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Pardon My Geopolitics

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300 and the swing to the Right


Sylvester Stallone likes to paint. He writes and directs movies. He sets an example to kids, saying no to drugs by throwing them out of his hotel room window. When he starred in the story about a returned Vietnam veteran rejected by the society he loves and fought for, he probably just thought he was making an action hero for our times. But John Rambo changed from a man pushed too far to the cultural embodiment of Reagan-era foreign policy.

With middy gun in hand, superior military and tactical skills and the musculature of a pro boxer (no coincidence, surely), he was everything America wanted to be. They sent him back to get stranded POWs from Vietnam and kick their asses while he was at it, payback for the sound whipping American forces had suffered a decade earlier.

Then they sent him to Afghanistan to boot out the godless Russian invaders (a withdrawal that created a vacuum filled by the Taliban and a mujahadeen called Osama bin Laden when it actually happened, but that's another story).

Rambo was the Republican manifesto. With his policy isolationism and unilateral power he was the American symbol of spreading democracy and freedom by kicking ass and taking names, destroying the world in order to save it.

Not only that, it was the right time. Gordon Gecko was running rampant on Wall Street, making sure every American had a big house and an SUV full of cheap fuel with the US Army stationed at all points of the globe to make sure the good times kept rolling.

Those good times soothed the American conscience still wracked by Vietnam, Watergate and Roe vs Wade. The old guard like John Schleisinger, with his paranoid political thrillers about the government watching you, guilt trips like The Deer Hunter and the soliloquies to free love, not war of Warren Beatty and Barbara Streisand were passé.

You could trust The Man now. Reagan was The Man, and he was your buddy. He gave you a good job, a free market and a gas-guzzler that was as American as old Hell. And if the Ay-rabs or UN pussies told you otherwise, John Rambo would blow them higher than their heathen gods.

The good times continued under Clinton, but he was more interested in chasing tail than sending the army overseas to blow countries off the face of the map. The romantic comedy flourished under Clinton's term – we all wanted to be young, hip, live in New York loft apartments and fall in love.

Then those Ay-rabs struck again and bought the good times to an abrupt halt when all the American firepower, intelligence and military might spanning the globe failed to stop 19 idiots with Stanley knives hijacking passenger flights from inside the US.

Since then, movies have swung distinctly towards the right again. Gregor Jordan's 2001 film Buffalo Soldiers was an expensive failure less because it was an uninteresting film than because in the early 21st century, nobody wanted to see movies about American soldiers goofing off and selling drugs when they were the only ones protecting us against the terrorist hordes who hated us.

Less than two months after September 11th, Karl Rove (George W Bush's most senior strategist) held a meeting with Hollywood bigwigs about the part the movie industry could play to spread the word about the War on Terror. Producer Lynda Obst commented on the meeting by saying 'the box office is God'. Direct Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed) said; 'economics trumps everything in this business'.

They sounded like strong messages Hollywood wouldn't be cowed – especially not as one of the Democratic party's traditional heartlands. They'd give Rove his meeting and then chortle behind their hands at him as he walked away.

But more than five years later, Hollywood is indeed propagandising the War on Terror. If the 1980s was the action decade and the 1990s the rom-com decade, so far the noughties has been the war movie decade. And not the war-is-hell kind of movies like All Quiet on the Western Front and Gallipoli, either. Can you see Platoon – a film that questions America's involvement in an unpopular military offensive – getting made in this political climate? What happened?

The Jackson Effect has played a major part. That's the phenomenon where a barely-known New Zealand director bought the most famous fantasy trilogy in history to the screen and set the template for battle sequences for years to come. Even The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe climaxed in a Saving Private Ryan -style orgy of battle despite being based on a hoity-toity English kids' novel about Chrisitanity and Turkish Delight.

Those enormous, digitally rendered war scenes of the Rings trilogy spread like a virus, one midyear blockbuster after another incomplete without the long shot of the flesh and steel of armies crashing together on grassy, snowy, rocky or otherworldly plains.

And somewhere along the way – somewhere between The Last Samurai, Troy, Alexander and every other big battle sequence movie, the war film morphed into a war-for-glory film. The war movies of our time are the equivalent of 1940s newsreels singing the glorious praises of our boys at the front, holding back those godless hordes.

They whoop triumphantly at the bravery, the taste of battle, the glorious spilling of blood, the death before dishonour, no defeat, no surrender, God, country, family, pick your cliché. Instead of war movies being about a distant, dispassionate ruler sending you to die in insurgent car bombs to maintain oil oligopolies, they're about standing shoulder to shoulder with your unit, your impending slaughter something to be welcomed.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the newest war movie out of the gate, Zack Snyder's 300. The tagline says it all – Prepare For Glory. King Leonidas (Gerald Butler) leads 300 of his men into battle to hold back the 300,000-strong Persian army. It's hopeless. It's a lost cause. They can't possibly win. They're all going to die.

But dying far from home in a mission that's gone beyond pointless is the whole point. The glory is the point. Leonidas has been groomed to fight all his life, to the extent he's too hard to even kiss his beautiful wife goodbye, the prospect of dying in battle the highest honour.

Remind you of anything? Any particular hopeless cause in the world right now, where young men and women are taken from home and sent across the world to die to no real purpose except because retreat is worse than death? The Spartans of Thermopylae stayed the course as well.

Zack Snyder wasn't at the meetings with Karl Rove. In late 2001 he was just another TV ad director. So who enlisted him to promote the uniquely American story of fighting on long after everyone else can see how hopeless the situation is?

The cultural pendulum has never swung further to the right than it is right now. A few mavericks like George Clooney are trying to warn us about the dangers of signing our rights over in exchange for feeling safe, but even Oliver Stone's gone soft – he used his 9/11 movie World Trade Center to tell another generic working-man-as-hero tale instead of attacking America's War On Terror hypocrisy like everyone thought he would.

In years to come when we're back to telling stories about soft people and nice things, we'll realise we spent the first decade of the 21st century in the thrall of a new crop of Rambo -inspired politicians, where military adventurism is laced with slightly hysterical dollops of 'die for glory' sentiment.

So until then, do 800 press-ups, oil down your pectorals, grit your teeth and roar as loud as you can; 'tonight... we dine... in hell!!

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