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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

The Winds of War Movies

Forget “liberal Hollywood”—the film industry gives America the battlefield politics it wants.



At a Sundance Film Festival screening of his new film Buffalo Soldiers, director Gregor Jordan—and one unfortunate audience member—learned what there is to gain by making a war movie that rows against the tide of popular opinion.

Jordan should have been used to the idea that his movie was at the mercy of world events. The part-MASH/part-Stripes story of a crew of Army scam artists and drug dealers operating out of a German base in 1989, Buffalo Soldiers premiered at the 2001 Toronto Film Festival and was purchased for distribution by Miramax Films in a deal finalized on Sept. 10, 2001. A day later, it suddenly became a risky proposition promoting a movie that was less than gung-ho in its support of all things American, and Buffalo Soldiers was sent to a dusty shelf for over a year. So it may have been predictable that—even in the rarefied air of Park City—an audience member would get incensed enough at Buffalo Soldiers’ “unpatriotic” tone that she would hurl a bottle of water at Jordan, bouncing it off the noggin of a fellow spectator.

It’s part of our pop-culture conventional wisdom that “liberal Hollywood” is always ready to undermine the flag-waving values of Mr. and Mrs. Middle America, yet this anecdote is just another example of how far that perception strays from reality. Individual actors and directors may be liberals, but Hollywood itself is a conservative, corporate institution dedicated to telling people what they want to hear. As America prepares for a seemingly inevitable conflict, it’s worth noting that the history of the Hollywood war movie has been a history of putting a finger to the wind and making sure that its battlefield tales are blowing in the right direction.

Between the World Wars, the relatively new entity known as Hollywood was prepared to look back with pacifism in its heart. Nowhere was this more evident than with Lewis Milestone’s 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front, which won a Best Picture Oscar for acknowledging that young men were being used to feed a war machine. But once America began to prepare for war, Hollywood became a de facto mouthpiece for government messages. Director Frank Capra enlisted in the Army, and was placed in charge of a documentary film project that became the Why We Fight series. The Office of War Information offered movie producers instructions on how to insert important war propaganda—like rationing sugar and coffee—into every film. Milestone went from All Quiet on the Western Front to the Jap-bashing melodrama of The Purple Heart. Sherlock Holmes took on Nazi spies. Hollywood was no place for peaceniks—when popular Dr. Kildare actor Lew Ayres publicly announced in 1942 that he would never carry a rifle, he was effectively blackballed from films until the end of the war.

For several years after the end of World War II, it was still pretty rare to find Hollywood taking on the military mindset. Typical of post-war fare was the Oscar-winning drama The Best Years of Our Lives, which sympathized with the difficult transition of veterans back to civilian life but never overtly criticized war-makers. Only occasionally would a filmmaker venture into such territory, and generally that filmmaker was Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick’s 1957 Paths of War and 1964 masterpiece Dr. Strangelove dared to introduce moviegoers to the concept that military strategists were often willing to sacrifice anything or anyone to preserve their pedagogy.

And, as it turned out, Kubrick was only about a decade ahead of his time. As Americans grew ever more disenchanted with the war in Vietnam, Hollywood began to realize that there was a market for films that challenged the official government position. 1970 brought Robert Altman’s MASH, the warts-and-all biography of Patton and the film adaptation of Catch-22, all of which captured Vietnam-era anti-authoritarianism while paving the way for films that dealt with Vietnam itself, including Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. It was OK for studios to say that American militarism wasn’t always a good thing, because they knew people wouldn’t be burning down any theaters if they did.

The ebbs and flows of patriotism continued over the subsequent decades, with Hollywood always careful to stick close to the zeitgest rather than risk creating it. The jingoism of the early Reagan years brought Missing in Action, Rambo and Red Dawn; another spate of Vietnam films including Platoon and Full Metal Jacket followed when it was a bit safer to be cynical. The Gulf War was over and done too quickly for its rallying cry to be challenged, but it was safe to poke it from a distance in 1999’s Three Kings. Even the most celebrated war films of recent years—Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan—made art out of vividly portraying wartime horrors, rather than challenging the orthodox position on the war in question.

So it might be a good idea to wish Gregor Jordan good luck. When war comes, Hollywood will know exactly what to do with a caustic little film like Buffalo Soldiers. There’s already a spot on a dusty shelf with Jordan’s name on it.