Movie Genres: American War Films–Part Four of Four Articles

Masculinity Vs. Femininity

American War movies have been obsessed with defining the parameters of masculine behavior, repeatedly using two devices: comparing masculine leaders with women on the one hand, and weak men (and children) on the other. The pressures of being a real man, as Vito Russo observed, were absolute and unyielding in the American cinema, and the norms describing screen masculinity have not changed much over the years.

Reel (and real) men have been depicted as strong, silent, and contentiously unemotional. They act quickly and never intellectualize; in short, they do not behave as women. To be like a woman is not only invaluable, but also an insult, a stigma. War movies have been replete with comparisons with weak and effeminate men whose inferiority provided the yardstick for measuring genuine virility. The cinematic function of war heroes has been saving weakling youths and restoring their manhood.

In American films, real men never let their personal frustrations or emotions “interfere” with their duties. In Back to Bataan,” Colonel Madden (John Wayne) is contrasted with the leader of the Philippino guerrillas (Anthony Quinn), who moons over his sweetheart, believing she has been collaborating with the Japanese. Quinn is so frustrated and embittered over his emotional life that it affects his leadership. It is only after Madden, disobeying orders, tells him she is actually assisting the resistance movement that he pulls himself together and turns to be a courageous fighter. Madden connsoles him, “sometimes, it’s not easy to forget,” but it’s clear that he is the role model for how men should behave, particularly in war times.

War heroes are also hard drinking, but their drinking is normatively prescribed and favorably depicted because it is restrained, controlled, and doesn’t interfere with their official duties. Drinking is indeed integral to the Wayne screen persona, but is never harmful. His heroes usually drink in solitude, to overcome their despair; they drink to console themselves, but they don’t let other people catch them drinking. In Sands of Iwo Jima,” Sergeant Stryker drinks over his frustrations and strains as a commander, but his drinking is not visible to his soldiers.

The contrast between “real” and feminized men is most explicit in Sands of Iwo Jima.” Disliked by his men because of his ruthless training, Stryker’s major critic is a new recruit, Peter Conway, who hates rigid discipline. Stryker trains his novices, ruthlessly whipping them into shape. The animosity between Stryker and Conway has other sources: Wayne had served under Conway’s father, who had been killed in action in Gaudalcanal. Conway, however, does not share Wayne’s respect for his father, because the latter used to poke fun at him for being “too soft.” In the film’s climax, Conway tells Stryker how he will bring up his newly born son: “I won’t insist he read the Marine Corps Manual. Instead, I’ll get him a set of Shakespeare. In short, I don’t want him to be a Sergeant John M. Stryker–I want him to be intelligent, considerate, cultured, and a gentleman.”

Later in the picture, however, Stryker saves Conway’s like, when a live grenade falls at his feet while he dreamily reads a letter from his wife. But Conway gets the opportunity to save Wayne’s life and even apologizes for getting “out of line.” In this movie too, Wayne is the sensitive commander who does not let it show, believing in hard discipline. Shot by a sniper, an unfinished letter is found on his body in which he concedes of being a failure in many ways. At the end, however, Conway becomes the fighter Stryker and his father has always wanted him to be: Killing the Japanese sniper, he takes over the command and adopts Wayne’s style of leadership.

The generational conflict between leaders and their immature and/or feminine soldiers is most explicitly developed in In Harm’s Way” (1965). Captain Rockwell Torrey, a commander of a ship cruiser, is described by one of his officers as “All Navy.” We also learn that his commitment to his career resulted in a broken marriage.

Moreover, he believes that his wife’s Bostonian origins have had a negative influence on their son Jere, whom he has not seen for eighteen years. Jere is an opportunistic officer, preferring a “soft” job over a fighting assignment. Torrey is ashamed of his son and their first meeting is bitter and awkward. Addressed by Jere as “Sir,” he resents the manner in which his son talks about the war, referring to it as “Mr. Roosevelt’s War.” He also despises him for revealing a top secret out of negligence. Later, when Jere is assigned to the same aperation and is placed under Wayne’s command, he does not get any special treatment. “I’m not going to act like a father now,” states Torrey, “I threw that opportunity 18 years ago.” However, father and son become closer when Torrey has to break the tragic news that his boy’s girlfriend has been raped and committed suicide. At the end, they are reunited when Jere models himself after his father–but not before committing himself to the War’s ideals.

Jere redeems himself, becoming a better soldier and dying heroically. Now his father can really accept his son and be proud of him. In In Harm’s Way,” the divorced Torrey has buried his marital disappointments beneath a cool and reserved exterior. By contrast, his executive officer, has turned to alcoholism and self-pity because he cannot accept his wife’s promiscuity. Torrey always acts honorably, whereas his colleague is impulsive, temperamental, and eventually self-destructive. Torrey is gentle with women. His officer, by contrast, is a selfish and lusty womanizer. He rapes Torrey son’s girlfriend and, upon learning that she committed suicide, volunteers for a deadly mission, unable to live with his conscience.

One of the genre’s recurrent themes is for the heroes to be “unburdened by family life and “free” from domestic obligations. Soldiers often preferred the company of men, enjoying intimate relationships with their male buddies. Indeed, in many war films, there are no women in the heroes’ lives (due to separations, divorces), and their friendships are confined to male partners. Male camaraderie has been prominent in the war film, though male friendships and bonds have been perennial themes in the American cinema, not just in war films.

Operation Pacific” (1951), a typical movie of the l950s concerning men’s relationship with women, casts John Wayne as a submarine officer, divorced from his wife, a Navy nurse for fourteen years, following the death of their son in infancy. It’s clear, though, that he still loves her and wants to resume their relationship. He takes the blame for their split on himself, “We had something. I guess I kicked it around.”

His ex-wife apparently did not mind his absences from home, but she did mind that she could not cry with him or comfort him when their son died: “You went off into some corner alone, never realizing that by comforting you I could have helped my own grief.” She also spurns him for his love with the navy, “You don’t need anybody but yourself.” But as in most of his films, she is the one who has to compromise and accept him on his own terms as her superior at the hospital reminds her: “You married him for what he is, and then tried to make something else out of him, but you couldn’t.” Sergeant Stryker’s private life in Sands of Iwo Jima” is in ruins and he is tormented by past mistakes; his wife left him, taking their little son with her.

In most war movies, however, the hero’s roughness is more of a facade. In Flying Leathernecks,” he is frustrated when he does not get mail from his family and he is the one to write letters of condolences to the victims’ families. His leaders are by no means insensitive, especially when it comes to respect for soldiers who have died in duty. In They Were Expendable, he states firmly, “a service man is supposed to have a funeral–that’s a tribute to the way he’s spent his life. Escort, firing squad, wrapped in the flag he served under and died for.” Wayne even recites poetryawkwardly–in honor of one of the casualties who “was always quotin’ verse.”

Man of Ideas Vs. Man of Action

Another dominant myth in the war movies is the hero’s rebellious or independent streak. Leaders are willing to disobey orders if they think their decision is right and action is needed. They want to fight on the front, hating desk work. In this respect, the war hero stands in diametric opposition to William Whyte’s “organization man,” the conformist who goes by the book and adjusts himself to the organization’s rule, doing all things “the company way.”

Construction engineer Wedge Donovan in The Fighting Seabees” (1944) helps to organize the Fighting Seabees, special fighting units of civilian workers. He is told by Lieutenant Commander Bob Yarrow to ignore the Japanese snipers and to focus on construction. Compared with Yarrow, Donovan is hot-tempered and impatient with the enemy. He continues to obey orders until his friend is killed, then in defiance of the rules, he orders his men to fight back. However, his stubbornness causes the death of many people for which he is held responsible. In the end, guilt-ridden, he redeems himself in a one-man action which costs him his life, but saves the important oil tanks.

Henry Fonda first played the title role of Mister Roberts” on the Broadway stage for three years, winning acclaim and awards, then recreated it, with equal success on screen. The story has had many incarnations, starting as a book by Thomas Heggen, then a stage play by him and Joshua Logan, and finally a screenplay by Logan and Frank Nugent. Fonda is cast as the first officer on the Reluctant, a cargo ship miles away from the battle zone, whose route is described by him as “from Tedium to Apathy and back again, with an occasional side trip to Monotony.” The War is close to an end, and Roberts is anxious to get into combat before it is too late. His numerous requests for transfer, however, are turned down by his tyrannical captain. But with the assistance of the sympathetic crew, his wish is finally fulfilled. Mister Roberts” ends on a sad note when the audience is informed that its hero has been killed in action.

The source of conflict between Torrey and his wife in In Harm’s Way” is his career: she wanted him to do something “useful,” like working for the stock market. Torrey, however, refuses, “I don’t fit behind a desk. I’ll dry.” But he is also reluctant to sit behind a desk, and suffers under the indecisive leadership of Admiral Broderick. Indeed, leading the remnants of a Japanese attack, he deliberately violates the orders, charting a straight course for the enemy, instead of the required zigzag. As a result, a torpedo splits his ship and he is injured. Brought before a court, the punishment for his violation is desk work. Frustrated, he watches forlornly as the American counter-offensive is formulated but without him. But later, his case is reexamined by the higher command and, elevated to Rear Admiral, Wayne is placed in command of Operation Skyhook. His ship is struck by the Japanese and he is injured again; this time, his left leg is amputated. He is promised, however, an artificial leg and the command of a new task force, to carry on the fight.


Analyzing war films, this series of articles used elements of three theoretical orientations: sociology, structuralism, and semiology, showing points of convergence and divergence among them. The key concepts are context in sociology, text in structuralism, and subtext in semiology. From a sociological standpoint, cinema, like other institutions (science, politics, economy) does not operate in a social or political void. Rather, it is interrelated with the historical, cultural, and political settings in which it operates. Using structuralism, films are analyzed as cultural texts and narrative structures. And the semiological approach emphasizes that films are constructions or systems of meanings, which signify symbols (and messages) in specifically and uniquely cinematic ways.

This series of articles shows, that despite some variability, there have been many similarities in the narratives of American war films. It is therefore possible to describe the portrayal of war heroism in terms of broad clusters of values, which have gone beyond specific historical and political contexts. The most important myths in the war genre, as expressed in combat films, have been: the individual versus the military organization (self-orientation versus collective orientation); democracy versus elitism (the significance of team work versus one-man operations); American society as a “Melting Pot” (the ethnic integration of combat units), commitment versus neutrality (active involvement versus isolationism or apathy); military career versus peaceful domestic life (militarism as a way of life and military service as a necessary civilian duty); masculinity versus sensitivity (action versus ideas); and heroism as extraordinary behavior by ordinary men. These cultural orientations have been basic American values, characterizing dominant culture, not just film and screen heroism.

From a sociological standpoint, durable film stars (John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda) have functioned as much more than actors playing parts. They are cultural icons, whose screen roles signify attitudes that are collectively meaningful and desirable. Movie stars, marked by long-lasting appeals, have functioned as folk heroes and heroines, cultural points of reference for large and diverse audiences, despite dramatic changes in society’s dominant ideology and politics. The striking survival of these stars is attributable to their embodiment of basic American values, which have remained relevant despite structural and political changes in the society at large. These myths dominated American films until the Vietnam War, an experience that had challenged and changed many of these myths.

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