Hollywood war movies have tackled a gamut of issues over the years. Human suffering at the hands of a Nazi dictator (Schindler’s List). Internal military corruption and betrayal (Apocalypse Now). War’s effects on family dynamics (Born on the Fourth of July). Yet, within these issues, one sentiment remains consistent – anti war. Since the 1950s, the antiwar sentiment in Hollywood has had a dominant presence in celluloid culture.
But since Sept. 11, a slew of movies have hit the local cineplex that proved opposite. The film, Black Hawk Down, with its depiction of U.S. military prowess in Somalia, grossed over $110 million dollars at the box office. The Mel Gibson Vietnam era film, We Were Soldiers, about soldiers who sacrificed for each other, pulled in $53 million in two weeks. With these box office totals, has Hollywood changed her views? Or is in it response to Sept. 11? Before these questions can be answered, a historical foundation must be laid first, starting with World War II.
As allied troops fought in World War II, Hollywood supported the effort by creating a War Activities Committee. In turn, the government under President Roosevelt established a Bureau of Motion Pictures Affairs through the Office of War Information. They hired some of Hollywood’s best directors to create documentary films that trained and educated soldiers and provided encouragement to the people back home. Directors such as Frank Capra (It’s A Wonderful Life), William Wyler (Ben Hur), and Walt Disney provided their cinematic expertise.
As for feature films, newer ones were sent to soldiers overseas as morale boosters and entertainment. Back home, moviegoers flocked to the local theaters and paid for movie tickets that were specifically taxed for the war.
Yet, as World War II ended and the emergence of the “Red Scare” began, the government’s attitude towards Hollywood changed. No longer seen as a partner, Hollywood was now seen as a hotbed of Communist sympathizers. In 1947, the House Un-American Committee had congressional hearings on the issue. A group of screenwriters, directors, and producers (also known as the Hollywood Ten) were accused of supporting Communism. During the hearings, the committee found them in contempt of Congress and the 10 were sent to jail for one year. Reacting out of fear, Hollywood created a “blacklist” stating that any known or suspected Communist sympathizer would not be allowed to work in Hollywood in any fashion.
In 1951-1952, another set of committee hearings created a new set of rules. Now witnesses who were past Communist party members had to name people involved or be in contempt of Congress. Or they could plead the Fifth Amendment and not answer any questions. Hollywood cooperated out of the need to survive. But, it did not matter. With the blacklist, bad press and possible boycotts, the industry took a major hit. Hollywood responded in the late 1950s with movies that possessed a new undercurrent – rebellion against authority. War films like The Caine Mutiny and The Manchurian Candidate portrayed the deconstruction of military and governmental authority. Thus, the anti-war sentiment was born.
Anti-war movies gained strength in the 1960-1970s as some movies mirrored the political unrest. Hollywood had found a successful box office niche as the movie going audience now consisted of individuals frustrated with the government, Vietnam and Watergate instead of the pro-war traditional values American. So, for the first time, audiences witnessed the sadism and brutalities of war in movies like The Deer Hunter. Instead of a John Wayne “one for the gipper” type of war movie, audiences saw the sacrifice and destruction of individual lives.
Anti-war movies also impacted the 1980s. Ex veteran Oliver Stone directed two different films on the Vietnam War, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. Each film depicted the cold detachment of the U.S. military, the government’s disregard for its young working and middle class boys, and the unraveling of American ideologies about home and country. No balanced portrayal of some veterans returning home to become functioning citizens or pride in serving one’s country despite the outcome. Instead, Stone’s experiences became the formula for Vietnam War films to come (Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill, Causalities of War). Hollywood created so many similar films during that time that each message appeared as blatant propaganda instead of a balanced perspective.
With the 1990s, some war movies examined honor, duty and code versus the sanctity of an individual life (A Few Good Men) to sexism and the issues of female authority (Courage Under Fire, GI Jane) to the internal demons besieging a leader and group of misfit soldiers as they sacrificed their lives for one (Saving Private Ryan). New issues, but the same anti-war rhetoric. Then, a new century dawned and Sept. 11 happened. Now, individual lives were threatened regardless if you were an ordinary citizen, a Hollywood producer or an Army general. The perspective on war changed. War was no longer seen as a distant and detached entity from American daily life, but as a necessity to protect freedom. Some people protested but the majority supported U.S. military efforts. That was evident with the box office totals of Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers. And, in November 2001, President Bush in a similar fashion to President Roosevelt during World War II, asked some Hollywood studios to create films and television programs that would help with encouragement and public morale while providing entertainment to the soldiers and the people back home. Some studios heads agreed and started projects that tackled those issues. Examples are VH1’s “Military Diaries” and TV programs like “The West Wing” and “Third Watch” with their Sept. 11 related shows.
Which brings us back to the beginning: Has Hollywood changed her views? Or is it more of a reaction because terrorism has hit home? Questions to ponder more as the war on terrorism continues. Since most of the movie going audience is now patriotic, pro-military, and pro-war like their World War II predecessors, Hollywood cannot risk losing their audience by alienating them with anti-war rhetoric. We will see if Hollywood continues to support the war effort or start to produce anti-war films that are less blatant. Only time will tell.
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