Myths in American War Films: Part One of Four Articles

Myths in American War Movies: Part One

Peaceful existence has been a major value of the American Way of Life. The portrayal of war and peace in popular culture is an issue of great social significance because of the strong roles that mass media play in the socialization process. Notions of appropriate (and inappropriate) patriotic behavior (in times of war and peace) are transmitted not only by the family, peer group, and schooling, but also by the mass media (fiction, film, television).

Pop culture and mass media serve as a major source of information about a variety of roles, including political roles, that is, the duties and rights of citizens for their country. This sociological function has been particularly important for children and adolescents who have dominated the movie-going public in recent decades. The most frequent moviegoers in the U.S. are between 12 and 20. Young viewers often gain their first insights into the “real world” through exposure to the film medium. However, the media’s images are not necessarily accurate or up-to-date, and a culture lag may prevail.

The notion of culture lag is based on Ogburn’s theory of social change, which distinguishes between material and nonmaterial culture. Ogburn claimed that because technological innovations are more rapidly accepted than new ideas or values, there is usually a period of time during which the symbolic elements of culture lag behind the material ones. a may prevail between society’s material conditions (the actuality of war) and its cultural representations, in terms of images, values, and myths.

This series of articles examine the treatment of war and peace in the American cinema. Using a social-historical perspective, my chief goal is to analyze the construction of war and peace images by Hollywood. The film industry has a dual aspect. As a major economic institution, with a strong industrial and technological base, it produces products–standardized and formulaic films–for the consumption of large audiences. But the film industry is also a cultural institution, “a storytelling machine,” to use David Thurburn’s concept, which fulfills important ideological functions through its production and transmission of values and myths. Unlike material products, films are symbolic creations, which signify social values and meanings through their narratives and characterization.

The typical Hollywood fare has always been designed to appeal to the largest possible audiences, an examination of popular films about war serves as an indicator of what filmmakers (producers, writers, and directors) thought would be acceptable to the American public. The filmmakers’ concepts might have been distorted, but their guiding assumptions have actually shaped the contents and forms of the typical Hollywood fare.

French critic Andre Bazin has observed that “Hollywood’s superiority is only incidentally technical; it lies much more in what one might call the American cinematic genius, something which should be analyzed by a sociological approach to its production. The American cinema has been able in an extraordinarily competent way to show American society just as it wanted to see itself.” For the anthropologist Emile Durkheim, a society forms itself by bringing itself to consciousness through collective representations, which it then externalizes and worships.

Focusing on the interplay among military screen images, dominant ideology, and social structure, this series of essays explore one major issue: what guidelines, prescriptions and proscriptions, have American films provided concerning war and peace.

Specific Questions

The above basic issue is stated in terms of four specific questions. First, what are the main attributes of American screen heroism Second, what guidelines American films prescribed for the performance of military roles Third, how rigid (or flexible) have these guidelines been And fourth, changes in the portrayal of combat and soldiers. The advantage of analyzing commercially successful films is that they are widely seen by the public, thus serving as potential agents of socialization.

These articles examine films, which were acclaimed for their artistic merits and/or winners of critics’ awards, such as Casablanca,” films nominated for or winning the Oscar Awards, such as Sergeant York” and Sands of Iwo Jima,” and commercially popular films, widely seen by the public like Bataan” or Mister Roberts.”

French director Francois Truffaut once said that, “when a film achieves a certain success, it become a sociological event,” and the question of its quality become secondary.” And the social historian Sigfried Kracauer observed that, “the films of a nation reflect its mentality in a more direct way than any other artistic media.” And because the film industry is “vitally interested in profit,” aiming to satisfy mass desires, “it is bound to adjust itself to the change in mental climate.”

My sociological approach employs both institutional and interactional perspectives in understanding film production and consumption. Films are mass products, conceived and created for the immediate viewing by large and diverse audiences. However, films often enjoy wide appeal not because they are intrinsically interesting, but because of the historical and social timing of their release, when they address timely issues in terms of occurrences outside the industry.

Films are interwoven in a network of relationships with other institutions (family, politics, religion) and are also subject to institutional (organizational, industrial, and legal) and ideological constraints that shape their thematics and stylistics. These constraints operate both within and without the film industry. For example, the kinds of films produced are determined by market considerations, which in turn are determined by demographics (the age of frequent filmgoers).

In its general use, the reflection theory (films reflect society) is not adequate. One needs to be more specific, asking what particular aspects of the film (narrative structure, thematic conventions, style) reflect what aspects of the social structure. Moreover, films may express cultural norms or social trends, but they may also reflect the personal ideology and politics of their filmmakers. Along with other agencies, films perform a function of social control: By stressing consensus values, they reaffirm the status quo and exercise stabilizing effects on their viewers.

To pose the question of whether films reflect or reaffirm or shape society is thus erroneous. Neither theory operates consistently, and each may be partially correct. Some films (or aspects of a film) may reflect the social structure, others reaffirm it, and still others change their viewers’ perception. This book shows that films should be analyzed in their multiple facets, as narrative, ideological, artistic, and commercial products, all conditioned by their cultural settings.

Using the structuralist approach as formulated by the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, movies are analyzed as cultural myths, narratives arising from society’s underlying issues and basic structures. Levi-Strauss describes myths as transformations of basic dilemmas” or contradictions” that in reality cannot be resolved. Some of these contradictions have been acknowledged but suppressed by the film industry. Concerned with decoding the elementary units in culture, the goal is to reveal, “how the apparently arbitrary mythical representations link up into systems that link up with reality, natural as well as social, in order to reflect, obscure, or contradict it.”

Despite manifest implausibilities and apparent contradictions, myths are coherent and logical structures. Levi Strauss’s method seeks the underlying logic of myths, how people create cognitive order that gives meaning to cultural texts. His analysis is important, because it breaks down the most complex myths into logical categories of dialectical oppositions. Based on a formal use of inversion, every category in the myth has its opposite.

Levi-Strauss’s analysis of myths has been criticized for being ahistorical, ignoring the specific conditions under which they arise or are reactivated. But myths endure because they are at once historical (specific) and universal (atemporal). They provide in popular fictional form (stories) both a version of concrete history and a vision of existence.

As collective representations, the function of myths is to preserve and legitimize the social order. Like other forms of storytelling, films are didactic, equivalent of old Christian morality plays. War movies have been particularly pedagogical: They’ll have derived from strong moral origins, reflected moral conflicts, and offered moral solutions. This article analyzes the shape of military stories in both their generalized and particularized forms. The general shapes, or archetypes, are the fundamental ways through which viewers perceive the specificities of an individual work. Archetypes determine the limits within which particular stories and characters can be filled.

Consisting of three basic elements, narrative, values, and hidden meanings, the survival of myths depends on two factors. First, the ability of image-makers (writers, filmmakers) to regenerate similar myths in fresh and topical way. And second, the ability of viewers to forget the weakest and most mutable examples, their willingness to suspend belief and pretend that they are seeing the story for the first time. The durability of specific” myths about war and peace suggests their rich variability: Their ability to present numerous variations of formulaic conventions. As Robert Ray has observed, the influence of myths over viewers increases with the number of incarnations they allow for.

Myths associated with the Second World War have survived for a long time, until the images created by the Vietnam War. Myths cannot easily be overthrown by contradictory reality, because viewers do not perceive reality directly, but through dominant paradigms that determine their perception of specific events. Thus, myths can–and do–distort people’s perception, by encouraging them to believe in the validity rather than reality of the tale.

It is debatable whether Hollywood could create” new national myths. However, because of their power, films disseminate and popularize myths more rapidly than other cultural media (newspapers, novels, plays). Despite the fact that the origins of cinematic myths are often in literature (books, stories) or theater (plays), films portray the material of everyday life more effectively than other arts. Films are able to provide an illusion, or approximation of realism through the use of the camera in “recording” reality.

As myths, war movies are experienced in specific historical circumstances.” This is
a point of convergence between structuralism and sociology of film. The “internal” approach of the structuralist (the inner attributes and underlying structure of film as a text) is supplemented with the sociologist’s “external” approach, grounding these attributes in their specific cultural and political settings.

Focusing on the structure of sign systems, semiology analyzes verbal as well as nonverbal systems of symbols. Semiologists pay attention to the “meanings” of texts and the processes through which such meanings are conveyed to viewers. The system of rules underlying symbolic constructions is “difficult to explain because it is easy to understand,” according to French scholar Christian Metz. The semiologist’s distinction between denotative and connotative meanings is useful, because connotation is always symbolic, i.e. arbitrary: it establishes a relationship between signifier and signified which is culturally motivated and historically conditioned. “We consider the objects solely in relation to the meaning,” wrote Roland Barthes, “without bringing in the other determinants (psychological, sociological, physical) of these objects,” to quote Roland Barthes.

Unlike sociologists, semiologists analyze symbolic messages for their own sake, recognizing that the symbolic form of the message has a privileged position in the communication exchange, and that though only relatively autonomous” in relation to the communication process as a whole they are determinate moments.”