In the cliché finale of countless classic-era Westerns, heroic cowboys find themselves defending pacifist settlers from a Native American Indian attack. The Native American Indians ride around a circle of upturned wagons. Massively outnumbered and short of ammunition, the cowboys can’t hold on much longer. Suddenly, as if appearing out of nowhere, a detachment of US cavalry — dressed in blue, the stars and stripes flying — ride into view. The Native American Indians flee, and the settlers are saved. In classic Westerns the US Military were presented as heroes: bravely protecting innocent and defenseless civilians from brutal ‘savages’.
By the 1970s a new consciousness had spread across America, and Revisionist Westerns like Little Big Man (1970) were more sympathetic to the Native American Indians than the likes of the US Cavalry. The portrayal of the military echoed the so-called ‘counter culture’ of the times, hippies, disillusioned students and other disaffected segments of society: Americans unhappy with US ‘imperialism’ and its involvement in the Vietnam war. Now the military were more likely to be viewed as amoral, part of a ‘fascistic’ ‘system’.
In Avatar (2009), a science fiction re-imagining of the Pocahontas story (set on a distant, and exotic, planet), the mercenary, military force, represses the giant blue natives, and causes ecological catastrophe on the planet through its profiteering mining activities. The military are portrayed as arrogant, macho, ‘gung-ho’, out-of-balance, fueled by violence and money — psychotic. It feels like a criticism of the so-called US ‘military industrial complex’, the tight-knit overlap between projected military power, and it’s corporate support: massive resources, impressive technologies, and mass-production. The perception of the military as macho and psychotic is echoed in The Abyss (1989), where they are isolated and threatened, unable to call on their command structure, they begin making dangerously rash and illogical decisions. The stake is always higher in wars, or situations involving the military, because lives are at stake and people are walking around with weapons.
In The Thin Red Line (1998) military conflict in the Pacific, during World War Two, provides an arena for shocking violence: this is contrasted against the spiritual ‘cathedral’ of the natural world. The military is presented as a corporate-industrial machine where officers fret about the politics of promotion, and willingly sacrifice their men for personal career advancement; and where decent officers try to save those under their command from slaughter. The soldiers are numbers in a brutally choreographed business of war. Individual characters experience different outcomes: their own learning, discoveries, and sacrifices.
The horror of war provides the focus for Paths of Glory (1957) where the military are depicted with largely incompetent and decadent officers leading brutalised soldiers who are treated as canon fodder, and accused of cowardice for not acquiescing to their own slaughter. Here, the military is a kind of monster, led by the ruling elite, which is feeding off the sacrifice of the working class. In Attack (1956) a US Army soldier must fight the Nazis, and his incompetent, cowardly officer (who has been promoted as the result of a corrupt favour, not through his own competence). The unpleasant politics of war provides a grim reality distinct from heroics or death.
Downfall (2004) chronicles the last days of Hitler’s life in the bunker below Berlin, surrounded by his Generals and high ranking Nazi Party members. The scenario is one step on from Paths of Glory — here the mayhem and destruction that the ruling elite has brought on its own and other people is finally catching up with them. This denial-filled world is crowded with impossible military objectives, and deluded notions of snatching a glorious victory only moments before an ignominious defeat.
War is futile: this is the theme of Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) where a British Army Officer attempts to create meaning and pride, as a Japanese prisoner of war, by successfully building a bridge for his captors — only to realise that in his quest to rediscover meaning as a POW he has lost all wider perspective of the war. The military is often associated with rigid conformity and harsh, dehumanising training programmes that crush individuality, and personal meaning. Films like Platoon (1986) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) explore the military training process, the brutality, and camaraderie.
The craziness of war can lead to a lack of perspective, and complete mental breakdown. In Apocalypse Now (1979) a US Army Colonel must be assassinated because he has gone insane. His insanity is almost indicative of a collective American sickness. And in another Vietnam War film The Deer Hunter (1978), a former steel worker's experience of combat and being a prisoner of war takes its toll on his mental state. While in Waltz With Bashir (2008) an Israeli soldier comes to terms with his part in a civilian massacre perpetuated by a Christian militia in Lebanon.
But there is another side to war, distinct from misery and death. In Das Boot (1981) the micro-world of a German U-Boat is explored, along with the Captain’s leadership skills and the comradely spirit of the crew fighting a war underwater. And in Ice Cold in Alex (1958) enemies discover that the real adversary is the desert, not each other. While other Second World War stories like The Dam Buster’s (1955) celebrate the dedication of Army, Navy and RAF personnel, British ingenuity and resilience. Being in the military can also be fun, even during a violent conflict. In The Virgin Soldiers (novel 1966, film 1969) young conscripts go through a coming-of-age experience, have sexual experiences for the first time and generally learn about ‘life’. The comic side of being in the military underpins M.A.S.H. (novel 1968, film 1970, TV series 1972), which is set in a medical unit during the Korean war; and Bilko (AKA The Phil Silvers Show, 1955, and Sgt. Bilko 1996) in which a charismatic and likeable crook uses his time in the army to steal and sell army supplies for his own profit. Here corruption is admired as capitalistic resourcefulness, whereas in Attack it’s treachery.
Continuing the theme of war stories as celebrations, films like The Guns of Navarone (1961), and Where Eagles Dare (1968) present the war story as mainstream adventure entertainment, something along the lines of a theme park ride, rather than a realistic representation of the horrors of combat. These films combine stunts and explosive action. Being in the military, participating in a war situation in these stories, resembles a fantasy game, something akin to child's play, where most of the people killed are in effect 'playing dead'. It’s almost like a simulation of war.
In Predator (1987) a powerful, elite US army force faces a terrible, alien monster. These US Army servicemen are almost as helpless as the innocent civilians facing attack from Native American Indians in classic Westerns — but there is no US Cavalry to magically rescue them.