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Wartime Men on the Silver Screen

 by Erik Helin


Tags: Film, War, Iraq, Vietnam, Masculinity,

Soldiers

Cinema’s response to war has changed since Vietnam, Michael Bronski postulates in Z Magazine. For instance, the war in Iraq has been immediately made into documentaries (No End in Sight and Standard Operating Procedure), independent films (Redacted and Battle for Haditha), and even Hollywood productions (In the Valley of Elah and Stop-Loss), while it took years for many films to be made about Vietnam. Mainstream movies like Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now weren’t released until the late 1970s, almost a decade after the war ended.

Bronski credits Vietnam with influencing other film genres as well: The slasher film, beginning with Halloween in 1978, was created as an avatar for the senseless killing of American youth during the Vietnam War, and testosterone-swelling action hero films like Rocky (1976), Terminator (1974), and Die Hard (1988) were used to reassert our postwar nation’s masculinity, as if to say, “We could have won in Vietnam!”

Further, Bronski claims that the stoner buddy movie genre, with a new understanding of masculinity, was invented in response to the absurd man-movies emblematic of the “unholy three” (Willis, Schwarzenegger, and Stallone). Films like Dumb and Dumber, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and Dude, Where’s My Car? exhibit an apolitical, peace-and-love sense of masculinity that is a direct backlash to action hero archetypes. 

Bronski’s argument is interesting, but I believe he is ignoring some important, much earlier incarnations of this same sensitive masculinity—the two most prevalent examples being Harold Ramis’ Animal House and Stripes. Both of these films, released in 1978 and 1981, respectively, put goofball, slacker men in positions where they are confronted by archetypal masculinity. Further, in both of these films this masculinity is represented by military figures (ROTC Cadet Officer Niedermeyer in Animal House and Sergeant Hulka in Stripes). The characters use disarming and nonthreatening humor to combat aggression, much like modern-day stoner comedies. But, instead of remaining apolitical, the heroes in Ramis’ films are forced to face the warlike masculinity emblematic of Vietnam militarism, proving that nonviolence can be an answer. 

Reading his article made me think of how we view masculinity in our modern time of war. If cinema is any refection, then our current perceptions equate masculinity with naïveté. Films like Jarhead and Stop-Loss present characters anxious to go to war, blinded by masculinity and a sense of duty, then humbled by the true nature of the conflict. Even stoner buddy movies like Harold and Kumar have ignorant über-masculine villains blinded by testosterone. The current trend seems to be that of peace and intelligence, which is itself a critique on war in general.  

It’s impossible to say what, if any, genres will come in response to the current Iraq War, but it seems safe to say that glorified violent masculinity is no longer something to be admired; rather it is a manifestation of ignorance and last resorts.

(Image by Jurek Durczak, licensed under Creative Commons.)