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. There are some that don’t quite fit, of course, but for the most part these categories work. This series focuses primarily on American films.
The first category is the War era. These were films made during the war, from about 1940 (remember the U.S. did not officially enter the war until December 1941, but it was obvious we supported the Allies from the beginning) until 1945 or so.
It is unfair to blanketly state that all the films from this era were for propaganda purposes, but I’m going to say it anyway. The government did not expressly tell the movie companies what to make, but they did apply pressure to make sure the movies were helpful to morale, both of the troops in the field and the people at home. They were to portray Americans and the rest of the Allied nations positively as they bravely stood against the evil hordes of the enemy. For the first couple of years the war went very badly for the Allies, so the films that showed action tended to portray small army units or a single navy ship defeating their enemy at hand. The overwhelming majority of these movies are so unmemorable that they are almost impossible to find these days.
The more memorable movies from this era are the ones that portrayed civilian life in some form or fashion. Lots of movies were made that depicted someone being falsely (or rightfully) accused of being an enemy spy, but lots of filmmakers successfully used that premise to make a thrilling movie. The unsubtle implication of these movies was that there may be spies all around us, and we must be ever watchful.
The best movie from this era is the one that I consider the best movie ever made, Casablanca. It might not jump to mind immediately as a blatantly propagandist film, but there are some key elements. The most obvious element is the celebration of the French as loyal allies. The reputation of the French took a beating when Germany swiftly defeated them. The propagandists were going out of their way to show that while France might be in enemy hands, the French people were still with our side. In the film, even though the hero, Victor Laszlo, is Czech, he seems to know French well enough to loudly lead the group in singing La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. And in the end, the events of the film were enough to persuade the neutral Captain Renault to join the Free French.
Also notice the multitude of characters from various Allied nations portrayed in the movie. I already mentioned that Laszlo is Czech. Ilsa is from Norway, Karl and the funny old married couple are from Denmark, Sacha the bartender is Russian, Ugarte is Romanian, and then there is the plucky young married couple from Bulgaria. All of these countries were victimized by the Germans during the war.
Another film from the war era that bears mentioning is Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. This film was actually made in 1940, before the U.S. joined the war. Chaplin, a Jew, portrays a character obviously a send-up of Adolf Hitler. Chaplin had more insight into Hitler’s evil than most of the leaders of Europe did. It plays like a propaganda piece now, because we all agree Hitler was an evil man. But in 1940 there were plenty of Americans who thought of Hitler as a popularly-elected Kaiser Wilhelm, a narcissist with delusions of greatness. Chaplin’s film took great courage and vision in a time when Hollywood lacked both.