7 minute read

War and Peace in the Arts

The World Wars In Film

From the earliest years of moving pictures the topic of war provided exciting and attractive material. At first, directors "restaged" current events such as the Spanish-American War, the Boxer Rebellion in China, or the Boer War in South Africa in order to entertain and "inform" movie-goers. During World War I all sides rushed propaganda movies into production in order to show the enemy in the worst possible light and to bolster popular support for the war. The need of the modern military for intelligence and training required people skilled in photography, so it is ironic that many individuals who would go on to make war movies in the 1920s and 1930s (sometimes anti-war movies) got their training during World War I serving in military intelligence. One such individual was the American Lewis Milestone who went on to make the classic antiwar movie All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).

Important films about World War I include William Wellman's Wings (1927) with its spectacular and thrilling aerial combat sequences; Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front, which defined the genre of the anti-war film for decades to come; Jean Renoir's The Grand Illusion (1937), a subtle French film about how class, race, and language divide men even more than nationality; Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957), which shows how ambitious generals use war to promote their own careers at the expense of the enlisted men; Joseph Losey's King and Country (1964), a grim film that questions the British policy of executing soldiers for suffering mental breakdown under extreme combat stress or "shell shock"; and Peter Weir's Gallipoli (1981), which forces Australians to question the wisdom of fighting for the concept of "Empire" so far from home.

During World War II Hollywood threw its whole-hearted support behind the war effort and produced a large number of "combat films" designed to boost recruitment into the armed forces and morale on the home front. The formula for these movies was to take a diverse group of "typical Americans" (e.g., an Italian from New York, a Texan, a midwesterner, a Californian, a Jew, an Hispanic, and so on) and show how they overcame their differences to become a coherent fighting unit dedicated to achieving the government's war aims. Typical of this genre is Bataan (1943), directed by Tay Garnett, and Guadalcanal Diary (1943), directed by Lewis Seiler.

Only rarely toward the end of the war and occasionally afterwards did more critical and thoughtful films emerge that looked beyond the established stereotypes. John Ford's They Were Expendable (1945) hints at the futility of what some men were asked to do, while Sam Fuller's autobiographical film The Big Red One (1980) suggests that personal survival and loyalty to the platoon is what motivated men, not grandiose schemes dreamed up by politicians; Keith Gordon's A Midnight Clear (1992), based upon William Wharton's autobiographical novel set during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, suggests that fear, chaos, and incompetence determined the outcome of battle.

Hollywood continued to produce blockbuster movies about World War II well into the 1960s, until the Vietnam War began to sour the taste for celebratory war movies. The Longest Day (1962), directed by a committee of Andrew Marton, Ken Annakin, and Bernhard Wicki, based on the book by Cornelius Ryan about the Normandy invasion in June 1944, and The Battle of the Bulge (1965), also directed by Ken Annakin about the last counterattack by the Germans in December 1944, were the last gasp of this type of World War II movie.

The European and Japanese perspective on World War II was quite different, as one might expect. Societies that either had done the conquering and occupying (like Germany and Japan), or had been conquered, occupied, and then divided into resistors and collaborators (like the French, Italians, Poles, Russians, and so on) would be expected to see the war in a different light than the Americans, Britons, and Australians who had not been conquered and occupied.

German war films about World War II have been understandably few and far between. In the last months of the Nazi regime, enormous resources were expended in the making of "historical films" like Kolberg (1945), directed by Veit Harlan; these were designed to rally the German people to one last stand against the "invading" allied armies by reminding them of successful heroic last stands put up by German Baltic towns like Kolberg as Napoleon was marching toward Moscow. But generally Germans preferred to forget the war years as they rebuilt their lives and enjoyed the benefits of the post-war economic miracle. Low budget films like Bernhard Wicki's Die Brücke (The Bridge; 1959) sometimes appeared but they were rare. Wicki shows a group of conscript teenage boys forced to pointlessly defend a minor bridge against advancing American tanks as the Nazi regime crumbles. Death for all naturally ensues. Higher production values were used to make Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum; 1979), directed by Volcker Schlöndorff and based on the novel by Günter Grass, but the point it may have been trying to make is lost in the bravura performances of the cast. A major international success came with the submarine drama Das Boot (The Boat; 1981), directed by Wolfgang Petersen, which brilliantly shows the claustrophobic nature of submarine warfare in the Atlantic, but which completely clouds the issue of why men fought so desperately for the Nazi regime. It took an American director, Sam Peckinpah, notorious for his violent westerns, to take a German autobiographical novel about the appalling conflict on the Eastern Front and turn it into a film designed to debunk comfortable Hollywood films about World War II—Cross of Iron (1977). Its depiction of the brutal fighting on this front is only equaled by the Russian director Elem Klimov's Idi i smotri (Come and See; 1985).

The French were also reluctant to confront the painful issues raised by defeat, collaboration, and resistance. An early film by Réné Clément, La Bataille du Rail (1946), depicts French railway workers as resistance fighters, and thus by extension all French people as heroic, thereby glossing over the issue of collaboration or apathy. A later film by Clément, Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games; 1952), follows parentless children traumatized by the 1940 invasion of France as they retreat into parodies of Catholic death and the burial rituals, their subjects deceased farm animals.

The very few Japanese films about World War II did not appear until the late 1950s as the Japanese people, like the German people, either strove to forget the war or were prevented by the censorship laws of the occupying Americans, which forbade patriotic war films or films that were critical of the United States. Kon Ichikawa made a pair of disturbing films, Biruma no tate-goto (The Harp of Burma; 1956), about a Japanese soldier in Burma who refuses to be repatriated with his unit at the end of the war until he has made amends by dressing as a Buddhist monk, searching out the unburied corpses of the war dead and burying them himself; and Nobi (Fires on the Plain; 1962), about a soldier who is trapped in the jungle by the advancing American forces in the Philippines, in February 1945, and is forced to endure hunger and disease rather than surrender. At the same time, Masaki Kobayashi made a nine-hour trilogy, Ningen no joken (The Human Condition; 1959–62), about a young man who worked as a manager in a mine in Manchuria that uses Chinese slave labor; he is conscripted to fight in the Imperial Japanese Army in China and endures the brutality of Japanese army discipline, and then, after the Japanese army collapses, is forced to walk back to his homeland to escape the advancing Red Army. After this very promising start, Japanese treatment of war in film virtually disappears as the "economic miracle" of the 1960s preoccupies everyone's mind. So when distribution in 1990 is sought for Blood Oath (directed by Stephen Wallace, it is also known as Prisoners of the Sun), an Australian film about the brutal treatment of POWs on the island of Ambon in Indonesia, few Japanese people have ever heard of these events (Japanese school textbooks carry no mention of them) and no mainstream cinemas are willing to show the film.

After having dropped out of fashion due to the traumas resulting from the Vietnam War, the World War II movie made a come-back in the late 1990s with Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998). This film cleverly combines many elements of the traditional World War II combat movie with just a hint of the criticism that had emerged previously in films like Fuller's The Big Red One, namely that men fight more for their immediate comrades and in order to survive, rather than for abstract, lofty ideals.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Verbena Family (Verbenaceae) - Tropical Hardwoods In The Verbena Family to WelfarismWar and Peace in the Arts - The Military Leader, The Heroic Soldier, Civilian Casualties In War, The World Wars In Film