Bright Lights Film Journal

The American Hubris Cycle: A Survey of Recent Survival Narratives and Friends as Collateral Damage

American Sniper (screenshot)

I will focus on films that contain both of the following markers: (1) an American character exhibits daring but reckless behavior, which triggers continuing, gory disaster for a multinational group; (2) that group of victims includes at least one non-American of European descent, usually from Britain or Australia, the two closest military allies of the United States.

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The film industry is ambivalent toward real wars and other traumas: attracted by the high drama, allergic to the controversy and sorrow. This often results in movies that seem like mainstream escapism, even as they obliquely comment on recent events. The classic example might be the movie monsters of the 1950s: they were almost always a side effect of atomic science, a key anxiety of the era.

The Vietnam War is another case of movie displacement. That war was so controversial it was almost entirely absent from U.S. movie screens until 1978, years after the last Americans had left. Nevertheless, the Vietnam years saw a controversial cycle of Hollywood Westerns characterized by internal dissension, guerrilla enemies, and combat atrocities: The Wild Bunch (right), Little Big Man, Soldier Blue, Ulzana’s Raid. The link is so strong that it’s become standard to describe these films as Vietnam allegories (see the reviews of the latter two films in The Overlook Encyclopedia: The Western, edited by Phil Hardy, 1995).

We’re seeing the same pattern after 9/11 and the war on terrorism. For over a decade, topical movies played to empty seats, with a few exceptions: United 93 (2006) was a respectful memorial, and at the other extreme there’s Borat (2007). Even with Kathryn Bigelow’s films, denial has paid off: Zero Dark Thirty (2012) exaggerated the role of “enhanced interrogation” in the locating of Osama bin Laden (see Huffington Post), but grossed six times the U.S. take for her fretful, Best Picture-winning The Hurt Locker (2008).

Still, Zero Dark Thirty broke the curse and has been followed across the $100 million line by Lone Survivor (2013) and the current American Sniper. These films make money because they’re experiential, not political; note the huge step down to the next tier (U.S. figures), three films that tried to sweeten their antiwar critique with suspense, action, and big stars: The Kingdom ($47M), Body of Lies ($39M), and Green Zone ($35M) . As for Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, Grace Is Gone, Stop-Loss, Traitor, The Messenger, Brothers (remake), Out of the Furnace, and Camp X-Ray: thank you for your service.

At the same time, we’ve seen a cycle comparable to the Vietnam Westerns; in fact, many of these are neo-Westerns (and at least two of them reference Vietnam). I’ll argue that this “American hubris cycle” reflects U.S. culpability in the wake of both the war on terrorism and the Great Recession. (Whether the various filmmakers were conscious of this symbolism is beyond the scope of this article.)

I will focus on films that contain both of the following markers: (1) an American character exhibits daring but reckless behavior, which triggers continuing, gory disaster for a multinational group; (2) that group of victims includes at least one non-American of European descent, usually from Britain or Australia, the two closest military allies of the United States. In most of these narratives, an asymmetrical attack leads to a discussion of tactics; the prudent course is considered, then abandoned; the American(s) declare their own innocence or courage; and dissension tears at the group as the characters die violently, one or two at a time.

Certainly, films of this description existed prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent revelations of cooked intelligence, torture, civilian deaths, neglected veterans, and drone terror. However, the same is true of torture porn, itself routinely linked to our age of terrorism. For both subgenres, even if some key films were conceived before 9/11, the number and consistency of films is telling. In fact (and like many memes), once you’re aware of the American hubris narrative it pops up all over, so my compiling won’t be complete.

The Descent (2005, right) follows a group of daring women from various English-speaking nations. They go spelunking under the Appalachians, surviving a cave-in only to battle a race of hostile trogs. Too bad that overbearing Juno, the group’s only Yank, tossed the expert guidebook back into their vehicle: she later cites the glory attached to mapping a new cave system. (The film also implies she was cheating with her friend’s husband prior to his death in a car accident.) Juno’s choice is an elegant metaphor for the Iraq War’s architects dismissing expert advice.

Many hubris films are set in a wilderness or wasteland, a mythic canvas that may evoke the global reach of U.S. power. In the post-Civil War Western Seraphim Falls (2007), the Southerner Carver (Liam Neeson) ruthlessly dogs ex-Union commander Gideon (Pierce Brosnan) across harsh Old West terrain. It’s near the end when we learn why: following war’s end, Gideon’s exhausted Union troops engaged in over-aggressive mopping-up when they accidentally torched Col. Carver’s house: Carver watched his family burn to death. Several more men die before the traumatized opponents agree to forgive.

Of the films discussed here, Seraphim Falls has the most overt antiwar message. Both leads play Americans but represent opposing nations, and there are immigrant and Native American characters. Seraphim Falls also contains a meme that shows up in a number of the American hubris films and is evocative of a FUBAR mission: a protagonist kills an ally for tactical reasons. This happens in at least two other films from 2007 alone: The Mist and 30 Days of Night.

The complexities of postwar mopping-up drive a pair of recent Tom Cruise films, although it must be noted that these two add a (profitable) wrinkle to the hubris formula: the protagonist is only partly responsible for disaster, and he puts it all right in the end.

Oblivion (2013, right) has Cruise as an astronaut whose memory’s been wiped by alien invaders: he thinks Earth won the war, but his commander is really an alien ruling from the spacecraft “Tet.” This seems a reference to the communist Tet Offensive of 1968, a military victory for the U.S. but a public relations disaster that ended domestic support for the Vietnam War. Of course, the Tet Offensive has fresh meaning with the war on terrorism. In order to beat the aliens, Cruise’s character must shake off the brainwashing, turn against his British girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), and join the human resistance.

Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow (2014) are so similar that a few changes would have made for a movie series. Again, alien invaders have humans on the ropes, and again, Cruise’s character is almost impossible to kill: in Oblivion because he’s one of many clones, in Edge of Tomorrow because he resurrects after dying (due to alien technology) and so becomes an expert alien-fighter, like the British badass Rita (Emily Blunt), aka “the Angel of Verdun.” These two are much like Gideon of Seraphim Falls, who’s said to have killed 100 men at Antietam though “there wasn’t a mark on him.” All three are reminiscent of brave, seemingly invincible Americans such as George Armstrong Custer (in the Civil War), Teddy Roosevelt, and Audie Murphy. Like Vietnam and the battle chronicled by 300 (2006), the Custer narrative is newly topical and may be an influence on the hubris films.

In terms of war commentary, the Cruise vehicles have it both ways: his character is discouraged from learning the truth behind war, but once armed with knowledge he targets an external, alien enemy. This clever structure mirrors a war based on lies without preventing our cheering the violent, American hero.

Despite their general excellence, many of the American hubris films have done no better at the U.S. box office than Stop-Loss et.al. The Cruise films were exceptions, as were Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Star Trek into Darkness, both of which place men with posh British accents in the blowback from reckless genetic experiments. Sci-fi hubris also drives Side Effects, in which a new psychiatric drug trips up an ambitious Brit (Jude Law) practicing in the U.S.

In Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008), a smooth Spaniard entices two American beauties to fly away (we could read their seduction as a brown-skinned man leveling two American “towers”). His come-on pleases impulsive Vicky, but sensible Christina agrees only when Antonio questions her courage. No one dies in the ensuing emotional turmoil, though Penelope Cruz’s character tries to do so.

In the absence of a M*A*S*H, Tropic Thunder (2008, right) may be the closest Hollywood’s come to satirizing current U.S. wars: it finds humor in pampered actors who think they understand combat because they’ve bulked up to film a Vietnam movie in Thailand. In their hapless quest for “realism,” a white Australian wears blackface (Robert Downey Jr.), and the British director (Steve Coogan) is blown to pieces.

The movie’s a disaster, but the making-of doc wins Oscars, a possible jab at the American talent for revisionist self-congratulation. Note that Thailand is also the destination in the sequel to The Hangover, another of a cluster of films about American naïfs who think they’re ready for foreign adventure: Hostel, Turistas, Babel, Transsiberian.

Werner Herzog directed the 2009 follow-up to a 1992 Abel Ferrara film, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans, one of several recent, self-critical films set in that most foreign of U.S. cities. The movie is braced by award ceremonies for Detective McDonagh (Nicholas Cage); in between, he uses means both legal and (extremely) illegal to get the killer of a Senegalese family, while keeping himself and his Latina girlfriend (Eva Mendes) supplied with narcotics.

Apparently, McDonagh’s addiction started with an injury suffered when he jumped into post-Katrina waters to save a Latino trapped in a flooding jail. This film has compassion for American cowboys and their good intentions: “No more unnecessary jumps,” cautions the police commander, and the film’s ending hints at sobriety. There’s also a glimmer of hope at the end of Arbitrage (2012). Mogul Richard Gere’s lies have alienated his family and contributed to the death of his European mistress, but he’s able to sell his foundering company and narrowly evade prosecution.

The usual tone of the hubris films is doom and damnation, so it’s no surprise to find horror films, including two from 2011. A Lonely Place to Die is a neo-Western survival film in which Australian Melissa George plays an American, the most skilled of a group of rock climbers and thus our “final girl.” The friends detour to rescue a Serbian child who’s been buried alive, presumably by kidnappers. The hubris isn’t overt in A Lonely Place to Die, but as the body count rises we wonder along with the protagonists whether they’ve made a bad situation worse. There’s also an overt dig when Idris Elba’s (British) combat veteran promises, “we leave friendly-fire to the Yanks.”

You’re Next is a ruthless horror-comedy of the home-invasion type. Most of the characters are arrogant, especially the two brothers (and one girlfriend) who’ve planned the massacre of their family for the sake of an inheritance, the father having gotten rich working for the Defense Department. As in The Descent and Tropic Thunder, a lack of research comes back to bite: who knew lovely Erin (another girlfriend) was raised by survivalists in the Outback?

There’s even more girl-power in Death Proof (2007). Kurt Russell’s sadistic Stuntman Mike might be American hubris personified, clinging to past glories in his armored muscle car. The end of Mike’s road features a trio of athletic women, led by New Zealand’s Zoe Bell “as herself.”

In The Divide (also 2011, right), we’re back underground, this time post-apocalypse. Michael Biehn plays a (literally) squirrely 9/11 survivor whose paranoia helps his neighbors survive an apparent nuclear war, if in a dreary, sealed basement. This film has gender on its mind (note the title), and between male hormones and white-male entitlement, it’s only a matter of time before violence kills almost everyone, including the nervous Frenchman.

Neil Marshall, writer/director of The Descent, also made Centurion (2010), one of several recent films that attempt to solve the mystery of the Roman Empire’s 9th Legion, last reported on the British frontier. We’re embedded with a Roman remnant, but sympathies blur: we respect the native Picts fighting for homeland, even if they use the 2nd-century equivalents of roadside bombs and sleeper agents.

Like Melissa George in the above film, Centurion’s Michael Fassbender leads a desperate flight across the Scottish Highlands, but the chances for survival plunge after a noble but ill-advised attempt to rescue a prisoner. There are no Americans in Centurion, of course, but the protagonists are a diverse bunch from across the Roman Empire. Unlike most of the films in this article, Centurion is literally a tale of imperial hubris. Like King Arthur, The Last Legion, and The Eagle, Centurion portrays the inhabitants of Britain as “native peoples” trying to fight off conquest. By bringing us back before the beginnings of Anglo-American Empire, these films implicitly evoke the possibility of imperial decline.

I began this essay with Westerns that subtly enacted America’s Vietnam War. One of the best was 1972’s Ulzana’s Raid (right), with Burt Lancaster as a crusty scout foiled by the naiveté of younger officers and the mendacity of unseen brass. In 1978, Lancaster starred in the Vietnam movie Go Tell the Spartans, a loose updating of Ulzana’s Raid. One could argue that Lancaster got there first, but Go Tell the Spartans was overshadowed by Coming Home and The Deer Hunter. In any case, this history suggests we’ll eventually see the American hubris narrative applied directly to war-on-terrorism films.

For all its sins, however, the war on terrorism isn’t nearly as controversial in the U.S. as was the Vietnam War, and despite Hollywood’s supposed abandoning of mid-budget movies, English-language filmmakers have delivered about a dozen respectable dramas related to current wars. It is U.S. moviegoers who are AWOL, not only from most war films. but from films even symbolic of American hubris.

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Note: All images are screenshots.