The United States of America Military Experience Through the Eyes of Films Synthesis Essay

Abstract

The American military experience as revealed through film tends to downplay the political and social ramifications of war, choosing instead to focus on the emotional impact of war.

Destruction, panic, loss of friends, post-traumatic stress disorder, carnage, and the impact of death on the enlisted men are the topics of choice for the vast majority of American war films. This paper studies 12 films that cover the first and second World Wars, as well as the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

As a major world power the United States possesses many military capabilities that other countries in the world lack. The future of any country is best understood through its military history; it remains an essential part of understanding its progress also. The world’s military past is interrelated, therefore, the actions of one country can and will have an impact nations on the other side of the planet.

But if military history extends through time and space, how then do you embark on an effective course of study? And the answer to this is: through the country’s movies. Movies provide a medium to know about any cultural development, and watching military movies provides knowledge about the military experience of a country in an entertaining and thought provoking manner.

This paper highlights 12 films that depict four of the 20th century wars that the United States deployed in: World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Several factors had an impact upon the United States’ expansion between World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

These included the supremacy and influence of other nations, the demand for raw material and resources, ideals that had been part of America since its inception were spreading all over the world, and most importantly, the growth of global economic markets. In such an environment, America adopted the role of a significantly larger, more imperialistic country.

More military involvement ensued. Other countries around the world strove to spread their power and influence to new lands, therefore, America felt pressure to step into the fray. But then this pressure naturally gave America more power. It was ready to face this pressure. Other countries controlled larger region in new areas, and the United States needed to follow suit in order to compete.

America would be at risk of losing influence and clout if other nations like Japan, Germany, and Russia continued to increase their power and might across the globe. It was clear to the American government that it could no longer linger behind.

It emerged as the world power by conquering the main lands and not letting other countries thwart its goals. America gave strong competition to all other nations. This reality continually appears in the films under study.

World War I

The United States established its promise to become a key world power during the first World War. It was a major shift in the history of the United States. Prior to World War I, the strategy of isolationism was pursued by the United States government. American Presidents managed world events by separating themselves from the foreign policies and foreign dealings.

This policy was intended to protect the United States. Its aim was to keep the country free from many of the problems faced by other nations. As the United States entered the 20th century the world became more and more interdependent. What affected nations on other continents would affect the States equally.

The United States government began to understand this fact, and this revelation pushed the United States into World War I participation. The ensuing proceedings would allow the United States to grasp its destiny in the world arena. It was at this time the military power of America became influential, and remained that way.

The Big Parade (1925)

The Big Parade is directed and produced by the famous King Vidor (Vidor, 1925). It is a war film from the silent age of movies (Vidor, 1925). It was the first realistic war drama (Vidor, 1925). Also it became the first big box-office success and possibly the most profitable silent film of all time (Vidor, 1925). This movie helped rekindle the attractiveness of war films in the late 1920s (Vidor, 1925).

The screenplay of the movie owes its origins to a story by author Laurence Stallings, whose stories are based on his own experiences during the Great War (Vidor, 1925). It was the first war film of its kind to inform its story from the point of view the soldier (Vidor, 1925).

John Gilbert, a silent screen star, offered his supreme acting performance as upper crust Jim Apperson, an American who enlisted and was swept up into the battle in France (Vidor, 1925).

The scene of the troops leaving remains one of the film’s most renowned and unforgettable (Vidor, 1925). As Jim is leaving for the war, his lover Melisande realizes that she is utterly in love with her American sweetheart Jim (Vidor, 1925). She looks for Jim everywhere (Vidor, 1925).

She hunts for a sight of him to bid him an enduring goodbye. Her search becomes increasingly hysterical and frantic. (Vidor, 1925). Jim climbs into the rear of a vehicle, one in a long line of war machines (Vidor, 1925).

When he finally sees Melisande, Jim leaps off the truck and rushes back to her, whereupon they wildly embrace and kiss each other with passion and ardor. (Vidor, 1925). Jim promises to revisit his sweetheart in the poignant scene (Vidor, 1925).

“Jim: I’m coming back! – Remember! I’m coming back!” (Vidor, 1925)

Melisande remains behind and observes the trucks as they vanish into clouds of dirt, and she holds one of Jim’s boots to her chest (Vidor, 1925). The passing trucks and billows of dust cover her, and then evaporate (Vidor, 1925). The Big Parade is more a film of escapist leisure rather than an anti-war piece, however, the mesmerizing and heartbreaking love story at the film’s core presents the war’s emotional impact (Vidor, 1925).

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

All Quiet on the Western Front represents the foremost pacifist movie of the sound epoch. The 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque is its foundation. Remarque fought in World War I and experienced the horror first-hand as a young German soldier (Laemmele Jr, 1930). The film was advertised with the brooding face of one of the young German workforce sent into World War I (Laemmele Jr, 1930).

All Quiet on the Western Front is completely unsentimental in the view of battle brutality (Laemmele Jr, 1930). Also the movie was received favorably by critics and audiences alike, and stands as one of the best anti-violence, anti-war films (Laemmele Jr, 1930).

This story is neither an allegation nor a confession (Laemmele Jr, 1930). It is least of all an escapade, but in its hopeless view of death and destruction not adventures to those who face combat and survive (Laemmele Jr, 1930). The story mostly deals with the consequences and destruction caused by the war (Laemmele Jr, 1930). In the most important scene of the film, Paul hides himself in a church’s graveyard (Laemmele Jr, 1930).

A shell bursts and blows one of the coffins out of the ground. The coffin lands on Paul, emblematic of a living grave (Laemmele Jr, 1930). When the French were moving back, one of the French soldiers, unaware of Paul, hops into the shell hole to hide (Laemmele Jr, 1930). Paul panics, and wounds the French solider in the throat with the spear knife (Laemmele Jr, 1930).

Paul then becomes ensnared in the shell hole with the wounded Frenchman, whose injuries are mortal (Laemmele Jr, 1930). He holds the soldier’s mouth closed to prevent him from making noise and alerting the enemy troops to his position (Laemmele Jr, 1930). Paul endeavors to clean his hands of the French soldier’s blood, but to no avail (Laemmele Jr, 1930).

During the night, illuminations from the bombs show the hideous, failing face of Paul’s dying enemy (Laemmele Jr, 1930). With a mournful sense of guilt, he tries frantically to gain forgiveness for the murder (Laemmele Jr, 1930). He dips a cloth in the water at the bottom of the shell hole and touches it to the wounded Frenchman’s mouth (Laemmele Jr, 1930).

When dawn comes, Paul can no longer bear the dying soldier’s groans of pain: “Stop that,” he screams. “I can’t listen to that. Why do you take so long to die? But then he begins to wish that the man will live and return home safely: “No, no. You won’t die. No, no, You won’t die. They’re only little wounds. You’ll get home. You’ll be all right.” (Laemmele Jr, 1930)

A close shot of the camera shows the dead man’s face in a grotesque grin with a wild, harsh look through his wide-opened eyes, eerie and ghoulish (Laemmele Jr, 1930). Paul escapes back to his own lines, but the experience scars him (Laemmele Jr, 1930). All Quiet on the Western Front represents one of the earliest examples of graphic war violence (Laemmele Jr, 1930).

World War II

The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)

The Story of G.I. Joe portrays the experience of the American infantryman, or G.I. Joe, in World War II. Burgess Meredith plays Ernie Pyle, the Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent whose columns supplied much of the dialogue and narration for the screenplay (Cowan, 1945).

The Story of G.I. Joe was lifted from Pyle’s actual experiences covering “C Company, 18th Infantry” in Italy and Tunisia (Cowan, 1945). The Story of G.I. Joe follows the formula of the dramatizing the emotional relationships that develop between enlisted men during combat, similar to films like Saving Private Ryan.

Pyle cooperated with the filmmakers and served as a consultant to the film right up until lost his life in action during the Okinawa invasion (Cowan, 1945). The Story of G.I. Joe also employs a realistic format to depict the devastation of war, and contains ironic commentary.

In a scene, two soldiers, Robert Mitchum character Captain Walker and Sergeant Warnicki (Freddie Steele) engage the Germans in a bombed out chapel in Sicily (Cowan, 1945). This war scene is authentic and suspenseful. Very little music exists in the scene, which supports the particularly effective use of silence as both the G.I.s and the Germans attempt to draw each other out (Cowan, 1945).

Once the last German falls, Warnicki remarks, “This is a funny place to be killing men, isn’t it?” and drops to his knees before the altar to pray (Cowan, 1945). Almost immediately, an unseen German fires, and shoots Warnick’s helmet off (Cowan, 1945).

Walker kills the German, who dislodges the bell rope as he drops to his death (Cowan, 1945). The camera holds on the demolished bell tower as the bell tolls, creating an eerie, desolate, and ironic glimpse of the utter destruction of civilization that war causes.

A Walk in the Sun (1945)

A Walk in the Sun, similar to The Story of G.I. Joe, was one of the forerunners of the realistic war action scenes. Set during the 1943 Allied invasion of Italy, A Walk in the Sun follows an American platoon as they land and make their way inland to face the Germans.

A Walk in the Sun also contains a degree of commentary on the often wide gulf between the actual goals and purposes of the Second World War and what the enlisted men thought about the combat itself. In one scene, the platoon waits in a sunny grove of trees for their orders. Two soldiers, Rivera and Friedman, discuss the beauty of the Italian countryside (Milestone, 1945):

“Rivera: Don’t you want to live here?

Friedman: I never said I wanted to live here.

Rivera: This country’s full of opportunity, just look around you. Opportunity. That’s the big thing. This country’s full of opportunity.

Friedman: You can have it.

Rivera: Is that any way to talk about a country where you’re a guest? They’ll kick you out.

Friedman: No they won’t.

Rivera: You know who you’re fighting?

Freidman: They never told me…Germans. That’s all I want to know.

Rivera: You’re screwy” (Milestone, 1945).

A Walk in the Sun echoes the formula seen in later films realistic type war films such as The Deer Hunter and Saving Private Ryan, wherein the soldiers know next to nothing about the machinations of war.

They follow orders. Their primary goal is to stay alive long enough to make it through their tour and go home. The threat of fascism means nothing to them. They kill who they are told to kill, and do their jobs with no sense, or interest, in the bigger political and social picture.

Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)

Sands of Iwo Jima is a John Wayne vehicle that tells the story of a group of United States Marines who fight in the Battle of Iwo Jima (Grainger, 1949). The emotional action of Sands of Iwo Jima differs significantly from other buddy war films, in that it begins with a negative depiction of the military hierarchy (Grainger, 1949).

Wayne plays hard nosed Marine sergeant John Stryker, and the film investigates his antagonistic relationship some of the men under his command during training and during the actual event, specifically Private Conway (Grainger, 1949). Once the men reach combat however, Stryker’s uncompromising approach to battle invariably saves their lives (Grainger, 1949).

In the important scene, Stryker’s unit receives order to raise the flag on the Iwo Jima hill (Grainger, 1949):

“Soldier: Stryker!

Stryker: Yes, sir.

Soldier: Colonel’s ordered that we put up this flag as soon as the top is secure. Be sure that it gets there.

Stryker: Ay-ay, sir. (He calls to his unit.) First squad!

The men assemble.

Stryker: Find something we can use for a standard and we’ll put this up.

Conway approaches.

Stryker: Well. Conway. I see you made it.

Conway: Yeah. I guess that little voice was wrong. I feel better.

Stryker: I feel a lot better too. Matter of fact I never felt so good in my life. How about a cigarette?

Stryker hands out cigarettes. A sniper shoots him. Stryker falls. His men rush to his aid as Conway kills the sniper.

Conway: Is he…?

Soldier: Yeah. If he had to get it, that’s the way he’d have wanted it” (Grainger, 1949).

Sands of Iwo Jima differs slightly from the formula of buddy war films in that the main antagonist – in this case, Wayne’s character – eventually becomes the hero. The film also offers its endorsement for the practice of strict discipline displayed by the United States military (Grainger, 1949).

Beach Red (1967)

This anti-war film highlights the efforts of an American unit to take a Japanese-held island in the Pacific during World War II (Wilde, 1967). Beach Red is a morale booster. The movie came out at a very important time during America’s deployment in Vietnam (Wilde, 1967).

The film depicts the fears and horrors of a group of Marines who attack a Pacific island in an effort to secure it from the Japanese (Wilde, 1967). The majority of the film notes that both American and Japanese forces were growing weary of the fighting, and of the war (Wilde, 1967).

In one of the most successful scenes, the Marine Company is traveling into the interior to overturn the Japanese ramparts. Rip Torn, the actor who portrays the Gunny, bellows a command to his troops that underscores the circumstances the average U.S. Marine encountered in the numerous campaigns undertaken in the Pacific during World War II (Wilde, 1967).

“I’m gonna bayonet ‘em, break their arms, so they don’t give me no more trouble!” (Wilde, 1967) “That’s what we’re here for…to kill…the rest is all bullshit!” (Wilde, 1967). Beach Red had a significant impact amongst Vietnam veterans, as well as those fighting under similar conditions in Vietnam (Wilde, 1967).

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan a 1998 American war film that details the personal sacrifice that war exacts from men in its depiction of the relationship between Sergeant Miller, played by Tom Hanks, and Private Ryan, played by Matt Damon (Bryce, 1998). In the important final battle, the crew arrives on the outskirts of Ramelle. It is her that they find Ryan. The Germans arrive.

Their force contains over 50 soldiers, backed by tanks. In spite of killing many Germans, the majority of the paratroopers lose their lives. Miller’s crew also dies. Miller receives a mortal injury while he endeavors to destroy the bridge (Bryce, 1998). An American plane flies over the bridge and destroys it, moments before a Tiger Tank reached the bridge (Bryce, 1998).

Ryan is one of the few to live through the battle. Ryan stays with Miller as he dies. His last words are, “James… earn this. Earn it” (Bryce, 1998). The scene then returns to the present day to show the old man at Miller’s grave is none other than Ryan.

Ryan asks his wife to corroborate that he had lived a decent, honorable life. He asks her if she thinks he was a “good man”. Ryan tries to feel worthy of the sacrifice Miller and the others made for him. Although his wife reassures him, as the film ends Ryan appears unconvinced (Bryce, 1998).

When Trumpets Fade (1998)

When Trumpets Fade is a 1998 war film that depicts on the events surrounding the battle of Hurtgen forest in fall of 1944 (Ginsberg, 1998). The Germans never knew why the American army chose to counter them at the Hurtgen forest. This was the strongest, most easily defensible point for the Germans. However, they were more than content to let it happen (Ginsberg, 1998).

World War II histories, especially Eisenhower’s and Bradley’s, who supervised this error, deflect its relevance, but When Trumpets Fade opens the viewer’s eyes to the enormous blunder (Ginsberg, 1998). Unlike Saving Private Ryan, When Trumpets Fade is devoid of heroes. (Ginsberg, 1998). This is its most distinguishing feature, and the element that sets it apart from other World War II movies (Ginsberg, 1998).

The main character, Private Manning, is a no-account self centered individual, who doesn’t give a damn about anyone but himself (Ginsberg, 1998). He simply survives while better men die (Ginsberg, 1998). His officers assume he is a good soldier, but he’s simply lucky. Nonetheless, they promote him against his will (Ginsberg, 1998). The film never sentimentalizes the war or the characters.

Manning tells the basket-case lieutenant “If there’s any way I can help you without endangering my own life, I won’t hesitate, but I’m not taking a bullet for anybody” (Ginsberg, 1998). The lieutenant, almost in tears, tells him that’s not good enough, whereupon Manning counters, “That’s as good as it gets.” (Ginsberg, 1998).

The medic overhears this. He tells Manning, “When you’re out there with your guts shot out crying for a medic — if there’s any way I can help you without endangering my own life, I won’t hesitate” (Ginsberg, 1998).

Korean War

The Steel Helmet (1942)

Before the classic The Big Red One, director Samuel Fuller created another war picture, The Steel Helmet. It represents the antithesis of the classic war movie where a band of spotless, handsome Caucasians join together to protect American liberty and democracy (Lippert, 1951).

The movie shuns this and other character stereotypes, and instead presents a unit of mangy, dirty grubs, none of whom are heroic, none do anything superb or political (Lippert, 1951). The most moving scene occurs after Short Round, a South Korean orphan, dies. The main character Zach emerges from his tough guy act openly. He chokes back his tears, as he tries to admit that it is his own fault Short Round died (Lippert, 1951).

He never wanted a kid hanging along. Then as he walks away so no one can see his face (Lippert, 1951). The Red, a POW, reads Short Round’s Buddhist prayer that he attached to his shirt (Lippert, 1951). As per the prayer, Short Round was praying to Buddha to make Zach appreciate him (Lippert, 1951). But then Red declared the note ridiculous.

He crumples it and throws it to the floor (Lippert, 1951). Zach shoots The Red, reproaching him for what another fighter did for his country, simply following orders (Lippert, 1951). Then at last Sgt. Driscoll steps up. He becomes a leader.

He points out that Zach did exactly what he’s been preaching against: he let his emotions get the better of him (Lippert, 1951). Zach grasps what’s left of the dying Red and screams, “If you die, I’ll kill you.” (Lippert, 1951).

The Steel Helmet studies the collective identity of the groups, races, and nations involved in the Korean War (Lippert, 1951). Fuller portrays destruction and the impacts that war leaves (Lippert, 1951). He illustrated through the men that the biases, hatred, misinterpretations, and fleeting unions remain as ridiculous and outrageous as the war itself (Lippert, 1951).

Pork Chop Hill (1959)

Pork Chop Hill dramatizes the battle between the United States’ Army’s 7th Infantry Division and an overwhelming force of Korean Communist troops fortified by Chinese soldiers (Bartlett, 1959). The battle took place in April of 1953. Directed by Lewis Milestone, Pork Chop Hill was based on a book of the same name, researched and written by S. L. A. Marshall, a military historian (Bartlett, 1959).

Gregory Peck plays Lieutenant Joe Clemons, a capable and magnanimous leader who finds himself in an impossible situation. While cease-fire talks drag on, Clemons and his men get caught in the cross fire between diplomacy and trying to hold the hill against a Chinese counter attack without reinforcements (Bartlett, 1959).

Pork Chop Hill shows the often fractious relationship between the men on the ground and battalion command. In a pivotal scene, Clemons arrives at a trench to find a handful of soldiers holding the position. Clemons immediately asks Cook about the state of his squad (Bartlett, 1959):

“Lt. Clemons: How many men you got left?

Cook: One gunner here. Team on the gun below. About one half the rifle squad.

Clemons reacts to the terrible news, and then asks his radio operator to get battalion headquarters on the radio. Meanwhile, Clemons displays his leadership skill in his parting words to Cook:

Lt. Clemons: You did a good job, Cook?

Cook reacts, shocked to hear encouragement from a superior officer.

Cook: Thanks. Just send the bill to Luft Company” (Bartlett, 1959).

When Clemons finally does get to speak to Colonel Davis, the scene shifts to inside battalion headquarters. The battle sounds a hundred miles away. Colonel Davis, although we never see him, maps out the positions of Clemons’ group using a knife on a plastic model of the hill (Bartlett, 1959).

“Colonel Davis: Yeah, I’ve got it. Well, what about the second platoon? (he listens to Clemons) With both platoons pinching towards each other, shouldn’t you have taken the CP bunker by now?

Clemons, enraged, spits: Well, maybe we should! But we’ve been getting heavy

pressure from that right flank you said not to worry about!

Colonel Davis remains composed as he asks, “Where are you now?” (he listens to Clemons) Okay. You can hold that flank, can’t you?

Clemons hits the roof.

Lt. Clemons: No, I’m not sure we can hold it! We can’t keep doing Luft company’s job with one machine gun!” (Bartlett, 1959)

Clemons listens to Colonel Davis’ reply. Although we no longer see Colonel Davis, Milestone keeps the focus on Clemons. His facial expression tells us that the Colonel expects the impossible (Bartlett, 1959).

In this scene, we see a portrayal of the disregard that the high ranking military officials had for the infantry. More significantly, we see how the military brass had no concept of the reality of life in the trenches. Milestone’s decision to show only the plastic model creates an important metaphor for the relationship between U.S. enlisted troops and their military bosses (Bartlett, 1959).

This scene gives us the impression that the bosses were like young boys playing with toy soldiers, with no real awareness or concern for the real men who lost their lives directly as a result of military command’s decisions.

Vietnam War

As a rule the Vietnam War began unpopular and stayed that way in the socially and politically turbulent era of the 1960s. Thus, many of the war films that depicted the war did so negatively.

The Deer Hunter (1978)

The Deer Hunter is screenwriter/producer/director Michael Cimino’s heroic movie about war and friendship. It is a prominent, authoritative, moving, disturbing and gripping account of the impact Vietnam War on the lives of three American friends in a small Pennsylvania steel town before, during, and after their tours of duty in the war (Cimino, 1978).

Many other movies based on Vietnam War were released in 1978. But The Deer Hunter was much-lauded, powerful and haunting ‘buddy’ war film, from a screenplay by Derick Washburn.

The Deer Hunter received nine Academy Award nominations (including Best Actor (Robert De Niro), Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep), Best Cinematography (by Vilmos Zsigmond), and Best Original Screenplay), and won five Oscars: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), Best Director, Best Sound, and Best Film Editing (Cimino, 1978).

The film can be roughly divided into three acts, spanning the time period 1968 through 1975. The first represents the growth of characterizations and ceremonies of the second-generation Russian-American steelworkers in their small Pennsylvania steel town, before the Vietnam war, including the fantastic wedding sequence, and a long drunken reception sequence.

This calls attention to the first act in life’s cyclical passage – marriage. A deer-hunting sequence in the chilling Allegheny Mountains follows (Cimino, 1978). The second act follows the war-time experiences of the three American friends in the steamy jungles of Vietnam, The violence and psychologically harming experiences scar each character deeply (Cimino, 1978).

The final third explores the long term costs of the Vietnam War and the physical and psychological toll it took on the three friends, as well those they left behind, their wives, families, and acquaintances (Cimino, 1978). Only one of the men came back physically intact, but all of them returned irrevocably distorted, and mere ghosts of their former selves (Cimino, 1978).

The first section of The Deer Hunter is captured by Steven who was encouraged to marry his girlfriend Angela. Angela was with child, and Steven might never come back from Vietnam (Cimino, 1978). In the second act, which takes place in Vietnam, the self-control, vigor and determination of Michael emerges (Cimino, 1978).

While Nick and Steven collapsed under the abuse and torture of their Vietnamese enemies, Michael refused to bow down to them (Cimino, 1978). In fact he grew stronger, steeling his willpower and then exploiting that strength to a larger degree (Cimino, 1978).

By the final act of the film however this inner strength had ebbed, without failing completely; the heartbreaking loss of the film was Nick, who lost all sense of himself and eventually lost his mind (Cimino, 1978).

The three friends could not protect each other; for all that friendship connects the three in trauma after the war ends (Cimino, 1978). The emotional weight of The Deer Hunter is staggering, in part because it combined the known and the unknown.

In the extended, complex wedding, the rituals were shown depicting the customs of the culture that the friends grew up in (Cimino, 1978). By showing so much detail at the film’s opening, Cimino demonstrated that later emotional upsets stood upon a firm and credible foundation of long term companionship and cultural cohesion (Cimino, 1978).

Simultaneously foundations were not needed for the friends as assured weapons handling (Cimino, 1978). The symbolism of the one-shot kill that the deer hunters idealized, and the mind set of the society that became alien to those destroyed and mutated by Vietnam is vividly depicted (Cimino, 1978).

It’s a remarkable script, written by Cimino. At the very heart of The Deer Hunter is the act of violence known as Russian roulette, the quintessential one shot kill (Cimino, 1978). The charge that these steel workers feel when they go hunting is tremendously enacted, beyond which there is the similar mindset (Cimino, 1978).

It is highly stylized, masculine course whereby the soul can become clean, and the thoughts become purified, and provide grounding for death (Cimino, 1978). However, when the hunters become the hunted, the great lie of their sport became obvious (Cimino, 1978).

The senseless quest for Russian roulette represents the futile nature war in its entirety, in all of its random pointlessness and psychologically ruinous consequences (Cimino, 1978). De Niro, the key player of the triumvirate, was heartbreaking and compelling, scaling the zenith of emotion (Cimino, 1978).

The scenes in which De Niro came back home labeled a hero, but chose instead to avoid the honor, and felt bound to avoid his welcome were all poignant and moving (Cimino, 1978).

Mike was empty, drained, a shell of a man wiped clean by battle and estranged from old friends (Cimino, 1978). The Deer Hunter represents one of the few war films to elaborate on the stress and alienation often experienced by men returning home (Cimino, 1978).

The Green Berets (1968)

John Wayne co-directed this atypical film, one which endorses the United States’ decision to take part in the Vietnam War. Wayne’s son Michael produced the film. Wayne remained a staunch defender of the United States’ decision to deploy in the Vietnam War, and the film’s message argues that a stand against communism is a worthwhile venture, regardless of the human cost.

Produced in 1968 at the height of anti-Vietnam war sentiment, Wayne sought and received full military cooperation as well as an endorsement from then president Lyndon Johnson. The Green Berets became John Wayne’s individual acknowledgment of the sacrifices made by the soldiers who fought and died in the jungles of Vietnam (Wayne, 1968).

The Green Berets paint the Vietnam War in a profoundly different light than The Deer Hunter. Given that the Green Berets are professional soldiers, a significant difference exists between them and soldiers who have been drafted, as evidenced in the following scene wherein Wayne’s character receives a visit from an eager Sergeant (Wayne, 1968):

“Sergeant McGee: Sir? Sergeant Provost requests permission to speak with you.

Wayne: Provost?

Sergeant McGee: Heavy weapons specialist.

Wayne: I’ll see him.

Provost comes in and salutes.

Provost: Sir, Sergeant Provost requests permission to speak to the Colonel.

Wayne: At ease.

Provost: I appreciate you seeing me, Sir. I know how busy you are.

Wayne: Well?

Provost: I understand you’re hand picking two A teams for Vietnam, sir, is that true?

Wayne: We might be and we might not.

Provost: I’m inclined to think it might be, sir, and since I haven’t been picked I’m volunteering.

Wayne: You’re a heavy weapons specialist.

Provost: Not if I can find a light one, Sir.

Wayne: Why are you volunteering, Sergeant?

Provost: Because I’m a soldier sir and that’s where the action is.

Wayne: We’ll let you know.

Provost salutes and leaves.

Wayne: Sergeant McGee! (McGee comes in.) Pull that man’s record.

Sergeant McGee: I already did, Sir. (McGee gives Wayne the file.) He’s a good man, Sir” (Wayne, 1968).

They share a conspiratorial smile.

The Green Berets counts volunteering for combat as a male virtue, and refers to the more classical age of United States war movies which depicted soldiers as the pinnacle of manliness and heroism.

Conclusion

The United States of America remains a massive and well-funded military machine. As many of the films studied in this paper can attest, war films overwhelmingly concentrate on the experience of the infantryman, the soldiers on the ground, with a minimal depiction of the military brass.

Also, United States war films spend very little time discusses the politics of the various wars that these films depict. In essence, in American war films, the war itself functions as a backdrop to the human stories of loss, pain, death, sacrifice, brotherhood, and camaraderie, and heroism.

References

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Wayne, M. (Producer), & Wayne, J. (Director). (1968). The Green Berets [Motion picture]. United States: Warner Brothers.

Wilde, C. (Producer), & Wilde, C. (Director). (1967). Beach Red [Motion picture]. United States: Theodora Productions.

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