In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section War Film

  • Introduction
  • The Spanish-American War
  • The Civil War
  • World War I
  • The Cold War and Korean War
  • Desert Storm, Iraq, and 9/11

Cinema and Media Studies War Film
Robert Eberwein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0065


War films first appeared in 1898, a few years after the birth of the motion picture. Their subject was the Spanish-American War, which began shortly after the sinking of the USS Maine. From the beginning they proved a sensational draw for audiences who wanted information about the first major international conflict they and the country were experiencing. War films have remained a consistent attraction for viewers. Sometimes, as in the case of World War II, the immediacy of the conflict and support for it by citizens helped spur production of and attendance at war films. At other times, even while a major war ensued, as in the case of the controversial and unpopular Vietnam War, practically all filmmakers held off until after its conclusion, upon which a spate of highly regarded antiwar films appeared. With only a few exceptions, the involvement of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan has not encouraged significant film production by major producers, only a smattering of works by mostly independent artists. The genre at its birth consisted of three kinds of films: “actualities” (akin to documentaries), showing battleships, training camps, and ceremonies; reenactments, presenting staged versions of battles and events; and narratives. All continue in some form in the early 21st century as a means of rendering our experience with the numerous wars that have occurred since the beginning of motion pictures, as well as those that preceded the birth of the genre. While the war film is one of the oldest genres and not unique to any one nation or culture, there has as yet been no comprehensive world history of the war film. But an enormous amount of criticism has been produced. One could say this began with the earliest newspaper reviews. Without too much exaggeration, a kind of protocriticism can be said to have been initiated in the earliest advertisements in contemporary trade newspapers and film catalogues, since these give a sense of what was understood to appeal to viewers. These films provide examples of what Tom Gunning has described famously as the “cinema of attractions.”


Several sources of information exist for anyone seeking a broad range of information on and criticism of war films and their significance.

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