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For and Against the Grand Narrative: The Hollywood War Film by Daniel Binns

The Steel Helmet (1951)

The Steel Helmet (1951)

A Book Review Essay by Matthew Sorrento.

Genre studies, whether treating film genre history as evolutionary or as cycles, always has to fight the charge that genre films are conservative by nature. In Judith Hess Wright’s rather compelling estimation (if limiting), the films always look back to the past to endorse the ideas and social structures of a simplistic world. (1) In this light, the war film may appear to be the most conservative in its depictions of past events (often of long ago, though some recent) and celebration of group interest to serve a dominant political system. Though closer analysis reveals the genre’s history to be one very rich in variety, whether it be breakthrough renditions – Samuel Fuller’s Korean War film, The Steel Helmet (1950), made during the conflict (and in spite of Hess’s theory) – or overly conservative ones, in which close reading spotlights faultiness (see the sun setting in the East at the end of John Wayne and Ray Kellogg’s Vietnam anti-communist propaganda narrative, The Green Berets [1968]). This surprising complexity is something I, for one, love teaching to introductory film studies students. With The Hollywood War Film (Intellect, 2017), Australian film lecturer Daniel Binns (RMIT, Melbourne) has set out to offer a text serving this population, and while he has encountered the misfortune of titling his book identically to an established, standout introductory text, (2) it offers some worthy parts strewn through several miscalculated ones – of some value, if uneven.

While Binns devotes some attention to genre theory, the kind evidenced by artistic and viewer practice and the dialog between the two, his approach commits to philosophical readings of war cinema. The approach is rewarding, in that he takes cinema outside the business/historical frameworks and aims to personalize it. Not using spectatorship theory, he incorporates concepts that highlight our sense of conflict on a large scale in its many forms (training and the homefront, as much as battle). It’s odd, then, that he considers his book to pick up from Jeanine Basinger’s 1985/2003 The World War II Combat Film (11), with a focus on combat that’s wary of including other narrative styles directly tied to war. On the same page, Binns takes on wrongful generalizations that critics routinely make about war cinema. By citing Stuart Bender’s condemnation of such in Film Style and the WWII Combat Genre (another limiting focus, admittedly), Binns notes how the writers in question regularly leave readers feeling that “general conventions are inscribed in a particular shot or sequence, rather than how the genre is built as a system throughout the film.” We’ve all seen reviewers attempt convenient assessment without full genre analysis, something that newcomers to this genre should comprehend and learn to avoid in their writing on film. Binns develops the framework by citing other scholars who support the idea, like Elisabeth Bronfren and Douglas Kellner (11-12).

9781783207541The book’s general rational is effective as a teaching angle, in focusing on films that either adhere to or depart from “a grand narrative” (14). With the increasing trend of newcomers in film studies courses – in my institution in the USA, anyway, where genre studies classes consist mostly of those new to not just genre study, but film studies overall – it’s helpful for students to understand a major archetypal narrative, even if it irks opponents of David Bordwell’s classical Hollywood cinema. Binns’s description and application of defamiliarization to launch this approach is helpful (15-16). The book’s actual content, though, consists of a limited series of close readings in an attempt to connect them into an overall survey of the genre. This text works best as an introductory critical reader, even if a handful of the readings are lacking.

He organizes his chapters based on the portrayal of wars (or related ones together), instead of time eras. This rationale has its benefits, which are evident in his chapter on Korea and Vietnam (Chapter 2), though many critics and fans see time era of release as an undeniable context. It’s especially frustrating to see Chapter One (“For Glory: World Wars I and II”) unravel so confusingly, though it seems doomed from the start, since the first two world wars have existed onscreen very differently. The Great War films All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Journey’s End (1927) underscore the tragic associations of heroism, a sentiment reflecting what many in the US felt to be the “bad war,” the conflict we should have avoided, especially in contrast to WWII, the “good war.” Binns offers a misleading statement about government control during WWII – he cites Thomas Schatz from his essay in the valuable The War Film Reader (2006), stating that the industry worked independently from the government. While the government officially had a hands-off role, Roosevelt expected full support from the film industry and even told Lowell Mellett, whom the president appointed to oversee government films shortly after the USA’s entrance into WWII, to concentrate on six specific war-related subjects. (3) An in-depth discussion of wartime cinema in the same author’s Genius of the System (1988, 2010) notes how Hollywood played a “crucial role in nationalizing the war effort.” (4) Schatz addresses the swift curtail of comedic war films as the US entered the war (at Universal, after the Abbott and Costello service comedies Buck Privates and In the Navy, both 1941 [5]), the outright pro-war stance of all these films, and the number of wartime documentaries produced – not to mention regular pro-war moments in other films, like a prominent war bonds advert filling the top of the screen in a bank scene in Hitchcock’s noir thriller Shadow of a Doubt (1943)!

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

In this chapter, Binns elects to analyze two strange bedfellows – All Quiet on the Western Front and Patton (1970), while riffing briefly on Saving Private Ryan (1998). While All Quiet is an obvious choice, in Patton Binns chooses a film with an individual focus (as an historical biopic) to note how, even in extreme examples, the “individual perspective must inevitably be subsumed into the larger, much more important grand narrative” (43). While the italicized text (mine, not his) is vague (important to the genre’s goals or those of a given filmmaker?), the individual perspective of Patton, ie, the title character’s, is outsized compared to the usual attention to the archetypal young enlistee in other war films, even if Patton occasionally directs the viewer’s attention away from the central character for a wider view (29). Binns’s focus on the grand narrative in Patton shows the film recalling earlier war films (49). However, his take restricts potential readings of communal treatment and genre transformation. Binns discusses the film’s unique cinematic language and how its mise-en-scene offers a grand view while reflecting the communal roots of war (31). A broader discussion and stronger example of such use of the group, and how it’s channeled for success in service of the status quo (even in discussing the revisionist “last stand” film, like Tay Garnett’s Bataan, 1943) in a WW II-era film, would help readers more to understand communalism. More appropriately, Binns’ asserts All Quiet as central to the genre: “It is in the film’s structure…that the true nature of war cinema as a contested terrain, per (Douglas) Kellner, is realized” (33) while offering sound examples of its effective mise-en-scene (31-36).

Chapter 2 (“Fear and Frustration: Korea and Vietnam”) is more unified, if containing some of its own problems. Binns has a better time with the single character psychology (19) at the forefront of The Steel Helmet (1951) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), his two subjects of close reading. It is beneficial to study Korea with Vietnam together as two conflicts that, as portrayed onscreen, follow the tradition of the never-ending war tale (introduced by Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, with a final title card directly addressing the idea). (Though Binns’ historical context is confused: the Korea War caused in the wake of another conflict, Korea? [88].) Helmet trail-blazed the theme of isolation for the foot soldier along with Fuller’s aim to present soldier psychology instead of such a figure being treated as a pawn to reflect grand nationalism. Though Binns seems to miss the motif of resurrection of Sergeant Zack (at the film’s opening) in his survival of an execution by North Koreans, thus revising the tragic death of the last man standing in All Quiet, from which his spirit (along with his group) elegiacally walks over their own gravesites. A short riff on MASH (feature film, 1970) presents this war comedy as one good for revisionist analysis (also true – in another vein, of course – with the somber Apocalypse Now, 1979) while readers will question his choice to overlook Platoon (1987), which presents the best use of confusion to continue Fuller (portraying the concept even better than Jacket’s symbolic subjective portrayal).

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

His citing of Nietzsche’s theory of “flux metaphysics” (in citing Mark Conard, 2007) is an effective first step toward reading Jacket. It opens room for revision while keeping a firm eye on the WWII combat films that inspired the film. Like many thrilled by the career unity and variety of Stanley Kubrick, Binns reads Jacket through the lens of auteur criticism more than genre. Yet he ignores important earlier genre contributions by Kubrick, which offer much insight into treatment of the group and individual psychology: 1) the WWI-era Paths of Glory (1957), which expands the aftermath stage of battle – via a court martial of three men charged with cowardice for a general’s blunder, and their Colonel’s (lawyer turned Colonel Dax, Kirk Douglas) continued leadership as their defense counsel; and 2) the Cold War-era Dr. Strangelove (1964), which moves the “group” combat focus to a ship of fools of leaders gone really mad in a “war room.” Though I don’t mean to condemn auteurist genre readings, since, as Robin Wood has noted, they can yield revisions and clarify the means of analyzing them. (6) But, to look at Jacket in isolation from other related works by a filmmaker restricts the benefits of this dual approach. Binns’s response to Sgt. Hartman is oversimplified in saying that his attempts to strip his men of their personalities are futile (67). In a sense, his actions lead to Joker’s transformation into a killer, even if of the mercy-killing form at the film’s end, and Hartman pushes the special-needs Lawrence into madness and murder-suicide. In a sense, this analysis is also offensive. Hopefully, most readers are concerned with portrayal of the non-neurotypical being abused, even in films released before Autism Spectrum Disorder was understood. Rest assured that parents of non-neurotypical children like me can enlighten those who aren’t. If readers tend to give Binns the benefit here, then take note of his description of Lawrence as a “lazy, disobedient, overweight slob” (69), which reads like neurotypical “othering” of the disabled (and he’s not clarifying any limited perspective here). I truly hope it doesn’t result from Trumpist cultural imperialism’s influence on Austrailia. Binns comes right up to examples of the US’s cultural imperialism in Jacket – overly sexualizing Asian women (i.e., the prostitutes), and the young men Orientalized as Bruce Lee-wanna-be judo masters (7) but doesn’t clarify the presence or add to it.

Binns relies a lot on established readings of the film, seeing it as a rendition of group action in the film’s second narrative movement, though one reflecting confusion and estrangement (discussed since Jean Jacques Malo and Tony Williams published Vietnam War Films [8], and again, where the missing Platoon detracts from Binns’s discussion). The author regretfully ignores the subversive treatment of the service comedy (which I’ve analyzed elsewhere [9]) and the psychological reading of Joker that comes with it. In a strong turn, Binns argues for the importance of mise-en-scene and theme in the film’s latter narrative, which for many lags before the final undercut of the 80s Reaganite warrior: Joker’s mercy-killing of the child sniper.

Three Kings (1998)

Three Kings (1998)

His chapter on Middle East conflicts (3) turns things around as the most unified and effective of the collected readings – though his closing chapter (4) on Cross-Platform War (Comics and Video Games), which redirects to a media studies approach, would help the student/fan in those fields more than one in film studies. Binns provides a solid context of not just the advance in ballistics portrayed in Middle East war films, but in technology as “a mediator: the growing distance between trigger and target necessitates different relationships and interactions between man and technology” (89), with the benefits and drawbacks of the new 24-hour news cycle and multiple voices being heard (90). The revised warfare and communications resulted in

a fragmented political landscape (that) manifests itself culturally in a disorienting, unnatural, unconventional visual frame, in a jarring editing style, and in narrative structures occasionally tending to the postmodern(….) This is a cinematic aesthetic informed by digital technologies, media coverage, and modern weaponry. (90)

While offering strong reminders of the benefits of teaching The Hurt Locker (2008, on trauma and its aftermath) and Jarhead (2005, the inertia of military service), his reading of Three Kings (1999) is most valuable. This David O. Russell film, focused on Desert Storm, depicts warfare as “a journey through treacherous landscape, often made even more dangerous by its inhabitants” (96) which advances such portrayals in Vietnam films. Russell’s direction and Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography rework news media stylistics into filmic narrative, while channeling the “subjective, introspective” point of view from one to many. Binns suggests, questionably, that O’Russell’s perspective also heightens the menace beyond his Vietnam film forebears. For many viewers, the mediated images here don’t outweigh Kubrick’s symbolic subjectivism of Jacket or Stone’s psychological realism in Platoon. While the three Middle East war films in discussion hang well together, readers may dismiss the inclusion of Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (2005), though I find it a welcome note of genre hybridity (too often neglected) by a noted screenwriter-turned-director. I wish that Alyssa Quart’s “hyperlink narrative” theory (pinging on page 111), which ignores the modernist sensibility that inspired the scripts of Guillermo Arriaga (i.e., William Faulkner [10]) and other reflexive film narratives, would fade into e-dust. Jameson’s cognitive mapping (111) is more helpful.

Rescue Dawn (2007)

Rescue Dawn (2007)

Binns “Conclusion” is largely a recap, while addressing war cinema’s overall goal to combat repressive ideology – selling American triumph – which is “a 21st-century manipulation of the grand narrative” (151). His framework to go beyond eras of film history in grouping related visions of conflicts remains admirable, though we can’t ignore the benefits of thematic analysis. Connecting Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn (2007) and Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken (2014), for example, as two contemporary POW films/entries in survivalist cinema depicting differing eras, would yield interesting conclusions related to the trend of extremism in genre cinema (blending European extremism and genre treatments). The requisite “enemies meet” motif in Unbroken (in light of other clever revisions in the Steel Helmet, Hell in the Pacific [1968], and Full Metal Jacket) gets a special treatment between Louie Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) and the brutal torturer, the Bird (Miyavi), whom Jolie treats like an alter ego of Louis’s brother, in his youth, pushing him in track training (as a budding Olympian) beyond his limits. Aside from historicizing and conflict analysis, war film subgenres may be the future.

Notes

1) Hess Wright, Judith (2003, 1974), “Genre Films and the Status Quo,” in Genre Film Reader III, edited by Barry Keith Grant (Austin: U Texas Press): 43. Originally published in Jump Cut, no. 1, 1974, pp.1, 16, 18.

2) Eberwein, Robert (2010), The Hollywood War Film (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell).

3) Schatz, Thomas (2006), “World War II and the Hollywood ‘War Film,’” in The War Film Reader, edited by J. David Slocum (New York: Routledge), 147-155: 149.

4) Schatz, Thomas (2010, 1988), The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P): 297.

5) Ibid., 347.

6) Wood, Robin (2003, 1977), “Ideology, Genre, Auteur,” in Film Genre Reader III, edited by Barry Keith Grant (Austin: U Texas Press): 60. Originally published in Film Comment 13.1 (January-February 1977), 46-51.

7) Sorrento, Matthew (2016), “The Service Tragicomedy: from Woody Allen to Full Metal Jacket,” in The Companion to the War Film, edited by Douglas A. Cunningham and John C. Nelson (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell): 84.

8) Malo, Jean Jacques and Tony Williams, ed. (2011, 1994), Vietnam War Films (Jefferson: McFarland).

9) See Sorrento (2016).

10) Arriaga, Guillermo (2010), “Writing and Filming the Memories,” interviewed by Matthew Sorrento, Bright Lights Film Journal, 31 January, https://brightlightsfilm.com/wp-content/cache/all/writing-and-filming-the-memories-an-interview-with-guillermo-arriaga-on-the-burning-plain/#.W3MXcs5KgdU, accessed 8/1/2018.

Matthew Sorrento is Co-Editor of Film International and teaches film studies at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey. His collection, David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)interpretation, co-edited with David Ryan, is forthcoming from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Read also:

Broken, Yet Living: Memoir of War (La Douleur)

The Heart of Fuller’s Marauders: Film is Like a Battleground – Samuel Fuller’s War Movies by Marsha Gordon

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