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)