Five for fighting

Combat comes in many shapes and sizes

The Hollywood War Machine discusses subgenres of combat films, including the “good wars,” such as the Revolutionary War and World War II, which enjoyed widespread public support, as well as “bad wars,” in which the United States suffered heavy casualties, did not triumph and drew widespread public criticism, such as World War I and the Vietnam War. Also discussed are the “disguised combat films,” which follow combat-film formulas but aren’t set on battlefields. Below, a variety of examples from the book’s co-author.

Black Hawk Down (2001)
Ridley Scott’s film (adapted from Mark Bowden’s book) depicts tragic events that occurred during the 1993 U.S. mission to Somalia. U.S. forces pursue a powerful warlord in Mogadishu, where they encounter unexpectedly fierce opposition, losing 18 soldiers and airmen. Scott’s film, though sanitized somewhat (he was given access to military hardware), remains a stark reminder that U.S. military interventions do not always succeed.

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Oliver Stone’s great anti-war epic, the second of his Vietnam trilogy, stars Tom Cruise as actual Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, who begins as a gung-ho warrior and ends as a paraplegic due to wartime injuries. He eventually becomes a strong anti-war voice and helps organize veterans against the war, suggesting the early efforts of John Kerry.

Courage Under Fire (1996)
In Edward Zwick’s film about Operation Desert Storm, Lt. Col. Nathan Serling (Denzel Washington), himself under investigation for a friendly-fire accident during his watch, leads an investigation to determine if a helicopter pilot (Meg Ryan) should receive a Medal of Honor. Serling’s investigation reveals Rashomon-like multiple versions of the event, each related by one of the participants and each significantly different from the others. Zwick’s film raises thorny issues about individual responsibility and courage.

The First Wives Club (1996)
Hugh Wilson’s comedy focuses on three ex-wives, played by Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler and Diane Keaton, who pledge revenge on their philandering ex-husbands by mounting special-ops forays against them. Wilson borrowed heavily from combat films featuring small bands of covert forces, like American Guerrilla in the Philippines (1950) and The Dirty Dozen (1967). This film adheres closely to the established conventions of special-ops films, so we label it a “disguised combat film.”

U-571 (2000)
Jonathan Mostow rewrites history in this “good war” drama of World War II set in the Atlantic. An American submarine crew unexpectedly encounters an abandoned German U-boat and slowly discovers how to operate it. On board is a transmitter of the top-secret Enigma Code that rendered German radio transmission incomprehensible to Allied intelligence. Eventually, the crew masters the workings of the U-boat and cracks the German secret code. In reality, British intelligence agents, not American seamen, cracked the Enigma Code. In effect, Mostow steals merit from the British to bestow on the United States.