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History of War Films Reflects Shifting Public Opinion

The current conflict in Afghanistan will undoubtedly be portrayed on film at some point, but history indicates that the current trend of rampant patriotism doesn't guarantee a completely positive angle.

Late in the 20th century, after Vietnam, the pervading sentiment in Hollywood was skepticism. But during the first era that film and warfare coexisted, propaganda ruled the day.

According to a University of San Diego Web site, on the April day in 1898 when the Spanish-American War officially began, two movie entrepreneurs saw the jubilant crowds in the streets of Manhattan and decided to capitalize on it.

The two quickly filmed a mock American seizure of a Havana government installation and put it in theaters a few hours later. The ensuing crowds didn't seem to mind that the event portrayed wouldn't historically take place for several weeks.

Such cinematic representations of war in film reflect the public opinion of the time, said John Kasson, professor of history and American studies.

But this unwavering support of the war effort was exclusive to the time.

"More recently, it has been more critical, but that critical dimension can only work if there is both a political and public willingness to tolerate it," Kasson said.

In a country that is no longer intently focused on the divisions of the Mason-Dixie line, films about the Civil War are subject to that critical analysis. These movies have the benefit of no real-time film testimonials with which to compare. But the makers of "Glory" chose to base their film on the media of the time: letters. These letters, written by Col. Robert Gould Shaw, leader of the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Regiment, helped historians and writers develop a clearer picture of the war and its battles.

The films regarding World War I featured more mixed messages. During the war, propaganda films vilifying Germans came out in droves, painting them as barbaric and uncivilized. Many films also pushed the war effort and the selling of war bonds. But after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the growing film industry didn't have entirely glowing views of the war.

Kasson said the few film representations of World War I weren't entirely supportive. "Films about World War I were very slighting, like Chaplin's 'Shoulder Arms,' and they had some rather questioning remarks," Kasson said. "All Quiet on the Western Front" was another film he named as critical of World War I.

But films produced during World War II and immediately afterward are notorious for their constant support of the war and the U.S. government.

The films produced during and about World War II were often made in collaboration with government officials or made by filmmakers who served in the war, so their sympathetic portrayals were a simple result of proximity.

Numerous films made in the Cold War addressed both the threat of nuclear war and the Soviets. Sixties films such as "Fail-Safe" treated the subject with deadly seriousness, while Stanley Kubrick gave it a humorous bent with "Dr. Strangelove." Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, films such as "Crimson Tide" continued to portray splinter Russian groups as dangerous.

But the violently protested Vietnam War era did not feature the same ties between filmmakers, the government and war. Cynicism climaxed, and the less glorious side of war found its way onto film.

"I think it's true that the second World War was treated in a rather affirmative light, and most of the films about the war in Vietnam presented a much darker vision," Kasson said.

Kasson identified "Apocalypse Now" as a seminal film with regards to the representation of war on film. Its maddening, chaotic portrayal of the war in Vietnam set a precedent for all war films to follow.

War films even produced around this time that didn't feature the Vietnam War carried the same skepticism. "With the movie 'Catch-22,' the book was about World War II but its perception was very much informed by the war in Vietnam," Kasson said. This Vietnam mind-set continued to affect war films, injecting them with a requisite amount of criticism.

Oddly enough, as films about the Persian Gulf War and military actions in Somalia hit the theaters, the war seemingly free of cinematic critique is World War II. Recent productions have addressed the second World War with a sense of nostalgia in a way reflecting the positive cinematic spin that was put on the war during its hey day. Kasson attributes this resurgence of support to awareness that the generation that fought in World War II is largely gone.

"These people are very old, and we might say that the elder George Bush is undoubtedly the last president who will have served in the second World War," he said.

"Saving Private Ryan" is one of those films that expresses a deep appreciation for the soldiers who served in World War II, but it shares a graphic quality with those same Vietnam-era films that prided themselves on their eye-opening brutality.

"I think one of the striking things about these films, and 'Saving Private Ryan' is conspicuous, is the way in which it can simulate some of the brutality of war and push it further than previous writers or filmmakers have done," Kasson said.

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Despite this trend of honesty about the horrors of war, truthfully there can never be a film that showcases war without at least some distortion.

"No one wants to go to a film and sit there for three hours if it's going to be unrelieved horror, if it simulates actual warfare," Kasson said. "If art were as undifferentiated and as painful as real life, we wouldn't see it."

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at