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Specters of War

Specters of War: Hollywood's Engagement with Military Conflict

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 300
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  • Book Info
    Specters of War
    Book Description:

    Specters of Warlooks at the way war has been brought to the screen in various genres and at different historical moments throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Elisabeth Bronfen asserts that Hollywood has emerged as a place where national narratives are created and circulated so that audiences can engage with fantasies, ideologies, and anxieties that take hold at a given time, only to change with the political climate.

    Such cultural reflection is particularly poignant when it deals with America's traumatic history of war. The nation has no direct access to war as a horrific experience of carnage and human destruction; we understand our relation to it through images and narratives that transmit and interpret it for us. Bronfen does not discuss actual conflicts but the films by which we have come to know and remember them, includingAll Quiet on the Western Front,The Best Years of Our Lives,Miracle at St. Anna,The Deer Hunter, andFlags of Our Fathers. Battles and campaigns, the home front and women-who-wait narratives, war correspondents, and court martials are also explored as instruments of cultural memory. Bronfen argues that we are haunted by past warsandby cinematic re-conceptualizations of them, and reveals a national iconography of redemptive violence from which we seem unable to escape.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5399-3
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-15)

    The final sequence of Lewis Milestone’sAll Quiet on the Western Front(1930) compellingly images the haunting specter of war. Seamlessly, we move from a close-up of the hand of his hero, Paul Baumer, who has just been shot by an enemy sniper, to a gripping superimposition. On screen, death can be reversed, the young men who have died in the trenches of World War I resurrected. Once more we see Paul and his companions marching into combat. The montage is such that their bodies are juxtaposed over and thus visually bleed into the crosses of a massive cemetery, marking...

  5. 1 Unfinished Business of the Civil War
    (pp. 16-42)

    Set during the New York draft riots in 1863, Martin Scorsese’sGangs of New York(2002) uses this civil insurrection as a backdrop for its narrative about the violent origins of New York City. In a particularly chilling scene, Scorsese depicts the arrival of masses of immigrants getting off the boat that brought them across the Atlantic. They are met at the pier not only by a Democratic politician, who calls them “the building of the country” because he hopes to gain their votes, but also by the angry jeers of working-class natives, fearing for their jobs in the face...

  6. 2 Home and Its Discontent
    (pp. 43-73)

    The opening sequence ofGlamour Girls of1943, a documentary short produced by the Office of War Information (OWI), shows a troop of smiling civilian women led by a male officer of the U.S. armed forces as they enter a stately administration building. From this they soon reemerge in uniform, indicating that they are about to join the men already fighting on the front lines. As these newly enlisted soldiers turn into an entire platoon of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), marching in perfect formation, the male narrator adds that it is not only in the field of military...

  7. 3 War Entertainment
    (pp. 74-106)

    The reason Glenn Miller gave for enlisting in the army in September 1942, rising to the rank of captain before his plane disappeared over the English Channel on December 15, 1944, resonates with much that Hollywood scripted for screen celebrities in its own grand-scale war effort after Pearl Harbor: “I, like every patriotic American,” the band leader explained, “have an obligation to fulfill. That obligation is to lend as much support as I can to winning the war.”¹ After assembling his own Army Air Force (AAF) Orchestra, Miller engaged in bond drives, made Victory discs for the troops oversees, broadcast...

  8. 4 Choreography of Battle
    (pp. 107-143)

    Individual battles punctuate the advance of any military campaign. As troops come into violent contact with each other, they viciously give body to the political struggle between two opposing armed forces. Sometimes this clash of fighting units marks the decisive moment in a military conflict, turning the tide against one of the opponents. Sometimes it is merely one of a chain of assaults leading toward a showdown, at the end of which one side is finally declared victorious. In all cases, the actual scene of combat stands in stark contrast to the uncertain anticipation of entering the battlefield as well...

  9. 5 Reporting the War
    (pp. 144-168)

    In the voice-over to the personal color film diary that his father, George Stevens, began at dawn on June 6, 1944, while aboard the flagship Belfast, George Stevens Jr. recalls that the captain read to the men assembled on deck a passage from Shakespeare’sHenry V, which has since become a signature commentary on the D-Day invasion.¹ Let us recall the theatrical scene. Just before the battle at Agincourt is about to begin, Shakespeare’s king assures his men that their paucity of troops may still prove to be a sign of luck. Coveting honor beyond all earthly possessions, he explains,...

  10. 6 Court-Martial Drama
    (pp. 169-195)

    One of the traits Alexis de Tocqueville believed to be most noteworthy about American culture was the fundamental role a legal spirit played in its imaginary: “There is virtually no political question in the United States that does not sooner or later resolve itself into a judicial question.” Because jury duty makes people of all classes familiar with legal ways, the legal spirit infiltrates all of society. As a result, he surmised, “all the parties in their daily polemics find themselves obliged to borrow the ideas and language of the courts.”¹ With legal process structuring all forms of public life...

  11. 7 War’s Sustained Haunting
    (pp. 196-232)

    What does it mean to look back at a war, often decades after those who fought have returned home? What is revealed when military action is not simply recalled and commemorated, but rather reconceptualized specifically in relation to the subsequent peace predicated on it? How do these belated narratives not only reimagine battle but also scrutinize the emotional and political aftereffects of war that come to figure into this reconception? By thinking about past warsin relation toandfrom the positionof home in times of peace, Hollywood investigates how difficult it is to return from war, even while...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 233-242)

    Where does this leave us? Wars continue, and so does Hollywood’s engagement with military conflicts. Recent films about the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, like Jim Sheridan’sBrothers(2009), continue to attest to the way soldiers never fully return home, even when they bring nothing more than quiet despair back with them from the war zone. In a similar vein, we, revisiting their experience on screen, also never fully work through the experience that the stars of these films embody for us. We can take possession of the past by turning it into stories that can be passed on to...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 243-264)
  14. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 265-270)
  15. Filmography
    (pp. 271-274)
  16. Index
    (pp. 275-288)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 289-290)