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The Distribution of War Films by Conflict


Why are Most War Films About the Second World War?

One of the first things you notice as a war movies guide is that pretty much every other war film you watch is about the second World War.  And don't get me wrong - the second World War, as wars go - is pretty awesome:  You have a truly evil nemesis in the form of Nazis, you have an incredible rich archive of intense battles and heroic moments, and the war occurred over a truly global scale.  Best of all, the second World War was America at is greatest, a moment in history where the country was acting only on noble motivations without manipulating evidence to start a war, or having the ancillary prize of securing oil wells.  Yes, the second World War is a great war.  (Can we call wars great?  Is that allowed?)

That said, there are a lot of other wars throughout history that also deserve some attention.  There are a lot of stories that need to be told, and most of them are getting few, if any war films.

I recently reviewed a randomized list of 200 Hollywood war films and decided to count which war the films were about.  Fully, 88 of these 200 films were, as previously mentioned, about the second World War, which is understandable given how many different forms a film on the second World War can take.  A World War II film can be set in Thailand (Bridge Over the River Kwai), Egypt (The English Patient), Europe (Saving Private Ryan), or Japan (Letters of Iwo Jima), to offer just a few examples.  Between the European and Pacific theaters, and all the countries caught up in-between, the second World War quite literally, as the name infers, was a world war, and consequently, has a massive presence in cinema.  (World War II also had its own era of war films, where most of the war films produced were about that war, something that definitely helps boost its numbers.)

However, of the 200 films I audited, just 6 were about Afghanistan, 12 about Vietnam, and 6 about Iraq. The first World War, also had only 12 films.

Some 72 films were broadly considered "other," which means one a piece for a Japanese feudal war (The Last Samurai), the War of 1812 (Last of the Mohicans), the conflict in Rwanda (Hotel Rwanda), the Bolshevik Revolution (Doctor Zhivago), the Cuban revolution (Che), and so on it goes.  

This "other" category also included the British invasion of Afghanistan, the Zulu/British war, the killing fields of Cambodia, a revolution in Ireland, the Mongol invasion of Asia, the French Revolution, wars that occurred in some generic version of Rome, wars that occurred in some generic version of the Crusades, conflict in Burma, Somalia, the revolution of Scotland against the English (thanks, Mel), and the Chinese occupation of Tibet.  Whew!  Making this sorts of list is a cogent reminder of exactly how many conflicts we humans participate within!

The real tragedy is that in America, some of our most important conflicts are vastly under-served by Hollywood.  For instance, the Revolutionary War, the war that founded our country, had just a single film on the list that I reviewed (it was Mel Gibson's The Patriot; not only did the Revolutionary War have just one film, but it wasn't even a good one!)  And the Civil War, the war that tore our country apart, had only two, one of which was Spielberg's Lincoln, the other being Gone WIth the Wind.

Sadly, the Korean war also had only a single film listed in the entire list of 200.  Just a single film to represent the sacrifice and loss of some two hundred thousand dead among the Americans and South Koreans and the half a million that were injured.  That film, fittingly, was MASH, a comedy about a mobile medical hospital on the front lines of combat.

Of course, sometimes a war film isn't about any particular conflict or battle or war at all.  Sometimes a war film simply stars soldiers, and achieves its genre classification that way.  How else should one assign Tears of the Sun, the early 2000s film where Bruce Willis played a Navy SEAL (or someone tough) fighting terrorists in Africa.  Which war was that supposed to be?  Or how about the re-make of Red Dawn, detailing the fictional attack of America by North Korean forces.  (For the record, there was only a single film about the great North Korean / American War of 2012, and it was indeed, Red Dawn.)

Of course, ultimately, Hollywood simply responds to public opinion.  The second World War is popular within our collective zeitgeist, our national memory.  We have romanticized it and the soldiers that fought in it.  We like to read about it and watch stories about it.  The Korean War, and more recently, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are less popular with the public.  These are wars where we're not quite sure why we fought in the first place, and what it was that we accomplished.  And consequently, it could be argued, that people just don't want to watch films about those wars.  (Box office receipts for films about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would support this idea.)  It's hard to compare the achievement of bifurcating the Korean peninsula with eradicating the world of Nazis and freeing Western Europe from certain destruction.  Consequently, we can be sure of only one thing in the future, a steady supply of World War II films.

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