Memorial Day is fast approaching, so naturally one’s thoughts turn to the Fallen, and to the shared sacrifice of European and American continents as they united in common cause against the spectre of global tyranny. But that’s enough about the reviews for Battleship.
“A preposterously lunkheaded salute to American naval machismo” snorted Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph. “It seems that the U.S. Navy is as much committed to the production of this film as is the toy company” opined Le Monde’s Thomas Sotinel. As news of the hostile European reception spread, American critics equipped their reviews with a pre-emptive Euro-snob missile defense shield. “That the movie didn’t exactly receive hosannas in Europe should surprise absolutely no one. This is a Super-American movie,” bristled Jeff Simon of Buffalo News. “It would be like asking Belgian or Italian or French audiences to be happy about a sudden American invasion.”
Ah Memorial day: an opportunity for solemn reflection on the folly of foreign conquest. At the cinema, on the other hand, it marks the start of blockbuster season, when the studios roll out their latest squadron of world-beaters designed to club the indigenous cinemas of the world into whimpering submission. When Jurassic Park came out in 1993, Gerard Depardieu compared the American film industry to a “war machine,” while French culture minister Jacques Toubon declared the movie “a threat to French national identity” claiming it was every Frenchman’s “patriotic duty” to see Germinal instead, there being no better known antidote to T Rexes that works more effectively than a 21/2-hour film about French coal-mining.
It’s not hard to understand why the French would be sensitive to the threat of invasion — complaining of "McDomination" and calling Paris Disneyland a "cultural Chernobyl"— after their experience in the second world war. Ironically, it was America’s military success in 1945, and the ensuing popularity of all things American, that first brought a tidal wave of Hollywood movies down on European heads — 120,000 prints in 1950 alone, causing producer Walter Wanger to hail a victory for ”Donald Duck diplomacy” and calling Hollywood “a Marshall plan for ideas... a veritable celluloid Athens,” more important to America “than the H Bomb.”
Or failing the H Bomb then Clark Gable — the most lethal device for intercontinental submission after the V-2 rocket. When Gable went shirtless in It Happened One Night (1932) he caused a drop in Argentinian undershirt sales; and when he instructed an Italian boy how to eat a hamburger in It Started in Naples (1960), he sparked a furious row amongst Italian chefs about the pernicious effect of Yankee imperialist cuisine. As one of the characters in Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair, 1948) drily remarks, “If you give them food its relief. If you leave the labels on it’s imperialism.”
There has always been a contradiction in the charge of cultural imperialism that globalization has only exacerbated. When Brian Keenan was taken hostage by Hezbollah extremists in 1986 he noted with some puzzlement that they were all dressed a headband tied and knotted at the side above the ear, like Rambo:— “This all-American hero, was the stereotype which these young Arab revolutionaries had adopted. They had taken on the cult figure of the Great Satan they so despised and who they claimed was responsible for all the evil in the world. Emulating Rambo they would reconquer the world and simultaneously rid themselves of that inadequacy which they could never admit.”
Kennan’s story illustrates a fascinating paradox: like the muscled, flag-waving American action heroes that came after him, Rambo was a big success in America, but an even bigger success overseas by a box office margin of almost 2 to 1. He was a Frankenstein’s monster shaped by the international trade winds. The same with Spielberg’s dinosaurs which made 1993 the first year in Hollywood’s history that overseas revenues outstripped domestic ones — a crucial tip of the see-saw.
“Jurassic Park was a political hardball that was used as a symbol of the American invasion, the second invasion of France, this time not to liberate but to occupy,” Spielberg told me when I interviewed him most recently. “That was the party line on it, and I was caught up in the middle. The blockbuster began in America, so no matter who the writer and director and producers are, of those films, even if it’s an Italian director, and a French writer and a British producer, if it makes a lot of money, almost too much money, it will accused of being an ‘American’ blockbuster. The world is shrinking. The internet has shrunk it to half its original size. We are closer neighbors in cyberspace than we ever have been in our collective history.”
If this was true in 1993 it is even truer today. In 2012, the proportion of profits coming to the studios from overseas is a staggering 70% — an industry-reconfiguring statistic. In many ways, Hollywood has ceased to be the indigenous film industry of North America and become instead the world’s jukebox, pumping out what Michael Eisner once called “planetized emtertainment”. Which is why Battleship, like The Avengers before it, opened overseas first, leaving the domestic market to follow the foreign lead. 2012 will likely go down as the year Hollywood looked abroad to find out which of its movies were hits. While Battleship bombed domestically, taking only $25 million in its first weekend — “John Carter numbers” as one analyst put it — it took over $200,000 million overseas, with the very people most predisposed to finding it a “lunk-headed salute to American naval machismo.”
Americans can be forgiven a note of complaint at this ongoing effort by the rest of the world to paint them as lunkheaded and macho and obsessed with their military. They tried to kill Battleship. As Al Pacino says in Godfather Part III, “Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.”