It’s become the new cliche. Every Memorial Day, a teacher/historian/columnist or such has to think of something to say, and inevitably we hear a phrase something like, “War is not like a John Wayne movie.” OK, but who the heck ever said war was like a John Wayne movie? Life is not like many movies. Even movies that are based on real, heavily documented events – Titanic, for one – don’t hold up well to close scrutiny. So why pick on John Wayne?
If you want to choose an example of what war is not like, this seems a curious place to start. Is war less like Sands of Iwo Jima or They Were Expendable than other movies? Hardly. Both movies depict selfless heroism by American forces in World War II, but what’s wrong with that? They also are pretty unflinching in the portrayal of the heavy price GIs paid for their service.
Even in the more propaganda-minded movies the Duke starred in – The Fighting Seabees, Flying Tigers and the extremely well done Back to Bataan – there was none of the Schwarzenegger stand-in-plain-view-and-mow-down-scores- of-the-bad-guys-with-a-machine-gun-in-each-hand nonsense. In fact, it was the main characters – and sometimes Wayne’s – who were dropping like flies.
Even the first major Western Wayne made after the war, John Ford’s masterful “Fort Apache,” was an indictment of arrogance in the face of the enemy and martinet-style military leadership.
(This tendency to downgrade Wayne in this way also extends to these critics when they discuss the West, “It wasn’t like a John Wayne movie,” they feel obligated to point out. But Wayne’s “Hondo” showed great respect for the American Indian way of life well before “Dances With Wolves,” and “The Searchers” presents a much more complex view of the Indian wars than current politically correct history.)
What “isn’t like a John Wayne movie”is what the pontificators describe as “a John Wayne movie.”
So why pick on Wayne? First, we have this postmodern tendency to tear down anyone whose reputation gets too big. This makes even the most important (and possibly most heroic) figure of the last millennium, George Washington, a target.
But more likely, Wayne is still paying for The Green Berets, his heavy-handed pro-Vietnam War flick of 1968. But even here, war is hardly portrayed as cartoonish fun.
I think what REALLY outraged critics about The Green Berets was how the cynical journalist played by the under-appreciated David Janssen gets an education about the true nature of the Communist enemy.
Besides, Special Forces veterans will tell you the movie is no less realistic – or propagandistic – than Oliver Stone’s Platoon.
Why don’t any of the boomer-aged critics ever point out that war is also not very much like Apocalypse Now?
And every Iraq veteran I’ve talked to doesn’t think it’s much like The Hurt Locker, either.
An even less precise blanket indictment is, “War is not like OLD war movies.” Really? Like The Best Years of Our Lives? How about Twelve O’Clock High? Both were made in the 1940s, and both focused on the high price of war.
Look, there have been more and less realistic war movies made during every era of film making. It’s worth noting that critics now seem to find “realism” in “anti-war” films– and vice versa. I’ve seen Blackhawk Down and Saving Private Ryan described as “anti-war.” Why? Probably because movie critics of a certain age think they can only praise a movie if it has that label– and because they labor under the notion that mistaken notion that young men will only volunteer for combat units if they think it’s a big fun easy adventure.
Truth be told, war is most not like newer post-John Waye action movies. It wasn’t until the 1960s that major Hollywood films began portraying World War II as an adventure, and it is the newest crop of action heroes who easily kill dozens of the bad guys with one burst of a machine gun.
Worst of all, they even seem to get sadistic pleasure out of it, a reaction that would have horrified John Wayne.
True, war may not be like a John Wayne movie. But it’s a heck of a lot less like a Sylvester Stallone movie.