War Movie: The American Battle in Cinema is an excellent five-part retrospective documentary of the genre’s long history. However, it’s not just a critical review highlighting the classics (though plenty of them are featured). Instead, what it does best is reveal, for better or worse, the social impact Hollywood has had on people's perceptions of war and combat.
From a film lover’s perspective, the first couple of episodes are the most interesting. “Camera and the Gun: 1900-1938” chronicles the genre’s infancy through the beginning of World War II, while “The ‘Good’ War” focuses almost exclusively on the latter. Especially interesting is how Hollywood appeared to play a major role in simplifying (and romanticizing) the entire war, essentially ‘selling’ it to the public.
Disillusionment predictably creeps in for episodes three and four, covering Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War. The entire series features plenty of commentary and insights from various authors and historians, most of whom point out that many films released after 1950 reflect Americans’ shifting attitudes, especially over conflicts which don’t directly affect them. While still very interesting, this era has already been heavily discussed and analyzed over the years, especially the Vietnam films. Still, the movies that most modern audiences are familiar with are heavily featured in these two episodes.
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Of course, the series is loaded with film clips spanning Hollywood’s entire history (from Birth of a Nation through 1917). All the classics are here, along with comparative obscurities that remain noteworthy. But what really makes it worth checking out are the analyses. For the most part, discussions are very academic and focus more on the way war is depicted than a particular film's overall quality (or lack of). Other participants (military experts who’ve served as technical advisors) are also on-hand to praise or (sort of) condemn the accuracy of the movies being discussed.
Some of the analyses and insights could certainly be seen as subjective, but these assertions are also a large part of what makes War Movie: The American Battle in Cinema a more interesting exploration of the genre than just another historical retrospective. Despite a few factual errors here and there (mostly regarding dates), this is a must see for Hollywood history buffs.