World War II has been the backdrop and setting for movies since it began in 1939. Since there are very few of us alive any more who actually remember or experienced the war, most of the world’s conception of the war comes from film, either documentary or dramatization. When I was younger one of my goals in life was to see every World War II movie ever made. Of course now I realize, especially when looking at this massive list, I’m not ever going to realize that goal.
But I have seen my fair share of WWII movies, maybe more than my fair share. And I have noticed that they generally fit into four eras. Four views of the war that reflect the time, attitudes toward the war, and the sensibilities of the movie industry. There are a few that don’t fit into these categories of course, but for the most part these categories work.
The last category is what I would call the modern era of WWII movies. These movies are somewhat like those of an earlier time in that they focus on interesting stories in smaller units of men rather than sweeping vistas of campaigns, but they also unflinchingly portray the harsh realities of war. These facts do not automatically make them better movies – you will not find many movies of any genre better than Patton or Stalag 17 – but they do reflect changing sensibilities and approaches to movie making.
Why did it take so long for filmmakers and studios to make realistic war movies? I can think of a few factors, the first one being that the World War II generation was getting older and was going to fewer movies. As a rule, WWII veterans tended to deal with their experiences by internalizing them, never speaking of the horrors they saw to anyone. They were not interested in seeing gore and violence portrayed on the screen, since those experiences were almost a hallowed thing that only veterans could understand.
Another factor is the simple fact of the so-called Hays Code. This was a “voluntary” code the Motion Picture Association of America adopted rather than face government censorship of their movies. Movies did not receive a rating, but they all had to pass the MPAA code in order to gain wide distribution. In 1968, the MPAA rescinded the Code and developed the ratings system we know today. Despite that, most WWII films in the 70s remained in the PG category (or even G - the rating system in the 70s was much different from the one we know today, even though they use the same letters), mainly because that was the way WWII movies had always been done.
It was not until movies about Vietnam like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now came out that film makers felt comfortable treading into more controversial territory with WWII movies. To me that is the most important factor. I know I am generalizing, but Vietnam-era veterans were nearly as likely to internalize their experiences. They were less hesitant to discuss them, and they appreciated an honest portrayal on screen. It took movies about a much more recent war to get Hollywood comfortable with taking a fresh look at WWII. This era began with films like The Big Red One and Das Boot, films that featured young men trying to do their duty and survive the horrors inflicted on them by old men in boardrooms.
The best movie of this era is Saving Private Ryan. It’s certainly unflinching in its violence and grit. Yes, it is set against the backdrop of the D-Day invasion, and if you don’t understand the details of the invasion it detracts from your understanding of the movie. But on a deeper level it connects with everyone because hopefully we all are lucky enough to know or have known someone like James Ryan, a man who answered the call to duty, suffered terrible, unspeakable hardship and then came home and lived a productive life despite the horrors of war. Yes, James Francis Ryan, you are a good man.
This era is also the era of the great Holocaust movies. Yes, there was Diary of Anne Frank and Judgment at Nuremberg in previous eras, but neither of those packs the emotional punch of Schindler's List, The Pianist or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. This has a lot to do with the relaxed standards in Hollywood with regard to onscreen violence - both of the former movies were made in the Hays Code era.
A couple of other movies I want to mention here that fit the modern sensibility. Both of them are foreign-language movies. The first is Downfall, a German picture about the last days of Adolf Hitler. This movie is famous for the scene where Hitler screams endlessly about how the war is going. It has been spoofed a million times on YouTube as people change the subtitles to portray Hitler ranting about anything and everything. But there is much more to the movie than that one scene. It shows a delusional, demolished Hitler manically swinging between bouts of depression and confidence that he will ultimately win. No history-book, postwar, and certainly no war-era movie was going to portray Hitler in any kind of sympathetic light, but 60 years is enough time for us to look at his tragic life again.
The other movie I wanted to mention is Letters from Iwo Jima. This is a Japanese-language film directed by Clint Eastwood. It is a companion piece to his American movie Flags of our Fathers. There are a few scenes that are similar in both movies. The American movie is kind of a disjointed mess, very difficult to follow. The Japanese movie is simply better. The story is easier to follow than the American movie, even though most of it is presented in Japanese with English subtitles. It portrays the Japanese general in charge of defending the island and the individual soldiers as honorable men doing their duty for their homeland. I know about Pearl Harbor and about their brutal treatment of Chinese and Koreans, but let’s not forget the Germans actually voted for Hitler. The Japanese didn’t have a choice in their leadership. Not that any participant in the war is excused from the individual atrocities they may have committed, but let’s keep things in perspective.