« On V Update to Old Id… | Home | Weapons of Mass Dis-i… »

Full Metal Boring: COIN is Boring Pt. 4

(To read the entire "COIN is Boring” series, please click here.)

As I writer, I think about mediums. Not psychics, but art mediums, wondering which ones will survive into the future. I ask myself, “If someone wants to write something that will affect the most people, what should they write?” In the 1300s, great writers wrote epic poetry. In the 1600s, plays. In the 1800s through the middle of the 2000s, novels.

In the 1950s, film became the most important art medium in the modern world. More people see films than read novels. More importantly, more people respect films than respect novels. I could discuss The Godfather or Pulp Fiction with almost anyone; good luck finding someone who’s actually read DeLillo’s Underworld. Few novels change the world these days. A few films do just that every year. (As far as other modern mediums go, TV came into its own in the early 2000s and video games are far, far too immature in content to even consider them.)

Which brings me to the series we’ve been writing for four weeks now: how do films handle counter-insurgency?

Not terribly well.

How do I know? Because we’ve already written about how Hollywood ignores counter insurgencies. In “The "Battle Mentality" of Hollywood”, we describe Hollywood’s focus on the “decisive battle”, using Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and the most recent Alice in Wonderland remake as examples:

“Movies are only two hours long. With the occasional exception, a film can only depict a single battle, or a handful of battles, never the war. Also, the three act structure of Hollywood scripts--ingrained in the minds of Hollywood executives--does not have much flexibility. Executives, screenwriters and directors must deliver a climax, and the decisive battle is a tremendous climax.”

Most insurgencies last decades; most films--chronologically--last a couple of days. Insurgencies rise and fall on the success of dozens of groups and actors; a film can only follow a few individuals. Counter-insurgencies most often end with a whimper (for example, the Iraq War); Hollywood films end with a bang. It’s why Return of the Jedi chronicled the final climactic destruction of the Empire while ignoring the Ewok insurgency that raged for years on the forest moon of Endor.

Which doesn’t mean there are no films about counter-insurgency. The guys at Kings of War made a fine list a few years ago, but take another look at their selections. Those films aren’t popular. And some of the movies--Spartacus, Full Metal Jacket--are technically about insurgencies, but not really about coalition building or coercing populations. And yes, The Battle for Algiers and Lawrence of Arabia depicted counter-insurgency masterfully, but how many Americans have actually seen those movies?

You could argue that Hollywood made a whole bunch of cinematically great, popular films about the Vietnam War--which was an insurgency--like Platoon, Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, We Were Soldiers, and arguably Apocalypse Now (It’s a great film; I just don’t think it’s really about Vietnam.)

But those Vietnam war films perfectly illustrate what I’m talking about. First, most of those films depicted the experiences of soldiers, not the Vietnamese. Second, America stopped making Vietnam War films.

That’s right. Hollywood no longer cares about Vietnam. The last two major films about Vietnam were We Were Soldiers, released in 2002, and Rescue Dawn, released in 2006. World War II has so many films still being made about it, Wikipedia divides the article up by decade. George Clooney and Matt Damon have another WWII movie coming out this winter.

The absolute failure of most post-9/11 war movies proves the case. After wave and wave of failure, even the most successful film about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, The Hurt Locker (net box office gross: less than $50 million) suffered at the box office...and it didn’t really cover counterinsurgency. Sure, filmmakers will someday make films--good, successful, accurate films--about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; I doubt they’ll cover counterinsurgency. They won’t have the time. (Lone Survivor touches on some of those issues, but I think you know how we feel about that.)

And like the Vietnam war, we won’t be making films about either war in forty years.

I wouldn’t make a film about an insurgency either. If Michael C and I had the opportunity, we’d make a film about Afghanistan, but it would depict a battle. Films can depict battles, not wars. The complexity of counter insurgency--virtually every insurgency--just can’t be covered in a two hour film. I’m not blaming Hollywood; I’m blaming the medium.

three comments

Lawrence of Arabia counter-insurgency?

Surely not. I would have said it was about an inspiring insurgent leader.


Apocalypse Now (It’s a great film; I just don’t think it’s really about Vietnam.)

I agree. It’s really Heart of Darkness (a book I love regardless of what postcolonial types have to say about it) rebooted for the 20th century. The plantation scene in Apocalypse Now Redux makes it clearer what the original movie was trying to get at.


John Sayles directed an amazing movie about the Guatemalan civil war titled Men with Guns. No battles, just a lot of traumatized people living in a divided society.