Sunday, September 2, 2007

War movies then and now

Last night I watched the latest installment of British Film Forever on BBC2 (don’t know if it will turn up on US television at some point), which looked at the history of British war movies.

My enjoyment was tempered somewhat by the ironic, smart-ass tone of the narration, even though it was exactly what I would have expected of the BBC – old war movies, for example, were mocked as being ‘stiff upper lip’, while any film made after 1960 was lauded for being ‘anti-establishment’.

That said, there were lots of great clips and interviews with some of the people who made and starred in the films, and some fascinating insights: The Battle of the Somme, which combined documentary footage and reconstructions, remains the most widely watched film in British cinema history; and, when the film was restored, it was discovered that as soldiers re-created action shots for the camera, the real Battle of the Somme could be seen raging on the horizon.

We also learned that Alexander Korda had to persuade Winston Churchill, who wanted to close the cinemas for the duration of the war, that films could be used to rally the British people to the cause. And so we got classics like In Which We Serve, and the dark but ultimately inspiring Went The Day Well?, in which German commandos take over a sleepy English village; the locals fight back, dispatching several Germans by hand before the Army arrives.

One of the key points about these early films is that they were made at a time when victory was far from certain, but their patriotic tone and certainty in the justness of the cause helped to ensure that Britain and her allies prevailed.

And so to the present day, where Hollywood is preparing to release a raft of films about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I won’t go into the films in detail here – Jonathan Foreman has done a great job of that in this piece at NRO, but you won’t be surprised to learn that the vast majority of the films are resoundingly anti-war. Foreman writes:

Inevitably there will also be tales of veterans driven mad by Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, or tormented by guilt. And, there will be portraits of whistleblowers putting their lives on the line to expose all those atrocities so regularly committed by America’s callous, cruel G.I.s and Marines.

But the ordinary, quiet heroism of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan will not be portrayed at all, let alone celebrated: The antiwar discourse imagines American soldiers only as monsters or victims. So don’t expect to see any movies portraying America’s soldiers building schools, protecting civilians, fighting side-by-side with Iraqi security forces, or giving medical aid.

It’s a great piece, and Foreman is well qualified to comment on the subject – he's a former film critic for the New York Post, who was also an embedded reporter with U.S. troops in Iraq in 2003 and 2005.

There are glimmers of hope: an adaptation of Bing West’s No True Glory, which deals with the 2004 battle for Fallujah, promises to be more Blackhawk Down than Born on the Fourth of July. However, most of these films will serve to reinforce the negative messages delivered daily by the MSM to a public largely ignorant of what’s really going on.

Just as in Britain during WWII there’s no guarantee that we’re going to win the War on Terror. However, unlike then, most of today’s filmmakers and actors, along with most journalists, feel no compunction to rally the people to the cause. They want to see Bush defeated, and if that also means defeat for America, and the consequences for the Middle East and the Western democracies that such a defeat would entail, then so be it.

Hopefully continued progress in Iraq and Afghanistan will diminish the public's appetite for fictionalised bad news stories. And perhaps more film-makers who, while not necessarily cheerleaders for the war at least aren't invested in the idea of defeat, will produce more balanced, even positive movies (where are you Bruce Willis?). If so, and if movie-goers shun the anti-war polemics, then Hollywood will be hit where it hurts – at the box office – and might just get the message.

UPDATE: Thanks to Instapundit for linking, and welcome all. This blog has only been going for a month, so while I have your attention please take a minute to look around – my back catalog isn't that big! There are a lot of comments to take in on this piece, and I'll probably add some more thoughts in a separate post, so do check back.


Anonymous said...


Insta-Pundit! sent me to your blog.

Anonymous said...

I got Instapundited here too :-)

Rich Rostrom said...

Hollywood made no hero/adventure movies about WW I, either - till very late in the 1930s, when WW II was imminent. And the exclusion includes even B-movie shoot-'em-ups. That is understandable - Americans felt very ambiguous about WW I.

But also, there have been none, not even direct-to-video, about the Gulf War.

The intellectual/artistic class turned pacifist a long time ago. WW II was a temporary exception, but for quite a while now, even WW II movies tend to be "dark" - like Flags of Our Fathers, where battle-traumatized "heroes" are exploited to sell war bonds.

Jeremy said...

It's not just war movies, though, but just how the miliary is portrayed in general. Look at science fiction-horror movies. In the 50s and early 60s, you had movies like "Invaders From Mars", "The Thing from Another World", "Them", all of which portrayed the military as quite heroic. Now most movies in that genre either have the miliary as the villains (usually letting loose some secret weapon project) or corporations.

Anonymous said...

It is encouraging to find a blog highlighting this problem. I'm grown up on a diet of movies demonizing our military and our government. The message was drummed home that no act was too despicable for either. No wonder we have produced generations of gullible, anti-military, conspiracy nuts. It is disturbing to consider how many millions of Americans have developed their distorted sense of reality, political events, and history from either movies or unqualified comedians masquerading as journalists.


Jeremy said...

And also back then, remember that most of the lefties in Hollywood supported WW2, because Stalin told them to. While not all films were as blatant as "The North Star", the Soviets did have a lot of pull in Hollywood. There's a recent Dashiell Hammett story collection whose introduction goes into this a great deal, how a lot of them actually wanted to keep US out of WW2 until Hitler broke his pact with Stalin, and then they flipped positions, but I can't remember the name of it.

Anonymous said...

Agreed about the movies. But I think that as the pro-military movies declined, pro-military videogames have developed. So although we lost one medium another more immersive medium has rightfully taken its place.

Anonymous said...

Via Instapundit.

The last war movie I saw that was quite approving of military action was one which involved Arab troops during WWII. I remember being very angry cuz the jacket and blurb gave no indication of who the men were. I know my history, and in WWII, Arabs, under Yasser Arafat's uncle Hussein who was the grand mufti of Jerusalem, were pretty much preoccupied with slaughtering Jews. Nothing heroic about that.

As for recent American war movies. I collect 'em, but I don't watch 'em. I watch the earlier generation's war movies which depict soldiers as flawed but fighting for a just cause. Hollywood today? I wouldn't wish them to be under Islamic control, but that's what they deserve. Knowing freedom, they despised it and called bondage freedom and justice injustice.

Anonymous said...

Came over via Instapundit and glad I did. There are actually at least two Gulf War movies, Courage Under Fire, where Meg Ryan is killed by her fellow soldiers, and Three Kings, with George Clooney and a quest for gold. We need to encourage more movie production outside of Hollywood, what would a movie produced in Branson, Missouri be like??? Part of me is laughing at the idea and the other part is say, yeah man. Or maybe Nashville......

Peg C. said...

And yet, the U.S. military garners 69% approval by the U.S. public -- higher approval ratings than any other institution.

I'd like to say I'll boycott the upcoming pro-defeatist movies, but I already boycott 99% of what comes out of Hollywood these days, so it's a bit of an empty gesture. These people have absolutely nothing to offer me, and most are rabid America-haters.

As for Willis, he was supposedly interested in Michael Yon's "Gates of Fire," which is a riveting, astonishing story of true warrior valor and bravery. I really hope that movie gets made. Meanwhile, instead of going to the theatre tomorrow, I'll be watching "Flight 93" on A&E. Even though I own the DVD.

Anonymous said...

Hollywood is an international industry now; even if these movies bomb here, they're sure to make money in Europe and other places.

Peg C. said...

Oops, forgot! Instapundit sent me.

Anonymous said...

Via Instapundit
and i must agree with those saying that the modern 'war' films are just simply dreadful

Anonymous said...

Insty sent me, and Tennessee.

I'd say 'support your patriotic artists' whether they be short story writers, novelists, tabletop rpg designers, computer game designers, painters, or movie makers. A lot of movies come from short stories and novels anyways.

It'd be nice to see some conservative investors pulling a Mel Gibson and making their own movie. It'd be even nicer to see them against the cries of the Hollyweird crowd which claimed it was not going to work, and making buckets of money.

I'd love to watch a time travel movie about some American rebels in 2050 sending back a lone hero to stop the rise of the Islamofasicst state via means of a smuggled in nuke. Its a very banal storyline, but that means that any half-talented guy with a videocam, and fifty thousand in investor cash could make a good direct to DVD movie. Best way to make it would be to mimic the Blair Witch Project's shaky camera, and go for 'reality'. Call it a 'Secret Documentary' that is being taken to the past to try to warn the past if stopping the bomb strike doesn't work.


Anonymous said...

Got 'insta'ed also. One big problem is it's hard to have a war film when you can't actually name the enemy. You can't have the enemy speaking Arabic, you can't have them practicing Islam, you can't have them from the ME. Because THAT would be insensitive and might cause offense to someone. (But you know, I just don't CAIR at this point...)

So how the hell are you supposed to portray the enemy - show them as 6 foot tall carrots?

Anonymous said...

Some random picks on short notice (but I stand by the top three)

Of course the very best is A Band of Brothers, but it isn't a movie.

The best war pics of all time:

10. The Dam Busters (1955)
9. In Which We Serve (1942)
8. Zulu (1964)
7. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
6. Das Boot (1981)
5. Sink the Bismarck! (1960)
4. A Walk in the Sun (1945)
3. The Man Who Never Was (1956)
2. Battleground (1949)
1. Twelve O'Clock High (1949)

Pound for pound, the British used to make the best war pics. Not any more.

Anonymous said...

I forgot-- Instapundit sent me

Anonymous said...

"So how the hell are you supposed to portray the enemy - show them as 6 foot tall carrots?"

An intellectual carrot?!? The mind boggles!

-Dave S.-

Anonymous said...

Apparently, you can't even make World War II movies anymore without taking a shot at American soldiers. There seems to be an obligatory "GI's executing prisoners" scene in every one.

"The Great Raid" is a notable exception. Wonderfully old-fashioned and inspirational.

-Dave S.-

Anonymous said...

Got here via Instapundit.

Hollywood is an international industry now; even if these movies bomb here, they're sure to make money in Europe and other places.

Exactly, unfortunately.

I don't think Hollywood is capable of making a straight-up "pro-war" film anymore, and if they did, they'd probably completely dumb it down on the assumption that the only ones who would want to see it would be "those people"--you know, NASCAR-watching, flag-waving, beer-swilling yokels. Of course, no one but a stupid redneck would actually want to see (or much less, believe) that American soldiers could actually act heroically or fight for a cause that is just.


JLawson has a really good point also. Hollywood (and the left in general) have a real "He Who Must Not Be Named" problem with Islamic terrorism--it's like, they can't even bring themselves to admit it exists. And if they can't bring themselves to admit it exists, then how the hell can they deal with it?

From Inwood said...

Great Post

I've given up hope that anytime soon the U.S. Military will be seen as a force for good in any movie.

PS I'm over from Instapundit

Anonymous said...

Another Instapundit referer.

"Flyboys", last year's movie about the Lafayette Escadrille, was a pretty decent movie--but it wasn't a "Hollywood" movie (IMDB says "As no studios would back the film...").

Incidentally, though I can't call it a good movie, "633 Squadron" impressed me as a great piece of cinema--it looked great, but the story was so-so. And I was impressed with 1969's "Battle of Britain".

Anonymous said...

"I've given up hope that anytime soon the U.S. Military will be seen as a force for good in any movie."


But there are also giant robots.

(and the government keeps Megatron stored inside the hoover dam)

Anonymous said...

Rich Rostrom,

Hollywood made lots of heroic action/adventure World War One movies in the 1920's and early 1930's. Here is the Wikipedia URL for the 1927 silent movie, Wings:

jkmack said...

Perhaps we need an X-Prize for any studio that can create a pro-US war movie about any war after WWII

ErikZ said...

That "Transformers" movie stunned me.

At the end of the movie I realized I had been waiting for the typical "Military is bad" message, but it never came.

Anonymous said...

"..even WW II movies tend to be "dark" - like Flags of Our Fathers, where battle-traumatized "heroes" are exploited to sell war bonds."

That's unfair. Flags was also unstinting in its admiration for the boys who fought at Iwo Jima. The film contains a wonderful credit roll of archive photos from the battle as well.

Mike said...

Thanks for the kind and interesting comments. There are a lot of comments to take in on this piece, and I'll probably add some more thoughts in a separate post, so do check back. This blog has only been going for a month, so please take a minute to look around while you're here – my back catalog isn't that big!


Pat said...

To describe the current crop of films as "anti-war" is missing the point. Even the WWII-era films were not pro-war; their message wasn't "Wars are great! We should have lots more of them!" Rather, they said "We can win this war. We deserve to win. And we will win."

The current crop of films are defeatist. Their message is: "We can't possibly win. And even if we could, we don't deserve to. We're evil, we're doomed to defeat, and we should just give up now."

Anonymous said...

It seems that Britons in particular have been portrayed as barbarians in film -- How's that for grand irony? You can see favorable portrayals of the military in the new Battlestar Galactica TV series -- but they're on the other side of the galaxy -- coming soon to Europe, I understand.

Via Instapundit,

Anonymous said...

Dave S - "So how the hell are you supposed to portray the enemy - show them as 6 foot tall carrots?"

An intellectual carrot?!? The mind boggles!

-Dave S.-

"The Thing From Outer Space" had James Arness in it - and he complained because his makeup made him look like a 6' carrot.

We can't call them Muslims. We can't refer to their ethnicity. We can't speak of the religion. What the heck - calling them 'carrots' is as good as anything.

Pat - you're correct - Hollywood IS defeatist. But I guarantee - if they get what they want, they'll not want what follows after.


William said...

instapundit sent me. If you express hostility to Caliphistas, you're a bigot. If you express hostility to the American military, you're a nuanced intellectual.

Anonymous said...

A couple of weeks ago I saw Rescue Dawn, the true story of Navy pilot Dieter Dengler who escaped from a POW camp in Laos during the Vietnam War.

He survived months of torture in the camp, but finally, along with other prisoners, came up with a successful escape plan. However, it was only after escaping into the jungle that the real horror story began.

I can't wait for this movie to come out in DVD. It literally makes Stalag 17 look like a romp at a German health spa.

Anonymous said...

Whoa! An Instalanche one month in? Sweet.

Just to be different, I got here via Christopher Taylor's excellent Word Around the Net.

Mike said...

An 'Instanlanche' – so that's what they call it! I also got a previous post 'BBC still lying about Lebanon war casualties' linked to by Hot Air, Jawa Report and Theo Spark a couple of days back. I've been emailing those guys since I started, but this is the first time they've bitten. Any promotional advice greatfully received! And thanks for the tip on Word Around the Net.

Mike said...

Oh, and if you're coming straight to this post, do check out my follow-up, 'More on war movies'.

Anonymous said...

Consider among others (and how soon these were produced after the battles ended):

Wake Island (1942)
Guadalcanal Diary (1943)
Bataan (1943)
Winged Victory (1944)
Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)
Objective, Burma! (1945)

Plenty of others referenced here (in a pop-up ad plagued site):

Later, they recruited Audie Murphy (Medal of Honor winner who also made the cover of Life Magazine) and had him play himself (notwithstanding his PTSD) in "To Hell and Back"

The rush is on to produce anti-US drivel before the battles even end (and they're proud of the speed within which they're putting the "product" out). There is nothing telling the stories of heroes or victories.

Anonymous said...

Hollywood is a symptom not a cause.

Hollywood makes movies that sell. If they don't sell, they can't make more.

Some of this is due to the inherent leftism of Hollywood, like journalism, and some due to the globalization of of the market. But most of it is a reflection of who we are today.

It won't change until and will change when boomers lose control of the reins of power.

Anonymous said...

Wars since WWII just aren't comparable to WWII. Iraq least of all. Frankly, I'd be ashamed if we were producing the same kind of movie with regard to Iraq, because the propaganda would be completely misplaced. The bravery and heroism of American soldiers won't be appearing as much as it ought to in movies because it has been squandered in real life on failed, immoral policy.

And yet instead of blaming the decision-makers for tarnishing such sacrifice, you'll whine that no one is making the movie you want to see. As someone pointed out above, Hollywood will generally make what will sell. Movies aren't often made about the heroism of soldiers if people decide the struggle was wrong.

On the bright side, I'm sure that movies sympathetic to the American soldier will come, if not so for American policy. Das Boot (1981) took 36 years to be made, but that was after Nazi Germany. The Burmese Harp (1956) was quite good as well, even if it didn't own up to a lot of things. No End in Sight (2007) isn't much about soldiers, but an excellent movie. Still, I wouldn't hold my breath hoping for too many glorious, pro-war movies (since it seems to be anti-war movies you have a problem with).