Initially, war films primarily existed as propagandist newsreels or reconstructed documentaries. However, with the groundbreaking release of Birth of a Nation (Griffith, 1915), not only did the war film genre establish many conventions, but Hollywood producers also began to recognize the box-office potential of propagandist war and anti-war films (Dirks). This realization became particularly apparent in the immediate years following America’s entry into World War I. For America, the war film genre became a medium for recruitment and emotional tirades against the enemy (a tendency that was also notably utilized by Nazi Germany in the years preceding World War II). But in the years following World War I, after more fully realizing the devastating impact that the war had, a large number of war films preaching pacifist messages on the futility of war were released, such as The Big Parade (Vidor, 1925), Wings (Wellman, 1927), and the stirring, landmark film, All Quiet on the Western Front (Milestone, 1930), which is commonly regarded as one of the greatest anti-war films ever made.
As concerns regarding World War I gradually faded away and America became an increasingly more isolationist nation, Hollywood’s number of war films declined substantially. But with the dawn of World War II, the number of war films once again escalated, with many promoting heroic American patriotism like Sergeant York (Hawks, 1941) and The Fighting 69th (Keighley, 1940). At the same time, many war-themed movies depicting America’s entry into the war as a noble cause were released, such as the film classic, Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942). Interestingly, dissimilar to the film industry in the aftermath of World War I, in the years following World War II, war films remained largely patriotic instead of strictly anti-war. Towards the end of the 1950s, the war film genre really demonstrated its potential to offer impressive production pieces with the release of Bridge on the River Kwai (Lean, 1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (Lean, 1962).
Despite this rather lengthy period of mostly patriotic war films, the aftermath of the very unpopular Vietnam War radically changed the war film genre in American cinema. Many films around that time communicated the American public’s disillusionment towards the war, which is a trend that has largely carried on into today, as the vast majority of war films since the Vietnam War have made it a point to more deeply address the horrors of war. Films such as The Deer Hunter (Cimino, 1978), Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979), Platoon (Stone, 1986), and Full Metal Jacket (Kubrick, 1987) all provide excellent examples of this changing mentality.
To this day, the war film genre continues to demonstrate its value to the world of cinema, and as more recent films such as the Best Picture-winning movie The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, 2009) demonstrate, the genre is still quite capable of achieving critical acclamation. However, as noted in this post’s brief synopsis of the genre’s history, the contemporary war film has largely shifted away from its heavily patriotic style to embrace a more anti-war approach that really questions the way people see war, as well as what war reveals about human nature. More often than not, this analysis on human nature reveals that we are complex creatures, equally capable of unspeakable savagery and profound tenderness. Considering the public’s continued disillusionment with war, as well as war’s significant ties to sociopolitical issues, this trend in the war film genre will likely persist indefinitely.
Dirks, Tim, ed. "War Films." Filmsite. <http://www.filmsite.org/warfilms.html>.