War on the Silver Screen: Shaping America's Perception of History

War on the Silver Screen: Shaping America's Perception of History

War on the Silver Screen: Shaping America's Perception of History

War on the Silver Screen: Shaping America's Perception of History


Americans have been almost constantly at war since 1917. In addition to two world wars, the United States has fought proxy wars, propaganda wars, and a "war on terror," among others. But even with the constant presence of war in American life, much of what Americans remember about those conflicts comes from Hollywood depictions.

In War on the Silver Screen Glen Jeansonne and David Luhrssen vividly demonstrate how war movies have burned the images and impressions of those wars onto the American psyche more concretely than has the reality of the wars themselves. That is, our feelings about wars are generated less by what we learn through study and discourse than by powerful cinematic images and dialogue. Films are compressed, intense, and immediate and often a collective experience rather than a solitary one. Actors and drama provide the visceral impact necessary to form perceptions of history that are much more enduring than those generated by other media or experiences.

War on the Silver Screen draws on more than a century of films and history, including classics such as All Quiet on the Western Front, Apocalypse Now, and The Hurt Locker, to examine the legacy of American cinema on twentieth- and twenty-first-century attitudes about war.


Movies about wars have done more to stamp the wars’ images in the American psyche than the reality of those wars themselves. Who can ponder the moral consequences of neutrality in the face of Nazism without remembering Casablanca, the heroism of bomber crews without Twelve O’Clock High, or the morass of Vietnam without Apocalypse Now? This book examines the often indelible impressions left by the fictional stories told on film. For better or worse the movies have shaped the American imagination more profoundly than the printed word.

Since 1917 the United States has almost constantly been at war or anxious over the prospect of war. Wars, past and present, have seldom been far from the minds of Americans, and movies have often helped define the public’s attitudes toward them. Some of these wars have seemed straightforward, with clear objectives such as “making the world safe for democracy,” ridding the world of dictators, or repelling imminent threats to the homeland. Some have been more muddled and have provoked mixed emotions because their goals were ambiguous and their resolutions less definitive. For nearly a half-century the United States fought a Cold War, punctuated intermittently by the eruption of “limited” hot wars in Vietnam and Korea. The nation fought proxy wars, propaganda wars, and a war on terror.

Movies have registered the public’s varied feelings about these conflicts and have defined the ways we remember them. All Quiet on the Western Front captured the futility with which many Americans regarded World War I, and most films on the subject since then . . .

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