Film and TV

Hollywood's Long March to War

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Exhausted and disenchanted by the Great War, Americans embraced Lewis Milestone's anti-war classic All Quiet on the Western Front in 1930, and isolationism generally ruled the Depression -- in Hollywood and everywhere else. But when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, they not only picked a fight with a very big dog and provided a fat payday in the distant future for Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, they provoked a quarter-century's worth of flag-waving John Wayne movies. The Duke, with that big, chiseled face and that rolling, tough-guy walk of his, had been impressive as the Ringo Kid in 1939's Stagecoach, but he was absolutely born to play a Marine sergeant. Or, a little later, a no-nonsense army colonel. In lockstep with the government's Office of War Information, which approved every foot of combat-movie film the studios shot, John Wayne (and a dozen lesser, merely mortal heroes) became the embodiment of the American fighting spirit -- certain of his mission, confident in his bravery, a source of constant inspiration to the wide assortment of surrogate sons under his command. You know the guys: the wisecracking cab driver from Brooklyn, the quiet Hispanic, the thoughtful Jew, the rawboned Southerner with the Bible in his pack, the scared teenager from Podunk.

From The Fighting Seabees to Flying Leathernecks (but most powerfully, perhaps, in Sands of Iwo Jima), Wayne became the spirit, soul and conscience of America's righteous battle for democracy -- the battle that Sergeant York initiated in 1941 (by way of 1917) but that didn't achieve its full ferocity until John Wayne gave it voice, pumped it up and determined to take no prisoners. In particular, Hollywood spared no Japanese, who were invariably portrayed as subhuman yellow demons. Never had Hollywood stood so firmly behind a crusade -- American war propaganda was even slicker than its German counterpart -- and never had the movie industry found such a perfect physical expression of its ideals as the Duke. War may be hell, but the box-office receipts were dynamite.

By 1945, American war movies had begun to evolve. John Wayne still fought the good fight, but in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), director William Wyler examined the psychological problems of returning veterans with unstinting force. In The Steel Helmet (1951), war-vet-turned-director Samuel Fuller confronted not only the murky specter of Korea, but racism in the armed forces and shifting notions of heroism. By the time America found itself mired in Vietnam, war movies had almost vanished from the screen, themselves the victims of war.

There were exceptions, however. In 1962, one of the old-time studio moguls, Darryl F. Zanuck, produced a star-studded epic about the Allied invasion at Normandy, The Longest Day. In 1967 Robert Aldrich directed a hit called The Dirty Dozen, a brazen comedy about a band of criminal misfits who lay siege to a Nazi-held castle. The following year, known for the infamous Tet Offensive, John Wayne himself undertook a bizarre rearguard action with The Green Berets, an old-fashioned war movie that tried to infuse the increasingly unpopular Vietnam war with Wayne's traditional blood-and-guts patriotism. The critics scoffed and moviegoers felt uneasy. In 1969, as if to seal off an entire era, crusty George C. Scott gave one of the great screen performances of all time in Patton, a surpassing biopic about the complex World War II general George C. Patton. The public has been arguing ever since whether it's a war movie...or an anti-war movie.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo