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

By Cleveland, Sean D. | Journal of Film and Video, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

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


Cleveland, Sean D., Journal of Film and Video


WHY WE FOUGHT: AMERICA'S WARS IN FILM AND HISTORY Ed. Peter C. Rollins and John E. O'Connor, University Press of Kentucky, 2008, 624 pp.

Eschewing psychoanalytic, formalist, and auteur critical approaches in favor of one that privileges simultaneously the internal and the external contexts of cinematic narratives, Peter C. Rollins and John E. O'Connor have long insisted that films must be read for both their historical and their aesthetic elements. Their recent co-edited collection, Why We Fought: America's Wars in Film and History, offers a number of essays exemplifying their unique interdisciplinary approach. Its twenty-three selections, most of which were initially presented at the Film and History Conference in 2005, examine a widely disparate though representative selection of important films from the American war film genre through a self-avowed "film and history" lens that views movie, newsreel, and television productions as historical documents that are as deserving of close, scholarly, and contextual analysis as other primary and secondary historical resources.

Inspired by the prevailing tenets of film scholarship and social and cultural history, most contributors combine relatively cursory readings of a film's cinematographic and aesthetic elements with more detailed analysis of the historical accuracy of its content and the sociocultural contexts of its production, distribution, and reception. Indeed, whether assessing a film as a propaganda vehicle or determining the role of government sponsorship or censorship in pre- and postproduction, the collection as a whole tends to see war films as cultural texts that not only record events but also influence perceptions about the events depicted while simultaneously reflecting the values, morals, and ideals of both the era in which the events purportedly happened and the era in which the film was produced and released. Thus, depending on its particular mode of historical inquiry, each essay examines the genre's films within a rubric defined by four frameworks identified in the collection's expansive introduction, assessing each as a representation of history, as a document of social or cultural history, as a representation of a particular moment in film history, or as actual historical fact.

Though the editors' introduction and John Shelton Lawrence's excellent filmography and bibliography sections are invaluable in their own right for their precision and concision, the collection's true strength lies in its comprehensive assessment of the genre, from feature films and documentaries to newsreels and television miniseries. Extensive and inclusive with respect to content as well, its essays consider mediated depictions of almost every one of the United States' armed conflicts since the Revolutionary War. Indeed, one of its most compelling arguments, written by Frank Thompson, deals with problematic cinematic depictions of the battle of the Alamo; yet another powerful essay assesses the heavily mediated and interpretive "mythic condensation" (443) at the core of Ridley Scott's powerful film adaptation of Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down (2001). This is not to say, of course, that Rollins and O'Connor ignore the nation's involvement in large-scale warfare. In an effort to ensure both breadth and historical context, the editors have adroitly organized their collection into four parts. Part 1 assesses films dealing with the nation's eighteenth- and nineteenth-century wars, to include the American Revolution, the MexicanAmerican War, and the Civil War. Part 2 examines cinematic representations of World War I and World War II. Part 3 appraises films dealing with the paradox of limited warfare, to include the Cold War and Vietnam, and Part 4 considers contemporary filmic narratives dealing with the nation's more recent asymmetric conflicts.

In addition to O'Connor's and Rollins's lucid contributions, the collection's strongest essays, such as those by Gary Edgerton, Robert Myers, Ian Scott, Robert Brent Toplin, and John Shelton Lawrence and John McGarrahan, clearly and explicitly model the "film and history" approach. …

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