Coming up with a generic definition of the war film presents problems. Sometimes movies are labeled "war films" even when they are not set in combat. Since You Went Away (1944), the story of the American home front in 1944, is not about fighting battles with weapons but fighting the daily battle of morale for those whose lives are indirectly affected. Similarly, The Best Years of Our Lives is about the return to civilian life of three soldiers from different economic backgrounds and the difficult adjustments they must make. Yet the basis of the story is the combat stress they experienced and the impact it had on them mentally and physically. Coming Home (1978), set largely outside of combat, is nevertheless a movie about the Vietnam War. War can also be presented as a metaphor ( War of the Buttons , 1994, in which children's playtime quarrels escalate) or as a computerized challenge ( War Games , 1983).
To define the war film, it is thus necessary to establish parameters, the first of which is to separate fact (documentaries and newsreels) from fiction (created stories, even if based in fact), and to determine how much fighting must appear on screen to constitute designating a movie a war film. Some movies have war as a significant background but do not depict any combat. Some have combat sequences as an episode in the larger story, like Gone with the Wind , which begins in the peaceful Old South, moves forward into and through the Civil War, and goes on to the Reconstruction period and postwar problems. For this reason, Gone with the Wind , a major film about the Civil War, is seldom labeled simply as a war film.
The war film as a genre is best defined as a movie in which a fictionalized or fact-based story is told about an actual historical war. Fighting that war, planning it, and undergoing combat within it should fill the major portion of the running time. This would include biographies of combatants, such as the World War II hero Audie Murphy (1924–1971) ( To Hell and Back , 1955), and movies set inside combat but which remove their characters from the conflict through visualized flashbacks ( Beach Red , 1967). This definition eliminates the home setting, the war as background or single episode movie, the military camp film, the training camp movie, and the biography that does not contain actual combat.
The purpose of the war film made by commercial enterprises is primarily to entertain. A film made during the war itself, such as the 1943 Guadalcanal Diary , has additional goals: to lift morale, to help civilians understand what their fighting men are going through, to provide information, and to involve the audience in positive support for the war that might perhaps influence an outcome still in doubt. A war movie made after the strife has ended needs to find other purposes, and unlike movies made during the fighting, needs to justify its morality. Once the war movie becomes a familiar genre, as in the World War II combat film, it is a story the audience knows and accepts. Such war stories can then be used to address other issues of national concern. For instance, in 1940 and 1941 two movies about World War I, The Fighting 69th and Sergeant York , were like recruiting posters for the European war that was on America's horizon. In 1949, a time of racial strife in America, Home of the Brave told the story of a black soldier who goes to pieces during World War II combat in the South Pacific because of racial prejudice aimed at him personally. He is brought back from his mission in a state of shock and paralysis, and the technique of narco-synthesis is used to draw his story out through flashbacks. In 1996, when the role of women in combat was in the news, Courage Under Fire , starring Meg Ryan, was a successful movie about a female captain nominated for the Medal of Honor. During the war in Vietnam, and the controversy surrounding America's involvement, stories about World War II were created that reflected a loss of faith in the government. Such movies as The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Play Dirty (1968) presented America's involvement in World War II as an ugly process of cheating, with criminals or criminal minds fighting the war by violating the rules of the Geneva Convention.
After the combat genre was established, movies appeared with comic tones that would have been inappropriate during the war itself. What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966) and Operation Petticoat (1959) were successful comedies set in World War II, the first in the Italian campaign and the second in a submarine in the South Pacific. M*A*S*H (1970) was a harsh comedy about Korea, set in a mobile surgical hospital unit; the television sitcom McHale's Navy treated the PT-boat war in the Pacific as a lark; and Hogan's Heroes , also a television series, made fun of life in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany.