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Popular Culture & Politics

Americans at War—In the Movies

War has played a major role in the history of American film, and Hollywood has tended to show both the heroic and horrific sides of the ultimate form of human conflict. The first Academy Award for Best Picture went to the 1927 production of Wings, a silent film set during World War I that is best remembered for its aerial dogfight scenes and its glorification of war. Two years later, that prestigious award was given to All Quiet on the Western Front, a film that focused on the darker side of war and the sacrifices that soldiers make in the name of patriotism.

Contradictory views of war continued to appear on movie theater screens throughout the decades that followed, but U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War had a decidedly negative impact on how war has been portrayed in American popular culture. In 1978, Jane Fonda and Jon Voight won Academy Awards for their portrayals of lovers whose lives were radically altered by the Vietnam War in Coming Home. That same year, Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director were given for The Deer Hunter, a movie that more explicitly confronted the brutality and personal traumas of war. In the years that followed, movies such as Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now, Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) continued to stress the personal horrors of war—and indirectly raised questions about the wisdom of policies that put American soldiers in harm’s way.

While some of the best-known war movies of the 1970s and 1980s stressed the horrors of war, other popular films of the period focused attention on the traumas of those who return from war and the positive qualities of those in the fighting forces. In First Blood (1982), the first of several “Rambo” films, Sylvester Stallone portrayed a disoriented Vietnam veteran who goes to war with local law enforcement after they imprison him for vagrancy. That same year, Richard Gere starred in An Officer and a Gentleman, a film that made almost no reference to war while stressing the character-building qualities of military service. Tom Cruise did get some action against enemy jets in the popular 1986 film Top Gun, but the focus again was on the character of those we might send off to war. In 1989, Cruise played the role of a wounded Vietnam veteran who returned from war feeling betrayed by his country in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July.

The horrors of active combat reemerged in the late 1990s with the release of The Thin Red Line (1998) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). Both films focused on bloody battles of World War II. In The Thin Red Line, it is the battle for Guadalcanal, while Saving Private Ryan begins with scenes designed to replicate the sights, sounds, and feel of the D-Day invasion of Omaha Beach in 1944. But if anything is glorified in these movies, it is not the value of war against Japan or Germany. Rather, it is the character and personal sacrifices of those who put their lives on the line for their country.

More recent war movies such as Black Hawk Down (2001), We Were Soldiers (2002), and Lone Survivor (2013) stressed heroics in the face of overwhelming odds. Jarhead, a 2005 film about the experience of U.S. Marines in the Persian Gulf War, won considerable praise, and in 2009 the movie The Hurt Locker won a Best Picture Oscar for its depiction of the work of an elite Army bomb squad operating in Iraq. In 2014, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper was praised for its portrayal of how military service takes its toll on the lives of returning veterans.

If there is a common thread emerging from these examples it is that “war is hell,” but Americans can neither surrender nor turn their backs on those who are suffering injustices at the hands of their enemies. There is no glory in war, and the bloody and brutal nature of combat has been made increasingly visible on the cinematic screen for several decades. But there is also an emerging sense that there may be some things worth fighting for—¬≠including the lives and rights of total strangers.

For more information on the portrayal of war in movies, visit University of California, Berkeley’s “War and War-Era Movies” at www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/Warfilm.html.

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