The fact is, whether we like it or not, we have been making heroes of military figures for MUCH longer than movies have been around. Has no one ever heard of “the Minutemen,” Nathan Hale, U. S. Grant, Alvin York, Audi Murphy, etc? The list could go on…. These characters are considered to be heroes, although it’s worth remembering that our noble “Founding Fathers” were, in fact, traitors to the British crown, which was, in fact, the legitimate government at the time. That means that American General Benedict Arnold could be considered a hero for turning against Washington and those other rebels and trying to return the country to its rightful king. John Mosby “The Grey Ghost” was, a hero of the Confederacy, but he was a traitor to the United States, as was, say, J.E.B. Stuart. Alvin York and Audi Murphy were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor so there seems to be little doubt that many consider them heroes, as I do, although I’m rather less sure that they would be thought so by those against whom they fought.
On the other hand, these folks are not remembered for being nice, peaceful citizens. They are, remembered, mostly, for their actions which resulted in the death of other human beings. Heroes in time of war usually are such and they are heroes primarily because they were on OUR side. That’s the nature of being a soldier and how military heroes are defined.
Now, I confess that I’m not really very fond of the idea of war. In addition to being very expensive in far too many ways, it seems like quite a poor way to try to achieve Peace (which is almost always the stated intent). Somehow, killing people seems an unlikely way to make things more peaceful. It does eliminate those with whom one disagrees, although that seems like the sort of tactics we normally disapprove of.
Still, wars have been around as an instrument of foreign policy for a very long time and people have been making heroes out of warriors for about the same length of time. That doesn’t change the fact that we have always “glorified” “murderers.” After all, David was a hero for killing Goliath. I think that this means that, once we accept the idea that a warrior is a legitimate subject for a book, movie, TV show, etc., we have to accept the idea that that work is going to discuss/present his/her actions, including the death of others. In fact, these characters are often of interest mostly because of those actions. I don’t think that I see this as any more, or less, appropriate than any other sort of subject matter.
As I said earlier, I’m really not very fond of the idea of war, but I have to acknowledge that it does, has and probably will continue to exist and I’m damn glad that there are people willing to engage in doing what needs to be done when we, the people, decide that war provides an acceptable solution for a problem in the world. Soldiers are, after all, not acting as individuals, but as agents of a government. They act under orders and are subject to certain restrictions (rules of engagement). They can be punished for exceeding or violating those orders and restrictions.
I lost friends in the Vietnam conflict, which I thought we probably shouldn’t have been involved in from the beginning. That doesn’t mean that I don’t honor those who served (and especially those who died) in that conflict. They were only doing what was required of them (and I remember that we still had a draft in those days). I have known people who have served in more recent wars. I confess to grave questions about how and why we got into those wars, what possible good could come out of them and how anyone could possibly think a “victory” is possible. But, some citizens have volunteered to engage in these activities (including killing people) because we, as a society, have asked them to do so. They deserve our respect for that.
My point here is, essentially, that all “war” movies, books, etc., can be argued to “glorify murderers.” Anyone arguing that that shouldn’t be the case is simply ignoring a defining characteristic of the genre. So, does the question come down to whether, or not, such things should be created?
I find that an absurd question. The simple fact that such works have been able to make money for centuries suggests that people are likely to continue to exploit the theme of the warrior as hero. Even Shakespeare wrote a rather popular play about a guy named Henry the Fifth. That play rather “glorifies” a warrior king as something of an ideal ruler, although Will doesn’t seem to have his facts completely straight. That seems to occur in more than a few of these stories, especially when the facts don’t always support the “heroic” nature of the central figure.
The fact is that war stories sell; they put “butts in seats” and until that changes people are going to continue to make them. I have read that American Sniper has sold a lot of tickets. I may well not go to see it, but a lot of people have and, probably, will continue to do so. Therefore, it seems likely that the genre will continue. Some might call this cynical, but it is a reality. The decision to write a book or make a movie is a business decision and such will be produced, or not, primarily for business reasons.
Moving along, I have always taken awards to be mostly of value as marketing tools, so I refuse to take them very seriously. I think it IS an honor to be recognized for your work in your profession. The fact is, however, that awards can, and have, hurt some careers as the assumption is made that the winner will now be “too expensive” for the budget of some new project.
There is also the extremely subjective basis of awards in the arts. There’s a quote from a Time magazine interview with Paul Newman of which I am rather fond:
I don't understand why competition has to exist between actors. Some guy starts
with a marvelous character, and the script is all there. All he has to do is show up.
Another guy digs it out by the goddamn roots with a terrible director and turns in
this incredible performance. And someone says one is better than the other. That's
what's nice about car racing. It's right to a thousandth of a second. Your bumper is
here. That guy's bumper is there. You win.
Newman was, specifically, speaking about awards for actors, but I think the same thing can be said for almost any specialty in motion pictures, theatre or television. If, as is commonly claimed, the award is being given for the quality of work demonstrated, the subject matter is clearly not a relevant consideration: the only thing which is supposed to be being considered is the quality of the work. Can someone do an outstanding job on a movie or play which is, otherwise, not very good? Of course they can! In fact, I have long had the suspicion that awards are often made in “clumps” because it’s much harder to single out the “one good thing” about a not very great entry, but a project which is highly regarded MUST be so because of the superior work of many. I think that’s probably why a limited number of projects are often nominated for several awards. Still, it’s possible that better work in some area was actually unnoticed because it was on a not very highly regarded project.
What all this boils down to, I think, is that we have the option to support movies, plays, books, etc., which deal with any sort of subject matter or not to do so. If we don’t like something or someone, we can simply not buy copies, tickets, etc. That is a form of censorship, I suppose, but the fact is that if a product doesn’t sell, it won’t be produced. That notion has been around as long as the idea of heroes. And, it’s not trying to take legal action against something, just making it unprofitable.
If we wish to believe that there is a value in recognizing outstanding achievement in something, then we should accept the idea that an award for that is supposed to be made based on the quality of the work, not the popularity of the subject matter. Editing, screenwriting, directing, even acting, aren’t really about subject matter. I think it’s also more than slightly helpful to remember that this sort of thing is, as Newman points out, highly subjective; it’s not an objective win-loose situation like a race. It’s also true that awards become major marketing tools of considerable importance to the bottom line. In fact, that may be their greatest importance.
As we get further into “awards season” perhaps these are points we should consider. That’s what I think. What are your thoughts?