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War Films Essay, Research Paper

In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American war were grist for American movies' mill, mostly in romantic flag-wavers which boasted little action. The war film as it is known today — violent dramatizations of men in combat — emerged with the world's first experience of modern warfare, World War I. This study therefore excludes films set against conflicts of previous centuries; readers should consult the articles on epic and historical films for the treatment of pre-20th-century wars. This article will focus chiefly on the films built around the combat of World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. In the mid teens, as Europe sank into war, pacifist feelings were still strong in America. Woodrow Wilson, having kept America out of the conflict, was re-elected President in 1916. That same year, three important films denouncing war were released. D.W. Griffith's experimental masterpiece Intolerance included the bloody fall of Babylon among its four narratives; Civilization, directed by Thomas H. Ince, depicted a Christlike pacifist who warns against war; and Herbert Brenon's War Brides starred Alla Nazimova as a woman who kills herself and her unborn baby rather than supply the next generation of cannon fodder. In April of 1917 America entered the Great War; by that year, Intolerance had flopped at the box-office, Civilization was being sold as the anti-German drama it really was, and War Brides was withdrawn from circulation. Dominating the screen was producer/director Cecil B. De Mille, who with writer Jeanie Macpherson made two popular war dramas: Joan The Woman (1917), which combined narratives of Joan of Arc and a modern soldier fighting to help France, and The Little American (1917), in which Mary Pickford was menaced by bestial Huns. The latter's success, along with the pro-war fever sweeping the nation, established a pattern for America's 1918 films set on the battlefields of Europe. Griffith's Hearts Of The World starred Lillian Gish; Erich von Stroheim had a minor role as a Prussian brute, and soon was committing atrocities in The Unbeliever and The Heart Of Humanity. Other films that year include Lest We Forget, The Kaiser — Beast Of Berlin, and For Valor. Griffith also included the war in The Great Love and The Greatest Thing In Life, as did De Mille in Till I Come Back To You. Although the conflict ended in November of 1918, Hollywood continued to fight it in many 1919 releases, such as False Faces, The Unpardonable Sin, and Griffith's The Girl Who Stayed At Home. In France, Abel Gance made the anti-war J'Accuse, using real soldiers and footage shot at the front. Audiences of the 1920s wanted to forget the last decade's tragedies, but four noteworthy films found box-office gold re-opening old wounds. The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse (1921), directed by Rex Ingram, made a star of Rudolph Valentino. The Big Parade (1925), produced and directed by King Vidor, was a moving account of doughboys fighting in France. What Price Glory? (1926), directed by Raoul Walsh, adapted the hit play by Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings. Wings (1927), directed by former pilot William A. Wellman, offered dazzling scenes of aerial combat. Wings also made a star of Gary Cooper, who returned to the air in 1928 with Wellman's The Legion Of The Condemned and Lilac Time, produced and directed by George Fitzmaurice. Flying aces were equally popular in talkies, with two 1930 features: The Dawn Patrol, directed by Howard Hawks, and Hell's Angels, directed by Howard Hughes. Hughes' dialogue director was James Whale, who debuted as a director that same year with the bleak Journey's End, adapting the R.C. Sherriff play which he'd also staged in London. The year's classic, however — and one of the classics of American sound film — was director Lewis Milestone's All Quiet On The Western Front (1930), an adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's novel. This powerful anti-war plea, which depicted young Germans increasingly disillusioned by the horrors of combat, was a great popular and critical success; its companion piece that year was the German production Westfront 1918, directed by G.W. Pabst. Several Hollywood films went on to denounce the sufferings of the Great War: The Man I Killed (1932), about a guilt-haunted war veteran, directed by Ernst Lubitsch; A Farewell To Arms (1932), an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's novel, directed by Frank Borzage and starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes; Hawks' Today We Live (1933) and The Road To Glory (1936), both co-scripted by William Faulkner; and Ace Of Aces (1933) with Richard Dix and The Eagle And The Hawk (1933) with Fredric March, which both criticized the romance of air warfare. The war was treated more for thrills than sermonizing by director John Ford in The Lost Patrol (1934) and Submarine Patrol (1938). Edmund Goulding helmed the 1938 remake of Hawks' The Dawn Patrol, now with a more pro-war tone as World War II was about to ignite. The previous year, two classic French films had tried to warn against the coming catastrophe: Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion looked at the hardships of French P.O.W.s during the war, and Abel Gance's talking remake J'Accuse starred Victor Francen as a scientist who resurrects the war dead. Also in 1937, Franchot Tone was a rookie who overcame his aversion to killing and became a gangster after the war in They Gave Him A Gun, directed by W.S. Van Dyke; but in 1941, when Gary Cooper overcame his aversion to killing, he became the most decorated American hero of World War I in Hawks' hit biopic Sergeant York. By 1942, the United States was at war, and for the duration of the conflict, Hollywood churned out a torrent of patriotic films, including many box-office hits. Germany met defeat after defeat in Captains Of The Clouds (1942), Commandos Strike At Dawn (1942), The Eagle Squadron (1942), The North Star (1943), The Immortal Sergeant (1943), Winged Victory (1944), and God Is My Co-Pilot (1945); Japan was overcome in Guadalcanal Diary (1943), Hawks' Air Force (1943), Delmer Daves' Destination Tokyo (1943), De Mille's The Story Of Dr. Wassell (1944), and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Other notable war films of the period include John Wayne in Flying Tigers (1942) and The Fighting Seabees (1944), the Africa-campaign actioner Sahara (1943), China Girl (1942), Wing And A Prayer (1942), Bataan (1943), Farrow's Wake Island (1942), Action In The North Atlantic (1943), directed by Lloyd Bacon. Many Hollywood directors enlisted and made military documentaries; powerful accounts of war include John Ford's Battle Of Midway (1942), William Wyler's Memphis Belle (1943), and John Huston's San Pietro (1945). The British also made many noteworthy films of their struggle against the Nazis, such as In Which We Serve (1942), One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, We Dive At Dawn, and The Way Ahead (1944). In 1945, the last year of the war, the Hollywood flagwavers included John Wayne in Back To Bataan, directed by Edward Dmytryk; Raoul Walsh's Objective, Burma! with Errol Flynn; and Korda's Counter-Attack with Paul Muni. Three outstanding films also released that year, however, looked more realistically at the tragedies of war. A Walk In The Sun, directed by Lewis Milestone and written by Robert Rossen, scrutinized a veteran G.I. combat unit in Italy. Wellman's The Story Of G.I. Joe dramatized the reportage of war correspondent Ernie Pyle, and made a star of Robert Mitchum. John Ford's They Were Expendable with John Wayne examined the American defeat in the Philippines. Immediately after the war, Hollywood offered moving features of disabled veterans with Delmer Daves' Pride Of The Marines (1945) and the classic The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946), directed by William Wyler. Yet in 1949, three of the biggest hits were patriotic combat films: Wellman's Battleground, re-creating the Battle of the Bulge; Sands Of Iwo Jima with John Wayne, a Pacific actioner directed by Allan Dwan; and Twelve O'Clock High, a psychological drama of the bombing raids over Germany, directed by Henry King and starring Gregory Peck. Less significant at the box-office that year, but a telling hint of the films to come, was Home Of The Brave, an account of racism among American soldiers, directed by Mark Robson, produced by Stanley Kramer, and written by Carl Foreman.Films about the Pacific conflict were plentiful in the '50s. Among the box-office hits were Milestone's The Halls Of Montezuma (1950), the James Jones adaptation From Here To Eternity (1953), directed by Fred Zinnemann, Walsh's Battle Cry (1955), and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), directed by John Huston. The Japanese were also engaged in American Guerilla In The Philippines (1950), directed by Fritz Lang, China Venture (1953), directed by Don Siegel, Destination Gobi (1953) and Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), both directed by Robert Wise, and Walsh's The Naked And The Dead (1958), with writers Denis and Terry Sanders watering down the novel by Norman Mailer. James Mason played Rommel in Hathaway's The Desert Fox (1951) and Wise's Desert Rats (1953), but other than minor actioners such as Burt Topper's Hell Squad (1958), the Africa campaign attracted little attention. More films were made about Europe, most notably producer/director Robert Aldrich's Attack! (1956), a brutal drama of cowardice and failure. The box-office hits were the rousing To Hell And Back (1955), with Audie Murphy, the most decorated American hero of World War II, playing himself, and The Young Lions (1958), directed by Edward Dmytryk, an adaptation of Irwin Shaw's novel about disillusionment among both the Americans and the Germans. Other important films of the European conflict include Force Of Arms (1951), directed by Michael Curtiz; The Wild Blue Yonder (1951), directed by Allan Dwan; Nicholas Ray's Bitter Victory (1957); The Enemy Below (1957), directed by Dick Powell; Wellman's Darby's Rangers (1958); and Topper's Tank Commandos (1959). Producer Stanley Kramer and director Dmytryk looked at the war in the low-budget combat drama Eight Iron Men (1952) and the big-budget hit The Caine Mutiny (1954), with Humphrey Bogart as the unfit Captain Queeg. World War II was also a backdrop for such popular films as Ray's Flying Leathernecks (1951) with John Wayne, George Seaton's The Proud And The Profane (1956), Mister Roberts (1955), co-directed by John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy, and Ford's The Wings Of Eagles (1957) with John Wayne. The British also continued to fight the war in Europe during the 1950s. Nazi warships were attacked in The Cruel Sea (1953), directed by Charles Frend, Above Us The Waves (1956), directed by Ralph Thomas, and The Battle Of The River Plate (1956) [aka Pursuit Of The Graf Spee], written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The Dam Busters (1954), directed by Michael Anderson, had the British blowing up the Ruhr dam, and Dunkirk (1958), directed by Leslie Norman, restaged the 1940 Allied evacuation. The celebrated The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957), directed by David Lean, took a harsh look at madness and duty in the Pacific. In 1959 the former Axis powers made two outstanding accounts of the devastation of World War II: The Bridge (1959), directed by Bernhard Wicki, featured a group of German boys defending a bridge against the advancing Allies; Fires On The Plain (1959), directed by Kon Ichikawa, dramatized starvation and cannibalism among Japanese soldiers in the war's final days.In the 1950s, Hollywood revived World War I for the remakes A Farewell To Arms (1957) and What Price Glory? (1952), as well as William Wellman's last film, the autobiographical Lafayette Escadrille (1958). Two of the decade's classics also used the Great War to remind audiences of more recent troubles. John Huston's The African Queen (1952) pitted Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn against the Germans and was a great hit; Stanley Kubrick's Paths Of Glory (1956) was overlooked yet today is regarded as one of his best works. The film is also pivotal to the war genre, because it raises the spectre of absurdity: After a failed French assault, three survivors are picked at random and tried for cowardice by a general staff that plans to execute them in order to stiffen morale. Despite murmurs in the 1930s, American war films had mostly been about our heroism in the face of their barbarism; only recently was our competence or bravery questioned. Paths Of Glory suggested the existence of a monstrous bureaucratic/political machine behind the killing on all sides; its themes of hopelessness and equivalency with the enemy would come increasingly to the fore by the 1970s.Kubrick's only significant '50s precursors are the Korean War films of writer/director Samuel Fuller. Fuller, who had fought in Africa and Europe during World War II, brought a new, harsh realism to the soldiers' kill-or-be-killed plight in The Steel Helmet (1950) and Fixed Bayonets (1951). But other than the patriotic "A"-features One Minute To Zero (1952), directed by Tay Garnett, and Richard Brooks' Battle Circus (1953), the films made while the Korean War was fought were mostly low-budget actioners: Korea Patrol (1951), directed by Max Nosseck; A Yank In Korea (1951), directed by Lew Landers; Battle Zone (1952), directed by Lesley Selander; Retreat, Hell! (1952), directed by Joseph H. Lewis. After the war ended, director Mark Robson had a hit with the big-budget bombing-raid drama, The Bridges At Toko-Ri (1954). Several films followed which lauded World War II heroes fighting on in Korea: Sterling Hayden in The Eternal Sea (1955), Alan Ladd in The McConnell Story (1955), and Rock Hudson in Battle Hymn (1957), directed by Douglas Sirk. With 20-20 hindsight, the late '50s also made stay-the-course films about the Korean War, such as Men In War (1957), directed by Anthony Mann, Dick Powell's The Hunters (1958), and Milestone's Pork Chop Hill (1959). The "B"-actioners also persisted, with Selander's Dragonfly Squadron (1954); Prisoner Of War (1954) with Ronald Reagan and Men Of The Fighting Lady (1954), both directed by Andrew Marton; Battle Taxi (1955), directed by Herbert L. Strock; Hold Back The Night (1956), directed by Allan Dwan; Jet Attack (1958), directed by Edward L. Cahn; and Tank Battalion (1959), directed by Sherman A. Rose.Hollywood's only important World War I film of the 1960s was also a hit: the aerial combat drama The Blue Max (1966), directed by John Guillerman, which was told from the German perspective. Restaging the European conflicts of World War II proved more lucrative, most notably with producer Darryl F. Zanuck's smash The Longest Day (1962). This epic account of D-Day used three directors — Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, and Bernhard Wicki — to re-create the invasion from the perspectives of the British, Americans, and Germans, respectively. The other hit films of the era were all actioners: the Alistair MacLean adaptations The Guns Of Navarone (1961) and Where Eagles Dare (1969), Annakin's Battle Of The Bulge (1965), Operation Crossbow (1965), directed by Michael Anderson, The Train (1965), directed by {$John Frankenheimer, Von Ryan's Express (1965), directed by Mark Robson, and The Dirty Dozen (1967), directed by Robert Aldrich. Other notable films are Hell Is For Heroes (1962), directed by Don Siegel; Carl Foreman's scathing anti-war film The Victors (1963); Ski Troop Attack (1960) and The Secret Invasion (1964), both directed by Roger Corman; Guillerman's The Bridge At Remagen (1969); and Castle Keep (1969), directed by Sydney Pollack. The only hit set in the Pacific was producer/director Otto Preminger's In Harm's Way (1965) with John Wayne, but other important films include The Gallant Hours (1960), directed by Robert Montgomery; Samuel Fuller's Merrill's Marauders (1962); director Monte Hellman's Back Door To Hell (1964) with Jack Nicholson; None But The Brave (1965), directed by and starring Frank Sinatra; Beach Red (1967), directed by and starring Cornel Wilde; and Hell In The Pacific (1968), a two-character drama with Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune, directed by John Boorman. The British continued to defeat the Nazis in Sink The Bismark! (1960), directed by Lewis Gilbert, The Heroes Of Telemark (1965), directed by Anthony Mann, and Battle Of Britain (1969), directed by Guy Hamilton. More critical looks at men in combat came with The War Lover (1962), directed by Philip Leacock, The Long Day's Dying (1968), directed by Peter Collinson, and Play Dirty (1968), directed by Andr? de Toth.Korean War films disappeared in the '60s. Raoul Walsh's flagwaver Marines, Let's Go (1961) gave way to low-budget, anti-war dramas: War Hunt (1962), directed by Denis Sanders, with John Saxon as a kill-crazy soldier; Burt Topper's War Is Hell (1963) in which a glory-hungry sergeant murders his commanding officer. After Robert Altman's sardonic Army comedy M*A*S*H (1970), the only films dramatizing the Korean War have been two failed epics built around General Douglas MacArthur: MacArthur (1977) with Gregory Peck and the Korea/U.S. co-production Inchon (1982) with Laurence Olivier. Yet for a while, Southeast Asia was as interesting to Hollywood as it was to Washington. Vietnam had already warmed up by the '50s in the low-budget war films A Yank In Indo-China (1952), directed by Wallace Grissell, and Jump Into Hell (1955), directed by David Butler. Samuel Fuller's China Gate (1957), dedicated to the French then fighting in Vietnam, has mercenaries helping to destroy Red Chinese munitions. Once Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson made the war real (if not official), Marshall Thompson fought it in A Yank In Viet-Nam (1964), which he also directed, and To The Shores Of Hell (1965). In 1969 John Wayne starred in and co-directed (with Ray Kellogg) The Green Berets. Although a box-office hit, this pro-war drama had no successors. By then European films were attacking America and the Vietnam War. Overt protests came from British producer/director Peter Brook's Tell Me Lies (1968). The French offered Far From Vietnam (1967), with sequences directed by Alain Resnais, William Klein, Joris Ivens, Agnes Varda, Claude Lelouch, and Jean-Luc Godard, and writer/director Raoul Coutard's Hoa-Binh (1970), which looked at the civilian life of the Vietnamese. England also denounced war fever by satirizing World War II in producer/director Richard Lester's How I Won The War (1967) with John Lennon, and World War One in Oh! What A Lovely War (1969), the first film directed by Richard Attenborough.In America, the horrifying news footage coming back from Vietnam as well as the growing peace movement kept filmmakers from exploiting the war while it was being fought. Even the government documentary Vietnam! Vietnam! (1972), executive produced by John Ford, was never distributed; instead the public saw non-fiction films with scathing revelations of butchery and twisted politics, most notably Emile De Antonio's In The Year Of The Pig (1969), Joseph Strick's Interviews With Mylai Veterans (1970), and Peter Davis' Hearts And Minds (1974). In the '70s Hollywood stopped fighting the familiar old wars too. The epic made only two more hits at the box office: Patton (1970), directed by Franklin Schaffner, with an indelible performance from George C. Scott, and the more conventional Midway (1976), directed by Jack Smight. Roger Corman's Von Richtofen And Brown (1970) failed to repeat the success of The Blue Max, and the U.S./Japan co-production Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) couldn't do for Pearl Harbor what Zanuck had done for D-Day. The era's World War II films were mostly European productions: The Battle Of Neretva (1971), directed by Velijko Bulajic, which was badly edited in its release here; Attenborough's A Bridge Too Far (1977), from Cornelius Ryan's book; director Sam Peckinpah's Cross Of Iron (1977), told from the Nazis' perspective; producer Carl Foreman's Force 10 From Navarone (1978); The Wild Geese (1978) and The Sea Wolves (1980), directed by Andrew V. McLaglen and written by Reginald Rose. In America the war genre shriveled under the revisionist heat that Kubrick had introduced in Paths Of Glory. World War I meant the horribly disabled doughboy of Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun (1971). World War I in the Pacific meant the treacherous savagery of Robert Aldrich's Too Late The Hero (1970); in Europe, it was either the comic cynicism of Clint Eastwood in Kelly's Heroes (1970), or the nightmare comedy of Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1970), directed by Mike Nichols and written by Buck Henry. Television made the fact-based The Execution Of Private Slovik (1974), directed by Lamont Johnson and written by Barry Levinson and Richard Link, about the World War II G.I. who was the first American soldier to be executed for desertion since the Civil War. In 1980 Samuel Fuller made his classic autobiographical war film The Big Red One, in which he paid tribute to the dead and acknowledged the absurdity of warfare; Lee Marvin was the nameless Sergeant who leads his dogfaces from Africa through Italy and Germany to the Falkenau concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. But the public stayed away, perhaps still reeling from having thought so much about the recently concluded Vietnam War. Go Tell The Spartans (1978), directed by Ted Post and written by Wendell Mayes, took an intelligent look at the war circa 1964. That same year director Michael Cimino had a big hit with The Deer Hunter, written by Deric Washburn, with violent scenes set during and after the war. The classic was Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), co-scripted with John Milius and Michael Herr, which turned the Joseph Conrad novel Heart Of Darkness into the saga of a rogue Army colonel pursued into Cambodia by a government assassin. From its hyper-real scenes of combat to its dreamlike encounter with Marlon Brando as the lunatic Colonel Kurtz, the film showed audiences that the heart of darkness which keeps war alive also beats within themselves. Because it keeps beating, new possibilities for war always arise. The British production The Killing Fields (1984), directed by Roland Joffe, brought to the screen the fall of Pnomh Penh and the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. In 1986 Clint Eastwood produced, directed, and starred in Heartbreak Ridge, a memorable war film set in the brief American incursion into Granada. A Middle Eastern brushfire was all the excuse needed for that year's mega-hit Top Gun to stage its videogame dogfights; the film's success was quickly followed with the series-spawning Iron Eagle, directed by Sidney J. Furie. Those films, along with the more obvious potboilers of Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, and others, are more properly considered actioners than war films. Most recently Courage Under Fire (1995), directed by Edward Zwick, has offered a truer genre film, using the Gulf War. Also in 1986, Oliver Stone scored a box-office hit with his autobiographical Vietnam War film Platoon. The following year saw Hamburger Hill, directed by John Irvin, and the startling Full Metal Jacket from Stanley Kubrick. Although more original in its basic-training sequences than as a war film, Full Metal Jacket was a powerful summation of ideas Kubrick had raised in Paths Of Glory. After the rescue drama Bat*21 (1988) and the derivative Platoon Leader (1988), even Vietnam War films have pretty much disappeared; The War At Home (1996), directed by and starring Emilio Estevez, adapted James Duff's play Homefront to include flashbacks of combat in its grim tale of a traumatized Vietnam War veteran descending into madness. In 1998, the war film made a resounding return with Steven Spielberg's highly acclaimed Saving Private Ryan. Yet despite current indifference to the genre, the audience remains for any war film that offers the right blend of action, patriotism, and cynicism. Let us hope that the war films of the 21st century will have only the conflicts of the past to dramatize.

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