Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Brief History of War Films

Throughout the NBA Finals, ABC ran ads for a new show, “Combat Hospital.”  This got me to thinking.  No, not about watching the show, which looks like it originated when a network executive said, “What if we made “Grey’s Anatomy,” in AFGHANISTAN?  Rather, it made me think about the timing of war movies.
During World War II, there were a plethora of films regarding the war during the conflict.  These “platoon” films often featured heroic depictions of multiethnic units fighting in battle (sans African Americans, for the most part).  In Vietnam, there were very few movies directly about the war during the primary years of American involvement (1965-1973).  Hollywood addressed the war indirectly in films about other wars, such as Patton and M.A.S.H., both of which were released in 1970.  The Westerns of the time also touched on the conflict.
The film industry did not depict the Vietnam War directly until the late 1970s, with movies like Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now (1979).  Still, the biggest wave of Vietnam films did not arrive until the mid-to-late 1980s following the success of Oliver Stone’s Platoon, which won the Oscar for best picture for 1986.  Casualties of War, Bat 21, Air America, and In Country, among others, followed in the next few years.  Television also got into the act with short-lived shows like “Tour of Duty” and “China Beach.”
Interestingly, the Vietnam War films largely disappeared during the 1990s as there was a reemergence of interest in World War II coinciding with the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994 and the aging of the “Greatest Generation.”  The most memorable movies of this period included, of course, Saving Private Ryan, A Thin Red Line, and HBO’s Band of Brothers.
Unlike Vietnam, Hollywood did make a number of films about the Iraq War during the peak years of the conflict, but few of them were commercially successful.  In the Valley of Elah, Stop-Loss, Green Zone, and others performed poorly at the box office, perhaps indicating a lack of interest in films about wars when they are constantly in the news.  Even the Hurt Locker, which won best picture for 2009, was the lowest grossing Oscar winner ever.
With the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, there may be more of an audience for films and TV shows about these wars.  I doubt, however, that “Combat Hospital” will provide a good test.

Sources: Andrew Huebner, The Warrior Image (UNC Press, 2007)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Emergence of the Summer Movie

I haven’t see “Super 8” yet, but it made me think about the history of the summer blockbuster.  The reviews suggest that the film, directed by J.J. Abrams, is deeply influenced by the Steven Spielberg movies of the 1970s and 80s (Spielberg is also producing “Super 8.”)  This follows the release of “Paul” in the spring, which was a satirical look back on those films, with Spielberg making a cameo.  These films reveal that the Gen X filmmakers that grew up on these movies are now in position to make their own tributes to the classics of their childhoods.
Directors like Abrams and Bryan Singer (X1, X2, Superman Returns) are part of the first generation to grow up with the summer blockbuster.  Before the 1970s, Hollywood did not really target young people as an audience and summer grosses were not the driving force behind the film industry’s bottom line.  The studios, however, fell into serious financial trouble in the late 1960s as movie attendance gradually declined from its post-World War II peak, largely because of the rise of television.   Seeing the emergence of the youth culture in the late 1960s, Hollywood handed over control to young filmmakers who were supposed to be in touch with the cultural revolution of the previous decade.
As a result, directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Brian DePalma, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Spielberg got opportunities to make films with relatively little interference.   Because of this freedom, many film scholars see the 1970s as the golden age of film.  It is remarkable to think about the best picture nominees for 1976: “All the President’s Men,” “Taxi Driver,” “Network,” “Bound for Glory,” and “Rocky.”  Unbelievably, “Rocky” won.
Reversing the nearly three-decade decline in attendance, the success of Spielberg’s “Jaws” in the summer of 1975 and Lucas’ “Star Wars” in the summer of 1977 heralded a shift in the industry.  The studios saw that they could get not only get young people to go to the movies, but they could get young people to go to the same film multiple times.  By the 1980s, summer became the prime time for big-budget movies and the 16-24 age group became the primary move audience.   It has remained that way ever since.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

X-Men, First Class

“X-Men: First Class” was a fun movie and the best X-Men film since X2.  With its historical setting, it also provides a lot of grist for the blog.  The film, like the first X-Men movie, starts with a scene showing the young Magneto at a concentration camp in Poland.  We then see (SPOILERS) Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) experimenting on Magneto, as Nazi doctors like Josef Mengele did on twins and others in the camps.  The movie seems to draw inspiration from the 2009 Star Trek reboot, opening with scenes of the young Magneto as well as the young Charles Xavier.
Most of the film is set in 1962, during the early years of the civil rights movement.  As I mentioned in the previous posting, Professor X/Magneto clearly reflect the Martin Luther King/Malcolm X divide from that period.  This is perhaps unconsciously accentuated by the fact that the film shows Xavier growing up wealthy and comfortable, a condition somewhat akin to King’s middle-class upbringing as the son of a minster in Atlanta, while Magneto ‘s life in the camps and loss of his mother is closer to the more difficult upbringing experienced by Malcolm X, whose family was broken up after the death of his father. 
The film refernces a number of historical phenomenon.   We see Magneto's post-Holocaust revenge campaign,  pursuing Swiss bankers, whom were discovered to have kept money deposited by survivors.  He follows German war criminals to Argentina, which was the real-life hiding place for a number of prominent Nazis, including Adolf Eichmann.
The backdrop for the movie is the Cold War of the Kennedy years and the film clearly reflects the sensibilities of the early Bond films (The first film, “Dr. No”, premiered in 1962,).  Shaw, who is the films’ villain, is the prototypical Bond villain who uses the US/Soviet conflict to promote his own megalomaniacal plan.  He comes complete with the kinds of gadgets and technologies that Bond baddies from "Goldinger" to the Daniel Craig films have had.
Shaw’s plan is to get the world to destroy itself by manipulating the world into the Cuban Missile Crisis, which occured in October 1962.   Besides the fact that mutants were not actually involved, the film does get at the basic essence of the most dangerous moment of the Cold War (and one could argue, of all human history).  The U.S. placement of Jupiter missiles in Turkey, which is depicted in the film, was one of the provocations for the standoff.  JFK did order a blockade of Soviet ships going to Cuba, as a middle ground between accepting the missiles or ordering an invasion of Cuba(all depicted well in Kevin Costner’ s 2001 film “Thirteen Days”).  The film shows the Russian and U.S. ships meeting “eyeball-eyeball” as they did before the Russians withdrew.  
Some of the historical analogies became heavy-handed as Xavier pleads with Magneto not to destroy all the ships that are firing upon them because there  are "thousands of good men on them following orders" (a common refrain from the Nuremberg trials). Of course, Magneto responds that he has been at the whim of men following orders his whole life, declaring "Never again."
Still, I'll definitely see the sequels.