Mulan (2020) is a movie with a lot of problems. Many people have covered the various aspects of the movie that didn’t work and some have even covered why the music doesn’t work. However, there was one comment from the director that doesn’t get enough attention. In my mind, it speaks to a disrespectful misunderstanding of both military and musical tradition and it also shows an ignorance of cinematic history that is baffling in the director of a big-budget film.
Prior to the release of the movie, it was announced that the movie would not be a musical like the 1998 animated version was. This might be a fair decision if it wasn’t for the director’s reason why:
“I mean, back to the realism question – we don’t tend to break into song when we go to war.”
Musical and Military Tradition
This statement has a number of problems with it. To start with, military music is one of the oldest musical traditions we have access to. Many modern styles of music originated with military bands. To say that people don’t sing on their way to war is to ignore the heart of many culture’s folk music.
A direct comparison that can be drawn is with the song “A Girl Worth Fighting For” from the 1998 movie. Several different cultures have songs that have a very similar subject matter that were traditionally sung by soldiers. The Russians have “Katyusha”, the Germans have “Erika”, the Americans have “The Yellow Rose of Texas”, the English have “Spanish Ladies”, etc. That song alone would fit perfectly into a realistic movie about soldiers.
Many of these songs have grown beyond their initial military tradition and have simply entered the folk music tradition of their respective culture. Anyone who has spent even a tiny amount of time studying folk music would find tons of songs like this. It’s even worse if you include songs commemorating battles which will be very blunt in their lyrics about what battle they are describing. For some parts of history, this is the main way that the fact that a battle occurred would be recorded.
Furthermore, while “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is arranged more like a training montage song, many cultures use music as a way to train coordination and esprit de corps among the soldiers. The US currently makes heavy use of cadences (sometimes called “Jodies”). Other cultures will have similar songs and at some points throughout history, these songs would be commonly used well after training as a way to keep people coordinated. We even have detailed records describing how the Romans would use marching songs like that.
Anyone with military exposure will attest that these songs provide a critical way of keeping the men together. Even when songs aren’t used for coordination, they are a form of entertainment that is always at hand. Sometimes, they are the only bright thing a soldier has during a very bleak part of their lives.
All of that might be excusable to ignore if the medium of cinema had an established history of also ignoring it. However, the opposite is true. Most of the more realistic war movies incorporate scenes of soldiers singing as a way to inject realism into the film.
Full Metal Jacket (1987) is a movie that is widely considered one of the most realistic depictions of both the USMC and the Vietnam War. It has several scenes of the men singing. An example of a training song is the scene with “This Is My Rifle” which shows how songs are used as an instructional tool for coordination. There is a later scene where a bunch of marines in a combat zone sing the “Mickey Mouse Club March” as a way to stay coordinated while in combat.
In Das Boot (1981), the sailors ease some tension during a stressful patrol by singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”. This song in particular is of note because it was released as a pop song shortly before WWI. Because it was well known among the British soldiers and had a good meter for marching to, it quickly became a popular marching song and is now widely associated with the British military. In the scene in the movie, one of the sailors comments that because they are singing it, they are now a part of the Royal Navy.
In Waterloo (1970), there are again multiple scenes that stand out. There is a scene before the battle where some Scottish soldiers are singing “MacPherson’s Lament” while marching towards the battle. This is a traditional Scottish folk song and serves to both keep them motivated and keep them in time as they march. Later in the movie, the British Army as a group sings “Boney Was a Warrior” to taunt Bonaparte. What’s interesting here is that this is an anachronism because the song was written after the battle and even specifically mentions it. The song is also traditionally sung by sailors, not soldiers.
Band of Brothers (2001) is admittedly a TV show and not a movie, but it is very much filmed using cinematic techniques. There is a scene where the troopers sing “Blood on the Risers”. This is a song that was adapted from the older “Battle Hymn of the Republic” which was a Union marching song during the American Civil War. The newer version has become a traditional song among American paratroopers and addresses the inherent fears that come with jumping from an airplane.
Generation Kill (2008) is produced in a similar manner to Band of Brothers and is notable for having some of the actual marines on the production staff (with one playing himself). There is a scene where a group of them spontaneously start singing “Teenage Dirtbag” while on patrol. This is a pop song without military tradition associated with it, but since it was well known by all of the characters it served as a way to keep them coordinated and entertained.
In The Longest Day (1962), there is a scene where a soldier storms the beaches of Normandy while playing bagpipes. Technically not singing, but it is a scene so ridiculous that many people find it unrealistic when they see it. However, it deserves a note because it actually happened.
In Apocalypse Now (1979), there is a similar scene where American helicopters play “Ride of the Valkyries” as they attack. This wasn’t based on a specific incident and was supposed to be an exaggeration of the general attitude of some soldiers. However, instead of seeing it in a negative light, many soldiers were inspired by it and there is at least one case of soldiers later recreating the scene in actual combat.
This list could go on forever. Almost every war movie that tries to be realistic at least touches on the relationship between soldiers and their music. To actively avoid doing so set Mulan up for failure from the start. With such poor research and planning going into the basic ideas behind the movie, it is no wonder that the execution fell flat. No one should have been surprised when the movie flopped.