Blogs > HNN > Ron Briley: Review of Peter C. Rollins and John E. O'Connor, eds., Why We Fought: America's Wars in Film and History (The University Press of Kentucky, 2008).

Jan 11, 2009 8:50 pm

Ron Briley: Review of Peter C. Rollins and John E. O'Connor, eds., Why We Fought: America's Wars in Film and History (The University Press of Kentucky, 2008).

War has played a significant role in shaping the American experience since the nation declared its independence from the British Empire and commenced upon a policy of territorial expansion. Accordingly, the drama of warfare emerged as a staple genre of the Hollywood film industry during the early twentieth century. America’s wars, as captured in both documentary and feature films, is the subject of an intriguing volume edited by film scholars Peter C. Rollins and John E. O’Connor, who established the academic journal Film & History. The collected essays were selected from presentations delivered at the 2005 conference “War in Film & History.” Editors Rollins and O’Connor assert that the twenty-three essays contained in Why We Fought explore “how motion pictures have influenced, reflected, and interpreted the American experience of war” (xv). Employing what the editors term the film and history approach, Why We Fought analyzes American war films as a genre reflecting the historical context in which they were made. The editors acknowledge, however, that the war film must be approached cautiously as the genre is often subject to censorship or supports government propaganda goals.

Thus, films should be perceived as historical artifacts, deserving the same critical analysis scholars apply toward more traditional archival sources. This historical approach tends to assure that the essays are relatively free from the jargon of cultural studies and are accessible to the general reader. And as one might expect from this emphasis upon historical context, the essays are arranged chronologically, ranging from the Revolutionary War to the invasion of Iraq. There are, however, some important gaps in this survey of American war films. Missing are motion pictures dealing with the Indian Wars of the American West (Albeit, Rollins and O’Connor have tackled this issue in a previous volume dealing with the American West.), and the Korean War remains the forgotten war.

The importance which the volume places on historical context is evident in the volume’s lead essay on the Revolutionary War films Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) and The Patriot (2000). O’Connor argues that producer Darryl Zanuck, anticipating a wartime alliance with Great Britain, portrayed American Loyalists rather than the British as the primary villains in Drums Along the Mohawk, while Mel Gibson’s character Benjamin Martin in The Patriot was driven more by personal vengeance than political principle. Filmmakers have also drawn upon the dramatic siege of the Alamo. Serving as a consultant for director John Lee Hancock’s The Alamo (2004), Frank Thompson asserts that Hollywood’s most recent depiction of the battle best illuminates the complex realities of the Texas Revolution. The Mexican-American War has failed to gain the attention of feature filmmakers, but James Yates insists that the 1998 Dallas, Texas KERA-TV production The U. S.-Mexican War (1846-1848) successfully interrogates Manifest Destiny readings of American conquest. The Mexican-American War was eclipsed in the popular imagination by the Civil War. While older generations were influenced by such feature films as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939), Gary Edgerton observes that Ken Burns’s television history of the Civil War (1990) provided a theme of unity during a period of multiculturalism. Nevertheless, Robert M. Myers insists that Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain and its 2003 cinematic adaptation demonstrate the continuing influence of the South’s “lost cause” in American culture.

The global conflicts of World Wars I and II have received considerable attention from filmmakers, and Why We Fought devotes nine chapters to these struggles. Michael T. Isenberg argues the popularity of King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925) suggests that the antiwar disillusionment and isolationism of the 1920s was perhaps overstated. James Latham also maintains studios promoting films to local exhibitors during the 1920s emphasized weaponry and nationalistic themes. On the other hand, John Whiteclay Chambers II asserts that during the early 1930s, Hollywood was a vehicle for isolationist sentiments. Yet, as David Imhoof argues in his study of local film audiences in Gottingen, Germany, an antiwar film such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) did not always fare well with film goers. By the late 1930s, many Hollywood filmmakers were beginning to advocate interventionism, and Cynthia J. Miller provides a fascinating case study of film propaganda in the low budge production, Hitler, Beast of Berlin (1939).

While the wartime series Why We Fight directed by Frank Capra is well known, Ian S. Scott makes a contribution by emphasizing Capra collaborator Robert Ruskin’s Projection of America series, which provided a quiet affirmation of American everyday life. Frank J. Wetta and Martin A Novelli insist that films such as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) provided positive models of postwar integration for veterans despite the reservations expressed by writers such as Paul Fussell. A more critical interpretation of the war is offered by J. E. Smyth who argues that the James Jones novel From Here to Eternity and its film version by director Fred Zinneman represent the protest of the working-class soldier against the military establishment. In the final piece on World War II, film historian Robert Toplin concludes that films such as The Longest Day (1962) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) demonstrate that the Normandy invasion may be used to shed light upon the contemporary concerns of filmmakers.

The third major section of Why We Fought deals with the Cold War and Vietnam conflict. Thomas W. Maulucci insists that essential to understanding the Cold War is how filmmakers, in both documentaries and features, have employed the city of Berlin as a symbol of the global power struggle between the Soviet Union and United States. In one of the few essays in the collection to focus upon gender issues, Susan A. George highlights the courageous role played by Patricia Neal as Helen Benson in Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), advocating peaceful co-existence.

The conventional academic wisdom on the Vietnam War is challenged by Peter Rollins in his essay arguing that the thirteen-episode WGBH series Vietnam: A Television History (1983) was marred by errors and misperceptions regarding the conflict. In a somewhat similar vein, Lawrence W. Lichty and Raymond L. Carroll suggest that Oliver Stone’s interpretation of Vietnam in Platoon (1986) was overly influenced by the director’s reading of domestic cultural politics during the 1970s. On the other hand, William S. Bushnell argues that the 1988 production of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American was tarnished by anti-communist propaganda, while the 2002 film adaptation by Phillip Noyce better conveys the nuances of Greene’s writing.

The final section of the volume deals with the contemporary conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan along with images of terrorism. And the general drift of these pieces is more critical of American policy than the essays on Vietnam. John Shelton Lawrence and John G. McGarrahan maintain that despite Defense Department cooperation with filmmakers, the rushed release of Black Hawk Down (2001) did little to alter a negative image of the American military still influenced by the Vietnam War. The rise of modern media in the hands of soldiers in Iraq leads Jeffrey Chown to suggest that the line between feature and documentary war footage is increasingly blurred. Stacy Takacs is also critical of how the military attempted to manipulate the “captivity narrative” of Jessica Lynch in order to foster support for the Iraq invasion. On the other hand, James Kendrick argues that feature films such as Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (2006) and Paul Greengrass’s United 93 (2006) offer traditional heroic war narratives.

These outstanding essays provide proof of the war film genre’s lasting legacy in American history and cinema. John Shelton Lawrence also augments the text with a useful filmography and bibliography. But as the pieces in this fine collection attest, the American war film might expand its focus to provide greater insight into the war experience of women, under-represented ethnic and racial groups in an increasingly diverse America, and “enemy” soldiers and civilians. Indeed, the United States often seems to be a nation made of war, and filmmakers and scholars focusing upon war appear to have ample material for further films and scholarship.

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Peter Cushing Rollins - 5/15/2009

The May, 2009 brochure from THE HISTORY BOOK CLUB carries a full page on "Why We Fought." During May, the image from the dust jacket appears on the first page of the club's web site.

While not a scholarly endorsement of the book, there certainly a number of scholars involved in its selection!
(The club serves people interested in history, a broad audience--we hope!)

Peter Cushing Rollins - 3/14/2009

As of March, 2009, "Why We Fought" has won the Ray and Pat Browne award for the Best Edited Collection in popular and American culture studies for 2008.

There is a laudatory review in the Journal of American Culture by Bob Doyle, veteran and scholar. See JAC
32.1 (2009):95-96. See also a review by David Buck of Thiel College in the electronic review source entitled "Southwest Journal of Cultures" (posted in February, 2009).

Peter Cushing Rollins - 1/18/2009

Historians will be pleased to learn that CHOICE magazine named WHY WE FOUGHT an "outstanding title for 2008" and listed it as one of the top fifteen (15) books on film for the calendar year.

A session on the topic was conducted at the NYC meeting of the AHA in January, 2009 and the NEWSLETTER OF THE AMERICAN HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION as well as FILM & HISTORY should have reports of this signal event. (Room was full.)

The book appeared in hardbound and paperback formats in the first printing; it is ready to roll for the classroom.

The UP of Kentucky is proud of this book and, unlike many film books, it is well illustrated with historical and film pics included for each chapter.