Even before the bombs started falling on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Hollywood had begun ramping up its production of movies in support of the looming war effort. Hollywood has not stopped making them since.
This year is most notable for the 75th anniversary of the release of Casablanca (1942). By no means a traditional war movie, it captured the mood, patriotism, tension, and romance of the war years in America. It would be difficult to argue that it wasn’t one of the most perfect movies ever made, period. The early film noir sensibilities, the dialog that snaps, the wit, the humanity, the heartache, the characters, the urge to fight Nazism with little opportunity to do it, the compulsion to do the right thing even when the urge to give into your desires is so strong…what’s not to love?!
But enough about Casablanca. Volumes have been written about it during the past 75 years, and volumes more will be written about it in the centuries to come. The accolades of one little blogger don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
On to the other great films!
The thing that is so amazing about World War II is how it touched just about every single human being on this planet and how, for the United States, it lasted for fewer than four complete years. Yet, the war still affects us to this day!
There seem to be six stages of evolution of World War II action films. Although there are some great documentaries, newsreels and government propaganda films, I am going to stick mostly to combat/action films that are fictional or based on real events. I’ll likely slip into some comedy and romance, but it will have a distinct WWII sensibility.
During the war, Hollywood was vital to keeping morale high at home. Many stars such as Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart enlisted and fought. Everybody who stayed behind rallied the nation in movies and in war bond sales. Carole Lombard died in a plane crash while selling war bonds. Bob Hope toured the globe delivering laughs to the troops.
The movies of this time reflected patriotism, grit and a can-do spirit. Leading men all became military heroes in the movies. John Wayne was almost exclusively a cowboy star before the war, but during the war he became a combat pilot in The Flying Tigers (1942), a combat engineer in The Fighting Seabees (1944), a Patrol Boat officer in They Were Expendable (1944) and an infantry officer in Back to Bataan (1945).
Errol Flynn’s last great swashbuckling flick was 1940’s The Sea Hawk, in which Queen Elizabeth closes the film with a call to fighting the foes of Britain with great courage in a thinly veiled analogy to defending Britain during the Blitz that was then underway. From there he fought it out with the Japanese and Germans in Dive Bomber (1941), Desperate Journey (1942), Edge of Darkness (1943) and Objective, Burma! (1945).
Humphrey Bogart, who earned a Purple Heart while fighting in WWI, took it to the enemy on celluloid in Across the Pacific (1942), Passage to Marseille (1944), Sahara (1943) and Action in the North Atlantic (1943).
Everybody was in on the act. Spencer Tracy was in A Guy Named Joe (1943) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944). Cary Grant starred in Destination Tokyo (1943). Even Fred Astaire became a combat pilot for the Flying Tigers in The Sky’s the Limit (1943). Of course, 90% of the movie is about him on leave, romancing a girl with his considerable moves on the dance floor. Still, you do get to see him down at least one Japanese plane before the dancing begins.
The women of Hollywood weren’t left out of the action. Although it was forbidden for women to have combat roles in the war, many worked behind the lines as nurses or in factories. Every lovelorn soldier, sailor, airman and marine wanted to watch the gals in red-hot singing-and-dancing entertainment in films such as Four Jills in a Jeep (1944), The Hollywood Canteen (1944) and The Stage Door Canteen (1943). Claudette Colbert led a stellar cast that included Paulette Goddard and Veronica Lake in So Proudly We Hailed (1943), which is about American military nurses in the Philippines.
After the war came to an end, Hollywood (and the whole nation) tried to make sense of it all. There was so much to process, and the movies took a new direction. These films seem to fall into three styles: docudramas that recreated real events from the war; raw, feel-good action and comedies that dealt with the absurdity of war and military life.
On the serious docudrama side, you have Americans as virtuous good guys drawn into a fight against their wills recreating actual battles and events, which weren’t always rah-rah fun like the first wave of war movies. They maintained a moral righteousness but they began showing the darkness and terror of war. To Hell and Back (1955) is the autobiographical story about Audie Murphy (that stars Murphy as himself) and how he became America’s most decorated soldier in WWII. The Longest Day (1962) recounts the events of D-Day from both the Allied and German points of view. Tora, Tora, Tora (1970) brilliantly depicts the events leading up to and through the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, also from the American and Japanese points of view. The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) is one of only movies where John Wayne’s character is killed. Given how black-and-white some of the narratives of these films are, they don’t always take the full complexity of war into account, but they did an honest job of trying to show what happened and make sense of the war experience—even if they leave war a little too sanitized or too comical, as in The Great Escape (1963) and Steve McQueen’s motorcycle stunting.
Comedy wise, you have an entirely different view of the war. For many active-duty servicemen, they never once encountered an enemy greater than boredom, the opposite sex, bureaucratic nonsense or a narrow-minded sergeant or officer who made their lives hell for no reason other than he could. Seemingly out of these experiences spring a slew of comedies. Operation Petticoat (1959) is a Cary Grant/Tony Curtis laughfest as they lead a damaged pink submarine back to base, after rescuing a squad of attractive Army nurses who drive the sailors wild. Father Goose (1964) has an alcoholic Cary Grant drafted and stranded by the Navy on a deserted Pacific island to act as a lookout to track Japanese ship and plane traffic. To make matters worse, he’s forced to rescue a class of mostly little girls and their hot but annoying teacher from a nearby island under Japanese assault. Forced sobriety and an island now dominated by girls makes surrender to the Japanese look more and more appealing. In What Did You Do During the War, Daddy? (1966) an Army unit agrees to help an Italian village with its annual festival in exchange for their help staging a fake battle to keep them out of the real fighting. Back in the Navy in Mister Roberts (1955) a young officer wants to get into the fighting, but his superiors and men hold him back with increasingly infuriating demands and actions. Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Spencer Tracy, William Powell and many other round-out that all-star cast.
Protesting the senseless loss of life, waste of resources and stupidity of command, the darkly hilarious Catch-22 (1970) satirizes military service in World War II, condemning war in general. Alan Arkin heads up an all-star cast that also includes Anthony Perkins, Bob Newhart, Martin Balsam, Orson Welles and many others.
Ironically, a wave of testosterone-fueled, gritty, feel-good action flicks extolling the heroics of war started coming out around the same time as Catch-22. These were more like capers. Movies such as Von Ryan’s Express (1965), Kelly’s Heroes (1970), Where Eagles Dare (1968) and The Dirty Dozen (1967) helped give rise to or build the careers of Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Jim Brown, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin and Donald Sutherland, while also starring more seasoned stars such as Frank Sinatra, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, Richard Burton, Don Rickles and many others.
By the 1980s, filmmakers starting looking at WWII with a renewed sense of gravitas and the complexity of the emotions and events that transpired. The epic TV mini-series The Winds of War (1983) and its sequel War and Remembrance (1988) took to examining the war through the lens of two families in the U.S. and Europe as the war unfolded. Based on the epic novels by Herman Wouk, each main character witnesses the tragedy and horrors of war from naval life to the Holocaust.
Spielberg furthered his ability to capture the realism of war in Saving Private Ryan (1998). Following the actions of a handful of soldiers from D-Day onward, the audience seemingly experiences first-hand the brutality of war and what it really took to win. It wasn’t rah-rah heroism but a quieter form of heroics pelted relentlessly by fear and death. And the speed with which death acted was intensely fast. No prolonged, romantic deaths for the main characters. Any prolonged deaths were painful, tragic and senseless.
Tom Hanks, who was the star of Saving Private Ryan, later joined Spielberg in creating an even larger WWII epic called Band of Brothers in 2001, which they followed with The Pacific in 2010. Each mini-series showed the unvarnished, gritty reality of war: first in Europe from D-Day until the end of the war and then with Marines who were island hopping until victory over Japan.
A small but key feature of Spielberg’s success is that he blends in the sensibilities of the people of the 1940s while still making them very human and accessible to modern audiences. Other, more recent, war films that succeed in similar ways include Enemy at the Gates (2001), Flags of Our Fathers (2006), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), The Imitation Game (2014) and Defiance (2008).
Hacksaw Ridge (2016) tries really hard to get it right, but it also seems to struggle to connect with the past.
Perhaps, after 75 years, modern actors, directors and screenwriters are growing too far removed from the 1940s’ experience. The WWII genre seems to, once again, be evolving. Too many of these newly evolved films, in my opinion, are just excuses to show violence or sex with better hair and costumes. They don’t take into account the spirit, personality or morality of the 1940s. When they attempt to, it is clownishly ham-handed and cartoonishly fake. Sex seems to be one of the biggest failings in these films. While the fashions of the 1940s made women and men look spectacularly sexy, sleeping around was something not done lightly, particularly by women, as this was an era before legal abortion and the invention of birth control pills. Even condoms were scarce back in that time. Furthermore, communities could be brutal on women who got pregnant before getting married. Given how easily unprotected sex leads to pregnancy, and the shame women would feel for getting pregnant out of wedlock, the sexual mores of the modern era really ring false in so many more recent films.
Some films such as Pearl Harbor (2001) ring false on nearly every level. The same can be said for The Edge of Love (2008), Inglorious Basterds (2009), Fury (2014), Red Tails (2012), The Miracle at St. Anna (2008), The Poet (2007), The Monuments Men, (2014) and many more.
It is almost as if producers say, “Hey! Let’s make another World War II flick. Gullible people eat that $&!* up. To hell with the plot, just get some great costumes and CGI airplanes.”
The future of World War II films is certain. People will keep making them. The time period is too fascinating. The war touched so many lives, there are still millions of stories to tell. Personally, I would love to see a high-quality action flick about the Soviet “night witches,” an all-female squadron of bomber pilots who flew more than 30,000 night missions against the Nazis.
However, the overall WWII genre also seems to be increasingly played out, as the good war movies are getting more and more eclipsed by weaker efforts. Even the good ones seem to feel a little too reliant on recycled themes and plot points. Maybe I have just seen too many. Still, the future is uncertain, and there might be a brilliant war flick on the horizon. If not, we’ll always have Casablanca.
Nathaniel Cerf is addicted to all things related to the Flying Tigers and French Resistance. We would tell you his nom de guerre, but then we’d have to shoot you. You can reach him at Nathaniel.Cerf@aent.com.