Friday, Adrian and I went to see The Bourne Ultimatum (which was pretty good, entertaining but not great and in no way superior to the first two). Before the film, a trailer for In The Valley of Elah as well as The Kingdom. From the preview, I gathered that Elah was a murder mystery surrounding a solider returned from a tour in Iraq where it seems his unit did some pretty nefarious things (or something like that). The Kingdom is a big, ole action flick about the bombing of an American facility in Saudi Arabia. Both movies have current themes, but it was Elah that really got my wheels turning. In addition to this film, there are a few others coming out that directly deal with the war in Iraq, like Grace is Gone, and still others that tackle the politics that surround the war, for instances Rendition. From what I've read and seen on these upcoming flicks, they all seem to point a critical eye at the war and current policies and procedures endorsed by the government and its various agents.
This struck me as curious because the military is still actively engaged in the conflict in Iraq, and as far as my wee little brain could recall, this was a first for Hollywood: releasing films that paint a war or military action in a negative light while the war was ongoing. I mentioned this to Adrian on our way home from the theater and we ruminated on the subject for a bit. At home, I decided to do a little light research to see what I could come up with. I looked for films that dealt with specific wars that were and/or critical of the war effort, did not portray the military as heroic, showed battle scenes with realism, and did not use the war as setting for a love story, buddy movie, action yarn, etc. I excluded from my search shorts, foreign films, documentaries and television originals. Also, I was primarily interested in wars of the 20th century, ones that took place while the Hollywood machine was up and running. My goal was to find out when Hollywood first portrayed each war on the silver screen with a negative outlook.
Here's what I found, using the years of the beginning and end of each conflict with regards to American military involvement (I'm not a historian by any means, so please don't chew me a new asshole over the dates.):
World War I 1917-1919
The Big Parade (1925), What Price Glory (1926), and Wings (1927) were silent films dealing with World War I. While notable for their realistic battle scenes, the war was used mostly as a backdrop to the main plot line, which in all three was a love story. The first movie release by Hollywood to examine the true horrors of The Great War was All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), made some thirteen years after the start of American involvement in the war.
World War II 1941-1945
There certainly was no dearth of movies about WWII before, during, and immediately after America's participation. Most of these movies were fervently patriotic and supportive of the Allied forces. Soldiers were honorable, heroic men who fought with dignity and pride. Amongst the slew of flag-waving action flicks were also musicals, romances, and comedies set during the war. Hollywood was a literal propaganda machine, churning out these flicks to bolster American spirits and support for the war. It wasn't until Das Boot (1981) did American audiences get a taste of WW II in a less than glorious light. Granted, it's a German film, but it was showered with accolades and attention stateside. About ten years later, A Midnight Clear (1992) sloughed off the sugar coating of traditional Hollywood depictions of WW II, and I think opened the door for filmmakers to reconsider the way the war could be portrayed. Finally, the opening Normandy beach invasion scene in Saving Private Ryan (1998) was powerful enough alone to squash the legacy of every previous WW II movie. Mind you this was fifty years after the U.S. declared war on Japan and the Axis nations.
Korean War 1950-1953
There's not much on the record books for this one, folks. A sprinkling of action films here and there, but the only film to take on the futility and gruesome reality of battle in Korea was Pork Chop Hill (1959). Now there's also M*A*S*H (1970) to consider, but Altman's satire used Korea only as a replacement for the Vietnam conflict...
Vietnam War 1961-1973
Amazingly, for as long as this conflict lasted and for as much strife as it caused on the American consciousness, only one Hollywood movie made during the war that dealt with Vietnam: the ultra-propagandistic, pro-war The Green Berets (1968). Granted, some filmmakers chose other conflicts upon which to place their grievances about the Vietnam war, such as the aforementioned M*A*S*H and Johnny Got His Gun (1971). Five years after the war's end and seventeen years after the first troops were committed to the conflict in Vietnam, a spate of films showed the war in a harsh light: The Boys in Company C, Coming Home, and The Deer Hunter (all 1978). And it wasn't until Oliver Stone came along and started his Vietnam War trilogy in the mid-eighties did the war become fodder for a number of films.
Gulf War 1991
Perhaps because the actual conflict was so short-lived, there haven't been a many treatments about this particular war. The first was the Meg Ryan/ Denzel Washington vehicle Courage Under Fire (1996) and while it had a glossy Hollywood sheen to the movie, Matt Damon's hollowed-out vet revealed more about the grisly reality of war than any extended battle scene. A few years later, Three Kings (1999) went into the desert to tell its story of the immediate after-effects of the American involvement in Kuwait.
While this was not an actual war, I chose to include this in my list if only to call attention to Black Hawk Down (2001). Terrifying realistic battle scenes. Eight years after the fact.
Nothing has come out of Hollywood that specifically features the conflict in Afghanistan. The only thing I could find is Lions and Lambs to be released later this year. The war isn't the central theme, but two soliders' harrowing experiences in Afghanistan seem to the the fulcrum upon which the rest of the plot turns.
Iraq War 2003-current
So far there's been only one movie, Home of the Brave (2006). I haven't seen this film, but the reviews I read said it centered mostly on returned vets of the war and their lives post-combat. The reviews also stated that the film took a middle-of-the-road stance with regards to the war, neither wholly critical nor supportive. The there are the aforementioned films that will be coming out this fall, none of which look to be anything but critical of the war. In Elah, the missing solider's unit is involved in some sort covert military maneuver, and they sure as hell weren't saving Private Ryan.
So what does this all mean, that Hollywood is closing the traditional time gap on realistic and/or negative war movies? I know that for my grandfather's generation, the ones who fought in WW II, their experiences in the war were kept mostly private, rarely discussed. It makes sense that filmmakers amongst those veterans would want not to return to rehash their experiences on the big screen. I think the silence during the Vietnam era was self-censorship on the part of Hollywood who feared alienating a more conservative audience. Maybe beginning with the Baby Boomers, each preceding generation has become more navel-gazing and willing to air their dirty laundry and therefore more willing to examine life and its unpleasantries through art. Maybe its the immediacy of news in our culture what with the omnipresent 24-hour television and internet presence, plus the bleeding together of entertainment and so-called reality.
Hell if I know.
But I'll be curious to see how these movies fare at the box office. Personally, I'm in no rush to see any of them, especially Elah which is chocked so full of A-listers that it practically screams Oscar Bait. In fact they all looked pretty much like fodder for the awards circuit.
There you go. Talk amongst yourself.