An ever-growing team of mercenaries is featured in The Expendables 3, which promises more wild and woolly action when it explodes into theaters this week. The new installment mixes older and newer generations of experts, although they all display the type of training expected in the military.
The Expendables 3, led by Sylvester Stallone, takes a generally lighthearted approach to the wall-to-wall action depicted, which is reflective of the series as a whole. It's a modern take on military action movies, which began serving as vehicles for horror filmmakers in the 1950s. The most notable early example is probably The War of the Worlds (1953), which showed the ineffectual efforts by the U.S. military to put down an invasion by an alien race.
The military achieved greater success the following year in Them! -- unofficially known as "The Giant Ant Movie" -- but the pattern was set, and military involvement in horror movies continued throughout the monster-loving decade. It wasn't until actor-turned-director Ray Milland made Panic in Year Zero! in 1962 that an apocalyptic future without the military was imagined. Milland plays a vacationing husband and father who must draw upon his own resources when Los Angeles is destroyed in a nuclear attack. A hint of normalcy is hinted at in the film's concluding scenes, with the promise that martial law will restore a semblance of peace -- hardly a reassuring thought!
By 1973, the Vietnam War had profoundly changed the public's view of the military. George A. Romero's The Crazies reflected that more cynical, distrustful perspective, envisioning a biological weapon developed by the military that has been accidentally unleashed upon a small town in Pennsylvania. When the military quarantines the town, local citizens rebel, and chaos ensues.
In the 1980s, action movies revolving around the heroic destruction wrought by the likes of Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis became immensely popular. Yet even in an era when conservative values were celebrated, more liberal filmmakers fired off warning shots about the military. And once again, it was independent director George A. Romero who spoke the loudest, setting the third installment in his zombie series, Day of the Dead (1985), largely in an underground compound where the increasingly suspicious military oversees scientific experiments. Eventually, panic rules the day, and it turns out that zombies ignore orders.
The mood of the country became more understanding and appreciative of the military in the 1990s, but that didn't really apply to indie horror movies. Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers (1993) was set at a military base where a small contingent of Environmental Protection Agency workers are investigating cases of mass hysteria. When it's revealed that the base has been invaded by an alien race, it becomes difficult to tell the difference between the soldiers, who have been trained by the military to be obedient, and their alien replacements, who are only a touch less emotional.
In the post-9/11 era, Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002) introduced the idea of fast-moving zombies, a concept also depicted in Paul W.S. Anderson's Resident Evil (2002) that truly bloomed in Dawn of the Dead, Zack Snyder's 2004 remake. Boyle's picture featured a military leader with a truly loathsome plan for survival in the future, which did not paint the armed forces in a very positive light, to say the least.
More recently, Marc Forster's World War Z (2013) seesawed back to a more judicious view of the military. Brad Pitt stars as a UN employee tasked with discovering the source of the virus that is turning everyone into zombies. As he desperately travels the world, soldiers sacrifice themselves in order to protect him. Even in horror movies, it seems that Hollywood is always ready to embrace a more positive view of the military -- as long as it makes sense for the story.