Hollywood’s Rendition of War
Whether we like to admit it or not, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (dubbed simply “the Academy”) plays a large role in documenting and appraising the cultural trends of American society. The Academy’s annual awards ceremony (better known as “the Oscars”) has become a cultural staple in America, with the responsibility of recognizing certain cinematic films not only for their artistic merit but also their ability to encapsulate a trending American attitude. 2010’s Oscar ceremony saw the honoring of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, a film that follows the jarring story of three Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technicians in Iraq, their perilous task being the disarmament of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) left by the Iraqi insurgents. This gripping film garnered a “Best Director” win for Bigelow (the first woman to accomplish such a feat) as well as the coveted “Best Picture” win.
In the wake of this event, some controversy has arisen concerning the accuracy of the film’s depictions of the Iraq conflict. Though Bigelow has given several interviews describing her efforts to make the film “as reportorial… honest, realistic, and authentic as possible,”1 it seems that many veterans of the Iraq conflict highly dispute her success at such a venture, claiming “disturbing” inaccuracies in aspects ranging from soldiers’ use of the wrong uniform to the general mindset and vigilantism of the film’s protagonists. However, there also seems to be a surprising contradiction arising from among the ranks of those same veterans. Many herald the film as a great attempt at portraying the necessity of the task facing soldiers in Iraqi war zones or the challenges facing returning veterans in their attempt to re-assimilate into society.2 There is a clear conflict here concerning the film’s ability to represent reality; but why? Simply put, war is not a universal, generic experience, but an amalgamation of a multitude of distinct personal experiences. This makes a general consensus on anything involving war exceedingly difficult to achieve.
Today’s “world stage” is littered with military conflict. From the brief diplomatic skirmishes of neighboring lands to the drawn out campaigns of the Middle East, we are a world at war. Our newspapers, television and the Internet are all flooded with the imagery of battle – that awesome spectacle of suffering and destruction. We are so saturated by it that at a moment’s glance, the backdrop of war in a photograph or news blip becomes immediately unmistakable. It is captivating, and its imagery conjures in even the most stoic of us some deeper emotion – a sense of empathy toward that thin tightrope of life and death. Literary theorist Susan Sontag has spoken very critically of the assumed authenticity of this type of imagery – arguing, in her exposé of war photography, entitled simply, “Looking at War,” that the scenes of war depicted by photography become skewed by the cameraman and his lens. They subsequently become a form of art, selective and voyeuristic in nature, rather than an accurate depiction of the total reality of war. She wonders what is not being shown by the photography. Sontag also questions the legitimacy of one’s ability to interpret the meaning behind such provocative yet voiceless imagery, especially in the division between men and women. Sontag is quick to portray war as a man’s game, stating that, “Men make war. Men (most men) like war, or at least they find ‘some glory, some necessity, some satisfaction in fighting’ that women (most women) do not seek or find.” (Sontag 2002:82) Indeed, this is a pertinent statement in light of Kathryn Bigelow’s acceptance of the “Best Director” Oscar for her work on a war film (Bigelow was also a student of Sontag while completing her MFA in Film at Columbia University). Perhaps, in the same light, it can be seen as a vocalization not only of the changing face of war in modern times but also of the changing voice of the genre of cinema that represents it. At a time when the persona of a “soldier” is constantly evolving – soldiers are increasingly female and/or homosexual – and the tasks required of soldiers in different positions is becoming so distinct, the conception of war, especially as presented by a woman with no military experience, is becoming entirely fragmented.
This evolving (or perhaps revolving) perspective of war through the lenses of Hollywood is, of course, not a recent development. Hollywood has produced nearly every brand of war film imaginable since its formation, and it is exactly through these shifting depictions of war that Hollywood’s interdependence with the American perspective is brought into focus. The subsequent success or failure of specific war films at specific eras in modern history is most telling of the American attitude toward war at the time of a film’s release, regardless of the inherent inaccuracies. Studio executives have learned very well by now how to read and anticipate market trends. Hollywood has a long history of exploitation, a matter that I believe no one is willing to dispute with me, but I do not suppose that I can definitively blame that history on the studio executives and/or filmmakers themselves. Movies are a big business, and as such they are not financed and produced without forethought to audience reception and projected profit. That being said, it also seems entirely unfair to blame public demand for the types of historically inaccurate films churned-out by Hollywood. Cinema is an art form, the aim of which is to entertain, to captivate, to excite and dramatize, to exploit and sensationalize. Hollywood does this very well – and I don’t know that there is such harm in that. Where there is harm, however, is in irresponsible comments like those made by Kathryn Bigelow that claim these sensationalized films to be “as reportorial as possible.” For those who have no firsthand experience of war (and little knowledge of political history), cinema becomes a likely source on which to base one’s perception of that experience. Persuading the audience that a film laced with factual inaccuracies is anything but fictional serves to misinform and distort the common perspective of history; a matter that, understandably, a veteran with real experience must find offensive. Yet some do not.
Frank Wetta and Martin Novelli discuss this rift in the reaction to Hollywood’s war films. In their co-authored essay, “On Telling the Truth about War: World War II and Hollywood’s Moral Fiction,” they partition critics of war film into two opposing camps: those who demand that war films “represent the ‘real thing’ in graphic detail – gaping wounds, traumatic amputations, disfigurement, and mental disorders,” and those who contend that “Hollywood was capable of picturing the truth about war and the American people.” (Wetta/Novelli 2008:260) Wetta and Novelli overwhelmingly support the latter opinion, arguing for Hollywood as a “narrative center for America” that “provided the people with a usable myth.”(265) Or, essentially, that Hollywood, through its easy portrayal of the American dream, even in war time, created a model by which those Americans inexperienced with war could come to revere those who fought.
I can’t help but find myself fascinated with this term: “usable myth.” When one thinks of that which is usually classified as “myth,” several connotations immediately arise: from those classical, theological myths of the Greeks and Romans (Daedalus, Medusa, etc.) to the American “tall tales” of Paul Bunyan and his big blue ox. This categorization of Hollywood war film as myth, then, opens an entirely new window of critical opportunity. If these films can be seen as myths, fables, or battle hymns even, in the style of Beowulf or Alexander, then perhaps they should be taken for their allegorical merit, rather than historical. Though war films are inevitably, to a certain extent, based in fact, a nevertheless great portion of their content becomes absolutely fictional. This is where Wetta and Novelli draw a distinction, stating that Hollywood “created a certain kind of history – part myth and part reality, yet essentially true to the American experience of war.” (280) In this, they assume that these films are not meant to show us a factual reality of war, in and of itself, but are meant to be an artful representation rooted in reality, of the American at war. They assert their claim to the Hollywood war film as “moral fiction,” pointing to John Gardner, author of “On Moral Fiction,” who states separately that, “[moral fiction] attempts to test human values, not for the purpose of preaching or peddling a particular ideology, but in a truly honest and open-minded effort to find out which best promotes human fulfillment.” (Gardner 1978:620) While this claim may serve well for a manner of interpretation, it begs the question of Hollywood’s intent in the creation of such films. Is/was Hollywood in the business of contributing to or exploiting the war effort?
As a profit-driven industry, Hollywood studios choose to finance or distribute films based on their projected profit. But how do they estimate a movie’s likelihood of success or failure? According to David Mumpower, founder of the popular movie hub, BoxOfficeProphets.com, “Historical analysis combined with gut instinct and awareness of consumer behavior remains the best way to estimate box office.”3 Within this can be found the key to the evolution of the Hollywood war film – in the cycle of creation and consumption between Hollywood and its audience. Put simply, Hollywood produces topical films based on the estimation of consumer reception. If Hollywood feels that the American attitude toward war at a certain time is positive (post World War II, for example), then it will produce films that portray the American participation in war in a positive light (or vice versa). Darryl F. Zanuck’s 1963 World War II epic, The Longest Day, starring John Wayne, is a good example of this. As Robert Toplin points out, the film “carries a symbolic message about the Cold War: it shows that American, British, and French troops could cooperate to defeat a common enemy.” (Toplin 2008:305) In this way, the film was never really about World War II, but merely uses it as a frame by which to allegorically present the American attitude popular at the time of its conception. While Wetta and Novelli might declare this film to be “true” to the American experience in 1963, its depictions of bumbling Nazi soldiers is certainly not historically factual (and the same might be said about Bigelow’s, The Hurt Locker). Once again, it is by this that the film becomes merely exploitative. Hollywood, as a gimmick to sell more tickets, proclaimed the film’s adherence to reality and the audience was readily convinced. As one reviewer noted, the movie was “a tour de force of audio-visual verisimilitude – surely if this is not precisely how it was, it’s as close to the genuine article as any imitation is likely to come.” (Toplin 306) It is this irresponsible declaration of realism that serves to exploit those who actually fought in the battles depicted in the film. Rather than honoring the soldiers’ actual accomplishments, it uses their stories to showcase a different agenda altogether. This serves not only to misrepresent history, but also to spread that misinformation among the American public.
Michael Isenberg suggests the notion that films can be used as a sort of “historical document,” to reveal much more about the time of their creation than the time of their setting. Isenberg proposes that, “while no film is without a message, the message received by historians will not necessarily be that intended by the filmmakers. Bias and imaginative content thus can be made to serve the cause of historical knowledge, rather than confound it.” (Isenberg 1981:67) Obviously I agree with this, but I also believe that Isenberg (and Wetta and Novelli alike) underestimate the reciprocal impact that film can have on American society. As Sontag points out, “The understanding of war among people who have not experienced war is now chiefly a product of the impact of these [photographic] images.” (Sontag 87) In the same way that most laypeople tend to equate the history of Julius Caesar with the storyline of William Shakespeare’s play of the same name, people similarly tend to equate the history of World War II with those films of John Wayne or Steven Spielberg that so often serve as a people’s singular exposure to that history. The war films of John Wayne are a particularly infamous example.
John Wayne’s war films very heavily mimicked the structure of his even more cliché westerns: a “Cowboys and Indians” dichotomy that drew a line in the sand between right and wrong. This is the myth that they perpetuated (and were very propagandistic as such). It was the Americans (Cowboys) versus the Other (Indians), and John Wayne was always the cowboy. This was the attitude toward war from the home front and what John Wayne was meant to represent – the “true grit” of American determination and justice. He embodied the ideal of American military virtue and heroism. The John Wayne films did not intended to paint a realistic picture of the horrors of war but, rather, they intended to reinforce a structure of moral support for the troops who served. Ironically, where the message of these films went awry was in their popularity. Critics bashed Wayne’s 1968 Vietnam War film, The Green Berets, as being “foolish,” “cliché-ridden,” and “so unwittingly silly that it was funny.” (Lichty/Carroll 2008: 393) However, by the end of 1968, the film, which had cost $6 million to make, had earned nearly $11 million – not only giving credence to these clichés, but also encouraging Hollywood’s use of them.
The “John Wayne” model of the American soldier has become so heavily reciprocated between Hollywood and its American audience that it endures in a majority of war films produced since. In 2009’s The Hurt Locker, the film’s protagonist, Sergeant First Class (SFC) William James (Jeremy Renner), embodies this disposition of a heroic, self-reliant justice. As a self-proclaimed “wild man,” SFC James and his two sidekicks are shown roaming around Iraq (apparently under their own direction), getting into gun battles and dishing out justice as they see fit. Nothing could be further from a “reportorial” depiction of a soldier’s experience in Iraq. Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Phillips, a team leader in Iraq’s eastern Maysan province, was quoted by the Air Force Times as saying, “That guy was more of a run and gun cowboy type, and that is exactly the kind of person that we’re not looking for,” but thanks to the popular myth, perpetuated by Kathryn Bigelow as realistic, that is the model that remains.
Of course, not every film serves to perpetuate this cliché. Some, such as Stanley Kubrick’s utterly disturbing portrayal of the Vietnam experience, Full Metal Jacket, actually serve to counteract it. Based on the semi-autobiographical, “The Short-Timers” by Gustav Hasford, Full Metal Jacket follows the military experience of a new recruit, dubbed, “Joker” (Matthew Modine), the fictional equivalent of Hasford himself. Rather than centering on this Wayne-like ideal of military virtue, the film centers instead on the mentality of the soldier himself – namely, the transition he undergoes from being a civilian to becoming a killer. The film very heavily emphasizes this transition as a mental rebirthing of the human mind, with the resilience of a recruit’s personality pitted against the brainwashing tactics of the United States Military. The popular idea of war at the time of Full Metal Jacket’s creation (post-Vietnam) versus that of post-World War II is strikingly apparent. As Kubrick’s film focuses very intently on the “duality of man,” or the struggle within a soldier’s mind between his personal ideals and the effectiveness of his training, the “enemy” becomes revised – shown to be the US Military itself, rather than the North Vietnamese Army.
The reaction of Kubrick’s Hollywood to the unpopularity of the Vietnam War forms a vastly different portrayal than that of John Wayne’s Hollywood – a fact that Kubrick all-too-enthusiastically points out. As Full Metal Jacket opens, the new recruits stand at attention before the vulgar and menacing drill sergeant, Gny. Sgt. Hartman (R. Lee Ermey, a former drill sergeant by vocation). In a moment of silence, Joker starts doing an impression of (none other than) John Wayne, showing not only his initial resistance to the brainwashing, but also making light of the popular preconception of war that the John Wayne model had perpetuated in society. As soon as Joker makes this impersonation, the drill sergeant immediately beats him into submission, displaying the military’s stance against this brand of cowboy heroism (though the John Wayne ideal serves its purpose for the home front, the military doesn’t want cowboys, it wants soldiers who are capable of taking orders). While this negative stance of war extends to other films of the Vietnam era as well (Apocalypse Now, Platoon, The Deer Hunter, etc.), Full Metal Jacket, in particular, presents a terrifyingly uncomfortable inner narrative that seems to deliberately oppose the John Wayne model. This is a variation in the popular stance on war that has arisen in the post-Vietnam era and has been subsequently echoed by Hollywood.
While any of these films might be argued as “true” by that second camp of war film critics isolated by Wetta and Novelli, where does this place those in the opposing camp who “demand realism?” Wetta and Novelli style this camp of critics as those who “demand a grim documentary image of the experience of combat.” (260) In the foreground of their illustration is Paul Fussell, a Cultural and Literary Historian as well as an embittered veteran of World War II. Fussell is an outspoken critic of the glorification of armed conflicts4 who claims that Hollywood consciously created a “fairy-tale world of un-complex heroism and romantic love, sustained by toupees, fake bosoms, and happy endings.” (261). Whereas Wetta and Novelli use Fussell as the poster boy for this school of war film critics – veterans who (understandably) wish to avoid the exploitation and misrepresentation of Hollywood – I believe that their characterization is sadly insufficient. Just as Susan Sontag points out the voyeuristic nature of war photography, it must be duly noted the voyeuristic nature of the cinematic audience. Those who demand “graphic detail” in war film are not merely limited to those veterans who have firsthand experience of the realities of war. Ironically, this illustration also includes those with a penchant for voyeurism (and, therefore, unveiled authenticity) who seek to exploit those veterans.
Sigmund Freud speaks of the nature of voyeurism, referring to the act as “usual for normal people” up until the point where that which is vicariously experienced begins to “supplant” reality. (Freud 1905) Voyeurism is most definitely a primary dramatic tool of cinema, as can be evidenced in such films as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. It is used as an engrossing tool that gives the viewer the sensation of experience – of being at the scene – in a first or third person perspective at the moment of dramatic climax. Sontag says of photographs, “Their credentials of objectivity were inbuilt, yet they always had, necessarily, a point of view. They were a record of the real… and they bore witness to the real, since a person had been there to take them.” (87) This concept can be partially extended to cinema as well. Though the scenes depicted by Hollywood’s elaborate sets, costumes, and actors are often complete fabrications, the cameraman’s witness to these scenes is no less real (and no less voyeuristic). While a more graphic depiction of war in film may serve to more accurately depict the experiences of those who have been subjected to the terrors of war, it, ironically, also fulfills a desire of those voyeurs who wish to exploit the intimate nature of such personal experiences (as, inevitably, realistic close-ups of “traumatic disfigurements” would).
Though Hollywood’s depictions of war are based on historical evidence, the vicarious experience of war through celluloid is no more real than an experience of Niagara Falls through a picture postcard. Thankfully, cinema itself (as an art form) does not profess to be a genuine experience but merely sensationalism. Its goal is to entertain and to sell tickets. Hollywood has no reason to enhance the graphic violence depicted in war films until the market deems it absolutely necessary. Given current trends, I find it more likely that the public will see an influx of war films with PG-13 ratings, designed to reach the largest audience possible (though this won’t stop Hollywood from claiming their realism).
Leo Tolstoy defines art as that which must serve to create a kind of emotional link between the artist and the audience – to “infect” the audience, as it were, and join them through a contagious sort of conversation. (Tolstoy 1896) Though the cinema of Hollywood is a profit-driven industry, it is yet unmistakably a form of art. Films are composed of deliberate story, style, and structure in order to fulfill the agendas of those filmmakers who would produce them. Contrary to what Hollywood would have you believe, the agendas of filmmakers are almost never reportorial and the agendas of producers are almost always monetary. As Susan Sontag asks the question, “Is there an antidote to the perennial seductiveness of war? And is this a question a woman is more likely to pose than a man? (Probably yes.)” (97) Kathryn Bigelow answers with The Hurt Locker, a film that discusses the addictive nature of war as depicted almost exclusively as a man’s game. In the US military, women are not permitted to serve in combat zones – an important fact surrounding the nature of war as described by Bigelow. Much of the film’s tension focuses not on the suspense of actually disarming the Iraqi insurgents’ IEDs, but rather on the male rivalry and bonding between its two main characters, SFC James and Sgt. Sanborn. This perhaps culminates in a scene where the two soldiers get drunk together after a day in the field and wrestle each other on the floor, sweaty, with their shirts off and punching each other in the gut. This deliberate portrayal of the male machismo of war, through its intense expressions and affirmations of masculinity, was undoubtedly a political statement to be made by the film’s female director (even if subconsciously, as her position naturally skewed the film) rather than a true report of the experience of an American soldier serving a tour of duty in Iraq.
Thus, Hollywood finds itself with a sensitive dilemma. There is a public demand for war films but some veterans are exclaiming their offenses at those war films’ misrepresentations. What’s a studio executive to do? Coincidentally, 2009 also saw the production of a second Hollywood war film, very different in merit and stature from that of The Hurt Locker: Quentin Tarantino’s deliberately inaccurate, Inglourious Basterds. Here is a film that intentionally exploits the World War II experience, complete with drastic re-writes of some would-be very pivotal moments in world history, and the curious development is that no one got very upset about it. The key here is that the film is obviously fictional. It makes no claims at representing any shade of reality and, as such, becomes merely entertainment. Tarantino draws his influences heavily from the “genre” or “grindhouse” films that emerged in the 1970s – the “B” movies made either independently of Hollywood or with very little budget from the studios. These films were infamous for exploiting their, often lurid, subject matter. Tarantino makes use of this tactic and what emerges is a movie that is entertaining (and fictional) enough that its obvious inaccuracies can be forgiven. Tarantino, in an interview on the film’s DVD, recalls an early screening that he conducted of Inglourious Basterds in Germany shortly after its theatrical release. He admits his trepidation beforehand about screening such a historically inaccurate World War II film to a German audience but then describes the subsequent mood in the theater as one of levity, saying that he felt the German audience could relax and “finally enjoy a World War II film without feeling guilty.” It was the film’s divergence from historical fact that allowed the audience to enjoy, rather than suspect its content.
This revealing development in the changing face of Hollywood’s war genre seems to evidence that the offense taken to Hollywood’s factually lacking depictions of the war experience derives from Hollywood’s claim at those depictions’ accuracies, not the misrepresentations themselves. Now, I am not suggesting that every war film be as outlandishly inaccurate as Inglourious Basterds – I believe that a war film’s serious attempt at accuracy can garner an amount of dignity and respect for those veterans of foreign conflicts in the eyes of an inexperienced movie-going audience (as apparent in even The Hurt Locker or The Longest Day) – but under no circumstances, for the sake of the upkeep of history, should a filmmaker attempt to persuade the audience of a film’s ability to supplant reality and real experience. Though this claim may lead to greater box office profits, it also plants the seed of misinformation into an inexperienced audience, fostering real exploitation in an exponential cycle.
Most audiences are becoming increasingly aware of the need to take Hollywood’s brand of realism with a grain of salt. A long way have we come from that famous audience of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 premier who ran out of the theater in terror at the screen’s presentation of a train that appeared to be coming straight at them. Most audiences today understand Hollywood’s cinema as part myth and part reality. But in a culture such as ours that so exceedingly accepts the voice of Hollywood and the Academy as its own, we must carefully weigh the consequences of such misinformation, even if only in its minutiae.
1Tobias, Scott. “Interview: Kathryn Bigelow.” The A.V. Club. 24 June 2009. Web. 24 Apr. 2010. <http://www.avclub.com/articles/kathryn-bigelow,29544/>.
2Rieckhoff, Paul. “Veterans: Why ‘The Hurt Locker’ Isn’t Reality – Newsweek.com.” Newsweek. 24 Feb. 2010. Web. 24 Apr. 2010. <http://www.newsweek.com/id/234064>.
3 Hayden, Erik. “The Art of Predicting Box-Office Gold.” Miller-McCune Online Magazine. 25 Jan. 2010. Web. 25 Apr. 2010. <http://www.miller-mccune.com/business-economics/the-art-of-predicting-box-office-gold-7183/>.
4 Fussell P: The Boys’ Crusade, Modern Library, New York, NY, 2003.