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Armed Forces

Armed Forces: Masculinity and Sexuality in the American War Film

Robert Eberwein
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Armed Forces
    Book Description:

    In war films, the portrayal of deep friendships between men is commonplace. Given the sexually anxious nature of the American imagination, such bonds are often interpreted as carrying a homoerotic subtext. In Armed Forces , Robert Eberwein argues that an expanded conception of masculinity and sexuality is necessary in order to understand more fully the intricacy of these intense and emotional human relationships. Drawing on a range of examples from silent films such as What Price Glory and Wings to sound era works like The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Three Kings, and Pearl Harbor , he shows how close readings of war films, particularly in relation to their cultural contexts, demonstrate that depictions of heterosexual love, including those in romantic triangles, actually help to define and clarify the nonsexual nature of male love. The book also explores the problematic aspects of masculinity and sexuality when threatened by wounds, as in The Best Years of Our Lives, and considers the complex and persistent analogy between weapons and the male body, as in Full Metal Jacket and Saving Private Ryan .

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4150-1
    Subjects: Psychology

Table of Contents

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

    First—the cover and frontispiece of this book. They show a photograph taken by Edward Steichen in 1943, somewhere in the Pacific. We see three exhausted sailors on the USSLexington. They support one another: one’s head rests on another’s stomach; that man’s head and arms rest on a third man. It takes a while to sort out the placement of their arms, particularly in the middle of the photograph, where three arms form a complex triangle, completed by the head of the sailor who is touching his cap. There’s also a fourth sailor, not part of the group of...

    (pp. 16-32)

    The short filmLove and War(James H. White, 1899) described in the introduction establishes a number of narrative elements that will figure prominently in later war films: the hero’s departure and triumphant return; the impact of the war on his family at the home front; battlefield courage and death; field hospitals and ministering nurses. These qualify as the kinds of “semantic units” Rick Altman identifies in his explanation of the foundations of genre. All of these enter into various syntactical patterns as the war film develops over time.¹

    Love, a major semantic unit of interest in this book, receives...

    (pp. 33-52)

    The paradigms described in chapter 1 continue to appear in war films of the sound era. The pattern inThe Big Parade(King Vidor, 1925), in which love of comrades can occur in conjunction with a separate romantic relationship that doesn’t create conflict between men, appears most notably inFrom Here to Eternity(Fred Zinnemann, 1953). In such a case, the presence of the two kinds of relationships helps to differentiate one from the other. The paradigm observed inWhat Price Glory(Raoul Walsh, 1926) andWings(William Wellman, 1927), in which the rivalry between friends is a complication in...

    (pp. 53-71)

    In the previous chapters I focused on love between men and argued against using strict dichotomies (heterosexual or homosexual) to categorize complex relationships. My interest in the next three chapters is in how various war films and related cultural artifacts present men in ways that expose the vulnerability of their masculinity and sexuality. This chapter explores various signifying practices that function as a kind of inoculation, showing men at risk in a manner that works, finally, to demonstrate their resistance to any threats. Again and again, narratives present situations that seem to undermine masculinity and sexuality in order to disavow...

    (pp. 72-86)

    This chapter focuses on men who display the effects of psychological and/or physical wounds and limitations. In some cases, the films show how war and battle cause the damage; in others, the narratives present characters who are already impaired in one way or another. In both cases, the resulting effects on the characters’ masculinity and behavior have significant ramifications for those whom they love or those whom they lead. The most common dangers to masculinity and sexuality from psychological and physical damage center on forms of impotence, symbolic or actual. The inability of a man to function sexually because of...

    (pp. 87-101)

    Men in drag—the concept has a built-in potential for humor. War films and works in other genres have made extensive use of the concept for exactly that purpose, to generate laughter. In the process, though, the filmmakers who created them have provided texts that invite examination of the complex implications of drag and its challenges to masculinity and sexuality. This chapter explores and expands on some of these issues.

    Drag figures in two broad narrative categories: outright performances in which men dress as women in order to entertain audiences, and disguises in which men pretend to be women to...

    (pp. 102-113)

    The last three chapters focus exclusively on war films released since 1966, for two reasons. The first pertains to cinematic history: in 1966 the methods by which the Production Code Administration (PCA) regulated the content of American film ended, to be replaced by a new system administered by the Motion Picture Association of America. While the PCA had made a number of accommodations in the 1950s and 1960s that involved relaxing some of its strictures, such as the use of swear words (“damn” and “hell” gradually appear more prominently), and more open treatment of illicit heterosexual behavior (premarital sex, revealing...

    (pp. 114-136)

    Before “Don’t ask, don’t tell” became a widely known statement in the 1990s, another expression related to the military had already attained recognition, in part because of its use in films and in fiction. This one, in the form of a chant, pertains to the obvious connections between weapons and conceptions about masculinity and male sexuality: “This is my rifle, this is my gun; this is for fighting, this is for fun.” Since referring to the chant has become a critical commonplace in discussions of the war film, I hope the following commentary will lead to some new insights about...

    (pp. 137-147)

    Saving Private Ryan(Steven Spielberg, 1998) ends as James Ryan (Harrison Young), an old man accompanied by his wife, children, and grandchildren, stands at the gravesite of Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) in Normandy and salutes. In some ways the distance between Ryan and the nameless hero ofLove and War(James H. White, 1899), who is also surrounded by his family at the film’s end, seems closer than that between him and the disillusioned Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) inJarhead(Sam Mendes, 2005).Jarheadis an anomaly in relation to war films of the last ten years or so because...

    (pp. 148-154)

    In a brief analysis of war films from the silent era to the present in which he discusses their themes, conventions, generic continuities, and connections to the historical moment, Steve Neale observes: “Coinciding with a renewed interest in the topic of masculinity in Film, Media and Cultural Studies, war films of all kinds have been studied . . . not only in terms of their Oedipal dynamics and their sado-masochistic scenarios, but also in light of the fact that the war film is one of the few genres in which, asSaving Private Ryan([Steven Spielberg,] 1998) has recently confirmed,...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 155-180)
    (pp. 181-186)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 187-196)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 197-197)