Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Philosophy of War Films

The Philosophy of War Films

Edited by David LaRocca
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 538
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Philosophy of War Films
    Book Description:

    Wars have played a momentous role in shaping the course of human history. The ever-present specter of conflict has made it an enduring topic of interest in popular culture, and many movies, from Hollywood blockbusters to independent films, have sought to show the complexities and horrors of war on-screen.

    InThe Philosophy of War Films, David LaRocca compiles a series of essays by prominent scholars that examine the impact of representing war in film and the influence that cinematic images of battle have on human consciousness, belief, and action. The contributors explore a variety of topics, including the aesthetics of war as portrayed on-screen, the effect war has on personal identity, and the ethical problems presented by war.

    Drawing upon analyses of iconic and critically acclaimed war films such asSaving Private Ryan(1998),The Thin Red Line(1998),Rescue Dawn(2006),Restrepo(2010), andZero Dark Thirty(2012), this volume's examination of the genre creates new ways of thinking about the philosophy of war. A fascinating look at the manner in which combat and its aftermath are depicted cinematically,The Philosophy of War Filmsis a timely and engaging read for any philosopher, filmmaker, reader, or viewer who desires a deeper understanding of war and its representation in popular culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4512-9
    Subjects: Philosophy, History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction: War Films and the Ineffability of War
    (pp. 1-78)
    David LaRocca

    A master cinematographer was once asked, “How do you represent war on film?” and he replied decisively: “Hit the camera.” Whether the quotation is accurate or apocryphal, the sentiment (which can be traced to John Huston and Janusz Kaminski) shows that the attribution is less affecting than the conceptual implication it invites, namely, that the lowest of low-tech solutions may create images imbued with the most profound philosophical insights about the endeavor to represent war on film—in particular, the presence and immediacy of war’seffects.¹ How better to show what war is like—if only analogically in this limited...

  4. Part 1. The Aesthetics of War On-Screen

    • War and Representation
      (pp. 81-106)
      Fredric Jameson

      War offers the paradigm of the nominalist dilemma: the abstraction from totality or the here and now of sensory immediacy and confusion. For Tolstoy, as for almost everybody else, the representational consequence was most memorably drawn by Stendhal inThe Charterhouse of Parma:Fabrice is unaware that he is an involuntary witness to the emperor’s last stand (“I’m off to the Battle of Waterloo” would be a modernist replay of the exit line Walter Benjamin claimed to have found in one of his baroque tragedies: “I’m off to the Thirty Years’ War”). Yet in both novelists, the aesthetic is already...

    • War Pictures: Digital Surveillance from Foreign Theater to Homeland Security Front
      (pp. 107-132)
      Garrett Stewart

      Before the montage that is the war film, consider a photocollageaboutwar on film, from 1937, by the famous anti-Nazi polemicist John Heartfield. With its double-ply titleMahnung(“Warning”), this piece (of discrepant pieces) is named both for the film image pictured within it and for its captioned setting in the satirized passivity of a commercial movie theater. If the one warning isn’t enough, a further polemic reframes it. Heartfield’s pastiche layers in several rows of faceless male heads, backs toward us, beneath the frontal stare of an on-screen victim in the violent newsreel footage at which they are...

    • Lenses into War: Digital Vérité in Iraq War Films
      (pp. 133-154)
      Stacey Peebles

      In 1898 J. Stuart Blackton and his friend Albert E. Smith released the first war movie, a short film for nickelodeon theaters calledTearing Down the Spanish Flag. For a running time of ninety seconds, it showed Blackton’s hands pulling down the flag of Spain and then running up the Stars and Stripes. Audiences were transfixed with such topical fare, as the Spanish-American War was on everyone’s mind. Blackton and Smith quickly followed their hit withThe Battle of Manila Bay,putting people right in the middle of Admiral George Dewey’s famous victory by filling a bathtub and floating small...

    • Beyond Panopticism: The Biopolitical Labor of Surveillance and War in Contemporary Film
      (pp. 155-178)
      Joshua Gooch

      By 2005, surveillance became a multigenre banality in films inspired by the United States’ various ongoing wars and the so-called global War on Terror. This film cycle included failed prestige pictures likeIn the Valley of Elah(Haggis, 2007),Lions for Lambs(Redford, 2007),Stop-Loss(Peirce, 2008), andRedacted(De Palma, 2007); thrillers likeBody of Lies(Scott, 2008),The Kingdom(Berg, 2007), andSyriana(Gaghan, 2005); blockbusters likeDéjà Vu(Scott, 2006),The Bourne Ultimatum(Greengrass, 2007),The Dark Knight(Nolan, 2008), andEagle Eye(Caruso, 2008); and even absurdist comedies likeBurn after Reading(Coen brothers, 2008). Surveillance’s omnipresence...

    • Seeing Soldiers, Seeing Persons: Wittgenstein, Film Theory, and Charlie Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms
      (pp. 179-202)
      Burke Hilsabeck

      The idea of a Wittgensteinian film theory has been a persistent interest of more analytically minded film and media scholars.¹ This interest should be understood within the broader context of the history of film theory. The grand, systematic theories that accompanied the founding of cinema and media studies as a discipline ignored Wittgenstein, and for good reason. With a few important exceptions, Wittgenstein and the philosophical tradition in which he wrote during the first half of the twentieth century were not much concerned with the analysis of artworks or with the aesthetic products of mass culture. The obvious consequence of...

  5. Part 2. War as Condition of Self-Formation and Self-Dissolution

    • Apocalypse Within: The War Epic as Crisis of Self-Identity
      (pp. 205-246)
      Garry L. Hagberg

      Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 filmApocalypseNow has been hailed as one of the great war films of all time, and indeed as one of the great films of all time. Film critic Roger Ebert has rightly said of Coppola’s film, “Apocalypse Nowis the best Vietnam film, one of the greatest of all films, because it pushes beyond the others, into the dark places of the soul. It is not about war so much as about how war reveals truths we would be happy never to discover.”¹

      This film is about self-identity, self-knowledge, and what we might call self-defining...

    • The Violated Body: Affective Experience and Somatic Intensity in Zero Dark Thirty
      (pp. 247-260)
      Robert Burgoyne

      The violence thatZero Dark Thirtyexplores from its initial moments to its deflating conclusion represents something new in American cinema, a portrayal that is at once intimate and inseparable from the large-scale violence that dominates the short history of the young century. In the course of the film, violence is rendered in immediate close-up, both acoustic and visual, and gradually dilated to read as a defining historical motif, an “organizing cultural and aesthetic fact,” as the literary historian Sarah Cole writes in another context.¹ Rendering the concrete terror of 9/11 in an acoustic montage, followed by a brutal portrayal...

    • “All in War with Time”: Medium as Meditation in Sherman’s March
      (pp. 261-286)
      Lawrence F. Rhu

      Sherman’s March, Ross McElwee’s first feature-length film, is a movie about not being able to make a movie. It only seems a “war film” out of a painful sense of duty. The filmmaker started out with a grant to make a documentary about the lingering effects of Sherman’s notorious campaign through Georgia and the Carolinas that hastened the American Civil War to its conclusion. An untimely breakup with the woman he had been seeing, however, threw McElwee for such a loop that he could not help self-absorbedly licking his own fresh wounds as a rejected lover. To borrow a phrase...

    • The Power of Memory and the Memory of Power: Wars and Graves in Westerns and Jidaigeki
      (pp. 287-310)
      Inger S. B. Brodey

      In selecting a design for the controversial Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the panel of eight judges and architects were deciding how to commemorate a war that was arguably one of the most painful national defeats the country had ever suffered. The interactive experience of this architectural monument prioritizes the commemoration of human loss over the preservation of national reputation. This new experience required a new shape: the monument to the war does not rise up gloriously on the landscape of the Mall to compete with the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial. Instead, the Vietnam Memorial Wall, designed by Maya Lin,...

  6. Part 3. The Ethical Tribulations of War

    • The Ubiquitous Absence of the Enemy in Contemporary Israeli War Films
      (pp. 313-334)
      Holger Pötzsch

      Israeli war films such asBeaufort(Bufor;Joseph Cedar, 2007),Waltz with Bashir(Vals im Bashir;Ari Folman, 2008), andLebanon(Levanon;Samuel Maoz, 2009) have been welcomed as critical antiwar films that not only set out to realistically convey the suffering and meaninglessness of war but also, and in particular in the case of Folman’s film, openly address the responsibility of the Israeli military for tolerating, facilitating, or even committing atrocities. Even though these readings appear justifiable to a certain extent, the present essay directs attention to a constitutive lack in the universes of all the mentioned films that...

    • General Patton and Private Ryan: The Conflicting Reality of War and Films about War
      (pp. 335-354)
      Andrew Fiala

      In the opening scene of the filmPatton(Shaffner, 1970), George C. Scott—who embodies the eponymous general—gives voice to the spirit of militaristic collectivism: “Now, an army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, fights as a team. This individuality stuff is a bunch of crap. The bilious bastards who wrote that stuff about individuality for theSaturday Evening Postdon’t know anything more about real battle than they do about fornicating.”

      Scott’s Patton condemns individualism as a “bunch of crap,” claiming that commentators on war do not know anything about “real battle.” This points toward ontological, moral,...

    • The Work of Art in the Age of Embedded Journalism: Fiction versus Depiction in Zero Dark Thirty
      (pp. 355-382)
      K. L. Evans

      Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, takes its title from a military term for half-past midnight—that still, nocturnal hour in which Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound was raided and robbed of its prize. To civilians, the term also implies that some people are awake while the rest of us sleep, that we are safeguarded by their sharpeyed vigilance, and in Bigelow’s film these silent soldiers get their day in the sun. “I was interested in putting the audience into the shoes of the men and women in the thick of this hunt,” noted...

  7. Part 4. War, Nature, and the Absolute

    • Vernacular Metaphysics: On Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line
      (pp. 385-412)
      Robert Pippin

      The narrative conventions that make the Hollywood “war movie” a recognizable genre are among the most familiar, fixed, and predictable of any genre conventions, so much so that even variations or inversions of the conventions are just as familiar.¹ War movies from different wars are also all different, but the heart of the most familiar species of the war movie genre, the Hollywood World War II movie, almost always involves some sort of group dynamic, and that dynamic is broadly egalitarian. A cast is made up of colorful characters from various parts of the country and various social classes, thrown...

    • War and Its Fictional Recovery On-Screen: Narrative Management of Death in The Big Red One and The Thin Red Line
      (pp. 413-436)
      Elisabeth Bronfen

      Writing his timely thoughts on war and death one year after World War I began, Sigmund Freud notes how two things have aroused his deep sense of disillusionment: the low standards of morality shown by European nations supposedly guardians of humanist standards and the brutality shown by individual combatants who, as members of these highly civilized nations, were thought to be incapable of such inhuman behavior. Recognizing that more is required than a nostalgic lament for the loss of civilized culture, Freud shifts his attention to what he perceives to be an altered attitude toward death dictated by the outbreak...

    • “Profoundly Unreconciled to Nature”: Ecstatic Truth and the Humanistic Sublime in Werner Herzog’s War Films
      (pp. 437-482)
      David LaRocca

      At the beginning ofThe Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and the Psychology of Transcendence,Thomas Weiskel says “the essential claim of the sublime is that man can, in feeling and in speech, transcend the human,” and as such, he concludes: “The humanistic sublime is an oxymoron.”¹ In contradistinction, I suggest that selected works of Werner Herzog—principally, what may be called his war films—antagonizes the oxymoronic status of this concept and yields instead an artful and arresting series of illustrations of the embattled term. Herzog’s war films, as I will define and describe them, remove the contradiction...

  8. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 483-488)
  9. Appendix. The Multifarious Forms of War Films: A Taxonomy of Subgenres
    (pp. 489-502)
  10. Contributors
    (pp. 503-510)
  11. Index
    (pp. 511-530)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 531-532)