The New Rules of War Films

War films have a certain responsibility that other film genres do not.  War films tell our history, and the story of our men and women in uniform, and as such, should aspire to meet the following five rules to ensure that the film resonates with viewers.

It's the difference between Chuck Norris' Delta Force and Saving Private Ryan.

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War Films Should be Bloody

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Combat is violent.  The violence of combat is the singular most defining feature of warfare.  It's what makes people hesitant to serve in the military, it's what those who do serve risk experiencing; violence is what gives war it's definition. 

But sometimes films come along that make a mockery of this reality, and therefore make a mockery out of what real soldiers experience on the battlefield.  I'm thinking of almost any film in the Rambo franchise.  Yes, yes, I know it's just a stupid action film.  But it begs the question, why be a stupid action film, when you could be a smart action film.  Films like Blackhawk Down and Saving Private Ryan manage to be thrilling and exciting at the same time that they take the violence of war seriously.  (Click here for the most violent war films ever made.)

Rule: War Films Should be Bloody

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Historical Dramas Should Be Historically Accurate

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One of the real pleasures of many war films is that they also serve as a re-enactment of history, they allow us to see what the Civil War may have looked like, or what it was like to fight in the Korean War.  They do this while also offering real-life history lessons.  And while I'm fine with some manipulation of history to fit the confines of a two hour film, nonetheless historical dramas should be truthful in spirit if not always in detail.  But some films just disregard all concept of truth.  

Films like, say, Braveheartwhere they entirely fictionalize all aspects of history, the central character the film is portraying and then slyly pretend that it's real life history.  Hey, Mel, if you've fictionalized every aspect of your film, it ain't a history lesson anymore.  It's just you pretending it's a history lesson.  As a counter example of war film that is honest with history, consider Spielberg's Lincoln.  (Click here for the most historically inaccurate war movies ever produced.)

Rule: War Films Should be (Mostly) Historically Accurate

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Death in Combat Should Not be Romanticized

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As an infantry soldier in Afghanistan, I've known people that have died.  They were alive one moment, and then the next, they were gone, wiped out by an IED.  There was no slow motion fall to the ground, no sweeping musical orchestra score in the background, and the death rarely saved the day.

Consequently, it annoys me to no end when films romanticize dying on the battlefield with visual tricks and musical cues.  From as far as I can tell, it's more often just a frantic desperate hyper-ventiliating breathing while crying for your mother before the breathing stops.

So have your deaths Mr. Hollywood Director.  Kill entire battalions of soldiers on-screen if you want to.  Just don't have an orchestra playing while they fall to the ground in slow motion after saving the day.  (Click here for a list of war movies where the main character dies at the end.)

Rule:  War Films Should Not Romanticize Dying in Combat

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War Films Should Not Serve as Propaganda

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War films too often serve as propaganda.  (Click here for Top 10 Propaganda War Films.)  The Pentagon funding of Hollywood scripts has led to a romanticization of war for a long time in Hollywood.  This has meant an entire generation of films whose sole purpose was to recruit for the Armed Forces, or to sell unpopular wars to the American public, or simply to perpetrate action hero myths about war.  

It's not that recruiting for the Armed Forces or selling a war to the public are necessarily bad goals, it's only the difference between doing so with reasoned argument and emotional and factual manipulation (propaganda).

In particular, I'm thinking of John Wayne's The Green Berets, which sold the American public a lot of lies about the Vietnam war to buck up public opinion back home.  

Rule: War Films Shouldn't Serve as Political Propaganda

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Action Films Should Not be Absurd

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Not all war films have to be morose, intently serious historical dramas.  Sometimes a war film is best as a straight up action picture because, let's face it, combat is also exciting (more so when experienced safely behind a television set).  Unfortunately, Hollywood gave us an entire decade of absurd action war movies.  Iron Eagle and Chuck Norris, I'm thinking of you.  

You know the drill.  The bullets shoot up the ground near the war hero but never hurt him.  Every time he shoots he scores a perfect hit on the enemy.  The war hero gets blown up and "propelled" forward by fireballs rather than consumed by them.  The war hero takes out an entire Army by himself.

It's not that there's necessarily any harm in this sort of silliness, it's just that it makes for boring cinema.  A good war film should be able to be appreciated by viewers above the age of twelve years old.  Besides, there are plenty of great exciting action films that are also realistic in the way they portray the action.  For example, consider Blackhawk Down or, for an even more ultra-realistic vision, consider Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn, where he plays a man only capable of what a real life man would be capable of.  And given the stakes of Bale's non-invulnerability, it raises the drama and the intensity.

Rule: Action Films Should Not Be Absurd