World War II films aren’t about World War II

Friday, July 21st, 2017

Many World War II films reveal at least as much about the times in which they are made as they do about the conflict itself:

“It’s possible that 20 years from now we’ll look back at ‘Dunkirk’ and say, ‘That movie was so 2017,’ and everyone will know exactly what that means,” said film historian Mark Harris, author of “Five Came Back,” a book about Hollywood and World War II that was also the subject of a recent Netflix documentary.

Around the beginning of the war, films served a practical purpose, rallying American solidarity behind the conflict. In 1940, Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent” featured a reporter calling for action with guns and battleships in a scene of a radio broadcast: “It’s as if the lights were out everywhere except in America,” he says. Chaplin, who directed and played the lead speaking role in 1940’s “The Great Dictator” about an Adolf Hitler-like figure, delivers a final speech directly into the camera that includes the line: “Let us fight to free the world.”

During the war, filmmakers churned out movies in close to real time, going from script to screen in as few as six months, said Mr. Harris.

“Films made about World War II during the war are special because we don’t know we’re going to win,” said Thomas Doherty, a professor of American studies at Brandeis University who wrote “Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II.” “I’m always surprised when I look at World War II movies made during the war just how stern the lessons are. The guy you really like is often killed in the film.”

Soon, the anxieties of the atomic age begin to surface. “In Harm’s Way,” a 1965 film starring John Wayne as a naval officer in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor, ends with a shot of the ocean that morphs into what looks like a mushroom cloud. Mixed feelings around the Vietnam War enter the picture with movies like 1967’s “The Dirty Dozen,” a subversive take on conflict told through the story of death-row convicts on a mission to kill Nazis.

Veterans of World War II and Vietnam and civilian Baby Boomers might have taken different messages from 1970’s “Patton,” at once a portrait of a victorious general and a man driven by ego and ambition. Douglas Cunningham, co-editor of “A Wiley Companion to the War Film” and a teacher of film history at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, recalled a scene where Patton slaps the helmet of a soldier suffering from shellshock. “By 1970, you would have had plenty of folks returning from Vietnam traumatized in ways that would have been familiar to some members of that audience,” he said.

In time the Holocaust became a central part of the screen version of World War II, with movies like 1982’s “Sophie’s Choice,” about an Auschwitz survivor, and Spielberg’s 1993 drama “Schindler’s List.”

Movies have furthered an idea that the Holocaust was known to most American soldiers during the war. A scene hinting at that connection occurs in Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” when a Jewish soldier holds up the Star of David on his dog tag and repeats the German word for Jews—“Juden”—to captured enemy soldiers. “This is the way America sees World War II now—that it was all about the Holocaust and the Holocaust was the governing point,” said Robert Burgoyne, professor of film studies at the University of St Andrews and author of two books on U.S. history as told through the movies. “The Holocaust was not known to American culture generally. It is simply a kind of rewriting of World War II according to the contemporary generation’s perspective.”

In 1998, “Saving Private Ryan” presented the war to a new generation, starting with its harrowing opening of Allied troops storming Omaha Beach on D-Day. “In terms of stoking interest in World War II, these are the most important 20 minutes in cinema history,” said Rob Citino, senior historian at The National World War II Museum in New Orleans.


  1. Kirk says:

    Is Captain Obvious now writing for the Wall Street Journal, or something?

    Of course the period that the movie is written in is going to affect the portrayal of the era–It’s unavoidable, much like the way written fictional depictions are affected by the milieu of the writer, and what is current in the culture at the time.

    Go back and look at all the period-piece movies about the Napoleonic Wars which were made in the 1960s, and then compare/contrast them to the ones about the same era made in earlier periods.

    You want historical accuracy, you pretty much need to read as many books as you can stand, from as many different viewpoints as you can find, and then interpolate between them all, and you likely still won’t be near the actual reality of everything. I’ve spent a huge chunk of my lifetime reading and researching things from the pre-WWII era to Korea, starting with reading through my Grandmother’s collection of magazines from that period, and continuing on through the libraries I’ve had access to. Pretty much whatever I could get my hands on, I’ve read–And, I’m here to tell you that even the contemporary accounts of what was going on are irretrievably contaminated by the milieu they were created in. The popular culture of the era was something that affected nearly everything, and I think the best set of words on the subject comes out of Paul Fussell’s Wartime, especially the first chapter “From Light to Heavy Duty”, which outlines the process of transitioning from the pre-war fantasy-land view of how things would go to the more realistic view of what the reality of war really meant.

    I think you really have to look at a war movie as being just as informative of the time and place it was made as it is about the time and place portrayed. To a degree, you learn more about the conditions of the time when the movie was made through interpretation of the choices made and the sort of emphasis that various things get in the portrayals.

  2. Adar says:

    Hotel Baghdad was actually filmed by the soldiers themselves as they fought the war — real-time camera work with Go Pro-type gear, then edited from a number of cameras.

  3. Slovenian Guest says:

    Everyone knows the US landed at Omaha Beach, Poland, to liberate the camps; that’s WW2 in a nutshell. I’m sure the holocentrism, or intentionally referring to the war as the holocaust instead of WW2, conflating the two, is pure coincidence, just a sign of the times indeed!

  4. Graham says:

    Good points, all.

    It’s true that all movies on that war have reflected their own times, I find American ones in particular. British ones are less bad, but they too have followed a winding path and, as the British film industry converged with Hollywood, ultimately started to reflect American sensibilities.

    British wartime movies were similar to American ones in many of the ways the article and Kirk noted. I’d add that they tended to place more emphasis on stoicism, duty, country and service and less on rah, rah, Freedom; although a peculiarly British sense of what freedom meant was often present. In sum, to live in what the English knew as liberty, within customary limits rooted in English life, under an English government and English laws. One can imagine Tolkien writing some of them. And they also had a dark, cruel side.

    The examples that leap most to mind are “In which we serve”, an oddly uplifting and terrifying ode to the Royal Navy and sailors love for their ship and shipmates under the direst circumstances.

    And then there’s “Went the Day Well”. Considered ‘shockingly violent’ for the time by one writer I read a while back [it isn't by our standards], it is the spiritual ancestor of the original Red Dawn. But again, English. It also influenced the 1977 film “The Eagle has Landed” in some ways.

    And then there’s Mrs Miniver. Actually an American film and shows it with some gauche sentimentality. The English are sentimental, but not this sugary. And yet the film did capture something of the English ideal of how to behave on the Home Front. And it refers to Dunkirk. One scene, with the church and the overflying aircraft, was visually quoted to spectacular effect in 1977′s “A Bridge Too Far”.

  5. Graham says:

    Postwar British films of the 50s were not too unlike American ones, still in favour of the war and everything, and celebrating stories of characters actually achieving victories over the enemy as though that’s why they were there in the first place. But they also considered some darker themes and, on occasion, imitated the Hollywood practice of having a romantic element tacked on.

    They also split into 2 tiers- higher end films and by the 1960s some fairly schlocky films about raids on Rommel and the like.

    The very best two British war films of the day are “The Man Who Never Was”, about the deception operation to cover the invasion of Sicily, and “The Battle of the River Plate”, about the hunt for the Graf Spee. It featured one if not two of the actual 3 RN ships involved in the battle. And a stellar English cast plus Peter Fonda as Captain Langsdorff of the Graf Spee. Stellar stuff, and highlighting the intelligence and diplomatic angles.

  6. Graham says:

    By the 1970s I think there was more or less convergence in Anglo-American production and American post-Vietnam concerns had seeped into everything.

    Oddly, said concerns had also recast British memories of the Great War and had contributed to its being negatively re-evaluated. With the result that British military efforts in all periods were depicted on film as allegories of the crudest possible version of the Trenches or of Indochina.

    The brilliant “A Bridge Too Far” is a case in point. Also based on a book by journalist Cornelius Ryan, one can see it as the spiritual successor of “The Longest Day from over a decade before. The earlier film takes care to depict the failures and griefs of a successful D-Day. The later takes a less successful operation, presents it well, and still manages to add a bit of post-Vietnam sensibility, and even looks forward to contemporary European sensibilities in the narration by the Dutch woman. Excellent film, all the same, and the politics and war and characterization are all played straight.

    I suspect people who had fought in the war could recognize the characters in all war movies to that point as people like them.

    [addendum- from the 1960s, also see "Battle of Britain". Brilliant if a bit didactic, and tacked on love story. Again, looks like real people who could actually have been in the war.]

    Also in the late 70s and an Anglo-American effort, the movie of Jack Higgins’ potboiler “The Eagle has Landed”. A good covert ops thriller, with a nod to the Irish situation in Donald Sutherland’s scene-stealing IRA man Liam Devlin, and a 2 hour love note to a lost England that happens to have a war story embedded in it. And a nod back to “Went the Day Well”. And the other two best characters are German officers- Michael Caine as Col Steiner, and Robert Duvall as Colonel Radl from the Abwehr. Radl and Steiner are the antiheroes of the story, at worst. Heroes, through a certain lens.

  7. Graham says:

    For the 80s I scarcely remember any such movies, US or UK. Lots I liked about that time, but I think that’s when we started to forget the World Wars as real things that real people went through for a whole bunch of reasons, and started to embrace a newer, and more peculiarly American-framed, take on the war.

    I’ll leave some of it aside. But for me, a couple of elements.

    1] The sentimental side. For lack of a better name. Far be it from me to condemn human feeling in the midst of epic crisis, save to note with [maybe] Chesterton that sentiment is the source of both the softest and the cruelest human feelings. [I think it was he who distinguished sentimentality from genuine feeling].

    The making of a film of such brilliance [and it was] about the war, but focused on this peculiar rescue mission rather than on a military objective, is VERY of the 90s and VERY Spielberg. In a different way, a sort of praisework for the Greatest Generation filtered through the feelings of a boomer and presented to an audience of nostalgists who had just noticed we were forgetting the war. [Up here in Canada, there was a long overdue revival of memory around those years, as well.]

    Still it was brilliant, not really an allegory of Vietnam yet again, and worthy of being reviewed. I prefer, on the whole, the similarly done but more thorough “Band of Brothers”. The long form game the Spielberg teams a way to balance their own feelings about things with a range of experiences drawn directly from those men of Easy Company. I still love that series. Also of its time, though.

    2] The pomo angst side. I struggle at the moment to pull up examples but you’ll all know it when you see it. It’s the 21st century’s take on the angst of war, heir to but perhaps less immediate and real than the ideas that went into post Vietnam war films. I haven’t seen many of Hollywood’s widely dinged efforts on Iraq, so not necessarily that. More like Brad Pitt’s character in Fury. I assume such men were there in Europe. But he seems a very contemporary character.

    3] The cartoon side. We live in an era in which our enemies from that time can once again not be approached entirely seriously and must be increasingly presented in caricature, whether funny or supernaturally menacing or both. Spielberg himself more or less started this era with Raiders of the Lost Ark, but that was a very mild dose. We may now be at the point at which the Nazis can only be represented in their comic book forms, either in the sensibility of superhero movies [Captain America et al.] or latter day grindhouse fare [Inglorious Basterds].

    You can of course see the wartime roots of the comic book version, and the 60s-70s roots of Basterds to some degree. [Imagine a dark side Kelly's Heroes.] But these are definitely products of our era in the culture, not before.

  8. Graham says:

    One exception to those trends, if they are trends, was Valkyrie.

    It had its weaknesses, but I thought it little short of brilliant and even Cruise was entirely acceptable in it.

    Other than Holocaust films and foreign films focusing on the personal dilemmas of people caught up in the war [Europe continues to do good work in this genre], I thought Valkyrie might be the last serious major film about a major military event of the war that might get made.

    So imagine my pleasure to hear someone of Nolan’s calibre was making a movie about Dunkirk of all things.

    Yes, it partakes of our times in celebrating survival of a defeat rather than achievement of a victory. But that’s an oddly ancient strand in English/British thinking, so it’s practically a reactionary sentiment.

    I aim to see it tonight and can’t wait.

  9. Graham says:

    Apologies for a couple of typos in all that…

  10. Graham says:

    OK, I saw Dunkirk last night.

    For the record, I was moderately blown away. Positives below.

    It IS a movie of our time, and not only of Noland’s personal fetishes, in its non-linear approach. It is as though we, with him in the lead, like stories to unfold as memories arbitrarily strung together rather than as events observed in real time.

    Relatedly, it could be described as a series of linked vignettes. Which not only is a feature of the nonlinear method, but serves to emphasize the intimacy of personal experience. Nonlinearity and intimate personal experience are concerns very much of our time.

    His decision to scarcely show the enemy, and then only in the form of aircraft [unavoidable] or distant sources of fire, reinforces the intimacy of the various characters’ experience. And the relatively arbitrary nature of what seems to be happening to them, and the sense of contextlessness of the events.

    Apart from these artistic approaches, there are a few other very 21st century aspects of the film. The emphasis on helplessness and isolation, for example, desperation, and in one case paranoia, are very contemporary emphases.

    One or two other things struck me with that, “wow, he sounds like one of OUR people to be saying that” sensation I so often get watching modern movies set in historical periods. But not very strongly. Realistically, they are plausible thoughts for the characters to have had and I have just got an overdeveloped immune system for this sort of thing.

    Having said all that. I recommend this film if you can see it.

    First and foremost, I don’t expect a movie like this to be made on such a subject ever again, with this kind of cast, or highlighting the ideas this movie does. As I said in another context above, this movie also qualifies as a love letter to a lost England.

    Second, the narrative trickery works for this story, once you accept that vignettes, snippets of experience, snatches of ideas, and visual poetry are what Nolan’s going for. The movie builds tension well. Few characters are really developed but they don’t have to be. One knows who each of them is upon meeting them. Mark Rylance [seen in 2015 as Rudolf Abel in Bridge of Spies] might not necessarily agree, but I think his character is practically an English archetype even compared with some of the others.

    I don’t know that Nolan conveys the scale of the evacuation at all well, and that is a weakness. But he conveys other things very well. Including the sense of isolation of the waiting troops, the desperation, the vulnerability of the larger ships, the agony of waiting, the tension of aerial battles.

    In scenes from a Spitfire cockpit or a Dunkirk-bound small boat, with the battle just a pillar of smoke in the distance, the Channel has never looked so wide, desolate, or dangerous.

    The final 15 minutes or so are a thing to behold.

    The score is spare and unassuming. The movie isn’t about it. I gather some audio techniques including a Shepard scale and the synthesized ticking of a pocket watch are used in the tension building. I can attest only that this may have had an effect. Subtle, if so. I most noticed when composed Hans Zimmer worked Elgar’s Enigma Variation “Nimrod” into key moments. And not obviously, either, unless you already know it. It was well done.

    Most of the cast don’t actually have to do very much or say very much, but that poses acting challenges in its own right and the case rose to the occasion very well.

    Curious notes. The characters are noted as being all fictional in the Wiki article on the film, but some are composites. The RN officer on whom Kenneth Branagh’s character is loosely based was a Canadian {!} and was killed at Dunkirk. Rylance’s character and his boat Moonstone are loosely based on the experiences of Charles Lightoller and his boat Sundowner in the real events.

    For those struck by the name, that was indeed the same Charles Lightoller who was Second Officer of RMS Titanic in 1912. Small world.

  11. Graham says:

    One more note-

    A couple of times the movie lays it on a bit thick about how the Brits don’t want to waste space on “British ships” evacuating French troops.

    Considering the circumstances, that is a remarkable emphasis given the actual numbers: 192,226 British and 139,000 French soldiers – 331,226 in all

  12. Faze says:

    The American soldier was ignorant of the events that we now call the Holocaust, but the Nazi party’s hatred of Jews was largely understood and well covered in the major newspapers and newsweeklies beginning in the 1930s. From what I can see, the mainstream attitude of non-Jewish Americans toward Nazi Jew hatred was a mixture of bewilderment, “crazy foreigners” shrug-off, and mild tacit agreement.

    Before the discovery of the death camps, many considered Jew hatred merely one of Mr. Hitler’s many quirky personal obsessions. But I imagine Jewish American servicemen were well aware of it.

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