Sunday, April 19, 2015

Conflict in Context: War on the Silver Screen

Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964) is one of the many films profiled in War on the Silver Screen

Anyone looking for a history of film will find a plethora on the market. Among them are Norman Cousins’s compendium of world films Story of Film (published by Pavillion books in 2004, with a new edition in 2013), followed by his fifteen-hour mega-documentary of the same name, and The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) by film scholar and author of twenty books, David Thomson. Both volumes demonstrate the vast knowledge of their authors about films and filmmaking. Yet there is relatively little about the larger historical context within which the films were made. For example, in Thomson’s chapter on war, he does write a few insightful sentences on context but they are dwarfed by the dizzying array of films he mentions and only briefly comments upon. Looking for that context narrows the options. What I have found most valuable is Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies (Henry Holt & Co, 1995), edited by Mark C. Carnes, that consists of sixty reviews of historical films by historians and other authorities in the field. I liked these reviews because most of them do not, in the words of one reviewer, “quibble about inaccuracies, simplifications, invented characters, imagined dialogue, anachronisms” but focus on whether the film is true to the spirit of the character or historical issue. The reviewer of the film, Malcolm X (1992) criticized director Spike Lee for underplaying the political evolution of the eponymous character, and the reviewer of All the President’s Men (1976) acknowledged that although the film was accurate, it was untrue because it misleads the audience into thinking that the revelations of two reporters were responsible for the downfall of Nixon even though the film ends with the re-election of Nixon. The actual history behind these films is largely confined to a sidebar on each page. Of the sixty entries, seven of them are on the subject of twentieth-century war films. More recently, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (Penguin Press, 2014) by Mark Harris is very good on how that war shaped the career of five Hollywood directors, but there hasn't been a book that provides an overview of how war films have shaped their audiences’ consciousness – until now. 

War on the Silver Screen: Shaping America’s Perception of History (Potomac Books, 2014), a crisply and accessibly written monograph by historian Glen Jeansonne and film critic David Luhrssen, is a welcome corrective. The authors combine their talents to argue that war films have done more than books or history lessons to influence people’s perception of war. Their thesis is bracing, perhaps even self-evident, but it is difficult to prove with empirical evidence. The book’s greatest strength is that it gives almost equal space to the historical context as it does to the films themselves. I do have some reservations about their treatment of the films they have chosen for major analysis and with certain key omissions.

War is structured around four chapters: a relatively brief chapter on World War One, a more substantive chapter on World War Two, the longest and best chapter on the Cold War, and a brief chapter – more a coda than a chapter – looks at the War on Terror. In the first chapter, Jeansonne and Luhrsson open with a brief overview of the political and cultural context that led to the war, including films and popular songs, and the conduct of the war itself. Perhaps the overview is too brief since at one point they imply without stating that the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 led to Woodrow Wilson declaring war against Germany in 1917 although the President in his war message made no allusion to that catastrophe. Then the authors provide further political and cultural context for a more detailed reading of four films: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Paths of Glory (1957), Gallipoli (1981) and the most surprising and insightful entry, Lawrence of Arabia (1962). In the latter, the authors suggest that the film is more mythical than historical. By focusing on the titular character and Peter O’ Toole’s physical presence and performance, the film ignores the Great Power political intrigue on the Arabian Peninsula and downplays the role of General Edmond Allenby, a minor character in the film, who was chiefly responsible for leading British forces to victory through the Middle East. Yet the authors are right to state the public remembers Lawrence, while Allenby is a forgotten figure.

In their discussion of World War Two (and subsequent chapters) the authors follow a similar format. The films they select for detailed analysis carry no surprises and they might have done more with them. Their choice of Casablanca (1942) is a good one given, as they point out with some evidence, that it still remains a cultural touchstone for the era and the idea that duty to one’s country trumps romantic love. The authors might have strengthened their argument had they contrasted it with The English Patient (1996), also set during that war but where the titular protagonist was willing to commit treason in the interest of saving his love, a film that perhaps is more about the 1990s than the 1940s.

Likewise, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) is an astute choice as it is the first American major film to explore the difficulties that veterans with physical handicaps or suffering from what was then called ‘battle fatigue’ experienced after returning home. The authors do state that Harold Russell, who lost both hands during the war, continued to exercise political influence in the coming years, but they say nothing about PTSD, which is surprising since it became a major public issue in subsequent wars.

In their treatment of Patton (1970), the authors do show how the film both departed from the historical record and ignored his personal past, but they fail to discuss how the film ignored Patton’s anti-Semitism, his contempt for Holocaust survivors and vehement opposition to de-Nazification, flaws by the way that continue to be ignored in Bill O'Reilly’s latest book on Patton. The authors also offer little commentary on the film’s influence. There is some anecdotal evidence that Patton, with its portrait of a militaristic general who could not conceive that a man’s mind could be broken by war, has achieved considerable cachet for many Americans. For example, in his review of Patton in Past Imperfect (referenced in the opening paragraph), Paul Fussell notes that the commander of the Gulf War, General Norman Schwarzkopf, was more influenced by Scott’s impersonation of Patton than the military experience of the historical Patton. The authors might have grappled more with the film’s legacy; they limit themselves to one oblique cinematic reference. In their reflections on Apocalypse Now (1979) in the next chapter, Jeansonne and Luhrssen do suggest that the flamboyant Col. Kilgore was based on George Patton IV, the son of the famed general, who did serve in Vietnam. Kilgore they say “moves with the swagger of George C. Scott’s Patton.” Given that Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplays for both films, it is not likely coincidental that the character Patton prefigures Kilgore.

Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

The chapter on the Cold War is interestingly divided into McCarthyism, espionage, the fear of nuclear annihilation, Vietnam and the Afghan war. The authors rightly point out that Joseph McCarthy did a disservice to his cause by his demagoguery. But he was right to point out the dangers of espionage given that the opening of the Soviet archives did conclusively demonstrate that members of the American Communist Party did spy in the interests of their Soviet masters. I do question the author’s judgment that both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were spies when the most recent evidence suggests that Ethel knew nothing about her husband’s activities, which was known by the American authorities at the time who still went ahead with her execution. Nonetheless, that opening context serves as a prelude into their analysis of the emblematic The Manchurian Candidate (1962), but I wonder whether they are right to assert that the film offers the “most memorable fictionalized dramatization of Joe McCarthy” given that the character is such a dullard and buffoon. Who could ever take him seriously to the point that even Eisenhower was for a time intimidated by him? The authors are right to suggest that television and not cinema was responsible for McCarthy’s fall when they briefly discuss the televised Army-McCarthy hearings. Yet they could have acknowledged the influence of the television news commentator, Edward R. Murrow, whose role in challenging McCarthy before the hearings is dramatized in the illuminating film Good Night, and Good Luck (2005).

From Russia with Love (1963) is a surprise choice but a good one and the authors make a convincing case that this film influenced the public’s perception of spying during the Cold War. After noting the convergence between the life and career of Ian Fleming, the creator of the James Bond novels, and his fictional alter ego, they discuss both the novel and the film. They inform us that an article in Life magazine pointed out that From Russia with Love was one of President Kennedy’s favourite books, guaranteeing not only its commercial success but that it became and remains a cultural touchstone for the public. They quote an American historian that Kennedy’s assassination “brought to the fore the conspiratorial dangers of the world in which Bond worked.”

By contrast, it is no surprise that the film that most epitomized nuclear fears was the darkly comic Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). More notable than the authors’ film discussion is their discerning overview of the political and cultural context. From the Manhattan Project, the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, to the Soviets acquiring the bomb, the authors survey the rise of science fiction novels and genre films including The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the noirish Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and the post-apocalyptic drama, On the Beach (1959), as background to their insightful comparison of Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe (1964). But I did note the omission of one of the best films of the 1950s, the allegorical Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955) that appears nowhere in the text. The authors are probably right when they assert that “if the Cold War had turned into World War III, the result might have resembled the closing scene from Dr. Strangelove, which leaves a vivid memory of a catastrophe that never occurred.” But they could have added that it almost did occur during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a flashpoint that the authors briefly reference only during their discussion of The Manchurian Candidate.

Jeansonne and Luhrssen argue that Apocalypse Now was the most memorable of all the Vietnam films. Reflecting the widespread antiwar sentiment, The Deer Hunter and Coming Home had already been made in 1978 and competed for Academy Awards before Apocalypse Now appeared the following year, a film that was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella, The Heart of Darkness. After the authors summarize the difficulties involved in the making of the film, they describe the pyrotechnics of the helicopter raid, the long journey in the river patrol boat and finally the showdown between the mad Kurtz and his doppelganger Marlow. The authors do not add much that is new, except that they do suggest that Colonel Kurtz’s covert program against the Vietcong is inspired by the Phoenix Program, “a CIA-led counterterrorism operation that interrogated and killed Vietcong suspects and sympathizers.” The authors might have suggested a link between this program and how the CIA operated in the black sites during the war on terror, fortifying their argument that this film remains an important touchstone. It is likely true that the film has an enduring appeal “in shaping popular perception of the war as a surreal nightmare.” I would add that the film – especially the ordeals involved in its making – serves as a metaphor for the failure and madness of the American experience in Vietnam.

Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now (1979).

Undoubtedly, as the authors argue, the appeal of Apocalypse Now enabled the making of other Vietnam films – Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) – and the authors’ comments on the sources that inspired them and the films themselves are helpful in our understanding of Vietnam. Yet I feel that they have omitted an important film, Casualties of War (1989) that is based on an article written by Daniel Lang that first appeared in The New Yorker and later in book form. In the article, Lang interviews Eriksson (his name and the other four members of his squad are given fictitious names to protect their privacy) who relates to Lang an incident that occurred in 1966 Vietnam, an event that became the basis for Brian de Palma’s 1989 film. Four members of that squad rape and murder a Vietnamese woman; Eriksson not only takes this crime to his superiors who warn him to keep quiet but he eventually against the odds testifies against these men in a court-martial. Pauline Kael praised the film as "the culmination of [De Palma’s] best work." Surely, this film deserves to be included in War on the Silver Screen – if only to disprove the notion that not all American soldiers went mad, were drug-crazed, behaved badly or were victims of that tragic war, a thread that runs through the films the authors highlight.

Jeansonne and Luhrssen conclude their analysis of the Cold War with commentary on Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), a fitting choice since American assistance to the Afghan rebels largely contributed to the defeat of the occupying Soviet soldiers and ultimately to the implosion of the Soviet Union. That defeat emboldened the rebels to tackle the one remaining superpower, America, that culminated in the 9/11 attacks. In their final chapter, the authors serve up again a brisk political and cultural context for the war on terror during the Bush and early Obama years leading up to the assassination of Osama bin Laden before discussing United 93 (2006), and two films directed by Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Like their analysis of earlier films, they provide a solid overview of the films and the context in which they were made, and in the case of the Zero, a useful summary of the controversy over the use of enhanced interrogation techniques. Although their discussion of the Iraq war’s context is highly political, The Hurt Locker, a harrowing thriller about an explosive ordnance disposal unit, is apolitical. They laud it over the countless documentaries about the Iraq war for its visceral power, letting the viewer not only see but experience what is like to be a soldier in Baghdad a year after the 2003 invasion. Readers might be interested in contrasting their perspective of the film with that of historian Marilyn Young, a scholar of the Vietnam War.

Whatever my caveats of the book – that include the absence of an index and a more substantive conclusion (rather than a mere two paragraphs) that could have reassessed their thesis – I still believe that the War on the Silver Screen is a valuable book that should receive wide readership, not only among professionals but the reading public. As I have already noted, the space given to context enhances their discussion of the films. Implicitly, it invites the reader to dialogue with the authors by encouraging them to respond to the authors’ thesis, their choice of films, and their belief expressed in the book’s last sentence that the art expressed through the best motion pictures will always “illuminate those conflicts more brightly than any newscast or documentary.” That statement is provocative and deserves a response. It could be the starting point for a second volume.

(photo by Keith Penner)
– Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. His website is

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