Albert Auster and Leonard Quart: Hollywood in Iraq

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Albert Auster and Leonard Quart are the authors of American Film and Society since 1945. This article is adapted from that book’s fourth edition, which will be published by Praeger this summer.

IN TIM O’Brien’s National Book Award–winning novel Going After Cacciato, a GI says of the Vietnam War, “Honest it was such a swell war they should make it a movie.” The sarcasm in that statement applies just as well to our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—wars that have seen few triumphs, and that elicited public protest and political criticism. Hollywood, which never had a problem depicting America’s past wars, especially the First and Second World Wars, has had difficulty representing our most recent military struggles.

In our 1988 book How the War Was Remembered: Hollywood and Vietnam, we pointed out that there were no fiction films made during the war that dealt directly with it, except for John Wayne’s patriotic homage to the elite counterinsurgency unit, The Green Berets (1968). It wasn’t until the war and the profoundly divisive passions it aroused cooled that Hollywood began to produce good, low-budget films like Go Tell the Spartans (1978) and big-budget, artistically ambitious films—openly critical films—such as Coming Home (1978), The Deerhunter (1978), and Apocalypse Now (1979). In the eighties major films like Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) used realistic detail to present the war as a self-destructive march into a kind of purgatory, and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) depicted a military training camp as an institution that relentlessly bred killers. Both were flawed but fascinating films that powerfully encapsulated aspects of the Vietnam abattoir.

The Iraq War has presented a somewhat different pattern. Early on, the film industry was reluctant to produce films about the war altogether. (And when they were made, the audience displayed an aversion to them. For example, In the Valley of Elah (2007) only grossed $6.5 million in U.S. theatrical rentals. Even the most critically acclaimed film about the war, the 2009 Academy Award–winning The Hurt Locker, which was produced for a paltry (by Hollywood standards) $15 million, grossed just $49 million worldwide. Only $17 million of that box office came from domestic sources.)...

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