Reel Men At War: Masculinity and the American War Film.

Authors: Ralph Donald and Karen MacDonald

To be honest, I’m not sure where to start with this review.  It feels slightly like I’m critiquing someone’s PhD thesis.  In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the book had started its life as such before it got expanded into 250+ pages of bulky hardback, the central thesis of which is that war movies reinforce gender stereotypes of “masculinity”.

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock since the 1960s’ or have been so engrossed in the feminism aspect of gender theory that you don’t know what traditional male gender stereotypes are, here is a really quick guide.  In the US, men must be fearless, strong, brave and willing to fight (and die) to protect truth, justice and the American way.  Failure to do so means that you are not a man.
To be fair to the authors, this argument is doggedly maintained throughout and is presently clearly if not concisely.  The subject has been well researched and each point is reinforced by referencing a mix of American mainstream war films spanning nearly a hundred years of cinema, from 1915’s opus to white supremacy Birth of a Nation to 2009’s Oscar winning The Hurt Locker.  

Despite the sub-title I do feel it’s a bit of a missed opportunity that the authors chose to focus their discussions on America alone.  It would have made for a far more interesting narrative had they had juxtaposed ideas of American masculinity in cinema against their global counterparts.  But I’m willing to accept that would have been a different (and much longer) book.  It would also have been useful had there been some discussion of war films produced during times of war verses war films produced in peace times.  Do films made during war times, for propaganda reasons go out of their way to reinforce gender stereotypes more than their peace time equivalents? Sadly, we’ll never know.

Structurally the book is sound, although as I said reads like a PhD thesis, which at times can make it heavy going.  You would expect to be able to dip in and out of a book of film criticism, with each chapter able to stand alone.  I didn’t feel able to do that here, perhaps because the central argument was so doggedly maintained, in order to drive the narrative you always needed to have read the preceding chapter.  

Ultimately, the best bit of this book is the very thorough annotated filmography at the end. Each film is listed alphabetically for ease of reference and gives the director, writer, cast, distributor, and plot summary (I need never watch another war film again).  Moreover there is a quick note regarding the film’s treatment of masculinity which is quite interesting and shows the amount of research the authors put in here.  The real worth of this book will be decided by its use in the dissertations of undergraduate film and gender studies students, I wouldn’t however say it’s a must for film fans.

Suzanne King

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