The Hollywood War Film
Critical Observations from World I to Iraq
Bristol: Intellect, 2017
Paperback. viii+172 p. ISBN 978-1783207541. £32.50
Reviewed by David LaRocca
Binghamton University, State University of New York
The title of Daniel Binns’ book delimits a subgenre of film (The Hollywood War Film), and his subtitle (from World I to Iraq) marks out the temporal range of his study, so one must consider what Binns means by “critical observations”—perhaps those that are at once pointed and necessary? Binns outlines his project in an introduction (“War and Cinema”), in which he notes familiar, but still important touchstones of our thinking about this enduring concatenation: the weaponizing of life for the proto-human in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the uncanny overlaps between guns and cameras—“new techniques of the re-mediated gaze”—as we find them incisively discussed by Paul Virilio in War and Cinema . Binns outlines his project this way:
The arguments of this work are twofold. Firstly, I argue that recent Hollywood war films have revived a view of warfare as, if not glorious, then at least essential. Their characterisations shift away from the interests of the individual, using groups of characters as vehicles for ideological discussions of the necessity of combat. The second argument concerns genre. I argue that in being constantly re-worked and revisited, Hollywood’s repertoire of war cinema is a dynamic and evolving corpus of filmic expression. In this instance, rather than being a mere categorising tool, the genre is iterative: with each new work, the domain shifts and evolves .
It is not clear that there was a debate about war being “glorious” but “essential,” much less as it is figured on screen, so the reader is left wondering whether this is an argument that will leave us neither troubled nor tutored. By extension, it is neither clear—from the evidence of war films—that a general trend from troop-focus to individual-focus is discernable (indeed, examples of heroic or antiheroic individuals can be traced across the full range of war on film, as can examples of group-centric narratives), nor is it clear that Binns’ observation bears any relationship to the question of the “glorious” and the “essential.” Since the book promises ample attention to war films beginning with those depicting World War I (and World War II and Korea and Vietnam, etc.), it seems odd to say that the labor of the slim volume is directed mainly at “recent Hollywood war films.” So we have stumbled upon a couple of axes (viz., glorious/essential; individual/group) that neither need arguing for, nor are fit to be applied to the war films we have on offer here, or for that matter, more generally. As for the second argument, Binns’ account does not merely hold for war films but is emblematic of all genres; and we have, among other excellent scholarship, Thomas Schatz’s Hollywood Genres (1981), Rick Altman’s Film/Genre (1999), and Barry Keith Grant’s Film Genre Reader (4th ed., 2012) to articulate genre theory. With this literature from Schatz, et al., we see ample evidence for the static and dynamic aspects of film genre, evidence that applies to war films but is neither confined nor conscribed by them.
The remainder of the Introduction provides an outline of some of the films and scholarly resources Binns will rely on as he conducts the study that occupies the four principal chapters of the book. References to Bazin, Bordwell, Bronfen, Deleuze, Manovich, a bevy of genre theorists (including Schatz, et al., noted above) are coupled with an exploration of the pertinence of defamiliarization and estrangement by way of Shklovsky, and perhaps most importantly for the book, an invocation of Foucault (who serves as Binns’ guide in genre theory—especially by way of Foucault’s notion of “discursive formations”) . As Binns prepares to move from introductory remarks to the main chapters, he continues to refine his approach to the films he will discuss, as he notes:
The films illustrate the discussion about a return to the grand American narrative in more recent Hollywood war cinema, and as such, key scenes are subjected to a formal analysis that draws in part from Kellner’s diagnostic critique, but also from Bender’s idea of film criticism as productive practice. This analysis has been carried out in order to present an applied decoding of genre, by drawing out explicit connections between generic conventions and specific film technique (sic) .
In the first chapter, a brisk twenty-plus pages, Binns covers both World War I and World War II by attending to All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Patton (1970), that is, one representative film for each world war. In summation, Binns states:
The conclusions drawn are that films about World War I and II favour a wider perspective—in terms of cinematography, characterisation, and narrative structure” . Even within this hyperdelineated sample group of two films—for wars that can claim the membership of thousands of films—the notion that Milestone’s and Schaffner’s works “favour a wider perspective” is countered, in the first case, by the close attention given to the experiences of specific soldiers, and in the second, by a magnetic attention to the eponymous protagonist .
In the second chapter, Binns “examines The Steel Helmet (1951), M*A*S*H (1970), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Apocalypse Now (1979) in terms of how these films move towards a different way of representing war on screen” . As Binns describes his work, “[t]he chapter examines key scenes from each film in terms of how they diverge from the grand narrative presenting a much more personal, solitary (sic), perspective on war and conflict” . Again, if these four films—meant to cover the wars in both Korea and Vietnam—are showing “a different way,” it cannot be a way that involves “a much more personal, solitary (sic), perspective,” since such an attribute can be easily identified in any films that might qualify for membership in what Binns calls films of “the grand narrative.” For some reason, Binns takes this occasion to read the Vietnam films “in terms of a Nietzschean ‘flux metaphyics’ (sic)” .
In the third chapter, Binns—citing a familiar late-twentieth-century media innovation, 24-four news (and also, oddly, “location reporting,” which seems to have been around since antiquity, and something he calls “transparent documentaries” (which I have never heard of, and which he does not gloss)—turns attention to the “impact of this changing media landscape on films about the Gulf War” . Binns tells us:
What is striking about dramatic feature films about these conflicts is that they herald a return to a view of war as essential [ital. in original]. War is not romantic as it once was, of course; the public understand (sic) well enough that war can be a harrowing, horrific experience. But war is in some senses inevitable, and the three films discussed in this chapter—Three Kings (1999), Jarhead (2005), and The Hurt Locker (2009)—all give some sense of that inevitability” .
Again, it is not clear how we are “returning” to a given view about war’s essential presence in human affairs; was there ever a time when it was seen as eradicable, inessential, etc.? Moreover, if it was, would we not want to dwell on the irony that war films are making such an argument? Indeed, it is the very durability of war—its persistence, its inescapability—that helps make war films themselves such a durable cinematic genre. Even as we continue to see high-end Hollywood productions of historic wars—from Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) to Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017)—we also see the proliferation of allegories of war, including the Avengers: Infinity War (2018), which, at this writing, has exceeded two billion dollars in global sales. War seems as essential and romantic as ever, but how that relationship is understood remains unarticulated: are those attributes, for example, mutually reinforcing? And how might war films be at once reflecting and magnifying the conjugation of war’s essential and romantic nature—even if those latter traits appear in the context of disillusionment and despair?
The fourth chapter “investigates how the war genre might translocate across platforms,” as Binns puts it . In this final chapter, before a brief conclusion, Binns’ focus turns to the comic book series featuring Captain America as well as to martial video games, such as Call of Duty 2 and Spec Ops: The Line. One of the four chapters, then, moves entirely beyond the Hollywood war film. As Binn explains: “The chapter discusses Cap’s journeys through, and involvements in, the conflicts detailed throughout this book. This discussion is framed by theory (sic) concerning the connections between comic books and cinema, and how an understanding of one might enhance comprehension of the other” . I think the “translocating” that Binns refers to is meant to complicate the interesting fact that a fictional character (viz., Cap) somehow seems involved in historical events that do not—cannot—include him (he is a fictional character!) Literary theorists, of course, call this uncanny hybrid “historical fiction,” yet Binns is seeking out a further “translocation,” namely the heretofore estranged participation of the viewer. We might think anew about video games (such as Call of Duty 2 and Spec Ops: The Line) for the way they allow a player to “enter history,” just like the fictional Cap; Binns notes that unlike a film director, “the [video] game designers also fac[e] the issue of ensuring that the player felt they (sic) had some kind of control over events” . What a peculiar thing to think one has a responsibility for! This is surely a category that film directors have never had to consider, even as game designers—including AR and VR—must contend with it directly. Binns isolates a question for these burdened designers: “how do you accurately represent history (both contemporary and long-past) while leveraging interactivity?” . A player’s talents, Binns seems to intimate, may change the course of history; yet how can a designer let historical losers become the victors of these animate realities? “Alternate facts” takes on an entirely new signification in this context.
You may recall that Binns said half of his project involved attention to cinematic genre. What we see in chapter four is an exploration of “cross-platform war,” that is, representations of war that are non-cinematic—or least stand in need of being defined in relation to film. In short, is a video game a kind of cinema? Binns does not think so; rather, he concludes that “the pervasive nature of the genre [of war films] means that it can also be encoded and expressed beyond the cinematic mode” . The internal contradiction in this statement hides what is interesting in the way video games “encode” the “pervasive nature” of war films, namely: that video games may be extra-cinematic and yet the guiding mythology of war, as well as the “shots” and narrative structure that define the still-emerging medium, are overtly indebted to the cinematic basis of war films.
In his conclusion (“Cycles of Violence, Repeat Performances”), Binns reviews some of his accounts offered in the chapters, but he also attempts a series of defining, summative statements: “war itself, is predominantly about perception. This is regardless of the era in which the film emerges, or the conflict it depicts”; “war film relies on a conservative system of outcomes. The audience must come away realising that war is a bad, but often essential phenomenon. […] Combat is consistently presented as tough, harrowing, and unrelenting phenomenon (sic). Those involved often dread the inevitable moment when they will engage the enemy directly”; “Cameras, and their product, the photograph, radically changed the way people perceived the world”; “Hollywood war cinema moves viewers beyond a naïve, realist understanding of America’s involvement in these conflicts. In recognising the tropes of war films almost immediately, we are able to observe when they are being used to promote a grand narrative—that great American myth—or to subvert it” [152-153].
The significance of these claims will depend on the reader’s familiarity with film, film studies, and cinema history. For example, not just war or war films, but human experience as such is “predominantly about perception;” thinking that “war is a bad” phenomenon does not mean that the film screened was a success (the status of war and its cinematic representation can operate separately)—and these points are especially compelling when trying to determine whether or how a given film is propagandistic or not; there are whole subgenres of war films that do not depict combat (indeed, some accomplished war films have shown us how harrowing the homefront can be); along these lines, many soldiers (both on screen and based upon first-hand reports from actual soldiers) dread civilian life more than the battlefield; yes, cameras have “changed the way people perceived the world,” but how does this relate to war films and genre theory, much less to our experience of video games? I do not know what a “naïve, realist understanding” is, but it would be surprising if it were coextensive with “recognising the tropes of war films almost immediately.”
Binns tells us that his “book has observed that the history of Hollywood narrative films about war and conflict might be traced as divergences from, or returns to, a national mythology that takes a ‘big picture’ view of war and conflict: a ‘grand narrative’” . Though Binns selects a handful of films to examine in some detail, the project of his book applies to all war films: whatever war film we happen to be watching, as the logic entails, can be “traced as divergences from, or returns to, a national mythology.” Then again, is Hollywood’s engagement with such a national mythology a function of its generative power or its reactive force? Can we impute such a unified agency to Hollywood—e.g., “Hollywood has decided […]” 155—since it is a notoriously variegated enterprise, one that is often motivated by some intermingling of artistic expression, internecine celebrity culture, political critique, and mercenary economics (including financial exigency)? Are we speaking, then, of Hollywood’s intentions or its effects—and to what end? As Binns emphasizes, “the grand narrative” that is regularly invoked throughout the book—as something war films either adhere to or diverge from—has, at last, “persisted for thousands of years as a regulatory structure, an ethos, and a myth; a corpus of stories that resists change” . Since that seems plausible, what has cinema or Hollywood—and its war films— contributed to this millennia-old tradition? According to Binns, some Hollywood war films celebrate the grand narrative while others do not. Apparently, “it is in dismantling that big story […] that we can start to grasp the essence of war” .
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