Photography and the War Film

  • John Trafton


Iwould like to start with documentary war films before broadening the discussion to fictional narrative accounts of war. I find this to be a critical starting point because there is a connection between documentary war films and fictional war films in how their images are orchestrated to mobilize an emotional response. This connection can be strongly felt in contemporary war films, as many of these films acknowledge a direct influence of the war documentary form. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) was shot by Barry Ackroyd, a longtime Nick Broomfield collaborator, his documentary credentials reflected in the film’s use of zooms and handheld camera shots; likewise, a similar visual aesthetic is present in Paul Greengrass’s Green Zone (2010), which Ackroyd also shot. Brian De Palma’s polemical Iraq War film Redacted (2007) is presented in documentary form, recalling actual Iraq War documentaries from previous years, such as Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s Gunner Palace (2004). This chapter will consider how the influence of photography can be felt in both the documentary and narrative war film form, starting with a reading of Emile de Antonio’s Vietnam War documentary In the Year of the Pig. What makes the documentary film form such a reliable intertext in this film cycle is the orchestration of fact and emotion in war documentaries, rooted in a historical tradition of combing reportage and direct testimony.


Saving Private Cultural Memory Improvise Explosive Device Video Diary Hero Myth 
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  1. 2.
    For further information, see Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” in Selected Writings, vol. 2, 1927–1934, by Walter Benjamin, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, trans. Rodney Livingstone et al. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 507–29.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    See Vertov’s Kino-Eye Manifesto (originally published in 1919), found in Annette Michelson, “Kino Eye,” in Kino Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, trans. Kevin O’Brien (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), 60–78.>Google Scholar
  3. For further readings, see Ian Christie and Richard Taylor, The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents, 1896–1939 (London: Routledge, 1994).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    This 1972 interview with de Antonio features in Randolph Lewis, Emile de Antonio: Radical Filmmaker in Cold War America (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000), 17.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Flags of Our Fathers’s companion piece, Letters from Iwo Jima (DreamWorks, 2006), also directed by Eastwood, offers interesting insights into how post-9/11 war cinema addresses issues of national identity by demystifying nationalism and patriotism in ways that are both similar and different than Flags of Our Fathers. For further reading on Letters from Iwo Jima, see Robert Burgoyne, “Generational Memory and Affect in Letters from Iwo Jima,” in A Companion to the Historical Film, ed. Robert Rosenstone (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 349–64, in which Burgoyne highlights how Eastwood’s film engages with cultural memory to critique notions of nationalism and patriotism. Burgoyne’s chapter “Haunting in the War Films: Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima,” is found in Film Nation: Hollywood Looks at U.S. History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).Google Scholar

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  • John Trafton

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