A hand rocks nervously. The sky is grey and grown men tremble and some wet themselves. The landing craft they are on is flimsy and even small waves rock it back and forth. The sound of machine gun fire echoes over every thing but the thoughts in their heads. Soon the craft hits land. The flap goes down and bullets penetrate the soft cloth and flesh. Some puke while others spill their entrails into the water from gaping holes in what used to be stomachs. A small few make it onto the beach to press onward, onward to more horrors untold. This opening scene from Saving Private Ryan is heralded by many as the most realistic war movie ever made. These same critics have commented that movies have sought to be more realistic in both the visual aspects as well as dialogue and plot development since their inception many years ago without a thought as to how they would affect the people who watch them. Many believe that movies and especially movies based on war or about war have a profound and decided effect on those who watch them. From John Wayne’s clinical treatment of battle in the European theater of WWII to the ferocious reality of that same conflict in Saving Private Ryan pundits argue that movies give many different viewpoints on wars and what happens in them.
On one side of this debate are those who say that overexposure to realistic brutality increases a person’s proclivity to violence. In their article “Children, Adolescents and the Media” Strasburger and Donnerton assert that “What alarms people is the possibility that desensitization to entertainment violence might in turn affect responses to real life violence” (Strasburger). Stasburger seems to be saying that with people watching more painstakingly real portrayals of war like savagery, there may be an upswing in the amount of hawks or war mongers among the population. Some might think that this desensitization to war has led to the current state of the U.S. military being stretched so thin over the world. Strasburger and Donnerton plead that “to be numb to another’s pain - to be acculturated to violence - is arguably one of the worst consequences our technological advances have wrought” (Strasburger). Certain people propose that the politicians of today are not only desensitized to the effects of war to the country but also to the effects of war on the citizens and perhaps most importantly to the effects of war on the soldiers. They might argue that this has caused overindulgence in the use of the military not as a device for defending the country but for bullying and solving political grudges.
Of course there is no limit to the amount of views concerning the relationship between cinema and modern politics. In his book Realism and the Cinema, Christopher William says that movies should:
Raise questions about the actions and natures of governments or socio-economic systems which might lead viewers to shift their personal schemata, to alter their ‘templates of the familiar’ to accommodate interpretations of political and historical events different from the commonsensical views that they are ordinarily familiar with(William).
This view had been taken by many to believe that all movies are inherently political no matter what their point of view. Some critics argue though that this overreaching definition of politics tries to blend art and propaganda too closely, while others argue that some films could just as easily be construed as a means to treason. William argues that if there is no longer a progressive narrative and if images are trapped in and endless cycle, then there is no overarching aim and no room for growth or thought (William). With this in mind many surmise that movies must formulate a hypothesis either in favor or against something simply to stimulate thought for entertainment.
The thought they stimulate is no less a subject of contestation as Stanley Corkin says in Realism and the Birth of the Modern United States. “The power of propaganda depends upon its audience’s viewing such manipulation as veracious” (Corkin). He then goes on to construe that the mass media is an industry controlled by those invested in the persistence of class relations and thusly all media must be contextualized and acted upon through an audience’s critical perspective (Corkin). In fact, Corking boldly states that critical demystification is a necessary device for minimizing such textual and cultural power (Corkin).
Many believe that movies more specifically target a certain audience in a variety of ways. Liberal pundits say never is this more specific than with war movies which generally are marketed at males ages 18 and up, who, consequently happen to be the people able to serve in the armed forces. In Realism and Popular Cinema Julie Hallam states that the bravery and sacrifice shown in movies is incomparable, “the manhood may have been romanticized, but behind it, dimly has been the presupposition that common things have virtues and that straight up braveries are the essence of nobility” (Hallam). Hallam goes on to propose that the realities of life are what make interesting cinema, even if they are painted in the baby blues and pink of happy endings and luxury finales (Hallam). She wonders if perhaps the grit and toil is what makes the happy ending all the more sweeter. “We want our romance with the sweat and the smells thrown in” (Hallam).
“Other than John Wayne’s much maligned Green Berets, which reached theaters in 1968, Hollywood was afraid to cover the war during the conflict” says Peter Rollins in The Columbia Companion to American History on Film (Rollins). Rollins relates that this trend to allow events to play themselves out before dramatic licensing takes place is one that continues even today, as is evidenced by such films as Blackhawk Down which was released almost a decade after the event took place and Saving Private Ryan and Thin Red Line which were more than half a century after the events they portray. Theorists suppose that it is therefore not surprising then that as soon as one anti-Vietnam movie was made more were sure to follow. Rollins points out that in “Hair” the protagonist participates in the love and freedom of the Age of Aquarius but is then sent to Vietnam where soon after he dies, an innocent victim of a senseless war machine (Rollins). Many veterans say this and other movies in the same vein is a false attempt to clearly paint a picture of a blood thirsty government seeking to transform its young men into killers fro profit.
Perhaps the most devastating portrayal of military training on motion picture is Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket where incoming soldiers are hardened and become amoral monsters (Rollins). According to a slew of movie goers this movie was clearly not in favor of the war in Vietnam but also spoke out against the training underwent by U.S. recruits. Rollins claims that as an outsider to the Corps, Kubrick missed all of the positive effects of boot camp on young men, who often gain a sense of pride and accomplishment after having completed a physically and mentally challenging thirteen weeks of training (Rollins). Critics surmise that many movies sought out the dark side of the Vietnam War and showed perhaps an unfair side of the American armed forces. Platoon which has been called by Michael L Lanning, a Vietnam veteran and military historian, “The unkindest movie yet made about the Vietnam War” shows not so much a war story but a general cross section of the turbulent times in American society in the 1960’s (Lanning). Rollins relates in fact that the main character has to murder his platoon sergeant to begin his new life, but along the way manages to see raping and indiscriminant killing of Vietnamese villagers all of which is at odds with the actual behavior of most American troops in Vietnam (Rollins). “What is a shame for the viewer and an insult to every Vietnam veteran is that the vast majority of those who see it believe it is the ultimate true story of what really happened in the war” (qtd Rollins).
A great majority of critics agree that every movie is out to make a point of some kind. William points out that it is the audience’s job to dissect and discern what should be taken as fact, and what should be looked on solely for its artistic value (William). Experts postulate that the effect of realism in war movies in America is as diverse as the people who populate the country; whether a movie has a strong patriotic, even propaganda like, underlying theme; or a liberal almost anarchist type of message, they claim that the ultimate repercussions of the movie lie in the hearts, minds, and most importantly the actions of those who watch it.