Life during wartime

Timing sets the tone for Hollywood’s depiction of war

by Gabriel Shapiro

Have you noticed that in the past several years just before baseball players go on strike, Kevin Costner releases a baseball movie? And how is it that in the late 1990s, when insurance companies were going bankrupt from huge payouts on hurricane, fire, earthquake and flood damage, it seemed like every other movie was about a natural disaster? Hollywood is both responding to timely events in society, and simultaneously it is responding to itself and creating its own trends.

So what can we make of all the war movies that have come out in the post-Sept. 11, 2001 period? Is Hollywood responding to or creating a trend? And a related question: Are these movies simply meant to entertain us, or are they arguing a position with regard to war?

The superfluity of war-themed movies in the past 18 or so months is inarguable; “Black Hawk Down,” “We Were Soldiers,” “Behind Enemy Lines,” “Windtalkers” and “Hart’s War” are just a few of Hollywood’s recent offerings. “Gods and Generals” is currently showing in local theaters, and “Tears of the Sun,” another Bruce Willis action flick, is due to be released this week.

Movies are entertaining, that’s a fair enough statement, but that is not all they are. As for the titles listed above, the majority have been stories of specific incidents of American “heroism” – which is to say, they are more interested in retelling a particular incident than mounting a critique of war as a part of the human experience.

“We Were Soldiers,” for example, is moody and dark, but that doesn’t seem to be the result of anything more than a generic lighting choice. After all, nobody would shoot a war movie in Day-Glo colors. War is, by its nature, moody and dark. It is not a stretch to portray war as hellish-looking. What is more difficult is to pry into the minds of people at war, and this cannot be accomplished simply by a lot of yelling and shooting capped off with “Forrest Gump”-esque dumbed-down emotion, hyperbole and tired cliches. “We Were Soldiers” features some of the most terrible acting in recent memory, but that’s beside the point, which is that its treatment of war as a kind of high-stakes sport is dangerous at best.

With Sept. 11, 2001 behind us, and a real war looming just over the horizon, it is not surprising that war movies are popular lately, but what is a bit strange is the degree to which these prewar war movies seem to differ from those of an inter-war period.

To talk about “war movie” as a class is a bit misleading. Certainly nobody would argue that “Apocalypse Now,” which is a war movie merely in the sense of its setting, is the same thing as “Behind Enemy Lines,” a tale of U.S. defiance of NATO set during the Bosnian conflict.

The former is an investigation of man’s inhumanity to man and the darkness within each human being. The latter is an adrenaline junkie-oriented, rah-rah flag-waving action movie, replete with corny dialogue, improbable action and enough testosterone-induced pseudo-patriotic idiocy that the only thing more disturbing than the fact that this movie was made is that its release was pushed ahead by a whole two months in order to capitalize on the post-Sept. 11, 2001 sentiments.

There is a wide range of possibilities within the larger rubric of war movies. But the trend seems to be that the contemplative, questioning, even critical films within the war genre, films such as “Full Metal Jacket,” “Three Kings,” “Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Platoon” and “Dr. Strangelove,” are all made during peacetime. These are the moments when, at a safer distance from the rhetoric of wartime politics and fear for the safety of young men and women – our classmates, brothers and sisters who find themselves in battle – we can, as a society, reinvestigate the wisdom, cost and horror of war.

Whether you are a fan of, repelled by or indifferent to war movies, we do ourselves a disservice in regarding movies as mere entertainment, a sort of neutral, disinterested entity that comes from the mythical land of Hollywood. Movies are, if nothing else, a document, a look into the state of a society within the parentheses of the era in which they are made.

Gabriel Shapiro welcomes comments at [email protected]