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Andrew Klavan
The Lost Art of War
Hollywood’s anti-American war films don’t measure up to the glories of its patriotic era.
Winter 2008

Selected Responses:

Sent by Howard Klein on 02-20-2008:

Mr. Klavan cannot be congratulated enough on his fine exposition on the transformation of Hollywood's view of war and the men who fight it. My own sensibilities about who and why men fight wars were formed by the war movies of the forties and fifties. There was more complexity in the stories than what appeared on the surface to be trite homilies, but never about the moral standards of American democracy being the legitimate rationale for sacrifice against tyrannical regimes and murderous dictators.

So my views formed early and were reinforced powerfully when the men in my family returned from World War II with their stories and regaled us kids with tales of simple heroism. Members of my family were decorated with Silver Stars and Bronze Stars, and a cousin of my mom's, a combat physician, came within a hair's breath of winning a Congressional Medal of Honor, but for a beauracratic snag. He'd set up a makeshift field hospital during the Battle of the Bulge and while he was operating saving the lives of his fellow GI's, he manned a machine gun and kept two German patrols at bay until relief arrived.

My own turn for military service came duing the Cold War; I joined the U.S. Army Reserves after finishing college.
The commanding officer of my unit was a World War Two veteran. One evening after a unit session, we repaired to a local watering hole to hoist a few. The conversation came around to war movies. We laughed at how the WW II films always made sure to cast archetypal dogfaces. There was always "the kid" from a farming town, a Jewish/Italian type named "Brooklyn" (naturally), a southern boy, an earnest midwesterner, a peacetime lawyer from small town New England as a CO.

But as earnestly corny as it was, it did say something profound about what movie producers of that era felt about their country. It was about inclusion. It was everyone's fight, against an enemy of America--not against America itself.

Sent by Chris on 02-07-2008:

Thank you for an excellent article. I went to see the new Rambo yesterday, and despite its other failings, it is an unveiled attack on Hollywood's leftist ideology as well. Rambo fights evil "without a human face" as you say, and while it is extremely violent, it actually comes off as a film both in favor of and against the American warrior ethos. As you say, war is dreadful, but it is not futile, and we should not degrade the sacrifices of our soldiers overseas by making movies that imply that war is always wrong and futile.

Sent by Frank Natoli on 02-04-2008:

Andrew Klavan misses the primary failure of "Saving Private Ryan": it is a film that deliberately has all of the fighting and none of the reason. Anybody who walks into that film knowing nothing about World War II comes out thinking "nice of those guys to be loyal to each other," but if none of them was there in the first place, there would have been no reason to 'save' Private Ryan and in the process kill off most of the characters.

Contrast that with the same director's "Schindler's List," which had all of the reason and none of the fighting. At the end of the film, a Russian officer on horseback appears at the gate of the camp telling everyone that they could go home, a veritable officer-ex-machina.

The director could have interleaved the two themes and successfully given the viewer the fighting and the reason. In France, scenes from the "Das Reich" massacres at Oradour sur Glane and/or Tulle interleaved with the Normandy landings and breakout would have been both exciting and informative. But the director and his milieu were unwilling to allow the viewer to have that "ah-hah, now I understand" moment.

My pick is the HBO series "Band of Brothers," which adhered religiously to fact and Stephen Ambrose's book of the same name. There is horrifically realistic fighting and the reason in Episode Nine, "Why We Fight." Clearly, it can be done, there just has to be the will to do it.

Sent by G. Robb on 02-02-2008:

"That argument would make sense in an atmosphere of contending visions that showed both America’s greatness and its imperfections." What exactly, in Klavan's view, would such a film look like? It seems that Klavan's rejection of the notion of ambivalence would prevent him from perceiving the even-handedness of such a film even if one were made. I think that, in fact, many of the films cited by Klavan are ambivalent with respect to nationalism/patriotism. For example, the Ralph Fiennes character is not the "main" character of the "English Patient," despite the film's title. His story parallels that of characters who are decidedly nationalist in outlook, if one watches the film honestly rather than relying on Seinfeld characters for critical insight. In fact, the critical obstinacy and lack of ambivalence in Klavan's piece renders it as empty and nihilistic as any of the arguably anti-American films he is criticizing.

And can we please recognize, for once and for all, that John Wayne was terrible? He even ruins "Fort Apache," with a great performance by Henry Fonda (as the villain for one of the few times in his career). It is the very lack of ambivalence in John Wayne as actor (even when he furrowed his brow and tried to conjure some up) that reveals the flaw in the argument here. Unless our ideals are challenged, they cannot be affirmed. All else is pitiful propaganda.

Sent by Eoghan Harris on 02-02-2008:

As an avid reader of your books, and also a fan of patriotic American war films, I find little to disagree with in your dissection of current movies. But I did think "In the Valley of Elah" was an even-handed movie in that it laid bare the bad things that war can do to some individuals, while at the same time not disrespecting the classic military virtues.

Sent by Mark Howshar on 02-01-2008:

Two words:

Thank you.

This essay essentially ties up most of my (admittedly jingoistic) thoughts about Hollywood and the lack of portraying "American Heroes" and "American Values."

You have a new fan!

Sent by Keith Kooiman on 02-01-2008:

Wow. What a great article. I might have to pick up some of Mr. Klavan's books, if the writing is as good as this article.

Sent by Kevin on 01-31-2008:

Mr. Klavan is right for the most part. I have no bones to pick with his argument, but I think "We Were Soldiers" is proof positive that there is hope for Hollywood regarding military depictions.

Mel Gibson's portrayal of Lt. Col. Hal Moore leading the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry at the 1965 battle of Ia Drang, in the central highlands of South Vietnam is spot on, due in no small part to Moore's consultation on the project. No doubt one of the ten bestwar movies ever made.

Sent by Paul Melody on 01-31-2008:

Your article is the best analysis of Hollywood's bad war movies (since the release of "The Bridge on the River Kwai") that I have ever read. I especially liked your highlighting Clint Eastwood's nonsense about the battle for Iwo Jima. Thank you.

Sent by Patrick on 01-31-2008:

One word: WOW!

An amazing and highly intellectual analysis. I've often pondered the subject of Hollywood's anti-Americanism myself.

This article has really opened my eyes.

Bravo!

Sent by Mike N. on 01-31-2008:

Thank you for a very thorough, thought-provoking, and substantive article. I've seen most of the films you mention (including "They Were Expendable"), and your comparative analysis is right on target.

I've spent a lot of time in the military. I guess you can count me as one of those patriotic dupes. There are many many thousands of us.

Sent by Dan Truitt on 01-31-2008:

As usual, Klavan is brilliant, insightful, and dead right. There are few like him in the creative arts.

I met Klavan last autumn at a writer's conference in Aurora, Illinois. "You're way ahead of a lot of writers," I told him, "because you know how the universe works."

Sent by Tim Jones on 01-31-2008:

Both Owen and Remarque were actually soldiers in WW I, which is why their work still today finds resonance among real soldiers. It is too easy to characterize it as simply "anti-nationalistic." Owen was a volunteer who decided to go back to his unit after treatment for shell shock.

Surely what Owen was saying was not that war is necessarily wrong, but that it is not glorious. It is nasty and messy. The people who promised a glorious war in Iraq have learned that lesson again. Wars can be worth fighting, but let's be honest about what we ask our troops to do and tell it like it is.

In Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), John Wayne's Sergeant Stryker (center) must steep himself in violence, and make physical and spiritual sacrifices, to defend civilization.
In Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), John Wayne’s Sergeant Stryker (center) must steep himself in violence, and make physical and spiritual sacrifices, to defend civilization.

Hollywood has gone back to war. And this time, it’s appalling. All autumn long, the film industry released movies about America’s battle against global jihad. With one exception—the competent actioner The Kingdom—each of these movies distorted an urgent, ongoing historical enterprise through the lens of a filmmaker’s unthinking leftism. Redacted, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, and Lions for Lambs characterize our soldiers and government agents as rapists, madmen, murderers, torturers of the innocent, or simply victims caught up in a venal and bloodthirsty American foreign policy. All this at the very moment when our real-life soldiers and agents are risking, and sometimes losing, their lives fighting the most hateful and cancerous worldview since Nazism.

But I guess that’s showbiz.

Needless to say, it wasn’t always thus. During World War II, Hollywood stars like James Stewart and directors like Frank Capra enlisted in the military to combat dictators as willingly as Sean Penn and Michael Moore now tootle down to Venezuela and Cuba to embrace them. More to the point, yesteryear’s studio heads—many of them conservative Republicans—worked in cooperation with a Democratic administration to produce top-notch entertainment supporting the war effort. The result was not only rousing combat tales like 1943’s Sahara, Bataan, and Action in the North Atlantic—all still watchable today—but also some of the finest motion pictures ever made: 1942’s Casablanca and Mrs. Miniver, for instance, and the terrific yet all-but-forgotten They Were Expendable (1945). It was one of the film industry’s finest hours.

Much has changed in Hollywood since then. The fall of the business-driven studio system has freed creative types to make more personal films, just as the internationalization of markets and multiple methods of distribution protect them from the financial consequences of alienating the nation’s mainstream. If their anti-American labor of love bombs in Peoria, their investors will probably still make their money back in Europe and on the DVDs.

Beyond that, however, the movie business merely provides the most glamorous example of a greater change throughout our creative and intellectual communities: a decades-long drift toward an idiot radicalism. Movie artists—like all artists except the most original—are the products of the atmosphere of fashionable opinion that surrounds and sustains them. They may play at being heroes who speak truth to power, but the real powers in their lives are the elites who feed them praise, awards, and jobs. To them, the filmmakers speak nothing but slavish agreement.

Because of this, Hollywood war films past and present reflect the political philosophy not just of a small lotusland enclave, but of a large segment of our culture-making classes. The changing ways that these films portray the internal experience of the warrior, along with the change in their overall depiction of the nation and its guardians, are signs of deeper developments with unnerving ramifications.

Movies about the inner experience of war frequently revolve around the relationship of a young soldier to a battle-hardened father figure. Such films underwent a violent transformation between World War II and the aftermath of Vietnam. The 1949 film Sands of Iwo Jima, directed by Allan Dwan, is a good benchmark against which to measure that transition. The picture follows John Wayne’s hardboiled marine sergeant John Stryker as he prepares his men for the Iwo assault. John Agar plays the sensitive private Peter Conway, who resentfully identifies Stryker with his own tough marine-colonel father. But as Conway learns, only Stryker’s unyielding warrior ethos will keep him alive in the fighting to come. At the same time, this ethos exacts a brutal price. Away from his duties, Stryker is a self-pitying drunk, lamenting the wife who left him. During battle, he finds his humanity repeatedly compromised. In one grim scene, Stryker keeps Conway and his other men safe by forcing them to lie low as a comrade dies in the field, calling for help.

After a sniper fells Stryker on Iwo Jima, his men listen solemnly as Conway reads the sergeant’s unfinished letter to his estranged son. Through this letter, Conway, now a warrior himself, is finally able to see Stryker—and so his own father—in his full humanity. At that moment, the famous flag raising takes place, perhaps a bit of fifties Freudianism linking the coming of manhood to the guarding of the nation. Conway speaks Stryker’s signature line—“Saddle up!”—and leads his comrades back into battle to the tune of the Marines’ Hymn.

It’s nice mythic stuff, corny but still stirring. And in its old-fashioned way, it manages to explore not just the physical but also the spiritual sacrifice of becoming a warrior. As he takes on his father’s warrior role, the son learns his father’s terrible secret: that in defending his home, he becomes estranged from it; in defending his values, he has to contravene them; in defending civilization and peace, he has to steep himself in uncivilized violence.

If you want to see the exact moment at which the movies’ approach toward those tragic truths began to shift, watch the opening scene of Patton (1970). George C. Scott, in his Oscar turn as the indomitable general, rises from the base of an enormous American flag to recite his famous speech to the troops: “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

This is the warrior’s initiation distilled, a battle-hardened veteran introducing untried men to their brutal roles as guardians of the nation. The camera angle places us in the position of Patton’s troops. There, we find our reactions caught between two points of view. The Vietnam-era filmmakers—including screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola—clearly intended to imbue the scene with grim irony. Their very next cut takes us to vultures overlooking a battlefield where indifferent natives strip the American dead. But the speech itself is so powerful that, in memory, the viewer edits the irony out. All anyone remembers is that general, that speech, that flag.

The moment thus stands as a pivot point between competing visions: on the one hand, Sands of Iwo Jima; on the other, the best films dealing with a soldier’s initiation into the Vietnam War. In these later films, the sacrifice of a man’s gentler self to the needs of his warrior role is no longer necessary and inspiring. Instead, it has become an unbearable doubling, even a kind of spiritual death.

Platoon (1986) is Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning, fictionalized account of his own Vietnam service, a powerful and anguished vision by a man who volunteered for combat duty and won medals for valor. Stone’s stand-in is Private Chris Taylor, played by Charlie Sheen. Taylor describes himself as a “child born of . . . two fathers”: a scarred, heartless killer, Sergeant Bob Barnes (Tom Berenger); and a Christlike stoner, Sergeant Elias Grodin (Willem Dafoe). After Grodin reports Barnes for committing atrocities in a Vietnamese village, Barnes murders him in the field to shut him up. With no one else to testify against him, Barnes seems above justice, as free as a force of nature. “Are you smoking this shit so’s to escape from reality?” he sneers at Grodin’s drug-taking disciples. “Me, I don’t need this shit. I am reality.” It’s the father’s warrior initiation speech broken free of its guardian context. Barnes doesn’t kill to preserve the peace and freedom of the nation. He does it because that’s the Hobbesian state of things.

This puts Taylor in the essential warrior bind. In order to be like Grodin in defending righteousness, he feels that he has to become like Barnes—has to kill Barnes as cold-bloodedly as Barnes killed Grodin. Like Conway in Sands of Iwo Jima, Taylor must set aside gentleness for the greater good. But for Taylor, it’s not a necessary emotional sacrifice for the sake of the nation; it’s a tormenting psychomachy almost unrelated to the mission of the war. It leaves him broken and sobbing as he heads for home. “We did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves,” he says. “And the enemy was in us.”

Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987)—a less personal, more artificial film—at first externalizes this inner conflict between the warrior’s brutal and gentle selves. The first half of the movie follows an intelligent and observant private called “Joker” (Matthew Modine) through basic training on Parris Island. The double nature of the human heart is represented, on the one hand, by the comically bellicose Drill Instructor Hartman (wonderfully played by R. Lee Ermey), and on the other, by a sweet-natured idiot nicknamed Private Pyle (the much underrated Vincent D’Onofrio). After Joker and the other recruits reject Pyle and assault him, the gentle fool goes mad and kills both the DI and himself—a cataclysmic end to the struggle between the two men, and symbolic of the violent suppression of Joker’s internal struggle as well.

The second half of the film, which takes place in Vietnam, bears this reading out. Now a detached, sarcastic military journalist, Joker ironically represents what he calls the “duality of man” by wearing a peace button on his lapel and the words born to kill scrawled across his helmet. But when he leaves his journalistic post and joins a patrol during the Tet Offensive, his detachment finally fails him. In the end, he is forced to execute a teenage girl, a sniper. It’s an act of both mercy and brutality that represents the final annihilation of even this twisted remnant of his anima. His soul must die in order for him to stay alive.

What has changed between Sands of Iwo Jima and the Vietnam films is, of course, the context. In Sands, Stryker’s internal sacrifice—not to mention the sacrifice of his life—is tragically noble because it contributes to the freedom of a good and grateful nation. The Vietnam films reject the worthiness of the sacrifice precisely because they reject the worthiness of the nation. They do this, however, in two very different ways.

Stone, with his kooky left-wing paranoia, has become a bugbear of conservatives, but his deeply felt and tormented examination of his war service deserves respect. Like Platoon, Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989), based on the autobiography of paralyzed antiwar veteran Ron Kovic, details the experience of a war that was rejected by the culture-making vanguard and so stripped of its glory. A conservative viewer can easily interpret the film as the tale of a man seduced into left-wing lunacy by his need to find a celebratory context for his sacrifice—a context supplied by the antiwar Left. Nonetheless, the director’s ultimate message is clear. “We love the people of America,” says Tom Cruise as Kovic, “but when it comes to the government . . . [they’re] a bunch of corrupt, greedy racists and robbers.”

The expatriate Kubrick’s rejection of America is far more complete, and so his attitude toward the warrior sacrifice is utterly contemptuous. Full Metal Jacket ends with Joker and his comrades marching through a landscape of fire, singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme song. In becoming warriors, they have made the world a living hell, in service of a shallow, artificial culture.

Whether through Stone’s tortured paranoia or Kubrick’s cultural self-hatred, the Vietnam films’ bitter vision of the warrior’s initiation went hand in hand with Hollywood’s increasingly negative depiction of America. That depiction depended partly on the filmmakers’ specific rejection of Vietnam-era policies. But it was shaped, informed, and encouraged by a larger phenomenon: the intellectuals’ turning away from nationalism itself.

Antinationalism has a long pedigree in Western art and thought, so to track its development in Hollywood war movies, we now have to double back, before Vietnam and World II, to even earlier films.

Through much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with nationalism at its height in Europe, Western artists routinely depicted war as purifying and ennobling. With World War I, that idea became increasingly insupportable. A generation of young men had been wiped out for reasons that remain murky even today, slaughtered in their millions by a technology that seemed to eliminate any trace of martial sublimity.

The dominant artistic reaction was a rejection of nationalist sacrifice. It was best summed up by Wilfred Owen’s famous poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which sneers at “the old lie” that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. Between the world wars, Hollywood took up that antinationalist theme in one of its earliest talkies, 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front. The film won an Oscar for best picture and remains an extraordinary movie to this day. In this story of German soldiers in the trenches, based on Erich Maria Remarque’s fine novel, every father figure who fills young men with dreams of “some desperate glory,” to use Owen’s phrase, is a blustering fool, a militaristic buffoon, or a secret coward. The war is nothing but senseless death.

Key to this depiction is one scene that remains a staple of the war-movie genre: battle-weary soldiers sitting together and discussing the greater mission. These scenes almost invariably ring false—statements by the artists intruding on the art—but they’re telling nonetheless.

“How do they start a war?” one soldier asks in All Quiet.

“One country offends another,” a second says.

“Oh, well, if that’s it, I shouldn’t be here at all. I don’t feel offended.”

Here, the concerns of the individual—and, by extension, the concerns of the People—are different from, and even antithetical to, the concerns of the nation. In the wake of this devastating conflict, that pretty much became the left-wing line. Nationalism had caused the war; therefore cosmopolitanism, and a stateless commitment to the People, would end war altogether.

The trouble with cosmopolitanism, as George Orwell pointed out, is that no one is willing to fight and die for it. When warlike racial nationalism resurged in the thirties, only an answering “atavistic emotion of patriotism,” as Orwell wrote, could embolden people to stand against it.

Though European intellectuals and their left-wing American acolytes are loath to admit it, the U.S. had already provided an excellent new rationale for that emotion. Our Founding redefined nationhood along social-contract lines that Europeans can still only theorize about. Our love of nation at its best was ethical, not ethnic. Our patriotism was loyalty not to race, or even to tradition, but to ideals of individual liberty and republican self-governance.

The films of World War II often reflect just that sort of patriotism. Yes, there’s plenty of pure jingo, not to mention racial slurs so nonchalant that they’re now hilarious: the enemies are always krauts or dagos or—my personal favorite from Fighting Seabees—“Tojo and his bug-eyed monkeys.” But many World War II films emphasize what America stands for. The ceaseless Hollywood roll calls of Spinellis, O’Haras, Dombrowskis, and Steins highlight the e pluribus unum of it all: an ethnically diverse nation unified by democratic ideals. Those ideals were embodied by the characters themselves—by their rough, easygoing demeanor, their friendly interaction over ethnic and class lines, and their suspicion of fascist strongmen. Mussolini “kinda thinks he’s God, don’t he?” says a cynical Humphrey Bogart in Sahara. “Someday that guy’s gonna blow up and bust.”

Most people love their homeland, but these movies understood that, for Americans, the democratic ethos constituted the substance of that land. It was that substance that was worth fighting and dying for, even when the battle was lost. As a doomed soldier remarks in Bataan, “It don’t matter much where a man dies, as long as he dies for freedom.” Hold your breath and wait for a modern filmmaker to say that about Vietnam or Iraq.

Largely, Hollywood films continued to reflect American-style patriotism through the 1950s and ’60s. But with the doubts and dissensions of the Vietnam era, the antinationalist agenda that governed Europe’s intelligentsia after World War I reached our shores full force and became, by corollary, anti-Americanism. And as respect for America as a worthy nation waned among the elite, so, too, did respect for America’s guardians. Instead of a movie hero, the warrior became the self-serious militaristic buffoon of such antiwar films as Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Robert Altman’s MASH, which lost the 1970 Oscar to Patton. MASH’s blood-laced depiction of countercultural army surgeons stitching up the wounded in the Korean War is frequently offset by a PA announcer’s apathetic reading of heroic ad copy for old war movies: “Tell it to the marines, those lovable lugs with wonderful mugs.” And the chief foil for the picture’s hippie-like heroes is the pompous patriot and religious hypocrite Frank Burns, played by Robert Duvall.

Duvall, probably the best film actor of his generation, would bring that caricature to a stunning apotheosis in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. An adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set in Vietnam, Apocalypse Now has as much to do with the real war as Coppola’s The Godfather has to do with the real Mafia. But as The Godfather brilliantly dramatizes the director’s ideas about assimilation and capitalism, so Apocalypse Now plays out his notions about America’s role in the world. It’s a nightmare vision. American warriors are the extension of a clueless, violent, and imperialist culture. A rain of napalm burns away pristine jungles so that indigenous primitives can be replaced by Yank thugs drooling over Playboy bunnies in spangled cowboy suits. The supreme manifestation of this fantasy is Duvall’s aptly named Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, a madman who wipes out an entire village merely to clear the beach for a famous surfer likewise aptly named L. B. Johnson. In a film that denigrates the nation and its culture, the patriot warrior can only appear absurd.

Liberals often argue that in criticizing American actions and culture, artists are actually defending American principles by holding the nation to its own standards. That argument would make sense in an atmosphere of contending visions that showed both America’s greatness and its imperfections. But when the arts purvey only a consistently anti-patriotic and anti-military message, it seems clear that they have in fact detached the ethos from the country that embodies it. In doing so, American artists are adopting European-style cosmopolitanism, which leaves them virtually incapable of depicting warriors as heroes. “International society has ideas to defend—ideas of universal justice—but little actual ground,” the political thinker Robert Kaplan wrote recently. “And without ground to defend, it has little need of heroes.”

The full implications of our artists’ growing cosmopolitanism become painfully vivid when modern filmmakers attempt to impose their view on World War II, the gold standard for the Good War. The 1996 Oscar winner, The English Patient, based on Michael Ondaatje’s novel, provides an unintentional dramatization of how high ideals, untethered from their territory, drift away into a dreamy blue of narcissistic hedonism.

The English Patient is such a visually beautiful film that the mind has to overcome the eye in order to comprehend its moral emptiness. Ralph Fiennes plays a Hungarian count, László Almásy, a man too fine for nationhood. Employed to map the Sahara, he flies high above the earth in his plane, disdaining borders and any concept of ownership. As war threatens, he begins a passionate affair with another man’s wife, Katharine, played by Kristin Scott Thomas. At the story’s climax, László must find a plane to rescue the wounded Katharine from a cave in the desert. He procures one from the Nazis in exchange for his strategic maps. When it’s pointed out to him that thousands of people might’ve died because of his treachery, he responds, “Thousands of people did die. They were just different people.” In any case, he reaches Katharine too late. She dies after writing in her journal, “We [individuals] are the real countries. Not the boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men.”

Pause here a moment and think back to 1942’s Casablanca, an Oscar winner surely as great as any film of the studio era. In its depiction of a man coming out of disengagement and self-pity to embrace a larger cause, it provides one of the most moving climaxes in cinematic history. Humphrey Bogart’s cabaret owner Rick Blaine makes the warrior’s classic sacrifice, giving up the love of his life in order to join the fight for freedom. “I’m no good at being noble,” he famously tells Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa, “but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” It’s a scene that still makes viewers cry.

The English Patient is the anti-Casablanca. Here, the problems of this crazy world don’t amount to a hill of beans when there’s some hot lovin’ to be done. It doesn’t matter which people die, which nation wins. There are no values, no issues of human ideals, human liberty, or self-governance. There are merely “boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men.” So here’s that intelligence you wanted, Mr. Hitler, and excuse me while I get it on.

The film’s real value lies in its unintentional depiction of the way a high-minded cosmopolitanism results not in the universal good that it espouses but in selfishness and evil. And since that’s the movie’s secret story—two selfish people ditching their national obligations in pursuit of sensual fulfillment—it remains, for all its flights of high romance, one of the coldest, least affecting love stories ever screened. There’s a Seinfeld episode in which Elaine, forced to sit through the film, yells at the screen, “Stop telling your boring stories about the desert and die already!” That gets it just about right.

For the most part, that English Patient logic, the logic of lofty cosmopolitanism that is, in fact, the deadly logic of radical selfishness, continues to prevail in Hollywood when filmmakers confront the actual presence of war. But there was a brief end-of-millennium period when patriotism, and the respect for the military that goes with it, began cautiously to appear in American movies again. Post–cold war revelations showed that Americans were the good guys after all, a liberal president presided over healthy economic times, and it seemed to the inattentive that we might never again have to deal with any real wars. It was then, in 1998, that at least one great director felt secure enough to make a major motion picture that tried to recapture the lost ideal of patriotic sacrifice.

Despite its virtually perfect cast, 1998’s Saving Private Ryan is no classic. It is marred by two of director Steven Spielberg’s most prominent traits: sentimentalism and a tendency to turn characters into archetypes. These (related) traits served the director well in great films like Jaws, E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark. But they render even his most-lauded historical epics mawkish and intellectually shallow.

Still, Ryan is an important war movie for two reasons. First, Spielberg is, as Jaws author Peter Benchley once bitchily remarked, the nation’s “greatest second-unit director”—that is, the guy assigned by the chief director to handle action scenes. Ryan opens with a D-day sequence that is epoch-making in its realism, rendering every battle scene before it obsolete and every one after it derivative.

Second, the movie is a sincere attempt by a great post-Vietnam director to recapture the American argument for the warrior. After the invasion sequence, the film goes through the usual scenes of dehumanizing combat—including, as in Sands of Iwo Jima, the one in which the men have to remain in hiding while their wounded comrade dies. But each scene is soon followed by another showing why the brutal warrior attitude makes sense under the circumstances: a German soldier mercifully left alive returns to wreak havoc; a child taken in out of tenderness nearly gets everyone killed. There are no self-serious patriots here, only businesslike citizen soldiers doing what has to be done. The final sweeping pan up from a field of soldiers’ graves to a fluttering American flag makes it clear: these soldiers fought and died not as the instrument of princes but as free men defending a nation that was an extension of themselves.

Here, as in the war movies of the 1940s and ’50s, American values are embodied in the men who fight for them. The American way is most effectively dramatized in the person of Captain John Miller, through Tom Hanks’s awe-inspiring genius for communicating the complexities of decency. A former schoolteacher, Miller suppresses his gentler peacetime character and forces himself into the role of warrior with discipline and self-knowledge. In direct contrast with the Nazi foe, he leads not through militaristic worship of rank but by example and simple worth. He is the exemplar of the Democratic Man.

Shot down in battle, Miller whispers his last words to the rescued Private Ryan: “Earn this. Earn it.” The words touch off the film’s embarrassingly maudlin final sequence, in which an older Ryan, representing all America, weeps at Miller’s grave, wondering if he’s been good enough to have earned his salvation.

As ham-handed as Ryan’s moral lesson may be, it also seems irrefutable. The warrior’s sacrifice finds its purpose in the defense of the nation, and the nation, in turn, owes him glorious memory and the preservation of the values for which it stands.

Perhaps, if the post–cold war peace had lasted longer, this thought would have become more acceptable to our artistic elite. Black Hawk Down, a movie of martial valor, though released after 9/11, was in the pipeline beforehand; perhaps it would have become part of a larger movement. In time, American artists and intellectuals might have felt secure enough to wonder if European aversion to the nation was merely a symptom of a civilization on the wane, irrelevant to us. Perhaps even Vietnam would have begun to seem, not an ill-advised European-style colonial venture, but, like Bataan, a lost battle in a larger ethical struggle. It don’t matter where a man dies, as long as he dies for freedom.

But, of course, the peace didn’t last. With 9/11 violently awaking us to the fact of ongoing global jihad, real war came again. And not merely war, but a war that made nonsense out of cherished cosmopolitan left-wing doctrines like multiculturalism and moral relativism. Rather than face the obvious failures of their philosophy, intellectual and creative elites retreated into their present high-sounding but secretly selfish antinational moralizing.

It was Clint Eastwood, of all people, who went beyond even The English Patient in attempting to reexamine World War II in the new cosmopolitan light. As both actor and director, Eastwood is an American classic—I would say so even if he hadn’t once filmed a novel of mine. But his 2006 double feature about the battle of Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, is a masterpiece of moral confusion. American heroism is deemphasized, Japanese courage underscored. Americans are shown committing atrocities, Japanese nobly holding out so that “our children can live for one more day.” They were all just people, that’s the idea; all just doing their duty, fighting for their countries. Which is surely true, but so what? World War II wasn’t a Yankees–Red Sox game. It actually mattered, in the end, which country you fought for and who won. Sure, individuals and nations are universally flawed, and all have fallen short of the glory of God, but the ideas and values for which those individuals and nations stand tend to guide them in better or worse directions and so are more or less worth defending. America’s liberty and toleration: yes. Japan’s imperialist tyranny: not so much.

Eastwood said that he wanted his films to expose the “futility of war.” But war is dreadful, not futile—there’s a big difference. These films create the illusion of war’s futility through the ultimate act of cosmopolitanism: they delete the knowledge of good and evil. True, the Bible tells us that we lived in a peaceful paradise before we acquired that knowledge. But the Bible likewise tells us that the way back there is barred by a sword of fire.

So we return to the antiwar films of autumn. It seems odd to compare these with the powerful and influential pictures discussed above. It’s not just that these new movies failed at the box office: a film’s popularity, like a war’s popularity, is no fair measure of its worth. Each of these movies is also emotionally ineffective and intellectually stale. Together, however, they’re indicative of the philosophical cage in which our creative community has trapped itself.

In Redacted, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, and Lions for Lambs—as in more successful thrillers like Shooter and The Bourne Ultimatum—virtually every act of the American administration is corrupt or sinister, and every patriot is a cynically misused fool. Every warrior, therefore, is either evil himself or, more often, a victim of evil, destined for meaningless destruction or soul-death and insanity. These movies’ anti-American attitudes strike me not as the products of original vision and reflection but rather as the tired expressions of inherited prejudices. The films work the way that prejudice works, anyway: by taking extraordinary incidents and individuals and extrapolating general principles from them.

Redacted is the worst example. Politically repellent, emotionally dishonest, artistically incompetent, and, at 90 minutes, about an hour too long, the film shows American soldiers raping a 15-year-old Iraqi girl and slaughtering her family. Writer and director Brian De Palma, a vastly overrated hack, used the same trope in his so-so 1989 Vietnam film, Casualties of War, which tells you exactly how far his thinking has progressed. The other three films take a more earnest, if smarmy, approach, smothering our fighters in loving pity, but the principle of extrapolation is the same. In Lions for Lambs, patriotic youngsters are sent to die for a wartime scheme meant to advance a cynical conservative politician’s career. In Rendition, the CIA ships off a wholly innocent man to a foreign country to be tortured for information that he doesn’t have. And In the Valley of Elah has enough murderously loony post-traumatic veterans to make up a sort of nutcase rifle battalion. Put on a uniform, serve in Iraq, and zappo, you’re kill-crazy forever.

If these stories were representative rather than exceptional, In the Valley of Elah would have at least half an excuse for its disgraceful and infantile final shot, which shows the American flag flown upside down as a token of our terrible distress. But the stories—even though some are based on fact—are not representative at all. The overwhelming impression that reporters with our fighters in the Middle East send back is of professionalism, valor, and continued faith in the mission. These movies, as the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan recently pointed out, simply select modern images that remind them of the old Vietnam-era films and rehash them to support their outmoded political points of view.

Locked in an echo chamber of fashionable leftism, our filmmakers have lost the ability to question those discredited assumptions. Only in fantasy war films—films like Spielberg’s undervalued War of the Worlds, Michael Bay’s amusing Transformers, or Peter Jackson’s wonderful Lord of the Rings trilogy—does the truth of our present situation emerge. Here, filmmakers don’t have to confront the deathblow that radical Islam deals to the logic of leftist ideology. They can portray evil without giving it a human face and affirm our values without paying too particular a tribute to the nation in which those values become flesh. The warrior’s sacrifice makes sense again, martial virtues can be openly honored, and those who protect us are given back their glory.

That glory, however, is not the stuff of fantasy alone. The threat of global jihad is all too real, and the stakes are all too high. Liberty, tolerance, the harmony of conflicting voices—these things didn’t materialize suddenly out of the glowing heart of human decency. People thought of them, fought and died to establish them, not in the ether, but on solid ground. That ground has to be defended or the values themselves will die. The warriors willing to do this difficult work deserve to have their heroism acknowledged in our living thoughts and through our living arts. We should hear their voices every day, saying: Earn this. Earn it.

Andrew Klavan is the author of such bestsellers as True Crime and Don’t Say a Word. His latest novel is Damnation Street.

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