By Max Masen
The days of muddy visuals and cheesy dialogue in our war movies are over. Now we get to see all the blood, sweat, and tears coming from our actors in what look like real firefights.
War sure has changed in our minds throughout the years. Even through the sixteen years America has been at war currently, we’ve seen a lot of different portrayals of it in the media and in our movies. And it makes sense. It’s been our longest war to date. That’s almost an entire generation that’s seen an ongoing, seemingly unwinnable war every single time they turn the television on.
After we watched the towers fall, there weren’t too many Americans– and American allies– that weren’t clamoring for war. The visad that we held about America being safe was completely torn down with the towers. We knew from that moment war was inevitable. For many Americans, that was our first memory imprinted in our minds.
So it’s made a lot of people analyze the war. It’s made us think a lot about why we went to war, making sure what we do from that point on was justified. And what we’ve seen is a lot of angry people, a lot of patriotic people, and a lot of eager movie studios ready to profit off of both sides.
Let’s look at how war has changed in our movies throughout the years…
- There Was a General Shift Toward Grittiness
Gritty might be an overused word but I feel it’s a fair representation of what we’ll be referring to. Everyone has a different meaning for what gritty means. Some think a movie just has to be realistic to be gritty, others feel it has to have a dark tone to be gritty. Others just want their gritty movies to be draining, both emotionally and mentally.
Regardless, the trend toward grittiness began in the late ‘60s. The idea came about with Steve McQueen’s production company, Solar, and the unrealistic portrayal of crime dramas before that. In the movie Bullitt, all of the action and stunts were realistic, with cars never taking more than a realistic amount of damage and still being able to drive.
In the same movie, a witness is shot with a shotgun and thrown back into a wall. This was a turning point in how gunshot wounds were depicted in film. Before that, blood and gore were scarcely shown.
The movies coming before this time period, specifically any made about World War II were much more patriotic, and much more subtle in their dealings with death. But that was only the ones made during World War II leading up to the late sixties.
Before that, the Senate launched a subcommittee to look into whether or not Hollywood was looking to produce propaganda to incentivize the American people to clamor for war. Hollywood was producing films such as Sergeant York and the anti-fascist movie The Great Dictator, both notably supporting the cause of Britain and its allies.
A Senator, noting that a large number of Hollywood executives were Jewish, accused Hollywood of being “a raging volcano of war fever.”
During this time, war movies were much grittier, and much more realistic, the idea being that seeing how bad the Nazis were, and seeing what Hitler wanted under his fascist regime would make the American people clamor for war.
However, none of these movies directly mentioned American intervention. And it wasn’t until the attack on Pearl Harbor that Hollywood really became enlisted in doing what it was accused of doing all along: incentivizing people to go to war.
So what’s interesting is that during World War II, the movies became less about the horrors that are committed during war and more about how honorable it was to enlist and fight for one’s country. Movies like The Longest Day immortalize and venerate the assault on Normandy to liberate France.
But shortly before that, Hollywood was producing war films that depicted dishonorable deaths, soldiers fighting with no cause, and war crimes being committed.
Which brings us to our next point…
- Propaganda Drives the Genre
We can look before this time to see a similar case. World War I, a war that is notably full of hundreds of thousands of deaths that occurred in single battles over less than a mile of land, often the result of most battles being a draw, was depicted very differently during and after the fighting.
Atrocity propaganda was used very heavily by both sides during the first World War, the idea being that vilifying the enemy to an inhuman level would inspire allied troops and remind them what they were fighting for as well as incentivizing neutral nations to join in the fighting.
Aside from the propaganda used in mediums such as posters and signs, Hollywood was enlisted to up the propaganda machine in the U.S. in 1917 to bolster the amount of recruits signing up. The government incentivized Hollywood so much so that the same director that made the anti-war film Intolerance turned around and made the pro-war film Hearts of the World.
Hollywood had suffered large losses after certain European territories had been cut off during the war, resulting in them taking more incentives from the government and increased willingness to cooperate, especially if incentivization meant funding from the government. And it did.
After World War I ended, the pacifist All Quiet On the Western Front was released. Sticking to our last point, the movie was a gritty realization of what life on the front lines was like for the average infantryman during World War I. The movie– like the book it was adapted from– refused to hold back.
The movie chronicled the story of German soldiers and, because of its refusing to hold back in its depiction of the atrocities of the war, it was loved by many and hated by possibly just as many.
During the showing of the movie in Germany, Joseph Goebells (you may note him as the Reich Minister of Propaganda) took a group of students to see it. Upon recognizing that the movie might destroy everything he and the Nazi party stood for, he and his students shouted anti-Jewish slurs and threw stink bombs from the balcony at the screen.
The idea of Goebells being mad at the anti-war (or as he saw it, possibly anti-German) sentiments in All Quiet isn’t hard to believe given what happens next.
As many know, Germany truly stepped up its propaganda game during World War II, in large parts thanks to Goebells.
However, Goebells was given a second title: Minister of Enlightenment. If you’re going to be the Minister of Propaganda, you might as well start with propagandizing your name.
As Minister of Enlightenment, Goebells had two main goals: to make sure that the German people could not see or hear anything that would hurt the Nazi cause and to make sure that the views of the Nazis were put across in a persuasive manner.
The Eternal Jew, a movie unsurprisingly commissioned by Goebells, vilified the Jews and compared the ones living in Europe to rats spreading across Europe and with them, diseases. This was only one of many, many movies commissioned by Goebells leading up to and during the second World War. Not only did Goebells have to make the people believe that the Nazi’s enemies were also their enemies (think Communists, Jews, and anyone else that wasn’t German), but they also had to convince the German people to trust in the Nazi party, given the party hadn’t ever actually won a majority of votes in an election.
The idea of using propaganda by the Nazi party was so pervasive even modern movies parody the idea of it. In Inglorious Basterds, the film features a film within a film. A fictionalized Joseph Goebells appears and meets with the star of his propaganda film, Nation’s Pride, which details the exploits of a German sniper that had killed three-hundred invading soldiers.
Film being used for propaganda was a turning point in the medium, however not unexpected given propaganda’s prevalence in utilizing any and every media it can. During Vietnam…
- Propaganda was Utilized in Vietnam
In 1965, John Wayne approached President Johnson about reprising his usual character role (the one where he plays a character playing John Wayne), this time emphasizing the Vietnam War and making sure the American people knew why the war was happening and that what the Americans were doing was the right thing to do. So, basically it was Hollywood requesting permission from the government to be able to make propaganda. Possibly a turning point, but where there’s money to be made, Hollywood always finds a way.
The adviser to the President warned him that Wayne’s politics might be wrong, however his views toward the war would be incredibly beneficial to the war effort, helping bolster enlistment or at least not make the poor men who were recruited cry so much about dying in a war they wanted no part in.
Michael Wayne, John Wayne’s son and producer of the film guaranteed the government that the movie did not tell a controversial story, only the story of Green Berets that formed a bond in a foreign country and fought for what was right. The movie just so happened to be in Vietnam. The movie, you’ve probably figured out by now, was Green Berets.
The movie may not have had many controversial elements in it, but its use was certainly propaganda. In fact, the point that it didn’t have much controversy in the movie may bolster its case for being propaganda. The idea of having soldiers just doing soldiering and fighting for America, God, and the fine folks back home isn’t itself a controversial thing, but it sure as hell helps boost enlistments.
Not many other movies during that time were made about the war; most studios were not willing to risk it financially on an ongoing, controversial war.
Almost every film about the Vietnam War made after the events of the war were markedly anti-war and condemned it for being a pointless conflict. The Deer Hunter focused on returning soldiers and the stress they lived with upon returning, the message being clear: even the ones that returned home in some way were still in Vietnam.
Platoon focused heavily on the day-to-day, mind-warping things the average American grunt saw and dealt with during the war. The movie slowed down in many parts to give the audience a good feel for the drag, loneliness, and hopelessness the Americans felt.
Chris, our main character in the movie, says he doesn’t want to be another white boy on Wall Street, that he wants to be anonymous like everybody else. He goes on to say that he wants to do what his grandfather did in the first World War and what his father did in the second.
But Vietnam was never seen as the kind of morally righteous war that at least the second World War was, or even as much as the first. Maybe the idea here is that, regardless of how any war is viewed at the time or later, it’s never as righteous as it’s depicted, mainly because of how propaganda and the government behind the propaganda want us to view global conflicts.
And that’s just how propaganda is utilized to show recent wars and when it is used by the government. Sometimes filmmakers just want to dabble in the art of war persuasion for their own amusement. Take Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot, a film that screams for the viewer to join in viewing it as if it’s a patriotic duty.
Mel Gibson stars as Benjamin Martin, a veteran of the French and Indian Wars several years before the outbreak of the American Revolution. We’re shown that Benjamin Martin has a good relationship with his… servants? They’re described as free people working Martin’s land but the way it is visualized is oddly looking like the relationship between slave and master, only much friendlier.
But the portrayal of blacks and fighting for freedom, while most certainly did happen as the Americans gave illusory promises to slaves that by fighting for freedom they could earn their freedom, was mostly contradictory to what actually happened. And the reason being was that the British had better perks for slaves that were willing to fight on their side.
The blacks that did fight in the War were mostly concerned with which side had better prospects for freedom afterward. However, most of the blacks that did fight on the side of the Americans didn’t do it by choice. It was usually under duress. So in the movie, showing the black militiaman continuously looking to see how much longer he had to serve until he could earn his freedom was mostly bull, unless he just didn’t know that the British had a better benefits package for joining up.
In addition to this crime against history, we’re shown the British in the most evil light possible, as this movie is meant to depict a traditional good-versus-evil story. And it does it well. The British soldiers in the movie at one point round up a bunch of colonists and lock them in a church. They then proceed to burn it down with them still locked inside.
Not only did this not happen once during the American Revolution by either side, it did happen during the previously mentioned Second World War by, you guessed it, the Nazis. So basically we have the British depicted as being as evil as the Nazis, when really the only evil thing they did to incite the war was raise taxes. If that’s all it takes to become a Nazi, we have about 100 million of them in America and we call them Democrats.
If you learned something new or just enjoyed this article, please subscribe by email and leave a comment down below telling us how you think war movies have changed throughout the years and why you think they’ve changed. Thanks for reading!