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Genre, history, national cinema

This book undertakes a consideration of the depiction of naval warfare within British and American cinema. The films (ranging from examples from the interwar period, the Second World War, the Cold War and contemporary cinema) encompass all areas of naval operations in war, and highlight varying institutional and aesthetic responses to navies and the sea in popular culture. Examination of the films centres on their similarities to and differences from the conventions of the war genre as described in earlier analyses, and seeks to determine whether the distinctive characteristics of naval film narratives justify their categorisation as a separate genre or sub-genre in popular cinema. The explicit factual bases and drama-documentary style of many key naval films (such as In Which We Serve, They Were Expendable and Das Boot) also require a consideration of them as texts for popular historical transmission. Their frequent reinforcement of establishment views of the past, which derives from their conservative ideological position towards national and naval culture, makes these films key texts for the consideration of national cinemas as purveyors of contemporary history as popularly conceived by filmmakers and received by audiences.

An introduction
Editor: Jonathan Rayner

This book offers introductory readings of some of the well-known and less well-known feature productions coming out of Australia since the revival in the national film industry at the end of the 1960s. The interpretations of the texts and the careers of their makers are considered in relation to the emergence of an indigenous film culture and the construction of national identity. The majority of the films examined in the book have had theatrical or video releases in the UK. The independent development of several indigenous film genres has been an important feature of recent production, and helped to punctuate and bracket the streams of feature production that have evolved since 1970. These Australian genres have been identified and evaluated (the Australian Gothic, the period film, the male ensemble film) and are worthy of consideration both in their own right and in their intersection with other conventionalised forms. These include science fiction, fantasy and horror in comparison with the Gothic, the heritage film and literary adaptation in connection with the period film, and the war film and rite of passage in relation to the male ensemble. More recently, an aesthetic and thematic trend has emerged in the examples of Strictly Ballroom, The Adventures of Priscilla, and Muriel's Wedding, which foregrounds elements of the camp, the kitsch and the retrospective idolisation of 1970s Glamour. Such chronological, stylistic and thematic groupings are important in the interpretation of national filmmaking.

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in The naval war film

The documentary and propagandist emphases result in distinctive national modifiers to the accepted conventions of the war film. In British wartime filmmaking, the recognition of differences across social classes, the incorporation of regional diversity in national representation and the informative worth of factual images encapsulate the judicious assimilation of documentary materials and meanings within feature film production. Naval films of the early war period adopt some facets of documentary filming, although, to inform as well as to inspire the home audience with images of the Navy's ships, crews and operations, they can also be seen to rework staples of pre-war cinema. This chapter incorporates Sergei Nolbandov's Ships With Wings, which was one of the earliest examples of wartime naval representation; similar in its upbeat propagandist conception to The Lion Has Wings. The focus of the documentary footage rests upon the aircraft and operations of the Fleet Air Arm, and especially upon the Navy's most famous aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal. Early wartime propaganda films establish the negative portrayal of U-boat crewmen as stereotypical Nazis, whose cunning and brutality are as inevitable as their defeat and death at the hands of their outraged victims. The fundamental importance of the maritime effort to the nation's survival means that the dedication of films to the Royal and Merchant navies registers more as a debt which the state owes to greater institutions and older traditions.

in The naval war film

In the 1950s, British war films became some of the most successful national film products. They entered the national consciousness as the common frame of reference on the conflict, particularly for later generations who did not experience it first hand. Where some films produce heroic, uncomplicated retransmissions of accepted versions of known events, others offer a painful, private and subjective vision of war experience, which emphasises the compartmentalisation of the conflict, particularly in naval terms. The remarkable aura of defeat and loss is magnified in some naval examples (The Cruel Sea, The Gift Horse, Above Us the Waves, The Ship That Died of Shame), and yet downplayed, dismissed or exulted in heroic terms in others (Sailor to the King, The Battle of the River Plate). The films addressing naval subjects display remarkable consistency, despite tonal differences. A continued convergence between the stylistic and structural characteristics of the wartime documentary feature and the drama-documentary basis of many naval films is evident in several productions. The service comedy applies a basic unit of humour (inappropriate or incongruous behaviour) to the regulated environments and forms of conduct demanded within the military.

in The naval war film

The contribution of the American film industry to the war effort can be divided chronologically between preparatory propagandist films and combat films. It was the feature films that constituted the most visible, accessible and influential product for home and international audiences, and the ‘most potent weapon of war in Hollywood's arsenal’. The proficiency of Hollywood in the production of genre films was an advantage for the delivery of formulaic war films, which were in any case derived from pre-war generic staples. These war films represent the American film industry's most prolonged and committed engagement ‘in documenting and making American history’. John Ford's They Were Expendable bears comparison with In Which We Serve as the definitive naval war film and tribute to the US Navy. The history of US naval aviation, from its inception to the arrival of jet aircraft, is recounted through documentary footage and fictional characters in Task Force.

in The naval war film

The tendency to subsume submarine films within the combat genre does not credit their recognisable narrative and representational differences, even where they are properly identified. This chapter distinguishes the films according to these differences, not only from other wartime productions, but also from other naval war films in matters of degree. Filmic representations of American submarine operations reveal marked consistencies, in the characterisation of crews and commanders, stock situations and representational conventions, as well as being governed by the overarching ideological imperatives. Destination Tokyo is analysed at length in Basinger's assemblage of the combat film paradigm, because of its commonality with many infantry combat films. Post-war submarine films foreground conflicts in command within the confines of sub-surface craft. The questioning of authority which these post-war submarine films undertake is more searching and potentially damaging than that seen in examples depicting surface ships. The challenge to command authority, vested in the rebellious executive officer, also recurs in comedy films set aboard submarines. These films turn on the humour of incongruity and unmilitary conduct within the context of regulation- and tradition-bound institutions.

in The naval war film

The moral clarity and narrative certainty sought in the war film genre were not readily or universally applicable to the circumstances of political confrontation, military posturing or wars by proxy in which the United States found itself engaged after 1945. Even though these uplifting consistencies had appeared within the war films produced during wartime, other contradictory, and recurring, textual features often vitiated their reassurances of unity and ultimate victory. American films of the 1950s can be seen to desire the insertion of the wartime cinema's conventions into Cold War narratives, to safeguard ideological and entertainment values. The frequent staging of the war at sea rather than on land within Cold War films recognises the fluidity and geographical uncertainty of conflict in the period. The Korean War (1950–53) provided an opportunity for the recreation in filmic terms of the narratives and images of World War II, particularly in the Pacific theatre. However, in Hell and High Water, the inevitability of loss and the necessity of total commitment in the ideological confrontation of the Cold War are evident.

in The naval war film
Star Trek and the transfiguration of naval history

Star Trek's adaptation of naval history and imagery to science fiction can be read in the light of relation to the depiction of scientific and military responses to alien threats. In their deliberate evocation of a known, shared, naval heritage, the Star Trek films and series create an unchallenging, incontestable ‘space’ for pride in national history and naval prowess. The accessibility and expansion of the Star Trek format in its films and spin-offs underpin its relevance and prompt its replication in another, more specifically navalised, post-Cold War science fiction series, Sea Quest DSV. As illustrated by the Japanese animated series and films, which portray the adventures of Space Battleship Yamato, the reinvocation of naval history and heroism in science fiction is not simply an American prerogative. This vessel, built from the remains of the sunken World War II battleship, defends Earth against alien invaders. The poignancy of this vessel and her name as a symbol of Japan is further enshrined by her self-destruction to save planet Earth in Yamato yo towa ni/Be Forever, Yamato.

in The naval war film
Contemporary naval films

Since the 1980s, the preponderance of military representation in American cinema speaks to a (re)militarisation of the state and populace, correcting the defeat and defeatism of Vietnam. The pervasiveness of war films, war toys and popular images of conflict is noted as a prerequisite for the heightening of patriotism, the identification of enemies and the propagation of ideological norms. The fabrication of an adversarial relationship can be seen in the title of Behind Enemy Lines, and implies factors non-existent in the Balkan War, which are necessary to narrativise and rationalise an otherwise indecipherable, recalcitrant war. Reintroduction of such features presents a scenario in which American forces can intervene clearly and decisively, and reconfirm their superiority in the process. In this regard, the recreation of World War II serves a supplementary purpose. The repetitious history of Pearl Harbor, the rewritten history of U-571, the redeemed history of Flight of the Intruder and the revalued recent history of Behind Enemy Lines all evince such contemporaneous values and encodings.

in The naval war film