- Reel Men at War: Masculinity and the American War Film
In describing the exploits of the untried Henry V, William Shakespeare—no stranger to historical drama—places the newly-crowned monarch in the thick of conflict, first at the French port of Harfleur, and then, a few scenes later, a stone’s throw away from the impending Agincourt assault. Here the outspoken king, full of youthful bravado, exhorts his outnumbered troops, his happy band of brothers, to impending victory, bragging that fewer men bring the greater share of honor. But even more important, Henry resounds, pity all absent Englishmen, now asleep in their beds across the Channel, who—because they did not fight this St. Crispin’s Day battle—must forever hold their manhoods cheap.
Certainly, no young man wants a diminished manhood and Shakespeare’s dramatic recreation reiterates an obvious point: stand up and fight to avoid the label of substandard male, that is, an individual devoid of strength, reduced to asexuality, rendered into a nondescript, eunuchal mush. And while this Henry V passage probably inspired some Elizabethan male theatergoers to come forward for God, King, and country (after all, the play’s [End Page 39] the thing to catch the conscience of the youthful), modern audiences are no longer confined to one medium. Unlike the Sixteenth Century, the media—in its many formats—shapes, molds, and encapsulates human behavior and thought. In contemporary American society how do young men discover self-identity? What creates their masculine image, their rugged idealism? Who sets the parameters required for manhood?
According to a mass communications professor and a clinical psychologist, young American males cannot shake their vulnerability because most of their formative years are spent watching action films (which, for the most part, glamorize warfare) either on television or in the theaters, while twenty-first century adolescents—to keep the combat pot boiling—play realistic battle games on laptops or handheld devices experiencing the vicarious thrill of victory. Whether conscious or half-asleep, generations of John Wayne, go-get-‘em Americans, with a little help from the Marlboro man, forge a subliminal identity. This is the premise of a bold, comprehensive, and innovative analysis, Reel Men at War: Masculinity and the American War Film, a wonderful study that opens many doors about the symbiotic relationship between adolescents and Hollywood photoplays.
Is it feasible that war pictures affect, delineate, and define our nation’s culture, creating a discernible moral code? How is this possible? To answer these questions Ralph Donald scrutinized dozens of war films, citing the shaky liaison between cinematic context and viewer awareness, while Karen MacDonald interpreted numerous cause-and-effect psychological reports explaining the hand-in-glove link between contemporary motion pictures and adult (male) behavior. For example, look at a young man’s first exposure to boot camp; where did he hear, “Count cadence, count”? On a training base? Hardly. Years earlier, these marching commands blared from movie screens or television sets teaching the uninitiated the impending military facts of life. Or how about group loyalty? How is this learned? Look no further than Sands of Iwo Jima.
Other attributes emanate from the same sources. Patton, Air Force, and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo restate the winning-is-the-only-thing credo while Wake Island, Pork Chop Hill, and Gallipoli bear out the doctrine that combat survival necessitates a buddy system. Likewise, Twelve O’Clock High, Flying Leathernecks, and U-571 validate that command decisions, while difficult and replete with moral ambiguities, require unflappable leadership while Saving Private Ryan, Windtalkers, and A Walk in the Sun affirm that real (reel?) men carry out orders unflinchingly. As for hero worship, many screenplays—including Flying Tigers, Destination Tokyo, and Band of Brothers—offer tangible proof of American prowess.
Clearly there is no argument about the media’s pervasive influence in shaping (or altering) human behavior and this impeccably researched book wisely categorizes the many human traits found in popular photodramas. In all, Donald and MacDonald have listed 143 war titles, elucidating how specific [End Page...