War Films

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War Films


War has been a popular topic for motion pictures since the invention of the medium in the late 1800s. But there is no single generic type of war film, as the category encompasses many types of filmed stories about conflict. The Napoleonic Wars have been the subject of costume dramas, frontier wars in westerns pit cowboys against Indians. Star Wars (1977) presents an imaginary intergalactic conflict in the realm of science fiction. Other films make use of war as metaphor: The War of the Roses (1989) is a screwball comedy about a feuding married couple, while Used Cars (1980) is a "war" between two rival car lots. Some onscreen wars are never won: Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner are forever locked in comic conflict in cartoons.

Movies called "war films" do not reflect one attitude or a single purpose. They may be antiwar (All Quiet on the Western Front, 1930) or pro-war (Bataan, 1943). How I Won the War (1967) is a satiric and mocking comedy about World War I, but The Big Parade (1925) tells a tragic story about the toll its events take on one man's personal life. The Green Berets (1968) is a gung-ho celebration of the US Special Forces and their role in Vietnam, but Platoon (1986) presents the soldier's life there as an almost insane universe.

The popularity of the war film and of war as a topic in movies is borne out by two factors: artistic recognition as reflected in Academy Awards® for Best Picture, and box-office returns. War films that have won Best Picture Oscars® include Wings (1927), the very first such winner; All Quiet on the Western Front; Patton (1970), a biographical portrait of World War II general George S. Patton; The Deer Hunter (1978), a stark look at the lives of young steelworkers before, during, and after their combat in Vietnam; and Platoon, combat veteran Oliver Stone's (b. 1946) first-person account of the infantry in Vietnam. Other Oscar® winners whose stories involve war include Gone with the Wind (1939), From Here to Eternity (1953), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Braveheart (1995), Mrs. Miniver (1942), Casablanca (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and Schindler's List (1993). Because they are based in reality and frequently star big-name actors and contain scenes of exciting action, war movies, both pro- and anti-, have a strong record of success at the box office. Among the many top-grossing films, as evidenced by records reported in the The Motion Picture Herald, Motion Picture Daily, and Film Daily, are Hell's Angels (1930), Sergeant York (1941), Air Force (1943), So Proudly We Hail! (1943), Guadalcanal Diary (1943), Battleground (1949), Operation Pacific (1951), Battle Cry (1955), The Longest Day (1962), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), Midway (1976), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Three Kings (1999), and Pearl Harbor (2001).


Coming up with a generic definition of the war film presents problems. Sometimes movies are labeled "war films" even when they are not set in combat. Since You Went Away (1944), the story of the American home front in 1944, is not about fighting battles with weapons but fighting the daily battle of morale for those whose lives are indirectly affected. Similarly, The Best Years of Our Lives is about the return to civilian life of three soldiers from different economic backgrounds and the difficult adjustments they must make. Yet the basis of the story is the combat stress they experienced and the impact it had on them mentally and physically. Coming Home (1978), set largely outside of combat, is nevertheless a movie about the Vietnam War. War can also be presented as a metaphor (War of the Buttons, 1994, in which children's playtime quarrels escalate) or as a computerized challenge (War Games, 1983).

To define the war film, it is thus necessary to establish parameters, the first of which is to separate fact (documentaries and newsreels) from fiction (created stories, even if based in fact), and to determine how much fighting must appear on screen to constitute designating a movie a war film. Some movies have war as a significant background but do not depict any combat. Some have combat sequences as an episode in the larger story, like Gone with the Wind, which begins in the peaceful Old South, moves forward into and through the Civil War, and goes on to the Reconstruction period and postwar problems. For this reason, Gone with the Wind, a major film about the Civil War, is seldom labeled simply as a war film.

The war film as a genre is best defined as a movie in which a fictionalized or fact-based story is told about an actual historical war. Fighting that war, planning it, and undergoing combat within it should fill the major portion of the running time. This would include biographies of combatants, such as the World War II hero Audie Murphy (1924–1971) (To Hell and Back, 1955), and movies set inside combat but which remove their characters from the conflict through visualized flashbacks (Beach Red, 1967). This definition eliminates the home setting, the war as background or single episode movie, the military camp film, the training camp movie, and the biography that does not contain actual combat.

The purpose of the war film made by commercial enterprises is primarily to entertain. A film made during the war itself, such as the 1943 Guadalcanal Diary, has additional goals: to lift morale, to help civilians understand what their fighting men are going through, to provide information, and to involve the audience in positive support for the war that might perhaps influence an outcome still in doubt. A war movie made after the strife has ended needs to find other purposes, and unlike movies made during the fighting, needs to justify its morality. Once the war movie becomes a familiar genre, as in the World War II combat film, it is a story the audience knows and accepts. Such war stories can then be used to address other issues of national concern. For instance, in 1940 and 1941 two movies about World War I, The Fighting 69th and Sergeant York, were like recruiting posters for the European war that was on America's horizon. In 1949, a time of racial strife in America, Home of the Brave told the story of a black soldier who goes to pieces during World War II combat in the South Pacific because of racial prejudice aimed at him personally. He is brought back from his mission in a state of shock and paralysis, and the technique of narco-synthesis is used to draw his story out through flashbacks. In 1996, when the role of women in combat was in the news, Courage Under Fire, starring Meg Ryan, was a successful movie about a female captain nominated for the Medal of Honor. During the war in Vietnam, and the controversy surrounding America's involvement, stories about World War II were created that reflected a loss of faith in the government. Such movies as The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Play Dirty (1968) presented America's involvement in World War II as an ugly process of cheating, with criminals or criminal minds fighting the war by violating the rules of the Geneva Convention.

After the combat genre was established, movies appeared with comic tones that would have been inappropriate during the war itself. What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966) and Operation Petticoat (1959) were successful comedies set in World War II, the first in the Italian campaign and the second in a submarine in the South Pacific. M*A*S*H (1970) was a harsh comedy about Korea, set in a mobile surgical hospital unit; the television sitcom McHale's Navy treated the PT-boat war in the Pacific as a lark; and Hogan's Heroes, also a television series, made fun of life in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany.


As soon as cameras could take moving pictures of combat, war became a popular subject for narrative movies. Although no one can be certain of the exact "first" war movie, many historians feel it is probably a one-and-a-half-minute pro-war film, Tearing Down the Spanish Flag, made on a set in New York City immediately after the United States declared war on Spain in April 1898. The precedent was set. All the wars in American history have had stories told about them by Hollywood, although some wars are more popular than others. A relatively small number are based on the Revolutionary War, among them The Patriot (2000), staring Mel Gibson, and Revolution (1985), starring Al Pacino. The Civil War was a popular topic in silent film days, but because "the enemy is us," it has become a war used to tell stories about family conflicts ("brother against brother"), racial issues, or romances. Successful Civil War movies include The Birth of a Nation (1915), Gone with the Wind, The Red Badge of Courage (1951), The Horse Soldiers (1959), and Glory (1989).

World War I inspired such successful films as The Big Parade (1925), What Price Glory (made in 1926 and remade in 1952), Lilac Time (1928), Wings, Hell's Angels,All Quiet on the Western Front, The Fighting 69th, Dawn Patrol (made in both 1930 and 1938), and Sergeant York. Although the World War I movie tended to be less popular after World War II, there are such later films as Lafayette Escadrille (1958), Paths of Glory (1957) and The Blue Max (1966). World War II has been the most frequently depicted conflict in American cinema and is discussed in more depth below.

b. Worcester, Massachusetts, 12 August 1912, d. 30 October 1997

Samuel Fuller is a key figure in the history of the American war film because his movies are shaped by his own experience in combat. Fuller became a crime reporter by the age of seventeen and moved to Hollywood to begin writing screenplays in 1936. He joined the army after World War II broke out, serving in the Sixteenth Regiment of the First Army Division ("the Big Red One"), receiving the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, and the Purple Heart. Fuller fought the full European war, from the African campaigns on through Sicily and Anzio to, ultimately, landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day. His combat experience became the seminal event of his life. No matter what settings his films take, they are all in some way about war. In Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le fou (1965), Fuller, appearing as himself, states his credo: "Film is like a battleground: love, hate, action, violence, death." Although other directors, such as Oliver Stone, have been in combat, it is fair to say that no other movie director served as long in the trenches as Fuller.

Fuller's war movies cover World War II (Merrill's Marauders, 1962; the autobiographical The Big Red One, 1980), the Korean conflict (The Steel Helmet, 1951; Fixed Bayonets, 1951), the Cold War (Pickup on South Street, 1953; Hell and High Water, 1954), and an early presentation of the problems in Vietnam, concerning the French colonials versus the Viet-Minh rebels (China Gate, 1957). He also made Verboten (1959, set in postwar Germany); House of Bamboo (1955), about a gang of ex-Army men who organize their criminality along military lines; and a story of the native American "wars," Run of the Arrow (1957). Only Merrill's Marauders (1962) is based on a true story, that of Brigadier General Frank D. Merrill, who commanded the first American infantrymen to fight in Asia, the 5437th Composite Group, who were trained as guerrillas to fight deep behind Japanese lines in Burma.

Fuller's war movies are presented in a distinctive visual style that may be described as combative, to the extent that they break cinematic rules. He shifts from rapid montages to lengthy camera movements, from closeups to long shots, from real locations to rear projections, and from objective to subjective points-of-view without first clearly establishing the original position. Perhaps the definitive statement regarding war movies was made by Fuller: "The only way you could … really let the audience feel what it's like is to fire live ammo over the heads of the people in the audience."


I Shot Jesse James (1949), The Steel Helmet (1951), Fixed Bayonets! (1951), Pickup on South Street (1953), House of Bamboo (1955), Run of the Arrow (1957), China Gate (1957), Forty Guns (1957), Verboten! (1959), Merrill's Marauders (1962), Shock Corridor (1963), The Naked Kiss (1964), The Big Red One (1980), White Dog (1982)


Fuller, Samuel. The Big Red One. New York: Bantam, 1980.

Fuller, Samuel, with Christa Lang Fuller and Jerome Henry Rudes. A Third Eye: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking. New York: Knopf, 2002.

Garnham, Nicholas. Samuel Fuller. New York: Viking/London: British Film Institute, 1971.

Hardy, Phil. Sam Fuller. New York: Praeger, 1970.

Server, Lee. Sam Fuller: Film Is a Battleground: A Critical Study with Interviews, a Filmography and a Bibliography. Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland, 1994.

Jeanine Basinger

Stories of the Korean War include The Steel Helmet (1951), Fixed Bayonets! (1951), The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1955), and M*A*S*H. Vietnam movies, apart from The Green Berets, were seldom made during the war itself. Early examples include The Boys in Company C (1978), Go Tell the Spartans (1978), and two highly respected and influential films, The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979). Other Vietnam films are

Platoon, Full Metal Jacket (1987), and We Were Soldiers (2002). War movies have been set in Grenada (Heartbreak Ridge, 1986), the Persian Gulf (Three Kings; Jarhead, 2005), and Nigeria (Tears of the Sun, 2003). A new war, the war of terrorism, has emerged in noncombat movies such as the Die Hard series with Bruce Willis (1988, 1990, and 1995), in which terrorist groups threaten various American settings. The terrorist movie first appeared in the 1970s with the French-Italian film, Nada (1974), in which left-wing terrorists kidnap the American ambassador to France, and Rosebud (1975), a story about Arab terrorists kidnapping a yacht to hold five wealthy young women as political hostages.

The popularity of the war movie has not diminished since the turn of the twenty-first century. In 2000 a World War II submarine movie was released (U-571), and a Vietnam-era training camp movie, Tigerland, earned critical respect. The year 2001 brought Enemy at the Gates, about war-torn Stalingrad in 1942, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, set on a Greek island in World War I, and a successful television miniseries based on fact, Band of Brothers. Two movies about combat were huge boxoffice hits in 2001: Pearl Harbor, which once again recreated the events of 7 December 1941, and Black Hawk Down, based on the true story of the US Army Rangers and Delta Force soldiers sent to Somalia in 1993 to capture a local warlord's top lieutenants.

Certain directors have been associated with movies about war, among them John Ford (1894–1973), who served in the Navy, as well as George Stevens (1904–1975), John Huston (1906–1987), and William Wyler (1902–1981), all of whom made documentaries under combat circumstances while serving in the Signal Corps in World War II. Samuel Fuller (1912–1997) and Oliver Stone both experienced actual combat and have written, directed, and produced war films. Fuller fought in World War II in the infantry, and Stone did the same during Vietnam. Fuller's The Big Red One (1980) is about his own combat experience in World War II, and Stone's Platoon won the Best Picture Oscar® in 1986. Other directors associated with the genre today include Steven Spielberg (b. 1946), who not only made the very popular Saving Private Ryan but also Empire of the Sun (1987), about a young boy's prisoner-of-war experience when Japan invades China, and Band of Brothers.

Stars whose images define the American wartime military presence include John Wayne (1907–1979), Henry Fonda (1905–1982), Robert Mitchum (1917–1997), and Dana Andrews (1909–1992), all of whom are associated with successful combat movies. Contemporary actors who have portrayed military men include Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, Clint East wood, Bruce Willis, and Sylvester Stallone, who portrayed an ex-Green Beret in the Rambo movies (1982, 1985, and 1988), none of which actually took place during the Vietnam War.


As mentioned above, the most frequently depicted war in Hollywood films is World War II, and the most popular form of the World War II war movie has been the combat film. This subgenre became so popular that it in turn influenced ways of telling stories in westerns, science fiction, and other generic "wars." Important titles include Ford's They Were Expendable (1945), with John Wayne; Wyler's Battleground (1949); The Longest Day, an epic recreation of D-Day; Fuller's The Big Red One; and Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, a movie that inspired a new spate of World War II movies.

The primary characteristics now associated with the combat-film genre derive from the film Bataan, released in June 1943, a little more than a year after the peninsula fell to the Japanese. Its reviews were uniformly excellent and its box office was solid. The historical model for the film's characters and action was the 1934 Ford film, The Lost Patrol, written by Dudley Nichols. Bataan tells the story of a group of hastily assembled volunteers who, through their bravery and tenacity, hold off an overwhelmingly large group of the enemy long enough to buy much-needed time for American forces. Because all die at the end, it is an example of "the last stand" celebration of American bravery, the most familiar mythic example of which is the story of the Alamo.

Many World War II combat films contain the story elements found in Bataan: a group that is a democratic ethnic and religious mixture; a hero who is part of the group, but who is forced to separate himself in order to be a good leader; a specific objective to be met; a specific enemy; and recognized military equipment and costume. The basic narrative conventions of hero, group, and objective of the World War II combat genre can be traced from films released from the 1940s onward, decade by decade. In the 1950s such films as Halls of Montezuma (1950), Battle Cry (1955), and Men in War (1957) continued the tradition. Even though Halls of Montezuma and Battle Cry are set in World War II and Men in War in Korea, all three retain the basic story in which a diverse group of soldiers are on patrol under stern leadership, seeking to achieve their objective while fighting a difficult enemy. Similar films from the 1960s include Marines, Let's Go (1961), Merrill's Marauders (1962), Up from the Beach (1965), and the Vietnam-based The Green Berets. The 1970s brought Kelly's Heroes (1970) and The Boys in Company C; the 1980s The Big Red One and Heartbreak Ridge; and the 1990s A Midnight Clear (1992) and Saving Private Ryan, which, although it was hailed as a "new" and "different" World War II combat film, followed the generic convention in many ways. The visual presentation is more graphic and realistic, but the narrative is the familiar story of a tough hero (Tom Hanks) who has to separate himself from his men in order to be an effective leader. His group is diverse, including an Italian, a Jew, a cynic from Brooklyn, and a mountain sharpshooter. Their difficult objective is to rescue a single soldier, the only brother of four not yet killed in combat, as a symbolic mission. The new millennium has continued to bring war films based on the original format, such as Windtalkers and We Were Soldiers (both 2002) and Tears of the Sun (2003).

Once the conventions of the combat film were set, they were used for many wars, such as Korea (Men in War), Vietnam (The Green Berets, The Boys in Company C), Grenada (Heartbreak Ridge), an imaginary future war on American soil (Red Dawn), the Persian Gulf (Three Kings), and Somalia (Black Hawk Down). Although the purpose of the combat film is not the same in 1998 as in 1943, its conventions still serve a purpose. Each of the postwar combat films reflects the decade in which it was released. Saving Private Ryan, for example, modernized the genre with new technology and increased violence, and put the older elements together to challenge movie-goers to think about the increased use of violence as well as to consider seriously the sacrifices combat soldiers made for Americans during World War II.


The United States, with a guaranteed freedom of the press, has provided its citizens access to information as a right of the democratic process. The idea of "propaganda" is linked to totalitarian governments, with an attendant suspicion of inaccurate, slanted information. Therefore, when the United States became involved in two world wars, it faced the issue of how to mobilize its populace, provide accurate information, and influence morale without violating the basic tenets of democracy. The movie business became an important force in this process. After America declared war against Germany on 6 April 1917, the Committee on Public Information was formed, headed by the liberal journalist George Creel. The Committee organized a campaign to stimulate nationalism through patriotic speeches, recruiting posters, and pamphlets, but more significantly by using motion pictures, resulting in such strongly anti-German movies as The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin (1918) and My Four Years in Germany (1918). Successful directors created movies that also supported the war, including D. W. Griffith (1875–1948) with Hearts of the World (1918), part of which was actually shot on Europe's battlefields, and Cecil B. DeMille (1881–1959) with The Little American (1917), starring the very popular Mary Pickford.

When World War II began in Europe on 1 September 1939, both Russia and Germany had established film propaganda machines. Vladimir Lenin, the first head of the Soviet government after the Russian Revolution of 1917, said, "of all the arts, the most important for us is the cinema"; he understood that movies could help spread the goals of the revolution to rural areas and provide visual information for illiterate peasants. He created a nationalized Soviet film industry, and filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948) made great films that were also effective propaganda: Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, also known as Potemkin, 1925) and Oktyabr (October and Ten Days that Shook the World, 1927). Nazi Germany marshaled an effective system of selling Hitler's ideas under the leadership of Joseph Goebbels (1897–1945), with the talented Leni Riefenstahl (1902–2003) as one of the chief directors. Riefenstahl's Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1935), the official record of the Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, and Olympia (1938), her presentation of the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, stand today as preeminent examples of propaganda. Italy, Japan and Great Britain also had experience in using

movies to influence their people and to popularize their political ideas.

The United States, however, found itself the only country without an established agency for such purposes. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–1945), who understood the importance of the media in politics, began the process of creating an official "propaganda" agency for America in late 1939. After various committees were formed and disbanded between 1939 and 1941, the bombing of Pearl Harbor clarified the need for a single entity to direct American propaganda. Roosevelt appointed Lowell Mellett, a former journalist, to coordinate government films, to establish a working relationship with Hollywood, and to make sure that the studios cooperated with the war effort. Roosevelt's executive order establishing this group, which would become the Office of War Information (OWI), clearly stated that movies would be one of the most important avenues with which "to inform" the public about the war. In April 1942 Mellett set up his Hollywood office, which was placed under the Domestic Branch of the OWI. The OWI provided Hollywood with a list of seven questions with which to review all films made during the war:

  1. Will this picture help win the war?
  2. What war information problem does it seek to clarify, dramatize, or interpret?
  3. If it is an "escape" picture, will it harm the war effort by creating a false picture of America, her allies, or the world we live in?
  4. Does it merely use the war as the basis for a profitable picture, contributing nothing of real significance to the war effort and possibly lessening the effect of other pictures of more importance?
  5. Does it contribute something new to our understanding of the world conflict and the various forces involved, or has the subject already been adequately covered?
  6. When the picture reaches its maximum circulation on the screen, will it reflect conditions as they are and fill a need current at that time, or will it be outdated?
  7. Does the picture tell the truth or will the young people of today have reason to say they were misled by propaganda?

b. Marion Michael Morrison, Winterset, Iowa, 26 May 1907, d. 11 June 1979

John Wayne's long and successful movie career earned him legendary status. He became an internationally recognized American icon, representing the strong, silent hero who lived by the virtues of bravery, commitment to traditions, respect for women and children, and a deep patriotism. Wayne was most commonly associated with the western genre, beginning with The Big Trail (1930), his first starring role, to his final movie, The Shootist (1976). More than any other film star, Wayne came to represent the concept of "American."

Wayne is the undisputed Hollywood movie boxoffice champion, having been ranked in the top-ten most popular stars for over two consecutive decades, a record that has never been equaled. A popular joke is that the United States didn't win World War II—John Wayne did. However, Wayne made only five movies between 1942 and 1945: Reunion in France, Flying Tigers (both 1942), The Fighting Seabees (1944), Back to Bataan (1945), and, in his most important combat role of the era, as a PT-boat officer in John Ford's They Were Expendable (1945).

Wayne's association with war movies increased after World War II ended, in both postwar combat films and cavalry westerns directed by Ford: Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950). Wayne also played a Civil War cavalry officer in The Horse Soldiers (1959), General Sherman in an episode of How the West Was Won (1962), and Davy Crockett in The Alamo (1960), a film he also produced and directed. Wayne's later World War II combat movies began with Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award® as Best Actor. His creation of Sergeant Stryker, a man who "has the regulations tattooed on his back," became the model for the postwar tough-guy top sergeant of World War II, a loner who puts duty before personal life and who, as a result, is misunderstood by his men.

Although Wayne made more westerns than war movies, Sands of Iwo Jima solidified his association with World War II. All his World War II movies were boxoffice hits: Operation Pacific (1951), Flying Leathernecks (1965), The Longest Day (1962), and In Harm's Way (1965). His least successful and most controversial war film was The Green Berets, a 1968 pro-Vietnam film which, like The Alamo, he starred in, produced, and directed.


Stagecoach (1939), Flying Tigers (1942), They Were Expendable (1945), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), Operation Pacific (1951), Flying Leathernecks (1951), The Horse Soldiers (1959), The Longest Day (1962), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), In Harm's Way (1965), The Green Berets (1968), True Grit (1969)


Davis, Ronald L. The Life and Image of John Wayne. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Levy, Emanuel. John Wayne: Prophet of the American Way of Life. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1988.

Roberts, Randy, and James S. Olson. John Wayne: American. New York: Free Press, 1995.

Wayne, Pilar. John Wayne: My Life with Duke. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987.

Wills, Garry. John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Jeanine Basinger

The most discussed of the questions became the famous "number seven," which touched on the heart of the propaganda issue for a democratic nation. The guidelines stated that any movie, whether it was directly about the conflict or not, would be significant to the war effort. The OWI enlisted the famed director Frank Capra (1897–1991) to direct or supervise a series of movies called Why We Fight (1943–1945). First as an army major, but promoted later to colonel, Capra worked under the aegis of the Special Services Branch and the Army Pictorial Service at the 834th Photo Signal Detachment.

Other famous war documentaries made by Hollywood directors were Huston's Report from the Aleutians (1943) and The Battle of San Pietro (1945), Wyler's The Memphis Belle (1944), and Walt Disney's Victory Through Air Power (1943). Two influential documentaries were made by John Ford: The Battle of Midway (1942) and December 7th (1943). The Battle of Midway was the first documentary of World War II to find wide release and popular response. It was an accident of fate that Ford, a commander in the Navy, was on Midway the day the Japanese attacked. He ran out, placed three 16mm cameras in the sands, and shot as much footage as he could. Two of the cameras were destroyed and Ford was wounded, but the resulting film showed Americans what it looked like to be in the midst of the chaos of combat. December 7th, photographed by Gregg Toland (1904–1948), the legendary cinematographer of Citizen Kane (1941), is a classic example of the blurring of filmed fact and fiction. On the day that Pearl Harbor was bombed, few cameras were available to cover the events. The scenes many people today believe to be photographs of soldiers and sailors engaging the enemy were, in fact, scenes with actors, staged inside a studio. The National Audio Visual Center's booklet on World War II documentaries comments:

The film represents one of the rare instances where moments of illusion have become, for most of us, the documentary reality. However, because the fact and fiction of December 7th are blended together so skillfully, its impact is not seriously diminished. On the contrary, the film stands as an almost textbook example of the use of a succession of edited images to involve and overwhelm an audience.


The development of sound, color, and the widescreen process changed the look of war on the screen, increasing the opportunity for Hollywood filmmakers to work on a wider canvas with greater realism. Adding the sounds of guns firing, the sight of red blood flowing, and a complex spatial continuity increased the war film's power to startle and emotionally engage the audience. Changing morality loosened censorship restrictions, so that using these new developments for an increase in gore, horror, and the depiction of death and dismemberment was acceptable.

The presentation of war movies was also influenced by moving images seen in newsreels and on television. This history of "reality" as an influence can be traced back to the late 1890s. According to the film historian Raymond Fielding, both the Spanish-American and Boer Wars were covered by film. One of the first military conflicts to be recorded on film, the Boer War in South Africa attracted motion picture cameramen from many countries following its outbreak in 1899. Fielding also points out that the footage of the 1898 Spanish-American War was a mixture of authentic and staged footage. Newsreels provided photographic news coverage well in advance of newspapers and magazines. For instance, the Mexican Revolution in 1914 was well covered by moving picture cameras, and Pancho Villa (1878–1923), the revolutionary leader, was signed to an exclusive contract by Mutual Films. Early news coverage, however, was tainted partly by the "recreation" of major events that were sold as real. One such early recreation is the 1897 "miniaturized" Battle of Manila Bay (1898), by J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith. Other famous reenactments include one on the assassination of President William McKinley (1843–1901), the sinking of the battleship Maine, the coronation of Edward VII, and the trial of Alfred Dreyfus.

Because of censorship rules and the unwillingness of military personnel to allow civilian cameramen onto the front lines, photographic coverage of World War I for newsreels was done largely by the US Signal Corps. Long-focus lenses were used, and the technical innovation of handheld cameras that did not require heavy tripods facilitated their shooting. During World War II coverage increased dramatically, although newsreels of the war were sent to Washington for review before release into theaters, largely because of military sensitivity regarding the sight of casualties or dead bodies by the civilian audience.

World War II brought an increased ability to process footage rapidly. This meant that World War II was the first war in which noncombatants could see the events soon after they occurred. Weekly newsreels that presented portions of the extensive footage shot in combat were part of every theater's regular programming during the war. There were also full-length documentaries made by the film units of the Signal Corps. The United States spent more than $50 million annually to obtain filmed coverage of World War II. By the time of the war in Vietnam, the development of lightweight television cameras and videotape allowed TV reporters to provide nightly coverage on the home screens of Americans.

Technology, whether for early newsreels, documentaries, or television, influences the fictionalized presentation of war movies in three ways: audiences develop expectations regarding the physical look of combat and narratives about war; filmmakers, having this same viewing experience, attempt to recreate the look or even include some of the footage inside their narratives; and when the filmmakers who shot the real footage in the field return to civilian life, they often bring their expertise to fiction films.

Presently, the main technological developments that influence war movies are digital. Computer-generated images allow filmmakers to create detailed and elaborate combat images at relatively low cost, and to provide new perspectives on events. Pearl Harbor, for example, showed the bombing of the U.S.S. Arizona both from above (riding a bomb directly into the hit) and below (going underwater to see the struggles of drowning men). As these processes are further developed and new technologies invented, the look of the war film will evolve accordingly, whether in terms of realism or stylized "bullet time" imagery.

SEE ALSO Action and Adventure Films;Genre;Propaganda;Vietnam War;Violence;World War I;World War II


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Jeanine Basinger