany. Youth is resilient, so a year or two later she meets a young fighter pilot (Van Johnson) who is, natch, slated for a suicide mission in the Pacific. Now the good news: The government has trained her to ferry fighters from base to base. Not to spoil it for you, but she flies the mission – no one can handle a P-38 like Irene Dunne – and saves Johnson for herself.

It isn’t hard to see how women earning good wages in the wartime economy might have wanted (and even paid for) a little vicarious misery while their men slept in foxholes. Movies, after all, are an extension of our dream lives. Why shouldn’t displacement and repression and guilt and all the complex machinery of grief play a role in what we watch?

All of which brings us back to our original puzzle: Why have two war movies shown up to contest the Oscars while Americans are still fighting and dying? The not-very-flattering reason, I think, is that – apart from the Democrat left and parts of the Republican right – most of the country has lost interest. Psychologically, if not physically, the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars seem sooooo Pre-Recession. Which explains why now, prematurely, Hollywood has reverted to its peacetime taste for war movies.

By any reasonable standpoint the situation is  pathological. Dreams, the psychologists tell us, are supposed to  process and fix the lessons we learn from life. And surely movies perform a similar function for mass culture.  But what happens when Hollywood’s dreams start processing lessons before the data is in?  After all, we would recall World War II very differently if we did not know who had won. Yet that is precisely what Hollywood seems to be doing with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And so, lacking data, the Baby Boomers in charge recycle narratives from older wars including, inevitably, Vietnam.

That’s a pity.  Like all art, a good movie should learn from life. Then, and only then, will it have much to say.  I’m betting that the definitive Iraq or Afghanistan movie (novel, play…) hasn’t been written yet  — and won’t be for another decade.

Comments to “Hollywood goes to war

  1. First of all, hello. I like War movies, but movies war rooms, say going to be bad example I think the war should be avoided at all times. Good studies.

  2. No Mitch I don’t think they will be popular with the oil lobby but,they might make good pipeline, ruffneck movies

  3. The American psyche is still damaged after 9/11 and it will take years to be repaired, meanwhile there are those that are taking advantage of that fact.
    Thanks, Tom

  4. Interesting post. I’m not so sure that the current wars in the middle easy will produce the definitive War movie such as Platoon or The Deer Hunter. I don’t think the current wars have the same impact on the American psyche as Vietnam and the 2 world wars.
    Mitch

  5. Although Hollywood is a really fascinating world of excess, I agree with Anthony and think independant movies are much better. Little budget means you have to think more to have something great.

  6. I love indie films myself, much more than those big budget bombs. they’re so commercial. the indies have better actors, plots and scripts. they have meaning.

  7. The irony of war movies about Vietnam was American audiences could spend their evening hours watching real footage of combat and battle hardship via the news in their living room but just couldn’t bring themselves to watch a movie or fictionalized account of the war.

    On a slightly different topic, most war Hollywood depictions for the past 25 years have been stale, formulaic, and utterly star driven. Witness Jarhead, a fascinating account of the first Gulf War. The movie was awful and failed to achieve any of the humor, irony, and madness documented in the book.

    These two points above I guess can be generalized into a statement about Hollywood’s war movie efforts – they fail to resonate emotionally or cognitively in us until probably we can take such strong feelings for granted.

  8. I’m betting the same! It is hard to talk about war when it’s happening, but awareness needs to be raised. Internet is the place to raise awareness of these issues, with posts like yours. Thank you.

  9. I’m so tired of all the Hollywood popcorn movies! They make you dumb. Now I prefer more inteligent movies that actualy makes you turn your brain on and THINK.

  10. I agree that any solid movie usually has a message in it, despite public scrutiny of the general theme of the movie. It’s a shame most chick flicks as you say often times dont have a very deep message.

  11. Our current wars seem to be lasting much longer these days. WW1 our involvement was less then 2 years, WW2 less 4 years. Current war in Afghanistan coming up on 10 years.

  12. The difference with the Iraq war is that it is backed by the whole ‘War on Terror’ message. This over time has had an effect of social engineering, causing people to – on some level – accept that it is either ‘them or us’. In this respect it is different to any other war the US has fought in recent decades. The American psyche is still damaged after 9/11 and it will take years to be repaired, meanwhile there are those that are taking advantage of that fact.

  13. You hit the nail on the head when you said this: “Because some topics hurt too much for immediate consumption.” That says it all. When the country is at war, who wants to go to a movie that reminds them of that fact when they can read about it in the paper and watch it on the news incessantly?

  14. Is not also the fact that wars today are thought of in terms like “surgical”? Previous wars were the manifestation of the underside of humanity, but they were still “human.” Also, I’m not sure I understand the pertinence of the “chick flick” discussion here, except to say that war as a theme was generally absent from 1940s American cinema.

  15. I’m not so sure that Iraq/Afghanistan will produce the definitive War movie such as the likes of Platoon or The Deer Hunter. I don’t think Iraq/Afghanistan has the same impact on the American psyche as Vietnam and the 2 world wars.

  16. Is not also the fact that wars today are thought of in terms like “surgical”? Previous wars were the manifestation of the underside of humanity, but they were still “human.” Also, I’m not sure I understand the pertinence of the “chick flick” discussion here, except to say that war as a theme was generally absent from 1940s American cinema. Thank you for your article.

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