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Throughout history, military service and wars have served as rites of passage for young men and often defined American manhood itself. Films about war capture this masculine journey and reveal myths about war service and American masculinity. Five films comprise the foundation of this study. Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Hamburger Hill (1987), Casualties of War (1989), and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) were all released in the mid-to-late 1980s and reflect a resurgence in national attention on the troubling war. The films question the following national myths about norms of masculinity: the World War II American war hero, war service as a path to manhood, and a monolithic American masculinity. Aggressive efforts to restore American confidence and masculinity characterized the beginning of the 1980s with the election of President Ronald Reagan and the rise of the New Right's influence. The films reveal a tempering of the bravado and hypermasculinity promulgated in the earlier eighties and depict a more nuanced performance of masculinity. The study provides insight into the role masculinity plays in society and, specifically, the military, and provides a contextual framework for analyzing masculinity in film.
Beginning with an overview of the evolution of historical and war films, chapter 1 explores the connections between war and gender, along with film's importance in revealing these connections. Film's portrayal of issues of societal anxiety is also explored. Chapter 2 lays out a framework of masculinity, and provides a narrative history of masculinity from a sociohistorical perspective including important political, economic, and cultural factors starting with the Great Depression. Beginning with this period provides context to masculinity as an ever-evolving phenomenon. A short history of masculinity also reveals another of its key components and a common source of crisis, its plurality; despite what national myths may claim, there is no one monolithic American masculinity. Changes in access to institutions of power, economic opportunities, and gender relations all contribute to shifts in masculinity.5 Chapter 3 traces the turmoil of the previous decades' continued effects on the political, economic, and social aspects of 1980s life. Aggressive efforts to restore American confidence and masculinity characterized the beginning of the 1980s with the election of President Ronald Reagan and the rise of the New Right's influence. The emergence of this hypermasculinity was a response to the social movements of the previous decades and the loss in Vietnam, both of which undermined American masculinity. Chapter 4 analyzes the five Vietnam War films—Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill, Casualties of War, and Born on the Fourth of July—within the framework of masculinity, and connects the films' portrayal of masculinity to the 1980s social history discussed in the second and third chapters. The films reveal critiques of national myths of norms of masculinity that emerged out of World War II. The mid-to-late 1980s—when these films were released—also marked a tempering of the bravado and hypermasculinity initially promulgated and the films depicted a more nuanced performance of masculinity. The concluding chapter discusses the significance of the films in understanding masculinity's role in American society, and especially in war.