It's a War About Nothing: Hollywood's Revisonist World War II Nihilism Revisited

Back in October of 2007, I had a few posts which explored modern Hollywood’s surprisingly nihilistic attitude towards World War II, the one modern war once near-universally thought of as “the good war.” As I wrote back then:


Hollywood has, over the last decade or so (in other words, prior to 9/11, or even George W. Bush taking office) adopted a remarkably nihilistic view of America’s involvement in war–any war, whether it’s Iraq, the War On Terror, or even World War II. The latter is all the more remarkable, considering WWII was long thought to be “the Good War” by virtually all concerned — partially because it had the blessings of the left, happy that we stopped the Soviet Union’s former ally, Nazi Germany. Nearly a decade ago, Mark Steyn documented the first signs of the change in Hollywood’s souring on WWII in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan:

Purporting to be a recreation of the US landings on Omaha Beach, Private Ryan is actually an elite commando raid by Hollywood and the Hamptons to seize the past. After the spectacular D-Day prologue, the film settles down, Tom Hanks and his men are dispatched to rescue Matt Damon (the elusive Private Ryan) and Spielberg finds himself in need of the odd line of dialogue. Endeavouring to justify their mission to his unit, Hanks’s sergeant muses that, in years to come when they look back on the war, they’ll figure that `maybe saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we managed to pull out of this whole godawful mess’. Once upon a time, defeating Hitler and his Axis hordes bent on world domination would have been considered `one decent thing’. Even soppy liberals figured that keeping a few million more Jews from going to the gas chambers was `one decent thing’. When fashions in victim groups changed, ending the Nazi persecution of pink-triangled gays was still `one decent thing’. But, for Spielberg, the one decent thing is getting one GI joe back to his picturesque farmhouse in Iowa.

And as I added in my post from earlier this month:

You could see that same worldview hidden beneath an otherwise much more comic book version of war in Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 film of Starship Troopers. Writer-director Lionel Chetwynd (who wrote the made-for-TV movie starring Tom Selleck as Ike) described to Cathy Seipp his encounter with that same attitude when he pitched a story about the allies’ attack on the French town of Dieppe in 1942:

When Chetwynd was a successful Hollywood writer specializing in historical dramas, he told the Dieppe story during a Malibu dinner party — as a sort of tribute to the men who died there so people could sit around debating politics at Malibu dinner parties. One of the guests was a network head who asked Chetwynd to come in and pitch the story.”So I went in,” Chetwynd told me, “and someone there said, ‘So these bloodthirsty generals sent these men to a certain death?’

“And I said, ‘Well, they weren’t bloodthirsty; they wept. But how else were we to know how Hitler could be toppled from Europe?’ And she said, ‘Well, who’s the enemy?’ I said, ‘Hitler. The Nazis.’ And she said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. I mean, who’s the real enemy?’”

“It was the first time I realized,” Chetwynd continued, “that for many people evil such as Nazism can only be understood as a cipher for evil within ourselves. They’ve become so persuaded of the essential ugliness of our society and its military, that to tell a war story is to tell the story of evil people.”


While I described Saving Private Ryan as the first film to demonstrate this sort of nihilism, at Big Hollywood, John Nolte performs a thorough, must-read deconstruction of a film that preceded it by two years, 1996’s The English Patient. And even more than the ultimately cathartic Ryan, it perfectly defines the mindset that Chetwynd (now the co-host of PJTV’s long-running “Poliwood” series with Roger L. Simon) described in the paragraph above. I’d quote from it, but you really should read the whole thing, to coin a phrase.


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