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Armed Forces

Masculinity and Sexuality in the American War Film

Robert Eberwein

Publication Year: 2007

In war films, the portrayal of deep friendships between men is commonplace. Given the sexually anxious nature of the American imagination, such bonds are often interpreted as carrying a homoerotic subtext. In Armed Forces , Robert Eberwein argues that an expanded conception of masculinity and sexuality is necessary in order to understand more fully the intricacy of these intense and emotional human relationships. Drawing on a range of examples from silent films such as What Price Glory and Wings to sound era works like The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Three Kings, and Pearl Harbor , he shows how close readings of war films, particularly in relation to their cultural contexts, demonstrate that depictions of heterosexual love, including those in romantic triangles, actually help to define and clarify the nonsexual nature of male love. The book also explores the problematic aspects of masculinity and sexuality when threatened by wounds, as in The Best Years of Our Lives, and considers the complex and persistent analogy between weapons and the male body, as in Full Metal Jacket and Saving Private Ryan .

Published by: Rutgers University Press


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pp. vii


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pp. ix-x

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Introduction: Definitions

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pp. 1-15

First—the cover and frontispiece of this book. They show a photograph taken by Edward Steichen in 1943, somewhere in the Pacific. We see three exhausted sailors on the USS Lexington. They support one another: one’s head rests on another’s stomach; that man’s head and arms rest on a third man. It takes a while to sort out the placement of their arms, particularly in the middle of the photograph...

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Chapter 1: Paradigms in the Silent Era

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pp. 16-32

The short film Love and War (James H.White, 1899) described in the introduction establishes a number of narrative elements that will figure prominently in later war films: the hero’s departure and triumphant return; the impact of the war on his family at the home front; battlefield courage and death; field hospitals and ministering nurses. These qualify as the kinds of “semantic units”...

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Chapter 2: Beyond Triangles

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pp. 33-52

The paradigms described in chapter 1 continue to appear in war films of the sound era. The pattern in The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925), in which love of comrades can occur in conjunction with a separate romantic relationship that doesn’t create conflict between men, appears most notably in From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953). In such a case, the presence of the two kinds of relationships helps to differentiate one from the other...

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Chapter 3: Disavowing Threats

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pp. 53-71

In the previous chapters I focused on love between men and argued against using strict dichotomies (heterosexual or homosexual) to categorize complex relationships. My interest in the next three chapters is in how various war films and related cultural artifacts present men in ways that expose the vulnerability of their masculinity and sexuality. This chapter explores various signifying practices that function as a kind of inoculation...

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Chapter 4: Wounds

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pp. 72-86

This chapter focuses on men who display the effects of psychological and/or physical wounds and limitations. In some cases, the films show how war and battle cause the damage; in others, the narratives present characters who are already impaired in one way or another. In both cases, the resulting effects on the characters’ masculinity and behavior have significant ramifications for those whom they love or those whom they lead...

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Chapter 5: Drag

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pp. 87-101

Men in drag—the concept has a built-in potential for humor.War films and works in other genres have made extensive use of the concept for exactly that purpose, to generate laughter. In the process, though, the filmmakers who created them have provided texts that invite examination of the complex implications of drag and its challenges to masculinity and sexuality...

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Chapter 6: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

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pp. 102-113

The last three chapters focus exclusively on war films released since 1966, for two reasons. The first pertains to cinematic history: in 1966 the methods by which the Production Code Administration (PCA) regulated the content of American film ended, to be replaced by a new system administered by the Motion Picture Association of America. While the PCA had made a number of accommodations in the 1950s and 1960s...

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Chapter 7: Bodies, Weapons

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pp. 114-136

Before “Don’t ask, don’t tell” became a widely known statement in the 1990s, another expression related to the military had already attained recognition, in part because of its use in films and in fiction. This one, in the form of a chant, pertains to the obvious connections between weapons and conceptions about masculinity and male sexuality: “This is my rifle, this is my gun; this is for fighting, this is for fun.”...

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Chapter 8: Fathers and Sons

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pp. 137-147

Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998) ends as James Ryan (Harrison Young), an old man accompanied by his wife, children, and grandchildren, stands at the gravesite of Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) in Normandy and salutes. In some ways the distance between Ryan and the nameless hero of Love and War (James H. White, 1899), who is also surrounded by his family at the film’s end...

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Conclusion: Buddies, Then and Now

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pp. 148-154

In a brief analysis of war films from the silent era to the present in which he discusses their themes, conventions, generic continuities, and connections to the historical moment, Steve Neale observes: “Coinciding with a renewed interest in the topic of masculinity in Film, Media and Cultural Studies, war films of all kinds have been studied...


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pp. 155-180

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 181-186


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pp. 187-196

About the Author

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pp. 197

E-ISBN-13: 9780813541501
E-ISBN-10: 0813541506
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813540795
Print-ISBN-10: 0813540798

Page Count: 216
Illustrations: 41 photographs
Publication Year: 2007