On the Big Screen
Over the years, virtually every aspect of World War II has been analyzed on the big screen, from the various theaters of war to the Holocaust to life on the home front. Many movies produced during the war years were pure propaganda that played fast and loose with the facts. Hollywood is to be forgiven for this, considering the fact that wartime America went to the movies solely for escapist entertainment and cried out for heroes and happy endings, not reality. It wasn't until after the conflict ended that Hollywood began depicting World War II in more realistic terms.
One of the most compelling and accurate war-era films was William Wellman's The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), which Time magazine called “the least glamorous war picture ever made.” It tells the story of a typical infantry company's battles in Tunisia, Sicily, and Italy and makes wonderful use of actual combat footage. Stars included Robert Mitchum, Wally Cassell, and Burgess Meredith as real-life war correspondent Ernie Pyle.
Harold Russell, who played a disabled soldier in the 1946 movie The Best Years of Our Lives, was a real-life soldier who lost both hands during the war. Russell received two Academy Awards for his performance in the film: one for Best Supporting Actor and a special award “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.”
Hollywood has turned many of the war's most important battles and events into epic motion pictures over the years. The Longest Day (1962), for example, is a star-studded look at the Normandy invasion that runs nearly three hours. The film's cast reads like a Who's Who of Hollywood, and includes John Wayne, Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Robert Ryan, Mel Ferrer, and Sean Connery, among many others. Ken Anna-kin's Battle of the Bulge (1965) is equally grand in its telling of Germany's last desperate push in the Ardennes in December 1944. Featured performers include Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, Robert Ryan, and Dana Andrews. Also compelling is Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), a remarkably realistic look at the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor told from both the American and Japanese perspectives. Directed by Richard Fleischer, Toshio Masuda, and Kinji Fukasaku, the movie is highlighted by some gorgeous cinematography and stunning action footage.
No discussion of American war movies would be complete without a mention of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998). The first twenty minutes of this movie offer a stunning recreation of the American landing on Normandy's Omaha Beach. It's intentionally disorienting — just like real-life combat — and agonizing to watch as soldiers are mowed down by German forces before they are even able to get out of their amphibious transports, lose limbs to enemy fire, and wade through water dyed red with the blood of their fallen comrades. Most veterans say that this sequence, which was filmed in Ireland, contains some of the most realistic combat scenes ever put on film, and the rest of the movie is equally harrowing in its depiction of war. When Saving Private Ryan premiered, the U.S. Veterans Administration offered special counseling at many VA hospitals for World War II veterans who were emotionally affected by it.
Figure 19-1 Tom Hanks in a scene from Saving Private Ryan.
Getty Images/David James/Staff
Other outstanding World War II movies include David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957); John Sturges's The Great Escape (1963); Bryan Forbes's King Rat (1965), based on novelist James Clavell's experiences in a Japanese POW camp; Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One (1980); J. Lee Thompson's The Guns of Navarone (1961); Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen (1967); Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1943); William Wellman's Battleground (1949); William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946); Franklin Schaffner's Patton (1970); and Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg (1961).
Films Made During the War
War-era films of note dealing with the European and African theaters included Lloyd Bacon's Action in the North Atlantic (1943), starring Hum-phrey Bogart and Raymond Massey; Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940), a scathing parody of Adolf Hitler; Archie Mayo's Crash Dive (1943); Billy Wilder's Five Graves to Cairo (1943); David Lean and Noel Coward's In Which We Serve (1943); Zoltan Korda's Sahara (1943); and Howard Hawks's Air Force (1943).
Illustrators such as Alberto Vargas were renowned for their sexy pinups, but the most popular pinup of all was a photograph of actress Betty Grable in a white bathing suit, peering seductively over her shoulder. At the height of the war, the movie studio received 20,000 requests a week from servicemen for Grable's photograph. Other popular pinup gals included Rita Hayworth and Jane Russell.
The Pacific theater was also a popular subject for war-era movies. Some of the best included Tay Garnett's Bataan (1943); Edward Ludwig's Fighting Seabees (1944), starring war film icon John Wayne; Lloyd Bacon's The Fighting Sullivans (1942); Lewis Seller's Guadalcanal Diary (1943); Raoul Walsh's Objective, Burma! (1945); Mark Sandrich's So Proudly We Hail (1943), which examines the American retreat through the Philippines to Corregidor through the eyes of three army nurses; John Ford's They Were Expendable (1945), again starring John Wayne; and Mervyn LeRoy's Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944), featuring Spencer Tracy as Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle.
Interestingly, many of Hollywood's top directors and other creative talents made films specifically for the armed forces. One of the best known is the Why We Fight series, developed by Frank Capra and written by Julius and Philip Epstein, who also worked on Casablanca, Mr. Skeffington, and The Man Who Came to Dinner. The series was pure propaganda designed to explain to servicemen in simple terms America's involvement in the war, and Capra pulled out all the stops, using archival photographs, animation, reenactments, and even scenes from German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl's tribute to Nazism, Triumph of the Will. There were seven films in the series, required viewing for all servicemen headed overseas. The shorts proved so popular that they were eventually released theatrically for civilian audiences.
Many movie stars, musicians, athletes, and entertainers helped the war effort by promoting war programs, entertaining troops, and even joining the service. Famous stars who enlisted include Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Raymond Massey, Burgess Meredith, Victor Mature, and Leslie Howard. Many legendary athletes also joined, including Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio, and Ted Williams.
Many outstanding foreign films also examine various aspects of World War II. One of the finest is Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot (The Boat) (1981), which provides an incredible glimpse of life aboard a German U-boat. The film is wet, claustrophobic, disturbing, and utterly fascinating. On the other side of the world, Ken Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain (1959) presents an intriguing look at the war in the Pacific from the Japanese perspective. A scathing indictment of war in general, the film examines the Japanese retreat from the Philippines in the waning days of World War II through the eyes of one soldier.