by Bill Kinder
Veterans Day is coming. It’s unlikely you’ve been preparing for it. We don’t say, “It’s only October and the Veterans Day decorations are already out.” Not to mention the perennial confusion with Memorial Day. But there will be some nods to it in the news cycle this week: some pageantry, parading, and perhaps a day of war movies on a cable channel.
But for a truly thematic, cinematic tour, you would not look at The Longest Day, The Big Red One or Jarhead. Veterans are soldiers who fought or served (past tense) in the military. The drama arising from their return home is so different from battlefront bonding and peril – as different as is Ulysses from The Iliad. This essay reviews Hollywood’s rich tradition of dramatizing veterans’ Post War experience – and explains why that tradition is now nearly dead, the subject practically taboo.
DEFINING ‘POST WAR’ MOVIE
A film historian limiting a survey to the second half of the twentieth century would conclude that the modern memory of war, as experienced by soldiers, was not only a prime subject of cinema, but also one of its obligations. While not as numerous as straight-ahead war movies, many “Post War” movies were of major cultural import in the twentieth century.
The one that started it all, forging a template of sorts, is William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Widely considered the best film the year immediately after WWII, it hauled in several Oscars – and is beloved today, I’m told, by Steven Spielberg.
The opening of the film contrives to show the three main characters’ perspective of homecoming through the nose of a B-17 Flying Fortress. And from that vantage point, it presents a list of the things that would come to define the idea of “home” to celluloid soldiers. “American” things, things they fought for, things they were nostalgic for, things they were returning to. The men are bursting with desire and anticipation at the parade of these symbols of ”home”: football and baseball, hamburgers and hot dogs, Coca Cola, hot rods, baby strollers. It’s a consumer’s paradise as American as apple pie.
But most of all, it was a return to the long-absent loved one, a woman. Again, under the deep-focus eye of Director of Photography Gregg Toland, each of the three returning veterans play out their respective marriage plots – and none of them live up to the dreams they carried with them behind enemy lines.
These two robust fantasy worlds of desire – consumerism and sexuality – curdle in the telling of this first Post War film story. As the vets’ transition to civilian life gets past the Rockwellian doorstep reunions, the shadow of war darkens the once-bright dreams of home. Consumerism dims to dull alienation, muddling the clarity of “Why We Fought.” Lust darkens into edgy frustration. You might expect the heroes of the Good War to be portrayed more simply – more, well, heroically. But they are lost, the damage of even a victorious war bending them toward desperation and tragedy. Alienating Consumerism, and Sexual Tension: the first two tropes of Post War film.
There are two other simple motifs developed in The Best Years of Our Lives: Addiction (almost always to alcohol) and Disability. The former is one vet’s way to numb the pain of battle trauma; the latter is on display in the body of an actual veteran who suffered the loss of both hands, playing one of the main characters.
Consumerism, Addiction, Disability and Sexual Tension: these four themes, launched by this grandaddy of Post War films, would play out for generations of moviegoers. A quick review of the best known Post War films will reveal how these four ideas became short hand for the difficulty of coming home from war for seventy years. Tracing these threads across many movies reveals a consistent, thematic pattern, and, inevitably, clichés. Also, an interesting list of movies to see again in this light – just in time for Veterans Day. Put away the Halloween Horror collection, and turn to the Coming Home Canon. [See sidebar for my Top Five recommendations.]
In The Best Years of Our Lives, bombardier Fred Derry (played by Dana Andrews) returns from the war with no marketable skill. His application to a manager position in a big department store is met with an offer to work the retail counter, selling perfume. The frivolity and absurdity of the marketing-manufactured desire make a powerful, ironic commentary on the “spoils of war.”
The same scathing view of spectacular consumer excess appears wrapped in the guise of a musical number in Always Fair Weather (1955). Taking place ten years after the war — and The Best Years of Our Lives — it tells the story of three veterans re-uniting. It may be surprising that Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse front a witty, urbane takedown of the myths built around winning a war, but remember, the McCarthy hearings were underway, and the musical genre made a shrewd mask for satire. The critique is hiding in plain sight, in a showstopper that features Dolores Gray belting out “Thanks But No Thanks” to a pageant of absurd gifts. It feels like a Post War-weary riff on “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
A mass fetish for nylon stockings, scarce during the war, plays out as a cliché by mid-century. Consumerism certainly courses through most movies made after WWII; after all, a baby boom was exploding as the direct result of war ending. But these Post War films stand out by presenting the banal, narcissistic choices in department stores and supermarkets as a mockery to the trauma experienced by many veterans. We see this disconcerting contrast persist through Coming Home (1978), make a brief appearance in The Hurt Locker (2009), and set up The Master (2012). Even First Blood (1982), the original Rambo story, uses fast food chains in cliché form.
In Desperate Journey (1942), straight up wartime B-movie agitprop, Ronald Reagan plays a reckless bombardier (trigger warning). As the crew heads home, their first radio contact with command is to request a “steak and a waitress.” They fly into the sunset. The End.
But in the films that pick up the story at the next sunrise, the longing for female comfort alongside the riches of red meat never works out the way the warriors fantasized. Once again, The Best Years of Our Lives set the stage: each of the three veterans has so much repressed emotion – shame, depression, anger – the respective romances and reunions stutter, hide, or break up.
Two decades later, Captain Newman, M.D. (1963), takes on war’s threat to male sexuality in a psychiatric hospital for WWII veterans. Gregory Peck is the head doctor, trading on his paternalistic authority built on years playing kings and cowboys – and also his show of vulnerability as a pilot in Twelve O’Clock High (1949). He was the empathic love doctor, coaxing couples into consummating their romance as a cure for what ails. He visits the wife of one catatonic case to prescribe sexual healing:
“Get a nice new dress, something feminine, something flattering.”
“You mean ‘erotic,’” she snaps.
“Why not?” Peck is bewildered.
She protests, and the great leading man is confounded. Paradoxically, he is equally confounded, nearly speechless, when his own romantic interest (Angie Dickinson) blurts out, “When this is over, I want to get out and have some babies.” Intense tension.
The monolithic cultural assumption that the nuclear family answers the riddle of domestic happiness is complicated by these stories: an atom is clearly knocked loose, out of orbit and off kilter. This sexual dysfunction carries right through all the Vietnam Post War stories. Coming Home (1978) presents a complicated happy ending with Hanoi Jane (Fonda) herself, while Born on the Fourth of July (1989) reduces its war hero to the level of dirty whores. And veterans’ perversion by war reaches self-referential depths in Taxi Driver (1976), when Travis Bickle takes the chaste Betsy to sleazy Times Square, where she protests, “This is a dirty movie!” More recently, in The Master, Joaquin Phoenix’s lust is both feverishly creative and physically excruciating, as he quells his sailor’s sexual frustration with a larger-than-life sex doll… sculpted of sand.
Alcohol is everywhere in all of these movies. Bar scenes, solo drinking, group binging… you can practically smell the sour, sticky floors and the post-bender vomit. There’s always a bottle around to re-kindle male bonds weakened outside the theater of war, to drown out the pain, or to choke any emotion that might be trying to come out. Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978) takes heroin as the centerpiece, but more for the dealer’s score than the escape of its high. For that, we see Nick Nolte at the bar downing boilermakers.
The Best Years of Our Lives was applauded for treating the subject of war injuries with courage. In recognition of his bravery, The Academy gave actor Harold Russell, the handless veteran, not one, but two Oscars for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.”
Traction, crutches, casts, wheel chairs, amputations… the scars of war are made manifest in grisly visuals to remind us where these soldiers have been. Nowhere more so than Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1971), whose subject is a quadruple amputee without ears, nose, eyes, or mouth. As the pastor in the film preaches, “Man is not material, he is spiritual.” Which makes the psychic disability, now called PTSD, the real subtext for all of the outwards wounds – and the central drama at the heart of all these films. The physical wounds, the boozing, the buying sprees, and the sexual frustration: all strategies to make the trauma concrete, by whatever name the doctors diagnose it.
The modern version of “battle fatigue” gets direct portrayals in Captain Newman, M.D. and The Master, both of which are clearly indebted to John Huston’s long-censored documentary, Let There Be Light (1946). It describes the treatment of “truth serum”–induced hypnosis (aka “narcosynthesis”), as what sounds like a description of cinema itself, a “shortcut to the unconscious mind.” This form of hypnosis created a suspension of the pain and suffering, an escape from the source of trauma… narrated by an authoritative character. Just like a movie. It seemed to work. Huston’s film shows veterans cured, as proven by their ability to play baseball, or football: America getting back to Normal. Meant as a rallying cry for increased veteran care with the miracle of modern medicine, Huston’s honest portrait was, well into the 1970s, considered too disturbing for the public.
WHERE HAVE ALL THE VETERANS GONE?
Given this historic, central role played by movies in processing the aftermath of war for popular culture – and given the central role of war in today’s society – we should ask why movies about war veterans have become so rare? You will see a thousand ‘Support the Troops’ bumper-stickers before you see one narrative film about the experience of veterans coming home.
We can start with the declining level of popular involvement in the war effort. WWII directly affected just about everyone, and everyone knew a veteran. For Vietnam, due to the draft, the same was true. 2.5 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined is not like the good old days (15 million streamed home from WWII). This is not the demographic the studio marketing execs are targeting. There was an unavoidable “conversation” to be had about coming home. Without a draft, the responsibility and risks of going to fight a war are focused disproportionately on the group with the fewest other options – for education, training, or employment.
Further, the subject matter doesn’t play well in market research: it’s too dark. Now that the suicide rate for veterans has surpassed the number of deaths caused by the recent wars, it’s not date night, nor family material. Stories of unadulterated, uncomplicated heroism simply sell much better, creating a self fulfilling cycle. Branded, franchised, and loaded with superheroes: Star Wars, indeed.
But remember that after the very clear “win” of WWII, Hollywood was much more willing to reflect the cost of it all. And its audience flocked to see itself in that mirror, to make sense of the damage wrapped in victory. Even in the toxic wake of Vietnam, Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter (1978) stood out as popular landmarks, despite their blood-soaked, Grand Guignol visions.
It seems the appetite for superpowered heroes in costume increases in proportion to the country’s failures and setbacks on the international stage. Comic book hero movies function the way glamorous musicals did during The Great Depression: they offer escape. Escape and misdirection are today’s storytelling currency. With careful stage-craft and “optics,” our presidents try to invoke a climactic Hollywood moment, dressing in warrior drag and declaring “Mission Accomplished.” Or they scream “the war is over!” only to whisper later, “we need to stay.” Wars don’t start; special forces are deployed. And as these “conflicts” drone on, there is no shared cultural moment of “coming home.” No start, no stop: perpetual war. Complete, epic narratives in three acts aren’t suited to the experience anymore. No wonder we’d rather binge-watch TV stories specializing not in ending but in propelling us into the next episode.
Finally, we should consider that the tropes of classic post-war films are worn out. When the leader of the free world encourages the citizenry to go out and buy stuff in the face of 9/11, consumerism is no longer a dissonant contrast to war. It is warfare. And sexual tension is not what it used to be, either. The stereotype that war is exclusively a man’s domain strains now under the weight of the 10% of the armed forces which is female. And we’ve gone from homosexuality as a diagnosis, to ‘don’t ask don’t tell,’ to openly LGBTQ members of the service – all since Vietnam. These complicate the marriage plots and sexual fantasies. So much for “monolithic cultural assumptions.” As for disability, many injuries aren’t as visible as amputees and quadriplegics – survival rates have improved, creating a new problem, Traumatic Brain Injury. It’s much less visible, so un-cinematic. Of the four main themes, only alcoholism is alive and well.
OUT WITH A WHIMPER
That said, a few films have been made that at least glance at these themes. We’ll finish this tour with a look at how these 21st century films are not cut from the same cloth as earlier Post War films discussed. The Hurt Locker (2008) is a war movie that touches the consumerist alienation trope in the supermarket – much like the scene in Coming Home. But that scene appears after two hours of war, and as an interlude, an excuse even, to go back to war three minutes later. War has become, in and of itself, the addiction for Jeremy Renner’s character. “The older you get, the fewer things you really love. By the time you get to be my age maybe it’s only one or two things. With me, I think it’s one.” (Cue ROTOR WASH.)
American Sniper (2014) quotes a couple of the main Post War tropes, but does not develop them as deeply as it does the first-person-shooter scenes. There hasn’t yet been a movie more like a video game, shot through the crosshairs’ POV. But even the word “American” in front of “Sniper” was not enough to get everyone on board with bestowing a myth of individual heroism. Attending to this central concern of the film, Michael Moore tweeted “snipers aren’t heroes,” and the popular conversation was reduced to “support the troops” sloganeering, limited to 140 characters. As with most shouting matches on social media, nobody came away enlightened.
American Sniper was a true story about a war hero whose adjustment to the difficulties of coming home is cut short. While there is a scene of the “sexiest-man-alive” hero Bradley Cooper drinking at a bar (check), the real world veteran’s life was cut short by another vet suffering from PTSD. Clint Eastwood’s film does not confront that irony, let alone tell that story. It disposes of it in a “periscope ending,” i.e. that title card after a movie explaining what becomes of the character. This is not a movie about veterans coming home any more than American Graffiti is about Ron Howard’s character becoming an insurance agent (as we learn he does in that film’s final title card).
After the heroic portrayal of the sniper won some prizes, a trade organization appeared to certify movies as veteran-approved, “Got Your Six.” Its website reads, “‘6 Certified’ was established to encourage more normalized depictions of veterans on film and television.’ Hmmm, “normalized”? Who appointed these people arbiters of veteran depictions on film? (That’s a rhetorical question.) It seems that American Sniper is the first and last major film they have endorsed, if only because there have been so few on the subject. They could go into the historical catalog surveyed here, though it seems doubtful they would have given a stamp of approval to Let There Be Light – Or any of the films listed here, including The Best Years of Our Lives.
Brothers (2009) is the one title that has been publicly dismissed by the “6 Certified” committee, apparently for taking unacceptable dramatic license. A representative explains, “Mr. Maguire’s character builds a bunker in the front yard. I’m pretty sure no one with PTSD has ever done that.” [NYTimes, Feb 5, 2015.] But it remains the only 21st century film I could find that takes on the subject of a contemporary return to civilian life – and with major star power (Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman and Carey Mulligan). The fevered direction of some of the more melodramatic scenes is surely up for aesthetic debate, but that is beside the point. Really the point should be that a deeply considered story of a modern warrior coming home is so topical and relevant, and yet so unusual, that it bears a closer look and more discussion (the box office concurred – it wasn’t a blockbuster, but made a tidy sum well over its production budget).
Arguably the best film from the last few years about a veteran’s return is The Master (2012). Though framed as a modern cult origin story, its dramatic engine is largely the destroyed soul of the Joaquin Phoenix character. The pseudo science spun by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sociopath is sold as a way to free oneself “from past trauma.” Though it holds up a devastating account of timeless themes, in turning backwards to the last century’s “Good War,” The Master’s comment on today’s shifting situation is muted. It efficiently recycles the tropes of Consumerism, Addiction, Sexual Tension, and Disability – all in the first ten minutes, but also like a drumbeat for two hours. Are they as relevant as they once were?
I’m not suggesting it would somehow be better to have a glut of box office-winning veteran stories recycling these motifs borne of a different era. Or a glut at all. It just seems strange that with as much as war surrounds us, coursing through the daily news, we would have so few popular stories about it. A gap on the library shelf, a blind spot – missing, like the news footage of dead and wounded coming home.
Hiding veterans is not a new tactic. Napoleon could see his maimed soldiers were not so useful to the morale of the citizenry. So he very publicly declared a “sacred debt” to their service. It was more convincing than, “Thank you for your service.” It included the proto-V.A., L’Hôtel des Invalides in Paris, but also spas: “medicinal” retreats in remote mountain villages offered as a benefit. Those war-wounded who went were out of the public eye. The tiled spas live on today, national health service covering the cost of “hydrotherapy.” Only it’s mostly pensioners and old ladies now, unaware they are stewing in the juices of wounded soldiers who fought for their nation.
Something to think about the next time you’re sitting in the multiplex for a warm bath of comic book super heroism. Why do you think movies are leaving us in the dark about the experience of our war veterans?
WHEN SOLDIERS COME HOME IN THE MOVIES
FIVE VETERANS-COME-HOME FILMS
I’ve tried to watch every narrative feature film addressing the theme of war veterans coming home. I can recommend the following five movies as a great starter tour, covering the themes discussed here, but in a surprising range of genres across many decades. I’m interested to hear your thoughts. And also, what 21st century films on the subject am I missing?
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
At nearly three hours, its pace can drag for a modern audience. But what is stunning about it, rapid fire or not, is its direct confrontation with the issues of coming home from war. This was a war we won, so you might expect the Hollywood portrayal to bask everyone in a heroic glow. But the troubles and crises faced by the main characters (one of which was played by a double-amputee from the war), are downright bracing. A favorite of Spielberg’s.
It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)
A Gene Kelly musical that covers the standard veterans-at-home tropes: alcoholism, consumerism, sexual tension. With brilliant song-and-dance, in MetroColor.
The Master (2012)
Timeless tragedy of a Johnny-comes-marching-home (Joaquin Phoenix) who is so broken by his war experience he makes easy prey for cult leader’s psychic domination.
Jim Sheridan’s film parallel-cuts between Tobey Maguire at war and Jake Gyllenhaal at home, and they clash in an angry climax. Centrally about sexual tension, multiplied by raging jealousy. Structured somewhat like The Deer Hunter in the sense that domesticity is intercut with violent war scenes (although here they are not flashbacks). The traumatic wartime climax makes the Deer Hunter Russian Roulette scene feel tame. Remake of the 2004 Danish film Brødre.
Waltz with Bashir (2008)
Stunning animated achievement struggling to comprehend veterans’ memories of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
There have been some devastating independent documentaries on the subject; in the absence of strong feature film voices, non fiction has helped fill a vacuum:
Let There Be Light
John Huston’s film, banned for decades. The reference for Captain Newman, M.D. and the opening of The Master. Watch the entire documentary.
Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
Academy Award Winner for Best Documentary Short Subject in 2015.
The Invisible War
Shattering portrait of sexual violence in the military.
Of Men and War
Lesser known French production about veterans recovering in Northern California premiered at SFIFF 2015.
Exceptional photo essay, by Todd Heisler.
George Packer in the New Yorker.
Follow a veteran on twitter. Garett Reppenhagen @SirGarett
See also vetvoicefoundation.org.
Bill Kinder is an independent filmmaker based in Berkeley. His own indie feature film enters the gap left by Hollywood: White Rabbit, a topical crime thriller about a woman veteran of Iraq struggling with PTSD, is available now on Fandor and Vimeo on Demand.