The intensity of war has provided dramatic material dating back to antiquity with Homer’s epic poem, "The Illiad", and continuing today through the medium of film. War films can encompass any number of dramatic and comedic plots, relying on the incredible stresses caused by people whose lives are at risk in a warzone. A war film can examine the people involved, the conflict, the forces behind the conflict, life on the home front, life after war, or any number of these scenarios. The war film is known for its depiction of combat, the exploration of camaraderie, a particular political slant, stock characters, and romantic entanglements or representations on the home front.
The depiction of combat may seem like an obvious characteristic in the war film but there is more to this characteristic than merely showing soldiers battling each other. Graves and Engle discuss how society’s perception of a war impacts the film’s tone. A war seen as a “good war” such as World War Two often shows “…men who profess to have no stake in the outcome of the experience risk their lives in combat to preserve values that had been abstract to them before the war, but they now understand for having served” (228). Unpopular wars though can show combat as “a process of grinding down the individual against his will, often forcing the soldier to make decisions that compromise his ethics” (228). In the hands of a skilled filmmaker, the depiction of war offers many possibilities for storytelling.
It is common for war films to explore the camaraderie formed in war. War is known for bringing soldiers together, a concept known as esprit de corps. War films often show a bunch of misfits thrown together in basic training or in combat, showing how they eventually form a cohesive fighting force despite their differences. This can mirror how different groups of society come together during a war despite their differences, be them class or ethnic.
Most war films offer some sort of political slant, sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle. A filmmaker may create a film that is little more than propaganda meant to show why the nation is at war. Films made during a conflict tend to be in favor of the war. After a conflict has ended, filmmakers will explore the justness of a war. In some cases, a war film may try to be neutral and focus on capturing the reality of war (such as or The Longest Day or Saving Private Ryan).
Many film genres contain stock characters and war films are no different. Stock characters include the green recruit, the tough street kid, the intellectual, the mature middle-class businessman, the combat-hardened veteran, and the squadron commander. Challenged by battle and those around him, the green recruit undergoes a baptism of fire, often emerging as a veteran. The tough street kid is often seen using the survival skills he used on the street while he is in a new type of survival. The intellectual can offer a different perspective to those around him, using his mind to help escape a problem. The mature middle-class character sometimes provides a calming force to those around him, his maturity leading to him serving as a father figure. The combat-hardened veteran could be a soldier who has seen too much carnage and is a danger to those around him (Sgt. Barnes in Platoon) or it could be someone who lends his expertise to help his fellow soldiers (Sgt. Elias in Platoon). The commanding officer can be a strict leader whose orders his men question (Heartbreak Ridge).
Another characteristic of war films are their use of romantic entanglements or representations on the home front. A soldier may pine for his girlfriend or wife back home or find new love while away at war. A common plot is the love triangle where two men vie for the love of the same women. The film Kings Go Forth would take this characteristic and explore the issues of racism and miscegenation. In Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, a love triangle gets more complicated when one of two male characters vying for the same woman’s love is presumed dead, only to resurface and find his lover with the other man (Pearl Harbor). This classic story is by no means exclusive to war films but the nature of war makes for a good setting as characters on the frontline wonder if their lover is remaining faithful and lovers at home worry about that as well as their safety.
The war film dates back to film’s earliest days. As detailed in the text, the Spanish-American War was captured on film then recreated in dramatizations of it. War films declined in popularity until the Great War when films such as D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation looked at the American Civil War and Reconstruction. The Great War saw the use of films including Pershing’s Crusaders and Lest We Forget as propaganda, encouraging Americans to support the war and enlist.
It was not long after the war that filmmakers produced films questioning war and glorifying its camaraderie. The adaptation of All’s Quiet on the Western Front showed the cost of war on human lives. The film Wings focused on the American fighter pilots of the Great War and the camaraderie shared by fighter pilots. With its spectacular visuals, Wings won the first Academy Award.
The epic scope of World War Two saw many films made during the war and after, continuing to be a popular subject today. Even before America’s involvement in the war, films such as The Great Dictator and The Mortal Storm warned Americans of the dangers of fascism. During the war, films ranging from propaganda series such as Frank Capra’s Why We Fight to documentaries like Battle of Midway showed the realities and costs of war. At the same time, filmmakers dramatized actual events as seen in films like Guadalcanal Diary and The Fighting Sullivans. World War Two saw women taking on responsibilities on the home front and abroad. War films captured these adventures in films such as Mrs. Miniver, Tender Comrade, and Since You Were Away. Women served overseas also, shown in films like So Proudly We Hail! and Cry Havoc! Musicals were made in World War Two to provide inspiration and entertainment for those on the home front and those serving in the military. Four Jills in a Jeep, Private Buckaroo, This is the Army, and Hollywood Canteen (which featured cameos by stars such as Jack Benny, the Andrew Sisters, Eddie Cantor, and Jimmy Dorsey). After World War Two ended in 1945, Hollywood produced war films covering veterans’ lives after returning home such as the drama The Best Years of Our Lives and the comedy Buck Privates Come Home.
The Korean War and Vietnam War offered new locations for war and a more cynical look as both wars (particularly the Vietnam War) did not receive the same widespread support as World War Two. Pork Chop Hill’s antiwar tone is clear as it depicts a group of soldiers waging a desperate battle with no strategic value other than at the negotiating table. While John Wayne’s film The Green Berets had a strong message of supporting America’s involvement in Vietnam, films since such as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket questioned America’s role in Southeast Asia. Films after Vietnam have also explored the harmful effects of war on veterans coming home ranging from The Deer Hunter to Born on the Fourth of July.
While war films are often grand in scope, they can also be used to explore the lives of individuals in war. Biopics such as Patton,, MacArthur, and The Desert Fox looked at famous wartime generals while films such as The Tuskegee Airmen and Glory chronicled significant but often overlooked stories of African-American servicemen.
The intensity of war provides an abundance of storytelling material, whether war is in the background or foreground of a film. War films have been a part of cinema since the medium’s earliest days, continuing until today. War films can be dramatic or comedic (sometimes both as seen in M*A*S*H*), sometimes promoting the nobility behind certain wars (such as World War Two) while sometimes criticizing a war (Vietnam in Full Metal Jacket) or war itself (Paths of Glory and The Bridges at Toku-Ri). The war film continues to be a popular genre for audiences and a lucrative one for studios.
Graves, Mark and F. Bruce Engle. Blockbusters: A Reference Guide to Film Genres. Greenwood,