The Combat Movie
The combat film is one that tends to cross other genres of a film such as, science fiction, fantasy, melodrama, and even the comedy. These films tend to focus on the United States soldier fighting in historical battles such as the Vietnam War, World War I and World War II as well as more contemporary wars. According to Gary Freitas a War historian, he has identified six basic themes that are associated with the combat film. These include, combat hell, unit conflict, war is crazy, combat duels, military command, and the big battle. At the core of these films they often show powerfully disturbing images, have instances of romance, and show the necessity, yet the cruel reality that to kill is to protect one’s own country and way of life.
When the United States entered into many of the wars in which we as citizens became involved, all of these wars have influenced the retelling with the Hollywood spin. Hollywood has influenced wartime actions, similarly, the wars have influenced cinematic productions throughout Hollywood. Our cultural attitudes are often depicted through combat films. For example, older films in this genre tend to highlight the social disparities of racial inequality. While newer films in the genre tend to highlight the American ideals and values associated with equality, a topic that is currently at the forefront of United States politics.
The Civil War
In the era of film both silent and sound, moviemakers in this era found that the North and South on the battlefront had feuds which led to many dramatic situations in the films. During the civil war movies, there are four major interpretive traditions. The first being the Ex-Confederate Lost Cause tradition which paints this image that the southern fighters are brave and heroic while ignoring slavery. The second is the Union Cause tradition, this tradition highlights the unity of the United States as one country fighting against those who wanted to separate from the unified nation. The third, the Emancipation tradition, this often views the civil war as a means to end slavery. The fourth and last tradition is Reconciliation Cause, this is where it attempts to reunify the nation back to being one government. During this period of combat films there tend to be sympathy for the KKK and racist depictions of Black American citizens throughout.
Many of the films made during this period are post-war films. There tends to be a lack of patriotism portrayed which is a common element of the films that were created during wartime. During this time there is what is often referred to as “conversion movies” these are films that showcase a protagonist who must give up their personal values for the good of their country. Once America entered WWII, many films about WWI have not been readily produced.
In this era of combat films, there is a shift in film technology. The new advances in lighting, sound, color, cinematography and special effects allow the film directors to re-create actual battles in a realistic setting than was previously able to be accomplished prior to this time. With the new technologies at hand, they were able to create more realistic combat footage that allowed the viewers back home to experience the sights of the battlefields abroad.
During this period from June 25, 1950, to July 27, 1953, many of the movies used themes that had emerged during the WWII films. We now see ethnically mixed troops, new weapons of war, more minorities also begin to appear in the films and racism becomes a topic during this time.
Contemporary Combat Films
In contemporary combat films, there are three historical categories that have been identified. These are the Gulf War, Somalia, and the Iraq war. Films in this era contain flashbacks which directly correlate to the unsettling nature of conflict that comes with combat. These films are often shot in deep focus with the action being seen in the foreground, middle ground, and background. Another common element that is seen in this new wave of the combat film is the whip panning, this takes the viewer from one scene to the next in a swift motion. This gets the viewer to feel as though they are in the action of the film on the big screen.
Typologies, Themes, and Theories
For some audience members, their only chance to view combat is through the film industry. This creates what is called a “Prosthetic memory” which is a memory generated through technology that slowly becomes a part of that person as if they had lived the experience (Friedman, 2014). When historical facts are blended into the narrative of the films they tend to comment back to previous movies in the genre. While many of the films in this genre are based on historical battles and wars, they can sometimes omit details of the events that some may describe as historically inaccurate without this information. However, when films are made during wartime, they tend to act as an advertisement for the military, they can inspire those back home, help secure funding, and inspire those on the front lines. These films include real uniforms, guns, tanks, all while blending these historically correct details into a plot that is more or less fictional. Masculinity is always at the forefront of a combat film. The men form relationships with each other, they depend upon this bond for their ultimate survival. This is one of the only genres where it is alright for men to express a deep affection for each other, while still being portrayed as brave and courageous. The films have a strong sense of nationalism. You will find somewhere woven into the scenes the American Flag, this depicts the pride of America and the patriotism that those who serve carry with them.
Technological advances to cameras, lighting, sound allows directors and film producers to create for their audiences a more realistic fictional film. They will try to use the same equipment that reporters use to get that feeling of them on the ground, with the action experience. As much as possible they want to put the viewer in with the action, this allows them to maintain a level of authenticity within the genre that the viewers come to expect from the combat films.
A viewer will know and instantly recognize a combat film when they see one. The films rely on historically accurate military uniforms, decals, weapons, rifles, tanks aircraft, and ships to maintain that authenticity, giving the viewer the iconic combat film, they know and love. There are two visual elements that characterize WWI films, trench warfare, and aerial battles. In trench warfare the men never seem to gain any ground, they watch their buddies die and eventually retreat, whereas in aerial battles these men are seen as brave and heroic with their spotless uniforms, however in their fearless duels when their planes catch on fire, you will not see a close up shot of the downing plane with the pilots. Classic visual images that cover all the subgenres within the combat films, you will see soldiers listening to music, writing and receiving letters from home. The helicopter has become a symbol of the Vietnam war era. Whether it was firing at civilians or rescuing scared refugees, this came to define movies relating to Vietnam. A relatively new innovation that the military has started to employ, and filmmakers represent in modern combat is the usage of night vision. This enables the military to do night operations, while at the same time gives the viewer a first-hand look into the eyes of the servicemen on the ground.
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As we can see the combat film is a multifaceted genre encompassing many different styles within. Just as combat evolves, tactics change, attitudes evolve, so has the film industry with this genre. Styles of cinematography have had to evolve with the times to give the viewer the experience of the front lines, and what it may actually look like to a soldier in the military, with a historically accurate approach to an otherwise fictional plot line. The combat film embodies the American values and ideologies so many seek to afford. It has inspired those both home and abroad and sets the tone for the American way of life.
- Friedman, Lester. “The Combat Movie.” An Introduction to Film Genres, 1st ed., W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014, pp. 279–312.
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