The two most popular wars in American history, just based anecdotally on TV documentaries, books, movies, and video games, are the American Civil War and World War II. Despite the youth of the country, the land now known as the United States has a long history of warfare. Just based off of this Wikipedia page, there are over well over eighty. I lost track towards the end. A cursory examination would suggest that of course these two wars, of huge significance to the country, would be the most popular and thus best represented in our various mediums And the appeal of the two wars is undeniable. But why the glut? Most consumers of media would agree that World War II content is oversaturated in the market, resulting in some fatigue and backlash, even as the war remains a prominent topic. Couldn’t there be room for a lesser known war to be represented? No, there is not, and due to reasons financial and cultural.
Let’s examine movies. If we look at two very successful American war films, Saving Private Ryan and The Patriot, and compare the international gross with the domestic gross, the result is roughly a 1:1 correlation in both cases. Most blockbusters expect to make the majority of their gross by the international market, which is much larger and therefore more lucrative, than the smaller domestic market. That’s why the studios tend to play to a wide audience, by dumbing down the material and laying in a lot of action. Poor dialogue doesn’t matter when most viewers will read subtitles in their own language. Having a broad audience also means that very “American” movies, that is, movies that deal with our history and therefore less universal, will always gross less. Let’s compare E.T.’s gross with Saving Private Ryan, since both are widely acclaimed Spielberg movies. E.T. made more at the international box office by a 2:1 margin compared to domestic. The latest Amazing Spider-Man likewise made almost double internationally, as did the first Pirates of the Caribbean. Purely on a financial basis, it makes more sense to create films with universal themes and no historical lessons required because you can double your money or at least make 50 percent more.
It must be said, of course, that is a large, domestic audience that will consume American films made for Americans. But these movies tend to be smaller, more family drama, and with far less of a budget. Not nearly enough for a proper war flick. But even if such a movie were to be funded, it is unlikely that it would be made. If you had clicked on the Wikipedia link and perused the list, you might have be a little stunned to see how many Indian wars the U.S. has engaged in. The death throes of a culture systematically wiped out by overwhelming and sophisticated force is hardly the invigorating story that we Americans like to hear. There is no way for us to feel like the victors, even as we are the victors. Likewise, wars that took place on the continent before the birth of the nation are equally unappealing. The Pequot War was one of savagery – on both sides – and unmitigated aggression. The genocide of the Arawaks won’t exactly inspire pride in the Great Explorer. The conquests of the Aztec and Incan empires would not, without a heaping dose of racism, be palatable. The same goes for the Mexican-American War, or the Fiji, Sumatran, or Korean expeditions. We don’t talk about the black ships. These are all wars of territorial conquest and aggression, not noble conflicts against evil. Even the Gulf Wars and Afghanistan have proven ill-fitting in let us put on our American flag pants. The only war that America has “lost” is the Vietnam War (though we did get our asses handed to us in 1812), which, when represented, is a symbol of callous military destruction and cruelty. It shows that war is hell.
World War II and the Civil War, on the other hand, are something to be proud of. In the former we saved the world and destroyed pure evil (Nazism, the Holocaust, and the Soviets are why the European theatre is more popular); we were just. In the latter, the North takes pride in the war fought to preserve the Union and end slavery, while the south feels it to be a noble war lost (perhaps somewhat how leftists feel about the Spanish Civil War), and marked the end of their “aristocratic golden era”, a war waged to preserve its culture. Plus, civil wars are always a topic of great interest in their respective countries.
This leaves one war that seems somehow made for a movie and never has, to my knowledge. The Seven Years’ War, or the French-Indian War in the U.S. The original global conflict, with combat theatres in Europe, North America, Central America, the West African coast, India, and the Philippines. Oh, but we don’t like stories that don’t involve us (or white people), which is why Toussaint Louverture’s story will likely never be told, and if it does then it will for some reason star a white guy. I’m not kidding about the racism; notice the conspicuous absence of blacks in war movies, especially in wars where they were active, like the Civil War and World War II. Glory and Red Tails are all that come to mind, neither of which grossed much at all. It’s why Driving Miss Daisy beat out Do the Right Thing and Glory for an Oscar and grossed almost three times as both films combined. At least at the time it seemed people were more comfortable with blacks in servile roles than in active roles, like killing white people and rioting. But that’s all behind us now, as 12 Years a Slave won an Oscar, which coincidentally had to be made by the British, and was still out grossed by American Hustle despite, in all honesty, being one of the most important films in decades. And belabor to point only a little more, any statistic will show that women, African-Americans, Hispanics, and any other minority (like transgender), are grossly underrepresented in our mainstream media.