Sunday, October 07, 2007

War stories

For the past few years, I have taught a course at the University of Houston -- Social Aspects of Film -- with a syllabus designed to make students more informed and critical viewers as they approach war on film and films on wars. To that end, we've examined the various ways that various wars – ranging from The Great War to The Gulf War, and beyond – have been rendered in cinema. We look at how filmmakers have prepared the nation for global conflicts, boosted morale with celebrations of men (and, occasionally, women) in combat – and, during post-war eras, re-examined attitudes and assumptions while questioning the morality of war.

Naturally, a major chunk of the course is devoted to the Vietnam War -- and, specifically, to the ways Hollywood-produced features of the 1960s and early '70s often alluded to U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, even as Hollywood conspicuously avoiding the production of "combat movies" (in the traditional sense of that term) set in Vietnam. (The exception that proves the rule: John Wayne's The Green Berets.)

So it is with more than pasing interest that I devoured Carrie Rickey's thoughtful article about recent and upcoming movies dealing head-on with the Iraq War. (Thanks to David Poland for the tip.) Some money quotes:

"When it comes to protest films, 'it's traditional to see movies set in a previous war that are implicitly critical of the current one,' notes [film historian Jeanine] Basinger, citing M*A*S*H. Though the 1970 black comedy was set in a Korean War medical unit, its allusions are to Vietnam.

"It's also traditional, she notes, just prior to U.S. involvement in war, to detect a call to arms in films. In the run-up to Iraq, Black Hawk Down and Behind Enemy Lines (both 2001) framed war as a fight for humanitarian values in, respectively, Somalia and Bosnia.

"'The movies that explicitly ask, "Is the war worth it?" - historically, those films come out after the conflict has ended,' says Basinger. The Best Years of Our Lives was released a year after World War II, Men in War after the Korean conflict, Coming Home and The Deer Hunter after Vietnam, and Three Kings after the Persian Gulf War.

"'That these films are coming forward during the progress of a war and questioning it sooner may mean that the general public is rejecting what our leaders are telling us . . . and want to know more about the war,' she suggests.

"During World War II, Hollywood complied with the nonmilitary Office of War Information, which aimed to have movies show an America united behind the war effort. Today there are no such guidelines, 'in contrast to that period,' says Phil Strub, Department of Defense public affairs officer."

BTW: Six years ago, many observers duly noted the flurry of war-related movies that invaded theaters and drive-ins everywhere in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But I often have wondered: Why were these movies already green-lit -- already produced, already in the pipeline -- long before the planes crashed into the Twin Towers? Basinger views these films collectively as "a call to arms." But if so, why was that call made? To put it another way: What was in the air during, say, 1999 and 2000 that made so many producers so eager to make war movies?

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