George W. Bush called last week, and Hollywood's executives answered. But Washington needn't have asked America's moviemakers to enlist in the war effort. As Doug Saunders reports, they've been doing it voluntarily for decades
By DOUG SAUNDERS, The Globe and Mail
Saturday, November 17, 2001
That all ended abruptly in 1941 (a little too abruptly for Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, who had been a close friend and admirer of Benito Mussolini). Much has been written in recent weeks about Hollywood's rapid switch, after Pearl Harbor, to government-financed war-propaganda efforts, morale-boosting films and war-bond drives. What is less often remembered is what happened to war movies after 1945, once the government funding was cut off and propaganda was no longer needed: They became even more flag-waving and simplistic. The template for postwar movies was set with John Wayne's The Sands of Iwo Jima in 1946, a dazzling tableau of multihued servicemen (in real life, they were segregated) in a thoroughly Americanized war. It set the stage for hundreds more Second World War epics over the next 10 years.
The Cold War also won Hollywood's support, though not without some casualties: The blacklist of leftists in Hollywood was cruel and unnecessary, because the Hollywood studios did not show any interest in making films during the 1950s that questioned the period's Manichean outlook. It was not until the early 1960s that a few filmmakers were able to question the Cold War's logic - with films such as the fearsome Fail Safe (1964) and its more successful satire, Dr. Strangelove. The period's cinematic ethos is best captured in John Frankenheimer's 1962 paranoid masterpiece The Manchurian Candidate, whose scheming Koreans and invisible sleeper cells are both a perfect embodiment of the mood that swept both Hollywood and Washington, and a dazzling foreshadow of today's atmosphere.
And although the phrase "Vietnam film" leads us to think of the antiwar messages of the late 1970s and 1980s, the films that were actually made during the Vietnam War were largely gung-ho: The Dirty Dozen, Green Berets (Wayne's 1968 southeast Asian reprise of The Sands of Iwo Jima), Patton. Only satirists were able to break through the khaki wall: Robert Altman's M.A.S.H. and Mike Nichols's Catch-22, both mockeries of U.S. military order, were hits in 1970, when U.S. public opinion had largely turned against the war.
The Vietnam film as we know it did not begin until 1978, with Hal Ashby's Coming Home and Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter. By this time, virtually everybody in the United States regretted Vietnam. The Hollywood studios once again were simply bolstering the American project. Nevertheless, this was a time of great artistic independence in Hollywood, largely because the studios were nearly bankrupt and it was widely assumed that cinema was a commercially dead art form. This interregnum allowed some wildly non-programmatic American visions to emerge, not the least of which was Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979).