Why We Fought: A Brief (Re)Classification of War Films

by Rich Grippaldi

This fall, Dreamworks Pictures released a new war film directed by Clint Eastwood, Flags of Our Fathers. Based on the book of the same name by James Bradley, the movie tells the tale of the famed flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima, on 23 February 1945 by five U.S. Marines and a U.S. Navy corpsman. The picture also follows the three flag-raisers who survived the immediate battle as they help promote the Seventh War Loan undertaken that May.

In a technical sense, Flags of Our Fathers will remind many of the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan or the 2001 HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. Those films share intense and gory combat sequences, washed-out film stocks, and camera movement that put the viewer in the middle of the action. They all share a new development in American war cinema: the film-makers took explicit pains to show late twentieth and early twenty-first century viewers why we fought.

Historians of American cinema have ably dissected the development of the war film in detail, two examples being Lawrence Suid in Guts and Glory (1978) and Jeanine Basinger in The World War II Combat Film (1986). This essay instead offers some brief remarks on a new phenomenon: how present-day war films explicitly justify the warfare of the past sixty years.

To present-day audiences, one series of wartime documentaries looms in the background: the Why We Fight series, directed by Frank Capra. Widely considered a master of propaganda, Capra took footage filmed by the Axis powers and turned it against them. But even then, explaining “why we fight,” to some degree, is subtle or implicit. Watching Waffen-SS troops goosestep down a city street is in itself innocuous. That footage bears no more meaning that watching newsreels of GIs marching through Paris on their way to the front in 1944. Without knowing who the Waffen-SS serve or for what their organization stands, the footage would not be effective in serving Capra’s purpose.

This quiet sense of “why we fight” informs the first series of war films.

  • The implicit “why we fight” film
    This period lasts from the beginnings of the genre, through the mid-1960s. Filmmakers provide clues as to for what American servicemen and women are fighting, although these add nothing to the combat story and might even detract from it. These include the kind American schoolmarm teaching Filipino children in Back to Bataan (1945); Marine Sgt. John Stryker (John Wayne) meeting up with a single mother in Honolulu before the decisive battle in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949); and mail calls in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge in Battleground (1949). Korean War films, often indistinguishable from WWII films except for setting, also qualify. See Nancy Brubaker’s (Grace Kelly) presence in Tokyo in The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1955). When nurses or women played a large role in the film, arguably the whole film invoked “why we fight” in the gendered subcontext of mid-century America. Examples of this genre include So Proudly We Hail! (1943) and, to a lesser extent, In Harm’s Way (1965).

  • The Fuller film
    There were always some directors who kept the focus solely on combat. Often these were B-movies that had neither time nor money for subplots. For better or for worse, Sam Fuller was the archetypical “pure combat” film director. The Steel Helmet (1951) and Fixed Bayonets! (1951) are two Korean War stories that deal with little more than combat. His magnum opus, The Big Red One (1980), gave one rifle squad in WWII combat tight focus. Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill (1959) follows Lieutenant Joe Clemons (Gregory Peck) as he leads his company in a desperate fight against Chinese troops in Korea. Other films fall into this category, with the stretching of “combat” to include high military leadership: The Longest Day (1962), In Harm’s Way (1965) and A Bridge Too Far (1977).

  • The ambivalent war film: the real world intrudes
    The 1960s saw upheaval in all parts of American society, and the cinema was no different. This period gave us the anti-hero in uniform: Reese (Steve McQueen) in Hell is for Heroes (1962), Major Reisman (Lee Marvin) and his condemned commandos in The Dirty Dozen (1967), Lieutenant Hartman (George Segal) in The Bridge at Remagen (1969), and Private Kelly (Clint Eastwood) in Kelly’s Heroes (1970). Did George S. Patton, Jr., have a “genius for war,” in Carlo D’Este’s words, or was he just a warmongering megalomaniac? The beauty of Patton (1970) is that either argument is richly supported by George C. Scott’s Oscar-winning depiction. It is not clear, even after repeated viewings of these films, which the true enemy is: the army, the Germans, or the purported heroes. As the Vietnam War played a large role in the unrest and the changing of the times, it should be no surprise that many films about that war can be read multiple ways. The Deer Hunter (1978) and Platoon (1986) are two examples.

  • The nonsensical war film: auteurs and abstraction
    Taking “question everything” to its logical limits, the 1970s produced two examples of the nonsensical war film: MASH (1970) and Apocalypse Now (1979). In MASH, the late Robert Altman directed a film without plot, without point, and very nearly without setting. In Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola tried to make a film about both Vietnam and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, only to make a film that does both haphazardly and with varying levels of skill. These films aren’t really about war at all, other than to express the generic and simplistic message that “war is bad.” The true intentions of the directors are lost through the muddle of incoherent story. Contrast these with Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 picture, Paths of Glory, in which the WWI French Army executes men who will not charge willingly into certain death. Paths of Glory is no less antiwar, but ranks with All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) as the greatest antiwar movie of all time because Kubrick let the absurdity of the French high command speak for itself.

  • The explicit “why we fight” film
    Arguably John Wayne made among the first of these, with The Green Berets (1969), in which a U.S. Army colonel (Wayne) shows a skeptical reporter (David Janssen) why South Vietnam is worth saving. But Wayne was a special case, a contract-era Hollywood star and political conservative still making movies. It is only in the past ten years that filmmakers, as if to ward off charges of political correctness, have included explicit justifications and rationales in their war films. The first of these, Saving Private Ryan, opens with a twenty-minute depiction of bloody Omaha Beach and then immediately cuts to War Department secretaries typing letters of condolence, culminating in General George C. Marshall’s personal decision to rescue the sole remaining Ryan brother from the maw of war. The whole film is about whether or not the death of Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and his squad is a worthy exchange for Ryan’s life, until Captain Miller comes out and says it is near the end of the film.

    Band of Brothers, based on the book of the same name by Stephen E. Ambrose, devotes an entire episode to “why we fight.” The men of E Company come across a German concentration camp and face the evil of the Nazi regime firsthand. (So does The Big Red One, in a touching scene between the Sergeant [Lee Marvin] and an inmate boy.)

    Rather than demonize the Japanese, Flags of Our Fathers takes a different course. The flag-raisers return home, only to learn from a Treasury Department official that the government is running out of money and the American people are tiring of war. Even if they don’t feel like heroes, so the argument goes, by acting like heroes the flag-raisers can help raise the funds to get badly needed arms and equipment to the “real heroes” – the men fighting and dying on Okinawa and Luzon.

    Interestingly, Randall Wallace’s We Were Soldiers (2002) gives the WWII treatment to the Vietnam War, dealing with one of the few conventional battles of that latter conflict, the 1965 fight in the Ia Drang valley. Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) is a family man, religious and devoted. The film splits the depiction of the battle with scenes focusing on Moore’s wife Julie (Madeleine Stowe) and the circle of wives at Fort Bragg.

    Obviously, no film stands apart from the time of its makers. Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and Flags of Our Fathers are all products of an America that knows the WWII generation is passing from the stage of history. They combine reverence for our elders with the knowledge and cinematic realism developed in the fifty to sixty years since the events they depict. Today the U.S. is at war overseas and feels threatened by terrorism at home. As the American presence in Afghanistan and Iraq continues, we may see more films that treat war ambivalently or nonsensically. Or, given the divided political climate at home, we may see a large increase in the “Fuller film” – films that chronicle and celebrate the combat experience without explaining how the men got there or what the squad’s fights mean in the larger scheme of things.

    As a retired Army officer and experienced educator, Dr. Bonin has briefed numerous senior officers and civilians. He was therefore not apprehensive about speaking in public. Facing the committee at the end of a ten-year process, however, was different. “I felt fully confident about my dissertation and realized I knew the topic better than anyone else,” Bonin said. “But the defense gave me the opportunity to take a broader view of the scope of my research.” The committee’s questions allowed him to synthesize his thoughts on Army Aviation and how it related to the entire field of history. Dr. Bonin saw this as an opportunity to look at his work in a different context: “In the process of researching and writing, I had not concerned myself too much with larger audiences. The defense forced me to think of the potential audiences that could benefit from this study.” He regards this as good advice for other students now completing their dissertations.

    Dr. Doug Johnson has supported Bonin’s work both as a mentor and as a colleague for many years, and he believed Bonin had a difficult and complicated task: “John wove together the essential threads of this episode in history to create a complete fabric. He addressed personalities – inside and outside the Army Aviation community, within the Army, with the larger Defense establishment, with Congress, and with industry.” Johnson asserted that Bonin did an excellent job of “following the money” from Congress to the Defense Department to the Army, and describing how budgets affect doctrinal development. He believes doctrine is a vital but often deadly boring topic and its development and continuing maturation are important. Bonin is one the Army’s acknowledged experts on force structure and doctrine development, and this study makes him one of the leading authorities on Army Aviation. Dr. Johnson also observed, “The dissertation addressed institutional processes, barriers and paths to success within the Army as an institution, and also in the Civil-Military realm. He [Bonin] addressed basic leadership and the leadership-management connection that exists above the direct leadership level. He reviewed developments in Research and Development, Science and Technology and the processes by which some good ideas die and have to be resurrected when conditions change.” Johnson concluded, “All in all, I found it to be one of the most thoroughly balanced presentations of a military subject I have ever seen.” The defense was successful, and all the observers and committee would like to congratulate John Bonin, Ph.D.!

    The author gratefully acknowledges assistance from Dr. Doug Johnson, Dr. John Bonin, Brady King, Michael Dolski, Jason Smith, and Eric Klinek.