Dispatches from the Front: Hollywood's representation of War Correspondence

Material from my book on representations of war in Hollywood, published with Rutgers University Press

            Three different temporal moments need to be distinguished for my discussion about how Hollywood films engage with reporting from war zones, by either deploying the documentary genre to give testimony or turning combat journalists into heros of fiction films. War correspondents are eye-witnesses to events of which they give an account at the time that they occur, reporting explicitly for those who are not there. If their concern is to inform about and to a degree make sense of individual events and actions, cinematic narratives about reporting the war arrive at the scene at a historical distance. As the narratives record how a given war correspondent came to transmit his or her news from the battlefront, they not only recall this particular aspect of the war effort but already take into account the effect it has had. The reference of authenticity, adhering to the actual report of the correspondent, is no longer located only in the story the film chooses to relate, but also in the images or citations from past reports it embeds in its own narrative. At the same time, if, on the part of the war correspondent, bearing witness is a form of recalling the actions of soldiers (regardless of whether this serves to honor or to criticize), a cinematic reenactment of war reporting amounts to a second-degree recollection. What the film narrative recalls is a report that has already been made and as such must inevitably take into account the effect it may have had in the past, and whether to correct or to appraise the prior report. Finally, if all dispatches from the battlefront are belated missives, any cinematic engagement with the theme of war reporting involves second-hand knowledge, handed down to others so as to become part of our cultural image repertoire. Our engagement with these reports becomes the burden of our own historical heritage, calling upon us to use both the cinematic reenactment as well as the initial reportage it is based on to form our own recollection and our own accounting of the war.

            What, then, is at stake in Hollywood's engagement with the art of witnessing and giving testimony of war? Even when the story they tell involves a reporter and not a photographer or director, movies nevertheless use photographic images to visualize the scenes of war being transmitted. We must thus first ask: how are combat and photography mutually implicated, be it still photography or the moving imges of film? Roland Barthes was one of the first to insist on the special relation that photography has with death, given that we must contend with the way reference stubbornly adheres to the camera's image. Indeed, both the cinematic image and the photograph bring back to life people and scenes no longer present, but capture them as specters of themselves. Both confirm that what appeared before the camera's lens at the particular moment the photographer triggered the shutter or the director's camera began to role was unequivocally there. Yet to assert that a particular scene took place also implies that what it references no longer exists, at least not quite the way we see it recaptured on film.[1] If, in so doing, both the cinematic and the photographic image recall the intractable fatedness of what they also commemorate, what is special about photographing and filming the war is that its scenes occur in a theater of transience par excellence. Because the context of combat photography is the possibility of dying at any moment, real danger hovers at the edges of all the images it produces. The urgent claim on our attention these images make is, thus, based on a duplicitous affect. They render visible our own mortality even while the camera's mechanical gaze contains this disturbing insight.[2] At the same time, war photography opens up the question of complicity. The war correspondent, normally unarmed, not only chooses to compose an image or take notes rather than intervene in battle, his reportage, once circulated, also mobilizes public attitudes toward the hostilities it depicts and thus implicates us, the intended spectators.

            If, then, a non-retractable referent adheres to the photographic image in general, and photographs of war in particular, the reality these representations contain are always also obscured. We are presented with a scene, purporting to be an eye-witness report, yet any photographs, film sequences, or narratives inevitably frame what they record; they codify the real, and translate it into the realm of the imaginary. If, furthermore, on a personal level, dispatches from the war front make a knowledge available to us by proxy, even while shielding us from all real effects, this protection works on a public level as well. Afterall, our culture must engage in a constant struggle to contain the disruptiveness of military violence, reconciling its bloodshed with our sense of political justice. War reportage—whether praising, commemorating or critiquing—has emerged as a particularly resilient way of crafting and containing this violence, precisely because it offers representations and interpretations of what would otherwise be seen purely as a threat to individual and collective survival. Thus, although war reportage privileges the eye-witness account, the authenticity it promises is from the start caught up in a cultural matrix that blurs the distinction between documentary evidence and aesthetic representation. Even the most literal depiction of scenes of war deploys rhetorical devices (if only owing to its framing), while real death adheres to even the most stylized visualization, and any formalization amounts to an interpretation. As Ulrich Keller insists, "armed conflicts are shot through with signs, and the processes of signification are shot through with conflict; warfare is among other things an aesthetic enterprise and art, among other things, a site of battle. And the two essentially depend on each other, in a sometimes perverse nexus."[3]

             As is the case with any narrative reportage from the battle zone, photographic and cinematic images of war inevitably formalize the violence, which is its unretractable referent, and in so doing they confront us with our own complicity as the intended viewers of the spectacle. Yet even as culture uses war reportage to contain military violence, it is forced to recognize that once brought into circulation, images and stories develop a life of their own, producing shifting meanings that cannot be controlled. While the war correspondent's reportage compels us to agree that horrific destruction has happened, we may well come to disagree on how to respond to this evidence. Indeed, we may read the images against the grain of the correspondent's intention, see condemnation where he intended to praise, discover sympathy where he sought to accuse. Over the long run, memories of war, preserved and circulated through pictures and narratives, prove to be necessary cultural fictions. Indeed, as Susan Sontag argues, while, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as collective memory, there is collective instruction: "What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened, with the pictures that lock the story in our minds."[4] If, furthermore, war photography allows culture to contain military violence, Hollywood has brought forth two types of films that report from the war zone. I will begin by discussing John Huston's work for the War Department during WWII as an example for the way a director may himself assume the role of war correspondent, given that his documentary film pits his personal commentary against the official newsreels. Moving to fiction films explicitly about war correspondents, I will treat the combat journalist as a particularly poignant example for the larger issue of witnessing and giving report. In both cases, the missives they dispatch from the front lines not only commemorate the events of past wars by recalling eye-witnesses and calling upon us to remember, they also shape the way we take note, and instruct us on how to think about the evidence those reporting from the war confront us with.  At the same time, precisely because they do so within the genre of fictional narratives, they implicitly reflect on the contradiction inscribed in all war reportage as it welds together an irretraceable real event with an aesthetic formalization. We can only partake of war by adapting the real event to the pathos formulas and codes of genre cinema.

             There is, of course, a particular historical context for the convergence of documentary evidence and fictional reenactment. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the War Department and the Hollywood studios formed a bond unique in U.S. history. Fully committed to the war effort, directors such as William Wyler, George Stevens, Frank Capra, John Ford, and John Huston joined the US Army Signal Corps (supervising transmission of all military information) to produce combat documentary films. Even while Ford's Battle of Midway (1942) or Wyler's Memphis Belle (1944) used actual war footage to emphasize the authenticity of the battles they were recording, these films were riddled with traces of the melodrama and the Western genre their directors had earlier become famous for.[5] Indeed, John Ford had Henry Fonda, known for his representation of Abraham Lincoln, narrate his Battle of Midway to make the connection to his earlier work in a mythic retelling of American history explicit. The collective instruction at stake in the convergence of the War Department's Signal Corps and Hollywood during WWII, however, left its traces in combat dramas as well. As Thomas Schatz notes, by 1943 these had entered a stage of remarkable symbiosis with nonfiction war films. As documentary filmmakers came to dramatize and humanize their wartime subjects, he explains, "fictionalized accounts of combat developed a more pronounced 'documentary realism.'"[6] They did so by dedicating the war dramas, meant to boost the morale of those fighting on the front and at home, to those who had already died in battle, even while thanking the military institution that made not only the continuation of the war in Europe and the Pacific, but also its cinematic recollection, possible.

            Air Force (1943) is emblematic of this two-fold gesture of commemoration, moving beyond straightforward war correspondence by inserting actual battle footage into a fictional story, which at the same time authenticates its message. As a foreword to his narrative, Howard Hawks inserts a quotation from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address after the title credits, explaining the purpose of his film: "It is for us the living to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is for us to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth." The decisive air battle, in turn, includes newsreel footage, which either functions as a rear projection for the cinematic reenactment of the fighting, or, in the case of the bombing and sinking of the enemy ships, is spliced into individual scenes so as to weld together fictional dialogs among actors with combat photography of a battle that actually took place. The final dedication draws yet another connection between documentation and fictionalization, reminding the audience that "this story has a conclusion but not an end—for its real end will be the victory for which Americans—on land, on sea and in the air—have fought, are fighting now, and will continue to fight until peace has been won." Hawks thus justifies his fictional representation of a particular phase in American air combat by implicitly embedding his reel battle into the still on-going real battle in the Pacific theater. With the final shots of his film, indeed, he blurs the boundary between the site of cinema and that of military operations even further. Superimposed on a freeze frame of fighter airplanes flying in formation above the clouds, the final words of Air Force read: "Grateful acknowledgment is given to the United States Army Air Force, without whose assistance this record could not have been filmed."

             Even more hauntingly, Edward Dmytryk's Back to Bataan (1945) begins and ends its story of the liberation of the Japanese prison camp at Cabanatuan with released prisoners parading through the streets of Manila. The voice-over gives a roll-call of some of the men who were actually imprisoned there, ascribing a name, a rank, and a place of origin to anonymous faces. In the closing shots, Dmytryk, however, goes one step further and superimposes the faces of these soldiers onto those of the actors who played in the cinematic reenactment of the story behind this rescue. As real prisoners of war and reel heroes blend together visually, so, too, do documentary evidence and cinematic representation. While the aesthetic formalization serves to contain the actual violence of the struggle behind this rescue, rendering this story of resistance palatable to the war effort, the dedications ask us to remember the valor of actual American troops. Put another way, the narrative sandwiched in between these close-ups of soldiers and actors indeed shapes the way we take notice of the liberation of Bataan; it instructs us on how to think about the documentary evidence that introduces and concludes the fictional enactment we have been watching. But if in Back to Bataan, in a way typical for Hollywood's engagement with combat documentation during WWII, interpretation takes precedence over fact, these framing documentary shots also foreground the fact that real battle is unretractably written into Dmytryk's cinematic representation. That a referent adheres to these images comes to be articulated in what I call an authenticity effect. The real of war is located precisely in the murky interface that emerges as John Wayne and Anthony Quinn share the frame with liberated prisoners. The allure of the Hollywood star is ineluctably held at bay by these haggard, haunted faces in which we read traces of the suffering of actual imprisonment, even as they smile into the news cameras that are there to record their triumphant rescue.


            In his film review, "Best of 1945," written for The Nation, James Agee singles out John Huston's Battle of San Pietro and William Wellman's Story of G.I. Joe as the two best films of the year in which the Allied forces won their victory, praising both for the sober compassion with which they depict the Fifth Army's campaign in Italy. Indeed, both films share a visual eloquence, attentive to the heavy casualties in human lives, even while accepting these losses as the facts of war. James Agee argues that they touch upon the essence of the power of moving pictures; "they give you things to look at, clear of urging or comment, and so ordered that they are radiant with illimitable suggestions of meaning and mystery."[7] Precisely because both films focus on the long and difficult struggle to liberate Rome from the perspective of 'the ordinary GI,' (albeit as a belated aesthetic formalization of these soldiers' perspective) they refrain from glamorizing soldiering or ennobling the war effort. At the same time, even if the suffering of these infantrymen is shown to be unspectacular, because neither recklessness nor bravura are underscored, the point of both films is to make their story known, to draw our attention precisely to an unassuming valor that might otherwise be overlooked. Their affective power consists in deploying fictional codes so as to render war as ordinary, and thus real. At the same time, in a very concrete sense, they also share a conversation about the war correspondent's impulse to blur the border between documentary evidence and aesthetic formalization. Not only was Huston forced to restage some of the combat around the Italian village, but Wellman, directing his film months after this part of the campaign was over, decided to include footage shot by Huston's Signal Corps cameramen in San Pietro. Furthermore, while in his documentary film Huston himself takes on the role of a war correspondent, whose personal impressions of the war are being reported, Wellman is the director of an explicitly fictional recreation of the life of Ernie Pyle, based on but also embellishing the columns the actual combat journalist sent back home from the war front.

            Huston's Battle of San Pietro begins with a panorama shot of Liri valley. As the camera moves into the landscape, focusing on barren grapevines, forlorn olive groves, and cornfields lying fallow, the voice-over narration, spoken by John Huston himself, explains that the last year had been bad for the harvest. After locating San Pietro on a military map, the camera moves into the ruins of this ancient village at the threshold of the valley. As Huston goes on to explain how, over the centuries, these dwellings were built by Italian peasants not for themselves alone but for future generations, he shows us villagers cleaning away the rubble of their bombed homes, until the camera comes to rest at the body of a dead girl, lying on her back, her eyes staring blankly into space. At the end of its record of the battle that liberated this village from Nazi occupation, Huston's narrative will return to images of children who survived the onslaught, as though to support his hope that they might be able to forget quickly. Yet it is the corpse of a child, collateral damage of the battle of San Pietro, which introduces all the other dead that will be buried in the ground around the village, and as such instructs us on how to interpret what we are about to see. If we are to believe in the future, the film bleakly suggests, then we do so only by remembering the toll in human suffering. The documentation of the bitter fighting that took place in this valley between the end of October and the middle of December 1943 in turn also reiterates the visual elements introduced in the frame. Maps of the area, explaining military strategy, are juxtaposed with shots of the Italian landscape as well as scenes depicting the quotidian existence of the ordinary foot soldier, standing behind artillery, fixing bayonets, strapping on hand grenades, pushing forward cautiously over the rocky paths of the mountains, and, at best, returning to camp.

            Again and again Huston's camera moves into close-ups of his infantrymen. Balancing the anonymity of modern warfare with the resonance of the individual face, Huston also insists on embedding both in the geography they use as their stage, by repeatedly drawing our gaze back to the scenery and then its cartographic representation on a military map.[8] As his voice-over continues to narrate the broad shape of this particular battle, dryly describing the military strategies that had been deployed during the tantalizingly slow movement towards the village of San Pietro, Huston inserts images of the wounded carried back on stretchers, the dead in body bags heaved onto carts or lying sprawled on the ground. In the same way that the individual battalions are rotated from position to position overlooking the valley, so that the troops can study the terrain ahead from various viewpoints, Huston, too, offers a multiple perspective. Into his laconic visualization of battle activity—transmitting information, patrolling the terrain, taking prisoners, receiving instructions, waiting in anticipation of battle, moving towards the enemy targets, firing bombs, and, finally, engaging the chaos of hands-on combat—Huston repeatedly intersperses close-ups of the real actors with this scene of war. The contrast between the narrator's laconic recollection of what had happened militarily on those hills and the humanely resonant images of these soldiers' faces is not ironic. Rather, it suggests that, in order to grasp what happens in battle, one must oscillate between the pathos of individual actions and the cold abstraction of the overall scheme of the campaign, even while acknowledging the routine of both.

            Huston's mise-en-scène nevertheless also seeks to affectively draw us into experiences of the common foot soldier by foregrounding the real death hovering at the edge of the images. As Huston’s camera tracks one of the battalions approaching an impenetrable line of mines and fire from pill boxes, one soldier suddenly falls down a few feet ahead. We see death in action, but, rather than moving into a close-up shot as the melodrama convention would suggest, Huston underscores the impact by moving on. The horrific significance of death in war consists precisely in its narrative insignificance; here dying, afterall, is the norm. At the same time, to underscore the intensity of the fight, Huston resorts to a hand-held camera, unfocussed images of explosions, and low shots, as though to simulate both the movement of the soldiers and the earth trembling around them during the bombings. Visual emphasis is, above all, given to the effects of war. His camera repeatedly returns to the wounded and dead, whose bodies mark each yard of the slow process in pushing back the enemy. After a final montage sequence that juxtaposes extreme close-ups of the charging troops with the last barrage of shellfire, the noise of battle finally ceases. Yet even as the troops move forward unimpeded, Huston's camera draws our attention to the casualties that are strewn along their path. Out of one fox hole rises the head of a dead man, who could be either enemy or friend. While the classic combat film would depict the taking of the village as a climactic moment of triumph, Huston foregrounds the ordinariness of conquest. Some weary soldiers move on to the next village, others bury the dead, nailing their dog tags onto makeshift wooden gravestones.

            What, in turn, makes Huston's mise-en-scène equally harrowing is that even as he calls upon us to recognize the high cost in lives this battle demanded, he also draws our attention to the larger military scheme that it was part of. The only respite allowed to the survivors is a brief period of repose, and, as Huston's camera once again captures the faces of the men sitting by the roadside, cheerfully chatting with their buddies, the narrator reminds us: "Many of these you see alive here have since joined the ranks of their brothers in arms who fell in San Pietro." As in Shakespeare's Henry V, the promise of commemoration and the anticipation of death are mutually implicated. When the film was released in 1945, the audience knew of the other battles, still lying ahead, "more San Pietros, greater or lesser, a thousand more." What is haunting about Huston's juxtaposition of the soldiers' faces with the anticipation of an inevitable death to come, is that this enactment brings the dead back to life. Yet it does so explicitly as an interlude between two battles, which also bridges the young men's hope for survival with the sober knowledge the audience has of the tragic outcome the future was to hold for many of them. The elegiac note Huston's narrative intones is the more bitter because he superimposes it onto faces of men marked by the cheer of having, if only for a short while, outrun death.

            Equally uncanny, however, is the fact that, in its final sequence, his narrative introduces yet another perspective on the Allied victory. Old people, women, and children reappear from their hiding places in caves to begin rebuilding their village. The pathos of restitution resides entirely with them. Even while mourning the dead, whom they find buried beneath the rubble, they resume their everyday lives, breast-feeding their babies, bringing back their belongings, trading at the market place. Huston shows women washing their clothes in the river as American trucks move on across the bridge. For the military strategist, he explains, the primary aim was to engage and defeat the enemy, while the liberation of the town of San Pietro was of an incidental nature. So as to contain this inhuman logic, Huston shifts our attention to the people, for whom this battle was everything but incidental. "In their military innocence," he adds, "it was to free them and their farmland that we came." His last close-ups are granted to the children who have begun to smile into his camera, growing ever more confident as he holds their gaze. While the GIs move out of the villagers' frame of vision, Huston tarries with the farmers who have once again begun to till their soil. Visually anticipating a good harvest, his documentation of the battle of San Pietro flows seamlessly into a mythic narrative of regeneration out of death. That this no longer concerns the foot soldiers of the Fifth Army does not, however, make their sacrifice unimportant. Rather, it is a final turn in the symbiosis between fiction and documentation his idiosyncratic report of this war undertakes. The rich harvest his final images evoke are ineluctably grounded on the dead bodies buried on the outskirts of the village. When one of the officers heading the Office of Strategic Services complained that the film was "against war, against the war," John Huston replied, "Well, sir, whenever I make a picture that's for war—why, I hope you take me out and shoot me."[9]

            If Huston's Battle of San Pietro presents real soldiers as dramatic personae in a documentary film about sacrifice and regeneration, claiming to speak in their name, Wellman's Story of G.I. Joe offers a fictional rendition of the real war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who accompanied troops throughout various campaigns of the war, so as to send home his impressions of their mutual experience. In this case, also, belated knowledge overshadows our reading of the film. Not only does Pyle's voice resonate in the narratorial voice-over, which in part directly quotes from his newspaper columns, renown for their folksy human-interest touch,[10] but the death of Pyle by sniper fire in Okinawa on April 18, 1945 draws our attention to the real death hovering on the edges of Burgess Meredith's performance of the Scripps-Howard war correspondent. At the same time, reference to the reality of war already adheres to the opening credits. After naming both the lead actor and the supporting cast, including Robert Mitchum as Lieutenant Walker (who was to be nominated for an Oscar for this role), a larger type-face proclaims: "And as themselves, combat veterans of the campaigns in Africa, Sicily, and Italy." This symbiosis of fiction and documentation finds its acme when, to induce the decisive charge, a mud-covered Robert Mitchum beckons his soldiers to follow him in an assault on a hill, only to be spliced into the archival material from Huston's documentation of the same battle. Not only does the Hollywood star share the scene with anonymous soldiers, who may well not have survived this battle, but men playing themselves in a fiction film two years after the events are also reunited visually with their former buddies. In Wellman's editing, close-ups of surviving war veterans are montaged with dead soldiers, who have come back to life on film. The authenticity effect is such that the grain of the image foregrounds the difference, even while implying a compelling connection with an actual event of battle Wellman chose not to reenact. Indeed, by opting to embed second-hand film material of the fighting instead, Wellman offers a poignant comment on what it means to report from the battlefront. If the star, Robert Mitchum, is the one whose call to arms raises the specters of the dead, this gesture is also meant to instruct us that the battle we are seeing actually took place.

            As for the war correspondent commenting on this murky interface between fact and fiction, from the moment Meredith's Ernie Pyle joins the Eighteenth Infantry in Africa, the film deploys him as the figure whose taciturn gaze mediates the events at the war front, instructing us in his compassion for the simple GIs and his passion for their cause. The men call him Pop, or the Little One, and ask him why he, who needn't be there, has joined them in battle rather than go home, as they all dearly wish they could. It is, of course, precisely the fact that he has chosen the battlefront as his scene of action that distinguishes him as the privileged observer of war. Accompanying the foot soldiers as an eye-witness rather than fighting with them, he can assume the distance necessary to turn the contingent violence of war into fables about young men "with guns in their hands, facing a deadly enemy in a strange and far away land." At the same time, his emotional proximity to the ordinary GI gives him the right, as he sits amid burning ruins, to offer a subjective and thus more sober evaluation of the first defeat in Africa and the bloody victories that followed than the official propaganda of the War Department's newsreels could: "We realized—only battle experience makes combat soldiers. Killing is a rough business. Men live rough and talk rough." As the one to move from one outfit to the next, Pyle’s distinctive take on what he witnesses is what holds the different war sites together, representing them as part of one big scheme. Yet his focus remains on the everyday routine of war, on soldiering as daily work, often tedious but always dangerous.

            Often nothing is said and only gestures exchanged as war-weary men go out to patrol the hills along the road to Rome only to return to their muddy caves with little to show for their efforts. As a cinematic rendition, The Story of G.I. Joe, however, is also able to add a dimension missing from Pyle's columns, namely the distinction between actual events at the front and their translation into stories that explain the war to the folks back home. When one of the soldiers, Murphy, who recently celebrated his wedding to a nurse, does not return from a patrol, Wellman's camera focuses on the war correspondent's gaze, taking note of the way the others respond to their friend's death. As the other exhausted men glumly drop onto their bunks, the dog, A-Rab, which has been with them since Africa, begins to whine plaintively. One of the GIs strikes Murphy's name off his list of beneficiaries of his life insurance policy. Finally, Pyle takes the photograph of the bride tacked on the wall above the dead soldier's bunk and pockets it as he leaves their quarters to walk through the rain to his own bunk, with the commanding officer, Lt. Walker, gazing after him in helpless silence. Wellman's mise-en-scène can visualize what the men have no language for. Then, when Pyle goes to the barracks where the other war correspondents have set up their headquarters, he discovers that he has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Without taking off his cap and coat, he sits down at his typewriter to resume his work. His own jubilation at having been promoted to a distinguished journalist is brief: commemorating his dead friend takes precedence over all personal vainglory. In the same laconic mode he chooses for depicting the ordinary work of soldiering, Wellman depicts his war correspondent typing away at a story that begins with the sentences: "I had long ago come to think of Private "Wingless" Murphy as an old, old friend. He was just a plain Hoosier boy."

             In his column dated January 10, 1944, Pyle himself describes an eerie incident of leave-taking: "The uncertain mules moved off to their olive groves. The men in the road seemed reluctant to leave. They stood around, and gradually I could sense them moving, one by one, close to Captain Waskow's body. Not so much to look, I think, as to say something in finality to him and to themselves. I stood close by and I could hear."[11] This scene of quiet recognition serves as the melodramatic resolution of The Story of G.I. Joe. Sitting under the shade of a tree on the road to Rome, surrounded by his old buddies from the Eighteenth Infantry, Pyle watches one of the men leading the mule that is carrying the corpse of Bill Walker. As Priv. Dondaro gently unloads him, Wellman moves from a close-up of Mitchum's motionless face to the faces of the men who suddenly realize that their Captain is dead. Sitting as though in formation, the group watches Dondaro kneel beside the dead man while the soldiers of other companies, unaffected by this one particular death, take no notice. Then slowly, one by one, Capt. Walker's troops get up and go over to him. As they pass by, Pyle remains standing, positioned as the privileged witness to the final tribute these men pay to the man who has been their leader since they began fighting in Africa. The war correspondent's face mediates between the close-up shots that connect the faces of the survivors and the shots of the dead man, until, weeping shamelessly in a way they would not, he turns away.

            As the soldiers fall in and begin marching on the road to Rome again, a few look curiously at the GI stroking the hand of a dead officer. The GI, once he realizes that he must take leave, gets up, straightens the collar of Mitchum's jacket, touches his right cheek gently, and runs to join the others. Standing in front of a field of white crosses, Pyle has been waiting for him: the cinematic rendition requires his gaze as a final comment on the pathos we have been witnessing. As he, too, runs to join the other marching men, his voice-over not only stipulates that this one singular casualty is worth taking note of, but also why it is decisive: "We will win. I hope we can rejoice with victory. But humbly. That altogether we will try out of a memory of our anguish to reassemble our broken world into a pattern so firm and so fair that another great war can never again be possible." As the men march into a bright, white sky, they turn into silhouettes and disappear behind the horizon. Then the light fades and the screen is about to turn completely dark, but until the end we see the back of Pyle's upper body, growing smaller and smaller as his voice-over proceeds with an instruction aimed at an America no longer at war, confronted instead with the difficult task of integrating its massive dead into a newly gained peace: "And for those beneath the wooden crosses there is nothing we can do except perhaps to pause and murmur, thanks pal, thanks." The final image is also Wellman's own taciturn tribute to the war correspondent, who was willing to get into harm’s way to report the travails of the common GI. The pathos lies in the insistence on our debt, a testimony above and beyond indictment or remedy, which simply attests that because this actually happened, the issue is not how to respond to those who have not survived, but that we must not fail to take them into account.


            Though in the next two decades Robert Mitchum was to play in several more WWII films including The Longest Day, his most dissonant performance of a war hero is to be found in Anzio (1968). Using one of the biggest mistakes in military strategy of WWII to comment on the catastrophe of Vietnam, Edward Dmytryk presents a far more cynical reportage of war than Wellman, marking a shift in the complicity between journalism and military violence as well. Dick Ennis, war correspondent for the International Press, is introduced as a seasoned reporter taking on army brass. His savagely critical column on the debacle at the Rapido River just got a one-star General rotated home. Like Ernie Pyle, his sympathies lie with the foot soldiers who needn't have died, if military strategy had been less faulty. But, in contrast to Wellman's correspondent, Dick Ennis is concerned with indicting those at fault. In the first of two conversations he has with General Jack Lesley, whose hesitation to push forward to Rome immediately after landing in Anzio will result in more unnecessary casualties, he explains why he has felt compelled to continue working as a war correspondent. Ever since he saw his first dead face he has been asking himself: "Why do we do it, why do people kill each other?" Smiling ironically, Ennis rejects General Lesley's rebuttal that we do so to survive, because in war one either kills or is killed. To an American audience, watching the carnage of Vietnam on their television sets each evening, such a standard formula for the unleashing of military violence is clearly not adequate. But the answer Dmytryk has to offer cannot simply be stated. To critique the power that killing in war affords requires an enactment of its seduction and the war correspondent is a particularly viable candidate for this instruction, because he is in the position to comment on his own complicity.

            Ennis will soon find himself walking into a fatal set-up, as he accompanies a battalion patrolling the Alban Hills around Cisterna. Once again witness to unnecessary slaughter, he will ultimately pick up the machine gun from a dead soldier and fire the shots that will kill the German sniper, who has been targeting the last three survivors of the ambush. Back at camp, the report he gives is no longer that of a war correspondent, offering a critical perspective on the development of the campaign, but of a man implicated in the war machinery, delivering intelligence that will give the Allied forces the decisive edge over their enemies. Having experienced his first kill in a situation where the survival of himself and his buddies was at stake, he has finally found an answer to the question subtending his dispatches from the front. Speaking once more to General Lesley, who has been relieved of duty, he offers the text of his next column in person to the man responsible for the current debacle. Not for survival is war perpetrated, not to secure shelter, nor to appease hunger. The instruction Dmytryk's war correspondent has is daunting in its plain simplicity: "Men kill each other because they like to." History, Ennis insists, has taught us that war has never solved anything. Yet the moment he found himself picking up a machine gun to defend himself, he discovered that facing a man with a gun in your hand you live more intensely at that moment than in any other moment in your life: "Because you're scared to death and you've got to kill." Acknowledging the authenticity of this emotion is, however, also what lends authority to the remedy he has to offer. To recognize the soldier's enjoyment of killing may be a condemnation of mankind, he admits to the General, "but maybe, if we recognize it and admit it to ourselves, we might learn to live with each other."

            The hope Dmytryk's war correspondent has is far more bleak than the one Wellman can conceive at the end of WWII, even while his instruction is also more clearly based on an indictment of strategic decision-making typical for Vietnam correspondents such as David Halberstam or Seymour Hersh.[12] In that it is won out of the experience of the blurring of the line between reporting and fighting, it responds as much to the way historians came to judge the debacles of the Italian Campaign as to a fascination for combat's dangerous edge predominant in 1968, the year Anzio came out. As though in conversation with Dmytryk, a veteran of anti-fascist propaganda films, Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987) offers the same conclusion. Culminating in the taking of Hue City at the beginning of the Tet Offensive, the reportage is given by a young marine, nicknamed Joker by his vicious drill instructor at boot camp, who straddles writing and killing from the position of a soldier explicitly assigned to report the war. Black humor, foregrounding an irresolvable conflict between complicity in military violence and ironic commentary, is the response Kubrick's war correspondent assumes so as to depict the chaotic madness that was Vietnam. Working for Stars and Stripes out of Saigon, Joker, who in contrast to the correspondents discussed so far does not accompany troops but is himself a member of the company, is compelled to abide by military censorship. As his editor explains during one of their briefings, because this is not a particularly popular war he needs stories with a happy ending, meaning reports about combat action resulting in 'a kill,' that can be sold under the heading 'Winning the War.' "It is our job,” he argues "to report the news that these 'why-are-we-here' civilian newsmen ignore."

            Kubrick's daunting irony consists in the fact that what Joker's film narrative reports is something Stars and Stripes would have unequivocally censored. The voice-over we hear, commenting on the scenes we see, references Gustav Hasford's autobiographical account Short-Timers, written after he left the army. As such, it dramatically contradicts any piece he might have written as an enlisted man, and together with the dramatic enactment the film envisions profusely embellishes on the energizing thrill of killing, which Robert Mitchum, who began his career with an earlier generation of war veterans, only laconically invokes. During their last meeting at boot camp, when Sgt. Hartman discovered that Joker had been assigned to Basic Military Journalism, he had shouted in outrage: "You're not a writer, you're a killer." The young marine had affirmed the interpellation of his drill master. Proving he is the killer he has been trained to become, however, will require an enactment. As a war correspondent, he wears a peace sign on his jacket, even while 'born to kill' is written on his helmet to signal the irresolvable duality he finds himself in. In contrast to Ennis, who for only a brief period moves from reporting to killing, Joker has been trained to oscillate between these two roles depending on the situation he finds himself in. Yet at issue in the final shooting of the North Vietnamese Army sniper, with which Full Metal Jacket comes to its narrative climax, is also the question of acknowledging the erotic enjoyment of shooting someone who threatened to kill you.

            Significantly it is the photographer Rafterman who fatally wounds the young Vietnamese woman, because Joker's rifle jams. The former had explained to his friend in an earlier scene that he was desperate for some 'trigger time' and Kubrick explicitly identifies Rafterman's camera with the gun's trigger. Lying on her back, encircled by the GIs, who are panting in a curious mixture of exhilaration and confusion as they tower above her, the female sniper moans, "shoot me." Joker, however, is the one to fire the coup de grâce, choosing deliberately to kill out of a sense of justice that is as bizarre as the war zone they find themselves in. Kubrick's camera tarries with his face as his buddies comment on this "hard core" act, because this killing is not about the victim. Like Dmytryk's war correspondent, Joker is in a position in which he finds himself compelled to kill, though he does so not to survive a sniper but rather to put the woman out of her misery. At the same time, acknowledging his empowerment at the expense of his enemy is the moment when he moves beyond the interpellation of the military logic drilled into him at boot camp. Like Ennis, he is not blindly following a command but commits a deliberate act for which he is solely accountable. This ‘one kill’ is significant not for a story he might write for Stars and Stripes, but for the counter-narrative the film has to tell.

            Within the rulelessness of Kubrick's Vietnam, assuming full responsibility for the death of another is the one meaningful gesture his correspondent can perform and he, too, has an instruction for us as a result of it. Walking through the burning city of Hue at dusk, Joker joins the other GIs, only to fuse completely with the band of silhouettes that have begun to walk out of the picture frame. Superimposed over their Mickey Mouse march, we hear his voice-over declare: "I'm in a world of shit, yes, but I am alive. And I am not afraid." As at the end of The Story of G.I. Joe, darkness begins to encroach upon the screen, but, in contrast to the quietly hopeful ending Wellman can imagine for his report from the Italian campaign, Kubrick's nightfall swallows up all the marching men. With the distinction between shooting the war and shooting in the war having completely collapsed, Kubrick cannot salvage a final image of the war correspondent as our privileged point of perspective. He can only leave us with an impenetrable black screen.

            If photojournalism came into its own at the outset of WWII, working in tandem with the Office of Strategic Services, what was unique about the news coverage of Vietnam was its lack of censorship on the part of the media and lack of restraint on the part of the journalists. For the first and only time in American history, an open media policy had been instituted. Correspondents could go anywhere they wanted, film and report anything they chose and get it published. As Susan Sontag notes, "only starting with the Vietnam War is it virtually certain that none of the best-known photographs were set-ups. And this is essential to the moral authority of these images."[13] Yet it is also the war that first raised doubts about whether the presence of war correspondents helps end a war or prolong it, given that media interest often goes hand in hand with escalations of violence. If Vietnam inaugurated the myth of the bold correspondent, courageously in pursuit of truth despite political attempts to stop him, it was also the watershed for the myth of the self-absorbed reporter, obsessed with covering situations that put him in dangerous situations. As Susan Moeller, herself a former war photographer, notes, there are conflicting reasons why reporters go into combat. They may want to be witnesses at decisive moments in history, they may seek to indict the horrors of battle, they may wish to become famous or indulge their fascination with destruction. In all cases, however, "war photographers are obsessed with war, with observing and recording the events of battle." Her own conclusion is astonishingly similar to the one Dmytryk's war correspondent offers: "photographers go to war and keep going back into combat because they are addicted to the frisson of danger."[14] My own discussion of various figurations of war correspondence in Hollywood films, in turn, redirects our gaze to the way this frisson of danger is brought home. If the authenticity effect consists in revisiting images by embedding them into a complex narrative, then the burden of making sense of this cinematic report lies with us. We must take it into account, because—and this is the point of all the films about reporting the war discussed—as spectators of the spectrality that plays itself out on the screen in cinematic stories of death at work in war, we, too, are accountable.


[1] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography, translated by Richard Howard, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).

[2] See Caroline Brothers, War and Photography. A Cultural History (London/New York: Routledge, 1997).

[3] Ulrich Keller, The Ultimate Spectacle. A Visual History of the Crimean War (Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach Publishers, 2001), xiv. See also the discussion on cinematic representations of battle in chapter 2.

[4] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 86.

[5] Ford won the Oscar for best documentary short for Battle of Midway.

[6] Thomas Schatz, "World War II and the Hollywood 'War Film'," Refiguring American Film Genres. Theory and History, edited by Nick Browne, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 121.

[7] See James Agee, Film Writing and Selected Journalism (New York: The Library of America, 2005), 192. See also the reviews written for The Nation on May 26, 1945 (p. 191–195), "A Great Film" on September 15, 1945 (p. 200–204) and "Best of 1945" on January 19, 1946 (p. 217–219). See also Michael Henry Wilson, "For Those Who Lie Under the Wooden Crosses," Print the Legend. Cinema and Journalism, edited by Giorgio Gosetti and Jean-Michel Frodon, (Locarno: Cahiers du Cinéma, 2004), 113–121.

[8] See Bernd Hüppauf, "Experiences of Modern Warfare and the Crisis of Representation," New German Critique 59 (Spring–Summer 1993), 41–76.

[9] Quoted by Scott Simmon, curator of "More Treasures from American Film Archives," in his notes on the film in the accompanying booklet, p. 26. For praise of the way this film presents war from the perspective of the ordinary GI see James Chapman, War and Film (London: Reaktion Books, 2008) as well as Jeanine Basinger, The World War II Combat Film Anatomy of a Genre (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2003). An uncanny intertext can be found in the closing moments of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, when the farmers return to the rice field after the battle for their village has been won, turning their backs on the samurai who have survived, as well as the dead they have just buried. 

[10] As Phillip Knightley notes, "one of the curious facets of the reporting of the Second World War was that the more the importance of the individual soldier was reduced by technology, the more correspondents concentrated on writing about him. Pyle was the master in this field," The First Casualty. The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker From the Crimea to Iraq (Baltimore/London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 357.

[11] Ernie Pyle, "This One Is Captain Waskow," Reporting World War II, Part One, American Journalism 1938–1944 (New York: Library of America, 1995), 736.

[12] See Greg McLaughlin, The War Correspondent (London: Pluto Press, 2002) as well as The Norton Book of Modern War, edited by Paul Fussell (New York: W.W. Norton 1991).

[13] Sontag, Regarding the Pain, 57.

[14] Susan D. Moeller, Shooting War. Photography and the American Experience of Combat (New York: Basic Books, 1989), 12.

Elisabeth Bronfen, 2010