- Merit Attention
The Wallflower Press series “Short Cuts,” now totaling thirty-six titles, offers concise introductions to a wide range of film topics. All focus on tightly-defined topics, are written by capable specialists, and develop clear theses. The approaches run from technical to theoretical to generic, and the series as a whole is comprehensive. Guy Westwell’s subtitle to War Cinema is conscientiously chosen and revealing. “Hollywood puts itself on the front line” through the production of a particular genre of war films. The analysis of these films, he asserts, illuminates the American “cultural imagination of war,” a collective understanding of the meaning of war based on “an array of characters, scenarios, vignettes, points of view, and narrative structures”(5). Film is not the only medium that contributes to this collective understanding, of course, but it is a powerful one and, in many ways, offers the most concrete examples for study.
Westwell develops his thesis methodically. The text proceeds chronologically from the first examples of the war film during the Spanish-American War of 1898 to a final chapter on “contemporary war cinema” in the early twenty-first century. Each chapter provides a historical framework, a thematic analysis, and the discussion of a single film chosen as the prime example (with references, to be sure, to several related titles). The author straightforwardly admits his reliance on secondary sources, and he deftly cites the work of significant film scholars. But he is no mere compiler. This is a coherent monograph that gracefully and competently makes its own case. The result is a useful introductory work, compact enough to be used along with other texts for a university course, or merely consulted for personal reference.
True, the author can be confusing at times. For example, the subject of his comment on “the very ways we think about war” is unclear (5). Has he adopted the perspective of the American viewer, or is his “we” the more disinterested universe of scholars? Equally, he fails to distinguish consistently the terms “war film” and “combat film,” at some points implying they are distinct genres while using the terms almost interchangeably elsewhere. There are also a number of factual errors. Humphrey Bogart’s famous line in Casablanca, “I stick my neck out for nobody,” is misquoted; North and South Vietnam were divided at 17º, not 54º North; and there were no “troop deployments” in Vietnam during the John Kennedy administration, only military advisers.
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For the most part, such flaws are minor and detract only marginally from the larger argument. But occasionally a mis-statement demands logical reconstruction. [End Page 82] Battleground, for instance, produced in 1949, cannot possibly be understood as a film that registered “the changed circumstances and cynicism instilled by the experiences of the war in Korea” (53)—which did not begin until the following year. Perhaps the film anticipated rather than registered those circumstances?
Nevertheless, on the whole, Westwell has produced a fresh and informative work.