THE WAR FILM
The war film is one of the great modes of cinematic expression. Many war films have been lauded for their realism and their focus on the cruelties of war, as well as for their portraits of heroism. Outstanding examples of the subgenre include formidable Hollywood productions such as The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Longest Day (1962), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), Glory (1989), and Saving Private Ryan (1998).
The Big Parade (1925) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) were extraordinarily successful works that established the war film in the United States as an important subgenre of historical filmmaking. The Big Parade…contains memorable World War I battle sequences, especially a night battle scene that captures the nightmarish aspect of war on the western front, and became the model for many subsequent films. Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front won international and popular acclaim, as well as Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director in 1930, for its portrait of the horrors of war as experienced by a young German soldier. The film marked the first time Germans were treated sympathetically in Hollywood films made after the war. In the most extensive use of moving camera in a sound film up to that time, Milestone used a mobile crane to create elaborate moving camera shots for the battle scenes. The film not only established the power and commercial viability of the war film, but it also established the Great War as an enduring emblem of human loss. Posing serious questions about ideals such as nationalism, patriotism, and the dehumanizing effects of war, All Quiet on the Western Front articulated the antiwar sentiment later taken up by war films such as Paths of Glory (1957), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), and Apocalypse Now (1979).
Darryl F. Zanuck's The Longest Day initiated what has become a historical film staple of combat spectaculars. The combination of extraordinary realism in the battle scenes and exceptional attentiveness to the small dramas unfolding among the individual soldiers provided the model for many films to come, among them Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan. The film also set a new standard for authenticity in the historical genre, in some scenes replicating the Normandy invasion so closely that stills taken from the shooting of the film and stills taken from the actual invasion are nearly indistinguishable.
In the late 1970s the American cinema began to take on the subject of Vietnam. Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978) both portrayed the war as a patholigical endeavor that foreboded the ruin of a generation of young Americans. It was not until 1986, however, with the release of Oliver Stone's Platoon, that the Vietnam sub-genre began to flourish as a dominant mode of cinematic expression. Stone followed Platoon with Born on the Fourth of July, an antiwar film that dealt with the trauma of the returning Vietnam veteran. A sober and scathingly critical work, Born on the Fourth of July followed in the tradition of The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) in illustrating the profound alienation of returning veterans who have been traumatized by the experience of war.
The traditional war film experienced a resurgence at the turn of the century with films such as Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down (2001), Glory, Pearl Harbor (2001), and The Patriot (2000), which together re-established the power and appeal of films that crystallize the heroism and sacrifice that war entails. Noted for the authenticity of its battlefield sequences as well as for its evocation of nostalgia for the certainties of the "last good war," Saving Private Ryan resurrected the traditional war film, which had fallen into disrepute in the post-Vietnam period, and re-established it as a dominant form in American cinema. Saving Private Ryan also broke new ground in its technological innovations, most evident in the Omaha Beach landing sequence, in which the film blends computer-generated imagery, live-action photography, re-enactments of documentary photographs and sequences, accelerated editing, slow-motion cinematography, and electronically enhanced sound design. The film combines the traditions of the war film—stressing the importance of the individual soldier and the success of the collective endeavor mounted on his behalf—with advanced visual and acoustic techniques that give it a powerful claim to battlefield authenticity and realism.