Film theory often includes the study of conflicts between theaesthetics of visual Hollywood and the textual analysis of screenplay. The form, the colors and theprecision – one can delve beneath (or beyond) the obvious and appreciate theemotion, ideas and meaning theartist has tried to capture and encapsulate within his image. In Film Language (1968), it is argued thatcinema is structured like a language.
Adopting Saussure’s models, thedistinction 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 theportrayal and consistency of historical integrity of two contemporary Hollywoodwar films – Dunkirk and Schindler’s List. Dunkirk (2017) – based on thegame-changing British evacuation of 1940. Schindler’s List (1993) – based onOskar Schindler who managed to save about 1100 Jews from being gassed at theAuschwitz concentration camp.
LiteratureReviewJayWinter states that the individual viewer of a ?lm brings to that ?lm personalmemories and historical narratives. We are touched by ?lm, sometimes powerfullyevoked, so that our responses to ?lm help restructure and fortify our notionsof history and our personal memories. What we build up is a set of scriptsabout the past What we can say is that the power of ?lm is such as to bringhistorical narratives into the scripts moviegoers, theaters of memory constructabout the past. Those scripts are infused with their own memories, and withstories, they have heard from survivors (Winter 2).Jones,however, in her journal studying war films in Hollywood believes thattraditionally the motion-picture industry has maintained that the primaryfunction of the Hollywood film is to entertain. The motion picture can help thepeople 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 peopleseverywhere. She goes on to discuss how any analysis of war films immediatelyraises the question, what is a war picture? The term “war film” hasbeen juggled around very loosely in Hollywood. Usually it has referred to filmsdepicting battle action (Jones).
RobertBurgoyne argues that “the links the film establishes among patriotism,militarism, and nationalism, its endorsement of a ‘mystic nationhood’ revealedonly on the battlefield, reinforce the dominant fiction” of American life “atthe site of its greatest potential harm, where it can have the mostconsequences.” (Boyd-Barrett 35) To this, Haspel in his paper suggests that theaverage Holly wood war picture certainly cannot be accused of romanticizing orglorifying war the way Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo movies do. Rather, Haspelpoints out, that all wars are bloody exercises in death, maiming, and pain,while suggesting that some causes are worth fighting for (Haspel 26) .On thetopic of respecting the historical integrity of these brutal events Jones laysdown the following:”Insummary, the portrayal given our fighting forces on the screen was unfortunatein several respects. The musical and comedy treatment tended to underestimatethe seriousness of war.
Such pictures had a particularly adverse effect uponaudiences in especially Allied countries. Not that comedy itself, nor thewonderful American propensity to laugh at ourselves, did not have its place inservice films. However, the slapstick treatment given to army training and insome films even to army training. In most films, often a swashbuckling Americanhero conquered single-handed.
This particular type of arrogance won us muchcriticism abroad, which were accused of underplaying the contributions of ourallies and exaggerating our own role in this war.”Landyexplains that although the historical film continued to be produced in thepostwar era, and although these films are still addressing familiar myths ofnational greatness and continuity, their treatment of narrative material, theirparticular use of stars, and their greater emphasis on psychologizing exposethe tenuousness of the traditions they seek to evoke. In spite of the attemptson the part of many of the films to recapture a sense of community andcommitment, the films often reveal the fragility of their attempts to recovertraditional values and attitudes. During the period immediately preceding WorldWar ?, biographies were directed toward the creation of a milieu that stressednational moral imperatives and a state of preparedness for war.
The life of theexemplary individual offered a way of highlighting particular patrioticattitudes and contributions in the area of science and technology. Much lessovertly psychological than the films featuring artistic personages, thesenarratives were geared toward representing the personal sacrifices andexemplary actions of the protagonists in the interests of the public welfare.(Landy) Thereis no denying that in general, war films are a fertile source of informationnot only about official attitudes toward the war but also about underlyinganxieties and contradictions created by wartime conditions. In discussing theHollywood war film, Dana Polan hasargued that a too rigid separation between the war film and the postwar cinemaobscures the fact that the war films, while working to create a sense ofcollectivity and unity, contain signs of the breakdown of classicrepresentations, “With the war, narrative finds a solution to the problemsof representing history in a coherent framework while discovering that it cando so only at the cost of repressions and distortions that come bursting outunder moments of narrative stress.” (Polan)Furthermore,Polan discusses that while many of the films focus on the issue of maleidentity and male relationships, females are frequently absent, relegated tothe background, or presented as disruptive.
This is an accurate fact that thispaper will further address during the comparison of Shindler’s List andDunkirk. These films reveal the struggle to produce new forms of knowledge in acontext of inherited myths and the emergence of new patterns. Polan also pointsout 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, thosethat addressed subjects not possible under wartime strictures, and those thataddressed the war, directly or indirectly, in relation to the tenuous peacethat followed.
Aswith Dunkirk especially, the narrative of an imperiled submarine crew was andstill is a popular narrative source for dramatizing the valor of the fightingmen. The emphasis was as much on the issue of survival as on destroying theenemy. Many war films focused on the machinery, equipment, and environment ofthe submarine as well as on scenes of combat and survival (Polan). The filmschosen for this study have been carefully evaluated on their booming criticalresponse and closeness to the actual historical event they are based on. Schindler’s List relates a period in the lifeof Oskar Schindler, an ethnic German businessman, during which he saved thelives of more than a thousand mostly Polish-Jewish refugees from the Holocaustby employing them in his factories during World War II. Dunkirk, in comparison,portrays the evacuation from three perspectives: land, sea, and air. Both arebased on real historical events that occurred during the second world war. Thispaper will attempt to compare the accuracy of the events in both films to theirreal-time counterparts.
ObjectivesThe main theoretical framework, in terms ofobjectives, is based on semiosis. This study will employ semiology to examinethe two films in their contrasting portrayal of “the enemy,”nationalism and individualism. This research will also brush upon the role ofwomen during the second world war as archived and compare it to feminine rolesdepicted in these films in order to understand dominant perspectives of eachgender.
Significanceof StudyThis research study could provide information on theproper preservation of history through the medium of film. The findings of thisstudy will benefit both historical and film researchers to explore and uncoverthe connection between true historic fact and convenient dramatization. Lastly,this study will contribute by examining two critically acclaimed Hollywood warfilms in their contrasting portrayal of “the enemy,” nationalism andindividualism. I hope that this research will encourage the readers to explorethis medium it as an effective study of contrasting aesthetics.