One man's view of theology, sports, politics, and whatever else in life that happens to interest me. A little bit about me.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Four Eras of World War II Movies, Part Three: The "History Book" Era

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 third category of World War II films is what I call the “History Book” era. This era begins as early as 1960 and extends to about 1980. This era was concerned with historical accuracy above all. They are so accurate and so good at getting the big picture of the war that one could string enough of these together and be pretty well informed on the history of the war. These films focus on specific battles, like Tora, Tora, Tora, A Bridge Too Far, and The Battle of the Bulge, or they are biopics of notable characters. They focus on the top of the chain of command rather than the bottom. In these films the war is not fought so much in the field as it is fought in map rooms, with the main plot being carried forward in high-level meetings rather than action. Significantly, for the first time we see some sympathy for the other side. For example, in Tora, Tora, Tora, we almost feel sorry for Admiral Yamomoto as he grieves over what the attack on Pearl Harbor will do for the American resolve.
This poster from A Bridge Too
Far doesn't tell you anything
about the movie besides a
list of the stars. And a

This era is also characterized by the “cavalcade of stars” approach to big productions. It is not uncommon to see film posters of this era with nothing but a listing of some of the big-time actors who make an appearance in the movie. This approach was true not only in war movies but in all genres of films in this era: think about The Magnificent Seven or The Towering Inferno. The two notable films that kick off this era are Judgment at Nuremberg and The Longest Day. Both feature a long list of notable actors, and they both feature real, historical events.
These films are also of note because they frequently feature real war footage in action sequences rather than staging it. This is especially true for films involving planes and ships. I guess it was easier to film guys in uniforms on the ground than it is to set up an elaborate air or naval battle. A couple of films will even mention in the opening credits that they will feature actual footage in the name of “historical accuracy.” Of course the main reason they spliced in war footage was because it was cheaper than actually building a set and filming the necessary elements. Computer-generated effects were still decades away; you had to really film something in front of a physical camera. In the worst films of this era, it’s obvious the writer went through the supply of free footage, found the most interesting scenes, and wrote the film to fit those scenes. Midway is a good example of this kind of shoddy plot development. 
Another reason for using war footage was because the studios’ supply of war surplus props was running low by this time. It’s funny to see, for example, a general jump into a Jeep in a big hurry and the 25-year-old Jeep chokes and sputters as it tries to start, then smokes like a freight train as it scurries away.
The best movie of the history book era is Patton. It is a textbook case for the history book era. The action out in the field is secondary to the actual plot. The plot is carried forward by Patton’s feuds with Allied generals Montgomery, Bradley and Eisenhower, countered by the attempts of German generals Rommel and Jodl to actually defeat Patton in the field. Yes, we sometimes see actual fighting in the movie, but more important to the plot is military and international politics.

A couple of notable films that don’t fit the mold of this era are The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes. The latter film is an out-and-out comedy, which is kind of weird to think about, but it kind of works, especially if you ignore the 70s pop music and the anachronistic hippie tank driver played by Donald Sutherland. The Dirty Dozen’s sensibilities are from the previous, postwar era but the galaxy of stars lets you know this is definitely a late-60s movie.

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