War and Film in America: Historical and Critical Essays

By Shull, Michael S. | Film & History, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

War and Film in America: Historical and Critical Essays


Shull, Michael S., Film & History


Marilyn J. Matelski and Nancy Lynch Street, editors. War and Film in America: Historical and Critical Essays. McFarland, 2003. 208 pages; $32.00 paper.

Key Distinctions

War and Film in America is another addition to the evergrowing number of written exercises addressing the war drama genre. And, as is typical with a book made up of" essays by various authors, the quality can significantly vary. It should be noted that this book deals exclusively with films released after World War II, and predominantly with those texts that either directly or indirectly reflect American responses to the Cold War and/or the Vietnamese conflict. Yet, its contributors never clearly define what they mean by a war film and never seriously engage combat films. For instance, the briefly discussed Black Hawk Down (2001) intensely recreates an actual combat situation that took place in the 1990s between American troops and irregular indigenous forces during a misguided humanitarian operation in a civil war torn Somalia. But is it a war film? At pains to point out the "partnership" between Hollywood and the military-which has always been the case, and which has obviously resulted in various quid pro quos- the editors/authors lose sight of the key distinctions between war dramas, war allegories, combat films and films about the military.

What the editors/authors do proclaim in War and Film in America is thai the "old definitions" of combat are no longer applicable in the new world order of the 21st century. Yet no new definitions are ever proffered-other than a post-modernist pastiche of assaults on the old order that frequently serve only to highlight an inadequate historical knowledge as related to the primary subject.

As indicated in the introduction, the editors/authors are at collective pains to point out, with apparent intended irony, that the two greatest "exports" of the United States during the past century have been "war and entertainment"-a somewhat misleading claim that the reviewer would contend would be more accurate to identify as war materials and popular mass media-and that therefore the American film industry has been a shameless shill, or "silent partner," of those agencies of the U.S. government that shape and/or execute American foreign policy.

The proofs for this book of essays were submitted just before Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced and both the introduction as well as a couple of the contributions reflect a near hysteria when referring to the insidious militaristic nature of U.S. foreign policy-tendentious polemicizing that more often than not gets in the way of more dispassionate film analysis-comparing the Nazi Kondor Legion's infamous bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War with a claim of indiscriminate American napalming of Vietnamese villages as deliberate terrorist acts is a bit of a stretch (p. 10).

Most of the eclectic contributions in War and Film in America merit perusing. Richard A. Kallin's essay about The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) is an interesting close reading that contends that the classic WWII POW film is less an antiwar statement, and more of a psychological investigation of the "collision" between "duty and pride" of the two main antagonists, British Colonel Nicholson and Japanese Colonel Saito.

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