Armed Forces: Masculinity and Sexuality in the American War Film

Armed Forces: Masculinity and Sexuality in the American War Film

Armed Forces: Masculinity and Sexuality in the American War Film

Armed Forces: Masculinity and Sexuality in the American War Film

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

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 USS Lexington. 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 men lying down; he seems to rubbing his head. It isn't exactly clear how much we can infer about them, other than they must know each other sufficiently well enough to permit and share this physical intimacy. Curiously, even though the photograph shows someone looking, it is the viewer of the photograph rather than the fourth sailor who observes the tableau. We can't know if his glance away from them indicates indifference or distraction. The composition of the photograph puts the burden of interpretation on the external rather than the internal viewer. The weary subjects of the photograph cannot analyze their own representation. But we are incapable of ignoring such an extraordinary moment of supportive bonding and, unlike the fourth sailor, feel compelled to attempt to understand its meaning and significance. Even though there is physical intimacy, the contact is not sexualized in any way. In fact, the more one looks at the photograph, the more aware one becomes of the vulnerability and isolation of all the men, resting or awake. At this moment of relief, no one has a weapon.

Next—a quotation. “Don't fight. Don't fight. You love each other. Yes?” A random sample of cinephiles as to its source would likely produce several responses saying that (except for the syntax) it sounds as if it occurs at the moment when Tess Millay (Joanne Dru) scolds Tom Dunson (John Wayne) and Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift) at the end of Howard Hawks's western Red River (1948). To stop the men from fighting, Tess shoots a bullet at them and shouts: “Stop it!

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