In Hymns for the Fallen, Todd Decker listens closely to forty years of Hollywood combat films produced after Vietnam. Ever a noisy genre, post-Vietnam war films have deployed music and sound to place the audience in the midst of battle and to provoke reflection on the experience of combat. Considering landmark movies—such as Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker, and American Sniper—as well as lesser-known films, Decker shows how the domain of sound, an experientially rich and culturally resonant aspect of cinema, not only invokes the realities of war, but also shapes the American audience’s engagement with soldiers and veterans as flesh-and-blood representatives of the nation. Hymns for the Fallen explores all three elements of film sound—dialogue, sound effects, music—and considers how expressive and formal choices in the soundtrack have turned the serious war film into a patriotic ritual enacted in the commercial space of the cinema.
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About the Author
Todd Decker is Professor of Music at Washington University in St. Louis. The author of four books on American commercial music and media, he has lectured at the Library of Congress, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and LabEx Arts-H2H in Paris.
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Hymns for the Fallen
Combat Movie Music and Sound after Vietnam
By Todd Decker
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Movies and Memorials
At the most basic level of shared content, prestige combat films — hereafter PCFs — tell stories of US soldiers fighting abroad in actual historical conflicts. (United 93  and Letters from Iwo Jima  are the exceptions.) Feature films about the American Civil War, which lack a foreign other, and fantasies of American forces at war with imagined enemies (for example the alien invaders of Independence Day ) are excluded. Likewise excluded are movies that depict the US military in a fantastical context, such as Rambo: First Blood, Part Two (1985), which returns to Vietnam to rescue POWs and, in the words of John Rambo, "win this time," and Top Gun (1986), which elides entirely the dire seriousness that would have attended a dogfight between American F-14s and Communist MiGs in the 1980s and instead celebrates winning, as Christian Appy aptly notes, "a fictional battle in an unknown place against a nameless enemy with no significant cause at stake." PCF narratives engage seriously with historical fact — in only a few cases by way of highly stylized storytelling — and insert the viewer, assumed to be an adult, into a complex context. As the director Oliver Stone said, hopefully, of Platoon (1986) two years after its release: "It became an antidote to Top Gun and Rambo."
This complex context, however, is limited in scope. Nearly every PCF represents the battlefield from the point of view of the individual soldier, frequently from the lowest rank: the grunt. Central characters in these films seldom rise above lieutenant (with leading roles in Saving Private Ryan , Band of Brothers , We Were Soldiers , and Green Zone  notable exceptions). The PCF is generally not about officers, and never about famous figures of military history — as, for example, were many war films made during the 1960s. Jay Winter has located this larger shift in war films post-1970 as one from "studies of conflict to studies of combatants." To borrow the words of the military historian John C. McManus, the PCF typically strives to capture "the very essence of the infantryman's decidedly personal war." As Stone said rather precisely of Platoon, "I did a white Infantry boy's view of the war."
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial marked a radical departure from earlier war memorials in the nation's capital. Kirk Savage characterizes the Wall, which is sunk below grade, as "almost literally [turning] the neoclassical memorial landscape [of the Lincoln, Washington, and other memorials] upside down." Many PCFs about Vietnam did the same, redirecting the heroic narratives of the combat film, as forged during and after World War II, toward the telling of a war story that, in the case of Vietnam, ends in failure and defeat, a deeply ambiguous outcome for a nation as accustomed to victory as the United States. As John Hellmann has noted, Vietnam marks "the disruption of the American story." Katherine Kinney adds, "Vietnam is the traumatic site which violates all images and assumptions of American identity." Or as Michael Herr put it in his 1977 Vietnam memoir, Dispatches — zeroing in on the sense of national shame with not a trace of sentimentality — "There's nothing so embarrassing as when things go wrong in a war." Disruption, trauma, and shame are all manifest in most PCFs made after Vietnam — regardless of the war they depict. As David Kieran has argued, "The evolving and contested memory of the American War in Vietnam has shaped Americans' commemoration of other events in ways that inform their understanding of themselves, the nation, and the global interests and obligations of the United States." The Hollywood war film was also shaped by the events and outcomes of the Vietnam War: the PCF, especially in its sonic dimensions, offers a rich space to explore how the experience of Vietnam has resonated across American memory.
And the memory these films build is explicitly national. The media scholars Karina Aveyard and Albert Moran have noted, "Watching a film is also about the people with whom the experience is shared, as well as the moment in time and the place in which it occurs." PCFs are parochial and often occasional: their assumed audience is American (with the exceptions of Full Metal Jacket  and The Thin Red Line , and perhaps British director Sam Mendes's Jarhead ). Hollywood's commercially oriented address to a global audience is largely set aside in the PCF subgenre.
War memorials and PCFs alike recognize the sacrifices soldiers make for the nation. The experience of viewing these films — the time spent watching, especially when done collectively in a movie theater — becomes a constituent part of the viewer's specifically American identity, somewhat like a journey to the Mall in Washington, DC. A majority of PCFs make room for — spend valuable screen time on — explicitly memorializing sequences. Some, like Hamburger Hill (1987), Saving Private Ryan, and the Vietnam film We Were Soldiers, visit real memorials. We Were Soldiers, based closely on the battle of Ia Drang, ends at the Wall. Lieutenant Colonel Harold G. Moore — the officer in command at Ia Drang, played in the film by Mel Gibson — stands before the panel where the names of his soldiers killed in the battle are listed. Their names, familiar by now to the viewer as characters in the film, are shown and a title card pinpoints the location of the American dead at Ia Drang on the Wall, implicitly inviting the audience to go and stand in Moore's — and Gibson's — place. If they cannot, watching We Were Soldiers serves as a surrogate act of remembrance.
Other combat films memorialize on-screen the names of fallen soldiers who have yet to be remembered in stone in the nation's capital. The 2001 film Black Hawk Down — like We Were Soldiers, made before but released after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 — lists the names of the Army Rangers and members of Delta Force who died on a single day in 1993 in Mogadishu, Somalia. Act of Valor, a 2012 film starring actual Navy SEALs, closes with a dedication "to the following warriors of Naval Special Warfare who have made the ultimate sacrifice since 9/11." Sixty names scroll upward while restrained, quiet music plays and an actual Navy SEAL — one of the leading actors in the film, a real soldier who plays a fictional soldier — exits into the sunset. All of the above films, like Hamburger Hill though with different motivations, aspire to being a kind of "cinematic headstone."
Some war films go beyond listing names and add images of the fallen and those who survived. Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers (2006) tells the story of the six flag raisers in the iconic 1945 photo of Marines atop Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima. During the final credits, the names of the actors who played these men are listed beside photos of the actual men. The HBO limited series Band of Brothers, which recounts the combat service of a celebrated unit of paratroopers in Europe during World War II, includes actual veterans of the unit in documentary-style interviews at the start of almost every episode. With even greater impact, Lone Survivor (2013), an account of Operation Red Wings in the mountains of Afghanistan, closes with images of the nineteen Navy SEALs and Special Operations aviators who died on a single day in 2005. The images are personal, and in the context of a feature film, uncomfortably intimate.
Films incorporating images of actual soldiers and veterans intensify a common trope in Hollywood combat films reaching back to the beginnings of the genre: films such as Battleground (1949) and To Hell and Back (1955) enhance their closing credits with a visual roll call of the cast, one final glimpse of each man in the film's story. Almost all of the combat films about Vietnam made in the 1980s incorporate this old war movie device, as do several later PCFs about other wars. The visual roll call that ends Platoon left many Vietnam veterans in tears — a common human-interest story in local newspapers during the film's theatrical release. Other strategies for initiating reflection include didactic titles at the start or close, as well as stretches of reflective music, such as John Williams's "Hymn to the Fallen" in Saving Private Ryan.
Almost all of the above strategies for honoring individual fighting men stop the action narrative's forward motion — or put off the film's end — and force the audience to reflect, thereby opening a cinematic space where soldiers and veterans as embodiments of the nation are shown to be worthy of a memorializing moment's pause.
The action-adventure genre has dominated Hollywood's business model since the mid-1970s, around the time the PCF emerged. Indeed, the PCF — with its de rigueur inclusion of violent, frequently spectacular combat action — is without a doubt an action-adventure subgenre. But while standard commercial action films might set ever-higher box-office records, they typically earn low marks, if not utter contempt, from critics and seldom win anything but technical awards at the Oscars. PCFs, by contrast, manage to be both action films and critical successes judged worthy of major awards, recognition that buttresses the subgenre's claim to prestige. This book considers three winners of and seven nominees for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and five winners and five nominees for the Academy Award for Best Director. Four Oscar-nominated original scores are represented as well. Interestingly for this study, PCFs also often win in the sound categories. Six signature PCFs, each definitive for the subgenre in its period, won Best Sound Mixing Oscars: The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker (2008). This startling pattern suggests the centrality of sound in post-Vietnam combat films. (Before 1977, only two war films won this award: Patton  and Twelve O'Clock High ). Best Sound Design Oscars — a more occasional award for the early decades of the subgenre — were won by Saving Private Ryan, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and American Sniper (2014).
PCFs are typically special projects initiated by a director or a producer — less often a writer or actor — working anywhere in the commercial feature industry: inside or outside the studios, at any level of budget, and in the twenty-first century expanding into premium cable television. The cachet of the creative artist behind a given film necessarily determines the scale of the project. This study finds extravagant and modest films talking to each other aesthetically in startling ways.
Most PCF makers are driven by a desire to represent American soldiers at war in a serious manner that contributes to the larger, ever-changing national conversation around soldiers and veterans. Indeed, evidence for such an effort on the part of producers and directors qualifies as a defining aspect of the subgenre, a crucial element in the process of how these films come to be made and their claims to importance. Preproduction pitches, press packs, publicity, and media discourses consistently present PCFs as more than mere movies. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch titled its review for Courage Under Fire (1996) "An Action Flick for Thinking People," aptly characterizing the intent behind PCFs on the whole. Hong Kong action director John Woo was attracted to Windtalkers (2002) by the chance to make, as described in the film's press pack, "a character-driven, emotional action drama" that was, in Woo's words, "so emotional, a celebration of the human spirit ... something different from a generic action film." So, too, most all PCFs, even those offering a kind of negative image of the human spirit (such as Full Metal Jacket).
The PCF often springs from a sense of moral urgency, typically in response to veterans and their families. Jim Carabatsos's script for Hamburger Hill bounced around Hollywood for years before producer Marcia Nasatir took it up, in part because her son had fought in Vietnam. Nasatir engaged director John Irvin, a documentarian with experience in Vietnam, who noted, "All I can say is the film is a labor of love. It was made out of a great sense of compassion for the kids who fought there." As Carabatsos noted when he was still trying to get Hamburger Hill made, "It's for the guys who were there, for their families. I'm hoping maybe some wife [of a veteran] will understand her husband a little better, or some kid will understand his father a little better." Three Kings's (1999) writer and director, David O'Russell, was driven to make this Gulf War film by his sense for "veterans' mixed feelings about the end of the war." Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal were motivated to make The Hurt Locker by a belief that the Iraq War had been underreported, and hoped to make what one journalist called "a character-based action movie [that] might give people of all political stripes a palpable understanding of life on the front lines." When Bigelow won Best Director at the 2009 Academy Awards, she drew no attention to the moment as a historic first for a woman and instead dedicated the win to American soldiers, men and women, around the world, noting in closing, "May they come home safe." Her statement locates The Hurt Locker within historic discourses around the PCF as a soldier-centered genre, although with the added dimension of a war film about a war still raging.
This rhetoric of moral urgency linked to action filmmaking dates to the earliest PCF to enter production: Apocalypse Now. (Finishing the film took so long that three other Vietnam films beat it to theaters.) Director Francis Ford Coppola pitched Apocalypse Now in this way to United Artists: "This is a high-quality action-adventure spectacle. ... It's big and entertaining, mature and interesting." In the press kit, Coppola articulated his goal "to put an audience through an experience — frightening but violent only in proportion with the idea being put across — that will hopefully change them in some small way." And in his introduction for the printed program distributed at Apocalypse Now's premiere showings in 70mm, Coppola stated, "It was my thought that if the American audience could look at the heart of what Vietnam was really like — what it looked like and felt like — then they would be only one small step away from putting it behind them."
Coppola makes an astonishing claim for what a film can do in the public sphere: for him the experience of seeing Apocalypse Now could begin to heal the trauma of Vietnam. PCFs have mostly been exercises in catharsis and closure — an affective goal somewhat out of reach for twenty-first-century PCFs depicting ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Steven Spielberg articulated a similar goal for Saving Private Ryan in a prerelease interview: "This isn't the kind of movie you see and then go to a bistro and break bread talking about it — you have to go home and deal with it privately. I think the audience leaves the theater with a little bit of what the veterans left that war with, just a fraction." A published collection of online posts about the film on the still-new website America Online suggests that Saving Private Ryan worked in much the way Spielberg desired. Posts excerpted in the book "Now You Know": Reactions after Seeing Saving Private Ryan (1999) provide insight into the serious work PCFs can do for some viewers in the space of commercial entertainment.
"[Spielberg] didn't use the tricks of the trade for cheap entertainment, but to help us transcend what we know of our lives."
"I have never exited a movie theater in my 70 years of viewing movies where you walked in silence, holding back personal tears as you remember the past."
"I am proud not only that I wept openly many times during the movie, but that my teenage son (a very tough acting kid) said, 'Anyone who doesn't cry at this movie isn't normal.'"
"I hated war to begin with, but this movie made me have even more contempt for combat. I really believe if it were feasible, that if everyone on the face of the earth today could see this movie, there would be no more wars."
"Do not dismiss this enlightenment as insubstantial because it's inspired by cinema. ... This is what cinema is meant to do."
Excerpted from Hymns for the Fallen by Todd Decker. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Introduction PART I. THE PRESTIGE COMBAT FILM 1. Movies and Memorials 2. Soundtracks and Scores PART II. DIALOGUE 3. Soldiers’ Talk 4. Soldiers’ Song 5. Disembodied Voices PART III. SOUND EFFECTS 6. Nothing Sounds Like an M-16 7. Helicopter Music PART IV. MUSIC 8. Unmetered 9. Metered 10. Elegies 11. End Titles Acknowledgments Abbreviations Notes Works Cited Index