Today we return to Hollywood cinema, and how and why its films are made. I grew up during the period of the Vietnam War, and as a result developed a negative view of war and of the corporations and politicians who promote and profit from it.
Today this is a somewhat antique viewpoint. When I wrote my first professional screenplay, for United Artists, the studio decided not to pursue the project because, in their words, it was “too English, too expensive, and too anti-war.” This was a story about an Englishman, set during the First World War, so I plead guilty to the first two criticisms – but the third? I didn’t know it was possible to be too anti-war.
This was especially the case with the First World War — still famous for its unbelievable and gratuitous loss of life. In one battle, Verdun, which lasted from February to December 1916, there were almost a million casualties, including 300,000 dead. The battle was as prolonged as it was indecisive. When it ended, the front lines between the Germans and the Allies were almost the same as when the battle had begun.
One Hollywood studio, Universal, tried to make a film that was an authentic representation of the terrible slaughter of the First World War: ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (USA, 1930), directed by Lewis Milestone. Some of you have seen it. This early talkie is a sophisticated piece of work, with expertly choreographed battle sequences and a script and performances which convey the cruelty and futility of that war.
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT is unique in that it depicts a war from the point of view of our enemies. The film was based on a book by a German war veteran, Enrique Maria Remarque, and depicted the lives of German infantrymen. So powerful was the film that it attracted the attention of an up-and-coming right-wing politician, Adolf Hitler. Hitler seized upon the film for two reasons: it exposed his own rhetorical techniques, and it was something for his Nazi followers to unite over, and protest against. Hitler understood the power of movies. He would hire a talented filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, to craft a documentary which glorified the Nazis, TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (Germany, 1934).
As you’ve seen from our first reading (Ben Urwand, The Collaboration, pp. 21-37) ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT was popular in the United States but came under sustained attack from the Nazis in Germany, and from the German consulate in Los Angeles. Remarkably, the studios seemed concerned solely about their bottom line, and fearful of losing market share in Germany. So Universal re-edited ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT in line with the Nazis’ demands, and no more films with anti-war or anti-Nazi themes were made. As Urwand writes (pg. 37),
“Not only Universal Pictures but all the Hollywood studios started making deep concessions to the German government, and when Hitler came to power in 1933, the studios dealt with his representatives directly.”
When the US entered the Second World War in 1943, the prohibition against anti-Nazi films was waived. But there was no sign of an anti-war film along the lines of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT following that war, or during the Korean War (1950-1953) – which saw almost three million people dead and ended in stalemate, based around the border where the war began.
Occasionally, a foreign filmmaker was able to make a film which was deeply critical of war and those who benefit from it. Fernando de Fuentes’ VAMONOS CON PANCHO VILLA! (Mexico, 1936), Kon Ichikawa’s NOBI / FIRES ON THE PLAIN (Japan, 1959) and Elem Klimov’s IDI Y SMOTRI / COME AND SEE (Russia, 1985) are unambiguous narratives in the vein of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. Stanley Kubrick also made a film unambiguous in its hostility to war with PATHS OF GLORY (USA, 1957).
But in the 1960s, as the Vietnam War grew increasingly unpopular, Hollywood sided with official policy and remained actively pro-war. Warner Brothers released THE GREEN BERETS (USA, 1968), directed by Ray Kellogg and John Wayne. The US Information Agency hired veteran director John Ford to produce a pro-war documentary, VIETNAM! VIETNAM! (USA, 1971). The same year an independent film, WELCOME HOME, SOLDIER BOYS (USA, 1971), directed by Richard Compton, dealt with returning veterans: it was the first of several films to depict them as psychopaths. This was a double-bind for the veterans, most of whom were still sane and had been politicized to oppose the war (in his book The Spitting Image, Jerry Lembcke estimates that of the returning veterans, as many as 70% supported the Vietnam Veterans Against The War movement).
As long as the war lasted, Hollywood made no films which questioned or opposed it – though Robert Aldrich’s Korean War comedy, MASH (USA 1970) came close. Arthur Penn directed BONNIE AND CLYDE (USA, 1967), and Sam Peckinpah made THE WILD BUNCH — violent stories of outlaws at war with the authorities, with unprecedented levels of bloodshed. Both were thought of as referencing events in Vietnam.
The war ended in 1975, with casualties in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos estimated at two million. In the late seventies, studio-backed Vietnam War films began to appear: first Michael Cimino’s DEER HUNTER (USA, 1978), then Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (USA, 1979). The next decade saw Oliver Stone’s PLATOON (USA, 1986) and Stanley Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET (USA, 1987).
Though they were made by directors who probably thought of themselves as liberals, none of them has a clear anti-war focus. Instead there is an ambiguity about them: a ‘We were bad, but so were they’ approach which objectifies the Vietnamese, and encourages us to identify with the American protagonists. When Coppola said he made APOCALYPSE NOW ‘to exorcise the ghost of Vietnam’ that ghost didn’t require exorcising. It needed to remain seated at our table, like the skull on the desk of the philosopher, reminding us of our mortality, and of our duty to avoid war, as an environmental disaster and international crime.The Nuremberg judges in 1946 had established that “to initiate a war of aggression… is not only an international crime, it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
These ‘liberal’ Vietnam movies opened the floodgates for a number of right-wing, studio films such as RAMBO (USA, 1982), HANOI HILTON (USA, 1987) and WE WERE SOLDIERS (USA, 2002). But whatever the politics of the filmmaker, the studio Vietnam films were told from the perspective of ‘our’ troops, who often behaved heroically, in a war not of their choosing, against an objectified or demonized ‘other’.
This is so common today as to appear, perhaps, inevitable. But remember ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT — the anti-war, Hollywood studio movie, which told its story from the point of view of our enemies, the Germans, and showed that they were no different from ourselves.
In 2003, Anthony Swofford, having served in the US military during the First Gulf War, wrote a book called Jarhead, in which he pointed out the inherent difficulty in making a an anti-Vietnam-war movie:
“Actually Vietnam war films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick, or Coppola, or Stone intented… The magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man.”
Swofford’s argument doesn’t just relate to soldiers or potential soldiers watching war movies. Films and television and games tend to rely on violence as a means of problem-solving. Drama has traditionally done this. Shakespeare’s tragedies are all resolved through serial acts of violence. Think about that and about all the movies you’ve seen, or games you’ve played, where the solution to the immediate problem is to kick some ass. Consider the Westerns, and the war movies, where the right thing, the heroic thing to do, is kick some ass. Think of the TAKEN franchise (France, 2008, 2012, 2014) in which Liam Neeson’s various family members are kidnapped. What would we do in such a situation? Rely on the police? Raise money for a ransom? Not Liam, who portrays a hard-charging former CIA agent, not afraid to get out there and kick some ass!
Imagine, for a moment, that we behaved in our daily lives as people do in movies. You’re sitting there taking notes and someone comes in late and lets the door slam loudly. What do you do? In reality, ignore them, or give them a look. If this was a movie or a first-person shooter, what would you do? You’d kick their ass!
Real life is not a movie. Real people can’t afford to be constantly beating up on each other. We’re inherently cooperative. Most of us, in the words of Rodney King, just want to get along. Those who resort to violence at the drop of a hat are thought of as bad people. And that was the point of all that violence in those old dramas of the Elizabethan stage. When Hamlet decides to kill Claudius, when Macbeth agrees to usurp the Scottish throne, when Vindici in REVENGERS TRAGEDY (UK, 2002) decides to take personal revenge against his enemies, they seal their fates: the original plays were written at the turn of the seventeenth century, and their playwrights both showed the audience ingenious and entertaining acts of violence, and reminded them that revenge was wrong, and that those who engage in it must die.
That was the moral message of the Elizabethan stage, a venue just as bloodthirsty as any Italian Western or Tarantino film. Somewhere, in the intervening four hundred years, that moral message got lost.
I think it has to do with popular novels, such as James Fennimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans (1826) and Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902). Cooper and Wister combined a violence-prone hero with a happy ending. This was somewhat revolutionary. It fit the progressive notion of forward movement and conquest, of Manifest Destiny, but it reversed the moral message of Hamlet, whose hero must die precisely because he has committed acts of violence and revenge.
Both books became popular films, repeatedly. Films which suggested an alternative – financially or politically motivated – reason for violence were few. Interestingly, in this context, is one of the “missing scenes” which Coppola incorporated into APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX (USA, 2001).
We watch the scene – devoid of any violence – in which Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando, attempts to convince Willard, played by Martin Sheen, that the Vietnam War is being won. To do this, Kurtz has imprisoned Willard in a shipping container. This might seem arbitrary to us today, but shipping containers – the modular metal boxes that we see on trucks, and ships, and railroad freight – were a US military invention – first attempted in the Second World War, perfected in Vietnam.
In her book, The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade, Deborah Cowen writes (pp.40-41):
“Initially developed to solve the logistic challenges of the US military during and after World War Two, the container would eventually help to transform the organization of civilian life. While there were earlier experiments with container technologies, it was the US military’s use that led to its development and standardization. More than fifty years after its introduction as an efficient means of moving military equipment to the front, the container has been celebrated as the single most important invention in the economic globalization of the decades that followed.”
The US military-industrial complex has produced amazing things: the internet, the shipping container, the art and science of logistics, spacecraft landing on the Moon and Mars. Whiz-bang things of this nature are thrilling to studio executives… well, maybe not the shipping container, but the other stuff. And there are other reasons why Hollywood makes pro-war movies. First and foremost is the simple issue of product placement. Since the 1950s studios and TV producers have made money by strategically placing certain products in the frame. In BLADE RUNNER we saw prominent product placement for Coca-Cola, Atari, and Budweisser. Roy Batty died in front of a glowing sign advertising TDK, a Japanese electronics company.
Product placement is now a very big business, worth $8.25 billion per annum worldwide, according to a 2013 analysis, with almost five billion of those dollars being spent in the United States. Most of that money was spent on placing products in sports and television shows, but a substantial amount went to the Hollywood studios. The US military isn’t allowed to offer money to the studios, but it doesn’t need to: it has facilities, tanks, aircraft, aircraft carriers and free extras to trade instead.
As you’ll have noted from our second reading (David L. Robb, Operation Hollywood, pp. 177 to 188), all the branches of the US military offer resources to the studios in return for the right to vet screenplays and require changes. One example he gives is the film THE RIGHT STUFF (USA, 1982), which the US Navy viewed as an excellent recruiting tool. However, the Navy refused to provide the producers with assistance until they agreed to make several changes to the script, and to reduce the amount of swearing in the picture. Since the film was a tool for recruiting young people, the Navy needed it to receive a PG rating, rather than an R. Studio, director and screenwriters speedily complied. Mission accomplished.
Dramas are apt to be biased. In a time of war and paranoia they are apt to be biased in favour of paranoia and war. AMERICAN SNIPER (USA, 2015) was originally to have been directed by Steven Spielberg, a Democrat. Spielberg dropped out because he wanted a budget of $160 million, and Warner Bros. was only prepared to spend $60 million. Clint Eastwood, a Republican, did the job instead. This was a disagreement about money, not about the bias or moral direction of the sniper bio-pic. AMERICAN SNIPER is a bipartisan film.
Documentaries can be biased, too. They are different from journalism, I think, because the people who make them have an unconcealed point of view, and want to share it with the audience. COLLATERAL MURDER (Australia, 2010) is a short documentary based on footage and audio from a US helicopter on patrol in Iraq. This is genuine war material, and may serve as a corrective to the the ambiguous or enthusiastic tone of Hollywood’s dramatic features.
Operation Hollywood: How Hollywood Shapes and Censors the Movies, by David L. Robb, was published in 2004 by Prometheus Books. A new edition is forthcoming, from Penguin.
The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, by Ben Urwand, was published in 2013 by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Jarhead, by Anthony Swofford, was published in 2003 by Scribner.
The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam, by Jerry Lembcke, was published by NYU Press in 2000.
The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade, by Deborah Cowen, was published in 2014 by the University of Minnesota Press.
New PQ Media Data: Global Product Placement Spending up 12% to $8.3B in 2012, Feb 22 2015, http://www.prweb.com/releases/2013/4/prweb10626564.htm