The last proper “war film” I saw was Letters from Iwo Jima (or the rightly praised Band of Brothers if we’re counting television). These stories, and most war films, depend on creating attachments to characters and then throwing them through escalating, harrowing conflicts, leading to a cathartic or bittersweet ending with a message of the author’s choosing. Many of you must realize I’m not just describing war movies—I’m talking about the classic three-act structure of the majority of film. To discuss our mainstream portrayals of war in cinema is to analyze some of the very foundations of the medium. Many of our earliest films deal with war—propaganda, historical re-enactments. When the (short-lived) Yugoslavian filmmaking industry began after the end of World War 2, the majority of their films were Partisan war films. The purpose has both cynical pragmatism and genuine artistic intention. Creating characters we care about in the service of a greater cause or country lets the audience conflate their sympathy with said greater cause. The structure of most war film is rote and uninteresting for a reason—it intrudes on the audience’s viewing in no way whatsoever, stepping aside and letting the message or conflict have center stage. Pauline Kael once wrote that many “classic” films are from the studio era precisely because of their bland, utilitarian technique—anything more forced and they wouldn’t stand the test of time. War films and their story structures are the same way. Most of us don’t want uncertainty in our darkest times—we desire to see heroes of simply, wholly good character face adversity or evil and overcome it. Whatever may happen to the hero’s cause, we are certain at least that their cause will prevail.
Oh, what I would do for such reassuring feelings right now.