An Uneasy Peace: The Disappearing War Film

They shall beat their swords into plowshares

and their spears into pruning hooks;

One nation shall not raise the sword against another,

neither shall they learn war any more.

Isaiah 2:4

War is a nation’s ultimate commitment of blood and treasure.  As such, the stories a people tells about its wars – and don’t tell – and the ways it remembers its wars – or chooses to forget them – tells us much about the kind of people they consider themselves to be at different times in their history, as well as the kind of people they really were…and are.

For most of the 20th century, the war film was a Hollywood staple.  From one era to the next, war movies documented the nation’s conflicts, reflected the national consciousness on particular combats as well as on thinking going far beyond any one, particular war.  They’ve been propagandistic and revisionist, salutary and melancholic, topical and universal, thrilling and ruminative.  And, of late, as far as the commercial mainstream is concerned, they’ve all but disappeared.

Few American movies were turned out about World War I during the course of that war.  The U.S. had been neutral for much of the war, and had only fielded troops during its last eight months.  As well, the motion picture industry was still in a chaotic, nascent state, unable to respond to the war in any uniform or muscular fashion.  However, by the 1920s, as the Hollywood studio system took root, movies about The Great War began appearing regularly and continued to be popular until eclipsed by World War II – the war which tragically proved that the World War of 1914-1918 had not been the hoped-for War to End All Wars.

The First World War had been a traumatic experience, the battle in the trenches of the West Front having been an exceptionally horrific exercise in mass bloodletting.  The causes of the war had been both confusing and, in retrospect, avoidable, and combat had been conducted with 19th century tactical thinking oblivious to the capabilities of the new 20th century killing technologies, all of which gave the four years a sense of purposeless waste.  Consequently, movies about WWI in the ’20s and ’30s almost universally tended to be melancholic, rueful paeans to a young generation whose courage and valor had been thrown away in the meat grinder of the battle for the trenches (or the skies) i.e. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), The Big Parade (1925), Wings (1927), Hell’s Angels (1930), The Dawn Patrol (1930, remade in 1938), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), et al.

The experience of World War II was wholly different.  The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 united the nation in the idea that war was not only necessary, but vital to the survival of the country, and established an unimpeachable rightness to the American cause.  The Hollywood studio system was now at its peak, and brought its considerable creative muscle to bear in support of the war effort.

Every type of studio entertainment vehicle – from cartoons to A features, shorts to documentaries, the heaviest of dramas to the most flyweight of comedies – was retooled for war.  There was hardly a talent on the Hollywood roster who didn’t find him/herself, at one time or another, doing battle on-screen against the Axis forces, from A-list stars (at least those that hadn’t enlisted) to Daffy Duck and The Three Stooges.  By the end of 1942, the country’s first full year of war, Hollywood had already pumped out 80 movies which touched on the war in one way or another.  By war’s end in August of 1945, about 30% of the 1700 features produced 1942-45 had been war-related.

Hollywood could not have maintained such an output on the basis of patriotic duty alone.  There was an obvious – and understandable –  appetite among the movie-going public for stories about the war.

The scope of World War II – the way it touched nearly every family in America – is almost unimaginable today.  Consider that by 1945, over 15 million men aged 17-45 had served in the military (as well as tens of thousands of women, and the men of the civilian merchant marine who battled German air and naval forces while transporting vital war supplies across the North Atlantic).  In a country of a little over 132 million people, this meant that approximately one in every nine Americans went off to war (and one in 13 would be a casualty; about one percent of the total U.S. population).  It was the rare household that didn’t know someone in service.

But the men who, in the parlance of the times, “put on the suit”  were not alone in the war effort.  Men ineligible for military service were joined by hundreds of thousands of women working in the nation’s factories which had been converted to producing war materiel.  All families dealt with the rationing of any number of household items, from gasoline to shoes, butter to meat.  The citizenry harvested scrap metal, old tires, and cooking grease in scrap drives to provide raw materials for war manufacturing.  They grew “victory gardens” in their backyards to supplement their rationed groceries.  Everyone – literally – was part of the national effort.

Understandably, then, movies about the war – particularly combat movies – were unabashedly supportive, and sometimes rabidly propagandistic.  In The Purple Heart (1944), for example, a fictionalized telling of a true-life show trial of downed American pilots by the Japanese, the court officers are portrayed in the broadest Asian racial stereotypes down to buck teeth and owlish glasses.  In Action in the North Atlantic (1943), the German U-boats preying on American convoys are given all the dignity of a mugger (even though American movies like Destination Tokyo [1943] and Crash Dive [1943] depict US submariners doing the same thing as the valiant young men of the “Silent Service”).

Hollywood movies regularly distorted the facts on the ground for the sake of American morale.  The battle for Wake Island (1942) neglects to mention the fight actually ended in a surrender rather than the movie’s fight-to-the-last-man climax; A Wing and a Prayer (1944) makes America’s first six months of losses in the Pacific look like part of a master plan to bait the Japanese into a trap at Midway; Air Force (1943) explains away the Pearl Harbor disaster as the result of Japanese sabotage and Fifth Columnists rather than American unpreparedness.

Hollywood also tweaked any number of technical details also for the sake of bolstering national confidence.  In A Wing and a Prayer, the battle at Midway is won by carrier torpedo planes when, in reality, squadrons of torpedo planes had been slaughtered by Japanese fighters without landing a single hit on the enemy; in Sahara (1943), tank sergeant Humphrey Bogart delivers a stirring salute to the capabilities of the M3 “Grant” tank while, on the battlefield, the Americans never fielded a tank until the closing months of the war that could go head-to-head with German heavy armor; the B-17 in Air Force is as spacious and comfortable as a jumbo jet instead of the cramped, cold, noisy aircraft it truly was.

Yet in other major ways, war movies of the time were admirably honest.  Although there were any number of wartime adventure movies like Flying Tigers (1942) and Desperate Journey (1942) which were heavy on grandstanding heroics and derring-do and showed the American fighting man capable of out-thinking, out-brave-ing and out-fighting any enemy, there were also a steady stream of movies showing that America’s heroes were decidedly life-sized.  In movies like Guadalcanal Diary (1943), Sahara, The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), A Walk in the Sun (1945), Objective, Burma! (1945), They Were Expendable (1945) to name just a few – the American soldier was resolutely portrayed as an Everyman, a one-time cabbie or grocery clerk doing what he thought was a dirty job only because it had to be done, and the sooner it was done the sooner he could return to the home and family he longed for.  True to life, the G.I. in these films was no over-muscled Rambo, but the schlub next door; no steely-eyed professional warrior, but a guy who wasn’t afraid to admit to his fear when the bombs came in.  In the often poignant The Story of G.I. Joe, a squad leader, having led one too many futile attacks during the Italian campaign, finally cracks after hearing the recorded sound of his unseen son’s voice for the first time, while his company commander admits to feeling like “a murderer” as he writes letters home to the relatives of the men he’s lost.

Hollywood was also frank about what the painful cost of victory would be, and the simple, brutal fact that not everyone was coming back.  One of the moments bringing that idea heartbreakingly home comes in Objective, Burma!, as a G.I. looks down on the body of a comrade killed during the night by a Japanese infiltrator, saying, “So much for Mrs. Hollis’ nine months of pain and twenty years of hope.”

After the war’s end, moviemakers no longer felt obligated to be tireless cheerleaders.  The war had been won and they could now afford to be more reflective than wartime circumstances had allowed.

While there was never any question the war had needed fighting – and winning – moviemakers were now freer to present a more clear-eyed view of the human toll of that victory.  To be sure, there would still be any number of action-adventures saluting the triumph of WW II (i.e. Fighter Squadron [1948], The Sands of Iwo Jima [1949], An American Guerilla in the Philippines [1950], Flying Leathernecks [1951]), but another vein of combat movie strove for something more profound and more telling.  Movies like 12 O’Clock High (1949), Battleground (1949), The Cruel Sea (1952), Command Decision (1949), Halls of Montezuma (1950), Breakthrough (1950), The Caine Mutiny (1954) and others showed the war to have been more brutal and emotionally traumatic than the morale-boosting movies of the war years had ever let on.  Men had been maimed in body (William Campbell screaming “I got no legs!” in Breakthrough) and mind (migraine-afflicted platoon leader Richard Widmark in Halls of Montezuma), and the strain of command had brought down the strongest of men (Gregory Peck’s steely group commander ultimately collapses into catatonia in 12 O’Clock High).  In such films it seemed their makers had taken to heart Hemingway’s “Notes on the Next War”:  “They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.  But in modern war there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying.  You will die like a dog for no good reason.”

War movies took a still darker turn with the outbreak of the Korean War in June of 1950.

It was a confusing war for most Americans.  It was the country’s first “limited” war, and its first “war of policy”  – a war fought for political reasons so abstract to the common man as to seem meaningless.

It was also keenly frustrating.  After the victory of WW II, it was unfathomable to many that the greatest military power on earth found itself – after the first six dynamic months of the war – mired in a bloody two-and-a-half year stalemate.

Even more troubling was that so soon after the most momentous conflict in history – a war that had cost some 60 million souls globally – we were at war again.  The Great Crusade, it now sadly seemed, had resolved nothing; only traded one great threat for an apparently endless number of smaller ones.

Some Korean War movies propagandized (One Minute to Zero [1952], Retreat, Hell! [1952], The Steel Helmet [1951]), while others saluted the men tasked with fighting an ugly, unwanted war (The Bridges at Toko Ri [1954], Pork Chop Hill [1959]), but still others tapped into this postwar disillusionment, and none better than Men in War (1957).

Men in War is set in Korea, but director Anthony Mann keeps the enemy largely off-screen.  Its simple story of platoon leader Robert Ryan’s decimated platoon trying to find safe haven is the war story reduced to poetically bleak elementals.  Ryan and his men are any unit in any army in any war simply trying to get to the end of the day alive, fighting not for a cause but because, as Ryan says, “we’ve got no place else to go.”

That same disillusionment spilled over into Korean era WWII tales as moviemakers used the majestic stage of the Great Crusade as a platform to illustrate the futility, brutality, and insanity of war – any war, even those fought for the noblest of causes and with the best of intentions i.e.  Attack! (1956), The Young Lions (1958), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957 – ending with medic James MacDonald looking out over the finale’s carnage declaring, “Madness!  Madness!”).

Korea ended in not quite a victory, not quite a defeat, but something unpalatable enough that by the end of the ’50s, the country had pretty much pushed the war from the national consciousness.  If Korea was doomed to be America’s Forgotten War, Vietnam was to be the country’s great national trauma; one whose scars can still be found in U.S. foreign policy and military thinking to this day.

In the early ’60s, American involvement in Southeast Asia was limited to a few thousand advisors.  By 1968, the country had committed over 550,000 men to the effort, always upping its manpower ante on the military’s estimate that just a few more troops would bring a win.  With each boost in troop levels, victory remained a constantly receding horizon, and Vietnam began to look like a winless war without end.  The ongoing war led to protests, social unrest, a sense of broken faith between the people and the country’s leadership.  The apotheosis of the national agony was the 1970 killing of four Kent State University students by National Guardsmen during a protest over the expansion of the war into Cambodia.

Hollywood (in)famously avoided addressing the major issue of the day, and throughout the duration of the war – from the time combat troops first set foot in Vietnam in 1965 through the collapse of South Vietnam a decade later – there was only one major studio release about the conflict; John Wayne’s jingoistic and laughably simple-minded The Green Berets (1968).

The movie industry’s avoidance was understandable.  Making a movie viewed as supporting the war could alienate the generally antiwar young audience so critical to the box office.  On the other hand, to make a movie slamming the war might not only alienate older moviegoers, but risk antagonizing the government authorities who regulated and policed the business and media practices of the studios.

This didn’t mean Hollywood avoided making war movies.  In fact, it seemed to make movies about every war but the one in Vietnam – from purely action-adventures (The Guns of Navarone [1961], Von Ryan’s Express [1965]) to melodramas (The Blue Max [1965]) to near-surreal black comedies about the absurdities of armed conflict (Catch-22 [1970], Castle Keep [1969], M*A*S*H [1970]).

Though Hollywood avoided dealing with Vietnam directly, there were a number of releases over the period which, to some degree or another, alluded to the conflict (as well as to the sad fact that the country was, yet again, at war).  The Sand Pebbles (1966) found the same moral confusion, naïve idealism, national hubris, and ignorance of native peoples bedeviling the effort in Vietnam in America’s “gunboat diplomacy” in 1920s China; Shenandoah (1965) was an adamantly antiwar drama set during the American Civil War; Lost Command (1966) was a disturbingly prescient look at how Vietnam would play out through the experience of a French combat unit fighting a similar guerilla war in Algeria; the bitter Western Ulzana’s Raid (1972) was as much about what was going on in 1960s-70s Southeast Asia as it was about the 1880s Indian wars of the American southwest.

American audiences also found Vietnam resonating in a number of imports.  WWII had weakened the global empires of the European powers, and, for decades after, countries like Britain and France found themselves embroiled in wars of empire; conflicts between an outdated colonial mindset and exploding native nationalism.  The Europeans proved themselves more frank than Hollywood in dealing with their own Vietnams in movies like The Guns at Batasi (1964), The Battle of Algiers (1966), the allegorical Burn! (1969), and, one of the all-time best combat films, Zulu (1964), written and directed by Cy Endfield.

A dramatized version of the 1879 Battle of Rorke’s Drift in the British African colony of Natal, Zulu — like Men in War – seemed to encapsulate larger truths about so many of the conflicts which had followed WWII.  The soldiers are in a place they don’t want to be, fighting a war against an enemy they don’t know, for a purpose they don’t understand.  “Why us?” one frightened trooper asks.  “Because we’re here,” answers his sergeant, “and no one else.”

With the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, American moviemakers began to tentatively test audiences for their receptivity to movies about the war, but initial efforts – Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), Rolling Thunder (1977), Who’ll Stop the Rain? (1978), Go Tell the Spartans (1978) and The Boys in Company C (1978) — gained very little box office traction. But the success of Coming Home and The Deer Hunter (both 1978) showed, finally, a growing interest in America’s most troubling war, and a desire to understand the country’s first major military defeat.

While neither movie holds up particularly well – Coming Home now seems a too-neatly structured melodrama, and The Deer Hunter often comes off as a hysterical rant – they did open the door for what would be one of the definitive movies of the time as well as a timeless war movie:  Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).

Less a movie about Vietnam than a reworking of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it is precisely the movie’s Conradian core which extends the movie’s thematic reach beyond Vietnam to become a darkly poetic portrait of the moral corrosion and infectious insanity of combat.

Apocalypse was the Vietnam genre’s first major hit ($79 million domestic – over $200 million in today’s dollars), but despite that success, other moviemakers remained hesitant about following suit.  There was The Killing Fields (1984) about the spillover of the war into Cambodia, but the cultural catharsis didn’t come until Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986).

Unlike Coppola’s film, Platoon didn’t concern itself with larger philosophical issues, but only in giving a uniquely realistic representation of the grim existence of a U.S. infantryman in Vietnam (Stone himself had served in 1967).  The blockbuster success of Platoon ($139 million domestic) was enough to open the floodgates and the late 1980s into the early 1990s would see a torrent of Vietnam combat movies hit the screens.

But with a major difference.

Apocalypse Now and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) used Vietnam as the setting for an exploration of larger, existential themes, while Platoon placed itself squarely in the mind of a frightened front-line G.I., but all of them had addressed the curiosity of the mass audience regarding how and why the war had gone so badly.  There was, however, a more palatable picture of the war already asserting itself.

These were the years of the Reagan presidency, and Reagan rallied a country emotionally exhausted by the social upheavals of the 1960s-70s and dispirited by the loss in Vietnam by re-embracing the American myths that had taken such a beating over the previous 20 years:  that America was The Good Guy, was always The Good Guy always fighting in a good cause.  He recast Vietnam as a noble effort; a source of pride rather than an embarrassment.

Plugging into the new, patriotic national zeitgeist were movies like Rambo:  First Blood, Part II (1985), Uncommon Valor (1983), Missing in Action (1984 plus two sequels), Flight of the Intruder (1991) and others.  These movies re-fought Vietnam, showing it not to be the war we lost, but the war we could have – should have – won had it not been for weak-kneed politicians, misguided peaceniks, and soft-headed left-wing intellectuals.

This resurgent patriotic fervor showed up in a range of films about war and the military:  An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Red Dawn (1984), Iron Eagle (1986), The Delta Force (1986), Memphis Belle (1992), and most spectacularly in Top Gun (1986).

Grossing a whopping $177 million domestic (around $350 million in today’s dollars), Top Gun aped the fervent flag-waving of WWII era war movies even though it was their thematic antithesis.  While 1940s war movies made the case for the skills necessary to fight the war – discipline, teamwork, obedience – Top Gun struck a chord with young audiences with the generationally-appealing fantasy of a cocky, rule-breaking, go-his-own-way young hero so preternaturally skilled he could outfly even the best veteran pilots.  Director Tony Scott often interrupted the youth v. grown-ups drama for MTV-style montages set to thumping rock music.  Some critics called Top Gun the best TV commercial military recruiters ever had.

By the early 1990s, this cycle of war movies was burning itself out, and while the wars the country had successfully weathered since Vietnam had helped revitalize America’s self-image, they had been too nebulous – or questionable — in their meaning to add much to the popular culture.  The invasion of tiny Grenada in 1983 had provided the basis for the Clint Eastwood starrer Heartbreak Ridge (1986), but little else, and the 1989 invasion of Panama passed completely unremembered.  Strangely, America’s biggest military engagement since the end of Vietnam would make little impression at the movies, even though it had ended with the kind of king-sized decisive victory it seemed a self-doubting nation had been waiting on for 15 years.

In 1990, the U.S. led a large coalition of countries in pushing the occupying army of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein out of the small, oil-rich country of Kuwait.  The actual ground combat, which began in February 1991 after weeks of aerial bombardment, lasted only five days, but in that time the U.S.-led forces destroyed much of Hussein’s sizable military power and liberated Kuwait at a cost of less than 1400 killed and wounded.

Perhaps the war had been too quick, or too ambiguous (many wondered why the unstoppable U.S. forces had not gone all the way to Baghdad and toppled the Hussein regime).  Cynics thought – particularly in light of the pragmatic constraints on the war, such as leaving Hussein in power – this had been less a fight against oppression than a fight to maintain economic stability in the oil-dependent west.  In any case, though the mood in the country was buoyed by the quick win, few major films were inspired by the war:  Courage Under Fire (1995), a salute as straightforward as its title; and darkly comic, bitterly cynical Three Kings (1999) which mocked the soaring rhetoric of the war with the reality on the ground.

Throughout the 1980s and into the late 1990s, of whatever stripe, the war movie had been losing ground.  There had been a small handful of major hits (Rambo:  First Blood, Part II, Top Gun, Platoon), a few respectable midrange earners (Heartbreak Ridge, Full Metal Jacket, Born on the Fourth of July [1989], Courage Under Fire), but, as a genre, it seemed to be fading.

The war movie found new energy not in dealing with the ambiguous wars of the present, but by going back to the moral clarity of a long ago war:  WWII.  The revitalizing agent was Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Saving Private Ryan is such an oft-repeated classic these days, it’s hard to appreciate how brave and bold it was at the time.  It had been decades since a WWII combat movie had been a major box office success, and the last combat movies of any type to earn big had been the chest-thumping Top Gun and the grim Platoon 12 years before.  Spielberg made no attempt to appease or pander to get an audience in the doors.  Instead, he opted for blunt honesty, showing combat with a graphic stomach-turning realism never before seen in a mainstream film.  He managed the deft balancing act of saluting the sacrifice of WWII’s Greatest Generation without sanctifying them, showing how the desperation of combat can push the most decent of men to acts of callous brutality.  Ryan demonstrated the thesis Studs Terkel had laid out in his 1984 oral history of the Second World War, The Good War: that there was no such thing as a good war.

For all its horrific violence and deglamorization, Ryan earned $217 million domestic and won Spielberg an Oscar for Best Director.  And, as success usually does in Hollywood, it spawned a host of imitators.

In short order came a host of WWII actioners, some even aping the jittery camerawork and wrenching violence of Ryan:  The Thin Red Line (1998), U-571 (2000), Pearl Harbor (2001), Enemy at the Gates (2001), Windtalkers (2002), Hart’s War (2002), and director Clint Eastwood’s our-side/their-side pairing, Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (both 2006).  The patriotic fervor stirred up by Ryan filtered into other war movies as well:  Black Hawk Down (2001), a heroic portrayal of an ill-fated mission during the U.S.’ effort at nation-building in Somalia; the Bosnian bombing campaign provided the basis for Behind Enemy Lines (2001); and there was Vietnam-set We Were Soldiers (2002).  But few compared to Spielberg’s creative achievement, and none even came close to matching Ryan’s earnings.

Perhaps the problem was that America’s mind was on a new war…two of them, in fact.

In response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in October of 2001, and then Iraq in 2003.  In both cases, the period of ground combat was short, and the conventional forces of both countries soundly defeated.  It seemed that America was on a roll, militarily, anyway, but the giddiness of two quick victories began to evaporate as both wars stubbornly refused to conclude.  Instead, they devolved into grinding, low-intensity conflicts, wars with an often unseen enemy – or, as is the case in these faction-ridden tribalized countries, enemies.

The exuberance over what had, at first, seemed rapid-fire triumphs began to devolve as well, into frustration, puzzlement, and ultimately the sinking Vietnam-like sense that, again, the country was stuck in two endless wars, both of which it seemed we could neither win nor afford to lose.  After those opening months, there were no set-piece battles, few firefights.  They became steady-state wars of IEDs and drone attacks moved to the inside pages of the newspaper.

As both wars ground stubbornly on, Hollywood turned out a series of movies about America’s embroilment in the Middle East.  Some were big budget efforts (Jarhead, 2005), some intimate art house releases (In the Valley of Elah, 2007); some were among the best movies Hollywood could offer (The Hurt Locker, 2009), and others not so much (Lions for Lambs, 2007).  They came in all flavors:  espionage thriller (Syriana, 2005), political drama (Lions for Lambs, 2007), comedy-drama (Charlie Wilson’s War, 2007), documentary (Taxi to the Dark Side, 2007), empty-headed actioner (The Kingdom, 2007), even horror movie (Red Sands, 2009). But no matter the genre or the quality, they all remarkably shared one similar characteristic:

They didn’t perform.

The bigger earners never did better than midrange (Jarhead, Munich [2005], Charlie Wilson’s War, The Kingdom), standing as disappointments when measured against their costs.  Even the more intimate-sized films hit a wall early:  In the Valley of Elah — $6.7 million; Brothers (2009)$28.5 million; The Hurt Locker — $17 million.

In fact, going back to the movies which followed the first Gulf War of 1990-91, with the exception of Michael Moore’s heavy-handed and inflammatory documentary Fahrenheit 911 (2004 – $119 million domestic), not one American movie dealing with the Middle East has been a major commercial success, and most have been financial failures:

Three Kings (budget:  $75 million/U.S. box office:  60.7 million); Charlie Wilson’s War ($75m/66.7); Jarhead ($72m/62.7m); Courage Under Fire ($46m/61.7); Rules of Engagement (2000 — $60m/61m); Syriana ($50m/50.8m); The Kingdom ($70m/47.5m); Munich (2005 — $70m/47.4m); The Siege (1998 — $70m/40.9m); Brothers ($26m/28.5); Lions for Lambs ($35m/15m); Mighty Heart (2007 — $16m/9.2m); Rendition (2007 — $27.5m/9.2m); In the Valley of Elah ($23m/6.8m); Redacted (2007 — $5m/.065); Red Sands (less than $500,000/na).

Perhaps no movie better defines the wholesale rejection of cinematic consideration of the defining foreign policy issue of the day by the American moviegoer than the fate of The Hurt Locker. Despite near-universal critical acclaim culminating in a Best Picture Oscar as well as a Best Director award for Kathryn Bigelow, the movie crawled to a domestic take of $17 million, and barely earned back its spare $15 million budget only after overseas receipts were added in (a movie’s breakeven is typically twice its cost; Locker’s total worldwide take:  $32 million).

It is an unprecedented response.  In every decade prior, there can be found some box office reflection of the movie-going public’s desire to understand even its country’s most problematic conflicts, or at least buy into some myth of same.  In fact, every decade prior to the ’00s can boast at least a few war movies among the top earners of the period:  the ’20s had The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Big Parade, What Price Glory (1926) among the box office champs of the decade; the ’30s had All Quiet on the Western Front; the ’40s boasted For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), The Fighting 69th (1940), Sergeant York (1941), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), A Guy Named Joe (1944) and Sands of Iwo Jima; the ’50s brought Battleground, The Bridge on the River Kwai, From Here to Eternity (1953), The Caine Mutiny, Mr. Roberts (1955), Battle Cry (1955), To Hell and Back (1955); from the ’60s, The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Longest Day (1962), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) The Sand Pebbles (1967); the ’70s had Patton (1970), Tora!  Tora!  Tora! (1970), Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, M*A*S*H; the ’80s – Top Gun, An Officer and a Gentleman, Platoon, and First Blood and Rambo:  First Blood, Part II; and from the ’90s, A Few Good Men (1992) and Saving Private Ryan.

But since the century has turned, no war movie since Black Hawk Down and Pearl Harbor (both released in 2001) has crossed the $100 million mark in domestic earnings except for Quentin Tarantino’s comic bookish rewriting of World War II, Inglourious Basterds (2009 — $121 million).  Think of it:  a host of movies – some of them quite acclaimed – about one of the most pressing issues of the day go ignored, while only an over-the-top wish-fulfillment fantasy about a long-ago war can pull an audience.

There may be several things at work.

A number of educational and social studies surveys suggest that Gen X/Yers – the same age bracket which has been a box office cornerstone for decades – has limited interest in the issues of the day, though whether that’s the product of distraction in a world of infinitely varied electronic entertainment or disillusionment is open to argument (a personal observation:  in a university business class I teach, I asked my class of 22 where Libya was when news of the still on-going uprising broke; a few put it on the Suez Canal, some knew it was somewhere on the Mediterranean, but most had no idea at all nor seemed to particularly care).

Another factor may be the near complete isolation of most of the American public from the military experience.  Since WWI and up through Vietnam, U.S. combat forces have largely been made of up draftees.  Even in WWII, despite the nation’s wholesale commitment to fighting the war, about half of the massive military fielded by the U.S. was made up of draftees.  Truly citizen soldiers, they came home after the treaties were signed bringing their experiences back to mainstream America.

But after Vietnam, the U.S. converted to an all-volunteer service, and the overall size of this professional military has remained quite small.  Today, about 1.5 million men and women make up the country’s active duty forces in the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines, with another approximately 1.5 million in the reserves:  about one in every 100 Americans (compared to one in nine for WWII).

The nature of today’s wars has meant a limited number of veterans re-assimilating into the general population.  Korea produced 6.8 million veterans against a total population of 151 million (about one in every 21 Americans); Vietnam, 2.59 million against a population of 194 million (one in every 75).  But for as long as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have ground on, their limited scope and reliance on redeployments of the same units over and over has produced just 755,000 veterans – somewhere around one in 400.

The mass public – and particularly the young people historically tasked with fighting most of the country’s previous wars – are insulated from the impact of our present-day conflicts.  The military man is an alien concept to them which explains on-screen portrayals that, while popular, are frankly incredible.  Consider James Cromwell’s camp commander in military mystery The General’s Daughter (1999 — $103 million domestic) willing to accept the gang rape and murder of his serving daughter for the good of the Army; or Jack Nicholson’s sociopathic Guantanamo Marine commander in A Few Good Men ($141 million), a military courtroom drama about a commander who seems just fine with the accidental murder of one of his own men as part of maintaining discipline; or, in the same movie, Tom Cruise’s party-hearty, irreverent Navy lawyer, who comes off less a serving officer than a frat boy in uniform.

Is this important?  Does it matter?  After all, don’t we go to the movies simply to be entertained?

We have always wanted to be entertained by our movies.  But sometimes, we were entertained because a movie appealed to our interests.  We have, in the past, been interested in the experience of the men we have sent out to fight and sometimes die on our behalf, just as, at other times, we have been interested in the threats of nuclear war, racial intolerance, sexual politics, government conduct, police corruption — interested to a level that entertaining movies about such non-fun topics could produce significant coin for moviemakers.

But our interest – at least for many of those who are regular moviegoers – seems to have narrowed to the lightweight, the escapist, the fantasies fulfilled.  The real world doesn’t interest us much these days, or so it sometimes appears.

During the Vietnam days, young people unhappy with a war they saw as devouring their generation went into the streets to express their dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, while their elders went out into the streets to declare them un-American and tell them to get a haircut.

Today, we are in two equally unpopular wars.  Together, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost us over 5500 dead and over 35,000 wounded.

No one is in the streets.  They’ve all gone to the movies to watch Iron Man kick terrorist ass.

- Bill Mesce

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By Bill Mesce

Bill Mesce, Jr. is a produced screenwriter and playwright, and a published author of fiction and nonfiction, including Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema. He spent 27 years with pay-TV giant Home Box Office, and now teaches at several universities in his native New Jersey.

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7 Responses to An Uneasy Peace: The Disappearing War Film

  1. Noah Pancratz April 11, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    I think you underestimate the level of interest or understanding of current events in young people today. Modern technology accounts for more of the gap between previous generations then you give it credit for. Though gritty footage has been produced in no doubt every conflict since motion pictures existed, never before has the general population had such free access to these chilling testimonials until recently. In addition, the popularity of war-themed video games, such as the Halo series, Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and the like; all seem to indicate a high level of interest in the subject of warfare. Perhaps the change is in the form of media, rather than a disinterest in the topic. Recently, the Call of Duty franchise worldwide sales surpassed those of both the Harry Potter and Star Wars films; two of the top grossing film franchises of all time. I’m 31, and have served continuously in the Army since 1999. As a Veteran personally say that from my perspective, the people haven’t forgotten, nor are they any less fascinated by war. In fact, I think the fewer number of service members has made the topic more appealing or mysterious than ever before.

    Reply
  2. PB210 April 28, 2012 at 7:47 pm

    Sorry for the pedantry, but Rambo: First Blood Part II would have to count as an espionage film, for the very simple reason that Rambo in this film receives a mission in which he must acquire information not otherwise available through normal investigation (i.e. the presence of MIAs in Vietnamese camps)-which verbatim fits the definition of espionage.

    Curiously, espionage films often come as very childish. Mostly, the more prolific film series turn into apolitical battles with criminal masterminds. Can anyone name any prominent R-rated espionage film series? Nick Carter and other espionage novel series did not receive adaptations.

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  3. Steve Szilagyi July 25, 2011 at 4:19 am

    Great overview. A lot to learn and make a note to see here. I love this: “A Wing and a Prayer (1944) makes America’s first six months of losses in the Pacific look like part of a master plan to bait the Japanese into a trap at Midway.”

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  4. velouria June 25, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    In this part of the information age, people who are interested in current events don’t need to go to the movies to see what our modern/current wars are like. Whether war movies are epic or intimate, they can’t compare to even the crappiest youtube cameraphone footage of real-time destruction or real life war drama. This can make war movies, whether they are anti-war or just big budget recruiting videos, feel pandering and false.

    Where do movies like Braveheart, Gladiator, 300 or even Lord of the Rings fit into the equation? (I specifically mention those because every male I know has seen or loved all of those movies.) Maybe audiences would rather just see fictionalized depictions of war set in other times and other realities.

    Really though, the financial success of any film is some mysterious combination of quality, marketing, and luck. None of the movies dealing with the Middle East mentioned in the article had it, but that doesn’t mean the next one won’t. If one becomes a big enough hit, more such movies will follow. If the output of war movies about the Middle East is high enough, some of those are bound to be hits also.

    With all that said, I think Saving Private Ryan would still be a huge success if released today. I couldn’t say the same for Full Metal Jacket, M*A*S*H, or Apocalypse Now, even though I love those movies. Can’t really explain why.

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    • Bill Mesce June 27, 2011 at 6:24 pm

      Velouria –
      I hadn’t thought of that whole YouTube angle, but we’ve had newsreel footage for a long time, and during Vietnam some of it was pretty grisly.
      What we’ve always looked for in our more resonant movies — no matter the subject — is some on-point articulation of either the artist’s feelings on the subject and/or that of the audience. In other words, watching nightly newsreel footage of the ongoing carnage in Vietnam didn’t numb us to APOCALYPSE NOW; we went to APOCALYPSE NOW to see the chaos of real-life some how assembled into a coherent statement about that experience to help us gain some sort of insight or better understanding of what happened.
      So, while I think your point is worth investigating, I’m still inclined to think that’s not the reason.
      I think the reason the movies you mentioned were such hits with males was there were a lot of elements that do appeal to male (and particularly young male) heroic fantasies. Those were all movies with an almost blinding moral clarity that most real wars (and the better war movies) don’t have. Just keep going back — FULL METAL JACKET, PLATOON, ATTACK!, MEN IN WAR, PORK CHOP HILL, BATTLEGROUND, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT — the war movies that were not about adventure, that were trying to capture something honest about the experience, don’t provide the same kind of uplift that LORD OF THE RINGS and others do. Instead, it’s war as a dirty business that’s less about causes (for the combat soldier) than about survival.
      And you’re right: I’m not sure if APOCALYPSE and the others would make it commercially today.
      Very insightful, provocative observation and I thank you for it.

      Reply
  5. kaiser June 6, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    I notice how all of the reasons you give for the demise of the war movie are negative or neutral. This may sound hopelessly naive, but perhaps one reason for the demise of the war movie is that, like the biblical quote states at the beginning of your essay, Americans are finally growing tired of war.

    You point out the ignorance of Gen X/Yers to world events but fail to mention they are perhaps the most tolerant, least prejudiced, and least violent generation in American history, and being influenced by their parents’ ideals and certainly on some level (if not consciously) by the gruesome events of the 20th Century, simply tend to simply assume war is a great evil, a far cry from the glorification of war by many societies throughout human history. As one of the older members of “Gen Y” this has been my observation. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are minor in comparison to previous conflicts, and if the draft had been instituted, the latter war would almost certainly have never happened.

    P.S. It’s odd how you jumped past The Thin Red Line as though it hardly deserved a mention in the company of Saving Private Ryan, even though it came out the same year, was not influenced by SPR and may be the most apolitical and profound war movie ever made, so much so that I find it difficult to define TTRL solely as a war movie. Just my opinion of course, as your opinion is yours.

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    • Bill Mesce June 8, 2011 at 6:53 am

      Kaiser –

      All good points and well made. I could’ve made this piece twice as long and still not have covered all the films I would have liked to touch on in the detail I’d have wished.
      THE THIN RED LINE would have required a nuanced discussion and I made an editorial choice. Malick’s film was, indeed, poetic, but whatever one thinks of it qualitatively, few went to see it. Popularity is not any kind of gauge of quality by any means, but at the same time it did mean the film had very little cultural impact, certainly nothing compared to the impact RYAN made. Again, this is not to say that one film is better than the other, but certainly one plugged into something in the mass consciousness that the other didn’t, and therefore I felt it was more relevant to the thesis I was following.
      Your point that X/Yers are the most tolerant, least prejudiced generation is well-taken, certainly in matter of race, religion, sexual preference. I would, however, as an old fart, make the case that they can be age-ist (although probably no more so than my Boomer cohort was toward our parents’ generation). I might also take some small issue with that matter of being “least violent” — we didn’t have school shootings (we had riots and ROTC building burnings instead).
      But your point that X/Yers have shunned war movies because they universally think war is evil is more debatable. One of their generational trademarks is to make bestsellers of videogames like CALL OF DUTY which hardly suggests they think war is such a malevolent thing that it can’t be the source of entertainment. I would make the point that something like COD trivializes the tragedy of war much more than a movie like THE HURT LOCKER.
      Your point also suggests that previous generations went to war movies because they didn’t think of war as evil — or at least to the extent the current generation does, and that’s simply plain wrong. Many of the strongest war movies from the immediate postwar period up through 80s movies like PLATOON and FULL METAL JACKET were all about deglamorizing war, tearing away the myth of great crusades, and exposing the insanity, the casual brutality and — yes — the contagious evil of war.
      Keeping in mind we’re speaking in generalities here as discussions like this tend to do. Within every generational cohort there are millions of individuals who run against general trends, and certainly your perceptive, well-written comments make that point.
      I appreciate your taking the time to share them with me.

      Reply

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