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'The Hurt Locker': Controversy Has Not Hurt Best Picture Oscar War Movies

The Hurt Locker Kathryn Bigelow

If Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker wins the Best Picture Academy Award on Sunday, it'll be the eighth out-and-out war movie to win the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' top prize. Prior battle-scarred winners were Wings (1927-28), All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Patton (1970), The Deer Hunter (1978), Platoon (1986), and Braveheart (1995).

If you wish, feel free to add Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The English Patient (1996), and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) to that list. Or even Mrs. Miniver (1942), which portrays – and embellishes – the British homefront. Or Schindler's List (1993), mostly set in a concentration camp. World War II is also featured in some way or another in Casablanca (1943), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and From Here to Eternity (1953).

Also, if it wins the Oscar, The Hurt Locker will be the first Iraq War movie to do so. Films set in World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, the Civil War (Gone with the Wind, 1939), and even those featuring battles for the independence of Scotland from the English and for the safety of Middle Earth have been honored with a Best Picture Oscar. The Iraq War, however, has been neglected by the Academy chiefly, perhaps, because movies dealing with that particular conflict have mostly generated mixed to mediocre buzz.

Photo: The Hurt Locker (Jonathan Olley / Summit Entertainment)

Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce in The Hurt Locker
Lew Ayres in All Quiet on the Western Front
Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce in The Hurt Locker (top); Lew Ayres in All Quiet on the Western Front (bottom)

The Hurt Locker, an Iraq War drama that follows a US military bomb disposal unit, has been harshly criticized by some Iraq War veterans. Some have called the movie inaccurate and its depiction of soldiers in a war zone laughable. Others have gone as far as to accuse filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal of “disrespect” towards the military because The Hurt Locker shows soldiers disobeying orders and acting on their own.

Now, could those accusations and complaints – whether or not they have merit – affect The Hurt Locker's Oscar chances? Even if they'd surfaced at an earlier date, that's unlikely if Oscar history is any indication. A number of Oscar-nominated war movies have faced controversies in the past, but that didn't prevent them from coming out on top on Oscar night.

Back in 1930, the right-wing, pro-"traditional values” American Legion threatened to picket Universal's All Quiet on the Western Front because it treated German soldiers sympathetically. Based on Erich Maria Remarque's novel about the experiences of young Germans fighting in World War I, the Lewis Milestone-directed anti-war drama went on to win the Best Picture Oscar.

According to Mason Wiley and Damien Bona's excellent Oscar history book Inside Oscar, Richard Nixon “screened [Franklin J. Schaffner's] Patton [1970] twice before ordering the invasion of Cambodia, leading Life to suggest that the President view Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs before making any other foreign-policy decisions.” Compounding matters, Patton's star, George C. Scott, had announced that if he were nominated for an Academy Award, he would turn it down. Both Patton and Scott won Oscars; true to his word, Scott refused his.

Julie Christie in Variety, discussing The Deer Hunter (1978, right, with Robert De Niro): “The film presents the Vietcong as subhuman and sadistic, though they effectively resisted both France and the United States, which possessed enormous means of warfare.”

Jane Fonda, the star of the post-Vietnam-syndrome Coming Home, later took it upon herself to campaign against The Deer Hunter, telling the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, “I haven't seen it – I'm afraid to. My friends told me about it, though, and I just think it's amazing that good people can see the movie and not even consider the racism.” Despite the opposition of liberals and leftists, The Deer Hunter went on to win five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director (Michael Cimino).

“Given the appalling behavior not only of [the evil Sgt.] Barnes but of the platoon in general, [Oliver] Stone's effort to use his sleazy little story as a metaphor for the American experience in Southeast Asia blackens the sacrifice of every man and woman who served the United States in the Vietnam war (including Stone).” John Podhoretz in the magazine Insight, referring to Platoon (1986). Oliver Stone's Vietnam War drama outraged right-wingers and some war veterans, but still went on to win four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.

In addition to mixed reviews and so-so business, Mel Gibson's costly Braveheart had to face other hurdles as well, including complaints about gratuitous violence, accusations of anti-gay bigotry (in the film, an effete monarch is a useless wuss and his lover is thrown out of a window for comic effect), and historical inaccuracies (wrong customs and costumes, and even the use of the moniker “Braveheart” was questioned). Even so, Braveheart went on to win five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Ironically, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, which had critics drooling, World War II veterans honored, and flag-wavers waving flags went on to lose the 1998 Best Picture Oscar to the romantic period comedy Shakespeare in Love. My point: Controversy isn't necessarily bad; lack of controversy won't necessarily guarantee a movie a Best Picture Oscar.

Note: In this article, I've purposefully ignored Nicolas Chartier's anti-Avatar e-mails, as I wanted to focus on controversies generated by what people saw on screen. In any case, the Chartier e-mail scandal erupted too late in the game to really affect the voting; additionally, The Hurt Locker is perceived first and foremost as a Kathryn Bigelow effort.

Photo: The Hurt Locker (Jonathan Olley / Summit Entertainment); All Quiet on the Western Front (Universal)

Sources: Mason Wiley and Damien Bona's Inside Oscar; Lawrence H. Suid's Guts & Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film

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