Movie Genres: War Films–Conventions, Values, and Myths

Hollywood and WWII

Historians estimate that about one third of the films produced in Hollywood (500 out of 1700) between 1942 and 1945 were about some aspect of the War: the battle or the home front. The production of war film reached an all-time high in 1943, when 133 war films, or 33 percent of the total film output, were released.

The Second World War still occupies an important position in the country’s collective consciousness: it was the last American war perceived as a “good” war, one dedicated to a noble cause. The imagery of WWII stands in opposition to other, less “positive” wars, such as Vietnam and Korea.

The war film has been one of the staples and most popular genres of the film industry, embodying some of the nation’s most enduring values and myths.

Focusing on war films, the article deals with the construction of American screen heroism, a rather coherent type, characterized by specific and recurrent themes. The narrative structure of combat films discloses some basic, underlying conventions.

Thematic Analysis of War Films

War films are analyzed thematically, in terms of unit-ideas that deal with basic issues: individual versus community, community versus society, stability versus change, integration versus anomie, the sacred versus the profane, and the public versus the private domain. These core ideas, stated as conceptual opposites (theses and anti-theses), have recurred in many war films.

The following taxonomy provides a partial but useful way of analyzing the narrative apparatus of war films.

Individual Vs. Community

The first core idea, individual versus community, is the most important one. War films deal with such questions as: What should be the desirable relationship between individuals and the Army What should be their level of involvement and participation in political affairs (in war and in peace) What should be the basis of individuals’ motivation: self or collective interests. How much sacrifice should society demand–and get–from its individual members The tension between individuals and their larger units has persisted because each unit is associated with opposing values. The individual is associated with freedom, integrity, and self-interest, whereas the organization is associated with restriction, compromise, and responsibility.

Community Vs. Society

The second dichotomy, community versus society, is based on Toennis’s distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesselschaft, drawing on Weber’s theory of rationalization and bureaucratization, Simmel’s Metropolis, and Durkheim’s anomie. In war films, this conceptual dichotomy takes the classical form of the combat unit (platoon) versus the military organization. The ideal combat unit represents a primary group: intimate, face-to-face, personal interaction. By contrast, the military institution is based on networks of secondary relationships, signifying the all the ills of bureaucratic organizations: Magnitude, specificity, formality, impersonality, and anonymity.

The issue of stability versus change also features prominently in war films. Here the tension is between individuals’ holding onto their civilian life, never wanting to change, and their acute awareness that change is inevitable. In many war films, there is tension between individuals’ fight to maintain their own values and the military’s insistence to embrace and dominate them.

Using sociologist Robert Merton’s typology of modes of adaptation to society’s prescribed goals and its legitimate means to achieve them, the analysis distinguishes among individuals who are conformists, innovative, ritualistic, retreatist, and rebellious.

Sacred Vs. Profane

Emile Durkheim’s distinction between the sacred and the profane” serves as another useful dichotomy. Every society distinguishes between these two domains and their activities. The sacred represent the less rational, more emotional values, which assume religious or ritualistic meanings. By contrast, the profane represents secular attitudes or objects that gain their value from their utilitarianism or pragmatism. The narrative analysis of war films stresses the values, sentiments, objects, and places considered to be sacred by the individual and the military organization. For example, up to the late l960s, the military service and the American flag were collectively deemed sacred. But during the Vietnam War, these objects were no longer perceived as such.

Most narratives distinguish between the public and the private” domains, a distinction which may parallel, but not always equal, the sacred and the profane. It is often manifested in the conflict between professionalism or careerism (regarded as selfish pursuit) and selfless commitment to the military.

Self Vs. Collective Orientation

The American screen hero is a man of action, not of ideas. He is pragmatic, commonsensical, and down-to-earth in his way of thinking and actual behavior. Committed to the solution of social or political problems, he is guided by an inner code of ethics, his conscience, which often stands in opposition to societal norms.

The American hero is inner-directed, not tradition-directed or other-directed, to use David Riesman’s typology of social characters. Endowed with moral strength, the inner-directed hero enjoys a good deal of freedom from societal constraints. There is a streak of rebelliousness and non-conformity in his nature, often willing to violate norms and to sacrifice himself in order to attain collective goals.

The inner-directed hero differs from the tradition-directed, typically a conformist who uncritically accepts society’s tradition, religious or secular, and resists any kind of change. But he diverges even more radically from the other-directed, who is concerned with adjusting and adapting to the demands and expectations of others. Unlike the inner-directed, whose source of control is internal, that of the other-directed is external: the family, peer group, work organization and community. The American war hero is mission-oriented, mobilizing all available resources for fulfilling collective, not personal, tasks. In the American cinema, heroes have been tough, rational, commonsensical, and goal-oriented; a romantic or sexual affair have never stood in their commitment to collective causes or missions.

In Flying Tigers (1942), Jim Gordon (John Wayne) is the squadron leader of the American volunteer group, fighting for China’s freedom against the Japanese. A competent leader, and tough as nails on his men, Gordon is contrasted with a new recruit, Woody Jason, who signs up because he needs the money to pay off a Breach-of-promise suit. Jason makes no secret of his eagerness to get the $500 dollars reward for every Japanese plane knocked down. Gordon despises him for his selfishness, especially after his failure to be at the base when needed; another flier takes over and finds his death.

“I was a kid,” Jason laments, “It took somebody to die to make a man out of me.” But he begs for another chance and his heroics even save Gordon’s life: bombing a Japanese supply train, his plane catches fire but he pushes Gordon out, thus redeeming himself, paying for his errors with his own life.

Gordon’s commander nurtures his soldiers to manhood by teaching them to accept military discipline, but he is also a sensitive leader, aware of the anguish of sending innocent soldiers out to die. In one scene, he regrets having allowed a young soldier to fly on a deadly mission: “Should have stayed in college where he came from, but he begged me for a chance and I gave it to him!”

In a typical James Cagney war picture, he is cast as a selfish recruit who learns the hard way the importance of military order. For example, in Here Comes the Navy” (1934), Cagney plays a hot-tempered, undisciplined soldier, whose selfish individualism upsets the Navy tradition and alientaes him from his fellowmen. But at the end, after a court martial, he redeems himself with a heroic rescue, and his reputation is restored.

In Ceiling Zero (1935), Cagney, a devil-may-care pilot who enjoys his escapades, irresponsibly causes the death of a fellow pilot. Flamboyant and loose fibered, his major “hobby” is women. But during the course of the story, he reforms and, regretting his behavior, he volunteers to test a newly invented aircraft, an action that costs him his life.

The Fighting 69th (1940), produced as Warners’ contribution to the recruitment campaign and Cagney’s most popular war movie, is a fictionalized account of New York’s famed “the Fighting Irish” regiment, which started during the Civil War and in 19l7 was incorporated into the Army. Private Jerry Plunkette, a despicable tough Irishman from Brooklyn, sneers at the regiment’s traditions and jeers at his chaplain. When his unit is sent to the European front, he gets hysterical at the very first sight of a dead body. His cowardice and irresponsibility, revealing to the enemy his unit’s position, bring death to many of his fellowmen. At the end, however, he dies heroically, proving himself a worthy soldier. The transformation of the Cagney character is always from a cocky and obnoxious recruit to a disciplined soldier. In their war films, the Cagney and the Wayne screen persona complemented each other.

Commitment Vs. Neutrality

In a typical Humphrey Bogart war film, Bogart wears civilian clothes, usually a trench coat, and is placed in a foreign country. At times, he is the only one or one of the few Americans on the scene. Across the Atlantic,” for example, takes place in Panama, and To Have and Have Not,” on the island of Martinique.

The titles of his films often reveal their locales: “Action Across the North Atlantic,” Sahara,” “Casablanca,” “Passage to Marseilles.”

Bogart’s heroes usually start as cynical, sophisticated, and uninvolved men who are reluctantly drawn into the conflicts. The transformation is gradual, though at the end Bogart’s heroes are fully committed to the cause. Indeed, at the start of Casablanca” (1943), Bogart’s Rick Blain, the former soldier and now a cafe owner, declares, “I stick my neck out for nobody,” and “I’m the only cause I’m interested in.” By the end, however, he gives up the woman he passionately loves, to help her husband, an anti-Fascist leader, escape to freedom. Blain’s cynicism derives from his disillusionment with the world’s apathy to the Civil War in Spain and to Ethiopia; he himself smuggled arms to Ethiopia and fought with the Loyalists in Spain.

American mythology makes important distinctions between ideological and professional commitment. Genuine American heroes are not professional soldiers, but the converted civilian. Ideological or moral commitment (based on the belief in the cause) is favored over the strictly competent and relatively narrow commitment of the craftsman. The Bogart version of commitment has prevailed from the late 1960s on, because it suited better the cynicism that characterized American society during the Vietnam War, the political assassinations, and the Watergate scandal, all of which resulted in an increasing lack of trust of the government and any form of institutional authority. Though most films preach for greater political involvement, commitment is not without costs or a price. Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca loses the only woman he ever loved.

James Cagney

Most of James Cagney’s protagonists die in action in his war films, including the eponymous hero of Mister Roberts.” The form of commitment in the American cinema is individualistic. The heroes often operate on their own against all odds. In classic Hollywood texts, the narratives focus almost exclusively on an individual (usually a white male), a loner (often outsider) in search of identity and redemption.

As Richard Maltby has observed, “social problems were skirted by invariably couching them in individual terms.” In this way, the seemingly contradictory values of individualism and commitment are reconciled. In American films, self-fulfillment and self-actualization are achieved through commitment to collective goals and communal affairs.

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