Fact and Fiction: The Iraq War Film in Absence


The American film industry’s response to the events of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq heralds a transition in its previous reaction to the country at war. During the Vietnam conflict, the industry was slow to tackle the complex issue of representing an increasingly unpopular war. However, the Iraq War has quickly found expression in both fiction and non-fiction form. While documentaries such as Standard Operating Procedure (USA 2008) have met with some success, the majority of non-fiction and fiction films have failed at the box office. In the Valley of Elah (USA, 2007) and Stop-Loss (USA 2008), which deal explicitly with the dehumanizing effect of the Iraq war on American soldiers, are two such examples. This paper argues that a closer examination of the recognised audiences for both fiction and non-fiction films might better enable us to ascertain the validity of the critical perception of an ‘absent audience’ for the Iraq war film, and how audiences might differ from those of the Vietnam period. In taking up the discussion of the adverse or “vanishing” viewer, this article suggests that, in the midst of combat when soldiers die everyday and there seems to be no end-in-sight, audiences are still inclined to reject realist aesthetics in favour of more spectacular or fantastic generic offerings.


1. Post-9/11 Audiences and the American Film Industry

The American film industry’s response to the events of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq heralds a transition in its previous reaction to the country at war. During the Vietnam conflict, the industry was slow to tackle the complex issue of representing an increasingly unpopular war. While documentary films were made at the same time as the action and often functioned as educational tools and propaganda, fictional films that addressed the experiences of soldiers at war only began to appear in the late 1970s with films such as The Deer Hunter (UK/USA 1978) and Apocalypse Now (USA 1979). Through the 1980s, the release of fictional films dealing with the events of the war and its aftermath escalated. Sometimes for political reasons, and often for economic ones, dramatic films have used analogy to deal with war. In relation to Vietnam, Robin Wood argues that, for American society of the time, horror films were a site for social commentary, capturing the malaise and the sense that there had been a disruption to the normal social-contract.[1] Discussions around the cycle of films currently termed ‘horror porn’ or ‘torture porn’ often suggest that they have a similar function as commentaries on the post 9/11 period.[2] While I have argued elsewhere about the problem with this relation, it does appear that representations of torture in the media have inflected the imagery of these fiction films. However, the 9/11 terrorist attack, the torture at Abu Ghraib and the invasion of Iraq have quickly found expression in both fiction and non-fiction form. While documentaries such as Standard Operating Procedure (USA 2008), Taxi to the Dark Side (USA 2007) and Body of War (USA 2008) have met with some success, as Stephen Prince argues in Firestorm: American Film in the Age of Terrorism, the majority of non-fiction and fiction films have failed to find an audience. In what is the first comprehensive study of US film and television production in the post 9/11 era, Prince states that “9/11 and its aftermath …have remained treacherous topics for filmmakers to explore.”[3] Examples of films include In the Valley of Elah (USA, 2007) and Stop-Loss (USA 2008), which deal explicitly with the dehumanizing effect of the Iraq war on American soldiers. Other fictional films made in the last decade dealing with post-9/11 terrorism, and soldiers’ experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq include: Rendition (USA 2007), Lions for Lambs (USA 2007), Redacted (Canada/USA 2007) and Body of Lies (USA 2008). While initially encountering difficulties with theatrical release, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (USA 2008) has received critical acclaim, winning multiple Academy Awards and a BAFTA for Best Film. A more recent example is the Matt Damon vehicle Green Zone (USA 2010), in which he plays an officer who discovers that the US military intelligence about Weapons of Mass Destruction is not only incorrect, but fabricated for political ends.[4]

Part of the reason for this immediate response in production is simply technological: global media circulates information at an unprecedented speed, and the social network mediums of chat rooms, blogs and twitter enable a swift public engagement with events. However, there is also an element of shock in the American film industry’s response as, for the first time it was reacting to an attack on ‘home soil’. Yet, Susan L. Carruthers observes, “American audiences for imagery from, of, or about the US enterprise in Iraq are remarkably scant.” Setting audience’s “‘reluctance to see’ in an historical context”, she suggests that the “current moment is sui generis: a challenge to media scholars to re-examine prevailing paradigms and to historicize the specificities of anemic contemporary ‘anti-war’ sentiment.”[5] To address this issue, she claims we need to fathom how to better “locate and render visible micro-publics that increasingly constitute themselves online”, while questioning how we might “theorize structured absences, evasions and silences”.[6]

Similarly, Brian Gibson highlights that, while the war in Iraq is the most filmed war in cinema’s history, audiences have been remarkably small.[7] Responding to Carruthers’ call to develop new research paradigms to account for “anti-war sentiments” [8] , Gibson argues that the post-9/11 viewer’s aversion is due to the lack of artistic potential in the creation of these war films and the failure of audience sympathy.[9] To combat this lack of compassion, he proposes that audiences require a new perspective to “see from the point of view of an Iraqi civilian [or] journalist”. Furthermore, he argues that films must perform their own “counter-insurgency” by refusing to produce contained and rationalised image of the horror of the war.[10]

The idea of seeing from the perspective of an Iraqi civilian or journalist is an admirable suggestion, and one that has been taken up in some documentaries such as My Country, My Country(USA 2006) and Iraq in Fragments (USA 2006), but less so in fiction films. The argument that contemporary war films offer sanitised images of the “horror” of the war is a claim that needs to be more closely analysed in relation to current productions. New media requires, as Carruthers argues, the development of new research paradigms to better assess the activities of online communities. But a closer examination of the recognised audiences for both fiction and non-fiction films might also enable us to better ascertain the validity of the claim of an ‘absent audience’ for the Iraq war film, and how audiences might differ from those of the Vietnam period. In taking up the discussion of the adverse or “vanishing” viewer, I wish to tease out some of the implications around the idea that this moment is “sui generis” to this period. How has the American film industry responded to the post 9/11 period, specifically the invasion of Iraq? Is the critical perception of an absent audience true of both documentary and fiction films? How has the new media landscape affected the audience for war films and anti-war sentiment? Why has there been a lack of engagement with films such as In the Valley of Elah and Stop-Loss? While the Iraq war might come to be known as the “first YouTube war”[11] , can audience’s aversion represent the continuation of similar behaviour recorded during both World War II and the Vietnam war? In the midst of combat when soldiers die everyday and there seems to be no end-in-sight, audiences are inclined to reject realist aesthetics in favour of more spectacular or fantastic generic offerings.

2. Fiction and Non Fiction

Guy Westwell discusses the interconnectedness of war, movies about war, and the cultural imagination of war more generally, noting that in the “immediate aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, Karl Rove, senior advisor to President George Bush Jr, met with several top Hollywood executives to discuss how the film industry might contribute to the ‘war on terror’”.[12] Suggesting that “war cinema is central to the waging of war”, Westwell notes that one of the American film industry’s immediate response to 9/11 was to move the release dates forward of specific films that were perceived to be patriotic.[13] Wheeler Winston Dixon also details the industry’s initial reaction to the terrorist attack. Film sequences containing images of the World Trade Center were edited out of films in post-production, while ‘family’ films were rushed into release.[14] As Jonathan Markovitz notes, a film like Collateral Damage (USA), which concerned a terrorist threat in downtown Los Angeles, had its release date moved from 2001 to 2002, whereas Black Hawk Down (USA), which dealt with the US intervention in Somalia, had its release date pushed forward to 2001.[15] This rescheduling was obviously undertaken with public morale in mind.

Prince argues that it was not surprising that the American studios were “slow to dramatize the events of 9/11, and the reasons were clear. The attacks had left deep scars, and their visual record – the photographs, films and videos taken on September 11— was profoundly emotional”.[16] However, in the first couple of years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, audiences were open to “war films” but, due to production time, there were no films dealing directly with the events. With a budget of USD85 million, Collateral Damage did not quite break even, grossing a little more than USD78 million. Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, however, easily doubled its budget of USD92 million.[17] While audiences were interested in films that dramatised the actions and heroics of the US Military, it was the usual “family fodder” that claimed the top ten places at the box office, with the continuing success of comic book remakes, fantasy serials and animation making the largest impression. In 2001, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (USA/ UK) was the most popular film.[18] Having cost approximately USD125 million to produce, the film has now grossed nearly USD975 million. The next in line was another co-production, the first of the Peter Jackson trilogy The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings (New Zealand/USA), with a budget of around USD93 million; currently, worldwide, the film has grossed close to USD871 million. Third and fourth place are held by the US animation productions Shrek, with a budget of USD60 million and grossing USD484 million and Monsters Inc, costing USD115 million to make and grossing USD525 million. An interesting inclusion at number 7 is the critically derided Pearl Harbour (USA). With a budget of USD140 million, the film has now grossed worldwide USD449 million. When looking through the box office statistics up until 2010, there is a clear sense that this trend is continuing with the huge success of remakes, trilogies and serials like Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Spiderman, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Bourne films.

There are two anomalies in the listing; the first being the unusual inclusion of a documentary, with the huge success of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (USA 2004). While controversy circulates around the status of Moore’s films as ‘documentaries’, Fahrenheit 9/11 was placed at 17 at the box office in 2004 and is still the highest grossing documentary. In fact, Moore’s films hold four of the top ten rankings for documentaries at the box office; yet, as I will discuss later, this phenomenon has much to do with his ‘showman’ persona and the dramatic nature of his films. The success of Fahrenheit 9/11, however, is unprecedented and far outweighs the success of any of Moore’s other films. Perhaps the nature of the film’s success should be considered in relation to Moore’s political affiliation with the Democrats and the American public’s disillusion with the government at the time of its release. A political documentary, the film is a sustained attack on the Bush administration, the orchestration of the ‘War on Terror’, and American corporate media’s apparent support for the invasion of Iraq. The second film is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (USA 2004), which was third at the box office in 2004, costing USD30 million to make and returning close to USD612 million. The story of Gibson’s difficulties in bringing the film to fruition and interesting backers and distributors is well documented, especially as the languages used are Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew therefore requiring subtitles, making it also the highest grossing ‘foreign language’ film ever. There are some clear reasons as to why a film dealing with the final hours of Jesus Christ’s life and the crucifixion would garner such attention.

Gibson released the film through his own company Icon films and numerous other religiously affiliated distribution sources. The film was put to use by religious groups as a ‘teaching tool’ and became the subject of much debate – and aggravation. Jewish and Catholic leaders argued over the film’s perceived anti-Semitism; Christian groups both celebrated it and challenged the accuracy of its details, (along with historians); while commentators complained of the gratuitous nature of the extended sequences in which Jesus Christ is violently flogged. Again, this film also needs to be situated in the context of the increasing power of religious right pressure groups under the Bush administration and the high level of religious belief in the American population.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks the American film industry continued business as usual, but the revelation of the Abu Ghraib images produced a significantly different response. The images of US and UK military personnel torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib were initially brought to the public’s attention by a 60 Minutes 11 news report on 28th April 2004, and an article by Seymour M. Hersh in The New Yorker Magazine, posted on-line 30th April 2004 and published in the 10th May issue. While debates have raged about the continued circulation of the images, less attention has been paid to how the film industry has dealt with the events at Abu Ghraib. What we can say is that documentary is perceived as the appropriate form with which to deal explicitly with the torture and abuse.[19] While some documentaries such as Taxi to the Darkside have met with critical success and won awards, few have gained theatrical release or made any imprint on the box office. Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure has had wide theatrical release so it is perhaps an exception here, but so is Morris. Before confirming the absent audiences for post-9/11 war films, it seems wise, for the sake of this discussion, to address documentaries as separate entities to fiction films.

In his opinion piece “Documentaries Hit the Multiplexes”, written in 2005, Andrew Horton acknowledged a new trend in theatrical releases arguing that, tuning into non-fiction films and television programs, audiences began to demonstrate their weariness with 24-hour news coverage, delivered in sound bites.[20] The desire for a more in-depth and educational view on current affairs, possibly lead to an increased audience for documentary viewing. Yet this desire was teamed with the appearance of a new element in the content of the documentary form – the director as main character – the bumbling, slightly twee Nick Broomfield affecting amateurism, with his sound-boom inevitably entering the edge of each frame, or the shambling hulk of middle American familiarity in the case of Mike Moore. Aptly capturing this phenomenon, Stella Bruzzi labelled the likes of Moore and Broomfield “star directors”[21] , with their public personas functioning like the main protagonist of any fiction film, offering the audience a point of engagement, identification and guidance.

While Morris rarely appears in his films, and is only ever occasionally heard as a disembodied voice addressing questions to the interviewees in Standard Operating Procedure, he is a public figure with serious critical kudos. Entering mainstream consciousness through the success of The Thin Blue Line (USA 1988), Morris has maintained a public profile as a celebrated but contentious documentary filmmaker, partly due to his post-modern aesthetics, which involve dramatic re-enactments and theatrical staging. His film subjects, public commentary and fan base have all helped to sustain his status. Yet these public figures like Broomfield, Moore, and Morris, are still anomalies in the world of documentary filmmaking. Most documentaries will never make it to the multiplexes; instead, they will continue to circulate through film festivals, educational and cultural institutions, with a few being broadcast on HBO or Channel 13 in the US, or public broadcast channels in other countries such as the ABC and SBS in Australia.

Compared to fiction films, or the likes of Fahrenheit 9/11, the takings for documentaries are inordinately small, often only in the thousands compared to the millions generated by successful fiction films.[22] The much discussed Standard Operating Procedure grossed worldwide approximately USD324 thousand; Taxi to the Dark Side returned USD274 thousand and Body of War, a mere USD71 thousand. While documentaries generally have much smaller budgets, these sums are miniscule compared to those grossed by popular fictional films. Other types of documentaries that have been successful are innovative, glossy, nature documentaries, such as March of the Penguin (La Marche de L’empereur, France 2005). This is the second highest grossing documentary having taken USD127 million, yet it is only listed at 27th for that year’s box office; similarly Winged Migration (France/Italy/Germany/Spain/Switzerland 2001) is the tenth highest grossing documentary with takings of USD32 million, but it comes in at around 74th position at the box office when compared with fiction films released that year.

If we consider two documentaries that critics have commended as having captured the perspective of Iraqi citizens (and that have also met the approval of Brian Gibson and other scholars as films that are a kind of “counter insurgency”), James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments and Laura Poitras’s My Country, My Country, with the first earning around USD204, 462 and the latter USD33, 620, we can see that the box office takings are still comparatively small. Furthermore, looking through the thirty all time highest ranked documentaries at the box office, we find that the list is comprised of films by contemporary star directors, a few nature documentaries, and other star vehicles such as Madonna: Truth or Dare (USA 1991) and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (USA 2006). Audiences have not flocked to see Iraq war documentaries, but historically they rarely have attended non-fiction films in numbers comparable to those for successful fiction films.

While analysing the box office statistics can enable us to surmise comparative audience size, the finances involved and popular trends, Carruthers is right to confirm that assessing the audience for such circulation is inevitably difficult and becoming more so. This is especially true of the current circumstances when taking into account the contemporary trends of cinema goers, with the largest demographic of 18 to 25 year olds inclined to view and share through on-line communities current content by digital downloads and streaming on computers, ipods and iphones. These new forms of usage, as Carruthers notes, are notoriously difficult to quantify in the case of both documentary and fiction film. However, the concern over the missing audience for war films, I would suggest, at least in the case of non-fiction film, is a concern over an audience that was never as healthy as the debate would suggest. The case of fiction film, however, poses another set of issues.

3. The Iraq War Film in Absence?

George Parker, a foreign affairs reporter for The New Yorker, writing in detail of his experiences in Iraq, observes that a “mutual disenchantment between Iraqis and Americans began early:”

In the United States, the war is an abstraction that routinely shades into caricature. For all the television news coverage, Americans have the slimmest sense of what the war actually feels and looks like – crumbling deserts, blasted buildings, angry crowds, random firefights. The image of Iraq is flickering and formless.[23]

With distress palpable in his words, Parker claims that the war in Iraq has had no effect on American culture – not even on popular culture. He volunteers many reasons for this state of affairs, but of relevance to this discussion is his observation that the Iraq War occurred at the same time as a technological revolution. Growing censorship of the media post-9/11 has meant that balanced reporting on the international conflict has often been limited to independent and alternative sources.[24] While Western media has been dealing with increased mainstream censorship, developments in digital technology mean that the Military is no longer easily able to control the circulation of information and images outside of its ranks: the images of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib are a case in point.[25] Commenting on these new developments, Parker claims:

The Iraq War coincided with a revolution in technology that allowed soldiers to disseminate digital images of missions within hours of completing them, a cable network to provide around–the-clock criticism of a rival network’s war coverage, and reclusive twenty-somethings to register their reactions every seventeen minutes on their blogs (and become influential commentators at the same time). The flood of information and commentary resulted in an intense, irritable, balkanized view of the war, but not a clearer view.[26]

Parker is one of those commentators who holds in high esteem Laura Poitras’s Oscar nominated documentary My Country, My Country which follows a Sunni Arab doctor as he prepares to run in the 2005 Iraq election, and James Longley’s Oscar nominated Iraq in Fragments (2006), which in three different acts explores some of the complexities around ethnicity and religion in contemporary Iraq. While acknowledging the risks that Poitras and Longley took in spending extensive periods of time in Iraq to enable them to create their portrayals, Parker regrets the fact that these documentaries have no match or semblance of vision in any feature films that have been made about the Iraq war. Even the two war films that he believes have some merit, Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah and the British director Wendell Steavenson’s The Situation (2006), he suggests, fail to present the war as anything other than “incomprehensible mayhem” that depict “American soldiers as psychopaths who may as well be wearing SS uniforms.”[27] Furthermore, he notes:

It’s curious that the Vietnam War, during which some Americans demonized soldiers, generated a number of movies that depict military personnel as thinking, feeling human beings, capable of committing terrible deeds but also possessed of insight, sorrow and even redemption. Iraq, the war in which everyone loudly supports the troops, has produced a film genre that systematically dehumanizes them.[28]

It is fitting that Parker laments the lack of fiction films creating affective portrayals of Iraqis; however, his discussion of a failed cycle of contemporary Iraq war films needs to be more closely examined. Films such as In the Valley of Elah and Stop-Loss, which are set in middle-America, and The Hurt Locker, which takes place in the war zone, are films that attempt to create sympathetic and insightful portrayals of American soldiers. While it appears that Parker had not seen The Hurt Locker before writing his article, this film and the release of Green Zone in March 2010 might have encouraged him to reconsider his assessment. In different ways, all of these films work to produce portrayals of American soldiers as ‘individuals’, some who are fighting for what they believe is a ‘just’ war; some who are attempting to escape from the war; others who are corrupted by the war, or who are lost outside the institutionalised world of the military, combat and camaraderie.

While Brian Gibson and Parker either bemoan the lack of an audience for Iraq war films or lament the artistic failure of these films in their representation of the war, Rick Beck suggests that their artistic and economic failure are related to one another and to how citizens make “politics” in the 2000s compared to the 1960s.[29] Arguing that political activity is no longer found in the multiplexes or public demonstrations such as anti-war marches, Beck claims that it is manifested in new forms of grassroots movements that engage in social and political activities on a much smaller scale.[30] Whether the multiplexes have ever been the site of anti-war sentiment or any political activity is debatable; however, witnessing the protest marches that took place across the world in opposition to the US and Allied forces invasion of Iraq, in Greece in opposition to EU demands for a financial austerity programme and those that occur regularly around the G8, it is difficult to fully support Beck’s observations. Yet, new media does bring communities together in different ways, and as Carruthers notes, to access and assess these online activities requires the development of new research strategies.[31] But a further important issue is, however, the assumption made by Parker that during the period of the Vietnam war, civilians at home had a clear understanding of the dynamics of war, which, in turn, were represented in war films. Almost instantly technology allows us to see images of events beamed around the world and comment on them through shared online communities, but perhaps our contemporary aversion to social or even dramatic realism is not that much different from our 1960s forbearers. New technologies allow us instant and explicit images of the invasion of Iraq and the continuing war from soldiers’ visual diaries and embedded journalists, but these pictures, both still and moving, are rarely given any contextualising frame.[32] In the midst of the Vietnam war, had the average American or Australian civilian any better understanding or clear insight into the dynamics of the war – what was it all about, or what was it like to be there? Surely even those families who had sons in combat only ever understood the images in their newspapers and on their television sets as “flickering and formless” – and from somewhere else. A brief comparison of productions and audiences for the post-9/11 war film in relation to an early period of films depicting the Vietnam war will enable us to highlight some differences in moments of production and audience tendencies.

4. The Post-Vietnam War Film and the Contemporary Iraq War Film

In much of the debate around the “vanishing audience” for the post-9/11 war film, a level of nostalgia exists for the Vietnam war film as a cycle of the war genre that captured something powerful about the events of the time. But the films that generated poignant responses to, and memories of, the Vietnam war, and captured anti-war sentiment – he ones we remember as creating an emotional and visceral resonance through their dramatic portrayal of the brutality of events and the trauma wrecked on the allied soldiers, many who were conscripted, but also the Vietnamese and Cambodian populations – these films only began to appear in the late 1970s, with the height of production occurring in the mid 1980s. When we remember those films that portrayed soldiers as “thinking, feeling human beings, capable of committing terrible deeds but also possessed of insight, sorrow and even redemption”, aren’t we mainly thinking of the post–Vietnam period?

While there were war films made during the Vietnam war, which concluded in 1975, most of them were set in other historical periods and worked to revise established genres. Films such as Little Big Man (USA 1970) re-evaluated the nineteenth-century Indian wars, while MASH (USA 1970), a satirical dark comedy that is often read as a critique of the chaos of Vietnam, was set during the Korean war. Both reappraisals of the frontier myth, two of the most popular films of the time were The Wild Bunch (USA 1969) and McCabe and Mrs Miller (USA 1971), although The Wild Bunch has been read as an allegory of the Vietnam war.[33] The politicisation of film that occurred in the 1960s began to give way in the mid to late 1970s with the emergence of popular, escapist blockbusters such as Star Wars (USA 1977), Superman (UK/USA 1978) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (USA 1981), films we mainly now think of as ‘high concept’, involving a Manichean conflict with spectacular special effects.[34] (Perhaps we should consider the current 3D phenomenon as its contemporary equivalent.)

Through the history of the cinema we can chart audience’s desires for fantasy and spectacle, particularly when confronted with hardship, conflict and war. In actuality, Vietnam war films that interrogated the psychology of soldiers and the horrors inflicted on both sides were mainly released well after the events. Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (USA 1978), Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (USA/UK 1978), Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (UK/USA1987), Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War (USA 1989), and Oliver Stone’s trilogy Platoon (UK/USA USA 1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and Heaven and Earth (France/USA 1993) are all categorised as post-Vietnam war films.[35] The sentiments around these films should be considered in relation to elapsed time, allowing both soldiers and audiences some distance from the traumatic events – ime and distance for a period of contemplating the dynamics of war, for healing and recuperation – but also for acknowledging damage, trauma and guilt.[36]

Typically, documentaries have been made to rally support for or against a nation’s engagement in war. Governments (and the military) have, historically, funded films such as the classic US Government’s official series Why We Fight (USA 1942-5); whereas politically active individuals and pressure groups have invested in energising anti-war sentiments through documentaries such as Peter Davis’s Hearts and Minds (USA 1974), a film that harshly criticised the intervention and bloodshed in Vietnam. In contrast, the war film genre has been predominately interested in the intense dynamics and spectacle of conflict and the effects of combat on soldiers. As demonstrated by the post-Vietnam war films, these types of productions have generally been produced after the events, in some ways confirming a level of political conservatism in the American film industry, but also sensitivity to an audience’s sensibilities and desires.

Beck, Carruthers, Brian Gibson and Parker all confirm the financial and aesthetic failure of the Iraq war film, which they claim is symptomatic of an absent audience. They suggest that new media is partly responsible for this absent audience due to changing viewing habits and new technologies. However, while Carruthers claims we need new research paradigms to enable us to better understand these absences, and the apparent lack of anti war sentiment, Parker argues that new technologies have lead to an intense, yet chaotic perception of the war that is fostered by competing media outlets and amateur bloggers.[37] Beck also confirms the effects of new media on political activities suggesting that the absent audience is most probably due to changes in how citizens demonstrate anti war sentiments, now performing them at a grass roots level.[38] Condemning their lack of artistic vision, both Beck and Parker state that the Iraq war cycle is a body of artistically flawed films. Brian Gibson claims this is due to their contained “rationalize-able image of horror”;[39] whereas Parker offers an opposing perspective, arguing the creative failure of the films is due to the chaotic images of the war they produce and the characterisation of American soldiers as “psychopaths”. Furthermore, we cannot assume that an audience’s lack of interest in the Iraq war film can tell us anything about anti war sentiment, as possibly these attitudes are finding outlets in other forms of media.

It is true that audiences have not rushed to see films such as In the Valley of Elah, but it is an over statement to claim that they have avoided them, with each film revealing different viewing patterns. In the Valley of Elah was made for around USD27 million and is now in the black having grossed worldwide USD29 million; while not enormously successful, the film did appeal to some part of the audience demographic. Stop-Loss with a budget of USD25 million, however, only grossed 11 million. Reasonable takings if we were discussing a documentary film, yet Stop Loss has not come anywhere near to returning its budget, so the film is an economic failure. Other films have generated respectable audience interest: Body of Lies was produced for USD70 million and grossed USD115 million, yet the success of this film is surely due to, in part, the audience appeal of its star, Leonardo di Caprio, rather than the story it tells of the CIA’s investigations into a case of terrorism. Multi-award winning and critically acclaimed The Hurt Locker has had moderate success: the film cost USD15 million to make and has now grossed USD48 million. Obviously we are dealing with a financially profitable film, but not one that has drawn a large audience. It is also interesting to note that for the year of its release, the film charted at 117 on the domestic US box office, but was listed at 99 for the international one, possibly demonstrating its greater appeal to non-American audiences. Green Zone is one of the most recent examples. Released in March 2010, the film cost USD100 million to make and had by October taken USD95 million. Although the film has not recuperated its budget, it has been popular with audiences who have possibly been drawn to the tried and tested combination of the last two Bourne films, which also starred Matt Damon and were directed by Paul Greengrass.

There are several other issues to be considered about the failure or success of the Iraq war films. Each one of the above-mentioned films is rated R. While available to all demographics except people under 17 unaccompanied by an adult, an R rating is granted due to a high level of adult content, which means it is less likely that children and teenagers will be in an audience. Most of the box office top ten hits encourage a broader range of audiences due to PG or PG-13 ratings. In addition, the positive critical response to several of these films, specifically The Hurt Locker and In the Valley of Elah would suggest that their lack of success at the box office does not confirm their artistic failure.[40] This ‘moment’ might be unprecedented due to developments in new media and the fact that the production of these war films is occurring during the period of conflict, yet it is interesting to hypothesize whether, at a future point in time, audiences will perhaps return to these films or be more open to new productions. But faced with unprecedented access to images and reportage of the ‘real thing,’ perhaps like earlier audiences in times of conflict, contemporary ones respond similarly; like that Vietnam audience, they want films full of stories of escapism, fantasy and wish-fulfilment. Or perhaps they want their war stories presented in allegory.

5. Conclusion

Carruthers, Gibson and Parker have noted that there are few fiction films being made in the West that portray in any kind of holistic and intimate way the experience of the war from an Iraqi soldier or civilian perspective. Along with Beck, they have also condemned the Iraq war film as an artistic failure. In contrast Prince claims that there was a production surge in 2007 by American studios of films that dealt with the events of 9/11 and the post 9/11 world. He argues that the poor box offices showing for these films, which included In the Valley of Elah, Stop-Loss, Rendition and Lions for Lambs lead to the Industry “concluding that 9/11 and the Iraq war were not viable topics for successful film production”.[41] However, there are films being released that represent critiques of the war experience and the effects on enlisted soldiers. The moderate success of the critically acclaimed The Hurt Locker, the lack of interest in In the Valley of Elah and the box office failure of Stop-Loss would seem to be symptomatic of a civilian audience’s response during periods of conflict. Perhaps it is also suggestive of a flooded market, saturated with images of the ‘real thing’, as well as dramatic representations. This state of affairs is exacerbated by contemporary access to explicit images of combat, executions and torture. It is worth posing the question: does the ‘real thing’ make dramatic realism unnecessary? Does access to information through digital technologies mean that audiences have also changed in how they process and respond to events, particularly hardship, pain and trauma? Whether you believe in or oppose the invasion of Iraq, living in a society at war, specifically one that was founded on misinformation in an environment in which mainstream media has struggled to produce balanced reportage, has meant that civilian understanding of the ‘dynamics’ of the war is fragmented and conflicting.[42] But is this situation really any different from the Vietnam war period, or other periods of war? Is it so surprising that audiences have avoided fictional films that deal with the dehumanizing effects of the war on military personnel, while those effects are taking place? Of the American post 9/11 audience, Prince has noted that “viewers seemed to be saying collectively that they didn’t wish to be reminded about the war when they went to the movies”.[43]

During the later period of the Vietnam war, we saw the development of fantastic blockbuster films that we now term ‘high concept’. Increasingly over the last couple of years we have seen productions of films that would appeal to family audiences released in several formats with films such as Night at the Museum (USA/UK 2006) and Christmas Carol (USA 2009) distributed in standard and IMAX 3D experience. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (USA 2010) was similarly released in both formats in March of this year and has currently grossed USD331 million. While audiences are varied but generally small for the contemporary war film, they have rushed to see James Cameron’s Avatar (USA/UK 2009), a film that perhaps confirms a new stage in the cinema’s technological development. Avatar was released in standard format as well as in 3D and it is the highest grossing film ever with the extraordinary current takings of USD2,772,605,563.[44]

With its 3D viewing experience and spectacular digital effects, Avatar offers a different kind of audience experience. Most critics have responded positively to the film’s use of special effects, but many have been critical of its story and themes. Commentators such as Jonah Goldberg argue that the film is another form of imperial racism offering homage to the stereotype of the noble savage.[45] Furthermore, both he and Ross Douthat claim the film simply rehashes Hollywood’s pantheist quasi-religious tales, such as those we have already seen in Dances with Wolves (US/UK 1990) and Pocahontas (USA 1995).[46] Apart from its special effects, Avatar’s main character is Jake (Sam Worthington). A paraplegic war veteran, he is sent to the planet Pandora to undertake a special mission. The planet is inhabited by the Na’vi, humanoid creatures that live in a sustained ecology and have their own language and culture. Conflicted by his duties when he discovers that the corporation funding his mission is only interested in mining a precious substance that exists on the planet, Jake aligns himself with the Na’vi against the corporation and its military supporters. Offering an acidic response to the concerns of many critics, John Podhoretz states:

You’re going to hear a lot over the next couple of weeks about…[Avatar’s] politics—about how it’s a Green epic about despoiling the environment, and an attack on the war in Iraq, and so on. The conclusion does ask the audience to root for the defeat of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency. So it is a deep expression of anti-Americanism—kind of…[47]

Podhoretz proceeds to argue that, in fact, Cameron wrote Avatar this way not to be controversial, but to ensure the film appealed to “the greatest number of people”. He is a little disingenuous here as we are really being asked to cheer for the defeat of a brutal corporation and a military body, which functions more like a private militia. Jake is always presented as the ‘good soldier’ who turns renegade due to his moral abhorrence to the aggressive capitalism of the corporate world. (We see a similar theme played out in Green Zone, where Officer Miller takes on his own morally inspired investigation of the Government and Military’s fabrication of misinformation). While scathing about its banal plot, lack of humour and painful dialogue, Podhoretz claims that the film’s success rests on its “technical mastery”. However, he concludes by posing the question: will its special effects “silence the discomfort coming from that significant segment of the American population that, we know from the box-office receipts for Iraq war movies this decade, doesn’t like it when an American soldier is the bad guy?”[48] Podhoretz was writing two weeks after the film’s release in December 2009 and, as we now know, audiences have flocked to see the film. Yet if we wish to expand this type of interpretative analysis further we could argue that rather than a criticism of American soldiers, the film can be read as a prophet of the current global economic crisis, prompted by the collapse of the housing bubble in America in 2006, rather than a criticism of American soldiers. However, it is important to note that the characterizations developed in many of the Iraq war films are sympathetic to the individual soldier, while critical of the US Military or the Government (or country) that sent them to war. It is the institutions and administrators who are under attack, while individual soldiers are portrayed as humane and heroic or manipulated and corrupted by their experiences of war.

Interestingly though, if we do think seriously about Avatar’s plot, it initially appears to be a fantastic attempt at portraying the possibility of two worlds exploring democracy, multiculturalism and ecological preservation. Yet it explodes in the final act of the film with inevitable conflict.[49] This suggests that the popular western imagination cannot find any other form of resolution except through combat. It is as if we have never left the terrain of what Richard Slotkin has termed “the myth of regeneration through violence”, a founding settler myth of American culture.[50] Discussing contemporary American Iraqi war films, Joan Mellen suggests:

In the Valley of Elah may be viewed as a coda to No Country for Old Men, with a parallel theme, that America’s young men drilled and educated so as to fight America’s expansionist foreign wars have been morally damaged at the same time as the national ethos. Sheriff Bell in No Country for Old Men and Hank Deerfield In The Valley of Elah…are defeated by men who are hybrids, grotesque mutations produced by American’s wars of empire.[51]

These films are not just about the Iraq war, Mellen argues, but a history of expansionism that contemporary American cinema has seen fit to criticise. She claims that the above mentioned films along with Days of Heaven (USA 1978) view their “veterans as victims no less than executioners.”[52] While the fantasy of Avatar promises eco-liberty and multiculturalism in its purest form, it implodes due to an inability to think outside a classic narrative of conquest. But as Podhoretz notes, this film is not particularly interested in driving home a theme; rather, it is consumed by the seduction of new technologies. While we might have found ourselves in a moment that is unprecedented due to new media, there does still seem to be a correlation in audience’s desires and responses to the cinema during periods of conflict. Perhaps to understand the important lessons of war films such as The Hurt Locker, Stop-Loss and In the Valley of Elah, contemporary audience need to be in a post-“War on Terror” period.


[1] For further discussion see Robin Wood, Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan…And Beyond, New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
[2] I have discussed this relation in the article, Gabrielle Murray, “Representations of the Body in Pain and the Cinema Experience in Torture–Porn,” Jump Cut: A Review of Media. 50, 2008. http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc50.2008/TortureHostel2/index.html Also see, Stephen Prince, Firestorm: American Film in the Age of Terrorism, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, 284-5. Prince discusses the contemporary upsurge in the zombie film and its referencing and commentary on post 9/11 events, specifically the Iraq war.
[3] Prince, 4
[4] For a listing of documentaries dealing with the US invasion of Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, see Susan L. Carruthers’ article “No One’s Looking: The Disappearing Audience for War,” Media, War & Conflict 1.1 (2008); 70-76 and Brian Gibson’s article “The War on Film, Reanimating the Post 9/11 Viewer in The Prisoner, Or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair,” CineAction 77 (Summer 2009): 18-25.
[5] Carruthers, 70.
[6] Carruthers, 75. A areas of audience engagement that is key for the adolescent audience is the game entertainment industry. This is one to the most significant developing areas competing cinema attendance, but one that the scope off this article does not allow me to address.
[7]Gibson, 18.
[8] Carruthers, 74.
[9] Gibson, 24.
[10] Gibson, 23.
[11] Carruthers 75.
[12] Guy Westwell, War Cinema: Hollywood on the Front line, London: Wallflower, 2006, 1. For further discussion see Daniel C. Hallin The ‘Uncensored War’: The Media and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986; and Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam-The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth Maker. London, Pan Kooks, 1989. Both of these books demonstrate how studies reveal that in every war since Word War 11, the media has provided both implicit and explicit support for war.
[13] Westwall, 2-4.
[14] Wheeler Winston Dixon (ed.), Film and Television After 9/11, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004, 3.
[15] Jonathan Markovitz, “Reel Terror Post 9/11,” in Film and Television After 9/11, Wheeler Winston Dixon (ed.), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004, 201-205.
[16] Stephen Prince, Firestorm: American Film in the Age of Terrorism, New York: Verson, 2009, 2.
[17] All box office statistics are taken from Box Office Mojo, except where specified otherwise. Retrieved 12 May 2010. http://boxofficemojo.com/.
[18] The box office ratings relate specifically to the US domestic market; however, world-wide rankings for films in the top ten are often remarkably similar.
[19] Here it is important to note that torture has become the subject of some fiction films such Rendition, which deals with the illegal imprisonment of an individual in Egypt, suspected of a terrorist bombings. It has become part of mainstream television as demonstrated by the serial 24 and, interestingly we have become accustomed to an “aesthetic of torture” that is now a mainstay of contemporary horror films, but has also appears in other genres, such as thrillers.
[20] Andrew Horton, “Documentaries Hit the Multiplexes,” World Literature Today 79:3/4 (September-December 2005) 68-70.
[21] See Stella Bruzzi, New Documentary: A Critical Introduction. London: Routledge, 2000.
[22] Of course we also need to acknowledge the large amount of fictions films that never return their budget.
[23] George Parker, “Over Here: Iraq the Place vs Iraq the Abstraction,” World Affairs 170: 3 (Winter 2008) 16.
[24] See Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London: Verso, 2004, p. 3.
[25] For further discussion, see Susan Sontag, “Regarding the Torture of Others,” The New York Times. May 23 2004. Retrieved on 15 September 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/23/magazine/23PRISONS.html.
[26] Parker, 18.
[27] Parker, 23.
[28] Parker, 24-25.
[29] Richard Beck, “Inanimate Fact and Iraq War Filmmaking,” Film Quarterly 62:1 (Fall 2008): 8.
[30] Beck, 9.
[31] Carruthers, 74.
[32] For further discussion, see Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? London: Verso, 2009.
[33]For further discussion of the relation between Peckinpah and the period in which he worked, see Steven Prince, (ed) Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
[34] For an extensive discussion of ‘high concept’, see Justin Wyatt, High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.
[35] For further discussion of the post-Vietnam film see, for example, Raya Morag, Defeated Masculinity: Post Traumatic Cinema in the aftermath of War. Bruxelles: P.I. E., Peter Lang, 2009.
[36] These ideas have been addressed in the extensive writings on Trauma Theory.
[37]Carruthers, 71-2, Parker, 18.
[38] Beck, 8.
[39]Gibson, 23.
[40] As I have noted several of the authors discussed in this paper acknowledge In the Valley of Elah as a significant film, while the critical success of The Hurt Locker is further demonstrated by the numerous awards it has won.
[41] Prince 296.
[42]See Parker who also addresses the antagonisms between left and right commentators that further confuses the dynamics of the war.
[43] Prince 303
[44] These are the takings as of 25 October 2010, Box Office Mojo http://boxofficemojo.com/.
[45]Jonah Goldberg, “Avatar and the Faith Instinct,” National Review 30 Dec 2009. Retrieved on 6 March 2010. http://article.nationalreview.com/419321/iavatari-and-the-faith-instinct/jonah-goldberg.
[46] Ross Douthat, “Heaven and Nature,” New York Times Dec 20 2009. Retrieved on 10 March 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/21/opinion/21douthat1.html.
[47] John Podhoretz, “Avatarocious: Another spectacle hits an iceberg and sinks,” Weekly Standard. Vol.15. 28 December 2009. Retrieved 6 March 2010, http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/017/350fozta.asp.
[48] Podhoretz.
[49]I would like to thank my colleague Dr Felicity Collins for drawing my attention to this issue.
[50] Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Middleton: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.
[51] Joan Mellen, “Spiraling Downward: America in Days of Heaven, In The Valley of Elah, and No Country for Old Men,” Film Quarterly 61:3 (Spring 2008), 24.
[52] Mellen, 24.

Created on: Sunday, 7 November 2010

About the Author

Gabrielle Murray

About the Authors

Gabrielle Murray

Gabrielle Murray is a Senior Lecturer in the Cinema Studies program at La Trobe University in Australia. She has published in several journals, edited anthologies and is the author of This Wounded Cinema, This Wounded Life: Violence and Utopia in the Films of Sam Peckinpah.View all posts by Gabrielle Murray →