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Iraq goes to the movies

By Ruth Brown

Updated on 14 March 2008

...but nobody else does. Why has the latest batch of war films done so badly at the US box office?

Five years after the invasion, conflict in Iraq rumbles on. And there are countless stories to be told.

But unlike Vietnam, where Hollywood mostly waited until the conflict was officially over before setting the screenwriters to work and the cameras rolling, film makers have shown little hesitation in putting the Iraq war on the big screen.

Several Iraq-related films - including Lamb for Lions, Rendition and In the Valley of Elah - have now been released in the US. And there are more in the pipeline.

Harrison Ford is currently filming No True Glory: The Battle For Fallujah. Stop-Loss, the story of a soldier who refuses to return to his duties in Iraq, is also on its way - as is a film about a soldier missing in Iraq called Last Man Home, rumoured to be directed by Ron Howard.

Film makers have shown little hesitation in putting the Iraq war on the big screen.

But none of the releases has so far been a box office hit. As Simon Hattenstone noted in the Guardian earlier this month, there is "little appetite for war films right now".

Worlds apart, then, from their Vietnam predecessors. Not only were most of these films released after troops had withdrawn from the conflict, they proved a big success with the American public.

Why is this? Are people simply tired of war films or is there something more at play here? Are these films the product - and victim - of a very different political age? It certainly looks that way.

Perhaps it has something to do with what cultural critic and historian Richard Slotkin calls "the American myth of regeneration through violence". This myth, Slotkin says, dates back to the American frontier of the 17th century, and is fully entrenched in American belief systems about national invincibility, morality and innocence - systems challenged by conflicts like Vietnam, and now Iraq.

It has been argued that the canon of Vietnam war films that included Apocalypse Now and Platoon served to recreate this myth through a process of revision. Although purporting to memorialise, they were really about forgetting.

These films replaced existing memories with an easily-digestible narrative which could be assimilated into national myths. They enabled the public to relive the violence as catharsis.

But films about the war in Iraq cannot fulfil this function; the war cannot be forgotten while it festers on without resolution. Stories that emerge from Iraq serve only to remind the public of the losses and the horrors of a war they at first supported and from which they now want to extricate themselves.

Indeed, the reaction to some of the latest films has been highly critical. Brian de Palma's low-budget film Redacted has taken very little at the US box office - so far grossing just $500,000.

Trailer: Redacted

Although winning the prestigious Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival last year, the film has been slated by US critics. Conservative radio talk show host and film critic Michael Medved called it "the worst movie I've ever seen".

The story is of a group of bored US soldiers who revisit a recently-raided home in order to rape the family's 15-year-old daughter, a plan which ends in murder. It is told through a variety of media: blogs, videoblogs, YouTube posts and a video diary shot in hi-definition.

De Palma uses the multimedia to comment on both the shortcomings of the mainstream media in reporting the hidden horrors of war, and military staff's use of technology like mobile phones and the internet to record crimes like those which took place at Abu Ghraib.

It's not new for filmmakers to use the media of the time to tell the stories of war. Platoon gained an air of authenticity borrowing from a mixture of veteran accounts, news footage and the fractured narrative of correspondent Michael Herr's 1978 war memoir Dispatches.

But where Platoon was made when the Vietnam war was over, de Palma's film - which he has called "a fictional story inspired by true events" - is being shown while similar events may still be taking place as the audience sits and watches.

Platoon served to draw a line underneath Vietnam. Redacted, US critics feel, simply adds to the trauma of a war to which no end is yet visible.

Trailer: In the Valley of Elah

Paul Haggis's film In the Valley of Elah takes a different approach. It opts for mainstream Hollywood stars Charlize Theron and Tommy Lee Jones and focuses on the impact of the Iraq war back home, where a family deals with the aftermath of their son's actions out in Iraq.

And yet it too has done comparatively badly in the box office.

Could this be because these films do not recreate "the myth of regeneration through violence"? As flag-covered coffins continue to be flown back to the US, an anxious public cannot seek solace in films which are unable to put to rest the grim realities of modern warfare.

Maybe this is the reason British director Nick Broomfield has been unable to find a US distributor for his film Battle for Haditha. Despite being described by The Times as "a terrific blast of sulphuric satire", the US has been reluctant to pick it up.

Trailer: Battle for Haditha

Like Redacted, Broomfield's film is low-budget, featuring unknown actors and based on real events. Using a documentary-style, it recounts the events of 19 November 2005 when 24 Iraqis, most of them believed to be civilians, were killed in Haditha, a city in the western Iraq province of Al Anbar.

The events are sparked by an attack on a convoy of United States Marines that resulted in the death Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas.

Unlike Redacted, Broomfield shoots several sides of the story - the marines, the insurgents and a nearby family - in gritty realism.

But why call de Palma a "traitor" and brand the latest batch of war films about Iraq "Bin Laden cinema" if they simply represent what really goes on in Iraq?

Perhaps the problem lies in what the films do for national morale. With Vietnam, the US Pentagon believed an unruly press lost them the war in the living room, now it is the moviemakers who are being criticised for hindering support for the war.

Fear of the impact of these films on civilian and military morale is exhibited in websites like which level accusations of "treasonous propaganda" at film makers.

As former secretary of state to the Bush administration Colin Powell, (drawing insight from 19th century Prussian philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz) observed during the Gulf War, war balances on three 'legs'.

"Without all three legs engaged," he said. "The military, the government, and the people, the enterprise cannot stand".

Other Iraq-related movies

Rendition: starring Reece Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhall and Meryl Streep
Lambs for Lions: starring Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise
A Migty Heart: starring Angelina Jolie
Grace is Gone: starring John Cusack, music by Clint Eastwood

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