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 second category is the postwar period. This period runs from 1945 to approximately 1965. This category and the next one kind of overlap, but I will mention them separately because they are distinct visions of the war.
The postwar period knows the good guys won. It also knows that it’s in the past. So there’s no need to involve other countries and keep the folks at home involved in buying bonds or supporting our allies overseas. These films focus almost exclusively on Americans, with a few English added for color. They carry over the sensibilities of the war period in that they focus on small groups of soldiers in a specific place. (This is in stark contrast to the next era of war films.) The films also have the advantage of having access to warehouses full of war surplus tanks, Jeeps, planes, uniforms, weapons, etc. Soon after the war the studios invested a lot of money in procuring lots of this stuff, knowing it would make for great movies for years into the future.
These films are also aware that a big portion of their audience actually went to war and were not interested in reliving the actual horrors of the war. This is the era where the soldiers seem to spend more time dancing with pretty girls and brawling with the navy boys than actually fighting the enemy. Sure there is death in the movies, but you will not find much gratuitous violence.
This is the era of the great POW movies. I guess the studios felt comfortable enough dealing with the harsh realities of prison camps than about the realities of the actual fighting. Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape and, my personal favorite of the genre, Stalag 17, were all made in this time period and reflect the sensibility of the time. The Great Escape also sort of fits into the era I will discuss in the next article, but it also fits here.
One classic film that deserves mentioning here is The Best Years of Our Lives. It features the struggle of three veterans returning home from the war. For its era the plot is fairly realistic and it shows the experiences of the characters during the war and how those experiences affect them in their new civilian life. No doubt many veterans identified with this movie. It was the biggest box office hit of the year and won seven Oscars. The film is most famous for the performance of Harold Russell, who really was a soldier in the war and who really did lose both of his hands. Russell's character feels like less of a man and he has trouble connecting with his old girlfriend from before the war. A poignant scene shows Russell taking his shirt off and showing his girlfriend and us in the audience how he was fitted with prostheses. He remains the only person to receive two Oscars for the same performance, one for best supporting actor and another special, one-time award for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.”
My favorite film of this era is one that does not fit the mold of milquetoast action and plot. Attack features Eddie Albert as a cowardly American captain who only got his rank because he is the son of an influential judge back home. He attained his rank because a corrupt colonel played by Lee Marvin wants to get in good with the judge after the war. The men under them all hate both Albert’s and Marvin’s characters, but they have to obey orders, even when Albert’s incompetence leads to some of them being killed unnecessarily. The disgruntled soldiers are led by Jack Palance, who plays a master sergeant who has seen a lot of action and is a better leader than either the conniving colonel or the wimpy captain. "Attack" is by far the most cynical World War II movie made before 1980 I have ever seen, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not well known or widely available, but if you get the chance to see it, take advantage of it. It’s well worth your time.