Hollywood and the Iraq War

Will the Gulf War produce enduring art?


Five months after the Gulf war in 1991, on The New York Times Richard Bernstein was writing: “If this war has produced a surge of national pride reminiscent of 1918 and 1945, there is no guarantee that it will, like the Civil war, the two World wars, and the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, produce a commensurate art”. Nowadays the question raises even stronger in relation to the Iraqi war in 2003. Since the 9/11 attacks to the Twin Towers things have changed forever. However, if Hollywood imagination did not and still does not seem to be captured by the Gulf war, this time the involvement of American stars, filmmakers, producers in the last Iraqi war is huge. It cannot be compared to the Hollywood participation during and after the World War II, the era of the “studio system in uniform” (McAdams, 2002: 34-39).

However, something strong has happened before, during and after this recent conflict. The war has divided stars, filmmakers and producers that have participated actively against or in favour. They sent president Bush letters, they petitioned, they delivered speeches at different events. They felt the fear of a blacklist as it happened during the World War II. The Screen Actors Guild warned: “The entertainment industry must not blacklist people who speak out against war in Iraq”, as the Associated press reported on 4 March 2003. The 75th Academy Award on 23 March in Los Angeles was inevitably centred on the war as this broke out just a few days before the ceremony.

Hollywood and the wars

The war film is a genre that has always marked the Hollywood film history since the very beginning. Before the nickelodeon era, around the end of nineteenth century, one of the key factors that saved the American film industry was the Spanish-American war (1898-1902). People wanted to know more and more about the war and the filmmakers started making movies that, at this stage, were concentrated on the reality.

There is no doubt that the majority of war movies made by Hollywood concern World War II and the Vietnam War. During World War II, the Americans that went to the war were 16,112,556; of these 291,557 died in battle. During the Vietnam War, the total service members were 9,200,000; the American deaths were 47,410 in battle and there were 10,788 deaths in theater 1. In these two wars the Americans lost thousands of victims, faced atrocity and brutality, and an unexpectedly long war in Vietnam where the conflict lasted eleven years.

In World War II Hollywood was asked to be more than supportive. The studio system started working for the government. Many stars went to the war. “The U.S. government called directly upon the Hollywood establishment to make films supporting the war effort. Immediately after Pearl Harbour and the German declaration, the Pentagon asked the prominent Columbia director Frank Capra to make a series of propaganda films. These were to explain to American soldiers and sailors why their country was in the war and why they were obliged to help foreign countries”. (Thompson and Bordwell, 2003: 313).

With the Vietnam War Americans faced the “longest and most divisive war” (McAdams, 2002:193). “Television pictures of Vietnam, according to President Nixon, showed the terrible human suffering and sacrifice of war […] the result was a serious demoralization of the home front, raising the question whether America would ever again be able to fight an enemy abroad with unity and strength of purpose at home”. (Hallin, 1986, cited in Thussu and Freedman, 2003)

“The Vietnam war seared the nation’s conscience and psyche so much that it caused one president to decline to run again and began a chain of events that led to his successor’s resignation. No other war in America can make that claim”. (McAdams, 2002: 193-194) The war burst into the houses showing brutality and death. Hollywood felt strongly the emotion of a nation and started making films. They are still making huge films about Vietnam. They made films while the war was still fighting; the major of these was the Batjac Production of the Robin Moore book The Green Berets (1968), with John Wayne starring and directing.

Three Kings

The Gulf war in 1991 did not have the same impact as the World War II and the Vietnam War on the Americans’ conscience in spite of the greater television coverage. “While the Vietnam War was given to American homes every evening, the Gulf War played on CNN day and night”. (McAdams, 2002: 262). “TV news’ obsession with high-tech war reporting has grown since the 1991 US attack against Iraq. CNN’s coverage of the Gulf War, for the first time in history, brought military conflict into living room”. (Thussu and Freedman, 2003:124) However, the huge information about the war did not produce the same effect on the Americans as it was in the Vietnam era.

During the Vietnam War the television coverage made the Americans sad, in 1991 it was different. Desert storm meant a different kind of war, a war that did not show blood and brutality, a war in which U.S. lost 148 service members in battle, a real war showed in TV as a movie. This high-tech and virtual war was “its own triumphant movie – a war fought and celebrated on TV then quickly forgotten” (Hoberman, 2000).

Since the Gulf War Hollywood has made only one movie about the war. It is Three Kings, directed by David O.Russell and released in September 1999. It is a story about three soldiers that when the war was over discovered a map with a location of a cache of gold ingots that were stolen by Saddam Hussein during the Kuwait invasion. Major Archie Gates, interpreted by George Clooney, sets the operation that will lead the soldiers through a disputable mission that will end with Gates’ decision to give the gold ingots to a group of 100 Iraqi refugees that the American soldiers helped to reach the Iranian border. So, at the end, the film shows inevitably the good face of America.

Another movie set in the Gulf war is Courage Under Fire (1996) based on a script by a Vietnam veteran Patrick Duncan. However, Desert Storm represents just the backcloth to show that women can handle combat situation.

Even though during the last decade the production of war films about Desert Storm was nearly non-existent, there was a resurgence of past wars movies. Since 1991 Hollywood made many films about past wars: Schindler ‘s List (1993) directed by Steven Spielberg, about the Nazism; Forrest Gump (1994) with Vietnam combat scenes; Saving Private Ryan (1998) directed by Steven Spielberg, a flashback of a World War II veteran; The Thin Red Line (1998) directed by Terrence Malick; U-571 (2000) World war II submarine film; The Patriot (2000) the story of Benjamin Martin in the American revolution (1775-1783); Black Hawk Down (2001) a Ridley Scott film on the Restore Hope operation in Mogadishu.

“War films from past wars continued to make contemporary statements”. (McAdams, 2002: 253). “The Gulf war era, beginning in 1990, in American war films, brought about more story angles to past wars, going back to our first. It also opened the gates for more war films, particularly about World war II”. (McAdams, 2002: 276)

Hollywood reactions

The Gulf War has been underestimated as a potential plot for a good and successful movie in Hollywood. And one of the most important reasons, underlined by the majority of the critics, seems to be the TV effect, the high-tech and virtual representation of the war. In some ways, the Iraqi war in 2003 was even more virtually represented than it has been hitherto and the coverage was larger and from more perspectives than before. According to the latest statistics published on the CNN website, since March to early December 443 U.S. troops have been killed in the Iraq war, 306 from hostile fire, of those 191 have died after president Bush declared an end to major combat on May 1. This time the number of American deaths has more than doubled in comparison to the Gulf War. However, is it the number of casualties that makes a difference in the fictional representation of a war? It is true to say that in the most “cinematized” wars, as World War II and Vietnam, Americans lost thousands of men, but the number of victims is not significant enough to explain why a war is more or less represented on the big screen.

In comparison with the Gulf War, this time there are many more reasons to dissuade the Hollywood filmmakers from making films about this war. However, there are also more reasons to urge them to make films because of the high dissent before, during and after the Iraqi freedom operation.

It seems to be much more difficult to make films about this war due to the very sensitive relationships and the difficulties of communications between U.S. and Muslims. This time the decision to make a film involves political, economic and diplomatic matter more than hitherto. In an interview to the Wall Street journal, on 10 October 2003, when Jonathan Last asked why Hollywood hasn’t made movies about the war on terror Jack Valenti, the head of the Motion Picture association of America, said: “Who would you have as the enemy if you made a picture about terrorism? You’d probably have Muslims, would you not? If you did, I think there would be backlash from the decent, hard-working, law-abiding Muslim community in the country”. Talking about the last Iraqi war, Hollywood could not ignore the 9/11 attacks to the Twin Towers. So it becomes a very difficult issue to be addressed.

However, something could be different now. The protest and the dissent in Hollywood were considerable. Furthermore, the war divided world opinion; it divided Hollywood opinion as well. Before the conflict many stars and filmmakers made statements against the war. In a petition signed by stars such as Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Angelica Huston, Matt Damon, Jessica Lange, Mia Farrow Vincent D’Onofrio and many others, it was declared: “Such a war will increase human suffering, arouse animosity toward our country, increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks, damage the economy, and undermine our moral standing in the world. […] We reject the doctrine that our country, alone, has the right to launch first-strike attacks”.

On the other hand, there were positions in favour of the war. Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg, for instance, supported president Bush politics about Iraq. The director of war epics Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s list, in an article written by Julian Coman from Washington and published on the Daily Telegraph months before the war, said: “If Bush, as I believe, has reliable information on the fact that Saddam Hussein is making weapons of mass destruction, I cannot not support the policies of his government”.

Stars as John Travolta and Tom Cruise gave diplomatic answer when journalists asked their opinions. They said that they did not know what think about the Iraqi war or that they did not have enough information to declare anything.

It happened a few months ago. Probably it is yet too early to see whether this war produces movies and how many it will; however it is the right time to understand the signs that are coming.

Documentary season

This time is the time of the documentaries. Hollywood filmmakers seems to be very interested in making documentaries, in making something closer to the news than to the fiction to show their opinions, to further investigate these issues. This time can be defined as the documentary season. It started after the 9/11, but it is developing now more than ever. The documentaries produced are not just about the war or the attacks to the Twin Towers. They are also about social problems even if the film camera is centred on the war in Iraq and the war on terror.

The success of this form of “reality-art” is huge. Over 30 millions of Americans have seen Bowling for Columbine, the documentary made by Michael Moore and released in U.S. on 11 October 2002. Last March the American filmmaker won the Oscar for the best documentary feature. According to Matthew Ross on Variety last November, “Bowling for Columbine continued to score at the box office, collecting $5 million of its more than $21 million income this year”. The latest box office data show: total U.S. gross earnings $21,575,958 on a $3 million production budget and worldwide gross earnings of $40 million 2. Michael Moore is one of the most active in the Hollywood firmament against the war and against president Bush. During the Oscar Night 2003 he took the podium. The Qatar television Al Jazeera referred part of his speech. He said: “We live in a time with fictitious election results that elect fictitious presidents. We live in a time when we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons. We are against this war Mr. Bush. Shame on you. Shame on you!”

A few weeks ago, Moore’s new book “Dude, where’s my country?” has been published. In it he strongly criticized (and it should not be different) the White House on various matters: not only on the war on terror or the Iraqi war, but also, for example, about health insurance. Furthermore, Michael Moore is preparing another documentary in which examines what happened to the U.S. after September 11. It is called Fahrenheit 911. Moore’s new work, produced by Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions, should be completed for submission to Cannes 2004. The theatrical release should be before the presidential election next November, as Moore himself has declared in several interviews.

In these days, it is imminent the theatrical release of The Fog of War, an Errol Morris documentary that covers political events in U.S. history as seen through the eyes of former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, that is the star of this documentary.

Robert Greenwald, producer and director, that made Xanadu, starring Olivia Newton-John, has spent several months investigating the Iraqi war. The result is a documentary film released a month ago in U.S. and called Uncovered: the whole truth about the Iraq war. Robert Greenwald interviewed, as Randy Kennedy wrote on The New York Times on 6 November, “former diplomats, weapons inspectors, scientists and career spies to try to show that the Bush administration misled the public and Congress in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq”.

Another filmmaker that is investigating the war, in particular the relationship with the Muslim world is Charles Stuart. He was in the Middle East to film Hollywood & the Muslim world, an investigation on the impact of American TV and movies from Cairo to Baghdad, as the Los Angeles Times reported on the 14 July newspaper edition when the documentary has been aired on satellite on the AMC cable channel.

Political dramas

If it is a documentary season, the months after the Iraqi war will be also remembered as “a powerful time for political drama”, as stated in the headline of a Financial Times article published in the Creative business section on 4 November 2003. The West Wing, starring Hollywood star Martin Sheen (captain Willard in Apocalypse now), has been living a season of resurgence. It leapt from 24th to 11th in the US ratings, as reported Neal Koch on the Financial Times. He also refers the opinion of Robert J. Thompson, a professor of popular culture at the University of Syracuse: “Suddenly, politics is no longer just the stuff of C-Span [the US channel which broadcasts from Capitol Hill]. It’s become the stuff of soap operas”. Robert Caro, the two time Pulitzer Prize winning historian and biographer, in the same article argues: “There is a tremendous change with The West Wing and HBO movies […]. The level at which politics is portrayed is much higher than it’s been before”.

One of the HBO programm is K Street, developed by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney. K Street is not a situation comedy, it can be defined a political docudrama. “It is a semi-fictional inside-look at Washington lobbyists and consultants, starring, among others, James Carville, one of former president Bill Clinton’s chief political strategists, and his wife, Mary Matalin, until recently a senior aide to vice-president Dick Cheney. The couple play themselves. […] Stuart Stevens, a K Street co-producer and Republican political consultant who made commercials for president Bush’s 2000 campaign, insists that the market for scripts about politicians remains the strongest he’s seen in his nine years of selling”.

Furthermore, a few days ago in Los Angeles there was a world premiere presentation of a drama in one act written and directed by Tim Robbins. It is called Embedded and it is a satire about journalists embedded with American troops at the front.

Coming productions

There is not one single movie on the Hollywood horizon about the Iraqi war for the moment. Probably it is too early to see projects about a war that is still causing death and destruction.

The only film that will be produced in the next few months and that has got a very small reference to Iraq is The Jacket. It will be directed by John Maybury and produced by Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney and Peter Guber. The reference is just because the protagonist Billy Starks, played by the Oscar winner Adrian Brody, is a Gulf war veteran. But that is it. In fact it is a thriller. The veteran has accused of a murder that he does not remember committing.

For what concerns the coming productions, they seem to continue the era of war films from the past. In fact in the latest Variety film production chart, there is some new war films production3.

Kingdom of heaven, produced and directed by Ridley Scott, is the story of a blacksmith who helps Jerusalem to fight against Crusades. It is a historical-epic set in 12th century. It will be shot next year in Morocco.

Closing the ring, starring Shirley McLain, is set in Belfast during the World War II. Richard Attenborough will direct it

The filthy war, directed by Laszlo Hege, is about the war in the former Yugoslavia. A group of young volunteers create an international platoon to defend a village in Croatia at the beginning of the Yugoslav civil war (1991) against the nationalist, ethnic-cleansing Serbs.


This war is a very difficult war to be chosen as a plot for a movie. It is not just for the TV effect as it was in the Gulf era. It is true that the television coverage has been greater than in 1991 and it could not be different. Technological transformations have made easier to do information. This war has been represented as virtual, as a Nintendo more than ever. However, this is not the principal reason why Hollywood filmmakers could keep their distance from this war. It is a difficult war for all the implications that this conflict brought. The relationships with the Muslim world are at a very crucial and sensitive stage. The anti-americanism is stronger than ever. So the responsibility in making a film is enormous.

However, the dissent of several filmmakers and stars was and still is very strong. They were against the Iraqi freedom operation and are still demonstrating their disapproval. Their first projects are taking shape even if there is not one single film on the Hollywood horizon about the Iraqi conflict. It is likely that they will decide to make movies to show what was wrong in this war. They have things to say. They have things that they want to say. Furthermore, they know that this controversial war could be a success at the box office because the anti-war feeling is growing up in Western countries.

Paraphrasing the New York Times headline, there is evidence that more than before it will be difficult to answer the question: “Will the Iraqi war produce enduring art?”



McAdams, F. The American war film – History and Hollywood Westport, Connecticut, and London, Praeger.

Thompson, K and Bordwell D. Film History – An Introduction New York, McGraw-Hill.

Thussu, D K and Freedman D. War and the media London, Sage.

Newspaper articles

Last, Jonathan. Taste: War? What War? Wall Street Journal.

Kennedy, Randy. A screening with stars but a focus on Politics The New York Times.

Rosenberg, Howard. Hollywood’s effect on Muslim world attitudes Los Angeles Times.

Koch, Neal. A powerful time for political drama Financial Times (Creative business).


Hollywood doesn’t go to war” Los Angeles, Associated press.

Department of Veterans affairs, Washington.

Hoberman, J “Burn, blast, bomb, cut” London, Sight and Sound.

Hollywood anti-war letter to president Bush.

Coman, J “Hollywood goes to war” Washington, Daily Telegraph.

Ross, M “Real potentialVariety.

Bowling for Columbine.

Bremer predicts an increase in attacks in Iraq”, CNN.

The Fog of war.

1 The statistics about the World war II and the Vietnam war are from the Department of Veteran affairs, Office of Public Affairs, Washington

2 The numbers are from the website The numbers specialized in box office data

3 The information about the plot of the movies are assumed from different websites:

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