The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre, by Jeanine Basinger

Tanine Allison, Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at Emory University, offers the first of what we hope will be a regular collection of reviews of Key Works in war and media studies. Tanine’s own manuscript on the visual aesthetics of the WWII combat film, Destructive Sublime: WWII in American Film and Media, should be out from Rutgers UP in 2018 (spoiler alert about a new contract for one of our members). Thanks to Tanine for getting us started!

The World War II Combat Film, by Jeanine BasingerJeanine Basinger’s comprehensive look at American World War II combat films is one of the formative studies of the war genre. Although the book looks solely at American combat films (in which fighting is central to the narrative and aesthetic form of the film) that are set during World War II, its impact has reached beyond this relatively narrow category because of the massive influence the conventions of these films had on the development of war-related filmmaking in other eras and other countries. Therefore, it’s often necessary to have a firm grasp on the tropes of World War II combat films if one is to have a full understanding of how other war films create meaning. As a compendium of these tropes, Basinger’s book has established itself as a must-read for anyone investigating the role combat plays in contemporary war media.

One of Basinger’s major claims is that the World War II combat film is a genre in and of itself, not merely a subgenre of the war film. She makes this case by analyzing hundreds of American combat films set during World War II, giving particular emphasis to those films made during the war itself. For Basinger, the major narrative conventions of the genre congealed in five quintessential combat films released in 1943: Sahara, Guadalcanal Diary, Air Force, Destination Tokyo, and Bataan. The conventions established by these films include the ethnically mixed group of soldiers that overcomes internal conflicts to become a cohesive fighting unit, the reluctant hero who is forced to become the leader of the group, the important military objective that the group must achieve, and typical narrative elements like burials, outnumbered heroes, discussion of “why we fight,” mail call, a dedication to the fighting forces, and a last stand against the enemy.

The World War II Combat Film was first published in 1986, when it seemed as if the “good war” could not adequately speak to audiences in the post-Vietnam era. However, Basinger published a revised and updated version of the book in 2003 to account for the rising nostalgia for the Second World War in the 1990s, which culminated in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan in 1998. In addition to elucidating the typical narrative conventions of the genre, Basinger traces their origins in films about World War I and other early 20th-century conflicts.  She also uses much of the book to explore the evolution of the genre over time, arguing that the repeated appearances of World War II on American movie screens reflects changing cultural notions of what the war was about, as well as reflections of current conflicts, such as Vietnam. The book includes an extensive filmography with descriptions of nearly all American World War II combat films released between 1941 and 2002 (in the revised edition).

Basinger’s book is essential for any scholar (or student) of the war genre, and it is written is an accessible, almost conversational tone. In my own work, I have found it a cornerstone, but I also worry that its elucidation of genre conventions can be taken to be monolithic or settled, when the genre also displays such variation and originality. Basinger focuses more on narrative than aesthetics, so her book neglects some of the truly weird and wonderful audiovisual innovations of combat sequences from the 1940s to today. And because of when it was written, she does not address television series like Band of Brothers (2001) and The Pacific (2010) or combat video games like Medal of Honor (1999-) or Call of Duty (2003-) that explicitly reference and transform the conventions of World War II combat films. I address these more recent works in relation to Basinger’s foundational study in my upcoming book on the aesthetics of combat sequences in American World War II media.