12 February 2017

The "Good War" in Recent American Cinema

The film USS Indianapolis: Men of courage–staring Nicolas Cage–which opened in US theaters in early September 2016, has once again proved the resilient interest of Hollywood movie makers in the World War II movie genre. More than half a decade after the war ended, the story of patriotic GIs fighting fiercely, altruistically or the espionage mission of Allied powers in order to defeat the evil Nazis has never failed to captivate audience’s heart. The war ended in September 1945, yet it’s no doubt that World War II-themed films still dominate our contemporary popular culture. Much of this is greatly contributed by the previously shaped the “Good War” concept of World War II in the public memory, particularly in America. The Good war memory signifies a clear division between “us,” the good, morally superior American soldiers fighting for human rights and freedom, and “them,” the evil Hitler and his monstrous SS Armies inflict horrible crimes on other human beings. This idea of Good War was again magnified and promulgated through traditional media, which is a powerful site to alter and reconstruct audience’s perception and memory of past war, especially the distant generation that only learn the history lesson through television, music or history textbooks.

Notwithstanding the fact that the good war concept has rooted to a very sturdy position in public memory, narratives of war-themed films do not always remain the same, they however, change through time, partially in response to significant incidents or political events. American spent decades to celebrate and glorify the war efforts with delighted soldiers united in multi-ethnicity platoons, especially during the recovery period, which cinema focused entirely on the portrayal of the horror and brutality of the war, also drew attention to heroic and patriotic themes. Narratives of the recovery years focus on the goodness of individuals, sanitization and glorification of war efforts. Films during this period brought up some problems, but still showed no criticism and ended on hopeful note. However, the dark era of the Vietnam and Korean War, from the 1970s until 1980s, narratives of war films reversed and reflected more negativity toward military leadership and criticism of the war. Films showed more horror and brutality, battlefield was no longer sanitized and glorified, soldiers were shown with more flaws, and dark sides. The publicized heroism myth from previous era could no longer be sustained. Instead, we witnessed flawed leadership figures, mentally and emotionally distraught soldiers. During the 1990s, with films like Saving private Ryan (1998) and To end all wars (2001), the traditional narrative of noble and legitimate commanding officers, of American exceptional mission, of the pure evil enemies, is seemingly once again redeemed with exclusive focus on the portrayal of heroism and patriotism. Nevertheless, the September 11 attack hindered this trend. Narratives of post-9/11 Hollywood war cinema complicates the archetypical narratives set up during the previous eras. This was exhibited greatly in the 3 following films, which were made during the post-9/11 era.

Flags of our fathers is set in the year of 1945, and follows a story of a group of men raising the American flag on top of Mount Suribachi in a Japanese sacred island called Iwo Jima. The photograph of them planting the flag changes their lives but the commendation of becoming war heroes is not only about honor but also ultimately leads to their sufferings, mentally and physically.

In the entire film, the flag is acclaimed; the three survivors are applauded for their contribution to the country and acknowledged as heroes. Everywhere they go during their bond tour, the press and the people come to cheer for the heroes of the war, despite the unknown fact that those heroes are not the first men to raise the flag. Eastwood intentionally portrays these faux-heroes as being mundane as other survived soldiers: they have flaws, guilt, haunted by the ghost of war, and of all, know they are not heroes. As Eastwood has painted it transparently from the beginning of the film, this entailed heroism is not a fruit of any patriotic tree. As James Bradley, John Bradley’s son also concludes: “Maybe there is no such thing as heroes… Heroes are something we create, something we need.”

In contrast to other films in previous decades, which stick to the simplified version of history, Flags of our fathers represents a more conventional picture of the reality of battlefield, specifically about the tension between races and classes within the army and the postwar life. There is still discrimination against Native Americans, the job struggles or the mental struggles of Ira and Bradley after war; and etc. Instead of showing the film in a chronological order, like many other films, Eastwood uses lots of flashbacks and forward-jumping scenes. Suggesting the idea that it is impossible to have one coherent remembrance; nevertheless, the war was compiled with fragmented memory, much of which comes from troubling nightmares. Eastwood’s anti-World War II film, somehow, serves to refuse the concept of World War II as the Good War that has been portrayed and celebrated for so many years in Hollywood cinema.

Inglourious basterds opens in the year of 1941, but the main story is set in the last years of the war 1944-1945, which follows two simultaneous plans by different actors in an attempt to assassinate Hitler and his high-ranking officials during a premiere of a film. Since this film is a fantasy comedy genre, everything is magnified and portrays in a dramatic way. Films during the postwar eras were often portrayed military officials to have effective leadership, with strong authority, ideal of brave and virtuous, and more importantly have no questions of war or military but Aldo, one of the main characters in the film, shows the otherwise. The reason Aldo fights, rather than because of idealism or patriotism, Tarantino paints it closer to his addiction to violence. He shows no mercy or sympathy to enemies, only violence with killing, torturing, and scalping and his reason to fight is closer to his addiction of violence rather than any idealistic deeds. The reversed picture compared to the idea of “good versus evil,” “Allied versus Nazis” painted by Tarantino suggests the thin line between the definition of good and evil, patriotism and terrorism, as Landa, the SS commander, himself sums up when he interrogates Aldo, “your mission or some other might call terrorist plot.” The basterds, despite their violence, are still be portrayed as heroes in the film. Tarantino again, through his masterful directing techniques, challenges the notions of heroes that were depicted decades ago. Throughout the film, he underpins the relationship of good and evil, right and wrong that confuses people by the mixed reality often being delivered by media.

Set in 1945, Fury follows the story of a tank platoon, which named their tank Fury, and their battles in the heart of their German enemy. Patriotism portrayed in the film mainly focuses on the final tank scene, when Don refuses to leave his tank and decides to stay to fight the Nazis even though they are outnumbered. His crew members later follow him and stay to fight till their last breath. Through this, Ayer wants to portray patriotism through national identity: American soldiers do not leave their post; they fight even when they know they cannot live. This implies the nature of classic heroes: sacrifice for the country. However, with a little twist at the end, Ayer again challenges the notion of glorifying heroes. After the tank fight, Norman is the only survival of the crew, but the underpinning reason why he makes it through the fight is that he hides in the mud and is let go by a German soldier even though he had seen Norman. American soldiers find him the following morning, and they call him a hero. The film again shows that there is no clear distinction between good and bad, the people who so-called Nazis, not all of them are evil, monstrous and so do American soldiers.

The three films resolve contradiction of “good and evil” and “sanitization and brutality” of the two previous eras by bringing the contradiction together and portray in in one film. Films show the blurred line between good and evil, glorify the remembrances of the war yet criticize the horror and brutality that come with it. All three films share the similarity in reasoning why the hero soldiers fight by depicting the nature of the decision to join the war has no relation with patriotism or the human-centered liberal dreams inspired by Roosevelt, more about private goals rather than about publics’. The reasons why they keep fighting, as raised by Eastwood in Flags of our father is because of the friends they made during the war. The above-mentioned films play with the thin line between good and evil, patriotic and terrorism. Violence in the name of heroism and patriotism may also be considered as terrorism, and vice versa.

However, we cant deny the fact that fact that World War II has brought America out of depression into prosperous era and pushed it to become the world’s economic and political power. It brought significant changes in society, including changing roles of women and young people in society. Women and other minority ethnics, having tasted the sweetness of being economically independent during the war years and being forced to go back to their traditional roles, are unquestionably frustrated for being suppressed. This later served as a strong motive for civil rights and women’s rights movement in the US.

[The above essay is by Rachel Ta and is based on research she conducted for her 2016 graduation thesis in Culture, Society and Media at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan.]

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