You might not consider war movies surprising in wartime, but you’d be wrong.
Take a random sample, for example, Moviefone’s Top 25 War Movie list. Only five of the titles were released in years when the US was actually at war. And none of these titles made the top twelve. War movies, it seems, are a robustly peacetime phenomenon.
Now the country spends more time at peace than otherwise, so I suppose you could put this observation down to chance. But that seems unlikely. Movies, after all, are relentlessly topical with producers ripping stories from the headlines. So why should war movies be different?
Clear answer: Because some topics hurt too much for immediate consumption. Go to the World War I monument in any French village and you will see that it was constructed in the mid- to late-1920s. Trying to hold a dedication ceremony in 1918 would have been unbearable. Trying to dedicate a memorial in 1938 would have found people preparing for the next war. Check out the Moviefone list and you’ll see that movies, too, peak a decade or so after their respective wars.
This is not to say that wartime never leaves its mark on movies. Plainly, it has. Consider the so-called “Women’s Pictures” – less politely “Chick Flicks” – that flooded the country during World War II. It's pretty clear that these films were a response to the War, the genre wasn't nearly as strong before or afterward. Strangely, though, the War is hardly ever mentioned and when it is it usually occurs off-screen. But that doesn’t save the heroine. Instead, she undergoes horrific over-the-top suffering – Dying of a brain tumor (Dark Victory), say, or going to jail for her repellent offspring (Mildred Pierce), or renouncing the one man she can ever love (Now, Voyager). When the War does make an appearance, it’s not enough for her to lose a husband – her son has to die too (White Cliffs of Dover). My own personal favorite is a comparatively cheerful Spencer Tracy/Irene Dunne vehicle called A Guy Named Joe. In that one, Dunne loves bomber pilot Tracy, but he’s killed over Germany. Youth is resilient, so a year or two later she meets a young fighter pilot (Van Johnson) who is, natch, slated for a suicide mission in the Pacific. Now the good news: The government has trained her to ferry fighters from base to base. Not to spoil it for you, but she flies the mission – no one can handle a P-38 like Irene Dunne – and saves Johnson for herself.
It isn’t hard to see how women earning good wages in the wartime economy might have wanted (and even paid for) a little vicarious misery while their men slept in foxholes. Movies, after all, are an extension of our dream lives. Why shouldn’t displacement and repression and guilt and all the complex machinery of grief play a role in what we watch?
All of which brings us back to our original puzzle: Why have two war movies shown up to contest the Oscars while Americans are still fighting and dying? The not-very-flattering reason, I think, is that – apart from the Democrat left and parts of the Republican right – most of the country has lost interest. Psychologically, if not physically, the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars seem sooooo Pre-Recession. Which explains why now, prematurely, Hollywood has reverted to its peacetime taste for war movies.
By any reasonable standpoint the situation is pathological. Dreams, the psychologists tell us, are supposed to process and fix the lessons we learn from life. And surely movies perform a similar function for mass culture. But what happens when Hollywood’s dreams start processing lessons before the data is in? After all, we would recall World War II very differently if we did not know who had won. Yet that is precisely what Hollywood seems to be doing with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And so, lacking data, the Baby Boomers in charge recycle narratives from older wars including, inevitably, Vietnam.
That’s a pity. Like all art, a good movie should learn from life. Then, and only then, will it have much to say. I’m betting that the definitive Iraq or Afghanistan movie (novel, play…) hasn't been written yet -- and won’t be for another decade.