The Changing Face of War Film Trailers

Before & After Saving Private Ryan

              From D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the true traumas of American battles and wars have been the setting for several compelling and revolutionary films. In this analysis of the war film trailer, the aforementioned Saving Private Ryan (1998) will mark a division between two different sets of war film trailers. The first set, films released before 1998, is made up of three movies set during the Vietnam War: Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986). The second set, films released after 1998, is made up of three movies set in eastern Africa and the Middle East during various United States invasions: Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001), Sam Mendes’ Jarhead (2005), and Kathryne Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008). In this analysis I will consider how the use of lighting, editing, and special FX differ between these sets of trailers and will briefly explore how the proposed content of war films have changed over time.

            As war films, the majority of each trailer was filmed outdoors in what appears to be natural lighting. However, the three of the newer trailers have more contrasts in their images. Where natural lighting in Platoon and Full Metal Jacket makes for relatively flat images, the shots in the newer trailers have dark shadows and strong directional lighting. Even the trailer for Apocalypse Now, which features strong directional lighting in its first shots, becomes flatter as shots move outdoors and under natural lighting conditions.

            Another aspect of lighting that is rather unified in the second set is the color of the light. While there are exceptions, especially in Black Hawk Down’s interior shots, the color of natural light in the trailers for Jarhead, The Hurt Locker, and Black Hawk Down is very white. On the other hand, the first set of trailers have disparate colors in their outdoor shots. The trailer for Apocalypse Now has warm light with a rich yellow tint in its shots. Full Metal Jacket has light that varies in color from white to blue-white. Platoon’s outdoor shots range from slight yellows to white to stark blues.

            In terms of editing, there are far more shots in the newer trailers. Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket has the lowest number of shots with thirteen and Platoon, the trailer with the highest number of shots in the first set, has about forty. Every trailer in the second set has more than ninety. Part of this is the length of the trailers. Each trailer in the first set is less than two minutes while those in the second are about two minutes and thirty seconds. Nevertheless, there are other factors that add to the number of shots that I will discuss in my conclusion.

            As war films, special FX are an integral part of the making wars realistic and both sets of trailers use them accordingly.  Both sets of trailers use compositing effects to overlay different images and there are also extensive uses of explosions and gunfire. The main difference between the two sets of trailers comes in the use of slow-motion special FX, especially in The Hurt Locker, and the visual graphics added to the three newer trailers.

Also, the quality of the explosions in the newer trailers is better. In Full Metal Jacket and Platoon, most of the explosions are booms of thin smoke and a bit of fire; they look like fireworks. In contrast, Jarhead, Black Hawk Down, and The Hurt Locker have explosions of thick fire and billowing clouds of thick smoke and close-ups of the bombs, missiles, and weapons that are causing the damage. Coppola’s Apocalypse Now has high quality explosions at some points, but there is no detail of the ammunition that is causing the damage.

            In looking at six trailers from six different directors there are often more differences between individual films in each set than between the two sets as a whole. In the time since the last film from the first set Full Metal Jacket was released in 1987 to the time of the earliest film from the second set Black Hawk Down, there have been extraordinary improvements in special FX and many changes in American film culture. Editing styles have dictated faster shots from various angles in one scene. For example, an action sequence in The Hurt Locker trailer has upwards of twelve shots while action sequences in Apocalypse Now are often done with two or three.  

            Additionally, the earlier war trailers are fairly anonymous in terms of actors. We see the central characters and snippets from each movie but the actors are not named. Two of the trailers in the second set have sequences dedicated to the actors in the movie while The Hurt Locker shows the names of the actors in a brief shot of the awards the films have earned.

            In the end there are differences between the two sets of trailers but most of them are not based on formal qualities. Instead the differences come from changing Hollywood industry that is catering to the desires of the public. It is interesting how the focus of the older trailers seems to be on the war at hand. For example, we hear dialogue about the importance of the mission, or the reality of the experiences that the movies detail. The newer trailers seem to focus more on the characters. Even when we are explicitly told the film is based on true events as in Black Hawk Down’s trailer, there is an emphasis on the humanity of the soldiers who are fighting. It seems that moviegoers in the twenty-first century need more than the promise of gunshots and explosions to go see war films now, and the makers of the newer trailers are obliging.  


Before Saving Private Ryan

Apocalypse Now (1979) Francis Ford Coppola 


Platoon (1986) Oliver Stone

Full Metal Jacket (1987) Stanley Kubrick

After Saving Private Ryan

Black Hawk Down (2001) Ridley Scott


Jarhead (2005) Sam Mendes

The Hurt Locker (2008) Kathryn Bigelow


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