Cinema of Fear

By Darth Korth

[This article published in: graswurzelrevolution, 5/9/2006 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

In his study “Cinema of Fear, Terror, War and the Art of Government from Hollywood,” Peter Burger analyzes how war and the military have been represented in US movies since the end of the Cold War. This is a political problem since the film promises a powerful and convincing rendering of reality and reaches many people through its technical reproducibility. The film reflects and creates the myth of the surrounding culture. By describing behavior and its consequences, the film helps define what is culturally allowed.

The roles and stories largely determine the common experience of our society. Because of the hegemony of US films on the world market, the Hollywood film plays a special role. “The US film industry, particularly the Hollywood branch, is the most important supplier for European television at 50% and cinema at 60%. Most worldwide TV films come from a Hollywood producer.” In 1992, 83% of the movie receipts in Germany came from US films. In times of multimedia, the pictures and messages of movies are not limited to the screen. The movie premier is flanked by video, DVD and TV broadcast. Action is converted in computer games. The music CD and the gook on the film are obligatory.

The genre of entertainment films about war and the military is described as “mili-tainment.” “Mili-tainment” is not limited to the classical war film. Besides the staging of historical scenes in movie- and television films (of the Second World War, Vietnam and military scenes of the 1990s), Burger discusses the recruitment film, the military court drama and catastrophe film where military nuclear technology appears as an instrument for saving the world, apocalypse, star wars and finally films where terrorism occurs as a domestic political theme of the US and as a starting point for military operations. Of the 542 films from this spectrum cited by the author for film analysis, 132 were produced with involvement of the pentagon, the NATO military, the CIA or the US space agency.

“We welcome the possibility of turning directly to the American public through this powerful medium [the film],” said Captain Philip M. Strub, senior representative of the Pentagon for the entertainment industry. The Pentagon influences US film production by tying the loan of military equipment to the condition of reviewing and correcting the script. The cooperation of the Pentagon is vital because the costs for using high-tech weapons on the free market are extremely high and directors want to show the fighting of a modern war in their films.

Strub explains: “We sign a contract with the producers that basically follows this pattern: We give you certain equipment on certain days according to the script. You show us the raw footage so we can see whether that footage agrees with our understanding.”

The contract guidelines of the US army insist: the production should help the recruitment program of the armed forces […]. The production company advises the Defense Department in every phase of production concerning the military.” Some films like the productions of Jerry Bruckheimer (“Top Gun,” “Pearl Harbor” and “Black Hawk Down”) are subsidized in the millions. For the shooting in “Pearl Harbor,” the US armed forces provided an aircraft carrier and soldiers of all branches as extras or bit players.

Films representing the US military “unrealistically” are not promoted by the state, for example, the historically attested “fragging” (attacks of American GIs on their superiors in Vietnam) and a massacre of American marines on Vietnamese civilians in Oliver Stone’s film “Platoon.” “Every film negatively representing the military is not realistic for us,” Philip Strub said.

The censorship of the Pentagon dictates how war and its protagonists are presented in the movies. By its mode of production, the film tends to (re-) produce the dominant myths. The film is not an individual work of art but a commodity whose manufacture can only be afforded by the wealthiest. Like the editor of a newspaper, the director of a film depends on his employer. Burger speaks of 12 corporations that dominate the US market. The interests of corporations and the values and norms of their owners are reflected in their products.

Economic relations join media- and military power. For example, the US army is a big customer of General Electric, the largest worldwide corporation with weapon divisions and owner of the television station NBC. Westinghouse (CBS) is another corporation that produces weapons and simultaneously directs mass media through subsidiary companies.

Finally, the premise of Hollywood’s film production is entertainment. Presenting war as entertainment means ignoring intellectual analysis to highlight emotional war stories. An aestheticizing of cruelty occurs. In “Apocalypse Now,” Francis Ford Coppola used the music of Richard Wagner in the chase of US air divisions on Vietnamese.

Representing war realistically means showing how someone bleeds to death for three hours in a trench. Burger describes the category of anti-war film as dubious and speaks instead in his analyses of war-critical or war-supporting war films. The dilemma of “anti-war films” consists in that the representation of brutal force triggers fascination and can exploit sadism, megalomania and feelings of revenge. Thus the German film “Die Brucke” (The Bridge, 1959) was titled “Heroes Die Upright” in South America.


“Militarism describes the hegemony of military values and goals in politics and social life expressed in the one-sided emphasis on the right of the stronger and the idea that wars are necessary or inevitable…” (German Board for political Education)

In the film analyses of his monograph, Burger emphasizes pictures and messages that recur in staging war and the military in US movies. For example, that the US president represents humanity against an external threat is typical for science fiction and catastrophe films like “Armageddon.” US minorities are involved in the battle against this threat. The danger is averted through technical and military means. The object of providing protective help in a political conflict is obvious in the military trial drama “Rules of Engagement” (US, 2000). In the first scene of “Rules of Engagement,” US soldiers are seen in the evacuation of the US embassy in an Arab country. An angry mob demonstrates before the embassy. Snipers shoot on the Americans. The unit leader Colonel Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) fired on the crowd of people although his second officer objected that they were unarmed civilians. 83 persons died in the massacre. The colonel is put on trial for political (!) motives because the State Department fears losing respect among moderate Moselm states. During the trial, viewers learned through flashbacks what really happened. The remembrances of the colonel verified in the film by videotape what a corrupt politician allowed to disappear. The seemingly peaceful crowd took up arms.

Here a Kalaschnikov appears, there an incendiary fire, a hand grenade or pistol in the hand of a little girl. Who would bring US soldiers before an international tribunal?

“Air Force One” (US, 1996) by Wolfgang Petersen illustrates the military humanism of the United States. After an American-Russian military operation against the self-proclaimed head of state of Kazakhstan who represented a danger for world peace and bloodily oppressed the democracy movement, the American president (Harrison Ford) declares: “Never again will I allow our political narrow-mindedness to hinder us from doing what we regard as morally right. Torture and terror are not political means. To those who use them, I say: Your time is over! We will not negotiate, we will not close our eyes any more and we will have no fear. You should have fear!”

Terrorists hijack the president’s plane “Air Force One” without realizing the president is a battle-tested Vietnam veteran and not only a loving family man. In a single-handed effort, he finishes off the villain and evacuates from the crashing jet as the last of the survivors. As a European contribution to the new world war order, the French production “Transporter” (France/US, 2003) adds the beautiful sentence: “You were a soldier. Your task was to save life.”


The soft propaganda of the movie furnishes the pictures and myths that make persuasive the hard propaganda.

Whoever saw a James Bond track down the rogues in their underground high-tech workshops will not be surprised that the UN inspectors could not find the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Against just war zealots, Burger urges the enforcement of legal norms. National and international treaties and regulations oppose the propagation of war and violence as means for solving conflicts and include the explicit obligation to stop war propaganda and promote a culture of peace. “All war propaganda should be prohibited by law,” the International Pact on Civil and Political Rights declares, 12/16/1966, Art. 20 (11).

In addition, Burger identifies the military’s involvement in films on the covers of videos and DVDs. This is now hidden in the acknowledgments at the end of a film. The credits are very small and unreadable on DVDs and videos. In Germany, the national examining board for the media could be an authority issuing this label. Anarchists will probably not want to wait for a state board initiative but prefer direct action in their video store.