May the shining flame of our enthusiasm never
-- Joseph Goebbles, Minister of Propaganda,
Nazi Germany, 1934
From the early days Hollywood (the institution) has understood that film is a powerful medium, thus movies were created with emotional designs on the individual audience in order to control his/her mind. While war rewrites civil and criminal laws, Hollywood rewrites history. In the war film the good guys (Americans) fight fair and the bad guys (Germans, Japanese, Russians, and Muslim terrorists) do not, and this concept is exported to the rest of the globe. The classic war film rationalizes the necessity of war, the postmodern revisionist film questions war, and the 21st century version manufactures a sense of patriotism. In this essay I argue that the Hollywood war film is but another tool to use for what Noam Chomsky calls “manufacturing consent” and to contextualize a new false consciousness as it helps the world’s only military superpower with its corporate godfathers.
In this so-called information age the media savvy institutions of power, and Hollywood is one to be sure, know how to manipulate the individual. Surely they tell you that you are an individual, a leader, but doesn’t the system need what Michel Foucault called “useful and docile individuals” to run it, consume its goods and ultimately give his/her heart to it?
The war film works on many levels: it titillates the viewer with its battle scenes, invokes emotions, and didactically indoctrinates. Moreover, the war film can (and sometimes does) “rewrite” history. The most professional filmmaking system in the world knows how to rearrange events that are often barbaric to seem less offensive and necessary. To instill a patriotic sense of duty and pride in the viewer, Hollywood shows us that the good guys (Americans) need to kill the bad guys (German Nazis, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Iraqis and so on) in order to protect our freedom and the democracy in the world.
What is at the core of human condition? Was Thomas Hobbes right; are all human acts motivated by self-interest and the quest for power? What role does Hollywood play in this realm? Is it the institution’s job to assure that even if Americans don’t win, they are always right? How didactic is Hollywood? By looking at some of the systemic films of different eras I intend to crystallize the notion that the system is intent on enabling us to win the war. Whether it's Rambo of Reaganism, or Black Hawk Down of the neo-conservative era, Hollywood is an instrumental piece of the apparatus that is fixed on global domination and, in Nixonian spirit, looking to seize the moment.
To understand the war film better, I’d like to examine the genre in three different historical periods: the World War II category, what I like to call the era of classical war film, The Vietnam and the contemporary postmodern era, and lastly the 21st century films.
The Classic War Film
During World War II, Hollywood was actively employed in the war effort. This was dubbed as the “just war.” The US government instituted the Bureau of Motion Pictures to recruit filmmakers into the fight. The American isolationist stance had to end after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and Hollywood willingly offered its services to the government. As John Belton succinctly puts it in his book, American Cinema/American Culture: “The logic that underscores the World War II war film is that of the reluctant warrior, who hates war but fights nonetheless; in this way, the American war film (unlike those produced by the British, for example) is underlined with an antiwar sentiment that justifies our apparent about-face from isolationism to interventionism.” (Belton 175)
One film that arguably started it all is Sergent York (1941), directed by Howard Hawks and partially written by John Huston. In this film Alvin York played by Gary Cooper (metaphorically representing pacifist America) starts out as a confused faithless individual, undergoes a religious conversion and becomes a born-again Christian. Caught in the dichotomy of “thou shalt not kill” and “just war,” York the soldier must make a moral decision: Shall I fight the good fight, or stay home? York utters a pivotal line in the movie:
“A fellow’s got to have his roots in something outside his own self.” Thus creating the groundwork for the rationale to enter the fight against fascism. The necessity of war is indoctrinated in a systematic fashion thereafter. We see the Sergent York premise as a didactic tool. While the staff of the Bureau of Motion Pictures supervised the production of war movies, from script to every other phase, some of Hollywood’s “best” happily obliged the state. As John Belton puts it: “The war film is a school for soldiers.” (Belton 176) We see the Sergent York moral play in Gung Ho (1944), a perfect example of jingoism, celebrating immoral misfits as patriotic heroes. Although the actual fighting had ended, the battle for hearts and minds had to continue. Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) employs John Wayne as the tough marine Sergent that does the right thing; he was nominated for an Oscar for this part. Battle Cry (1955), written by Leon Uris, based on a Marine novel written by Uris himself, romanticizes war. The Sergent York blueprint was used in the 1960s as well. The most famous example is The Green Berets (1968) which I will discuss later.
The war films of WWII were decidedly pro-war and Hollywood made no apologies for its propagandistic approach and remained an active participant in the fight throughout.
THE VIETNAM ERA
In their evocative book Camera Politica, Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner write:
In American culture, film representations of military prowess seem inseparable from national self-esteem. For conservatives especially, greatness as a nation means the ability to exercise military power. In war, the strength and courage of the soldiers who represent male national prestige are tested and proven. In post-World War II cinematic representations of this ritual, proof of manhood was accompanied by a nationalistic idealism that pictured the American fighting man as a heroic liberator of oppressed people and as a defender of freedom. This ideal legend was justified by World War II, when American forces did indeed help defeat right-wing fascist regimes. (Ryan & Kellner 198-205)
Conversely, after WWII a different struggle for hegemony was emerging. The new war was on the horizon; the so-called “Cold War” was keeping a dysfunctional world in balance. In the 1950s the Red Scare and forceful tactics of McCarthyism allowed for the tolerance of US hegemony in the overthrowing of democratic leftist governments (e.g., Iran and Guatemala). However in the '60s, in response to the totalitarian '50s, a reawakening had occurred and young people were not afraid of the nuclear bomb, and did not want to risk their lives in defense of capitalism overseas.
Hollywood as a member of the power structure has always been cautious with its role. In 1965, John Wayne wrote a letter to Lyndon Johnson telling the US president that it is important to explain to Americans, and the rest of the world for that matter, why the Vietnam War is a necessary war (Genovese 40-42). Wayne wanted to “inspire a patriotic attitude on the part of fellow-Americans.” Consequently at first it was business as usual.
In the 1960s one of the few films to come out of Hollywood about Vietnam was The Green Berets (1968) an amalgamation of Sergent York and many other pro-war films of the WWII era.
Much like Sergent York, John Wayne’s Green Berets presents a conversion with an added nuance. The main hero, John Wayne -- metaphorically representing the state -- is never in doubt of his actions and he is always “right”, it is the leftist liberal character who needs to be awakened. This transformation takes place vis-à-vis a liberal antiwar journalist who joins the Green Beret unit to personally see what this war is about. Upon seeing the atrocities of the Vietcong the reporter is convinced that although war is hell, Americans always, reluctantly, intervene to free the oppressed. At the end, the reporter picks up a gun and fights along side the Green Berets to defend “freedom.” In evaluating this film, Leonard Maltin wrote, “Politics aside, this overlong, incredibly clichéd salute to the Special Forces has enough absurd situations and unfunny comic relief to offend anyone.” (Maltin 562) This film aside, there is not much to look at in the 1960s as though the Vietnam War didn’t occur.
In line with the liberal democratic aftermath doctrine of “let’s criticize our past, say we’ve done bad, vindicate the critics and move on” (my term), the major films of the 1970s examine Vietnam with a revisionist lens. The so-called “anti-war” films are made. A few examples aside, collectively these films sidestep history and focus on personal issues. The war is criticized for what it did to good American boys (i.e., white American boys) and the innocent Vietnamese are not part of the equation.
Before discussing some of these films, I want to briefly discuss a very fine film made by Peter Davis in 1975, a feature documentary called Hearts and Minds, an Oscar winner. I find this to be the only film of its kind to critically examine the doctrine of war, America’s racism and its aggressive nature. This film -- a true documentary to be sure -- works hard to establish a balanced point of view. Peter Davis decidedly presents a multiple perspective here to give the audience access to all sides. The film has a historical context and provides an honest look at what essentially was an ideological war. We hear of both defenders and critics of the US and its imperialist policies through interviews and documentary clips. Moreover we hear from the Vietnamese telling us of their suffering. One of the most compelling examples of this independently made documentary is the montaged sequence where General Westmoreland, talking to the camera in a relaxed and philosophical pose, proclaims that the Orientals (i.e., Asians) do not value human life. This is juxtaposed in an Eisensteinian way with a funeral scene of a young man killed at the hands of Americans, where his little brother is sobbing heavily and the man’s mother throws herself in the grave as the coffin is being lowered into the grave. I argue that none of the fictional Hollywood or American documentary antiwar revisionist films of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 21st century come close to the effectiveness of Hearts and Minds in examining the significant issues involved in any war.
Let us come back to Hollywood and its Vietnam films. Revisionism is a tradition in Hollywood. In keeping with tradition, the major films about the war arrive on the scene in the late '70s. A character centered cinema and the liberal search for a closure to what essentially amounts to a historical defeat for the US are the backbone of these films. Starting with Coming Home (1978), which looks at the effects of a senseless war on one of our good boys, played by John Voight, a gung ho soldier returns home a paraplegic and falls in love with his nurse played by our beloved antiwar actress Jane Fonda. This is a powerful film as a serious melodrama and a sentimental vehicle to humanize our boys, the returning veterans who are scarred for life. Our boys (white middle-class boys) learned something in Vietnam.
However, two major ingredients of criticism are conspicuously absent; why we go to war and the “others”, meaning the Vietnamese. Where Hearts and Minds looks at the whole picture and properly connects economy, ideology, and politics together, these liberal healing films of the post Vietnam era only focus on the individual and point out that war is hell. Taxi Driver (1976) is a postmodern look at one returning veteran who distrusts authority and yet believes in the values of our society. In other words one can have a negotiated reading of this film as an agent of criticism for one particular war and one particular administration, and yet celebrating the notion that an individual -- an American individual -- can and will do the right thing in the end. To be fair to Martin Scorsese, one must admit that Taxi Driver is polyvalent, therefore, an important antiwar film.
To read between the lines and discover the implicit, it is best to examine the most celebrated and complex films of this genre. Two films that merit a “fresh” negotiated reading are Deerhunter (1978) and the mythically famous Apocalypse Now (1979). The critics and reviewers tell us that Deerhunter questions American values, individualism in particular. In this melodrama about three steelworkers who go to Vietnam to do their duty, one emerges as the “leader” with “vision”: Michael, played by Robert De Niro, is a man of honor and loyalty. This is a film that poses the question of what it means to be an American. The movie begins by creating a strong backdrop of small town values as an “all American” representation, a wedding scene filled with symbolic rituals to present faith in religion, patriarchy and ethics. Michael, who saved the lives of his two buddies (Steve and Nick) during combat in Vietnam, returns home and deals with “postwar issues.” Steve, who is confined in a wheelchair, wants to stay eternally depressed and die in a Veterans hospital, but in a melodramatic scene Michael convinces him to face his manhood and come back to the steel town, which he does. That is to say Hollywood creates instant healing.
Nick on the other hand, played by enigmatic Christopher Walken, has flipped and decides to stay in Vietnam and play Russian Roulette, presumably a metaphor for America’s approach to the Vietnam War. Of course Michael tries to save Nick and returns to Vietnam only to witness Nick kill himself in a Russian Roulette game. Incidentally, this scene is played out amidst the backdrop of the “fall of Saigon.” Again, nowhere in this film is US hegemony questioned. The film posits an inarticulate “fact,” if you will, that is to say war is inevitable.
Why did we attack a Third World country? Did it have anything to do with direct access to raw materials, new consumer markets, stopping non-capitalist social movements, and so on. Do these working class men who have gone to do the dirty work of the elite ever question their place and their agency outside of themselves? Does Michael examine his manhood as a one-shot deer hunter, a man of church and honor? The answer is no. The broader implications of war must be avoided, and that is a solid convention in Hollywood. Deerhunter criticizes the effects of a particular war on our boys, but implicitly celebrates military values.
In the late ‘70s when America was still wondering why we went to Vietnam and committed acts of genocide and so on, Francis Ford Coppola decided to provide an answer, albeit a foggy postmodern answer. In Apocalypse Now, Coppola posits that horror is part of the human soul. Based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this is an epic that attempts to journey into a man’s soul, the quintessential white American male of patriarchy to be exact. Again, Coppola honors tradition and this becomes a story of two individuals metaphorically representing the dichotomy of America. The geopolitical issues are not a part of this film. Does the film implicitly celebrate military heroism? Yes. The liberal approach in respect to this film by “centrist” film scholars is to apply the principal of polyvalence. That is to posit that Apocalypse Now can be read in different ways, hence the acceptance of the so-called director’s cut after 25 years.
THE REAGAN REVOLUTION
Enter the Reagan era and the return to the age of militarism to restore US hegemony in much of the rest of the world. According to Richard Nixon, Reagan’s chief accomplishment while in office was that he was able to counter this “post-imperial” malaise and “restore” America’s spiritual strength. As if Reagan had renewed America’s faith in its ideals and recommitted America to a responsible world role. Indeed Reagan reestablished much of the 1950s right wing economic and cultural dominance. We must not forget that much of this change was possible with the help of Hollywood. After all, Reagan was one of their own.
As Susan Jeffords explains in her important and insightful book, Hard Bodies, Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era:
His [Reagan’s] position as president of the Screen Actors Guild during the turbulent years of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings solidified the anti-communism that would become such an elemental part of his presidential years. Indeed, Hollywood film industry itself shaped the Reagan presidency and the 1980s through the many images, characters, and narratives that Reagan borrowed from film and used in his work as president. (Jeffords 3-4)
Reagan’s job was to sell militarism, patriotism, individualism, family values, and religious beliefs to the American public, hence obtaining the consent of the majority to move forward with world domination. Was Hollywood ready to oblige? One can argue that with the aid of militaristic movies and Ronald Reagan as the figurehead, the right wing machine created an array of consequences that reverberate today.
Now, the Reaganites needed to rewrite history. The liberals had their say in condemning the war, and it was time to win the war on the silver screen. However, this time around a new “sell” was needed.
The 1980s saw a sophisticated pastiche of different films reinvent the culture of militarism. There was a pressing need to humanize the military and demonize big government as corrupt and unnecessary. The Horatio Alger myth was summoned with fervor. This time the army was the realm where a “nobody” could become a “somebody.” The new right wing was intent on creating a philosophic episteme between popular culture and the state. (1) Ushered in with Reagan’s presidency, Hollywood movies gave us a redefined “militarism” which begins with a masculine/feminine duality.
I have chosen three films that are very successful at accomplishing this task, Private Benjamin, (1980), Stripes (1981), and An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). In Private Benjamin, the superstructure (2) apparatus incorporates the “be all you can be” doctrine with a conservative brand of feminism. Here the army changes a powerless and dependent woman into a “kick ass” lady who ends up socking her fiancé in the jaw when she discovers his infidelities. She no longer needs a man because the army, an ally of women, is her home now. In Stripes, the quintessential goof-off typecast, Bill Murray joins the army and the military culture transforms him into a virile, masculine leader of a squad. This is the flip side of the former film.
And the most successful of the three, An Officer and the Gentleman, employs Richard Gere, the American Gigolo, to be Zack, the undisciplined tough guy with hidden potential and a shady past. Zack has nowhere to go so he endures the brutality of his drill instructor (played by African American actor Lou Gossett, an open appeal to minorities to accept supporting roles in the superstructure) and finally transforms into a real team player. Moreover, he does the honorable deed and saves his working class girlfriend from poverty by carrying her off into the sunset in his officer’s uniform. Yes at last the humanized military turns a social loser into an officer and a gentleman. From a Lacanian perspective, An Officer exemplifies how an individual is developed vis-à-vis the network of signifiers. Symbols of militarism, family values, and so on, are all bundled together in this commercially successful film.
The next step for Reaganite Hollywood is to develop the liberal military films, such as Taps (1981) and The Lords of Discipline (1983); vehicles to criticize military perversion that conclude by celebrating humanized military. According to Colin McCabe from a Lacanian film analysis, “the Hollywood style works to show us all that we need and want to know: the world of the film is arranged for the purpose of our being able to see it from an ‘all-seeing’ point of view.” (Braudy & Cohen 275-277) Subsequently, if we think we are seeing different sides of a military paradigm with an all-seeing point of view, we will therefore be inclined to accept the premise of the humanized military. In that sense the system works, the base (see 2) and the superstructure work in harmony.
At this juncture the empire (United States of America) needed a strong jingoist sentiment in order to buildup the military machine. Naturally, the next step for Hollywood was to repair the damage and help the Reaganites win the Vietnam War. The events of the late 1970s, such as the hostage crisis in Iran and the worldwide peace movement, had created huge blocks for the common military practice of “military intervention to preserve peace”, therefore the superstructure had to retool. Public opinion polls of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s indicated that most Americans opposed foreign military interventionism. Now, Hollywood was to be the secret weapon of the Reaganite system.
In this epoch, there are many movies that require consideration, and I have comprised a list of the ones that were most effective, in my view, as follows:
Firefox (1982): rehashes the old anti-communist themes of the Cold War culture. In this film Clint Eastwood plays an over-the-hill US pilot who is sent to go behind enemy lines in the heart of the Soviet Union. He steals the Red menace’s latest war toy (i.e. the Firefox plane) to preserve freedom in the “free” world.
Red Dawn (1984): plays with the fantasy of “what if the Soviets invaded our nation” and the Red Scare is manifested into a dark New World. A small group of teenagers survive the invasion and hide out in the mountains. There, they start a campaign of guerrilla insurgency, and though they are all killed, the points of this neo-fascist film are well made. The Soviets are evil, Latin American leftists are their (Soviets) cronies, militarism is necessary to defend freedom and it has to come from the United States, the last bastion of free world, and so on. Although Red Dawn was a failure at the box office, it was a huge success at the cable channels. History has proven that martyrdom wins hearts and minds and cable TV knows how to pound the message in.
Invasion USA (1985): Again, a hypothetical fantasy of Communist terrorists invading Florida with designs on the entire nation. Chuck Norris plays a retired (see Firefox) CIA agent summoned to deal with the Reds. Leonard Maltin called this film “repellent in the extreme.” (Maltin, 688) However, much like its predecessor Red Dawn, this film was a bomb at the box office, and a success with the cable channels. The point is that even the Hollywood “B” movies work as hegemonic agents.
Missing in Action (1984): The title and the star, Chuck Norris, tell it all. In this violent action adventure, Norris, an ex-POW, returns to Vietnam to liberate the remaining hard bodied American prisoners. To be sure, the Vietnamese are portrayed as evil dehumanized aggressors. If one did not know the history of Vietnam War, one would think it was the Vietnamese who were the aggressors attacking the US and capturing our good boys who only wanted to preserve freedom for the rest of the world. This film is a revisionist dream to be sure, however it ideologically shifts the consciousness of a good portion of young viewers who are not familiar with atrocities committed by US forces in Vietnam.
Missing in Action II-The Beginning (1985): A prequel to Missing I, and again omitting many facts, while revising history and introducing new fiction as fact. This time the viewers are witnessing the heroics of Chuck Norris escaping from a prison, Asian evildoers, and so on.
While Chuck Norris represents the “B” movie “kick-ass” hero, Sylvester Stallone plays his superior counterpart as an “A” movie Reaganite. His Rambo movies have played a strong role for hegemony, and merit more attention. As Norris omits American atrocities against the Vietnamese, Rambo goes even further and excuses the aggression and genocide committed by the Americans to perpetuate “the hegemony.” The impetus for the Rambo movies was created by the doctrine of “government reduction for individual agency” (my term) and the first film of the series, First Blood (1982), created the template for the other installments, Rambo: First Blood, Part II (1985), and Rambo III (1988).
In the first film, John Rambo, played by a muscular Sylvester Stallone, an escaped POW and the sole survivor of a Special Forces unit that had fought valiantly for his country, returns home only to find that his country rejects him. Rambo is arrested by the town’s sheriff, who thinks he is a vagrant, and thrown into jail. In Reaganite eyes, Rambo represents the individual American who’s been betrayed by a bureaucratic government that is too liberal, too soft, and ultimately feminine. He must fight the government, first the Sheriff and his small “soft bodied” (Jefford’s term) forces and then he takes on the army. First Blood tells its audience that the re-masculinization of America is coming. And Reagan’s presidency was to usher in the militarism needed for such a deed. This film serves as the bar mitzvah of the Reagan era, if you will.
In Rambo: First Blood, Part II, Stallone, having answered the initial questions about Vietnam (What happened in Vietnam, here at home, and why), is enlisted to return to Cambodia as a one man army to rescue American MIAs. This time, though, Rambo has to fight not only the Vietnamese but also Russian soldiers. The existence of this film begs the question: what do families of real life MIAs think of Rambo’s exploits. Historically, exploitation of human tragedy to propel an ideological agenda is a time-honored tradition in the capitalist sphere(s). Look no further than the post 9-11 situation, and how the Bush administration took advantage of that tragedy to implement its agenda (e.g., The Patriot Act, invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, etc.).
In describing Rambo the symbolic character, who is a composite of different American types, Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner write:
[T]he figure of Rambo is indicative of the way many American working-class youths are undereducated and offered the military as the only way of affirming themselves. Denied self-esteem through creative work for their own self-enhancement, they seek surrogate worth in metaphoric substitutes like militarism and nationalism. Rambo’s neurotic resentment is less his own fault than that of those who run the social system, assuring an unequal distribution of cultural and intellectual capital. (Ryan & Kellner 214)
The Rambo trilogy spans the years of the Reagan presidency. Being accustomed to the myth making of Hollywood, the Ronald Reagan machine capitalized on the Rambo phenomenon, painting Reagan as an advocate of the average man, the no-nonsense type of man who is willing to kick ass and protect the weaker ones (e.g., women and children of patriarchal society).
The critics of Ronald Reagan in fact dubbed him “Ronbo,” and not without reason. Prior to the release of First Blood, Ronald Reagan survived the assassination attempt on his life in 1981. And after the release of First Blood, there was the carefully stage managed invasion of Grenada which was a successful attempt at distracting the American public from the bombing incident at a Marine headquarters in Lebanon which killed 200 Marines. (3) To be sure, these events were helpful in solidifying the “Ronbo” phenomenon. Therefore many political theorists like Noam Chomsky attribute Reagan’s re-election in 1984 to his mythical status as Ronald Reagan the man who faced the bullets of an assassin, saved Americans in Grenada and became a model for Rambo.
The final installment of the Rambo series, simply titled Rambo III (1988) features a much more muscular Sylvester Stallone, a metaphor for Reagan country. This time Rambo is involved in an insurgency effort, supporting the “freedom fighters” of Soviet occupied Afghanistan, the very same fighters (Taliban) that the Bush administration attacked in post 911 invasion of Afghanistan. Back then the Taliban were called “freedom fighters,” and now they are Islamic fundamentalists, oppressors of women, the quintessential terrorists, and so forth. It is important to note that Rambo representing the state (USA) single-handedly (with almost unnecessary help of the Mujahedeen (i.e., the Taliban) saves an entire nation, hence resurrecting the “interventionism” doctrine. The Ronbo/Rambo phenomenon posits the necessity of violence for preservation of freedom. This phenomenon is dressed in masculinity and chooses to make the Americans (with a hierarchy of White male patriarchal members being on top) the chosen ones.
THE NEO-CONSERVATIVE ERA
To understand Hollywood is to understand power. An institution that has always operated for profit only, knows how to commodify an entity, be it a work of art or a cultural experience. Hollywood molds it, shapes it and sells it. The 1990s did not necessitate a proliferation of war movies. The Democratic machine of capitalism was busy with perpetuation of postmodernism and spread of good news. Bill Clinton championed the cause of capitalist postmodernism (4) and the military culture just brewed on the back burner. There were a few combat films that entered the psyche of the nation in the latter part of the decade, notably the commercially successful Saving Private Ryan (1998) and the critically acclaimed The Thin Red Line (1998).
In Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg pays homage to the combat films of World War II. In many ways this film is a classic example of the Hollywood combat film. It has a central character in Tom Hanks, the actor who plays the average American, embodying the Frank Capra type of man with his star persona attached as well. Thematically the film glorifies war and cherishes family values. A small band of brothers with archetypal characters of macho man, Jewish boy from Brooklyn, the white Christian boy, and so on, are led by a high school English professor to save one man (i.e. Private Ryan). This is a sentimental melodrama designed to comfort the viewer in knowing that Americans will always do the right thing, though war is hell and consequently morality has to be suspended during combat. As a Hollywood war movie par excellence, Saving Private Ryan never wavers from tradition. The enemy (Germans) is faceless, except when needed for demonization, and Americans are the “liberating individuals.”
The Thin Red Line, however, is an antithesis to Saving Private Ryan. First, it’s made by maverick filmmaker Terrence Malick, who brought us Badlands and Days of Heaven. (5) Twenty years after the two landmark films, Malick works within the system to make a war movie that actually questions the so-called “just war” and travels beyond, though in the same trajectory, by questioning the human condition. In contrast to the Spielberg vehicle, Terrance Malick’s adaptation of this James Jones’ novel is a philosophical meditation. The film questions war. While it contains combat scenes, it is constantly probing the relationship between humanity and nature, human desire and human nature, the impetus for war, the quest for power, and so on. The Thin Red Line gives a counterbalance to its contemporary counterpart Saving Private Ryan, a “glorification” movie, in tradition of the Cold War era of the United States being countered by the Soviet Union.
Let us push forward to contemporary times. The year 2000 ushered in a new era where the administrative government fell under the direct control of a cartel of ideologues known as the neo-cons. In the 21st century the flow of information is tightly controlled by the state and the collective media is owned by a handful of corporations, resulting in a situation where the media basically work like a web of conveyer belts delivering packaged and censored “infotainment” news and ideas to the general public. A blatant example of this is the Fox News Network. To be sure, Hollywood as a major manufacturer in the culture industry has done its part to push the new agenda forward, that is to say world hegemonic domination. The new wave of unquestioning patriotic sentiments, seeing America as the “world” and so on, had already begun. The culture industry, now in the control of men like Rupert Murdoch (Fox) and Michael Eisner of Disney, has been assigned to validate violence, glorify military technology and perpetuate the fascination of mechanics of militarism.
I intend to look at some combat films before and after the terrorist attacks of September the 11th. In a resurrected episteme of Pentagon, the White House and Hollywood much like the World War II era, the war movies are being used to legitimize the war machine and motivate young Americans to support and participate in the war adventures. While on CNN and Fox News we are sold on the Orwellian notions of “war on terrorism” and the need for “preemptive strike,” Hollywood does its part to help.
First, we must look at the background for the renewed conservative thinking. On June 3, 1997 the core group of neo-conservatives devised their imperial vision with the following statement of principals:
American foreign and defense policy is adrift. Conservatives have criticized the incoherent policies of the Clinton Administration. They have also resisted isolationist impulses from within their own ranks. But conservatives have not confidently advanced a strategic vision of America's role in the world. They have not set forth-guiding principles for American foreign policy. They have allowed differences over tactics to obscure potential agreement on strategic objectives. And they have not fought for a defense budget that would maintain American security and advance American interests in the new century.
We aim to change this. We aim to make the case and rally support for American global leadership.
As the 20th century draws to a close, the United States stands as the world's preeminent power. Having led the West to victory in the Cold War, America faces an opportunity and a challenge: Does the United States have the vision to build upon the achievements of past decades? Does the United States have the resolve to shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests?
We are in danger of squandering the opportunity and failing the challenge. We are living off the capital -- both the military investments and the foreign policy achievements -- built up by past administrations. Cuts in foreign affairs and defense spending, inattention to the tools of statecraft, and inconstant leadership are making it increasingly difficult to sustain American influence around the world. And the promise of short-term commercial benefits threatens to override strategic considerations. As a consequence, we are jeopardizing the nation's ability to meet present threats and to deal with potentially greater challenges that lie ahead.
We seem to have forgotten the essential elements of the Reagan Administration's success: a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States' global responsibilities.
Of course, the United States must be prudent in how it exercises its power. But we cannot safely avoid the responsibilities of global leadership or the costs that are associated with its exercise. America has a vital role in maintaining peace and security in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. If we shirk our responsibilities, we invite challenges to our fundamental interests. The history of the 20th century should have taught us that it is important to shape circumstances before crises emerge, and to meet threats before they become dire. The history of this century should have taught us to embrace the cause of American leadership.
Our aim is to remind Americans of these lessons and to draw their consequences for today. Here are four consequences:
• we need to increase defense spending significantly if we are to carry out our global responsibilities today and modernize our armed forces for the future;
• we need to strengthen our ties to democratic allies and to challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values;
• we need to promote the cause of political and economic freedom abroad;
• we need to accept responsibility for America's unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles.
Such a reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity may not be fashionable today. But it is necessary if the United States is to build on the successes of this past century and to ensure our security and our greatness in the next.”
Elliott Abrams, Gary Bauer, William J.
Bennett, Jeb Bush,
(Project for the new American Century, statement of principals)
This type of overt approach to ideology begs the question, why do these people feel confident of achieving their imperial goals. I refer to this phenomenon as a reflection of a sweeping ideology, although seemingly the new far right factions, the culture industry being one of them, have conspired to erase the concept of ideology all together. Capitalism is on the offensive and for the moment (I mean that in a historical sense) it is winning battles on a global scale. How does Hollywood participate in this offensive? In two ways: implicit and explicit, so long as all of the products make considerable profit. Examples are ubiquitous to be sure, and to understand the scope of this filmmaking propagandistic apparatus I would like to flush out a few contemporary films.
To contextualize the examples, I have chosen three films, Black Hawk Down (2001), The Last Castle (2001), and We Were Soldiers (2002).
All of these films share the following themes:
1. Glorification of technology
2. Definitions of service to country (i.e., patriotism)
3. Definitions of war: as an adventure or an isolated event with a clear beginning and end
One has to question the legitimacy of any film that has the full cooperation of the Pentagon and endorsement of non-Hollywood notables like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. In fact both government officials attended the premier of Black Hawk Down, along with their wives. By “legitimacy” I am implying skepticism of the accuracy of the screenplay in regards to the historical facts and the intention of the film. The publicity synopsis of the film released by Sony Pictures reads as following:
“In 1993, an elite group of American Rangers and Delta Force soldiers are sent to Somalia on a critical mission to capture a violent warlord whose corrupt regime has lead to the starvation of hundreds of thousands of Somalis. When the mission goes terribly wrong, the men find themselves outnumbered and literally fighting for their lives.” (Sony Pictures website)
The invasion of Somalia, which was dubbed as a “humanitarian intervention” and euphemistically code-named, “Operation Restore Hope” was a test of future wars of neo-cons to come. At the end of 1992, when the US Marines arrived in Somalia to ostensibly feed the starving Somali children, the famine was nearly over. Yet Time magazine published a huge photograph of Somali children reaching out to a US Marine for what the editors of Time called “gift of hope.” (Pilger 124-127) The operators of Operation Restore Hope (US Marines) killed nearly 10,000 Somalis (CIA estimate) but the focus of the mainstream media in the US was on the brutal death of 18 Marines by Mohammad Farah Aidid’s men. Aidid was a warlord who had decided to freelance away from UN and Pentagon, hence becoming the official “bad guy” necessary for capture dead or alive.
The movie is very careful in omitting the facts and certain images that might disturb the audience. For instance the image of bodies of two dead US soldiers stripped and carried through the streets to the delight of the onlookers (shown on European and Asian TV) is not part of the script. Also, there is no mention of the reasons for the famine. Somalia had been left bankrupt by the US backed regime of Mohammad Siad Barre, a Saddam Hussein like dictator who never hesitated to kill his own people. This is what the IMF officially calls a “failed state.” Engineers of Black Hawk Down make sure to portray the age-old dichotomy of good guys (U.S. Marines) vs. bad guys (faceless Somali terrorists) with style. This is a masterfully directed and edited film as it ought to be, having apolitical Ridley Scott (Gladiator) as director, and complete cooperation of Pentagon (upon approval of the script) which allowed access to its technology, allowing for more realism dressed in artistic expressions. This is Hollywood at its finest.
Black Hawk Down is implied heroism and patriotism, and based on most reviews the message is inferred and accepted by most audiences. The dehumanizing bigotry, a staple of the war culture, is quite apparent and disturbingly accepted by mainstream audiences. Again, the “other” must become less than human so the U.S. troops (the good guys) can kill it. Throughout the film the heroes refer to their enemies as “skinnies” or “sammies”. In my research, out of many reviews --to my horror mostly admiring the film -- I could find one reviewer putting her finger on the heart of the matter. Cynthia Fuchs of Popmatters writes:
Unremarked by the U.S. troops is the fact that the Somalis' skinniness is an effect of real life conditions, not only their oppression by brutal local warlords like Aidid, but also their Third World status, their lack of access to a "global" economy and political agenda, their oppression by the First World that is represented by the mighty Black Hawks. Where the Americans are understandably appalled to see their birds go down, one can only imagine the thrill that this same display must have brought the shooters. It was probably a lot like the feeling that the injured, weary, and desperate American soldiers felt when they saw the back-up forces finally arrive, and blow up the rooftops from which Somali snipers were firing.
The postmodern discourse of popular culture by and large addresses critical analysis of history. In fact the end of history is what is preached time and again by the power elite, including Hollywood. With Black Hawk Down the only depth presented is through character development of our heroic soldiers feeling the pain of war and learning something in the process. The price of freedom is sometimes high, but patriotic Americans are ready for it, Somalia or elsewhere. So, the critics praise the film as a masterpiece of war films while esoterically assuming that war is a necessary phenomenon, why not entertain ourselves with it as well. Hollywood is not interested in depth or even cataloging history, it is however constantly perpetuating the war culture. History has shown time and again that war is good for business.
While the straightforward revision of historical events is one way to make films, another old trick is the metaphorical approach. The Last Castle is the perfect example of implicit jingoism. This is a film released in the aftermath of 9-11, and although it is an oversimplified depiction of the good vs. evil dichotomy, it works well because of timing. The Last Castle is an overt example of Hollywood spoon-feeding (after chewing) the audience. Colonel Winter played by James Gandolfini is the sadistic warden of a military prison nicknamed “the castle.” His newest inmate is three-star general Eugene Irwin played by Robert Redford, a military hero par excellence. There are no complexities in this plot. We know who the evildoer is and our all-American hero will whip the prisoners who happen to be all good boys, wrongly imprisoned, into shape and create a revolt.
Watching this film and knowing the level of sophistication in editing capabilities confirms one’s suspicion that the studio deliberately made last minute changes to make the film yet another commercial for army recruitment. There is the ubiquitous US flag, the wizardry of an experienced veteran using scant resources to create makeshift weapons and plotting to capture the flag to send a message, and so on and on. It is also noteworthy to mention that there is a subtle codification of Colonel Winter (the evil one) as effeminate, that is to say closeted homosexual. His body movement and facial expressions while talking about certain masculine men all point to this theme. By many accounts this film is a cheap vehicle of hegemony, however, because of its timing it is an effective one. Look for it on AMC (American Movie Classics cable channel).
My last example, We Were Soldiers, is perhaps the most disturbing of them all due to its postmodernist sophistication. It is a matter of public record that Mel Gibson personally screened this film to George W. Bush at the White House on February 27, 2002. To sidestep the moral issues the film is a focused story of a three-day clash in which a small group of less than 500 US soldiers surrounded by an overwhelming number of North Vietnamese have to fight their way out. The film does not deal with the reasons of this prelude to the Vietnam War of David and Goliath proportions, however it does dress itself as an old-fashioned inspirational war film.
Everyone roots for the underdog. Here Gibson plays the commander of a group of “underdogs.” In a postmodern discourse you can copy the past but eliminate the facts and portray what you want in the present. In other words, everything is relative. Accordingly, We Were Soldiers shows us the conflict before “the conflict” and as the conservative supporters of the war in Vietnam want to see, our boys are heroes. What makes this conservative vehicle of hegemony so powerful is that the screenplay is based on the book, We Were Soldiers Once… and Young written by Harold G. Moore (Lt. Colonel played by Mel Gibson) and Joseph L. Galloway (reporter played by Barry Pepper). Conventional wisdom, by and large the kind manufactured by culture industry, would make this film a solid “authentic” because it is about real people who were there, survived and lived to tell about it.
With this badge of legitimacy the film shuts the door to historical criticism. It calls itself an antiwar movie and uses the age-old trick of veterans: “we were there, we experienced it, therefore we are right.” All the principal characters of the film are real life people, some of whom lived to see the film shot and released and verified its authenticity. There is an old Persian saying: “they asked the fox, who is your alibi, he replied ‘my tail’.”
To a de-politicized or apathetic reader all this talk about Hollywood as a hegemonic institution of the empire sounds like another academic theorist venting. After all, our therapy culture and freedom of speech will allow us, to paraphrase Naomi Klein, use “war opposition as self-help.” In an article at the Globe and Mail (Canada) Klein writes:
It was Mary Vargas, a 44-year-old engineer in Renton, Washington, who carried U.S. therapy culture to its new zenith. Explaining why the war in Iraq was no longer her top election issue, she told the paper, ‘when they didn’t find the weapons of mass destruction, I felt I could also focus on other things. I got validated.’ Yes, that’s right: war opposition as self-help. The end goal is not to seek justice for the victims, or punishment for the aggressors, but rather ‘validation’ for the war’s critics. Once validated, it is of course time to reach for the talisman of self-help: ‘closure.’” (Klein 1-2)
What is the role of Hollywood in the sphere of mind shaping for its audiences? To begin with one must accept the notion that Hollywood is a solid part of the superstructure, delivering and perpetuating myths for the purposes of mystification. Yes, war is a complex matter, and it is Hollywood’s job to add an aura of mystification to that complexity. Through the war films we are to feel vindicated, to see good vs. evil, leaders exhibiting leadership for the good of humanity, albeit having to kill to do it, to understand that war is a bad thing, but there is always a fight to be fought to preserve “our” freedom, and so on.
To be sure, the process of mystification must have nuance to be successful. The mythmakers know that their targeted audience is cut from the same cloth as they, therefore the films must reflect the audience’s values as well as his/her perceived self-image, hence the character-centered scripts of reluctant heroes.
We live in the “post-colonial” age, we are told, however our minds are assaulted by colonizing forces of culture industry on a daily basis. We live in a “global mind-colonial” age -- I propose -- and it is absolutely necessary to de-colonize our minds. Let us demystify and decode the colonizing messages of hegemonic agents such as Hollywood. There is a Hollywood proverb that tells people this (Hollywood) is an entertainment industry, to send a message you go to Western Union. On the contrary, Hollywood films are loaded with implicit messages.
By way of bringing forth true accounts of history, boycotting racist, imperialist films, empowering the audience, educating the youth, and nurturing the voice of dissent, ultimately we can think for ourselves and take control of our lives. One must strive for true consciousness, and not slothfully fall for the false consciousness designed and implemented by the empire. In a world where we need to eradicate hunger, illiteracy, and promote tolerance and cooperation, do we really need more messages of war glorification? War is not necessary, not if we learn to fight the power and get along as global citizens. A good place to start examining the process of mind decolonization is in the so-called “dream factory.” As said in different ways by many progressive thinkers of past and present, “hope dies last.”
Tony Kashani is a film professor at College of San Mateo, as well
as a lecturer in the Cinema Department at San Francisco State University.
This paper was presented at the 15th annual conference on Literature, Film
and War at Binghamton University, State University of New York in
Binghamton, New York, on March 19, 2004. He can be reached at
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