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Contemporary naval films

TNWC07 16/11/06 11:26 AM Page 173 7 Popularising the navy, rewriting the past: contemporary naval films World War II holds a celebrated position in the benign meta-narrative of American foreign relations. This narrative holds that the United States is a benevolent nation whose foreign policy is based not on pure selfinterest but rather on the greater good of all humankind . . . World War II was designed to defeat the evils of Nazism and Japanese expansionism . . . the Cold War was pursued in order to defend the rights of free peoples everywhere against

in The naval war film
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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.

film production, in a parallel to the American war film’s redeployment of the staples of pre-war genre cinema. In working to accommodate the documentary and entertainment film strands, early war productions often foregrounded naval and maritime activities, because the focus of fighting to date provided topical and propagandist examples: TNWC01 16/11/06 11:27 AM Page 33 British naval films and the documentary feature 33 Of the three armed services, it was the Royal Navy which was most frequently represented in serious war films between 1940 and 1943. The

in The naval war film

films, which were in any case derived from pre-war generic staples. The suggested evolution of the combat film, as an assimilation of documentary influences, a representation of early war incidents and a modification of existing generic materials, is indicative of Hollywood’s adeptness and responsiveness, but the assumption of uniformity in the depiction of all the armed services presupposes a concomitant rigidity and standardisation. The difference of the Navy and naval war implies a representational subset. That said, despite the inclusion of all arms of the Navy

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

TNWC06 16/11/06 11:26 AM Page 153 6 ‘Damn the photon torpedoes!’ Star Trek and the transfiguration of naval history ‘If any enemy planes appear, shoot ’em down in a friendly fashion.’ (Admiral William Halsey, 1943)1 The science fiction navy While the US Navy’s varied and controversial roles in the Cold War received partial, negative, evasive or allegorical representations in the feature films of that period, a positive and celebratory depiction of the Navy’s activities and traditions can be found in the contemporaneous television series, Star Trek. Initially

in The naval war film

TNWC05 16/11/06 11:26 AM Page 120 5 American films of the Cold War Representations of naval operations, up to and including actual combat, in films made during the Cold War appear as varied and problematic as the political and operational complexities afflicting the navies themselves in that period. The moral clarity and narrative certainty sought in the war film genre, as it had evolved during the Second World War (in the clear delineation of goals, the unity to be sought and the enemies to be defeated in order to achieve them), were not readily or

in The naval war film
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are already part of the wider ‘Navy family’. Similarly, the fiancées and spouses of officers seen in Task Force and Up Periscope are willing and co-opted members of the naval institution, in rank and file as well as emotional attachment. In Destination Tokyo, the submarine captain’s fatherhood at sea is seen as an extension of his married life ashore, where we might expect shore and sea life to be mutually exclusive. Rather, the land-based biological family must be absorbed into and become subservient to the navy family, and the life of the sea service. This is

in The naval war film

TNWC04 16/11/06 11:27 AM Page 103 4 The submarine war and the submarine film The United States submarine was destined to be one of the most devastating weapons in the Pacific . . . Nearly one third of all Japanese combatant ships destroyed and nearly two thirds of merchant tonnage sunk was the work of United States submarines.1 The campaign conducted by US Navy submarines against enemy shipping in the Pacific was a crucial (and according to some accounts, decisive) factor in Japan’s capitulation.2 For the purposes of filmic representation, this aspect of

in The naval war film
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TNWA02 16/11/06 11:28 AM Page 1 Introduction The premiere screening of Pearl Harbor (Michael Bay, 2001) in May 2001 took place aboard a US Navy aircraft carrier, moored in the naval base of the film’s title. This production, commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the attack which prompted America’s entry into World War II, represents one of the most recent and explicit linkages of national, naval and cinematic history. This is by no means an isolated example of the mutually beneficial connections between the US Navy and the American film industry, and the

in The naval war film

Cold in Alex (J. LeeThompson, 1958) illustrated the resourcefulness and endurance of the Army during the defeats of the early war years. However, portrayals of the Royal Navy outnumber the films dedicated to the other services during this period, and cover the varied branches of the service: the surface fleet (The Gift Horse; R. Compton Bennett, 1952; The Cruel Sea; Charles Frend, 1953; The Battle of the River Plate; Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1956), submarines (Above Us the TNWC02 16/11/06 11:27 AM Page 55 Post-war British naval films and the service

in The naval war film