Monday, 24 November 2014

Female Soldiers and the Combat Film

I was on the IMDB homepage when I stumbled across a trailer for some mockumentary called Alien Outpost (A.K.A. Outpost 37, the page wasn't very clear on which one was the correct title). It was sort of a science fiction story combining the alien invasion subgenre of science fiction with the old-fashioned combat film in a vaguely similar vein to Battle: Los Angeles. However, one thing I quickly noticed about the movie was the general (and seemingly unnecessary) lack of female characters. I didn't see a single actress listed in the cast. In the trailer I couldn't see so much as a single female civilian, and it got me wondering about a few things.

If this were being made in the 1950's the all-male military would be a bit more understandable, but that's not what I was seeing. What I was seeing was a contemporary movie made in a world where women joining the army as soldiers with combat training was not so unusual. For whatever reason, these filmmakers, despite the fact that they are in a world where they should know better, made a conscious decision not to include even so much as a single female soldier for no apparent reason.

Worse still, this is the second time I've had to make a post on the IMDB message boards criticizing the movie for lacking any strong female characters when it didn't need to (the first being Black Sea). If you thought the comment I got there was bad, I got an even stupider and more blatantly sexist reply to this one. A user by the name of "nipple_blaster" gave me this answer:

"Because it's an action movie, not a cooking show."

Yeah, that's right. He basically just tried to tell me that action heroines don't exist... except of course for Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, Xena, Buffy Summers, Lara Croft, Black Widow, Sif, Melinda May, Peggy Carter, The Bride, and... yeah, whoever he is he obviously has no idea what he's talking about. Am I going to have to start enforcing more rules about this kind of thing? I've already started "boycotting" all firefighter movies that don't have a strong female firefighter in the main cast. Am I going to have to do the same for other jobs? Why is this still a thing that people do? In this day an age, we should be trying to diversify our casts unless there is a very clear reason why it needs to be entirely men.

Naturally this brings me to the subject of women in the military, something that has only recently started to open up to mixed-gender squads. The war genre has been notorious for its frequent exclusion of women, largely due to the fact that the majority of war films are set in (or some cases made during) conflicts where women were barred from active military service. Now granted, this hasn't stopped some films from trying to find ways to incorporate women but generally you don't see female soldiers. During World War II, this would make a certain degree of sense as so far as I'm aware Russia was the only country that allowed women to serve all the way through (I have been told that the Germans did allow women to enlist eventually, but only right at the end when everything was crashing down around them). Nowhere is that clearer than in the subgenre of war films known as the combat film.

"Combat films" are a trend that got started in Hollywood during the 1940's as a way of encouraging Americans to support their military's involvement with World War II, though their routes may extend as far back as the Soviet Montage films of the 20's such as Battleship Potempkin. The formula goes that they are based on a small group of soldiers, typically an extremely diverse group sometimes even of mixed race even though that would not have been possible at the time (but all men, of course; mixing race was okay but even though it would have made just as much sense for the time mixing gender was unthinkable). The plots of such films generally centered on a sense of comradeship building up among the squad, with an emphasis on sacrifice (they liked to enforce the idea that the soldiers died for a cause). Also common was for the enemy soldiers to be stripped of all their humanity, being kept completely anonymous to eliminate the emotional repercussions of killing another human being.

Combat films are generally associated with World War II, but technically have been made since its ending. The Green Berets attempted to apply the basic formula of the World War II combat films to the War in Vietnam, again in an effort to generate support. By most accounts it didn't work and this ended up being the only major attempt at pro-Vietnam propaganda. Strangely enough, however, that one was able to incorporate a strong female lead (at least as strong as a woman could get in 1968). Sure it takes forever for Lin to appear and she isn't a soldier herself but she does manage to provide valuable assistance to the men.

Even today, the combat film still manages to form in one way or another. Saving Private Ryan might just be one of the best examples you can find of a modern combat film, even preserving some of the pro-American undertones (although it is more open to showing that the Allies were not always the "good guys"). Apocalypse Now has some elements of the combat film insofar as much of the narrative concerns the interactions between a small group of characters on a boat and there is a bizarre and twisted sense of honor. Full Metal Jacket arguably has some traces of the combat in its second half, even if it goes in some weird directions with them. Other more recent combat films include Black Hawk Down and to a lesser extent The Hurt Locker.

Bringing it all full-circle, I even have a script of my own, In the Line of Duty, that is in some ways reminiscent of the old-fashioned combat movies... or is it? While structurally it is similar, it is in many ways an anti-combat film, using the same approach to demonstrate precisely the opposite message. The enemy soldiers are still anonymous but no less human than the leads, the emotional repercussions of their deaths being made very clear. Instead of a sense of sacrifice for a cause there is an emphasis on the general lack of heroics and a sense of the characters' deaths being meaningless. In short, I basically use the structure of films meant to encourage people to support the war effort in order to deliver an extremely anti-war message. 

In the Line of Duty is also unusual as a combat film because it has several female characters in it. While in traditional combat films the diversity was in race, background, and in some cases military branches (Bataan had among other things a sailor who gets mixed up with a group of infantrymen), there is now variety in gender as well. Without giving too much away the female characters are indeed strong, independent, and still human.

There is a reason why my script has several strong female characters that would never have been present in the old combat films of World War II. It's because of changes in society. The director of Bataan was working in a time when military service was seen as man's work. If I went back in time to 1945 and pitched my script in Hollywood they would laugh at me, probably tell me they found the idea of female soldiers unbelievable and maybe even claim it will never happen. Still, in those days it might have been less a conscious choice on the part of the filmmakers and more simply the association of men with the army being so widespread that the thought of women as soldiers just never crossed anybody's minds.

I am of course writing this script in a period where that is no longer such a radical idea. Up here in Canada the army may still be a male-dominated profession on a statistical level, but there is no longer any bars regarding where women can and cannot serve. The American army is still a bit more restrictive (last I checked women still are not allowed to join the marines, rangers or Navy SEALs) but they're making progress. It would only make sense that things improve in the future unless you believe in the world envisioned by Futurama (where women were re-banned from the army due to an incident that most definitely had nothing to do with the insane commander Zap Brannigan, who is himself totally not a sexist genocidal maniac).

Indeed, science fiction seems to be the one genre which embraces the idea of female soldiers. Even modern war films do not show them very often. The presence of female soldiers was one thing that helped initially get me excited about Edge of Tomorrow and Emily Blunt certainly played a strong character. She had that right balance of qualities, being tough and getting to show it but also being human. The film may have technically centered around Tom Cruise but it is established that the exposure to the alien time-warping technology happened to her long before and she becomes crucial to saving the day.

Even James Cameron got in on the act back in 1986 when he made Aliens. Vasquez was a cool character, often one the roles best remembered from the film (aside from Ripley, of course). It is easy to forget that the film actually starts with three female marines (one of them is among the first to die, and the second follows not long after), but Vasquez is every bit as tough as the men, possibly even harder. She does eventually get killed, yes, but not without putting up a fight (literally going out with a bang) and managing make it further than most of her comrades and managing to save most of the ones that remain (except, ironically, the one who got himself killed trying to help her).

Even Battle: Los Angeles, set in the present day, managed to bring in an action girl in the form of Michelle Rodriguez (who for once doesn't die). She shows up a bit later on and they explain that she's a downed pilot but she quickly becomes another soldier and an equal to the guys. Interestingly as well, Battle: Lost Angeles brings a bit of the old-fashioned combat film into a more contemporary science fiction environment. The idea of her being an air force pilot who got shot down and mixed up with a group of general infantry fits right in (similar to the sailor in Bataan), along with the racially diverse squad. This time however, Rodriguez actually adds to the diversity on three fronts. Her air force connections give her the separate background. Since she is Latino, that also adds a bit more racial diversity. Finally, her presence makes this a mixed-gender squad, something that rarely happens in a combat film.

Bringing this all back to Alien Outpost or Outpost 37 or whatever it is called, they apparently attempt to do something similar to Battle: Los Angeles in combining the alien invasion with the combat film but for whatever reason decided not to add a single woman to the cast. No apparent justification is present, and it is even established clearly to be set in the future (even though the uniforms look distinctly modern).

More baffling was the fact that the trailer explicitly featured the line "Everybody became a soldier ten years ago whether they liked it or not" and yet all we see afterwards are men in uniform. They explicitly say everyone, so it would make logical sense that there would be female soldiers in this context. Yet despite the obvious implications of such a line there is not a single woman listed in the cast or appearing in the trailer even as an extra. I suspect that this probably won't be a very good movie anyway, especially when the trailers are so poorly executed that a line meant to draw you in completely contradicts everything that is actually in the film.


  1. Oh this would have been a great blogfest idea. Fantastic post. I did a post on my favorite space marines some time ago. One of my favorites was Vasquez of course. Another few favorites were Starbuck (the new one) and the girl from 'Space Above and Beyond.'

    1. I was originally going to do this as a list of my favorite female soldiers, but that proved a bit too complicated. With hindsight though a "combat film" cast-a-thon" might have been a fun idea. I've already got two other blogathons lined up for December, but perhaps since I won't have much else going on a fourth couldn't hurt.

  2. "Courage Under Fire" with Meg Ryan (who would have thunk??) also shows a strong female lead. This kid who wrote that response probably thinks Stallone could do Shakespeare. I have learned to ignore people like that-they are not worth anyone's breath. The unfortunate problem is that many men still think of women in the kitchen which is sick. Many women have had to deal with horrible turmoil, sexism and even rape trying to be in the army and prove they are just as strong as the men. As far as I know the Russians were the only ones to employ women in WW2 and "Enemy at the Gates" had a strong female lead played by Rachel Weisz. It will be interesting to see your film presented with women equal to men and no romance going on...I am kind of sick of that

    1. Thank you. Now I have the image of Stallone trying to do Shakespeare in my head. The idea of him donning Elizabethan fashion and trying to do one of the famous soliloquies from Hamlet is kinda creepy.

      I have heard of Courage Under Fire. Granted I've been a bit put off by the fact that Meg Ryan's character had to die for that movie's events to happen but I can't really judge it until I've seen it. I've also been told about Enemy at the Gates and I probably will see that one at some point.

      Yes, it is my understanding as well that Russia was the only country to allow women to serve during World War II, at least openly and for the duration of the war. I've been told the Germans were more open to recruiting women near the end, but only because everything was crashing down around them by that point and they were getting desperate for new soldiers. It also wouldn't surprise me if there were cases of women entering the war effort disguised as men, though I don't have any specific names in that regard.