Sobchak on Hulbert and Stanley, 'Martial Culture, Silver Screen: War Movies and the Construction of American Identity'

Matthew C. Hulbert, Matthew E. Stanley, eds.
Frank Sobchak

Matthew C. Hulbert, Matthew E. Stanley, eds. Martial Culture, Silver Screen: War Movies and the Construction of American Identity. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2020. 312 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8071-7472-2.

Reviewed by Frank Sobchak (Fletcher School, Tufts University) Published on H-War (November, 2022) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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Martial Culture Silver Screen examines how war films, specifically those produced by the Hollywood-based US film industry, have been used in the construction and evolution of American collective memory and identity. More specifically, it aims to “analyze how and why Americans use war movies to understand what it actually means to be American and, as a result, to establish who and what ‘belongs’ within the American experience” (p. 6). The book focuses on conflicts in which US forces were one of the protagonists and does not address films such as Dunkirk (2017) or Enemy at the Gates (2001), which center on the combat experiences of other nations. To accomplish their goal, the editors organized their work in eleven chronological chapters ranging from the American Revolution to the war on terror, preceded by an introduction and overview. Selection of the topics for the chapters is comprehensive and quite good, including subjects such as the antebellum period, the era of imperialism and Manifest Destiny, and the Revolutionary War, which are not often included in similar edited volumes due to the relative dearth of subject matter available. In that vein, it is similar in makeup to Lawrence Suid’s anthology, Guts and Glory (1978), but more ambitious than most analyses of American war films that address a single conflict, such as Clayton Koppes and Gregory Black’s Hollywood Goes to War (1990), which covers World War II, or Bruce Chadwick’s The Reel Civil War (2001). It also parallels thematic works such as Ralph Donald and Karen MacDonald’s Reel Men at War (2011), which addresses the topic of masculinity in war cinema.

Unfortunately, Martial Culture Silver Screen suffers the challenges experienced by many multiauthor volumes. Some of the editing is questionable, with chapters such as the one on World War II, which arguably had more impact on American identity and is the subject of a larger collection of films, being far shorter than the chapter on antebellum American imperialism. With fourteen contributing authors, the quality of chapters is uneven. Some, such as those on the Civil War, World War I, and the Cold War, are very well written and painstakingly balanced, providing interesting perspectives on how American identity evolved through war films. Covering more than a century of different films, the chapter on World War I superbly captures how the narrative about the conflict changed over time, reflecting Americans’ shifting conception of their own identity. The contribution on the Revolutionary War is also especially good, offering a convincing thesis that American identity linked to that war arcs between that of the intellectual founder-statesman to the brusque blue-collar farmer-soldier. In addition, it provides a splendid review of how the politics of different eras affected the depiction of the war, with films made in the immediate aftermath of World War II offering magnanimous views of British combatants and films produced during the Vietnam era echoing antiwar themes.

Other chapters, such as those on World War II and Vietnam, have significant issues with balance that cloud the effectiveness of their arguments. The World War II chapter suffers from additional challenges caused by a limited case selection and problematic thesis. Even though America’s “Good War” is the conflict most often portrayed by Hollywood (likely due to the positive message that it contributes to American identity), the book’s World War II chapter covers an exceptionally limited list of films. Only thirteen films are included in the authors’ assessment, and with the exception of four films that are only briefly mentioned, all of the other films were released after Saving Private Ryan (1998). War movies from the 1960s and 1970s are completely absent, abandoning an important window into understanding the evolution of American identity. More significantly, the chapter’s thesis, that films of the twenty-first century portray World War II as a conflict that can only be won by superheroes, is not supported by the evidence presented, which itself has excluded films that could counter such a narrative. Indeed, two of the films selected tell the stories of real soldiers—not superheroes—and the case selection excludes U-571 (2001), Flags of our Fathers (2006), Windtalkers (2002), Midway (2019), The Monuments Men (2014), Pearl Harbor (2001), Red Tails (2012), The Great Raid (2005), and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), which, if included, would negate the superhero thesis.

Considering all these factors together, portions of Martial Culture Silver Screen would make a great contribution to a class on war films, American identity and culture, or conflict. Several chapters are nothing short of brilliant, but others have enough flaws to prevent the book from being definitive. Because of their uneven nature, instructors should exercise caution if using the book as a textbook.

Citation: Frank Sobchak. Review of Hulbert, Matthew C.; Stanley, Matthew E., eds., Martial Culture, Silver Screen: War Movies and the Construction of American Identity. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2022. URL:

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