Defense bureau chief for American culture
Lone Survivor is winding down after a comparatively stellar
10-week run in theaters. It will leave the box office with a decent set of
achievements. In addition to its Screen Actors Guild Award for best stunt
ensemble, it will be remembered as having the second-best opening weekend for a
film released in January, and earned more money than any war film since 9/11.
It's poised to exceed $125 million in sales before it departs the big screen.
For all its action and effects, the film's producers and actors insisted that
the film's story was the most important element. Actor Mark Wahlberg
passionately discussed the message of service and sacrifice within the movie's
retelling of the ill-fated Operation Redwings. He and many others believed that
the film would succeed not only because it was a true story, but a genuine one.
There is another explanation for its success,
however, and it happens to carry its own message. Trends strongly suggest a
formula for a successful Hollywood war film -- its first commandment being to
sell it to Americans. As of March 17, Lone
Survivor has earned $142,196,271 globally. Only $17,600,000 of that has come
from theaters outside the United States and Canada. With 87.7 percent of the
ticket sales coming from domestic movie-goers, it earns another box office
accolade: most lopsided in audience interest. The former top-grossing war film,
2009's Brothers, picked up 34.1
percent of its $43.3 million take from Europe. While not considered a war film,
the Kathryn Bigelow-helmed Zero Dark
Thirty made 72.1 percent of its money from American audiences. Were it
included in the genre, it would be the top-grossing entry with a $132.8 million
box office haul.
The nuances of what makes a film a war movie or not
aside, their dependence on American ticket sales for success is highlighted by
just how badly they fare in overall revenue if they earn a greater percentage
in Europe. Bigelow's bonafide war film The
Hurt Locker took 65.4 percent of its earnings from the foreign box office.
Despite winning nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, it only made $49.2
million. By contrast, consider the earnings of the critically-panned Act of Valor, which raked in $81.2
million, 86.1 percent of which came from the United States.
That leads to the second indicated "rule"
of making financially successful war films: The messiest parts ought to involve
blood and guts rather than philosophy and politics. It's arguable that the
moral weight of Clint Eastwood's Sands of
Iwo Jima and its companion film, Flags
of Our Fathers, with a domestic/foreign split closer to 50 percent, held
revenues down below the $70 million mark. Though the ethical wrangling of Lions for Lambs overwhelmingly appealed
to foreign patrons, the Robert Redford-directed and -led film only took in $63
million. The same applies to Green Zone,
a conspiracy-in-the-ranks story that made a respectable $94.8 million but still
ranks as one of Matt Damon's lowest-earning films.
It seems reasonable to draw a conclusion based on
two distinct yet iconic scenes in contemporary war films: When James Caviezel
and Sean Penn riddle each other with transcendental poetry, The Thin Red Line makes $98 million on
largely European audiences, but when Eric Bana asks Josh Hartnett, "You
know what I think?" and then answers himself with, "It don't matter
what I think," the demographics flip and Black Hawk Down reaps $172 million.
In short, American audiences appear to still
embrace the John Wayne tradition. They can handle the death and heartbreak
caused by war, but those burdens must be shouldered by the hero. Any suggestion
that the audience, in its role as the society that sends the hero off to war,
bears some of the responsibility for the war's existence in the first place
risks losing their enthusiasm for the enterprise on which the entire film is
based. In other words, Americans want entertainment, not a lecture. Europeans
seem to be more open to explorations of human nature.
Following the money leads one to conclude that
there are stark differences between American and European interests in war
films, in terms of both level and taste. What it says about American and
European differences regarding war itself bears consideration. It's no secret
that the international community has been sharply divided on many aspects of
the real wars of the 21st century thus far. Observing what they prefer in their
fictional wars may indicate the perceptions driving the disagreements.
It bears remarking that there are exceptions to the
rule. Both Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan made over $300
million and $200 million, respectively, and on a European majority audience. War Horse was closer to an even balance
and topped $177 million. Of course, the common denominator of all three films
is someone named Steven Spielberg, whose legendary reputation and career mean
he can work on a set of rules all their own.
Perhaps the biggest break with the conventional
wisdom is Mel Gibson's We Were Soldiers.
The Vietnam-based film touched several political and socio-cultural third rails
with regard to that conflict and the proposition of war in general. It still filled
the seats with an American majority and earned $114 million. And finally, there
is perhaps that most spiritually numbing narrative on the cost of war, the 1946
Best Picture winner The Best Years of Our
Lives. It made 52 percent of its money from European moviegoers (most of
those British), finishing with an estimated $23.6 million, which adjusted for
today's dollars would be $459.2 million. Perhaps its egalitarian appeal and
great success puts modern regional attitudes into historical perspective. It is
difficult to believe a modern remake based on current conflicts could repeat
the original's triumph.