I really wanted to have some fun and write about the homoerotic subtext in Commando for Day 7, but as I was readying to start the movie, I turned on that Siskel and Ebert special I mentioned the other day. (You can watch it in four parts on YouTube starting here.) And, I was reminded of my research for my Rambo speeches a few years back... (fall 2010, I think). One of the things I watched while putting together my two speeches on Rambo was an episode or two of Rambo: The Force of Freedom, Rambo's cartoon that aired in 1986--between Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III. I'll get into Rambo more in the next week (i.e. I'm watching Rambo next for this month of 80s action movies), so I won't get into too much detail there (yet). But, as I'm looking into some information about this special--I do scholarly writing so I like to know the specific citation for my sources (even if, for this blog at least, I sometimes let a hyperlink suffice)--and I find reference to the special in a footnote in the book Film Study: An Analytical Bibilography, Volume 1 (Manchel, 1990), along with, among other things, reference to a New York Times article: "Groups Protest Toys with War Theme" (4 December 1985, p. C12). As I'm looking through articles from that issue of the New York Times, I notice a few headlines:
Radicals Say They Killed West Bank Lawyer
8 Latin Countries Call for U.S.-Nicaraguan Talks
6 Killed in Sri Lanka Blast
Iraq and Iran Assaults
Israeli Unit Kills 5 Palestinians
Convoy Attacked in Afghan Clash
My thing: these don't sound so very long ago, these headlines. These headlines, or very similar ones, could be found in today's New York Times. Meanwhile, the #1 movie this holiday weekend (for future readers, today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the end of a nice three day weekend) was American Sniper. It's not a movie that's going to have a toy line or a kids cartoon like Rambo but it certainly works, though perhaps not deliberately*, to glorify not only American war but also killing foreigners. In that Siskel and Ebert special, Siskel paraphrases child psychiatrist Elva Poznanski (who appeared briefly in the special), saying, "These films are setting up combat as idealized male behavior, that blowing people away--particularly foreigners--is the essence of manliness" (At the Movies, 23 November 1985).
Sidenote--that asterisk: I say that American Sniper may not deliberately glorify our role in Iraq or in killing foreigners primarily because Eastwood's direction is not as energetic as Cosmatos' direction on Rambo or Lester's direction here in Commando. The film is not fun. Still, it has its cheerleaders who are definitely taking a pro-killing message out of it--just see the New York Daily News article: 'American Sniper' sparks hate toward Arabs on Twitter. It has its detractors as well--Seth Rogan compared the film to the film-within-a-film in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds: Nation's Pride. Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry Callahan was famously quoted by President Ronald Reagan--and Manchel (1990) points out, Dirty Harry was "listed as the No. 1 hero to 18- to 25-year-old Americans" in a 1985 Roper Poll (p. 437)--but it's hard to really argue that Eastwood's latest film actually is pro-war. Of course, that won't necessarily stop Americans from taking it as such. As I'll note in the next week, First Blood is very much anti-war, but by the time of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III, John Rambo was a symbol for war. Audiences take what they want from a film sometimes, regardless of the filmmakers' intent. What is worth noting in regards to American Sniper, though, is that recent marketing of the film focuses on the scene in which Bradley Cooper as real-life sniper Chris Kyle sits in a bar talking on the phone with his wife. He's on the verge of breaking down after all he's seen and/or done. The scene implies a film about how much war can damage a soldier, especially one with such a high kill count as Chris Kyle. But, the actual film spends so much time away from, say, Kyle's interactions with his wife, that the damage is relatively minor next to everything else. The film is structured quite simply around the hunt for Kyle's Iraqi counterpart, an assassin killing American soldiers. He is given no dialogue, but just enough screentime to allow those in the audience who would to hate him. If a film can only be designated propaganda if its pro-war message is deliberate, then American Sniper is not propaganda, but it certainly is playing like propaganda to the right audiences.
Image from a Democracy Chronicles piece about Arnold's supposed intention to run for president
Of course, movies like Rambo or Commando (though its villains are only vaguely defined inasmuch as Val Verde is never specifically located, though it seems to be Central American) do the same. The big wars were behind us, arguably. Vietnam had been replaced by secretive campaigns in Iran, Lebanon, Nicaragua, Beirut, Grenada, Libya and Afghanistan... and wherever else we were "intervening." But, audiences don't want nuance. 1980s audiences wanted obvious villains and bigger-than-life heroes. PopMatters says Commando is "like cinematic crack for guys. The mere mention of its title evokes an adolescent grin, of not outright exclamations and high-fives." I've already mentioned how I was only 9 when Commando came out. But, at the height of the Cold War--
(And, really, isn't that a phrase that bears very little meaning? I mean, shouldn't the "height" of the Cold War be Vietnam, when the Cold War turned hot at its largest scale? But, I think of--and I know I've heard it called as much--the 1980s as the "height" of the Cold War, even though that was when the Cold War was really waning. That is why Martin Riggs is who he is in Lethal Weapon, why John Matrix is who he is in Commando, why John Rambo is who he is in Rambo. There was no use for them on a regular basis anymore as the soldiers they had been trained to be. They are now just men trying to live their lives, but Americans didn't want men, not regular men anyway. We wanted something better.)
--we wanted... no, needed heroes to fight the enemy. A generation had grown up inside the Cold War and just didn't know what it was to not have an enemy. We couldn't imagine it. Hell, in my religious upbringing, we didn't need to imagine it because this enemy was going to incite World War III and the world as we knew it was going to come to and end and then Christ would return and all would be well. I've argued before--in one of my non-film blogs or on Facebook or on an old message board, or probably all three--that conservative audiences, of course support real war because real war means the Revelation and a nice happy ending where the infidels suffer and the devout are blessed and everything is just fine. It would be a nice, uplifting idea if it didn't mean war and pestilence and death would come for a huge percentage of the world's population first.
Then again, one must wonder if we Americans even care about that percentage. Just as long as it's foreign and far away, good riddance, right? Just like all of those soldiers Matrix kills in the third act of Commando--it doesn't matter that each one of those men is a son and maybe a brother and maybe a husband or a father. It doesn't matter that each one of those men is defending a cause he (presumably) finds to be the right one. All that matters is a little white girl was kidnapped by a vaguely Latino (Dan Hedaya is actually of Syrian, Jewish descent though he often plays Italians) would-be dictator and her father needs to get her back, damn the consequences.
Imagine a war movie in which both sides are treated with equal respect and dignity, in which both sides are presented as having a cause worth fighting for, or not (both sides could be manipulated)... hell, Clint Eastwood sort of did that a few years back [checked and that was nearly a decade ago] with Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. War films have gotten a little more... real, a little scarier, as filmmaking has evolved. There is room for something with more nuance.
But, that doesn't mean the audience will get it.
Or want to.