Cinema Spelunking: War films (What are they good for?)

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In Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” the air thickens with smoke as Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) orders a helicopter strike on the nearby Viet Cong-controlled coastal village. Sharp gunshots pierce the rattling groans of whirling helicopter blades. Kilgore, wearing a cowboy hat and no shirt, stands in the bruised sands littered with broken branches, bellowing commands to his frazzled soldiers. The camera cuts to an aerial shot of airplanes flying over a vast forest; towering trees suddenly erupt into flames, and the camera flits between different vantage points to capture the magnitude of this destruction. Gazing at the rising pillars of smoke, Kilgore crouches beside Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) and delivers the immortal line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Behind him, villagers file into a long procession while flames wave and dance in the distance.

Napalm, of course, is the incendiary substance that sticks to its targets and burns whatever — or whomever — it touches. Duvall utters this line with uncanny nonchalance, as if recalling the aroma of brewed coffee or sizzling bacon. Kilgore and his chilling eulogy to napalm expose the psychologically warping effects of war. While “Apocalypse Now” focuses on the Vietnam War in particular, the film subscribes to the broader aim shared by most war movies, regardless of politics or nation: to make the audience feel war.

The war film emerges as a universal language. The artistic appetite to prepare war on a silver screen has inspired filmmakers around the globe to explore a myriad of wars, including the ancient wars (“300” and “Red Cliff”), civil wars (“Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Glory”), revolutionary wars (“The Battle of Algiers” and “Braveheart”) and fantastical wars, such as the “Star Wars” saga and “Independence Day.” The echo of war drums reverberates through history, but it rings particularly loud for World War I and World War II; the epic grandeur and seismic devastation have transformed these particular wars into an inexhaustible spring of stories.

By drawing on history, fiction and national memory, the war film often invokes national security, collectivism and the social order as virtuous ideals that merit violence — a righteous country deserves to be defended to the death. “War is hell,” but it can also be brave, honorable and redemptive.

In war films, these terms of national identity are implicitly gendered. Noble ideals, such as order and righteousness, are understood to be in the protection of male, often hypermasculine, collectives — the troops. Through the soldiers’ fraternal solidarity, the film distills the spirit of the American people. In contrast, female characters usually appear as the soldier’s wife or daughter, speckled in flashbacks or the film’s bookending scenes. Women symbolize “home” — a personal sacrifice that the soldier must leave behind for the greater purpose of protecting his country.

Once the troops leave, their actual reason for occupying foreign lands — geographical, sociopolitical, economic, etc. — remains broad, and this abridged reproduction of history becomes easy to overlook when films prioritize the idea of national responsibility; a soldier doesn’t necessarily need to know why they’re fighting if they are guided by duty. This narrative gains particular traction in films about World War I and World War II.

In 1940 and 1941, the Second World War rapidly accelerated in Europe, and the U.S. film industry, in turn, became pro-intervention, pro-military and anti-authoritarian. The highest grossing film in 1941 was Howard Hawks’ “Sergeant York,” which follows a decorated American soldier in World War I named Alvin York. In the movie, York grapples with his competing desires to serve his country and his personal opposition to violence; eventually, he decides to fulfill his patriotic duty, and after killing throngs of German soldiers, he earns military awards and returns home as a celebrated hero. “Sergeant York” modulates the violence and traumas of war into the key of patriotism. By painting World War I as a “just” war, York’s quasi-conversion narrative transforms into a heroic journey.

The dawning of the Second World War elevated Hollywood as an important ally, since the wave of patriotic, pro-war films such as “Sergeant York” offered the unique ability to uplift national morale. Yet the heroic mythology proliferating war films began to crumble in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the controversial Vietnam War.

In the late 1960s and ’70s, filmmakers challenged the U.S. government’s authority and integrity, and the soldier’s heroic journey devolved into a narrative of damage and victimhood. Films such as “Apocalypse Now,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Platoon” depicted soldiers fighting an “unjust” war, wading through dead bodies as they dodge ricocheting bullets only to return home with with drug addictions, psychological traumas and an unshakable sense of futility. War is hell, but this time, it isn’t worth it. These “anti-war films” expose corrupt military hierarchies, the erosion of traditional morals and the hypocritical gap between war’s ideals and its actions.

As the failure of Vietnam fell further back in time, the sharp and sweeping reproach from anti-war films began to soften. War movies from the 1980s and ’90s revised projections of patriotism by adopting the newfound skepticism for authority while investing strong convictions in individualist aggression and achievement. Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo in the “Rambo” series exemplifies this freshly rehabilitated soldier character type. The newfound strand of patriotic pride spurred developments in the cultural understanding of war. Following the release of “Top Gun,” starring Tom Cruise as a young naval aviator named Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, the U.S. Navy revealed that the number of young men who aspired to be naval aviators increased by 500%.

The sense of energy and adventure that enlivens a war film has sealed the genre as an enduring and commercially celebrated mode of storytelling. As far as cinema’s concerned, the war is never over.

For those undaunted by the epic world of war films, here are some places to start: “Apocalypse Now,” “Da 5 Bloods,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Schindler’s List” and Masaki Kobayashi’s “The Human Condition” trilogy.

Cinema Spelunking is a series designed to explore and unpack nuanced topics in film discourse to cultivate a curious, globally conscious cinephile.

Contact Maya Thompson at [email protected].