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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

State of war movies

I deliberately left the impression last time that I would be continuing my self-indulgent reminisces of my favorite old cult television show Dark Shadows. And I will.

But before I get back to that, I thought I would update you on a previous column in which I reported on a New York Times report on the status of war movies in the post-9/11 era. At that point, The Times was telling us that Hollywood was holding back on releasing war movies because the studios weren’t sure if American audiences were ready to see war images on the big screen so soon after the terrorist attacks on the eastern U.S. The article was certainly correct that some big war movies, like Black Hawk Down and Windtalkers, were released later than originally planned. But it turns out that I was correct (for once) in questioning its conclusion that the renaissance of the war movie genre was about to end.

Not only did Behind Enemy Lines do well at the box office, but Black Hawk Down currently seems fairly well ensconced in the No. 1 slot. Not only that, but every time I go to the cinema I always see the same trailers for the upcoming Mel Gibson movie, We Were Soldiers, the new Bruce Willis movie, Hart’s War, and some new Arnold Schwarzenegger flick that (in a daring departure from any of his previous movies) has him single-handedly seeking revenge against evil terrorists. It would appear that, if any film genre is in danger of disappearing, it would be the non-war-film genre.

To help us understand this phenomenon, we have recently been provided with, yes, another in-depth article by The New York Times. The writer this time is author and film critic Neal Gabler. In his piece, he posits that the way mainstream war movies portray military commanders is a reflection of how American society views authority in general. As a result, movies about World War II portrayed military commanders as stern but compassionate, reflecting a period of moral clarity. As years passed and the morality became less clear, military commanders came to be seen more as pompous and deserving of ridicule, as in Catch-22. (M*A*S*H, about the Korean war, is another good example of this.) By the time films caught up with the complete moral confusion of the Vietnam war (Gabler’s examples include Apocalypse Now and Born on the Fourth of July), the commanders were seen as “confused and compromised.”

Now, suggests Gabler, we have come full circle. Movies like Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down show commanders regaining the moral high ground—but with a difference. The World War II commander, typified by John Wayne in Nicholas Ray’s Flying Leathernecks, sees the moral purpose of the war as higher than his men’s lives. He does not hesitate to send men to their deaths to win the war. In the new crop of war movies the commanders are more empathetic. In Saving Private Ryan, generals send Tom Hanks and his men to save Matt Damon because he is the last surviving son in his family. In Black Hawk Down, Major General Sam Shepard visibly agonizes while watching television monitors that show a mission going terribly wrong, and he orders that no man be left behind.

If this is how Americans now view authority figures, it is no wonder that George W. Bush’s approval ratings continue to hover in the 80s, well above any other president’s since Harrison Ford in Air Force One.

While I think that the notion of popular war movies reflecting popular attitudes on military commanders is a no-brainer, I personally believe that Gabler is on shaky ground in suggesting that these attitudes thereby extend to all authority figures. What he neglects to mention in his summary of Black Hawk Down is the prominent plot point of the major general requesting (and being refused by Washington) additional resources for the mission—for purely political reasons. That this actually happened in real life does not take away from the fact that this is a theme that has run through American war movies since the Rambo series (and was most recently seen in Spy Game): the idea that the military has its hands tied by craven, self-serving bureaucrats and politicians in Washington. Republicans must be thrilled with Black Hawk Down, since it will escape few viewers’ attention that this story, now being told in a period of extreme patriotism, happened under a Democrat administration.

(On a barely related note, if we want to understand the mindset of Texas energy executives, we are best off watching reruns of the 1980s TV series Dallas, which in hindsight seems absolutely prophetic in its depiction of the outrageous business shenanigans of modern-day financial cowboys.)

Anyway, I think it is safe to say that if President Bush gets the military budget he is currently asking for, it will be difficult for any movie about any American war in the 21st century to ever use lack of support from Washington as a credible plot device again.

-S.L., 7 February 2002

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