World War II Remembered through the Movies

September 2, 2014

Most of us “remember” America’s wars less from personal experience or the memories of loved ones who served than through the movies those wars have inspired. And as the generations that fought in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam pass on, the vivid impressions left by those movies become even more primary, their images stamped on our memories in ways that history books or journalism can seldom equal. Books tend to work on the intellectual side of human nature, while motion pictures operate more at the visceral, emotional level. Compressed, intense and immediate, films are an ideal medium for evoking heroism and danger.

This is the subject of my collaboration with Glen Jeansonne, War on the Silver Screen. Our book examines how America’s major military conflicts have been depicted on film from World War I, which coincided with the birth of Hollywood, through the War on Terror.

World War II is an especially good case study. Because moviegoing was a principal form of entertainment during the war years, Hollywood began shaping memories of the conflict as it was being fought. More films have been made about that war than about any other armed hostility in American history. Production of World War II films continued almost unabated for decades, and the popularity of such more recent films as Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List is crucial to popular understanding of the conflict and the era.

With good reason, World War II has endured in memory as “the good war” fought by “the greatest generation.” Hollywood promoted the idea of a good war, building from widespread public sentiment that existed from the moment the United States entered the fight. Unlike the wars America fought in the decades since, World War II was understood not only as a threat to American values but to the existence of America itself. It was a struggle that touched most every American directly, starting with a massive call-up of manpower for the military and continuing through the employment of women in industry and the armed services on an unprecedented scale. The sacrifices of ordinary citizens coping with rationing, gathering scrap metal, and donating blood to the cause made it everyone’s war. Unlike Korea, endured stoically, World War II was embraced with enthusiasm. Unlike Vietnam, World War II did not tear the nation apart along political or generational lines. And unlike the War of Terror and its subsequent operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, “the good war” generated little controversy and no sense of futility. Isolationism as a political movement evaporated on the morning Pearl Harbor was bombed, with ongoing opposition to the war confined to the far right. Americans wanted the war to end as soon as possible, but they wanted to win.

Hollywood responded immediately to Pearl Harbor, with the usual profit motives buoyed by genuine patriotism and profound concern about the consequences of defeat. Most of Hollywood’s studios were owned or managed by Jews, and among the ranks of their employees were such prominent refugees from the pre-Nazi German film industry as Fritz Lang, Peter Lorre, and Billy Wilder. Although later criticized for continuing to distribute movies in Hitler’s Germany until war finally severed the commercial links with Europe, Hollywood had been edging toward a pro-British, anti-Nazi stance despite the condemnation of Congressional isolationists as well as the German regime’s anger. After Pearl Harbor, individuals working in Hollywood, including directors Frank Capra, William Wyler, and John Huston, signed up for the U.S. Army, whose Signal Corps went into the business of making war documentaries. John Ford was already serving in a similar capacity for the U.S. Navy. Before the war ended Jimmy Stewart was flying bombers on missions over Europe, and even Lew Ayres, who garnered negative publicity for his pacifism, volunteered for the Medical Corps. As individuals and as an industry, Hollywood reported for duty. The entertainment business would never again lend such whole-hearted support to an American war.

Hollywood’s role during the conflict was to maintain high morale on the home front; it was also charged with bucking up spirits among Allied civilian populations and swaying neutral nations, especially in Latin America, to the Allied side. But while criticism of the war or its prosecution was as inconceivable as sympathy for the enemy, some of the most memorable films touched a nerve by admitting that not all Americans were on board, or that some—like the United States itself—entered the fray belatedly. A hint of tension with the prevailing mood helped make certain films memorable.

The immortal character played by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942) embodied America’s wary steps toward war. Although the film was scheduled as a routine production, through a happy collision of accidents, Casablanca transcended genre and cliché to become a classic of cinema. A great love story, Casablanca became a paean to the sacrifice expected of Americans during the war when Bogart’s Rick gave up Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa for the cause. Casablanca was also intended as a reminder of the dangers of neutrality and the cold calculation of America’s wartime enemies.

Although villainous Nazi agents were featured in many B pictures, Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942) warned that treason could flourish at the highest levels. Wanted on false charges of setting fire to a West Coast defense plant, the everyman protagonist (Robert Cummings) chased the real saboteur cross country to New York City while evading the police. The villains he encountered came from all walks of life, but included public officials, leading citizens, and members of high society who preferred fascism over democracy.

Most movies accentuated the positive. The most popular home front movie during the war, Since You Went Away (1944), transformed housing shortages into a fun adventure; acknowledging wartime profiteering with a sideways glance, the screenplay concentrated instead on the melodrama of emotional loss with absent husbands and fathers fighting overseas. The combat films often presented U.S. military units as a microcosm of white America, where ethnic groups and religious minorities formerly relegated to second place (Italians, Jews, Roman Catholics) stood on equal ground with their White Anglo-Saxon Protestant comrades against the foe. The war, along with its depiction in Hollywood. was a turning point in America’s ethnic history, discrimination against religious minorities and ethnic groups from southern or eastern Europe became untenable, but progress stopped short of the color line, leaving out African Americans, Latinos, and others. Hollywood waited until the twenty-first century to seriously portray life in a segregated military, with Spike Lee’s combat drama set on the Italian front, Miracle at St. Anna (2008), and the George Lucas-produced story of the Tuskegee Airmen, Red Tails (2012).

Cracks in national unity that sometimes occurred during the war have received little attention from filmmakers. With the exception of the internment of Japanese Americans, these cracks have largely slipped from memory. The Roosevelt administration’s seizure of forty factories and the national rail system to prevent strikes from thwarting the war economy awaits its cinematic debut, as does the intervention of the Army in race riots that erupted in Detroit and Harlem.

Similarly, problems resulting from World War II have seldom been given serious examination by Hollywood. One of the most remarkable exceptions was William Wyler’s examination of the psychological, social, and physical difficulties faced by returning veterans in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). But what America most remembers is one nation united under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s leadership as shown at the conclusion of Pearl Harbor (2001), the towering stature of even controversial commanders as in Patton (1970), and the heroism of G.I.s against the enemy in Saving Private Ryan (1998), as well as countless combat pictures that came before. Departing from the norm for World War II movies, director Clint Eastwood explored the manufacture of public perception with unusual sophistication in Flags of Our Fathers (2006), which depicted the military and the news media manipulating the iconic images of the American flag being raised over Iwo Jima by embattled Marines. Perhaps the theme seemed out of step with the way the public had remembered the war through generations of previous motion pictures, however: Flags of Our Fathers was not a hit at box offices.


David Luhrssen is film critic for the weekly Shepherd Express newspaper and is author or co-author of six books, including Hammer of the Gods: Thule Society and the Birth of Nazism (2012) and Mamoulian: Life on Stage and Screen (2013). He and Glen Jeansonne are co-authors of Elvis Presley: Reluctant Rebel (2011); Changing Times: The Life of Barack Obama (2009) and A Time of Paradox: America Since 1890 (2006).


Photo credit: Insomnia Cured Here