Those Who Fight Lose Their Rights

Paper by Elizabeth Crisp.

The portrayal of war in American cinema has carried similar themes from the 1930’s to films made today. War films are unvarying in their incorporation of the glorification of war, abuse of power, and violence in order to visually deliver the realities of war to audiences who have never stepped foot on a battlefield. A common theme presented in these films is that of overwhelming patriotism essentially masking the horrors of war for the soldiers brave enough to fight is quickly dissolved by the atrocities of combat. Three films in particular that express aspects of this narrative include All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Paths of Glory (1957), and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) where WWI, and the Vietnam War are exhibited. Nearly 2 million American men volunteered to serve in WWI of the 4 million who fought, and about ⅔ of the men who served in Vietnam were volunteers out of the 8 million soldiers who fought (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs). As shown by these statistics, young men during times of war have been motivated to fight for their countries regardless of the potential abuse and monstrosities awaiting them. Each of the films in this paper are centered around the subject of war while sending an anti-war message through their uses of naturalism, the altering of human behavior during times of war, and using the body to show violence. In the film, All Quiet on the Western Front “a German youth eagerly enters World War I, but his enthusiasm wanes as he gets a firsthand view of the horror” (IMDB), while in Paths of Glory, “after refusing to attack an enemy position, a general accuses the soldiers of cowardice and their commanding officer must defend them” (IMDB). The third film, All Quiet on the Western Front, a biography of a man named Ron Kovic, “Paralyzed in the Vietnam war, he becomes an anti-war and pro-human rights political activist after feeling betrayed by the country he fought for” (IMDB).

The Glorification of War presented in these films is consistently the driving force behind soldiers deciding to enter the war in order to earn their masculinity. In the article, “Reenactment, Fantasy, and the Paranoia of History”, written by Marita Sturken, it is highlighted that filmmakers have the unique ability to recreate history and “cinema is a particularly powerful tool in the incitement of desire and the fantasy of history precisely because of the classic ways in which it invites us to view the past as if we were there. The apparatus of cinema provides the spectator with an experience of the past, one of duration, identification, and emotion, both anxiety and pleasure” (Sturken, pg.74). War films in particular are important because they allow people who may have never been involved with military action, to be able to experience the optimism and confidence that lived in each of the young men heading off to war to fight for their country, which was ultimately replaced by unexpected pain and suffering. The raw excitement that many young men experienced when they decided to go off to war is highlighted in the beginning of the film, All Quiet on the Western Front, where the opening scene of a teacher telling his students it is important for them to gain experience and fight for their country by enlisting in the war, at the time was WWI. This scene was filmed with a series of close-up shots starting with the teacher who had a visibly strong conviction for these boys to head to war, leading them each one by one to stand up and proclaim their commitment to joining the German army. A wide shot captured the boys dancing around the classroom and throwing their classwork into the air while chanting, which stylistically shows how they transitioned from a personal realization of joining the war effort, to falling into place with the masses. One key factor in encouraging young men to go to war is the emphasis and glorification of earning their masculinity. According to the article “Violence and masculinity in Hollywood war films during World War II”, by Matthew Sitter, he mentions how since only men were able to participate in combat, “violence became perceived as a uniquely male behavior” (Sitter, pg. 9). It has been a very common theme in films especially during times of war, for “Hollywood also supported this warrior masculinity through its combat films, and it was seen as necessary for the war effort that they do so” (Sitter, pg. 15). The segregation of violence in combat being categorized as solely male oriented is the origin of why boys seek war to be seen as men. War films highlight the pitfalls of searching for masculinity in war “by showing both the physical and emotional effects of warfare on veterans, these films demonstrated that violence was not natural masculine behavior and was in fact something that soldiers had to struggle very hard to deal with” (Sitter, pg. 10). In the film, Born on the Fourth of July, a young man named Ron Kovic, who enlists in the Vietnam war with the best intentions of becoming a man through fighting with bravery, ends up returning home having lost his ability to walk and have kids due to a gunshot wound. One scene in which the glorification of war is presented is when he and his friends are sitting around a table in a diner where they are all talking about fighting communism and being just like their dads who fought in WWII. This excitement is soon replaced by a later scene in the film in which Ron is informed that he will no longer be able to walk and use his reproductive organs that have been removed from his gunshot wound in battle. Ron Kovic’s idea of masculinity is tied to his physicality and bravery, but as stated in the article it “is socially constructed and under constant renegotiation” (Sitter, pg. 13). Another film in which the glorification of war developed an association of masculinity with bravery is Paths of Glory, where three soldiers were considered cowards in the face of the enemy for evading a failed mission, and therefore not real men and not real soldiers. This film plays on the glorification of war by showing that when men act in a way that does not exude absolute masculinity and fearlessness, they are no longer trustworthy soldiers, therefore no longer equipped to fight in battle due to their cowardice. While the men who continued to proceed in taking the anthill were glorified in their deaths, the men who tried to survive were punished. The glorification of war as shown in each of these films is the catalyst for the damage done to soldiers physically and emotionally.

Another theme shown in films analyzing the politics of war is the abuse of power. In the article, “The Anti-militarism of Stanley Kubrick” by Jackson Burgess, the altering of human behavior during times of war is analyzed through the examining of Stanley Kubrick’s films, such as Paths of Glory. It is mentioned that “by a brutal act of destruction, an illusion of power is achieved” (Burgess, pg. 8). This idea is demonstrated in the film when General Meroux insisted that his men go on an impossible mission to seize the anthill, knowing that many of them would die. By his brutal act of destruction, there was an obvious allusion of power as shown in the camera angles tilted upwards providing him with more authority and the opposite filming style given to the three soldiers during their trial. The article also mentions an idea of “absolute naturalism” in which there is no score, no close-in-level camera, only “natural” sound effects, and a full time-lapse. Kubrick leads his audience as close as he can to “the great terror”, which is essentially the chaos of emotions that make the perilous structure of the human will (Burgess, pg. 11). The realistic imagery present in each of these films is used to make the viewers feel as if they were present at these events, and to give people who have never stepped foot on a battlefield to see what real life fighting is like from the point of view of a soldier trying to survive while still maintaining their masculinity through courage. As revealed in Paths of Glory, war reveals the “disturbing imperfections of man”, because it is “the area in which public morality is most terribly and most dramatically tested” (Burgess, pg. 11). In Born on the Fourth of July, there is an instance where Ron tells his commander that he may have killed one of the men in his group, and his confession was met with dismissal. His commander yelled at him and refused to help with the inevitable guilt and emotional trauma awaiting Ron by telling him that he does not think it happened and it is best to forget about it. This scene symbolized the dehumanization associated with war and the way in which people handle death. As shown in both Paths of Glory and Born on the Fourth of July, men are looked at as numbers and bodies, not humans with a will to live. In the film, All Quiet on the Western Front, there is a scene in which one of the soldiers goes up to the commanding officers and asks for food, only to be dismissed and made a joke of. The soldiers then speak in private discussing how they do not have enough time to clean their quarters, get dressed in proper uniform, and not be late for roll call. The commanding officers shown in this scene and throughout the film are portrayed as abusing their power and dismissing the basic human needs that the boys have. In terms of human behavior, the generals have become emotionally attached to these soldiers due to the tribulations presented by the war along with the power bestowed upon them. All of these scenes ask the central question of political theory presented in Burgess’s article of “who decides?” (Burgess, pg. 11). Who decides whether the three soldiers in Paths of Glory are executed for what the court deemed cowardice? Who decides if Ron Kovic can seek help for the impending trauma surrounding his mistake? Who decides whether the young men in All Quiet on the Western Front deserve to eat food?

The presence of violence in films representing war is imperative to the encapsulation of the trauma suffered by soldiers who were wounded in battle. In the article, “Snowflakes on a Scarred Knuckle” by Omar Assem El-Khairy, the body is described as the central site of violence, protest, and resistance (El-Khairy, pg. 188). This idea realigns the viewers perception of reality in terms of what actually takes place in violent wartime interactions through the use of visuals in cinema. In Born on the Fourth of July, there is an ambush scene filled with confusion surrounding the accidental shooting of civilians and the emotional trauma coming from leaving a crying baby to die. Shortly after, Ron ended up accidentally shooting one of the men in his group amidst the chaos. These scenes were filmed with absolute naturalism, in order to ensure that the viewer felt as if they were there watching everything unfold in real time. In the article “Cinema and the Civilizing Process: Rethinking Violence in the World War II Combat Film” by J. David Slocum, he describes the shift in “the style and narrative presentation of brutality and death that many viewers saw as radical also served as the basis for the expansion of social science research into the alleged effects of media violence on social behavior” (Slocum, pg. 36). The article also mentions how “the larger social and cultural backdrop (of military conflict in Vietnam and of racial and generational discord domestically, both thoroughly mediated by proliferating television images, and of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy) altered the prevailing visual experience of physical injury and death” (Slocum, pg. 36). In the film All Quiet on the Western Front, the battle at the graveyard scene shows a man who is injured refusing to continue rushing forward due to the pain that he is experiencing, and instead of leaving him to recover, another soldier grabs and abuses him in order to get him back on his feet regardless of the pain that he is currently suffering from. In this scene, the body is being used as resistance, violence, and in some ways protest, because the injured soldier is trying to save himself and not obey the commands of an officer who is not concerned with his likelihood of surviving. Another scene exemplifying the use of violence is in the film Paths of Glory, when Colonel Dax is leading his men toward the anthill during trench warfare, where the camera was level with the men charging ahead so that the audience could have a realistic view of how soldiers experience war. Bodies of soldiers were falling, loud whistles were blowing, and there was total naturalism intended for the viewer to to feel as if they were in the battle as well. Violence is the most visually significant tool utilized by filmmakers to show the emotional and physical damage done to the soldiers who went into the war hoping to come out heroic with nothing but pride, when in reality they leave with permanent injuries topped with emotional trauma.

Films surrounding the subject of war have carried great value in providing a vivid experience for the public to take a glimpse into what battle is like for those who fight. The glorification of war is essentially the catalyst for why people choose to enlist, for it has been ingrained in them since their youth that violence in battle is male oriented, so in order to achieve their masculinity they must fight. The abuse of power present in the military is responsible for many of the hardships that soldiers face, similar to violence, in that those with power seek destruction in order to obtain more power at the expense of others. Finally, violence is the key attribute presented in war films that has the power to allow the viewer to feel as if they are present for the battle and can feel as if they are one of the soldiers out there fighting. These films and others like them are imperative to the world’s current state of affairs, because they show why war causes more harm than harmony. War should not only be looked at through the lens of the victorious end goal, but what horrific events it takes to get there.

Works Cited
Affiliations, Office of Academic. “U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.” Vietnam: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Military Service History Pocketcard,
“All Quiet on the Western Front.” IMDb,, 24 Aug. 1930,
Assem El-Khairy, Omar. “Snowflakes on a Scarred Knuckle: The Biopolitics of the ‘War on Terror’ through Steve McQueen’s Hunger and Kathryn Bigelow’s the Hurt Locker.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies, vol. 39, no. 1, 2010, pp. 187–191.
“Born on the Fourth of July.” IMDb,, 5 Jan. 1990,
Burgess, Jackson. “The ‘Anti-Militarism’ of Stanley Kubrick.” Film Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 1, 1964, pp. 4–11.
“Paths of Glory.” IMDb,, 25 Dec. 1957,
Sitter, Matthew. “Violence and Masculinity in Hollywood War Films during World War II.” Lakehead University, 2013.
Slocum, J. David. “Cinema and the Civilizing Process: Rethinking Violence in the World War II Combat Film.” Cinema Journal, vol. 44, no. 3, 2005, pp. 35–63.
Sturken, Marita. “Reenactment, Fantasy, and the Paranoia of History: Oliver Stone’s Docudramas.” History and Theory, vol. 36, no. 4, 1997, pp. 64–79.

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