Ideal Heroes: Nostalgic Constructions of Masculinity in Tigerland and We Were Soldiers

Article excerpt

Tigerland (Schumacher 2000) and We Were Soldiers (Wallace 2002), unlike the 1980s Vietnam War films that preceded them, are conservative war films, harking back to narrative patterns and representations of masculinity more typical of World War II films. While much of the discourse surrounding films about the Vietnam War has been to discuss the way in which the war was reshaped after the fact in order to adapt it to recognizable narratives acceptable for the general public, these two films suggest that a recent movement toward conservatism in war films has completely erased the critical representation of war that was discernible in earlier Vietnam War films. During the 1980s, Hollywood films attempted to reconcile the feelings of loss that the war left on the popular imagination, while the Reagan government was engaging in similar discourse in order to reshape the country's national image. The instability of the earlier films left room for a critical reading that is no longer possible in the conservatism that is seen in both Tigerland and We Were Soldiers, which has adapted aspects of the World War II film with contemporary ideals evident in the presentation of the naturalized masculinity of the central hero.

In order to understand contemporary war films one must recognize the generic past of such films while also understanding the differences that exist between these films and the films that have influenced them. The representation of the Vietnam War in film almost invariably raises questions of the representation of hetero-normative gender constructions because the discourse surrounding it at any given point in the last 30 years has been indicative of the attitudes and values assigned to ideals of masculinity. To mark these recent films as conservative war films is important not only because of the problematic nature of the politics of the Vietnam War in film history but also because of the representation of masculinity that arises out of conservative war films. While the 1980s films display an attempt to reformulate the war itself into an acceptable representation of war, Tigerland and We Were Soldiers display the reformulation of the Vietnam War film into a recognizable narrative pattern.

As is evident from the number of years that passed between the Vietnam War and its appearance within mainstream culture through the use of the war film genre, the complexity of this war and the confusion left in its aftermath resulted in a problematic representation of this war within a dominant ideological framework. The loss of the Vietnam War, the disillusionment in the years that followed, the questions as to why there was American involvement at all are only a few of the concerns that surround the discourse of that war. Also coinciding was the wave of feminism in the 1970s that brought to the forefront questions of sexism and gender roles. In this context films began to appear in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s that attempted to work through both questions about the war and questions about gender. A distrust of representation also became apparent in books such as Michael Herr's Dispatches and later Stanley Kubrick's film Full Metal Jacket (1987). These texts regard earlier films about World War II as having false representations of the war experience, leaving many young soldiers unprepared for what they were forced to face. Attempting to fit the Vietnam War into mainstream understanding, using pre-existing narrative structures and filmic genres, proved difficult in the 1980s, as is seen in films such as Full Metal Jacket and Hamburger Hill (Irvin, 1987), which display moments of slippage, revealing ideological constructs. The difficulty in presenting a coherent and unproblematic picture of the war says as much about the flux in which the nation found itself in the 1980s as it does about the confusion concerning the war. Fissures that appear and that can be examined within these films reveal political concerns of the 1980s, which do include questions about the American involvement in Vietnam. …