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Film theory often includes the study of conflicts between the
aesthetics of visual Hollywood and the textual analysis of screenplay. The form, the colors and the
precision – one can delve beneath (or beyond) the obvious and appreciate the
emotion, ideas and meaning the
artist has tried to capture and encapsulate within his image. In Film Language (1968), it is argued that
cinema is structured like a language. Adopting Saussure’s models, the
distinction is made between “langue,” a language system, and
“language,” a less clearly defined system of recognizable conventions.
This comparative semiotic study aims to examine and critically compare the
portrayal and consistency of historical integrity of two contemporary Hollywood
war films – Dunkirk and Schindler’s List. Dunkirk (2017) – based on the
game-changing British evacuation of 1940. Schindler’s List (1993) – based on
Oskar Schindler who managed to save about 1100 Jews from being gassed at the
Auschwitz concentration camp.


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Winter states that the individual viewer of a ?lm brings to that ?lm personal
memories and historical narratives. We are touched by ?lm, sometimes powerfully
evoked, so that our responses to ?lm help restructure and fortify our notions
of history and our personal memories. What we build up is a set of scripts
about the past What we can say is that the power of ?lm is such as to bring
historical narratives into the scripts moviegoers, theaters of memory construct
about the past. Those scripts are infused with their own memories, and with
stories, they have heard from survivors (Winter 2).

however, in her journal studying war films in Hollywood believes that
traditionally the motion-picture industry has maintained that the primary
function of the Hollywood film is to entertain. The motion picture can help the
people of the world to share and understand one another’s viewpoints, customs,
and ways of living; it can interpret the common needs and hopes of all peoples
everywhere. She goes on to discuss how any analysis of war films immediately
raises the question, what is a war picture? The term “war film” has
been juggled around very loosely in Hollywood. Usually it has referred to films
depicting battle action (Jones).

Burgoyne argues that “the links the film establishes among patriotism,
militarism, and nationalism, its endorsement of a ‘mystic nationhood’ revealed
only on the battlefield, reinforce the dominant fiction” of American life “at
the site of its greatest potential harm, where it can have the most
consequences.” (Boyd-Barrett 35) To this, Haspel in his paper suggests that the
average Holly wood war picture certainly cannot be accused of romanticizing or
glorifying war the way Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo movies do. Rather, Haspel
points out, that all wars are bloody exercises in death, maiming, and pain,
while suggesting that some causes are worth fighting for (Haspel 26) .On the
topic of respecting the historical integrity of these brutal events Jones lays
down the following:

summary, the portrayal given our fighting forces on the screen was unfortunate
in several respects. The musical and comedy treatment tended to underestimate
the seriousness of war. Such pictures had a particularly adverse effect upon
audiences in especially Allied countries. Not that comedy itself, nor the
wonderful American propensity to laugh at ourselves, did not have its place in
service films. However, the slapstick treatment given to army training and in
some films even to army training. In most films, often a swashbuckling American
hero conquered single-handed. This particular type of arrogance won us much
criticism abroad, which were accused of underplaying the contributions of our
allies and exaggerating our own role in this war.”

explains that although the historical film continued to be produced in the
postwar era, and although these films are still addressing familiar myths of
national greatness and continuity, their treatment of narrative material, their
particular use of stars, and their greater emphasis on psychologizing expose
the tenuousness of the traditions they seek to evoke. In spite of the attempts
on the part of many of the films to recapture a sense of community and
commitment, the films often reveal the fragility of their attempts to recover
traditional values and attitudes. During the period immediately preceding World
War ?, biographies were directed toward the creation of a milieu that stressed
national moral imperatives and a state of preparedness for war. The life of the
exemplary individual offered a way of highlighting particular patriotic
attitudes and contributions in the area of science and technology. Much less
overtly psychological than the films featuring artistic personages, these
narratives were geared toward representing the personal sacrifices and
exemplary actions of the protagonists in the interests of the public welfare.

is no denying that in general, war films are a fertile source of information
not only about official attitudes toward the war but also about underlying
anxieties and contradictions created by wartime conditions. In discussing the
Hollywood war film,  Dana Polan has
argued that a too rigid separation between the war film and the postwar cinema
obscures the fact that the war films, while working to create a sense of
collectivity and unity, contain signs of the breakdown of classic
representations, “With the war, narrative finds a solution to the problems
of representing history in a coherent framework while discovering that it can
do so only at the cost of repressions and distortions that come bursting out
under moments of narrative stress.” (Polan)

Polan discusses that while many of the films focus on the issue of male
identity and male relationships, females are frequently absent, relegated to
the background, or presented as disruptive. This is an accurate fact that this
paper will further address during the comparison of Shindler’s List and
Dunkirk. These films reveal the struggle to produce new forms of knowledge in a
context of inherited myths and the emergence of new patterns. Polan also points
out in her paper that War films did not disappear with the advent of peace.
Audiences saw films that had been made during the final years of the war, those
that addressed subjects not possible under wartime strictures, and those that
addressed the war, directly or indirectly, in relation to the tenuous peace
that followed.

with Dunkirk especially, the narrative of an imperiled submarine crew was and
still is a popular narrative source for dramatizing the valor of the fighting
men. The emphasis was as much on the issue of survival as on destroying the
enemy. Many war films focused on the machinery, equipment, and environment of
the submarine as well as on scenes of combat and survival (Polan). The films
chosen for this study have been carefully evaluated on their booming critical
response and closeness to the actual historical event they are based on.  Schindler’s List relates a period in the life
of Oskar Schindler, an ethnic German businessman, during which he saved the
lives of more than a thousand mostly Polish-Jewish refugees from the Holocaust
by employing them in his factories during World War II. Dunkirk, in comparison,
portrays the evacuation from three perspectives: land, sea, and air. Both are
based on real historical events that occurred during the second world war. This
paper will attempt to compare the accuracy of the events in both films to their
real-time counterparts.


The main theoretical framework, in terms of
objectives, is based on semiosis. This study will employ semiology to examine
the two films in their contrasting portrayal of “the enemy,”
nationalism and individualism. This research will also brush upon the role of
women during the second world war as archived and compare it to feminine roles
depicted in these films in order to understand dominant perspectives of each

of Study

This research study could provide information on the
proper preservation of history through the medium of film. The findings of this
study will benefit both historical and film researchers to explore and uncover
the connection between true historic fact and convenient dramatization. Lastly,
this study will contribute by examining two critically acclaimed Hollywood war
films in their contrasting portrayal of “the enemy,” nationalism and
individualism. I hope that this research will encourage the readers to explore
this medium it as an effective study of contrasting aesthetics.

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