History Films, Women, and Freud's Uncanny

By Susan E. Linville | Go to book overview

Chapter One
REMEMBERING WORLD WAR II
Aesthetics and Gender in the Combat Film of the 1990s

Beginning in the early 1990s, fiftieth-anniversary celebrations of the major events of World War II served to inaugurate a wider series of commemorative acts that would encompass the release of Hollywood films, the broadcast of television miniseries, the publication of best-selling books, and, belatedly, the bestowal of congressional medals honoring Navajo code talkers, men whose communications, undecipherable by the Japanese, turned the tide of decisive battles in the Pacific. Celebrating a dying generation of national war heroes was hardly new to U.S. history. Indeed, such rituals of remembrance extend back to the nations origins, with the public counting and celebration of surviving soldiers of the Revolutionary War during that generation’s waning years. A distinctive element for the veterans of World War II, however, was the unprecedented role that film commanded, both in representing the historical conflict and in motivating further public gestures of collective homage and remembrance. Thus, for example, Tom Hanks, the star of Saving Private Ryan, drew on the power of his film image to serve as a highly effective promoter of a National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., a project that nonetheless drew considerable criticism for its aesthetic design (reminiscent of a nineteenth-century mausoleum) and its vista-obstructing location (between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument).

At the same time, the role of film itself as a memorial to the war was by no means free of controversy. In particular, some veterans and commentators rejected The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998), claiming that it betrayed American World War II veterans by showing Japanese soldiers as victims of GI cruelty and by reducing accepted differences between the World War II combat film and the Vietnam War film—differences some cultural commentators deemed essential to a renewed sense of national identity.

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