Every now and again there comes a war movie that transcends the genre and speaks to a far wider audience than just “history buffs” or “war movie fans.” These films both tell their story more adeptly but also speak to deeper issues about the nature of our society. All armies are, of course, a reflection of the societies from which they are drawn. There have been many great war films. In 1998, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan re-defined what a war film was, courtesy of myriad state-of-the-art special effects and camera work all allied to a commitment to tell the story as accurately as possible. The impact on audiences at the time was significant with the efforts of Spielberg and his team, to reflect the sounds and sights of combat, wholly successful. Their efforts were uncompromising and shocking. Audiences felt as though they really knew what war was. When combined with the subject matter, D-Day, the result was a perfect storm: the last “just war” and the most well-known, to US audiences perhaps, battle of that conflict.
Compared to that other D-Day epic, The Longest Day, there was, well, no comparison. No comparison in terms of how the combat was represented and conveyed. The Longest Day, of course, conveyed a broader representation of the D-Day landings and endeavored to sketch in the wider campaign. What it did have, unlike Saving Private Ryan, were cast members who had seen active service in World War II. In the case of the English actor, Richard Todd, a man who had actually parachuted into Normandy as part of the airborne operations to seize key bridges in advance of the main landings. Similarly, Joseph Lowe, still a serving US Army soldier in 1962, had climbed the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc on the morning of 6th June and served as an extra in the film (replicating his efforts). The difference between the cinematic impacts of these two epics is substantial and is in part explained by the vast strides made in special effects and all the other accoutrements that the movie industry has developed to tell the story more effectively.
Another consideration is that, in the early 1960s, the memory and the experience of World War II was recent; 11 million Americans served their country in that conflict, many of them in the Army created by General Marshall, almost overnight, between 1939 and 1941. The need to replicate the bloody actuality, as opposed to the wider human stories, was less acute than in 1998. By then, the memory of World War II had dimmed somewhat, and the movie-going audience was several generations removed from the first-hand experiences of war and the war that was fresh in the memory was either Vietnam (long and unpopular in the public mind) or the first Gulf War (popular but brief). In 2015 the experience of war is far fresher in the memory, albeit experienced by a much smaller percentage of the populace than World War II. This “freshness” therefore is due to the media cycle and the internet and the many ways in which events far away now reach us, uncensored, from Afghanistan and Iraq. The impact is both to de-sensitizing as to the reality of war and empowering to those who become convinced of their qualifications as an “armchair” General.
Now, in 2015, another film has usurped Saving Private Ryan in terms of earnings: American Sniper has now exceeded Saving Private Ryan as the largest grossing war movie of all time—quite an achievement indeed. The film is controversial for a number of reasons in part because of the nature of a sniper’s role in combat and also because of controversies surrounding its subject, Chris Kyle. What the film has done however, in a world that, courtesy of 24/7 news media and post-Saving Private Ryan, is remind us of the real gulf between the war as we, at home imagine it, and the actual reality of it. In early February of 1944, some four months before the D-Day landings, General Marshall addressed a gathering of the American Legion in Washington DC. Brief, as ever, he talked about the strategic prosecution of the war, against both Germany and Japan, but focused his remarks on the tactical aspects of the fight and commented on the fact that he had received “vehement” protests about the US employment of what he termed “flame fighters” [flamethrowers] in the bitter fighting in the Pacific. His speech noted:
“I speak with an emphasis that I believe is pardonable in one who has a terrible responsibility for the lives of many men, because I feel that here at home we are not yet facing the realities of war, the savage, desperate conditions of the battlefronts.”
Marshall had begun his address with a specific not to the veterans of his audience, “my remarks are addressed to you veterans who are familiar with the demands of battle and with the reactions of soldiers in campaigns.” He knew then that the war people think they know is very different from the war that is actually experienced. Even today, with special effects influencing our understanding and the ever-present news media, we at home can only grasp or imagine the reality.