Following the money through war movies tells us what the American audience wants

Following the money through war movies tells us what the American audience wants

By Jim Gourley
Best 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.