Shot for a Purpose

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A history of American war films

Darryl F Zanuck's 'The Longest Day' was very much a Nato film. It was made during the 1961 Berlin Wall crisis and reflected the US's need of its European allies in the Cold War with Russia. The film went out of its way to show the British, French, German and American experience of the D-Day landings in Normandy on 6 June 1944. The Allies were shown working together and those 'decent' Germans who had fought bravely and were not Nazi fanatics were rehabilitated. There was, of course, no mention of the Russian contribution to the defeat of the Nazis.

Zanuck brought in four directors from each nationality involved to shoot the experience of their side, and the armed forces of each country made a substantial contribution in the form of loaned equipment and soldiers. The French, in particular, provided 3,000 soldiers as extras and US troops took part in the restaging of the Omaha beach landings.

The contrast with Steven Spielberg's 'Saving Private Ryan' could not be greater. By 1998 US triumphalism was at its height and Spielberg's invasion of Normandy is accomplished by the Americans without anyone's help. The US's awareness of its military superiority was so overwhelming that a major Hollywood film like 'Saving Private Ryan' could not even imagine that it had ever been different.

There is, of course, nothing new in the idea that war films reflect the time they are made rather than the time they are made about. In the US this reflection has almost always been an official one deriving from the exceptionally close relationship between Hollywood and the Pentagon.

This close relationship broke down in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The divisions that the war opened up in American society had a profound impact on Hollywood. A mass anti-war movement that had the open support of thousands of servicemen shook the country. The war was widely recognised as an imperialist adventure in which the US military machine wantonly slaughtered thousands upon thousands of defenceless Vietnamese, in which US troops had committed fearful atrocities. And, moreover, it was a war in which the US had been defeated by poorly armed guerrillas. Much of Hollywood--actors, actresses, producers, directors, production crew, writers--came out against the war.

Hollywood's Vietnam films fall into two camps. There are the right wing ultrapatriotic films that portray the war as a war betrayed. The 'Rambo' and Missing in Action (MIA) films are the classics. The war could have been won, indeed really was won, but the politicians and bureaucrats sold the fighting men out. This betrayal even extended to abandoning hundreds of US prisoners of war (POWs), left behind after the war, to be slaves of the Vietnamese. The Hollywood right fastened onto the MIA myth, the myth that Nixon used as an ideological club against the anti-war movement. In this world of mirrors, Americans became the victims and the Vietnamese the victimisers. On one celebrated occasion two Hollywood stars, Clint Eastwood and William Shatner, were actually persuaded to help finance a mercenary expedition into Laos looking for hidden POW camps. According to Eastwood, President Reagan promised a full-scale invasion if any were found. One consequence of the astonishing potency of the MIA myth is the refrain of today's American war films that no one must be left behind.

Opposing the right were two sorts of film, those that showed the war as madness ('Apocalypse Now') and those that attempted to show it realistically, at least as far as the Americans were concerned ('Platoon'). Oliver Stone, a Vietnam veteran, moved sharply to the left, and made one of the best American anti-imperialist films, 'Salvador', before putting his Vietnam experiences on the screens. Appalled by the fascist mentality of the Rambo and MIA films, he attempted to show the war as it was for the Vietnam veterans, both the suffering they experienced and the atrocities they committed. Brian de Palma's 'Casualties of War' was even more uncompromising in this regard. These films and those like them did not have Pentagon approval. What was missing, of course, was any films actually supporting the Vietnamese struggle.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War went a long way towards exorcising the ghost of Vietnam. US triumphalism was rampant and this inevitably infected Hollywood. Three very different Hollywood war films are good examples of this triumphalism. 'Saving Private Ryan' we have already looked at, but it is worth noticing that, while its opening combat sequence attracted considerable acclaim as showing the experience of 'everyman' under fire, the rest of the film is straightforward American flag waving. Moreover, it is based on a lie. It attempts to humanise a US military, discredited by Vietnam, by showing a fictional concern with the life of one soldier. On top of that every scene is pillaged from earlier war films, including the ending which is taken from John Wayne's 'Back to Bataan'.

'We Were Soldiers', starring Mel Gibson, is a Vietnam War film made for the new age of triumphalism. The Air Cavalry it celebrates was previously featured in Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now' where it received considerably less sympathetic treatment. The film presents the American victory as a result of heroism in the face of overwhelming odds. But the book it is based on is quite clear that the battle was won by overwhelming American firepower including B-52s. The scene where US commander Hal Moore is debriefed by Westmoreland and McNamara, and tells them that the US cannot win the war against opponents like these, was cut from the film.

The film that best exemplifies the changed context is, however, 'Black Hawk Down', George W Bush's 'Triumph of the Will' (a 1934 documentary about Adolf Hitler). Directed by Ridley Scott, the film focused on an American operation in Mogadishu, Somalia, that went wrong. Two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down, the troops sent to rescue the crew were cut off and a large-scale armoured operation was mounted to extract them. At the end of the fight 19 Americans were dead and hundreds of Somalis. The way the film portrays these events is one of the most blatant and unashamed displays of racism and colonialism in modern cinema. Brave, decent, white soldiers, who are only there to help, are shown fighting off hordes of crazed black Somalis. The moment when some of the heroes are overwhelmed and disappear beneath the mass of black savages is absolutely appalling. 'Black Hawk Down' makes 'The Alamo' and 'Zulu' look politically correct. Predictably the film had the enthusiastic support of the Pentagon. At the end of the film the names of the 19 dead Americans appear on the screen. The hundreds of Somalis who died never get a mention. Originally the text included a statement that many of the US soldiers who fought in Mogadishu and were extras in the film were now involved in the invasion of Afghanistan, but this was cut.

'Black Hawk Down' was rushed into the cinema to cash in on the upsurge of patriotism that followed the 11 September 2001 attacks. It caught the tide. The anti-war films that Hollywood could still make in the 1990s ('Wag The Dog', 'Three Kings') are now a thing of the past, no longer possible in the new climate. Even a rather anodyne spy thriller like Tony Scott's 'Spy Game' had scenes showing the CIA as a terrorist organisation cut in response to 11 September. What we have to look forward to instead is 'Rambo IV', in which Stallone apparently hunts down Osama Bin Laden, due out later this year. You have been warned.