If you answered they’re all war movies then you really aren’t trying. (I mean, look at the title of this post, I’m giving you half the answer already.)
The fact that they’re war movies is only half the answer. Admittedly, it’s an important half, but not quite everything. The other half is much harder to discern and requires some critical thinking. (Yes, I know thinking and the Internet quite often don’t go together. Bear with me on this one.)
Still struggling with it? Okay, I give. Here’s the answer: In all of the examples mentioned above the focus is on the event rather than the characters. Watch just about any war movie from the fifties, sixties, and most of the seventies and you’ll see they quite often have this in common.
You’re probably asking, “Okay smart-ass, what does that mean?” First off, yes I am a smart-ass, thank you for noticing. Second, it means that the story fixates on one, small, isolated story inside of a larger event, such as you see in a movie like Saving Private Ryan where the focus is on the mission to pull out Ryan and it takes place in World War II. The war is the setting rather than the focus in that case, and yes, I do think this is an important distinction to make.
In the classic war movies I’ve mentioned, the story usually breaks down as thus:
Inciting incident: quite often with a couple minor characters who may or may not live through it.
Introduction of a main character: often after they find out about/react to the inciting incident.
Forward progression: more characters introduced as events unfold – level of character control varies, often they have very little as unseen outside agencies/authorities influence events.
Climax: major battle scene/resolution of conflict – often forms a major part of the movie and will see quite a few minor characters die and perhaps one of two major ones.
Denouement: aftermath of the battle and closure of all the subplots running throughout the movie – usually denotes the disposition of the main character and may or may not have a historical note pasted on the screen.
Now the fact that these movies focus on the event rather than the characters doesn’t mean they don’t have compelling character stories inside them. For instance, Battle of The Bulge has a final shot where a German trooper realizes the futility of war and tosses away his gun and ammunition. The Battle of Britain has a pilot horribly burned before showing the reaction of his wife upon learning the news.
Another thing to keep in mind is that these movies weren’t propaganda films. They didn’t glorify war, and by the standards of the time they were shot, they were rather brutal. Yes, the didn’t match the sheer horror of the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, but keep in mind this was the same time-period when the Hammer horror films and Night of The Living Dead were the height of scary and well before the slasher-flick made it okay to show buckets of gore on-screen. The point is, characters suffered and if they didn’t openly question why they were fighting, that question was left to the audience.
On the flip-side though, a lot of these films were about events taking place in World War II (the last conflict in recent memory at least at the point the films were made) where a clear good guy, the Allies, and a clear villain, the Axis, seemed apparent; a fact that modern video games are still taking advantage of. (Still yet to see Call Of Duty: The Trenches of The Western Front, dagnabit). Also, they had the perspective of looking back on history, so the audience knows approximately what’s going to happen and doesn’t have to worry that the battle is going to be lost.
So what killed these movies? A few things such as George Lucas, Vietnam, and the Grim Reaper. (I leave it up to you to figure out which is the most evil of the list.)
Okay, okay, I better explain myself. I’ll start first with Vietnam. Vets coming back from that conflict told people, “You know, the whole war thing isn’t quite like what you’re all seeing on screen. It’s a lot dirtier, bloodier, and makes a hell of a lot less sense to the guy with a gun in the front.” The classic war films tried to make sense of the chaos of war, and for returning vets that likely didn’t ring true.
Next is the Grim Reaper. Let’s be honest, even if a soldier comes home from a war they will carry scars for the rest of their life, some physical and some psychological. Few men escape these scars. While most learn to cope, studies have found their life-expectancy is greatly reduced. Throughout the period of the classic war film, the vets were the main movie-goers. It made sense to make and market films aimed at an audience who lived through those times as they would have the disposable income and the desire to see something that might help them make sense of what the big picture was while they were stuck in a foxhole in Italy. However, by the end of the seventies a lot of these men and women’s scars were starting to catch up with them, and even the ones who remained alive had moved out of the age-zone movie makers target their films towards.
Finally, there’s George Lucas. How did he kill the classic war film? Well, with the Star Wars franchise, of course. Star Wars solidified if not created the blockbuster concept, and by Return Of The Jedi it had caused the target demographic for movie-goers to shift. Now it was no longer people in their twenties and thirties that were targeted for the next big Hollywood flick, it was their kids and younger siblings who brought in the big bucks and ensured the movie made bank.
The funny thing is, Lucas is connected to the latest example of a film that hearkens back to these classics. His passion project, Red Tails, is an unfortunately poor relative to the classic war story. It’s weak (if oddly enjoyable at times) and much less than what the valiant Tuskegee Airmen deserve.
So will we ever see another film like one of the classics I’ve mentioned above? Unlikely. Nowadays, with cameras everywhere, Facebook, and reality TV, the individual’s story, rather than the event, appears to be king. That doesn’t mean we aren’t getting good movies, or even good movies that touch upon historical and important events (I refer you to the previously mentioned Saving Private Ryan or the equally good but completely different King’s Speech – incidentally both set in nearly the same time period), but in the end I think the classic war movie has flown off into the sunset.
I leave that up to you to determine if that is a good or a bad thing.