115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Transformation of Music in the American War Film, from Vietnam to Generation Kill.

Ryan J. Miller, "California State University, San Bernardino"

This project aims to look at music within American war films from the Vietnam era and the modern day. By exploring how music within war movies shifted from World War 2 and Western  to examples of the Vietnam era war film and further into 2008's Generation Kill. 



In the film 1980 Caddyshack, prior to the climax of Bill Murray's character Karl detonating his explosives and bringing closure to the film, he hums a few seconds of the "Ballad of the Green Berets".  While other points in the film show Karl using firearms and nods to a military mindset, these few seconds of music give the clearest insight into Karl's mentality and reflection of the older ways in which war films portrayed themselves through their music. While the song "Ballad of the Green Berets" was a phenomenal success when it released in 1966, its inclusion in the 1968 film, The Green Berets, tied it to the reception the film. Cowans (2010) describes this as, "The nearly unanimous critical rejection of that film [The Green Berets]" (Cowans 2010, p. 350).  The score of the film, from Miklós Rózsa, was a traditional orchestral score with the only song not credited to him being the Ballad.  The film and its score, act as harkening to an earlier time in American film unlike others that came as a result of the Vietnam War.


Within 10 years, Hollywood had brought about a number of American war films that enthusiastically distanced themselves from The Green Berets. 1979's Apocalypse Now, 1986's Platoon, and 1987's Full Metal Jacket all approached the genre of the American war film in new ways, namely the way in which they used and presented their musical score.The inclusion of modern rock music relevant to the time period of both the films portrayal and the audience when it was released. A re-contextualization of orchestral pieces of music as a new means of creating an emotional response from the audience by working with opera and music already written rather than producing and creating their own orchestral pieces for the films. These elements allowed for musical directors to open completely new doors and possibilities. Critical pieces such as Richard Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries and Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings were given completely new means for interpretation in these films and bands such as The Doors and The Rolling Stones were cemented to the memories the viewing public while being culturally tied to The Vietnam War. 


These changes paved the way for Hollywood to approach the American war film in new ways, detached from the old stereotypes and expectations of previous era war films. Jumping forward,  2008's Generation Kill takes a new approach in how it presents music within war, the Iraq War in this case. While a mini-series as compared to a movie, the more than 8-hour long experience uses only two songs that are not sung acapella by the cast during the entirety of the series. This shift from music that is relevant to the time and audience to a new medium of delivering the same music that audiences expect, in a way or medium they do not, arguably embodies the same shift as those from the aforementioned films.


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