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Peter T. Chattaway

The Movies Go to War

The moral messages and political overtones of war films

When Tears of the Sun opened in theaters in early March, just a few weeks before American and British troops began their invasion of Iraq, director Antoine Fuqua insisted his film had nothing to do with the impending conflict in the Middle East. Sure, his film depicted American troops getting involved in a foreign war despite clear orders not to do so, and sure, it ended with a title card quoting that famous Edmund Burke line to the effect that evil succeeds when good men do nothing. But Fuqua maintained that the point of his film, which is set in a fictionalized Nigeria, was not to encourage the war on terror but to draw attention to the plight of Africa, a continent beset with tribal violence and the famines and plagues that follow. Be that as it may, Tears of the Sun did come out at a time when the public was pondering military intervention abroad, and it went further than most films in delivering an explicit message and seeking some sort of religious imprimatur for it.

Filmmakers have always reflected or tried to shape public opinion on the major political issues of the day, and they have often appealed to religion to make their point. Typically, however, faith has not motivated the politics of any given film so much as it has provided a stamp of approval for a political position that has already been figured out. The Thomas Ince film Civilization provides an unusually telling example: produced in 1916, at a time when many Americans wished to stay out of the Great War, the film depicted Jesus and President Woodrow Wilson on the side of peace; but when the United States joined the war a year later, Ince's film was re-cut so that Jesus now came out in favor of the war effort.

After the disillusioning carnage of World War I, the prevailing mood shifted again, and American films in particular reflected a reluctance to get involved in foreign affairs. As late as 1938, the titular hero in a film like The Adventures of Robin Hood could be unfailingly loyal to his king yet ...

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