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Why We Fought

Why We Fought: America's Wars in Film and History

Peter C. Rollins
John E. O’Connor
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 624
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  • Book Info
    Why We Fought
    Book Description:

    Film moves audiences like no other medium; both documentaries and feature films are especially remarkable for their ability to influence viewers. Best-selling author James Brady remarked that he joined the Marines to fight in Korea after seeing a John Wayne film, demonstrating how a motion picture can change the course of a human life -- in this case, launching the career of a major historian and novelist. In Why We Fought: America's Wars in Film and History, editors Peter C. Rollins and John E. O'Connor explore the complexities of war films, describing the ways in which such productions interpret history and illuminate American values, politics, and culture. This comprehensive volume covers representations of war in film from the American Revolution in the 18th century to today's global War on Terror. The contributors examine iconic battle films such as The Big Parade (1925), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), From Here to Eternity (1953), and Platoon (1986), considering them as historical artifacts. The authors explain how film shapes our cultural understanding of military conflicts, analyzing how war is depicted on television programs, through news media outlets, and in fictional and factual texts. With several essays examining the events of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath, the book has a timely relevance concerning the country's current military conflicts. Jeff Chown examines controversial documentary films about the Iraq War, while Stacy Takacs considers Jessica Lynch and American gender issues in a post-9/11 world, and James Kendrick explores the political messages and aesthetic implications of United 93. From filmmakers who reshaped our understanding of the history of the Alamo, to Ken Burns's popular series on the Civil War, to the uses of film and media in understanding the Vietnam conflict, Why We Fought offers a balanced outlook -- one of the book's editors was a combat officer in the United States Marines, the other an antiwar activist -- on the conflicts that have become touchstones of American history. As Air Force veteran and film scholar Robert Fyne notes in the foreword, American war films mirror a nation's past and offer tangible evidence of the ways millions of Americans have become devoted, as was General MacArthur, to "Duty, honor, and country." Why We Fought chronicles how, for more than half a century, war films have shaped our nation's consciousness.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7297-2
    Subjects: History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xii)
    Robert Fyne

    American audiences have always enjoyed flag-waving war movies. They cheered when U.S. forces ran up San Juan Hill in the silent shortTearing Down the Spanish Flag(1898), hooted when Union troops attacked Confederate forces inThe Birth of a Nation(1915), and whistled when Charlie Chaplin single-handedly captured the kaiser inShoulder Arms(1918).

    When the industry moved to balmy Southern California, the Hollywood moving picture became the country’s most popular form of entertainment. Why wouldn’t it? Using elaborate sound equipment, sophisticated sets, well-known writers, and established actors, these photodramas radiated with appeal. But the war film caught the...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-38)
    John E. O’Connor and Peter C. Rollins

    Military conflicts have influenced American society and reshaped the lives of Americans in complex and subtle ways. Although public documents, legislative debates, and battlefield statistics may be the best sources for understanding some of the more traditional historical issues such as war aims, strategies, and logistical successes and failures, evidence from popular culture may show more clearly how wars can liberate and also corrupt nations morally, just as they can bankrupt them financially. On a more profound level, it can help us see how nations can be born and—like soldiers at the front—die in wars. Moreover, what Carl...

  6. Part I. The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries:: Revolution, Conquest, and Union

    • 1 The American Revolution on the Screen: Drums Along the Mohawk and The Patriot
      (pp. 41-62)
      John E. O’Connor

      Hollywood productions about the American past have been relatively common over the century-long history of motion pictures—especially if one counts all the representations of the western frontier and all the films about American wars. In this context it is somewhat surprising that there have been so few thoughtful productions about the period of the American Revolution (1763–1789). The truly memorable films dealing with the nation’s founding can easily be counted on two hands, with a few fingers left over.

      After all, the only feature-length film that focuses on the councils of the Revolution,1776(1972), is a musical....

    • 2 Reprinting the Legend: The Alamo on Film
      (pp. 63-76)
      Frank Thompson

      Back when schoolchildren actually knew something about history, the stirring and heroic saga of the siege and fall of the Alamo was as well known as Washington’s crossing of the Delaware or Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill. To tell the story was to sing a hymn to gleaming, unassailable patriotism and, as Alamo commander William Barret Travis wrote in his most famous letter, “everything dear to the American character.” Surely, the battle of the Alamo is a mythic event.

      The story that those schoolchildren knew was roughly this: In February 1836 a small but determined band of Americans...

    • 3 Assessing Television’s Version of History: The Mexican-American War and the KERA Documentary Series
      (pp. 77-98)
      James Yates

      To better understand the Mexican-American War, we must place the conflict within the historical framework of the early and mid-nineteenth century, and especially in the context of how Americans viewed themselves and the world. The 1840s were years of rapid and dramatic territorial growth. This expansion, coupled with the ebullient popular attitudes, resulted in actions many Americans insisted were part of a “manifest destiny.” The phrase was coined by John L. O’Sullivan in an editorial for theDemocratic Reviewregarding the annexation of Texas in July 1845, and it quickly became the watchword for the mission of the republic and...

    • 4 Ken Burns’s Rebirth of a Nation: The Civil War as Made-for-Television History
      (pp. 99-120)
      Gary R. Edgerton

      It has been around eighteen years sinceThe Civil Warpremiered over five consecutive evenings (23–27 September 1990), amassing a level of attention unsurpassed in public television history. Ken Burns’s eleven-hour version of the war acted as a flash point for a new generation, attracting a spectrum of opinion that ranged from rapturous enthusiasm to milder interest in most segments of the viewing public, from outrage over Yankee propaganda in a few scattered areas of the South to both praise and criticism from the academy (Lord, “Did Anyone” 18;Civil War IllustratedJuly–Aug. 1991;Confederate VeteranJan.–Feb....

    • 5 “It’s What People Say We’re Fighting For”: Representing the Lost Cause in Cold Mountain
      (pp. 121-134)
      Robert M. Myers

      In the introduction toCold Mountain: A Screenplay, author Charles Frazier describes a strange moment that occurred during the making of the film. As they were filming a Christmas celebration, director Anthony Minghella suddenly stopped the cameras and asked Frazier, “This scene is in the book, isn’t it?” Remarkably, Frazier responded, “I’m not sure. I’d have to check” (xii). This unusual confusion over authorial paternity leads Frazier to speculate on the proper relationship between a book and its film version. On the one hand, he recognizes that “books are books and movies are movies. They should not be identical, nor can...

  7. Part II. The Twentieth Century:: Total War

    • 6 The Great War Viewed from the 1920s: The Big Parade
      (pp. 137-155)
      Michael T. Isenberg

      The decade of the 1920s has long stood in the popular perspective as a unity, bounded by the ignoble brackets of war and economic crisis. The customary view of the period, kept alive by dozens of colorful book titles, is that it was a time of carefree hedonism and relentless materialism when American society unleashed the pent-up energies of the war years.

      The traditional vision sees World War I not only as Woodrow Wilson’s great crusade but also as the great watershed in modern American history. The war broadened the breakdown of the old moral code, particularly in relation to...

    • 7 Technology and “Reel Patriotism” in American Film Advertising of the World War I Era
      (pp. 156-174)
      James Latham

      Advertising and publicity are forms of commercial speech that motivate moviegoing and shape the understanding of films. In fact, at times, advertisements are even more memorable, more evocative, and more widely seen than the films they promote. Although historians have studied the production and exhibition of war-related films, they have paid less attention to how these films were marketed. Advertising did more than simply tout movies; it conveyed cultural meanings of patriotism and national identity, as well as reasons why the country was at war and why the public should participate. This case study of seven advertisements reveals the ideological...

    • 8 Culture Wars and the Local Screen: The Reception of Westfront 1918 and All Quiet on the Western Front in One German City
      (pp. 175-195)
      David Imhoof

      Six nights in December 1930 were all it took to make Lewis Milestone’sAll Quiet on the Western Front(1930) the most controversial film in Germany between the world wars. For six nights it played in Berlin, with protests inside and outside the theater and across the country, until Germany’s Censorship Board reversed its earlier approval of the movie and banned it. For several weeks the conflict about the movie—Should it be shown or not? What does it mean for Germany?—grabbed front-page headlines, a singular feat that indicated the film’s significance for national politics. Like the thirty films...

    • 9 The Peace, Isolationist, and Anti-interventionist Movements and Interwar Hollywood
      (pp. 196-225)
      John Whiteclay Chambers II

      In studying U.S. foreign policy in the period between the two world wars, scholars have recently produced some important work on interventionism and the film industry, but the relationship of antiwar groups to motion pictures has been largely ignored. Such neglect is clearly unwarranted, since surveys indicated that throughout the 1930s, the overwhelming majority of Americans opposed U.S. intervention in another war. As late as July 1941, the final Gallup poll on the question revealed that 79 percent still advocated U.S. neutrality (Gallup 290). This chapter is intended to provide a fuller and more balanced account.

      My exploration of the...

    • 10 The B Movie Goes to War in Hitler, Beast of Berlin
      (pp. 226-241)
      Cynthia J. Miller

      During the 1930s, the neighborhood movie house was a place of refuge for many. The pressures and strains of the world vanished amidst the laughter, thrills, and chills of the golden era of the B movie. In the world outside, people were weighed down by the burdens of the era—memories of family, friends, and neighbors who had died in World War I; the effects of the Great Depression; and the strife of the Spanish Civil War. But once they were behind those movie house doors, the tensions of everyday life melted away, as the Bs brought low-budget action, suspense,...

    • 11 Why We Fight and Projections of America: Frank Capra, Robert Riskin, and the Making of World War II Propaganda
      (pp. 242-258)
      Ian S. Scott

      In an overview of America’s then-recent documentary tradition, Robert and Nancy Katz observed in 1948 that the welter of outstanding World War II documentaries had only a limited impact on the genre in the United States due to their restricted viewing at home. They reserved special praise, however, for theWhy We Fightseries directed by Frank Capra and for a series of films commissioned and organized by Robert Riskin for the Overseas Branch of the Office of War Information (OWI)—a series referred to here asProjections of America.¹ According to the Katzes, “Frank Capra’s series set a successful...

    • 12 On Telling the Truth about War: World War II and Hollywood’s Moral Fiction, 1945–1956
      (pp. 259-282)
      Frank J. Wetta and Martin A. Novelli

      There is a scene inThe Best Years of Our Lives, the Academy Award–winning film of 1946, in which an army veteran of the Pacific war presents his teenage son with a souvenir—a samurai sword. The boy hesitates a moment and says flatly, “Thanks very much, Dad.” The father then holds up a Japanese flag and tells his son that he took it off “a dead Jap soldier.” He points out the various good-luck wishes inscribed on the flag. The son, looking at the object, instructs the father, “The Japanese attach a lot of importance to their family...

    • 13 James Jones, Columbia Pictures, and the Historical Confrontations of From Here to Eternity
      (pp. 283-302)
      J. E. Smyth

      James Jones spent his career writing about the average American soldier’s experience immediately prior to and during the Second World War, from his “fictional” combat trilogyFrom Here to Eternity(1951),The Thin Red Line(1962), andWhistle(published posthumously in 1978) to his popular historyWorld War II(1975). Nevertheless, historians and literary critics have tended to downplay his investment in the Second World War as a site of historical speculation and critique and have emphasized instead the more limited, historically ambivalent discourses of personal memory controlling the popular novelist’s creative drives (Giles; MacShane). Because the content ofFrom...

    • 14 Hollywood’s D-Day from the Perspective of the 1960s and 1990s: The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan
      (pp. 303-314)
      Robert Brent Toplin

      Cinematic history from Hollywood is intriguing not only for its perspectives on the past but also for what it says about the times in which the films were being produced. Often the creators of motion pictures address concerns of the present when they fashion stories about the past. This characteristic is certainly evident in the case of movies depicting events associated with World War II. For instance,Bataan(1943) shows U.S. forces fighting bravely in the face of an overwhelming enemy. The movie’s tragic conclusion, in which all the Americans die, symbolizes the difficult position of American soldiers in the...

  8. Part III. Cold War and Insurgency:: The Paradox of Limited Wars

    • 15 Cold War Berlin in the Movies: From The Big Lift to The Promise
      (pp. 317-348)
      Thomas W. Maulucci Jr.

      Although a sizable literature exists on the “Berlin film” (Byg), relatively few authors have explored filmmakers’ use of Berlin as a political space during the twentieth century. They have devoted considerably more attention to issues such as modernity and postmodernity, gender, urban culture, and aesthetics.¹ After 1945, however, filmmakers represented Berlin not only as an important part of their mise-en-scène but also to comment on life in divided Germany and on the larger Cold War itself. These symbolic presentations evolved over time in several distinct patterns that closely coincided with changing developments in the city. In the late 1940s, as...

    • 16 Invaders of the Cold War: Generic Disruptions and Shifting Gender Roles in The Day the Earth Stood Still
      (pp. 349-366)
      Susan A. George

      InThe Fifties, David Halberstam writes, “In retrospect the pace of the fifties seemed slower, almost languid. Social ferment, however, was beginning just beneath this placid surface” (ix). He further notes, “Few Americans doubted the essential goodness of their society. After all it was reflected back at them not only in contemporary books and magazines, but even more powerfully and with even greater influence in the new family sitcoms on television” (x). TV programs such asThe Donna Reed ShowandLeave It to Beaverbelied any sense of turmoil or tension, yet while these programs showed, in black-and-white simplicity,...

    • 17 Using Popular Culture to Study the Vietnam War: Perils and Possibilities
      (pp. 367-389)
      Peter C. Rollins

      The Vietnam War is not over for the United States. It is still being fought in our popular culture, and the struggle provides rich opportunities for researchers and teachers of contemporary literature, mass media, and culture. The secret for exploiting this opportunity has less to do with identifying the kinds of materials to use in the classroom than with defining the right approach to them, for while there are possibilities, there are also perils. Existing Vietnam texts are short on hard, irreducible facts and long on bias; as a result, historians should look upon popular culture as a subjective prism...

    • 18 Fragments of War: Oliver Stone’s Platoon
      (pp. 390-403)
      Lawrence W. Lichty and Raymond L. Carroll

      The Hollywood image of war, and of Americans in battle, has been almost universally positive. Many Hollywood combat films begin with the training of a single unit and follow it into battle. American troops are depicted as heroic; the enemy fanatical. Our men are portrayed as reluctant soldiers more interested in the girl back home, their families, and baseball than they are in international politics. A number of early war films, and especially those about the war in Vietnam, fit that pattern.

      After the United States entered World War II, and again during the war in Korea, there was a...

    • 19 The Quiet American: Graham Greene’s Vietnam Novel through the Lenses of Two Eras
      (pp. 404-428)
      William S. Bushnell

      Graham Greene’sThe Quiet American, published in 1955, has twice caught the interest of respected filmmakers. Joseph Mankiewicz directed his adaptation of the novel in 1958, and Phillip Noyce returned to the text nearly a half century later. These radically different presentations reflect the different historical contexts in which they were filmed and show how America’s involvement in Vietnam from the early 1950s through the fall of Saigon in 1975 continues to be revisited and revisioned. The American director, Mankiewicz, transposed what he called a “cheap melodrama in which the American was the most idiotic kind of villain” into a...

  9. Part IV. The Twenty-first Century:: Terrorism and Asymmetrical Conflicts

    • 20 Operation Restore Honor in Black Hawk Down
      (pp. 431-457)
      John Shelton Lawrence and John G. McGarrahan

      On 3 October 1993 a group of U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force operators, acting in support of a United Nations relief mission in Somalia, mounted a surprise raid into the urban center of Mogadishu. Task Force (TF) Ranger, as it was called, hoped to capture leaders of the Habr Gidr clan, which was leading the resistance to the UN presence in the country. The commando attack met fierce resistance from clan fighters; eighteen U.S. soldiers were killed, many more were wounded, and two Black Hawk helicopters were destroyed. Despite the adversity, TF Ranger seized several clan leaders and managed...

    • 21 Documentary and the Iraq War: A New Genre for New Realities
      (pp. 458-487)
      Jeffrey Chown

      The Vietnam conflict (1959–1975) has been described as America’s first televised war, or the first “living-room war.” In the ensuing years there was much discussion of the “Vietnam syndrome,” the view that a difficult, drawn-out military engagement would be impossible in the new media environment. The Vietnam experience allegedly demonstrated that the American public would not countenance body bags on the nightly news for an extended stretch of time. The current war in Iraq has apparently given the lie to that prophecy. Furthermore, with camcorders on the battlefield and both sides using the Internet, the Iraq war has become...

    • 22 Jessica Lynch and the Regeneration of American Identity Post 9/11
      (pp. 488-510)
      Stacy Takacs

      On 1 April 2003 the broken body of Pfc. Jessica Lynch was recovered by the U.S. military from a hospital in Nasariyah, Iraq, where she lay suffering from injuries incurred in a combat-related Humvee crash. The rescue story quickly took on larger-than-life proportions as the vested interests of the military and the commercial media coalesced around the need for a good story to clarify the moral stakes of the war in Iraq.¹ Within days, the tale of the 507th Maintenance Unit’s blunder into enemy lines had been framed as an “ambush,” and Lynch’s rescue had become a parable of American...

    • 23 Representing the Unrepresentable: 9/11 on Film and Television
      (pp. 511-528)
      James Kendrick

      It is surely not a coincidence that French film theorist André Bazin wrote some of his most famous and lasting works about the nature of the cinema during the last calendar year of World War II. Bazin’s argument that “photography and the cinema … are discoveries that satisfy, once and for all and in its very essence, our obsession with realism” (12) came directly on the heels of a seemingly apocalyptic world war, the vast horrors of which were captured and preserved in various forms of moving and still photography. Bazin’s theories about the mechanical nature of the cinema suggest...

  10. Filmography
    (pp. 529-565)
    John Shelton Lawrence
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 566-574)
    John Shelton Lawrence
  12. Contributors
    (pp. 575-583)
  13. Index
    (pp. 584-604)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 605-609)