Michael S. Shull - War and Film in America: Historical and Critical Essays (review) - Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 34:1 Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 34.1 (2004) 85-86

Marilyn J. Matelski and Nancy Lynch Street, editors. War and Film in America: Historical and Critical Essays. McFarland, 2003. 208 pages; $32.00 paper.

Key Distinctions

War and Film in America is another addition to the ever-growing number of written exercises addressing the war drama genre. And, as is typical with a book made up of essays by various authors, the quality can significantly vary. It should be noted that this book deals exclusively with films released after World War II, and predominantly with those texts that either directly or indirectly reflect American responses to the Cold War and/or the Vietnamese conflict. Yet, its contributors never clearly define what they mean by a war film and never seriously engage combat films. For instance, the briefly discussed Black Hawk Down (2001) intensely recreates an actual combat situation that took place in the 1990s between American troops and irregular indigenous forces during a misguided humanitarian operation in a civil war torn Somalia. But is it a war film? At pains to point out the "partnership" between Hollywood and the military—which has always been the case, and which has obviously resulted in various quid pro quos— the editors/authors lose sight of the key distinctions between war dramas, war allegories, combat films and films about the military.

What the editors/authors do proclaim in War and Film in America is that the "old definitions" of combat are no longer applicable in the new world order of the 21st century. Yet no new definitions are ever proffered—other than a post-modernist [End Page 85] pastiche of assaults on the old order that frequently serve only to highlight an inadequate historical knowledge as related to the primary subject.

As indicated in the introduction, the editors/authors are at collective pains to point out, with apparent intended irony, that the two greatest "exports" of the United States during the past century have been "war and entertainment"—a somewhat misleading claim that the reviewer would contend would be more accurate to identify as war materials and popular mass media—and that therefore the American film industry has been a shameless shill, or "silent partner," of those agencies of the U.S. government that shape and/or execute American foreign policy.

The proofs for this book of essays were submitted just before Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced and both the introduction as well as a couple of the contributions reflect a near hysteria when referring to the insidious militaristic nature of U.S. foreign policy—tendentious polemicizing that more often than not gets in the way of more dispassionate film analysis—comparing the Nazi Kondor Legion's infamous bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War with a claim of indiscriminate American napalming of Vietnamese villages as deliberate terrorist acts is a bit of a stretch (p. 10).

Most of the eclectic contributions in War and Film in America merit perusing. Richard A. Kallin's essay about The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) is an interesting close reading that contends that the classic WWII POW film is less an antiwar statement, and more of a psychological investigation of the "collision" between "duty and pride" of the two main antagonists, British Colonel Nicholson and Japanese Colonel Saito. However, it almost seems out of place when contrasted with the slant of the other essays, particularly since this film is a British production, directed by David Lean. Donald Fishman's essay about films and the Cold War is a thoughtful examination of three well known American releases—the most compelling being his argumentation regarding the political subtext of individualism's triumph over socialist collectivism in the 1949 film version of novelist Ayn Rand's eponymous Fountainhead.

Although the co-authors deliver some interesting insights upon John Huston's controversial documentary, Let There Be Light (1945; 1981), their analysis is marred by an unsubstantiated historical claim regarding massive WWII psychological casualty figures in the last year of that war—a footnote references a secondary source that barely broaches the topic of wartime psycho-neurotic cases, let alone the relevant statistics (p. 69). This essay's attempt to make direct links with the post-traumatic stress syndrome associated with the Vietnam War are somewhat strained. Marilyn J. Matelski's essay on the impact of war upon family relationships, comparing and contrasting The Way We Were (1973) and The War at Home (1996) is conceptually engaging—but it is difficult to make the connection between the largely ideological rifts that gradually erode the love of a couple between the 1930s and 1950s and the experiential gulf that separates a Vietnam combat veteran from relatives with whom it would appear he was already emotionally estranged. Barbara J. Walkosz' essay on the impact of the Cold War upon American civility, as portrayed in three 1967 films, is well written but, the analysis of three of the more controversial releases from that year, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, The Graduate, and Bonnie and Clyde, is more of a statement upon 60s social movements than a discourse that focuses upon the titular theme of the book.

The film engagement with Vietnam era combat trauma in the Rasmussen, et al, essay is well executed. It clearly examines the dichotomy between the traumatized/victimized Vietnam veteran of Jacob's Ladder (1990) and the Rambo films' muscle-bound sociopathic restorer of 1980s Americans' confidence in their military prowess. Suzanne McCorkle's essay on two 1990s films that confront terrorism, True Lies (1994) and Patriot Games (1992), makes some valid points regarding post-Cold War American films contributing to a perception of the U.S. being in a more or less permanent state of war. But the final essay, written by co-editor Nancy Lynch Street, on Stanley Kubrick's British produced classic Cold War satire, Dr. Strangelove (1964), is flawed by some basic factual errors as well as by its descending into a polemicized diatribe with a not so hidden 2003 partisan agenda.

Mount St. Mary's College

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