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Hollywood at War

By Henry P. Raleigh
ART TIMES Jan/Feb, 2006

MOST HOLLYWOOD WAR combat films follow a comfortably familiar formula. And they have since the 1925 “Battleship Potemkin” and Sergie Eisenstein’s theory of filmic conflict – namely a slow opening to establish characters and situation, move onto alternating scenes of action and pause (called a cesaura if you wish to sound clever about it) accelerating as you progress to the final smash action climax. Those grandly patriotic war films of the 40’s and for decades after were unvarying in applying this formula.  As matter of fact almost any film falls into this simple story telling pattern however it is decidedly pronounced in war films since presumably there is a pretty much high action from start to finish. Contemporary war combat films have only jiggered the formula a bit for variation. “Saving Private Ryan” opens up on a major action; thereafter it is a standard war film even to the expected big battle scene to wind it all up. “Apocalypse Now” breaks up the formula into surreal episodes complete in themselves and separated by cesaurae. The 1998 re-make of “The Thin Red Line” employed caesurae so long and slow that the film seemed to wander off its intended action track.

Generally speaking, you know what you’ll get when buying a ticket to a Hollywood combat war film and within this tried and true and apparently eternal structure you can read some interesting things about the time and the culture that produced it. A generation younger than mine might be puzzled to note, for example, that “Guadacanal Diary” and “Bataan” of 1943 (favorite cable showings on Veterans Day) hint at some uncertainty about the outcome of the war. The history-minded and the elderly will recognize that these long and costly nip and tuck affairs had just concluded, uncertainty was very much in the air. Two years later “The Story of GI Joe” would tell a different, no less brutal, but now a confident tale.

Hollywood patriotism, mom’s apple pie and moral goodness would saturate the old war film formula until the 1950’s when a new war briefly replaced the previous one. Korea seemed to mostly concern those who were the active participants; the country at large ignored it. Not a promising box office attraction, Hollywood produced few Korean War films, none of any consequence. “Fixed Bayonets” and the “Steel Helmit” were low budget films cranked out while the war was continuing. The latter had a small part for James Dean. Never deviating from the stock war film formula, both films were of small scale – a squad of soldiers, cut-off, lost, searching for their scattered lines. Familiar character stereotypes remain although the dialogue is now politically neutral, patriotic fervor entirely missing. The clean-cut, cutely wise-cracking, all-American boys of the 40’s have left the stage. This bunch is grubbier, unenthusiastic, bickering. “Men of War” in 1957, one of the better films of the period, yet hangs on to the lonely, lost squad of its predecessors. No wonder then that Korea became known as the Forgotten War – it just never merited a big studio film or two. Not until 1959 with “Pork Chop Hill” would the war be allotted one complete battle and a higher production value – necessary, one supposes because it starred Gregory Peck.

From the late 1950’s to the mid-70’s Hollywood, whenever in a war-like mood, would take political safety in re-doing World War II: “The Longest Day”, “Battle of the Buldge”, “Bridge at Remagen”, “Tora, Tora, Tora”. Boy those were the good days, all right. Maybe the Viet Nam War was bustling along but Hollywood was reluctant to take any stand in the controversy. “The Green Berets” of 1969, a throwback to 40’s war films, had raised too much critical protest over its crude propagandizing. By 1978, well after the Viet Nam dust had settled, Hollywood felt it was safe enough to jump back into the war. “The Boys of Company C” and “Deer Hunter” led off in ’78 – flag waving patriotism is out, futility and incompetence is in. “Apocalypse Now” followed a year later. All three engaged in some re-arranging of the standard war film formula, sometimes confusingly. The 80’s, rather quickly and no doubt in relief, returned to the tried and true with “Full Metal Jacket”, “Platoon” and “Hamburger Hill” – the old ways are still the best ways and a lot easier to edit. But damn, what has happened to those swell 40’s military types? You know, the bunch that always had the decency to not bleed when shot, who knew not an F or an S word. Those clean-cut, gum chewing, great ol’ guys have been replaced by a pack of cynical, dope smoking, potty-mouthed eccentrics. Why, they don’t even come from Brooklyn anymore where everyone is dumb but lovable – well, one does thank goodness. “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998 brings him back and to make sure there is Edward Burns with BROOKLYN NY inked large across the back of his tankers jacket. And will you look at that, all the old 40’s gang is back – the weary, caring officer, the sharp shooting country boy, the tough, growling sergeant, an ethnic fellow or two, and (Richard Jaekel must have been too old to reprise his usual role) the innocent, scared, battle untested kid. They aren’t much on cussing either save for a handful of damns and a single s.o.b. from the sergeant. OK, they do bleed, you have to make some concession to the times but just don’t forget you don’t mess around with re-do’s of World War II no matter how disgusted anyone feels about war now. Boy, those were the good old days, all right.

Now after seeing “Jarhead” I figure Desert Storm and the Iraq War will be in for a rough time at the hands of Hollywood. You see, at this point we’ve got the military reduced to near-animal caricatures unless, of course, they’re lucky enough to be cast in future films based on our good war. So if “Jarhead” is pointing the way then the future genre of war films will show works that have a beginning and an end but ABSOLUTELY NOTHING OF INTEREST IN BETWEEN. Get that? – war films with NO SCENES OF COMBAT. The animal-like soldiers will incessantly prepare for action BUT THERE IS NEVER ANY ACTION, thus no reason whatsoever to fall back on that archaic war film formula. Think of the savings in stunt men and explosives, certainly needed considering the dwindling number of ticket buyers. And actors like Jake Gyllenhaal are perfect for this sort of war film what with his signature wide-eyed, uncomprehending look of blank bewilderment, so heightened in “Jarhead” by the white-wall Marine haircut that he could pass for a zombie. Still, when it comes to the 40’s stuff – boy, those were the good old days and don’t change a thing.

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