Frank J. McAdams. The American War Film: History and Hollywood. Los Angeles: Figueroa Press, 2005.
Movies reflect the culture and public attitudes in existence when films are produced. This book explores war films. These films reflected how people thought then of war. War films both stir people to enlist and fight war, as well as to protest and resist war.
Movies can directly impact war policy. Nixon in 1970 had his advisors join him in seeing a movie about a strong General, “Patton”, before they debated and decided to bomb Cambodia.
The first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, in 1929, was “Wings”, a war movie that featured aerial combat scenes.
The first war film was “Tearing Down the Spanish Flag”, a 1898 patriotic propaganda short film on the Spanish American War. This was a drama set in a historical background.
In 1915, “The Birth of a Nation” movie concerned the Civil War. The film enthralled audiences by combining romantic and tragic stories in a historical context from a half century earlier. President Woodrow Wilson declared this movie as “history written in lightening”. This film generated great controversy for its positive presentation of the Ku Klux Klan. Several groups of African Americans protested and rioted against the film in several cities.
World War I saw the rise of several propaganda films that boosted the war effort. “Heart of the World” released in 1917 included scenes depicting enemy Germans ravishing French and Belgium communities.
“The Girl Who Stayed Home” portrayed the battlefield heroics of a man who went to war against his father’s wishes that he instead have remained home.
After World War I, films looked back at what happened. The pro-war propaganda diminished and the war was seen in reflection by society and in film. In 1921, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” presented a more realistic of war by presenting that death and famine occurred during the war.
“The Big Parade”, released in 1925, which grossed more than any movie before it, showed that death occurs in battle scenes and informed the audience of the postwar trauma that afflicted many returning soldiers. The film resonated with many veterans who identified with what was depicted.
“What Price Glory?” allowed audiences to see depictions of the horrors of trench warfare, which caught some off-guard as the scenes followed a comedic build-up. Many who saw the film debated and agreed with the film’s message that war is older men sending younger men to fight and die.
In 1930, Howard Hughes presented “Hell’s Angels”. This film had a $4 million production cost ($100 million in 1990 dollars) that included dramatic aerial combat scenes. The popularity of this film that presented war as exciting helped solidify public support for American military involvement in Central America that was occurring at that time.
Also released in 1930 was “All Quiet on the Western Front”. This film ended with its main character, a soldier, killed by a sniper while reaching for a butterfly. This memorable sad ending to a film stirred feelings for pacifism. It also stirred a counter-reaction by pro-military advocates who argued against the film’s message. In Gernany, the Hitler Youth demonstrated inside theaters against showing the film. When the Nazis took power in 1933, Germany banned any showing of the movie.
Nazi Germany saw the benefits of presenting propaganda films to the public. In 1935, “Triumph of the Will” was released to stir support for Hitler.
“The Charge of the Light Brigade” was also released in 1935. This film was based on the 1854 Crimean War. It took great liberties with facts in its depiction of a British cavalry that was wiped out in battle. Actor Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling captured audience support.
In 1937, “All Quiet on the Western Front, the Road Back” was released as a sequel. It presented veterans adjusting to their postwar lives. There was protests against this film as well in Germany.
“The Last Train from Madrid” was released in 1937. It helped inform audiences about the growing Fascist movement especially in Spain and throughout Europe.
“Gone with the Wind” was released in 1939 and depicted the South during the Civil War and was an enormously popular film.
In 1939, the United States was neutral in the European conflicts. Warner Brothers issued a public statement that they would not create any propaganda films and then proceeded to ignore this statement shortly afterwards by releasing “Confessions of a Nazi Spy”. The German government claimed this movie violated international laws regarding neutrality/
Several more films released in 1940 helped stir support for building the American military to prepare for war. “The Fighting 69th” depicted the bravery of an Irish American regiment in World War I.
MGM’s “The Mortal Storm” showed how the Nazis were harming German society. Germany retaliated by burning all MGM films.
After the United States entered World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt encouraged movie studio executives to produce war films that generated public support for the war effort. The Federal government also created the Bureau of Motion Pictures that worked with movie studios in creating military training and informational films. Censorship prevailed, and movies were prohibited from showing bloody battle wounds or negative portrayals of the military. He films also widely depicted the enemy as psychotic Nazis and subhuman “Japs”.
:A Yank in the RAF” and “I Wanted Wings” both released in 1941 successfully aimed to encourage viewers to enlist or support others enlisting in the military.
“Sergeant York” about a World War I hero also was released and helped stir patriotic sentiment.
1942 saw the release of more pro-military films. This included “Man Hunt” about a hunter desiring to shoot Hitler.
“Desperate Journey” was about escaping from a German prison campgin.
“Captains of the Clouds” was about a Canadian pilot war hero.
“Flying Tigers” was about Americans volunteering for the Chinese Air Force.
“Across the Pacific” was a war spy film.
“Joe Smith, American” was about a factory worker who helps the FBI capture Nazi spies.
“Mrs, Miniver” showed British resolve against the Nazis and reassured audiences that England would be a strong ally worthy of aide. This film won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1942.
“”Somewhere I’ll Find You” was about the war effort in Indochina.
“To Be or Not to Be” was a comedy that mimicked Hitler.
“Yankee Doodle Dandy” was a musical with patriotic songs and even depicted President Roosevelt.
“Wake Island” was about Marines fighting the Japanese.
“Sabateur” was about combating Nazi factory sabotage.
The most memorable war film of 1942 probably is “Casablanca”. It was about life under Nazi occupation. It is credited with stirring much public support for the war effort. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture the following year. Fiction and reality would mix as Casablanca, one week after the was released, would be the location where Roosevelt and Churchill would meet and agree on joint war plans.
In 1943, Roosevelt requested the motion picture industry to make more films that boosted the war effort.
The Czech commando assassination of Reich Protector Richard Heydrich, who had ordered mass executions of Czechs and Jews, was heralded in two films released in 1943, “Hitler’s Madman” and “Hangmen Also Die!”.
1943 also saw the release of “Hitler’s Children” about Nazi sterilization and brainwashing programs. Ironically, some thought the movie, which speculated what was happening, was exaggerated propaganda when later it was learned what was really happening was far worse.
“Five Graves in Cairo” presented the war effort in northern Africa.
“Air Force” was a movie that the Army Air Force suggested be made.
Roosevelt requested “Mission to Moscow” be produced. The film was intended as propaganda to stir pro-Soviet sentiments as part of Allied efforts to keep the Soviet Union in the alliance. Roosevelt appears as himself in the movie. The movie, though, lied about the existence of Soviet mass executions. The film would be condemned during the McCarty era and its screenwriter was blacklisted.
“Action in the North Atlantic” showed the Merchant Marines in action.
“The Immortal Sergeant” showed military action in North Africa.
“Bataan” presented the fight against the Japanese in the Philippines.
“Cry Havoc” told how nurses serving in the Philippines ultimately were killed by the Japanese.
“A Guy Named Joe” was about the Army Air Force. It’s ending that showed a single pilot flying into action was criticized for violating military directives that movies depict the military effort as requiring teamwork.
“Gung Ho!” was about the combat actions of a Marine Captain.
“Destination Tokyo” and “Crash Dive” were submarine action movies.
Women supporting the war effort were highlighted in “So Proudly We Hail” about an Army nurse and “Flight for Freedom” about a female aviator.
“Form Whom the Bell Tolls” was about the fight against Fascism during the Spanish Civil War.
“Watch on the Rhine” depicted German espionage within America.
“Lifeboat” was about survivors of a submarine sunk by a U-boat. The movie drew critics as a German Nazi survivor has a strong role. The director Alfred Hitchcock sought to warn audiences that the Germans were not caricatures that should be consider lightly.
1944 was the release of more movies boosting the war effort. “The Fighting Seabees” was released to salute workers who built airfields on islands. The Federal government required this film to be rewritten as they were unhappy with the initial portrayal of female journalist who expressed strong opinions.
“Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” and “The Purple Heart” both depicted the Army Air Force bombings of Japan.
“The Story of Dr. Wassell” presented a doctor who saved lives after the Pearl Harbor attack. The release of the film was delayed due to Navy inaction in taking the time to view and approve this film.
“Since You Went Away” was designed to gain public support for civilian comfort sacrifices for the war effort.
“Tomorrow the World” was about a couple who adopts a 12 year old German who grew up with Nazi philosophies and sympathies. The ignorant boy was to inform audiences about Nazi plans for domination and dealing with “undesirable races”.
“The White Cliffs of Dover” was about the resolve of the British surviving the war.
In 1945, “God is My Co-Pilot” was released. It was designed to insinuate to audiences that God is on the side of the Allies.
1945 also saw films that presented more realistic images of the costs of war. “They Were Expendable” was about PT boats and showed the high mortality rate of those serving on them.
“The Story of G.I Joe” presented the story of a combat war correspondent and showed this hero character killed in combat.
“A Walk in the Sun” was a combat film where the hero also dies at the film’s end.
After the war was over in 1945, war films continued being presented. Many of these post-war films no longer were pro-war propaganda films, as that was no longer needed. Instead, society and films reflected the issues of returning veterans. Some films began looking back and raised questions on the stress of war and even corruption within the military
In 1946, “Blood on the Sun” was released. This movie presented Japanese plans for world domination and presented justifications for the war effort against Japan.
“”The House on 92nd Street” presented a Nazi spy story.
“Objective Burma” concerned soldiers fighting the Japanese. The film is noteworthy in that the British soldiers were showed in a negative light. England refused to allow the film to be shown there until 1952, and only then following a studio apology for its portrayal of the British.
“Pride of the Marines” was based on a true story of a few solders who held off over 200 Japanese soldiers.
“Captain Eddie” told of the story of World War I hero Eddie Rickenbacker surviving 22 days adrift in the ocean during World War II.
The documentary films “With the Marines at Tarawa”, “The Fighting Lady”, and “The Battle of San Pietro” gave audiences a look at some military events. It is noted, though, that it was not until “Saving Private Ryan” was produced in 1998 did audiences ever see a realistic portrayal of battlefield conditions.
The documentary “Let There Be Light” scheduled for release in 1946 dealt with battlefield fatigue (later labeled posttraumatic stress disorder) suffered by former soldiers in a psychiatric hospital ward. The Army objected to this film being released. Before its scheduled first showing, Military Police seized the film and refused to allow it to be shown. This use of military censorship kept the film from being shown for 35 years.
“The Best Years of Our Lives” presented some issue returning veterans faced. This film cast Harold Russell, a non-actor who lost both hands, in this film. Russell won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor,
“13 Rue Madeleine” was a movie presenting the much rumored American intelligence efforts in assisting the French resistance.
1947 saw the rise of movies that were not centered on war yet war was an important background to the story. “Calcutta” was such a murder mystery film.
“The Beginning of the End” had a storyline involving atom bomb scientists.
In 1948, “Homecoming” showed a doctor called to war.
“The Search” had a story about a soldier caring for a boy left orphan by the war. This film won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay.
“Fighter Squadron” was a movie about aerial combat that used actual war footage.
“Crossfire” represented a sudden change in film portrayals of soldiers. For the first time, some American soldiers were negatively presented in this story of soldiers who murder a man because he is Jewish.
1949 saw the film “Home of the Brave” show racial hatred within the Army ranks.
The film “Task Force” was critical of prewar society for not having a Navy properly prepared for the possibility of war.
“Sands of Iwo Jima” was about Marines training and then fighting at Iwo Jima.
“Battlefield” was about the 101st Airborne Division and was filmed using actual veterans of that division. The film depicts a famous scene where a Nazi truce party sought this division’s surrender, their General’s response was “nuts”. Since the word “nuts” was on the list of censored words prohibited to be stated in movies, the censor board had to be persuaded to allow this historic fact to be included in this movie.
War films continued being produced in 1950 with the release of “Twelve o’Clock High” about aerial battles.
1950 also saw the release of “The Men” that concerned a wounded soldier readjusting to civilian life.
“Hells of Montezuma” was about Marine combat.
Also in 1950, “The Red Badge of Courage”, about the Civil War, was released. This film showed some of the problems of war and enticed audiences to debate the desirability of returning to war.
1951 saw the release of “The Steel Helmet” and “Fixed Bayonet” which were about the U.N. forces in Korea. These films reflected the beginnings of growing American involvement in the Korean War.
“Bright Victory” was about a bigoted soldier who is blinded in action and then befriends a blind African American soldier.
“Decision before Dawn” was a spy movie that allowed audiences to see how Nazism destroyed lives for many Germans. This was the first postwar film to open discussion of how the German people had suffered during the war.
“Force of Arms” showed a love story between a wounded soldier and a nurse.
“Flying Leathernecks” presented the story of Marine fighter pilots.
1952 brought “One Minute to Zero” and “Retreat, Hell!” about the ongoing Korean War. The Army provided actual footage for the film “One Minute to Zero”.
1952 also presented a remake of “What Price Glory?”
1953 presented “From Here to Eternity” which was based on infantry life just before World War II began. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
“Stalag 17” was a comedic portrayal of prisoners of war.
1954 saw “The Caine Mutiny” about service on a mine sweeper ship and presented the issue of someone lacking the qualifications and abilities to handle wartime command.
1955 brought “Battle Cry”, a love story in a war setting.
“The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell” was about a 1926 trial of a Colonel who criticized the military for its lack of preparation in not devoting enough attention to aerial strength. Billy Mitchell had also warned that Pearl Harbor was vulnerable to attack by Japanese battleships.
“Mister Roberts” also raised the issue of poor military leadership.
“To Hell and Back” told about war hero Audie Murphy, the most decorated solider in World War II.
1957 brought “Paths of Glory” about the World War I attacks at Verdun where 700,000 French and Germans died with little change in battlefield position for either side. The films presented a true history of three French soldiers made an example in kangaroo court and then executed. They were chosen randomly among soldiers who had displeased Generals when the soldiers refused to carry forth orders for suicide missions.
“Attack” explored the issue of inept military command that seemed more concerned about the political results of command decisions even if it meant higher soldier deaths that otherwise could have been avoided. The military refused to provide any assistance to this film.
A remake of “Farewell to Arms” was presented.
“Heaven Knows Mr. Alison” contrasted a Marine and a nun who found themselves stranded together on an island where they must keep themselves hidden from Japanese soldiers living on the island.
“Darby’s Rangers” told of a battalion that fought in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy.
1958 saw the release of “Run Silent”. Run Deep” about adversarial relationships aboard a World War II submarine.
1959 saw “Never So Few” about a fictional guerilla unit. This film explored the issue of corruption in Chiang Kai-skek’s Chinese government.
“They Came to Cordura” was about an army officer in Mexico in 1916.
“The Diary of Ann Frank” was about a Jewish family hiding from the Nazis. The film helped raise awareness about Nazi atrocities.
1960 saw the release of “The Gallant Hours” about the World War II battles at Guadalcanal.
“All the Young Men” explored racism during the Korean War.
“The Alamo” showed the battle of soldiers in 1835 at the Alamo against the Mexican army.
In 1961, “Judgment at Nuremberg” was a fictionalized account of the trials of Nazi war criminals.
“The Outsider” presented an account of the World War II battle at Iwo Jima.
In 1962, the fictional “The Manchurian Candidate” presented a story of a soldier who is psychologically programmed to become a political assassin. The film raised issues about the Cold War. The film was withdrawn for viewing for several decades after President Kennedy was assassinated the following year.
“The War Lover” was about B-17 pilots in World War II. Actual war film footabe was included in this movie.
“War Hunt” was set in the Korean War. It raised issues about the manner in which war is sometimes conducted.
“The Longest Day” presented the Normandy invasion during World War II.
“Lawrence of Arabia” presented the Arab revolt against Turkey during World War I. This film was the Academy Award for Best Picture.
1964 saw “The Americanization of Emily” released, which raised issues of how politicians can adversely affect combat decisions. This film was the first film that questioned war released during the publicly controversial Vietnam War. It also seems as if the controversy decreased audience appeal for war movies as fewer were released in succeeding years.
“Dr. Strangelove” was a comedy satire of the Cold War.
1966 saw the release of the film “Is Paris Burning” about the Allied invasion of Paris during World War II.
1967 brought the release of “The Dirty Dozen” about felons awaiting execution who accepted a dangerous military mission.
“The Night of the Generals” presented a fictional story of a Nazi General who was also a serial killer.
There was a rise of counterculture films during the Vietnam War. During the war, just one war film regarding the war that was supportive of the war effort was released. This was “The Green Berets”, which was released in 1968.
“Patton” released in 1970 presented the life of General George Patton, a leading World War II General.
Films questioning war were released in 1970. “Catch-22” questioned the sanity of fighting war.
“M*A*S*H” was set during the Korean War and mocked the Cold War military mentality.
After the Vietnam War ended, several movies critical of the war were released.
“Coming Home” released in 1978 presented the difficulties of a soldier who became a paraplegic during the Vietnam War.
“The Deer Hunter” released in 1979 showed the violence of war.
“First Blood” released in 1982 was a military action movie that portrayed a solider as psychotic.
“Uncommon Valor” released in 1983 examined fighting in Vietnam. It also let audiences see what training methods were like.
“The Killing Fields” released in 1984 showed audiences the genocide in Cambodia.
“Rambo: First Blood” released in 1985 concerned the issue of Vietnam soldiers who were prisoners of war.
“Platoon” released in 1986 opened discussions on what fighting in Vietnam was like. Some were horrified by the brutality while other objected that the movie showed only a small portion of the war.
“Hamburger Hill” released in 1987 concerned a battle during the Vietnam War.
“The Hanoi Hilton” concerned American soldiers held as prisoners of war.
“Good Morning, Vietnam” concerned an armed services radio disc jockey in Vietnam.
In 1989, “84 Charlie Mopic” was a realistic portrayal of airborne combat during the Vietnam War.”
“Born on the Fourth of July” showed the difficulties that returning veterans faced and the life that some who spoke out against the war experienced.
“Casualties of War” raised moral questions as this movie presented combat soldiers who commit rape.
1990 saw the release of “Dances with Wolves” about a Civil War hero who explores Native America territory and develops sympathy for the Native Americans who he knows will soon be overrun by American settlers and soldiers. This film won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
“Gettysburg” was released in 1993. This film was about the Civil War battle of Gettysburg.
“Schindler’s List” presented some of the horrors of the Holocaust. This film won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
In 1998, “Saving Private Ryan” presented a realistic portrayal of combat during World War II and the bloody results of battle. This was the first film to have such graphic realistic depictions.
“A Bright Shining Lie” presented the Vietnam War story of a General who questions Vietnamese government corruption.
“Three Kings” released in 1999 was the first movie set during the Gulf War.
In 2000, “Rules of Engagement” concerned both the Vietnam War as well as combat in Korea.
“U-571” concerned submarine warfare and code breaking during World War II.
“The Patriot” was based on the Revolutionary War. Some historians debated the inaccuracies of historical composites of real people and events.