Why Don’t We Review Historical War Films?

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A great many historical costume dramas are war films, like Dunkirk (2017), with TV costume dramas about wars being only slightly less common. Yet we hardly ever review them here on Frock Flicks for two main reasons that are at the core of what we are interested in doing day in and day out.

Dunkirk (2017)

 

War films rarely tell women’s stories

We are three women, and we enjoy watching historical movies and TV shows that tell our stories too. 99% of war films focus on male soldiers, men fighting, men’s dramas. Women have been involved in wars since the beginning of time, on the battlefield, either fighting or nursing or aiding in other ways, and on the homefront — but women’s wartime POVs don’t get told very often on film. Just one example: Dunkirk has a cast of 45 men and 2 women, who play the nameless roles of “nurse” and “stewardess.” UGH.

I appreciated series like The Crimson Field (2014) and ANZAC Girls (2014) for focusing on nurses during World War I (both produced as part of all the WWI centenary content in the UK). Mercy Street (2016) tried to do a similar thing by showing an American Civil War hospital, but the ratings weren’t impressive. The problem is that so few attempts are made, one high-profile failure like Mercy Street makes a negative impact.

Crimson Field

Btw, there are plenty of real stories about women who disguised themselves as men to go to war, dating back centuries. Hey, Hollywood and the other Powers That Be, why not try that for a movie or TV miniseries for a change? Just an idea.

Mercy Street

 

Uniforms don’t give us much to talk about

Even if / when we do watch a war movie, we’re not going to have much to say about it for the blog. What we do here is discuss costumes, and the main costume in war movies is military uniforms. None of us are experts in uniform details, and even if we were, there isn’t a ton to say because there isn’t a ton of variety in the historical costumes. It’s pretty straightforward stuff.

Tom Hiddleston, War Horse (2011)

Recreating a military uniform requires researching the specific uniform and getting that outfit correct. Done! I’m NOT saying it’s always done right or it’s necessarily easy (military types will nitpick the issue to death!), but I am saying there’s no room for interpretation on whether it’s historically accurate or not. That’s not a matter of debate. It’s more like a catalog of “nope, that’s not the right insignia, that’s the wrong band on the hat, blah blah blah.” The issue is fairly black and white.

War and Peace

Whereas civilian clothing has a lot of wiggle room. You can research the time, place, social status, and say a character could have worn something like XYZ, but other than recreating a specific actual historical person from a photo or painting, there’s a lot of room for interpretation and creativity. That’s where we have fun of commentary, critique, debate, and snark! That’s pretty much the space where this blog lives.

Dunkirk (2017)

And let’s not forget that uniforms, by the very definition, are there to make people look the same, so we’ll have less to talk about. You have your good guys and your bad guys and the different ranks within them. OK, done. Compare to civilian clothing, even in one period, one geographic area, one social class, you can still have nearly infinite variations of costume to choose from for a family or town. More stuff to look at, more stuff for us to write about.

 

Are you a fan of historical war movies or not?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. When she’s not dressing up in costumes, she can be found traveling the world with her sweetie and, occasionally, Kendra and Sarah. Her costuming and travel adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also maintains a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

22 Responses

  1. Frannie Germeshausen

    ANZAC Girls was the absolute best. Those were true stories of heroic women. Crimson Fields went soapy, unfortunately.

    Reply
  2. Melanie Clark

    Their Finest is a great companion to Dunkirk and came out just a few months before. A civilian’s perspective, during the blitz, and it’s about a female screenwriter making a film about Dunkirk! Not sure the costumes are anything jawdropping, but it does look accurate for the period.

    Reply
      • Black Tulip

        I did miss most of the dialogue in one of the final scenes because I was too busy admiring Gemma Arterton’s housecoat, but suspect that may just be me!

        Reply
  3. Peacoclaur

    I’m going to take a stab in the dark and guess that this is the reason you don’t review things like “The Godfather” and gangster movies in general either?

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      I LOVED The Godfather trilogy, omg, ah-may-zing acting / directing! But very much male-centered stories, plus very recent costumes (only the 2nd movie was really “historical” by our terms), so yeah, not much for us to talk about.

      Reply
  4. Lady Hermina De Pagan

    I was just listening to a podcast about the White Rose Society in Germany during WWII. Now that is a war story that would make an amazing frock flick done correctly. the main protagonists are a bother and sister duo who printed anti Nazi pamphlets during the height of the war.

    Reply
    • Susan Pola Staples

      Have you seen the German films on that subject: Sophie Scholl and Die Weisse Rose? I’ve seen Sophie Scholl and it’s got subtitles. It’s excellent.

      Reply
  5. Susan Pola Staples

    I too preferred ANZAC Girls to Crimson Fields and war movies are okay especially if they have more than the generic female ‘nurse’ Sorry Dunkirk I preferred Atonement. But I did love Glory and I wish Mercy Street had at least another season. Hannah James’ character was thought provoking and Patina Miller’s was one of the best things about the series.
    I believe the BBC or ITV did Wish Me Luck which was great. It’s about female spies dropped into France during WWII. It even had Shirley Henderson in it.

    So what I’m trying to say if it’s a war movie with strong female characters Luke Patty Jenkins Wonder Woman, ANZAC Fielders. I’m down with it.

    Reply
  6. Janette

    War movies/tv series don’t have to be male centered. It is typically, male really. Also there is now a division between war movies that centre on men and those about women. Why not films that feature both men and women that say a couple might enjoy. Atonement was the last war film I watched with my S/O though to be fair war films are more my thing than his. I get fed up with films where the director and or screenwriter appears to have forgotten that humans come in two genders. Back in the seventies when I was at school there was a BBC series about WWI fighter pilots. Half the story featured the issues faced by the family back home, with “Mum” taking on the work of the absent men and mastering blacksmithing. It was one of my favourite TV series at the time. Another favourite, War and Peace goes into the war and the impact upon society as a whole with plenty of strong female characters. (until the ending at least which Tolstoy botched completely) It often seems as though the entertainment industry is becoming increasingly sexist.

    Reply
  7. Jen

    Have you ever seen the British series Goodnight Sweetheart? The main character is a real dick but I’m curious about if /how accurate the costumes might be?

    Reply
  8. indiaedghill

    Excellent points, all of them. However, I DID love the way the costumer designer in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN made modern men look like men from the 1940s by the way the uniforms were cut. Subtly, but it made the actors look shorter-coupled and not a modern body type.

    Reply
    • LadySlippers

      Saving Private Ryan was an unusual war story because it was a very humanistic based story — trying to prevent a mother losing all her boys like the Sullivans from Iowa did (my son went to a school on base in Japan named after the five Sullivan brothers that died in WWII). A lot of war stories do tell about battles and don’t focus a lot of the human beings involved. SPR was very different for that reason alone.

      Reply
  9. Kiki

    Would you do an in-detail review of 2016 Korean film “The Handmaiden” by director Park Chan wook? Pretty please! It has a lot of amazing costumes, going from Korean to Japanes to European, being set in Japanese occupied Korea in the 1930. Besides, it’s a masterpiece and one of the rare lesbian costume movies out there. I thought the costuming felt really important for the story, not just decorative, which is a plus. For reference, watch this video ( WARNING, it contains some spoilers”

    Oh by the way it’s a twist adaptation of the “fingersmith” Novel.

    Please watch it and review it ladies, you won’t be disappointed!

    Reply
  10. Al Don

    While I’d agree that it’s usually a question of research, sometimes “uniforms” are not quite so uniform and there’s a lot of interpretation involved. For example, during the Napoleonic Wars, de Marbot’s notes on the Battle of Aspern-Essling mention how voltigeurs (skirmishers) and even cuirassiers would have many improvised pieces to their uniforms. Civilian boots, overcoats looted from the enemy, and mismatched coats appropriated from the dead. To show them dressed “uniformly” would be incorrect, so how to show them correctly? Conversely, units such as the Young Guard were notorious for never having a single button or strap out of place.

    During the earlier French Revolutionary Wars, lax regulations and lack of official suppliers made French infantry look remarkably mismatched and disheveled. Third party observers would often comment on their baffling appearance.

    Just some examples I remember. On the subject of uniforms, I read once: “There are three sorts of uniforms for every period of history: those described in the uniform regulations; those shown by the artists of that period; and what the soldiers really wore!”

    Reply

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