Glen Jeansonne, David Luhrssen. War on the Silver Screen: Shaping America's Perception of History. Lincoln: Potomac Books, 2014. 200 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-61234-641-0.
Reviewed by Anna Zuschlag (Western University, Canada)
Published on H-War (March, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
War: Coming to a Theater Near You
The release of the World War I drama All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) in Berlin so enraged Joseph Goebbels, future propaganda minister of the Nazi Party, that he unleashed a horde of mice and set off stink bombs in the local theater. Critics argued that the film, and the novel on which it was based, mocked the sacrifice of German soldiers. Yet All Quiet on the Western Front prevailed, standing nearly a century later as an example of cinema’s ability to portray the grand futility of war. Historian Glen Jeansonne and film critic David Luhrssen’s War on the Silver Screen: Shaping America’s Perception of History is an intriguing examination of film’s influence on the United States’ remembrance of its military engagements. The impact of film, the authors contend, can be more powerful than the actuality of war because film often distorts reality in the service of bringing citizens together in the name of bonding and commemoration. War on the Silver Screen is an engaging and highly readable work suited for those interested in the ways in which cultural artifacts, such as film, intersect with martial, political, and social matrices to imbue historical events with meaning and memory.
War on the Silver Screen provides a historically oriented guide to the movies that have shaped American memories about wars in which the United States has been involved. Profound visual images and impassioned dialogue in such films as All Quiet on the Western Front, Dr. Strangelove (1964), and Flags of Our Fathers (2006) create responses on a visceral level, not only because “wars naturally lend themselves to intense drama” and can make for thrilling cinema, but also because the emotions evoked often seem just as powerful (p. xi). Jeansonne and Luhrssen identify conceptions about American wars that the film industry has produced and perpetuated. The authors aim to articulate how the heady combination of war and film creates a collective experience that echoes the national bonding that takes place during wartime. They argue that war films can be just as impressionable on public understanding as the wars they depict and that neither wars nor their cinematic avatars exist in cultural or political isolation.
Organized chronologically, War on the Silver Screen endeavors to cover specific twentieth-century military conflicts (e.g., World War II) and spans of time designated by a general state of war (e.g., the four Cold War decades). Each chapter begins with a historical survey of the conflict’s key events, constructing the context for how the war developed, how it was fought, and how it was represented on screen. Jeansonne and Luhrssen merge the battlefront and the home front. This is potentially problematic because different issues can be at play in these two different realms, though acknowledging the national zeitgeist is essential to understanding the impact of war on citizens and soldiers.
The book begins with World War I, the first war of the film age. Aligned with the emergence of Hollywood, World War I set the course for American war films. It was the first of many military conflicts that would have to compete with participant experiences for primacy over public memory. The films discussed are widely recognized as important war films and include All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory (1957), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). The first chapter cements the pattern for those that follow: historical summary, production highlights of specific movies, and plot synthesis.
Chapter 2 explores World War II. The authors rightly address the fact that the “Good War” was not so good for everyone, mentioning riots, racism, and segregation. The film choices in the chapter are especially effective for being the intense but neglected Twelve O’Clock High (1949) over the equally intense but oft-discussed Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). Readers familiar with film scholar Jeanine Basinger’s The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre (1986) will find similar terrain covered here. The chapter reads more as an engaging history lesson than an analysis of the construction of public memory at the hands of Hollywood at the peak of its propagandistic powers.
Chapter 3 is the longest; it attempts to cover the nearly forty-five-year Cold War. It provides a thorough breakdown of how the United States and the Soviet Union came to coexist in a state of mutually assured paranoia and how the American film industry perpetuated the notion of a Soviet “menace.” Again, those acquainted with the vast literature on Cold War films will be treated to a thorough and well-written compendium of the era’s greatest hits—political, military, and cinematic—focusing on The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Dr. Strangelove, and Apocalypse Now (1979).
The book’s most original and compelling chapter is its final one: “The War on Terror.” The chapter’s open-ended timeline is subtly ominous. This war is still in progress, and, while it may be rare that a reader will have lived through World War II, every reader will have experienced the War on Terror on some level. Though the War on Terror’s events are very much a shifting landscape, the chapter reads as “current” as it can. Jeansonne and Luhrssen set the scene by unraveling, quite effectively, the tangled political and military threads that led to the events of 9/11. They also discuss the changing state of media and new digital platforms, such as YouTube and Netflix. The authors make the case that these transformations have affected the film industry and film-going in post-9/11 America, mainly by diminishing the audience’s ability to find real meaning in the media materials they consume in increasingly isolated (and partisan) ways. In turn, this has made the War on Terror a difficult topic for filmmakers to tackle and memorialize in the age of a ’round-the-clock news cycle and Twitter. The chapter provides a succinct breakdown of many of the films that have attempted to bring some understanding to the War on Terror, with a focus on United 93 (2006), The Hurt Locker (2008), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). As Jeansonne and Luhrssen make clear, the events of 9/11 have so often been described as surreally cinematic that depicting them on celluloid with real gravitas and authenticity has proved largely illusive.
The films discussed in War on the Silver Screen are referred to as “enduring signal films” that have fueled public and scholarly discourse well after they have left the theater (p. xiii). The criteria for picking “signal” films is not well articulated beyond them needing to be a source of dialogue. The authors argue that they have chosen the films in chapter 1’s discussion of World War I because they shaped that war’s place in popular memory. These films were made by Americans and released by Hollywood studios (excepting the inclusion of the British Lawrence of Arabia and Australian Gallipoli ). The films do not refer to the American role in the war because “the stories of other nations seem more compelling” (p. 26). The authors appear to have overlooked Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1971), a film based on Trumbo’s 1938 novel which tells the story of a traumatically injured American soldier. Perhaps the book’s argument that foreign war narratives were more captivating to audiences alludes to some unspoken connection between the authors’ choices and ticket sales. Johnny Got His Gun was a middling success. Yet Paths of Glory—about mutinous French soldiers—was a box office disappointment too, critically lauded, but a dud for its studio, United Artists. Still, it is a central film in chapter 1. The uneven premise for determining “signal” films continues into the Cold War. The Korean War was not a favorite of Hollywood filmmakers. Few films were made about the conflict from an American perspective. Even so, two important Korean War films, Steel Helmet (1951) and Fixed Bayonets (1951) are dismissed outright because they did not connect with American moviegoers. Instead the authors focus on the American Red Scare and the espionage in John le Carré novels and James Bond flicks. The question remains: for a film to have an impact on the popular memory of the war it depicts, must it also be popular with audiences?
It is unfortunate that the authors do not appear to have taken into account the compelling scholarship surrounding the construction of public memory and history, and the role of film within them. Cultural and media studies scholar Marita Sturken is interested in the place of visual culture in the manufacturing of national memories. Her 1997 work, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering, addresses how audiences responded to and interacted with Vietnam War films. A line of analysis similar to Sturken’s could have been woven easily into the narrative Jeansonne and Luhrssen follow, giving more substance to the subtle methodological nods they make. This is also the case with the conception of film and history. While War on the Silver Screen is jammed with film history (and will satisfy the cinephile’s appetite for behind-the-scenes lore), its understanding of historical film as a stand-alone entity appears muddied. Missing here is the presence of such scholars as Robert A. Rosenstone (History on Film, Film on History ) and Marcia Landy (The Historical Film: History and Memory in Media ), who have written about film and its powerful relationship with history. Thus, the opportunity to view films from multiple perspectives is overlooked. For example, Paths of Glory is not just a film about World War I. An examination of its reception by audiences and critics in 1957, the year of its release, could very well reveal ways in which Americans coped with the Cold War and the (ma)lingering tendrils of the Korean War and McCarthyism. Therefore, when a film was released can be as intriguing to sociocultural and historical inquiry as the historical event the film depicts.
War on the Silver Screen is eminently readable and its ease with language is appreciated. Yet there are instances in which the book’s text lets it down. For example, phrasing can switch abruptly into the affected. “Wan as a candle in a dark church” (p. 161), a line describing the character Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, is conspicuous, interrupting the flow of the workaday (not an indictment by any means) wording before and after it. The book is full of film production history, which is part of its draw, yet this does not always serve the authors’ larger efforts. Hollywood minutiae, such as Paths of Glory screenwriter Jim Thompson’s pulp novel The Grifters (1963) becoming a popular movie (in 1990), are better suited to endnotes, or left to intrepid film trivia hounds to seek out on their own. There are also occasions when the fact checker and copy editor have erred: renowned film historian David Thompson is referred to as “Dave” (p. 14); the authors accuse Letters From Iwo Jima of a factual indiscretion, pointing out that Baron Nishi’s Olympic medal-winning stallion, Uranus, did not join him on the island and thus was not killed during an American air raid as depicted in the film (p. 79), yet Nishi clearly calls the dying horse “Jupiter” in the purported offending scene; while it could be argued that Senator Joseph McCarthy was indeed “censored” (p. 101) by the US Senate in 1954, the act itself is known as “censure”; in 2014, the “sinister Oriental villain of Dr. No” (novel 1958, film 1962) (p. 108) is perhaps best described as being of Asian descent, especially when there is nary a mention of Edward Said in the text or citations; “The Russian House” (p. 112) is actually The Russia House (1990); and Jessica Chastain’s character in Zero Dark Thirty is named Maya, not “May” (p. 162). These slips take a knowledgeable reader “out” of the book, to the detriment of its generally smooth prose, and could set those not in the know on a course of confusion.
War on the Silver Screen is suited for those with a “history” with war films, and film history more generally. For the uninitiated, the book is best utilized in conjunction with other works examining the convergence of history and film. Readers expecting textual or formal evaluation, in the film theory sense, will not find it here. Jeansonne and Luhrssen concentrate on building the historical narrative and production backgrounds of their chosen films, emphasizing plot synthesis over analysis. This absence extends to the minimal discussion of gender. There are nods to gender, for example, in discussions of the wives and daughters in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and the Central Intelligence Agency interrogator, Maya, in Zero Dark Thirty, but a more coherent analysis of the issue, even in the margins, would have made for a more well-rounded project. Perhaps the space for these additions could have been found in a stand-alone conclusion. As it is, the concluding paragraph of chapter 4, which is the book’s conclusion, is not sufficient for such a broad topic as war on the silver screen. The whirling helicopters in the book’s impressive cover art stand in for the swirling questions that remain unasked and unanswered.
. Bruce Cook, Dalton Trumbo (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977), 304-306.
. James Howard, The Stanley Kubrick Companion (London: Batsford, 1999), 59.
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Anna Zuschlag. Review of Jeansonne, Glen; Luhrssen, David, War on the Silver Screen: Shaping America's Perception of History.
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