Thursday, September 1, 2011

Hollywood and the military (continued)

I promised a bit more on the history of relations between Hollywood and the U.S. military. Some may be familiar with the series of films Why We Fight, produced during World War II under the auspices of the War Department (as it was then called) and directed by Frank Capra, but I knew little or nothing about it until I read part of Benjamin Alpers's Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture (Univ. of N. Carolina Press, 2003).

Alpers writes that the U.S. government "saw knowledge of the facts as essential to the morale of U.S. troops in a war against fanatical belief systems" (p.175), and the Why We Fight series was thus "built around the notion that factual knowledge about the war was the best basis for troop morale" (p.178). However, the films were "ultimately more factitious than factual" (p.179).
Much of the footage was...not what it claimed to be. Following a cinematic tradition established long before by newsreels, the Why We Fight series included footage from Hollywood features passed off as actual battle footage, staged scenes of life in the Axis countries, and captured footage taken entirely out of context.... Capra defended [this], maintaining that it was simply the most effective way to package fact. (p.179)

However, subsequent research on the films' impact on soldiers showed that "although the films did impart greater factual information about the war, this information effect whatsoever on morale or combat motivation." (p.180)

As Alpers's discussion in the same chapter (called "This is the Army") suggests, the impact of Hollywood during WW2 was probably greater on civilians, as movies deployed the convention of the multi-ethnic combat unit as a symbol of American democracy and pluralism. Of course, this ran up against the awkward fact of racial segregation, both in the army and at home. Hollywood, not surprisingly, found it difficult to square this circle (see p. 170).

My own impressionistic sense -- not having researched this -- is that the relationship between Hollywood and the military began to turn a bit more adversarial during the first decades of the Cold War, with movies like Dr. Strangelove. By the Vietnam era, the splits in U.S. society were reflected in the movies, with John Wayne for instance continuing to make pro-war films while others made anti-war ones. (I think Apocalypse Now will probably be the most-viewed of these years from now, although there were a raft of them, including Platoon, The Deer Hunter, Born on the Fourth of July, and so on.)

As the Sirota piece linked in a previous post indicates, Top Gun represents a swing of the pendulum back toward celebration of militarism (not quite the right word, perhaps, but it will do). A trickle of dissent begins to return with the movies made after the first Gulf War (not that I saw any of them, I don't think), and this trickle becomes more of a stream with the movies of the current period that deal with the post-9/11 conflicts. Many of these (e.g., The Hurt Locker, In the Valley of Elah) I have not seen, but I did see Stop-Loss (2008) and Brothers (2009). I had to look up the titles of both of these on IMDB just now -- I remembered the actors but not the titles. (One of the joys of being middle-aged.) Stop-Loss was better than Brothers, as I recall, although the latter had its moments. I also saw (but on DVD not in a theater) a movie about Iraq with Matt Damon in it. Again, I don't remember the title and this time I'm not going to bother looking it up. Matt Damon fans will probably know the movie I'm talking about it and everyone else will probably not care too much. It was not great, but in terms of its politics definitely quite critical of the U.S. role, or at least of the military/occupation hierarchy.

P.s. There have also been, of course, documentaries on recent conflicts. E.g., on Afghanistan, 'Restrepo,' which I've mentioned before, and 'Armadillo,' which I haven't seen but which V. Yadav writes about here.

P.p.s. I've now seen The Hurt Locker. Worth watching.


hank_F_M said...

However, subsequent research on the films' impact on soldiers showed that "although the films did impart greater factual information about the war, this information effect whatsoever on morale or combat motivation."

Well of course, off duty the GI's wanted lighter fare and if shown during duty hours they were considered by one and all as an opportunity for a much needed nap.


Not your favorite Justice but good reading.

Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings

LFC said...

The point is that if the Why We Fight films had no effect on morale and motivation (and I refer you to the book for details I left out), then that undercut the primary reason the War Dept showed them.
As I mentioned at your blog, I have not read Toobin's piece.

I would respectfully suggest you read some Thomas opinions to get a sense of how radical (I use the word advisedly) he is. He has very little, if any, respect for stare decisis, i.e. for Supreme Court precedent, a point I'm sure that Toobin must make but that Walter Russell Mead, in his tendentious gloss on Toobin, probably ignores.

A small example: In 1969 the Supreme Court held, in a case called Tinker v Des Moines Sch. District, that public high school students are not outside the First Amendment and that they retain certain free speech rights while in school. In a dissent not too long ago -- I don't remember the name of the case -- Thomas expressed the view that people under 18 have no First Amendment rights b/c, I guess, his deep research into the 1790s convinced him that children weren't seen in that light then. But what about Tinker, which is standing Sup Ct precedent?
Thomas doesn't care. I don't think he even tried to distinguish the case -- i.e. didn't try to show why it was inapplicable to the case at hand. He doesn't like it, therefore it's bad law. Period.

LFC said...

Oh, and Mead's use of 'Pundit High' to refer to the New England prep school he went to -- I forget whether it was Exeter or Andover or Deerfield or Groton, but it was in that general league -- is too cutesy.
Does he think readers of his blog at The American Interest would be put off if they knew where he really went to high school (or college, for that matter)?

hank_F_M said...

no effect whatsoever on morale or combat motivation."

that undercut the primary reason the War Dept showed them.

That is true, why, becuse the people working 60 hours a week, much of physical labor, used it as nap time.


Thanks for your comments on Justice Thomas, I did not think you woud agree with Jutice Tomas on much of anything, but Tobin's article about him is an important one IMHO.

I have read some of Thomas's opnions, I sometimes think he misses the point, but my non-leagal traind mind has no doubt what he saying, which I can't say for a number legal opnions I have tried to read from others on many sides.

Kindred Winecoff said...

Good post. But I think there's been a shift in the more recent war movies. Many of them are not pro- or anti-war per se, but instead focus on the soldiers as individual personalities. In a sense I read current Hollywood war movie trends as "supporting the troops" regardless of how you feel about the political leadership.

This is true of the only notable Gulf War I film I can think of -- Three Kings. And it's true of other recent war movies from The Thin Red Line, Hurt Locker, Restrepo, Saving Private Ryan, etc.

There are still protest movies like Stop-Loss (also Lions for Lambs), but these have generally been received by critics and the public with a big yawn.

LFC said...

I think you make a good point. 'Restrepo,' for instance, though a documentary, falls into your category of focusing sympathetically on the soldiers without commenting too overtly on the pros and cons of the war. The others you mention as exemplifying this trend I haven't seen (yes, never saw 'Private Ryan') with the exception of 'Thin Red Line,' which I saw when it came out.

'Thin Red Line' may be a bit of special case, b/c: (1) it's based on the James Jones novel which, imo, is pretty identifiably anti-war (if not specifically anti-WW2, if I can draw that distinction) and (2) the director is Terence Malick, known for his philosophical interests and auteur-like approach. I thought 'Thin Red Line' was at least a half-hour too long; some of the cinematography was great; and apart from a few climactic scenes my dominant recollection is of the main character taking those long meandering slightly tension-filled excursions in the jungles of (what is supposed to be) Guadalcanal, while a somewhat overbearing narration tells you what is going on in his head as he ruminates on the Big Questions.

I'm not sure why 'Stop-Loss' didn't do well at the box office: was it the protest aspects or the fact that really none of the Iraq and Afghanistan movies have done v. well at the box office (incl. I think Hurt Locker which i shd probably see a DVD version of).

Kindred Winecoff said...

My memory of Thin Red Line isn't the best either, as I saw it in the theater and haven't gone back to it. I keep meaning to, but as you say it's overlong so I always put it off. I agree that it's more philosophical because it's a Malick film, and I do remember plenty of "why are we all fighting?" sentimentality, but I wouldn't put it in the same protest-film camp as, say, Born on the Fourth of July or Platoon. Even Lions for Lambs is incredibly sympathetic to the soldiers even as it lambasts the political leadership. This is in contrast to many anti-Vietnam movies where the soldiers are portrayed as brutes, thugs, murderers, drug abusers, racists, etc.

I haven't read the Jones novel.

Also, I think the Matt Damon movie you're talking about is Green Zone, which I didn't see. I also didn't see Jarhead, another of the few notable Gulf War I films. My brothers in the Marines didn't like it so I skipped it. They did like The Hurt Locker, and I thought it was decent too. Definitely worth a rental.

There are some other recent movies that may not be pro-war, but seem to be pretty clearly pro-War on Terror. Maybe what I'm referring to is better said "pro killing terrorists via special forces or covert means". I'm thinking of films like Don Cheadle's Traitor, although the inevitable Killing of Bin Ladin film will certainly glamorize Seal Tea 6 plenty.

Still, for every one of those there's an anti-WoT film like Rendition (which I also haven't seen).

LFC said...

I agree that Thin Red Line is not in the protest-film category and yes, I was talking about Green Zone, thanks.

I'll probably rent Hurt Locker at some point. (Indeed the only thing I can do w/ my little TV right now is watch DVDs on it, not that I do a whole lot of that. Guess I better remedy the situation before the election season really gets under way. Wouldn't want to miss the Obama-Perry or Obama-whoever debates or have to watch 'em online [actually I'm mentally sort of gagging at the whole prospect of the campaign].)