Movie Cycles: War Movies, 2001-2002

John Moore’s Behind Enemy Lines, which was released in November 2001, kicked off a new cycle of war films that so far has included: Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, Gregory Hoblit’s Hart’s War, and Randall Wallace’s We Were Soldiers. One can also add to the list the highly acclaimed TV series, HBO’s Band of Brothers, produced by Tom Hanks and Spielberg. In June, MGM will release John Woo’s eagerly awaited WWII saga, The Windtalkers, which was pushed back from last year.

What’s interesting about these war films is that they were all produced long before the Sep. 11. terrorist attacks. Yet, that momentous event has inevitably colored the public’s emotional, political, and commercial reaction to them. Though tackling different wars, and employing various narrative strategies and visual styles, each war movie was influenced in some ways by the zeitgeist of American society post Sep. 11. Hence, it’s instructive to see which movies have succeeded or failed, and the specific reasons for their varied appeal. And it’s tempting to speculate about the contribution they have made to the Hollywood war movie, one of the most uniquely American and popular genres.

Arguably, the weakest of the bunch was Behind Enemy Lines, an unabashedly patriotic flag-waver that was set in the Bosnian war, but, structured as an actioner, could have taken place anywhere. The film offered a solid, different role to Owen Wilson, better known as a comic actor, as a fighter jet navigator itching for action. But once the conflict’s basic and simplistic parameters are established, the saga unfolds as a series of chases and escapes. Despite mixed-to-negative reviews, Behind benefited from being the first war film to be released, grossing close to $60 million.

Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down

The genre was vigorously energized by Scott’s visually awesome Black Hawk Down, a meticulous reconstruction of the 1993 American military debacle in Somalia. The film is nominated for four Academy nominations, mostly in the technical categories, but also garnering a well-deserved recognition to its versatile helmer. With all its narrative problems–the lack of strong and distinguishable characters–what’s refreshing about Black Hawk Down is its lack of rhetoric and moralizing. Quite miraculously, Scott succeeds in subverting the film’s tone, turning a failure into a commendation to American fighters who suffer greater losses, because they refused to leave their friends behind.

Hart’s War

The genre didn’t benefit much from Hart’s War, an expertly plotted, well-acted drama. Though grounded in specific locale, a prison camp in 1944, and based on an actual story, the fact that it could be described in terms of other films meant it lacked freshness. My review depicted Hart’s War as Stalag 17 meets A Few Good Men, due to its central trial, with a touch of A Soldier’s Story, due to its interracial conflict. Using combat sequences in its TV trailers, MGM tried to sell what was basically an indoor courtroom drama as an outdoor adventure, but the public didn’t buy it. Still struggling in the marketplace, the picture has grossed only $16 million.

We Were Soldiers

The latest addition to the genre, We Were Soldiers, is an old-fashioned, moralistic Vietnam War movie that pays equal tribute to the fighting soldiers and civilian home front. The film eschews significant political questions, disregarding the racial discord, indifferent home front, belligerent media; all documented in other Vietnam movies. It centers on one battalion and its courageous leader during a crucial and intense 4-day battle, in November 1965, at a site known as Landing Zone X-Ray, in which 235 Americans died and 245 were wounded.

We Were Soldiers doesn’t offer Rambo’s fake jingo heroism, or the metaphorical good versus evil of Platoon, successfully avoiding the guilt issue in Full Metal Jacket. Learning a lesson from Black Hawk Down, which consists of one relentless battle, Wallace intercuts the combat scenes with how the women and children dealt with the war. Another corrective angle, which was missing from Platoon, The Deer Hunter, and most Vietnam movies, is its careful presentation of the North Vietnamese soldiers as worthy, smart adversaries. The film suggests that, like the Americans, they too were forced to leave families behind, they too suffered heavy losses.

Yet, one can’t get too excited about We Were Soldiers, which, in its old-fashioned theme and spirit belongs to the movies made during and shortly after WWII. The film also lacks the authentic look and feel of great combat pictures, such as Platoon or Hamburger Hill; Full Metal Jacket, which was shot outside London, suffered from the same problem. On the other hand, the audience is given several fully fleshed and inspirational characters to root for. But while honoring the soldiers who took pride in being American warriors, Wallace pushes too hard the metaphoric elements: The combat as a noble memorial to the American experience, and a symbol of the futility and senselessness of war in general.

War Films and Movie Stars

Casting war films with major stars is not always a guarantee for commercial success. How else can one explain the fact that the presumably huge following of Bruce Willis, of Hart’s War, opted to stay at home. In its lackluster box-office, the movie repeats the pattern of another Willis vehicle, the Western Last Man Standing, which was a failure. In contrast, Gibson’s marquee value proved reliable for Paramount’s big-budgeter, grossing an impressive $20 million in the U.S. over its opening weekend. Remarkably, We Were Soldiers hasn’t suffered from the success of Black Hawk Down, which has just passed the magical $100 million mark.