These are all very different movies from nearly every standpoint but one — they've either tanked, or seriously underperformed at the box office. Stranger still, considering that movie critics (with very few exceptions) are supposed to be a bunch of pinko commie elitists, is that they haven't exactly been embraced by the critical populace. Even the best reviewed of the lot, In the Valley of Elah, has an air of "close, but no cigar" tepidness in the responses. The question is why this should be so.
Broadly speaking, it's not just a case that the movies aren't very good. That might answer the question on a critical basis, because all in all the movies aren't very good however noble their intentions might be. But as far as the moviegoing public are concerned, not enough people went to see these films for them to know whether or not they're good. The problem then must be inherent in the very subject matter.
Historically, the anti-war film has given us a lot of notable titles dating back at least to Thomas H. Ince's Civilization (1916), an allegorical pacifist propaganda piece that was designed to keep the U.S. out of World War I. (In case you missed this fact, it didn't.) The first great anti-war film was probably Abel Gance's J'accuse (1919), made just after the war — a signficant detail that seems lost on the makers of the current crop of anti-war pictures.
Probably the most famous — and still one of the best — of all anti-war films is Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), a large-scale adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's novel. It was gigantic, but kept sight of the intimate details in such a way that made it tragically human. The film's penultimate image of Paul (Lew Ayres) reaching out of a trench in attempt to touch a butterfly is deservedly one of the most iconic in all film, while its final haunting double image of soldiers and a graveyard is still powerful. You might also note that it was made 12 years after the war.
Much the same can be said of Howard Hawks' The Dawn Patrol (1930), though it's a lesser film. In the same category is Mitchell Leisen's The Eagle and the Hawk (1933) — even if you might not guess the extent of its message today, since the original version is seemingly lost to us. When the film was re-issued closer to the approach of World War II, its anti-war coda involving the Cary Grant character having become a conscience-stricken alcoholic for helping to promulgate the notion that Fredric March's character died a hero. (The March character commited suicide, but Grant makes it appear he was killed in a dogfight.)
Anti-war films were not uncommon in the 1930s. William Dieterle's science fiction picture, Six Hours to Live (1932), was at bottom a pacifist work. Even a fantasy like Mitchell Leisen's Death Takes a Holiday (1934) makes ironic comment on the topic. Death masquerading as Prince Sirki (Fredric March) sarcastically refers to mankind's "sacred privilige of blowing each other up," and comments that he can never make out what the armies are fighting for ("It's usually a flag, isn't it? Or a barren piece of land that neither side wants"). The ideas might seem naive, but they reflect the mood of the day.
Both the Marx Brothers and the now largely forgotten comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey made anti-war comedies — Duck Soup (1933) and Diplomaniacs (1933). The Marx film is the better of the two by a wide margin, but the tone of both is similar. War and the reasons for war are shown as absurdities, but sometimes the absurdities hit close to home, as when Groucho reasons that there has to be a war because "I've already paid a month's rent on a battlefield." The big musical number, "The Country's Going to War," in Duck Soup is such a deft skewering of mindless jingoism that it packs the same punch 75 years later that it did then.
By 1937, when James Whale made The Road Back, another Erich Maria Remarque adaptation, the anti-war tone and anti-German militarism was tamed down before the film even made it out of Universal City. Why? The Nazi government threatened to ban not just this film but all Universal releases if changes weren't made. The Spanish government had done something similar two years earlier — on very different grounds — wih Josef von Sterneberg's The Devil Is a Woman. In both cases, the interference all but destroyed both men's careers.
The key to all this anti-war creativity is that all of these films were made in a time of domestic peace. You'll find less such films as World War II draws nearer, and you'll find no anti-war films at all during World War II itself. Of course, no one then or now is likely to take issue with the cause of World War II or the necessity of it from the Allied standpoint.
When anti-war pictures started up again, there was a tendency to go back to World War I for subject matter. It was a safer bet. There was a distancing effect, but more importantly it was a war that seemed less justifiable. Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957) took this road, but strangely enough Lewis Milestone's Pork Chop Hill (1959) did not. It took direct issue with the Pork Chop Hill episode as little more than an exercise in impressing Red China with American military power — and this was a war that ended a mere six years earlier. In many ways, the film marked a shift in tone in that it questioned the judgment of those high up in the U.S. armed forces. It wouldn't be the last such film. It was a tone that would grow during the Vietnam era.
The interesting thing about the anti-war films that came about during the Vietnam war is that once again the tendency was to focus on other wars. The fact that anti-war films were being made at all during a war was remarkable, but the war at hand was all but off-limits — unless, of course, you were John Wayne making The Green Berets (1968), which is anything but an anti-war film.
The logic behind this is not entirely clear, though it may be a hangover from the McCarthy era when a hot-button political issue could only be addressed allegorically. Joseph L. Mankiewicz could make an anti-McCarthy film in 1951, but he had to dress it up as social comedy in the form of a Cary Grant vehicle, People Will Talk. Yes, Charlie Chaplin addressed McCarthyism head-on in 1957 with A King in New York, but that was from the safety of Great Britain — and the results didn't play in the U.S. till 1973.
Whatever the reason, the Vietnam-era anti-war pictures took the allegorical route. The boldest of the lot was probably Richard Lester's How I Won the War (1967) which was set in World War II — and like Chaplin, Lester had the advantage of working in Great Britain. At the same time, despite the presence of John Lennon in the cast, the film was not a huge success. This, however, probably had more to do with the complexity of the movie's vision — this wasn't just an anti-war film, it was an anti-war-film film — and its unrelenting Britishness. Though it was soundly embraced in the early '70s on college campuses, it was also obvious that many of the jokes baffled American audiences and the accents made some of the dialogue indecipherable.
Mike Nichols' Catch-22 (1970) was more successful, but again it was a Vietnam-era film using World War II for its story. Bloody, anarchic, very much at odds with militarism it nonetheless sidestepped a direct confrontation with the issue of the moment — even if its sentiments didn't really fool anybody.
The big winner from that time was Robert Altman's M*A*S*H (1970). Altman himself made no secret of the fact that his Korean-war film was at bottom about Vietnam, but for viewers who didn't want to know that, the film itself could be taken more literally and no bones were broken. That its sentiments were clearly leftist and totally anti-war seem pretty inescapable, but dressed up as hip comedy it went down better. Both How I Won the War and Catch-22 are also essentially comedic in tone, but the comedy is bitter and angry, not hip.
It's not until after Vietnam that we really got films that directly related to that war. Consider Coming Home (1978), The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979) for starters. Even the musical Hair didn't make it to the screen until 1979. Films like Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) were even further away from the war itself, as was Brian De Palma's Casualties of War (1989).
One of the most interesting — and complex — of all Vietnam-tinged films, Richard Rush's The Stunt Man (1980) managed to actually address the issue of the anti-war film in its story of a Vietnam veteran (Steve Railsback) — and refugee from the law — with a somewhat tenuous grip on reality who becomes involved with a dangerously obsessive filmmaker (Peter O'Toole) who is making an anti-war film. The film being made is set in — you guessed it — World War I, referred to by O'Toole's character as "the ultimate romantic insanity."
What makes The Stunt Man stand apart from the pack is that the film actually understands the perils of making an anti-war film. At one point the O'Toole character remarks, "We're shaking a finger at them, Sam, and we shouldn't. If we've anything to say it's best to slip it in while they're all laughing and crying and jerking off at all the sex and violence." Similarly, he notes that a friend of his once made an anti-war picture — a good one — and that when it was shown in the man's hometown army enlistment went up 100 percent. The film fully realizes the gap between what is intended and how the audience may take it. Rush demonstrates at every turn just why Altman's M*A*S*H worked with audiences.
This, I think, is exactly where and why the current attempts at anti-war films have failed at the box office and to a somewhat lesser extent with the critics. Each and every one of the films in question have indeed shaken a finger at the viewer — and they've done so without any distancing. It's one thing to suggest that we as a people might have bungled something in the past, or that we were somehow not as attentive or aware as we might have been. It's another thing to lecture the viewer that they're doing the same right now. Nobody likes being lectured, and there probably aren't that many people who feel the need to have a narrative film tell them what's going on.
I've no doubt that one day a powerful anti-war film about Iraq will be made — whether it uses satire or drama or both — but to try to make that film in the midst of the war in question appears doomed to failure. Maybe those folks who turned to allegory had a better handle on things than we might have thought at the time.