Taking Jeanine Basinger at her word would leave us with far fewer war films than we think we have. Basinger is a 'strict constructionist,' accepting as war films only those that have actual scenes of warfare (Curley and Wetta, 1992. p. 8; Kinney, 2001, p. 21). That means that the four films that will be considered here, and especially the two World War II films, are not war films. By Basinger's yardstick, neither Casablanca nor Notorious, neither Born on the Fourth of July nor Coming Home would qualify as war films.
On the other hand, films such as White Christmas, a lightweight Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye-Rosemary Clooney-Vera Ellen comedy about the aftermath of war for an old soldier might well be a 'war' movie. The opening scene is one in which the old soldier, Dean Jagger, is reviewing his troops when, somewhere in Italy during the Christmas lull, bombs are lobbed and Danny Kaye is injured. Granted, the cinematography of the so-called mortar attack is painted in broad strokes. Still, there is bombardment, the flare of explosions in the night sky, and an injury. There is also a sort of feeling of community absent in many hard-core war movies. In fact, White Christmas is about community, the mustered-out troops coming to the aid of the failing inn run by Dean Jagger in his golden years. It is difficult to see any evidence of individualism in the movie, save Kaye's repetitive harping on owing his life to Crosby who saved him during the mortar attack.
In fact, if one takes the term 'war films' to be more inclusive than Basinger is willing to consider, then war films could easily encompass any film that had anything, however, tangential, to do with war. For example, it is easier to conceive of Going My Way as a war film, considering that it took place during the years of the second world war, and soprano Rise Stevens even gets misty eyed when talking about friends who have joined the war effort. This film, too, lacks much in the way of individualism, and is all about community.
It might be axiomatic that movies made during the war dealing with the home front are based on concepts of community, but it would not be true. Looking at a pair of very similar films from World War II and two very similar offerings about Vietnam makes clear that not only are the wars differently characterized in terms of politics and policies; they are also presented very differently in terms of individualism vs. community.
World War II: Films of individual, often eccentric, effort
Paul Fussell offers some valuable insight as to why World War II films should so often depend on individual effort, despite being the most massive movement of humans across the globe -- a movement of major communities of people -- that had ever occurred. Fussell notes that many had read Remarque's novel All Quiet on the Western Front, a profoundly disturbing tale of anomie during World War I. In the United States, and in Hollywood in particular, it is probably safe to assume that citizens, and especially film writers, were familiar with "Hemingway's understanding of military experience as vividly unfair and dishonorable in A Farewell to Arms .... The result of this awareness was, as Robert E. Sherwood said, that the Second World War was 'the first war in American history [and of course even more so in British history] in which the general disillusionment preceded the firing of the first shot'" (Fussell, 1990, p. 129). In 1940, with warfare already underway in Europe but with the U.S. still standing back, E.M. Forster said, "I don't expect Victory (with a big V!), and I can't join in any build-a-new-world stuff. Once in a lifetime one can swallow that, but not twice'" (Fussell, 1990, p. 129).
This makes it far easier to understand Casablanca in its eccentricity and almost palpable disavowal of community.
Moreover, this attitude, so different from the flag-waving of World War I, might be perceived as the true precursor of the Vietnam disaffection, rather than the 'pinko commie' rabble-rousers who are usually and by now traditionally blamed, folks like Hanoi Jane Fonda, her ex-husband Tom Hayden and a variety of action groups from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), or, in brief, the organizations that forced Mayor Daley to call out the troops at the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968.
Casablanca (1942),viewed under this rubric, is an almost perfect movie and deserving of its lasting regard as a quintessential World War II movie to see. It is a story about romance, espionage and, in a strange way, duty. But it is not the duty of soldier to country; rather, it is the duty of lovers to each other and, perhaps in a small way, of duty toward an ideal. Fussell claims there were no ideals in World War II (1990, p. 129): perhaps that is so, in which case this movie is about simple determination to pragmatically return the world to sanity.
This most beloved of World War II films was based on a short story, "Everybody Comes to Rick's," by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. However, six screenwriters transformed it into "this quintessential classic that samples almost every film genre" with the notable exception of Basinger's idea of a war film (Dirks, 2005).
There can be little doubt of the individuality inherent in this film. It was made during a period when the Roosevelt government and the dueling governments of France -- the Vichy government set up by the Nazis and the Gaullist 'shadow' government of Charles de Gaulle -- had virtually no contact (Dirks, 2005). ]
In theatres at the time, feature films were preceded by Movie Tone news, the big screen version of Tom Brokaw at 6. It is not difficult to conceive how writers would create characters as individualistic as Rick and Ilsa. That they are openly former lovers is also highly individualistic. It had been only a short time since the Astaire-Rogers romantic comedies of the 1930s would scarcely countenance kissing, never mind having lovers. Beyond that, establishing the individuality of the characters as well as the individuality of the concept of the studio and writers, Rick and Ilsa were lovers who did not marry. Indeed, Ilsa married someone else, someone not nearly as attractive as Rick, and someone in a highly dangerous position in the French resistance. Clearly, Ilsa's husband is in individualist of strong convictions, and so is Ilsa. This does not, however, bespeak community, for they operate as individual cells, self-sufficient as much a possible. However, it also fails to exhibit ideals. Ilsa's own quest, vengeance, and her husband's is very pragmatic; no one can live under the Nazis. Rick, in Casablanca, succeeds simply because his bar is an international crossroads, a neutral ground on which spies and other creatures of the fringe can have a few hours of peace and a couple of drinks to chase the hopelessness away. Fortunately for the studio, Eisenhower's forces moved into the Axis-occupied city of Casablanca at a perfect time for the film's release. This 'happy coincidence' not only helped the film at the box office, but also helped solidify a public vision of World War II as one in which vibrant, vigorous and daring individuals took enormous risks in a basically existential environment. In the American mind, the sequencing of events may have seemed mythic. Just after the film's release, Roosevelt and Churchill met in Casablanca (with Stalin declining); at the time, Roosevelt cast the U.S. lot with DeGaulle, leader of the Free French, and disavowed the Vichy puppet government of Marshal Petain (Dirks, 2005).
While the setting of events in the real world and the course of action in Casablanca all point to the primacy of individualism, the cinematography itself supports that concept. As the film begins, a camera provides a view of the top of a mosque and down into a walled coastal city that was technically administered by Unoccupied France, but was in fact surrounded by -- cut off by -- the Axis powers in North Africa. In this unique atmosphere, it seems normal that a Nazi commandant can befriend a Vichy policeman; one can even believe the daily flights to Lisbon, an escape point in a neutral country.
Also contributing to the primacy of individualism is the souk where black marketers abound, and one gets the impression anything can be bought. And then there is Rick's Cafe Americaine, identified as the center of everything that happens in Casablanca. If the rest of the film were erased, it would still be possible to construct the rubric under which this, and other similar, World War II films was designed. Rick's is a gambling den, metaphoric for the way of life of virtually everyone in Casablanca. But it is the center of everything; life is a gamble. Indeed, it one projects forward to the early 1970s, one can read…