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I just had a talk with a friend and he claimed that Avatar (2009) was the first film that got an American audience cheering for American soldiers being killed. I tried to offer several counter-examples, but he dismissed them:

  1. Apocalypse Now (1979) - The protagonist is also an American soldier working for the American government, so the message is that only some parts of the American military should be destroyed and not the whole thing.

  2. The Last Samurai (2003) - The antagonists are Americanized Japanese, and not actual Americans.

  3. Castle in the Sky (1986) - The film is Japanese, not American.

  4. Full Metal Jacket (1987) - The film has you cheering on the American soldiers and then shows how horrible you were for doing so be revealing the enemy sniper is a young women begging for death. The film does not actually get you to cheer against the Americans.

I know that Hollywood has produced films critical of the American military since at least the 70's, so I am willing to bet that there is a film out there that would work. However, I am not much of a film buff, so I can't think of it.

Q: What was the first film to depict the American military as villains?

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  • 1
    Hi E Tam, a better way to phrase this would be "What is the first film to depict the American military as villains?", and maybe add some of your own research (and not just guesses). Good luck!
    – Joachim
    Dec 23, 2022 at 9:18
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    There are plenty of movies which depict American soldiers as bad guys (e.g. Casualties of War (1989)) - but are you looking for one where the American military itself is depicted as the "enemy" ?
    – komodosp
    Dec 23, 2022 at 11:44
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    Technically, those aren't American soldiers in Avatar (though they sure look based on them!). And Laputa also does not have any real countries.
    – Jimmy
    Dec 23, 2022 at 20:30
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    In Dr. Strangelove ... 1964 US forces trigger destruction of the world, surely a villainous act, but only with the assistance(?) of a Soviet doomsday system, and except one wacko (Gen Ripper) all have admirable/heroic motives. Viewers are led to root for Maj Kong's crew to be stopped and even destroyed, but not really against them as people. Dec 23, 2022 at 23:54
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    I imagine that films made under the instruction of the leaders of Germany and Japan during the Second World War would not show the military forces of the USA in the best light, but I am not familiar with such films. Dec 24, 2022 at 20:57

9 Answers 9

25

In Gone With The Wind (1939) the Union army is hated and feared by the main characters. The Union army besieges and burns Atlanta. They pillage the plantation Tara. In the context of the movie, from Scarlett's point of view, they are villains.

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  • I am not sure that this answer correctly answers the question. "Union army" and "American army" most likely refer to two different things, no matter how similar.
    – virolino
    Feb 21, 2023 at 6:58
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    @virolino The question: "What was the first film to depict the American military as villains?" The Union army was American. The Union army was military. Is there some subtle distinction that I am missing between the OP's "American military" and the Union army that was American and military? During the civil war era the Union (American) army was composed of volunteer state regiments similar to today's National Guard, but federalized and organized under generals appointed by the President. It was American military within the context of the question.
    – MTA
    Feb 21, 2023 at 12:59
  • In my mind, it is a difference of historical "era". As you clearly notice, they have different names: Union and American. American tends to refer to more recent times, Union tends to refer to older times. Clearly, OP should have been more explicit.
    – virolino
    Feb 27, 2023 at 5:30
21

The trouble with this is it's a matter of perspective.

Watch any sci-fi movie from the 50s & see the US Army behaving like it's a skeet shoot every time an alien turns up, no matter how friendly they may be.
At the time, the audience would have been on their side, seeing commies everywhere. These days, it looks like incompetence & ridiculous over-reaction.

Klaatu barada nikto

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20

Little Big Man (1970) follows a native American (Dustin Hoffman) who keeps getting tangled up with (from Wikipedia) "the villainous practices of the United States Cavalry", such as killing women and children. Near the end we cheer as the evil General Custer is killed at Little Bighorn. It was well-known, nominated for several awards, and was put in the US National Film registry.

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    Hoffman’s character is not a Native American — he’s a white man who was raised by the Cheyenne after the Pawnee killed his parents. He does assimilate into Cheyenne culture, though.
    – Kevin Troy
    Dec 25, 2022 at 22:25
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The Birth of a Nation (1915)

During the American Civil War, the Union Army, also known as the Federal Army and the Northern Army, referring to the United States Army, was the land force that fought to preserve the Union of the collective states.

- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_Army

The Union Army was depicted negatively, as villains, in a number of films during the silent film era. The American Civil War was still a sensitive and controversial topic at the time. The Birth of a Nation (1915), directed by D.W. Griffith, is one of the first films, if not the first, in which the Union Army was portrayed villainously.

Films like The Birth of a Nation were influenced by some Confederate sympathizers' negative, one-sided perception of the Union and sought to promote the false mythology of the "Lost Cause of the Confederacy," portraying the Union Army as ruthless, oppressive, and callous while portraying the Confederate Army as heroic and fighting for a just cause.

Some examples of the Union Army being depicted as villains in The Birth of a Nation:

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A wikipedia search for antiwar films yielded the 1948 film Fort Apache, with a villainous commanding U.S. Army officer played by Henry Fonda leading his troops in a bungled, suicidal attack, and with an honorable portrayal of the native American leader Cochise played by Miguel Inclán.

11

Short Circuit (1986) film has the US military as the villains, though it's a kids movie and I don't believe there are any deaths. You are definitely rooting against the military here.

Bringing in more violence, though it's probably overly broad, but there are a number of US Civil War movies where the enemy is still American. Glory is the first one that comes to mind.

Another possible answer, and it's a mini-series not a movie, would be Taken (2002). At a high level, the protagonists are Alien's and 'good' people while the antagonists are military members following orders and those issuing the orders.

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    I feel like there’s lots of ‘80s movies that could fit. D.A.R.Y.L., as already mentioned. Project X, Wargames, and Real Genius could also be seen as having the military or military industrial complex as antagonists. Dec 24, 2022 at 0:27
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    @ToddWilcox Yeah that was definitely an 80's formula. E.T., 1982? I can't recall it being "the military" per se, but the federal agents were all portrayed as a bunch of bad-guy goons. There's gotta be some 60s movies though....
    – JamieB
    Dec 24, 2022 at 3:32
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    I believe the question is asking for the first movie.
    – A J
    Dec 24, 2022 at 4:16
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Similar to David Jacobsen's answer, D.A.R.Y.L. (1985) has the titular character escaping the military, and is also kind of a kids movie (well, it's PG anyway).

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  • but it's far from the first appearance, as asked
    – Luciano
    Dec 26, 2022 at 14:29
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    yes true, though most of the other answers were not posted at the time
    – briantist
    Dec 26, 2022 at 16:31
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This question is not clear or simple, but there are some very good examples of the U.S. military — or a military force based on the U.S. military — being showing in a negative light.

  • Aliens (1986): Avatar carries on the James Cameron tradition of distrust of the military and corporate power in general. This can be seen in Aliens (1986) when the United States Colonial Marine Corps are shown as pawns of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. You cheer the Colonial Marines on to help the protagonists, but they are not being shown as being helped in any way by those who sent them to the colony on LV-426. They were set up to be massacred and possibly infected by Alien spawn for use by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation and they have utterly no backup. They effectively don’t become representatives of Earth’s military but rather mercenaries who are fighting to survive despite the efforts made by those on Earth to treat them as disposable at best.
  • The General (1926): In this classic Buster Keaton film, Buster plays a train engineer who is a member of the Southern Confederate Army. Typically in modern Civil War films, the Northern Union Army is seen as the protagonists; but in this film they are very clearly treated as the antagonists. The whole plot of the film revolves around Buster Keaton’s character’s intense love of his train, The General and his efforts to steal it back from the Union Army.
  • Slaughterhouse-Five (1972): A film version of the 1969 novel of the same name by Kurt Vonnegut, it documents and dramatizes Vonnegut’s experience as an American soldier held as POW (Prisoner of War) in Dresen by Germany forces during World War II. So the Germans should be looked upon as the antagonists, right? Well in a way they are. But the murky fog of war portrayed here is the Allied forces fire bombing Dresden was terrifying and morally repugnant since it affected civilians as well as prisoners of war such as him. The film and book are pretty much anti-War in general, but the U.S. doesn’t come out looking too great to say the least.
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While they aren't exactly the villains in The Seige, released in 1998, the US Military isn't shown in the nicest light.

This movie has Anthony Hubbard, a negotiator with the "real" villain terrorists, tries to prevent General William Devereaux from being as indiscriminately thoroughly rough (and often brutal) with potential suspects, rioters, and innocent civilians.

You aren't supposed to be rooting for the military in this movie, but you aren't exactly wanting them to die, either. They are more of a "lesser villain" that's co-opted to take down the main villain.

They may be considered an antihero because they and the General gets the job done, that of hunting down the terrorists, but they are definitely antagonistic by making a lot of situations worse than they should have been by their actions and not just their presence.

To be fair, General Devereaux does speak against declaring martial law, saying that those calling for it won't like the actions taken during it, but the movie depicts a very heavy handed military response that likely goes far beyond what would happen in real life, at least at the time the movie was released.

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  • The question asks for the first appearance (= earliest) and it has an example from 1979 already... how is this earlier?
    – Luciano
    Dec 26, 2022 at 14:31
  • @Luciano, "Apocalypse Now" shows a single soldier acting outside of their military capacity using non-American troops, while "The Siege" shows American troops led by an American General. There's a huge difference between one rogue soldier and a General legally ordering masses of his own troops around. Dec 27, 2022 at 15:58

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