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‘Hollywood Also Signed Up’: 80 Years of World War II in Cinema

‘Hollywood Also Signed Up’: 80 Years of World War II in Cinema

No event in human history has fascinated filmmakers so much as the Second World War. One estimate suggests that as of 2014, there have been over 1,300 movies made about World War II, and that number has only grown since then, with two more entries arriving in theaters this year: Sisu, the brutal story of a Finnish miner who slays scores of Nazis to defend himself and his fortune from plunder, and Oppenheimer, a biographical epic examining the fateful mission to construct and wield the atomic bomb.

What sets this conflict apart from the closer-to-home struggles of the American Revolution or the Civil War, or the other oft-portrayed wars in Vietnam or Afghanistan? Is it the sheer scale of the conflict that inspires writers, directors, and producers to continually re-imagine it? The dramatic cultural impressions of its larger-than-life leaders and fighters? And perhaps more importantly, what does this tell us about what America values today?

The World War II film phenomenon did not wait until after the war to begin taking shape. Less than a year after the U.S.’s entry into the war, the federal government established the Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP), which reviewed 1,652 scripts. Their central preoccupation when assessing each film released in America was the question, “Will this picture help win the war?”

The BMP’s censorship decisions influenced the themes of American films toward nationalism and pro-war stances. “The motion picture is the most powerful instrument of propaganda in the world, whether it tries to be or not,” declared Elmer Davis, head of the Office of War Information, which oversaw the BMP.

The government’s determination to sway public opinion through the cinema showed the reality that soldiers were not the only Americans who enlisted to fight in the war. “Hollywood also signed up,” says an article from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., citing Tanner Mirrlees, an associate professor of communication and digital media studies. And as Davis said, “The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into most people’s minds is to let it go through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize they’re being propagandized.”

Post-war, these pro-war positions continued to show up in movies. The Cold War generated a plethora of patriotic World War II films—such as To Hell and Back (1955), which starred war hero Audie Murphy as himself, and The Longest Day (1962), a docudrama epic with a star-studded ensemble cast. The fervent belief in the justness of the American military continued to help movie studios generate prodigious windfall until another war dramatically changed the perception of the military: Vietnam.

After the catastrophically unpopular war in Southeast Asia, it was no longer in vogue to portray warfare as noble or nationalistic. Auteur filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Oliver Stone turned instead to anti-war films that depicted the brutality of military life (as in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket) or the inherent cruelty of the American involvement in the conflict (shown in Platoon or Born on the Fourth of July, both by Stone).

This jaded attitude toward the American military became the new underlying assumption of war films, including those set in World War II, for a generation. However, to undo it all, it took one classic motion picture, perhaps the most iconic World War II film of all time: Saving Private Ryan.

Steven Spielberg’s 1998 drama tells an old-fashioned American story of a small group of loyal, courageous soldiers who overcome the odds to save the life of Private James Ryan, whom they must locate and send home after his three brothers are all killed in the war. As one review at the time said, the movie “suggests — without irony … — that Mom and apple pie were what Americans were fighting and dying for” in World War II.

This rousing, inspiring piece recalled in the minds of its audience the “good war” that, half a century later, Americans were ready to look back on, not with horror or disgust, but with nostalgia. The film looked back on a time when brave men with high ideals gave their life and limb for a greater cause than themselves, for freedom, peace, and their families.

Saving Private Ryan did not erase cynical anti-war movies from the zeitgeist of cinema, but it did revive the tradition of portraying World War II as a fundamentally moral conflict, inspiring patriotic, optimistic war stories such as Pearl Harbor, Hacksaw Ridge, and Band of Brothers.

Today, the cultural notions of war stories, including those from World War II, are still evolving. If cinema is any indication, then Americans today neither uphold the staunch, unyielding nationalism of the war years themselves nor the unforgiving pessimism of the Vietnam era. War movies now give us heroes who are not knights in shining olive green but are instead morally complex soldiers.

“We have not so much lost our faith in human greatness,” wrote sociologist Douglas V. Porpora, “as altered our cultural notion of what greatness is.”

This holds true even this year, with Sisu and Oppenheimer. Sisu depicts a violent anti-hero, and Oppenheimer recounts the morally arguable efforts of a man, whom the film’s trailer describes as “unstable, theatrical, [and] neurotic,” to create a weapon that could destroy the world for the sake of saving it.

Heroes and soldiers are no longer inherently extraordinary beings but “ordinary men in an extraordinary situation who behaved extraordinarily,” as actor Matt Damon said while promoting Saving Private Ryan.

World War II films do not appear to be going anywhere. Sisu and Oppenheimer may be all for this year, but surely 2024 and beyond will give rise to more cinematic interpretations of one of the most prominent conflicts in world history. Doubtless, as the inevitable passing of the final World War II veterans looms in the distance—and the winds of cultural memory change as a result—depictions of the war will present new evolutions in how the United States sees itself, its military, and its values.

The jury is still out on cinema’s final word about the Second World War. The question remains: Does America take pride in its heroes and warriors, or does it try to forget them and the battles they fought to keep American freedom alive?

Image credit: PeakPx, CC0 1.0


Ethan J. Connor
Ethan J. Connor

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