3 Ways War Changed in Our Movies

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…

 

  1. 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…

 

  1. 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…

 

  1. 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!

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Shared Movie Universes: The Modern Serial?

superheroes

 

The period of time movies have been around is relatively short, especially compared to their ancestors. No, not the ebook. The original, hardcover book. Books have come in many forms and have been produced in many different formats. Some have been written as one-off stories, while others have been written as multi-story events.

The idea of a serial came about with continuously written stories like Sherlock Holmes.

Then the days of the comic book came about in 1837 with The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck. This format lended itself better to the idea of a serial format than the novel, however both proved successful. Series like Flash Gordon, Captain Marvel, Batman, and others were incredibly popular.

The idea of never ending a story but picking up in the middle and ending in the middle was then an acceptable, popular format. This way, readers could stay with characters they grew attached to and never had to worry about a world that an author had made being ended.

And then came film, and with it movies and television. We see that the serial format has been picked up by nearly every television show, proving that the format is still alive and well. However, recently there’s been a surge in many movie production companies wanting to adapt the format for their franchises, specifically because of the success that is Marvel and its respective properties.

So the question becomes, is this format most appropriate for movie franchises, or should it be reserved for other forms of entertainment?

Let’s dive into a few reasonings behind each way of thinking…

 

  1. The Format Works for Marvel

 

There’s no denying that what we’ve seen come from Marvel Studios is pure magic, but is it magic in a bottle? I.e. Can that same magic be created twice, specifically by another movie studio looking to replicate what Marvel has done, only with its own characters and its own world?

Let’s break down what about this format works for Marvel.

When Marvel Studios started its franchise by releasing Iron Man in 2008, they were hoping it would be successful and that it would lead to an opening to release more movies and set up a shared universe.

Now that we, and of course Marvel, know that what they did worked, they have a slate of movies mapped out to 2028, and probably more in store beyond that.

But there was always that back-up plan in case things went south with the first Iron Man movie. There was always the possibility of having to do a one-off movie and scrap the plans for the shared universe bit. Marvel Studios was testing the waters, and tested further when they released the next movie, and the next. It’s not that they weren’t sure if audiences would appreciate the serial format, it’s that they didn’t know if audiences would stick around for a movie universe in a serial format.

Movie studios love their franchises because, once proven successful, they become cash cows and executives know they are safe investments. Marvel Studios movies have become the biggest movie franchise cash cow in history, with about $10 trillion in sales.

So it works. Right?

When comics were the hottest thing to hit the stands, it was Marvel and DC going at it, even all the way back then. Nothing’s changed, except now Marvel Studios has managed to adapt its properties and its proven format to the big screen, while DC and its properties struggle to gain traction. And it’s not through lack of trying. DC has a pantheon of movies planned through the next few years as well, and has the backing of quite a few A-list actors and actresses. Not only that, but DC has subjectively more popular characters at its disposal.

So what’s going wrong?

You could chalk up poor box office returns to poor critical and audience reception, and you’d be right. But does one bad title in a serial movie format derail the train? Does the poor reception to DC’s movies keep it out of the running, or do audiences give them a pass? And if they do, how many passes are they allowed?

These rules aren’t established yet, as whenever a DC film performs under-par, there’s a massive shake-up of executives. They’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars, and they don’t even know what game they’re playing or the rules of the game.

A lot of companies are trying this new thing called “shared universes” based on one case study; granted that case study made the ultra-rich company Disney even richer. But is there a science to this art? Or is the secret just in widely-loved movies, each one building and improving on the last, with only a few exceptions?

WB and DC are in a tight spot; they’re three movies in and the vast majority of moviegoers are either indifferent or downright hostile to their current releases. Is it because they hate the plots, don’t like the new interpretations of characters they love, or is it because people don’t like the dark tone after we’ve enjoyed so many visually and tonally lighter Marvel movies?

WB has literally hundreds of millions of dollars at stake and a huge pipeline of movies in the works, all with the hope that Batman v. Superman would deliver. But since it fell short of expectations, is it reasonable to continue this serial format for this universe? Should they reboot, retcon, or trudge through the thrashing reviews and lower-than-expected box office returns?

Marvel has had a lackluster performance in Iron Man 2, a movie most would consider more expository in that it is attempting to set up this shared universe through an established character. So world-building, an essential element of the serial format, is often set up in the background when done successfully, but thrown in your face and dominates the plot when done incorrectly.

So let’s be generous and consider Batman v. Superman DC’s Iron Man 2. Both movies use established characters to build a world around them, both arguably putting a well-formed plot on the back-burner in comparison.

So that means that if Marvel can survive one lackluster movie in Iron Man 2, then DC can survive their current releases, right? Again, there’s too many factors, including what what audiences didn’t like about the movies, or where DC could improve, like tone, visuals, and character interpretations. DC has to fix these things if they want to survive the long haul.

But in general, audiences are forgiving and willing to come back to abandoned properties if they hear rave reviews for a new entry in it.

  1. The Format Makes for a Confusing Order and Might Hurt Longevity

Most people, whether they grew up reading comic books or not, know what one is and how it operates. They know that comic books are generally continuous and some are seemingly never-ending. It’s an old format but far from a tired one.

Aside from the serial format, we have its adaptations in television. Look at longrunning shows The Walking Dead, the epic Simpsons, and Law & Order with all of its many, many spinoffs. So the obvious question “can this format be adapted to film?” is then answered. It’s a resounding “yes.” Of course it can be done. And it should be done for television. It’s a medium that makes sense for television shows. You can sit down and binge a large amount of Fritos and eat a large amount of Stranger Things in one sitting. Wait, that doesn’t sound right.

But my question is, is the serial format appropriate for movies?

A few years from now, will people remember what order the Marvel movies go in? They’re not numbered, aside from the numbered entries in each character’s respective films. But will anyone remember what order Guardians of the Galaxy is in? Does anyone care? I can tell you firsthand that people with OCD not only exist, but they care. They care a lot about order. Specifically, they care about the order of Law & Order.

We’re about thirteen movies into this Marvel universe and I’m becoming increasingly lost as to which films to watch first if I were to revisit the old ones. But again, does it matter? Should I even go back and watch the old ones or just wait complacently for new ones to be released to satiate my appetite? After all, they’re coming out at a pace of more than one a year.

When I watch The Big Bang Theory (I don’t), I know what season and episode I’m in based on certain cues, such as the disc I’m watching the DVD on, the Netflix hints in the upper left-hand corner of the screen, and my friends that like The Big Bang Theory telling me.

But when I watch Iron Man 3, I have to either wait for cues in the movie telling me that Tony’s PTSD was caused from the Battle of New York in the first Avengers, and not from the many other murder-bots he fought that left him with no emotional or mental scarring.

There’s really no better way of knowing where you are in the movie universe until you wait for given clues in the movie itself. But again, does it matter? Is the point of a movie the movie itself or what it represents in a shared universe? It has to carry its own weight and be good but still be tethered to the many movies that come before it and the even more movies that will surely come after it.

  1. The Format Might Hinder a Movie’s Ability to Stand on its Own

Can a movie in a shared universe really be transcendent in the way The Godfather or Pulp Fiction are? These are movies that can stand on their own, don’t rely on sequels, end where they’re supposed to, and are overall terrific movies.

So can a movie in a shared universe be anything more than just an entry in an overarching story? Or can it stand on its own and be just a really great movie? Let’s look at two examples: Batman v Superman and Ant-Man.

When we look at Batman v Superman, there is a huge amount of reliance of the audience to not only have seen Man of Steel first, but there’s also a lot of dedication to the idea of setting up this property only to establish the next film in the series.

We have entire scenes dedicated to plot threads that we won’t even touch until a few years down the road in Justice League. Specifically, I’m referring to the Knightmare sequence as it is called, in which Bruce Wayne dreams very elaborately about Superman becoming an evil overlord and a resistance led by Batman coming about to stop him.

This scene is visually stunning, but it left audiences wondering what, from both a continuity and storytelling standpoint, was the point of it. Superman isn’t really evil, so why include this scene? The Flash is shown, telling Bruce that he needs to be careful and that Lois is the key, however that doesn’t need to be said in this movie. I have to stress that: We take time out of this movie to emphasize a plot point that is not part of this movie and may never even be mentioned again.

The scene is incredibly jarring and threatens to take the viewer out of the main plot threads. Is setting up the next movie in the series important enough to take away time from the current plot?

So this brings us to my question for this point: Can a movie in a shared universe stand on its own as a movie is generally supposed to, or does it need to rely on the movies coming both before it and after it to justify it even getting to exist?

Let’s look at Ant-Man next to help answer this question. From the opening scene to the end credits, we only have a few mentions of and cameos from the Avengers. This movie in no way relies on the viewer’s knowledge of this movie universe and stands on its own as a superhero story, origin story, and an overall solid, funny film, and that’s impressive coming from like the 9th movie in the franchise.

If you tried doing that in any other previously made film franchise, like Harry Potter, it wouldn’t work. To watch the 8th movie, you would have to know who Voldemort is and why Harry is trying to fight him. There’s seven other films worth of build up, tension, and history between all of these characters, and that is what makes the final showdown that much more devastating when we lose characters we love and what makes it gratifying when the heroes finally triumph.

So, that means this is a point for the shared universe in terms of being able to stand on its own as opposed to other franchises?

Maybe. It all depends.

When you take a movie like Captain America: Civil War, it also requires that build up, suspense, and history between its characters to be fully realized and felt by the viewer. The fight at the end between Captain and Iron Man is that much more brutal, and that much more tragic when we’ve known these characters for as long as we have. We’ve seen every triumph and tribulation these characters have been through and to see them fight, with Iron Man’s intentions clear, the viewer feels something that is transcendent.

The viewer feels something almost real.

  1. It’s a More Familiar Format Than We Realize

When we talk about the serial format in modern movies, the misconception is that it’s a new one. And I’m not just referring to movie franchises; I’m talking about the movie that seemingly has no end and the end of the movie isn’t really the end, but only the middle of it’s own movie and the middle of the next movie. For the most part, that is what the Marvel Cinematic Universe has created.

But it’s not a new creation.

During the 1940’s, it wasn’t uncommon for movie serials to run in cinemas. You would, as a kid or possibly adult, go to the movies whenever a new entry would be released to follow up and find out what would happen to your favorite characters next, since every single one ended on a cliffhanger. This was essentially the precursor to the Marvel Universe.

And the amazing thing?

It was Marvel that started it back then too, with The Adventures of Captain Marvel in 1941. Of course DC followed soon after with its– you guessed it– Batman serial, one running in 1943 and another in 1949. Once a cash cow, always a cash cow.

So, when looking back at the mid-20th century, we can see that the serial format in film is not only not new, but was already a proven strategy.

The only difference?

The movies have gotten exponentially longer since then and our attention spans have gotten exponentially shorter. And I’m not just talking about a fifteen-minute attention span. I’m saying with all the noise happening around us, all of the advertisements pushing products we passively watch, all of the entertainment we actively consume, means it can be hard to focus on and recall things in the long-term.

Week-to-week it can be difficult to remember what happened on your favorite show, perhaps explaining why binge watching has become so popular.

One study found that binge watching produces better escape gratification for the viewer, maybe leading to better retention and more focus toward the subject in the show.

This is important. It means binge watching may be a more effective way to consume television shows; the content is fresh in our head and we can more easily remember what happened on the last episode and better relate it to what is currently happening. There becomes a stronger association toward the current events on the show.

However, one more important piece of information can be seen from this. When asked who had watched the show either binging it or by appointment, the ones who had watched the show by appointment noted that they could talk about it with others, while the ones who binged it could not, effectively hurting the fan base of a show.

One of the most important things about entertainment is the ability to talk about it with others, building a community, not just a fan base.

However, one of the benefits of a movie serial is that the next addition may be another year or two off, giving the fans plenty of time to want more, meaning they are forced to talk to other fans of the property.

This is how communities are built. Common ground and a want for more.

Let me know what you think below. Do movie franchises work better when they lend themselves to serial formats, or are movie studios getting carried away when, over the next few years, we’ll be getting serial formats of The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street, Call of Duty, Godzilla, Star Wars, a Monsters universe, and many, many more?