The war film is most easily recognized and defined by the significant use of combat scenes. In its basic concept, war is combat. The war film is generally classified by its use of the combat scene as a key component of the plot. Combat and war is found in films across all genres, but that doesnʼt necessarily put it in the war genre. The film Lincoln is largely based upon the Civil War, yet itʼs not considered a war film because the plot is not based on combat, only a small portion actually takes place during combat. The combat scene from a true war genre film is the spectacle of the film, itʼs the action that excites, terrifies, and saddens the audience, and puts the them into the action. The core of the film is often focused around this experience of going into battle.
This experience of fighting the enemy often brings about common myths. Camaraderie is a basic universal myth of war films. It is frequently seen when characters go into an intense situation such as battle, and a bond is created between them out of the experience. Camaraderie is even seen with characters who arenʼt acquainted with each other, when they are brought together for the greater good they are fighting for. In Saving Private Ryan (1998), the main characters of the film havenʼt event met Private Ryan (Matt Damon) when their mission is given, but they are willing to risk their lives to save him. This is the type of universal camaraderie that war is depicted to bring about.
Another myth found in war films is heroism. The idea that it is up to the soldiers risk their lives to fight for all that is good and for the safety of others. It is important to realize heroism is sometimes exaggerated for cinematic effect and that the depiction is not necessarily representational of a true war. War films often only depict the men on the front line, when in actuality a war is a much greater collaborative effort by many. This brings a misconception to the audience and an under appreciation for the rest of those fighting the war. Heroism has changed throughout the history of cinema. The role of the hero is no longer reserved for the strong and the brave as it seems to have been in the classical period, the hero can come in many forms. For example, in War Horse (2011), the hero is a horse who overcomes many odds to survive the war and inspire the ones he touched; in A Very Long Engagement (2004), the hero is a woman who doesnʼt give up hope in finding her husband. The genre has evolved to show that the hero now can no longer be described with only one set of character traits.
The traditional war film usually highlights a certain message or take on war with its use of myths. The evolution of film is evident through the changing of messages. Each war and each time period are different in their general sentiment and tone. As a result, the specific war depicted within a film often tells much about how the film will approach the idea of war. For example, the World War II films often send a message of nationalism, honor, and respect because the war was historically well supported. A film that takes place in the Vietnam war, on the other hand, often approaches it critically because the war wasnʼt generally well liked. On the flip side, depending on how historically accurate a film is, we can often learn about the general sentiment towards a specific war through a depiction on film.
The iconic combat scene has also evolved dramatically with time because of the advancements in technology, changes in conceptions toward war, and the audienceʼs taste. With the advent of computer generated images and more advanced special effects, filmmakers have been able to create more iconic intense and epic battles on a grander scale. With these increasingly intense and violent films, audiences now have somewhat of a tolerance for it. What was considered graphic in the 1950s would be nothing to the current generation. There has been a growing audience for the war genre solely for the spectacle of them: the action is what brings them to the cinema. As a result of this demand, films are in a constant evolution to do it bigger and better than the last time.
One can look at two films of the same genre from different periods on different wars, such as They Were Expendable (1945) and The Deer Hunter (1978), and easily see the changes that have occurred within the genre. The two films were made in completely different times right after two very different wars, and represent the sentiments of those wars. As a result, they approach the same conventions, icons, and myths in different ways.
They Were Expendable uses many elements from the Classical Period. The world of the story is homogenous with one universal truth and moral, to fight to protect the United States. We are taken through the story of this truth in a causal and transitive manor. One event leads to another and the audience always knows whatʼs going on. We have sort of an omniscient point of view, with not much withheld from us. The protagonist of the film, Lieutenant “Rusty” Ryan (John Wayne), with his signature “tough guy” attitude is a likable character than was relatable to many Americans at the time, especially those who served.
The Deer Hunter is very different in its approach, as it is very much so a modernist film. We have a selective point of view within a heterogeneous world from Mikeʼs character (Robert DeNiro), yet the character is somewhat distant from the audience. The plot can be described as non-transitive, with a more fragmented telling of the events within the story. There are points during the film when the audience is not exactly sure what is going on, or what certain components of the film serve for the overall purpose and meaning. Most notably, The Deer Hunter also uses situational ethic, meaning morality is relative to the situation. This ambiguous morality is visible during the russian roulette scenes in Vietnam. Under normal circumstances, the two characters would have never had risked their lives pulling the trigger of guns pointed to their head only to break into a shoot out with those holding them captive, but the situation called for it. In this case, the characters morality was based on the phrase “the ends justify the means.”
The transformation of the genre from They Were Expendable to The Deer Hunter is a large one. The myth of the hero and camaraderie seems at first to be fairly similar: a group of close guys eager to serve their country. In They Were Expendable, this group is the men on the PT boats who want to prove themselves and earn their honor by fighting in battle, and eventually do. On the other hand, the group of guys in The Deer Hunter started off excited and optimistic, but as soon as they reached the combat zone, the sentiment completely changed. The film took a dramatic stance on how war can mess someone up in the head, and keep them from entering back into society. Instead of receiving honor and proving themselves, they were left permanently scarred and hurt.
The style and intensity of combat had increased dramatically from They Were Expendable to The Deer Hunter. In They Were Expendable, the combat scenes we saw were spectacular, but they were all portrayed in a valiant and heroic way. The scenes were not particularly violent or gory, and even the deaths are shown honorably with the men paying their respects at a funeral. The Deer Hunter sought to portray a more realistic and gritty version of combat. They donʼt leave much to the imagination, most of the violent scenes are gory and intense. The two films differ in the way combat scenes were portrayed in that They Were Expendable sought to show fighting as a high ideal that was honorable, while The Deer Hunter showed a more gruesome side to bring out the true realities and destruction that combat can create.
The message of the two films are almost opposite. They Were Expendable seems to be very supportive of the war efforts and what the military was doing at the time, even utilizing actual navy resources during the production. It commended those who went into battle with itʼs use of brave men who were successful in their missions. This is not surprising being in that the film came out right after WWII had ended, which the vast majority of people were supportive of. The Deer Hunter came out just after the Vietnam War had ended, which was one of the most criticized wars in American history. It highlighted the negative effects that the war had on the characters, ultimately leading to the self destruction of one who had just about lost it completely. The film ends with the characters singing a sorrow version of “God Bless America” after their Nickʼs funeral, almost to put shame on America and criticize it for putting itʼs men through a horrific war. Thus the two films have two completely different views on war, and there are certainty many more films just like them that share their views. They Were Expendable praises those who served with honor and made a difference while The Deer Hunter blames the country who sends their youth to destroy themselves.
The war genre will be around for as long as films are being made and wars are being fought. Some of the most compelling and powerful stories from the war genre have been able to change society. The genre has gone through a tremendous transformation, which is easily seen through the films They Were Expendable and The Deer Hunter. The depiction of combat scenes, camaraderie between soldiers, heroism, and the message the film brings have existed throughout the entirety of the history of the genre, but they are in a constant transformation and evolution to bring the new ideas of the times. Although the war genre has kept the basic structure of its icons, myths, and conventions, the way in which they are portrayed is dependent upon the conceptions and sentiments towards war during the times they were created in.