Free Film School #85: War! What is it Good For?

Professor Witney Seibold traces the history of the war movie, wonders if all war movies share a common agenda, and uses war movies as a cultrual litmus test. 

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

Welcome back, my humble students, to your next bout of mind-blowing cinema enlightenment known 'round these parts as the Free Film School, CraveOnline's one and only award-whining film university, guaranteed to make you three times smarter (results may vary). Even if I can't physically grow your brain (which has been known to happen), I can, at the very least, make you thoughtfully mull over a particular facet of the film world that you may not have ordinarily thought about. This week's topic is going to be movies about the military, particularly the American military. "War Movies" for short. I will look back haphazardly over the genre's history, and remark on how the nation's views of combat have shaped the filmmaking on the topic, and ponder how war movies may all be pro- or anti-war, depending on how you look at it.

War, man. What is it good for? As it turns out, hundreds of movies. War, as long as there have been humans to fight in them, has been one of the central cruxes of human drama, and an easy logical extreme for all forms of dramatic conflict. What happens when Helen is stolen? A war. What happens when courtiers argue over the color of their favorite rose? War. What happens when the Rebels steal secret Death Star blueprints? War. War can depict humans at their most heroic and their most barbaric. Death and killing on a massive scale is a horrible thing in real life, but makes for some thrilling action sequences. War is so complex and violent and dramatic, it's no wonder that feature films have visited them again and again, stretching all the way across both the history of film and the history of warfare. Anywhere from the Battle of Thermopylae to the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Aside from religion, nothing raises the passions, the ire, the opinions, and the hackles of humanity quite as dramatically as warfare.

Hollywood has been making war movies since, well, the very beginning. One of the most-lauded (and most hotly contested) films of all time is probably D.W. Griffith's masterwork The Birth of a Nation from 1915. The 190-minute epic is an awesome spectacle that moved filmmaking aesthetics forward leaps and bounds. I will ignore for the time being how outwardly racist the film is, and how it glorifies the KKK. The first film to have won the Academy Award for Best Picture was William Wellman's 1927 film Wings, a war picture about World War I fighter pilots. The third to win Best Picture was All Quiet on the Western Front, also a WWI film. By my count, about 15 films have won the award; most recently, Kathryn Bigelow's 2009 film The Hurt Locker. The genre is eternal, as wars are always interesting and topical. Not a year has passed without a few war movies.

Two conflicting views are constantly bickering over the central notion of war movies. Are they all pro-war, or are they all anti-war? In my Free Film School lecture on product placement, I mentioned briefly that most war movies require the participation of the military just to get made. To elaborate: If a filmmakers wants any modicum of verisimilitude in their military picture, they will have to use realistic uniforms, real tanks, real guns, etc. And while a costumer and a prop guy and a special effects gal can recreate these things, it makes more sense (both financially and aesthetically) to get the real deal; why make hundreds of military uniforms when the US government already has them at the ready? But if you're going to borrow uniforms and tanks from the government, you might have to strike a deal with them; it's entirely likely that the military will not participate unless the message of your film jibes – at least in part – with an ethos they're comfortable with. I don't think too many screenplays have been too dramatically altered to coincide with the military's wishes (at least not since WWII ended), but it's entirely likely that a military advisor was on set to make sure the picture being produced wasn't an outright political slam against the military.

And even if the military isn't keeping any sort of tabs on the film's direct content – however political or anti-military it may be – it can be argued that the manner in which a filmmaker shoots the military can come across as glorified or fetishized on some way. Michael Bay, for instance, has never been enlisted in the military, and has only made one proper war film (Pearl Harbor), but those of you who have seen his other movies have likely noticed the overwhelming amount military footage included in each. Each of Michael Bay's movies tend to feature long and loving shots of guns firing, vehicles blowing up, men in uniform, more guns, more explosions. These movies glorify the military as if they're advertising for recruitment. This was one of my central complaints about the recent film Act of Valor, which was so ineptly made, it made the real-life soldiers (cast as actors in the movie) look like political advertising mouthpieces. There is an entire class of people in this country who like to study wars, learn the details of the violence, analyze the strategies, and, in some cases, re-enact real-life battles. Guys who talk about war movies with a wistful and positive light. No doubt, they see most war films as pro-war films. There is a wistful nostalgia to war films; they tend to depict a conflict in its most simple state. No moral uncertainty in the trenches. No political wrangling on the battlefield. Just kill the Bad Guys.

Does that mean all war films are secretly propaganda? It could certainly be argued that way. It could be said that all war films are, on at least one level, trying to depict how great and glorious being a soldier can be. I do want to state, however, that propaganda can be exhilarating, and is not necessarily bad in itself; some American films about fighting in WWII that were made during WWII are shamelessly patriotic and boldly pro-American, while also being caustically anti-German and anti-Japanese. And yet, they are grand and awesome and often fun to watch. Although many of them strike modern audiences as grossly insensitive. If you can find some of the Warner Bros. cartoon shorts from WWII, you'll find pleas to buy war bonds and racist caricatures everywhere; there's actually a cartoon short called Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips. I will have more to say about propaganda movies in a future Free Film School lecture.

A war film I love that actually kind-of glorifies war: Peter Weir's 2003 film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. That's a film that made me want to live on a Napoleonic warship, swinging on ropes and firing cannons. I'm typically very much a dove when it comes to war talk, but some historical films make war life seem amazing.

Some critics, however, tend to argue the very opposite. It can just as easily be said, you see, that any war film is an anti-war film. All you need to do is depict combat exactly as it is, and you've made an anti-war film. You've shown just how harrowing, how violent, how brutal, how gut-wrenchingly traumatic war can be. Many war films – especially those set during World War II – also tend to be about the non-soldier victims of war, and that's not something you ever want to glorify. The Holocaust was a horrible time, and shows that, even in the modern world, humanity can be bestial and awful. Nothing really inspiring about that. There's a reason (perhaps several) why Schindler's List is rarely mentioned alongside the films of Michael Bay.

One of the central criticisms of last year's Zero Dark Thirty (highly-lauded by CraveOnline), seems to be its odd apolitical stance. It doesn't glorify war, nor does it lambast it, which is a dangerous stance for a film dealing with such politically touchy subject matter. Osama bin Laden sparked a series of wars that America is actually still involved in to this day. Odd that the hunt for this man should be presented without too much comment. Zero Dark Thirty is impeccable about notions of military structure, but doesn't moralize about the horrible tortures that American used to obtain certain pieces of information. Some feel that perhaps it should have moralized at least a little. Or, at the very least, stretched past its procedural structure into a more emotionally complex plane. I admire the restraint that the director displayed in her approach, but I understand the criticism.

As American history has progressed, and more and more wars have been lamentably fought, the way we look at wars in our movies has understandably evolved. Often, filmmakers will use film as a means to culturally analyze a war that is currently being fought. Let's walk briefly through the wars that America has fought in since the inception of cinema, and muse very briefly on the way we have filmed them in real time. This is a dandy way to learn not just the history of American wars, but the social views we had of those wars.

Films about The Great War, a.k.a World War I (which was fought from 1914-1918 to refresh your memory) tend to skew romantic and melodramatic. WWI films, however, weren't really being made until the decade after the war had ended, so it was easy for filmmakers to look back on that war with romance and nostalgia. As a result, we tend to, today, look at WWI with a modicum of romance. Tales of lost loves reuniting abound. Even Steven Spielberg's recent WWI film War Horse was less about the violence of that war (there's only one scene with mustard gas), and more about a child-friendly sentimental journey about a particularly bright horsie and his human best friend.

World War II, I don't think I have to mention. Movies about WWII are so vast and varied, they practically contain subgenres. Hitler, etc. You know the stories, and if you don't, the movies will teach you soon enough. Modern movies about WWII (that don't have Captain America in them, anyway) tend to skew tragic, and focus on the horrors suffered by all the Europeans who were victimized by the Nazis and their allies. Schindler's List is a prime example. American films made during WWII, however, as I already mentioned, seem to be rallying cries for American soldiers. WWII was, if movies are to be any indicator, a wholly unambiguous and wholly heroic war effort on the part of America. As such, films about American soldiers from the '40s tend to be about military triumph and bold archetypes. Some have said that WWII was the last time a war was “good” in America. America, however, wasn't the only one boostering its military. Germany produced one of the most famous propaganda films of all time with Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will, a documentary all about the glories of the Nazi party. I'll have more to say about that film in a lecture of its own.

Few films were made about the Korean War while it was being fought. Perhaps one can take this as an indicator that war (or the public perception of war) was becoming increasingly inscrutable, and harder to read. The bold, easy, black-and-white morals of WWII were giving way to political wrangling and odd, underhanded motives. This was a war that seemed much more about secrets and spies than it was about combat. As such, the best Korean War film was probably 1963's awesome The Manchurian Candidate, which was all about conditioning and underhanded mind control. I suppose once soldiers returned from WWII, and started displaying the trauma of having survived it, cynicism about warfare began to enter the American consciousness. Watch the 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives sometime. It's a surprisingly sophisticated classic about post-WWII ennui.

1960-1975 saw the Vietnam war, which I'd rather not describe in too much detail. The movies have taught us that the Vietnam War was a shapeless quagmire of death, fought for still-unclear reasons, and leading to the unneeded deaths of millions. Many, many films were made about Vietnam during Vietnam. One of the best war films of all time is probably Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 epic Apocalypse Now. Based not-so-loosely on a Joseph Conrad novel, Apocalypse Now presented the Vietnam war as a psychedelic phantasmagoria of freewheeling and unknowable war actions that led to jungle cults and insanity. All notions of the soldier-as-hero were gone. The soldier was now a government-created killbot that glorified in death, but had torturous pangs from the place where its soul had been removed. It was made a few years after the fact, but Stanley Kubrick's brilliant 1987 film Full Metal Jacket was devoted mostly to the process that American marines must go through in order to be trained for combat. That film argues that boot camp is not for training. It's for conditioning. Many films followed in the immediate wake of Vietnam showing the trauma that soldiers suffered. Anything from Rolling Thunder to Coming Home to The Deer Hunter. War, it turns out, is not healthy.

Maybe the heavy-handed war moralizing was too much for American audiences, for the war films of the 1980s tended to be of the badass variety. Sure, there were still harrowing classics like Oliver Stone's Platoon, but we also had explosion-heavy, violence worshiping films like Rambo III and Commando. Much of American cinema of the 1980s seemed to be about spectacle and excess and fantasy, largely brought on by the success of Star Wars. Now war was the purview of fantasy heroes like Luke Skywalker and badasses like John Matrix. Serious comments about Grenada, Nicaragua, and Panama are hard to find. Although I recommend Alex Cox's 1987 acid western Walker as the best film about Nicaragua.

The 1990s saw the first invasion of Iraq, but the '90s were an age of political correctness, so finding films about the Persian Gulf war that were made in 1990 or 1991 are thin on the ground; it was gauche to discuss it openly in entertainment. It wasn't until films like Three Kings and Jarhead that we began to see the new military experience. The Persian Gulf was about military impotence, according to these films, and how the desert setting of these wars was unlike anything American soldiers had yet been through. The ambiguity of the enemy was even less clear, and the enemy was amorphous.

The wars that have begun since 2001 have been plentiful and hugely complex. All of the many, many movies that have been about the second Iraq invasion and the Afghanistan war are all about the mystery of the enemy. Movies seem to be tracing the ever-retreating assurance of a solid enemy. Also, as the years have passed, the magnifying lens is shifting focus away from the enemy soldiers in faraway lands, and more toward the American government that is largely responsible for making all the bad decisions and keeping unwinnable wars going. I think 2009's The Hurt Locker is one of the best films about the current wars, as it focuses closely on the psychology of the soldier, and how the trauma suffered in combat can actually be an addictive force. The more recent wars have also been the subject of many insightful documentaries scrutinizing how these war got started and, more importantly, where they are going. A great film is No End in Sight. The documentary film seems to be this generation's form of folk protest. Our parents and grandparents marched in protest and sang spirited anti-war songs. We're sitting in theaters, and making indie documentaries.

The best war film of all time is the seven-part documentary series Why We Fight, made from 1942 to 1945. Many of the parts were made by famed Americana master Frank Capra. Why We Fight was most certainly a propaganda film intended to boost support for American involvement in WWII, but it seemed to be thoughtful, almost maudlin, about the need for war at all. Capra was a pacifist at heart, I think, and seemed torn between the need to win the war, and the need to dismiss it and shoot instead for a prevailing peace. The films are bold and heart-warming and stridently patriotic, but seem to be couched in a difficult-to-define ambivalence. If you want to know how Americans really felt about WWII, Why We Fight may be your clearest view.

Why do we fight? Fighting is, perhaps lamentably, in our nature. Why do we film it? Because it's dramatic. Are there great movies to be seen? Oh indeed. Ultimately, though, what war movies really seek is the one promised result of all wars. The one thing that we started fighting to protect.


Homework for the Week:

Do you feel war films glorify war, or eschew it? Can propaganda be exciting to watch, even if you're aware of its purpose? Do you feel movies are clear cultural indicator of how the nation feels about war? What's the best war movie? Why is it the best? Also, be sure to watch Why We Fight and Apocalypse Now. Anyone thinking of entering the military should also see Full Metal Jacket

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies ExtendedFree Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.