From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"We might even wonder whether ... the whole of the Second World War…was not indeed conducted as a big budget war film, solely put on so it could be projected as newsreel each evening in his [Hitler's] bunker…" --Die freudlose Gesellschaft, 1981, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg.
War film is a film genre concerned with warfare, usually about naval, air or land battles, sometimes focusing instead on prisoners of war, covert operations, military training or other related subjects. At times war films focus on daily military or civilian life in wartime without depicting battles. Their stories may be fiction, based on history, docudrama or, occasionally, biographical.
The term anti-war film is sometimes used to describe films which bring to the viewer the pain and horror of war, often from a political or ideological perspective.
1920s and 1930s
An early notable war film is Charles Chaplin's Shoulder Arms made in 1918. The film set a style for war films to come and it can be considered the first comedy about war in film history. Films made in the years following World War I tended to emphasise the horror or futility of warfare, most notably The Big Parade (1925) and What Price Glory? (1926). With the sound era, films like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Howard Hawks' Road to Glory (1936) and Grand Illusion (1937), focused on the futility of war for non-American soldiers whilst Hollywood produced American soldiers featuring in World War I comedies such as Buster Keaton's Doughboys (1930) and Wheeler & Woolsey's Half Shot at Sunrise (1930), or exciting tales of the U.S. Marine Corps putting down rebellions in Central America, China, and the Pacific Islands in films like Frank Capra's Flight (1930), The Leathernecks Have Landed (1936) and Tell it to the Marines (1926 film). Other films focused on the drama inherent in the new technology and fading chivalry of aerial combat in films such as Wings (1927), Hell's Angels (1930) and The Dawn Patrol (1930 and 1938 versions).
The first popular war films during the Second World War came from Britain and Germany and were often documentary or semi-documentary in nature. Examples include The Lion Has Wings and Target for Tonight (British) and Sieg im Westen (German).
By the early 1940s, the British film industry began to combine documentary techniques with fictional stories in films like Noel Coward's In Which We Serve (1942), Millions Like Us (1943) and The Way Ahead (1944). Others used the medium of the fiction film to carry a propaganda message; about the need for vigilance (Went the Day Well?) or to avoid "careless talk" (The Next of Kin).
The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 was passed by the United States Congress on September 16, 1940, becoming the first peacetime conscription in United States history. Hollywood reflected the interest of the American public in Conscription in the United States by having nearly every film studio bring out a military film comedy in 1941 with their resident comedian(s). Universal Pictures' Abbott and Costello came out with the first feature film on the subject Buck Privates and followed it with the team In The Navy and in the United States Army Air Corps to Keep 'Em Flying. Paramount Pictures' Bob Hope was Caught In The Draft, Warner Brothers told Phil Silvers and Jimmy Durante You're In The Army Now, Columbia Pictures put Fred Astaire in the army declaring You'll Never Get Rich, Hal Roach gave his new comedy team of William Tracy and Joe Sawyer Tanks a Million and 20th Century Fox had the former Hal Roach team of Laurel & Hardy going Great Guns. The minor studios such as Republic Pictures made Bob Crosby and Eddie Foy Jr Rookies on Parade and Monogram Pictures enlisted Nat Pendleton as Top Sergeant Mulligan. However, the first comedians to hit the screen in an army comedy were The Three Stooges as Boobs in Arms.
Serious 1941 films involving training for war included U.S. Cavalry in MGM's The Bugle Sounds, RKO's Parachute Battalion, Paramount Pictures I Wanted Wings and Warner Brothers' Dive Bomber. 20th Century Fox made the last pre-war military film about the U.S. Marine Corps To The Shores of Tripoli. When the Pearl Harbor attack occurred the studio reshot the ending to have John Payne reenlist in the Corps and march off with the Marines whilst his father implores him to 'Get a Jap for me'.
Prior to Pearl Harbor, Warner Brothers warned of Confessions of a Nazi Spy whilst PRC told of Hitler, Beast of Berlin. A metaphor for America was Gary Cooper as the real life Sergeant York who went from hillbilly hell-raiser, to pacifist, to a draftee comparing the Bible to the History of the United States and deciding that his marksmanship against the Germans was righteous.
After the United States entered the war in 1941 Hollywood began to mass-produce war films. Many of the American dramatic war films in the early 1940s were designed to celebrate American unity and demonize "the enemy." One of the conventions of the genre that developed during the period was of a cross-section of the American people who come together with a common purpose for the good of the country, i.e. the need for mobilization.
The American industry also produced films designed to extol the heroics of America's allies, such as Mrs. Miniver (about a British family on the home front), Edge of Darkness (Norwegian resistance fighters) and The North Star (the Soviet Union and its Communist Party). Towards the end of the war popular books became the source of films of higher quality and more serious tone, extoling more long-term values, including Guadalcanal Diary (film) (1943), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) and They Were Expendable (1945).
The years after World War II brought a large number of mostly patriotic war films, which used the war as a backdrop for dramas and adventure stories. Many films made in Britain drew on true stories, such as The Dam Busters (1954), Dunkirk (1958), Reach for the Sky (1956) telling the life of Douglas Bader and Sink the Bismarck! (1960). The immediate aftermath of the war in Hollywood avoided the action film and delved into problems experienced by the returning veterans, turning out a number of high quality movies that included The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Battleground (1949), Home of the Brave (1949), Command Decision (1948), and Twelve O'Clock High (1949). The latter two examined the psychological effects of combat and the stresses of command.
Hollywood films in the 1950s and 1960s were often inclined towards spectacular heroics or self-sacrifice in films like Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), Halls of Montezuma (1950) or D-Day the Sixth of June (1956). They also tended to toward stereotyping: typically, a small group of ethnically diverse men would come together but would not be developed much beyond their ethnicity; the senior officer would often be unreasonable and unyielding; almost anyone sharing personal information - especially plans for returning home - would die shortly thereafter and anyone acting in a cowardly or unpatriotic manner would convert to heroism or die (or both, in quick succession). Twentieth-Century Fox made a succession of war movies realistically-filmed in black-and-white in the early 1950s that highlighted little-known aspects of World War II, among them The Frogmen, Go For Broke!, You're in the Navy Now, and Decision Before Dawn.
Another large group of films emerged from the plethora of popular war novels penned after the war. Their quality was largely dependent on their faithfulness to the plot or theme of the original, casting, direction,and production values. Much of their appeal for the American public was that they covered virtually every branch of the service involved in the war. These include: The Young Lions (1958), The Naked and the Dead (1958), Battle Cry (1955), Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), Captain Newman, M.D. (1963), The Caine Mutiny (1954), Away All Boats (1956), From Here to Eternity (1953), Kings Go Forth (1958), Never So Few (1959), The Mountain Road (1960), and In Harm's Way (1965).
A popular sub-genre of war films in the 1950s and '60s was the prisoner of war film. This was a form popularised in Britain and recounted stories of real escapes from (usually German) P.O.W. camps in World War II. Examples include The Wooden Horse (1950), Albert R.N. (1953) and The Colditz Story (1955). Hollywood also made its own contribution to the genre with The Great Escape (1963) and the fictional Stalag 17 (1953). Other fictional P.O.W. films include The Captive Heart (1947), Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), King Rat (1965), Danger Within (1958), The Secret War of Harry Frigg (1968) and Hart's War (2002). Unusually, the British industry also produced a film based on German escaper Franz von Werra, The One That Got Away in (1957).
By the early 1960s films based on commando missions like The Gift Horse (1952) based on the St. Nazaire raid, and Ill Met by Moonlight (1956) had begun to inspire fictional adventure films such as The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Where Eagles Dare (1968), which used the war as the backdrop for spectacular action films. The latter films had American producers, stars and financing but were filmed in England or on location with British film crews, supporting actors, and expertise.
The late 1950s and 1960s also brought some more thoughtful big war films like Andrei Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood (1962), David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) as well as a fashion for all-star epics based on battles which were often quasi-documentary in style and filmed in Europe where extras and production costs were cheaper. This trend was started by Darryl F. Zanuck's production The Longest Day in 1962, based on the first day of the 1944 D-Day landings. Other examples included Battle of the Bulge (1965), Anzio (1968), Battle of Britain (1969), Waterloo (1970), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) (based on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor), Midway (1976) and A Bridge Too Far (1977). A more recent example is the American Civil War film Gettysburg which was based on events during the battle, including the defense of Little Round Top by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain.
Though trouble in Southeast Asia was shown in Jack L. Warner's Brushfire (1961), and Marshall Thompson's A Yank in Viet-Nam (1964) and To the Shores of Hell (1966), the major Hollywood studios refused to make any Vietnam War films with the exception of John Wayne's The Green Berets based on the best selling book by Robin Moore and using the theme song Ballad of the Green Berets. No Vietnam war films followed until Jack Starrett's Nam Angels AKA The Losers (1970) filmed on Philippine sets left over from Robert Aldrich's Too Late the Hero (1970).
The effects of the Vietnam War tended to diminish the appetite for fictional war films by the turn of the 1970s. American war films produced during and just after the Vietnam War often reflected the disillusion of the American public towards the war. Most films made after the Vietnam War delved more deeply into the horrors of war than movies made before it (This is not to say that there were no such films before the Vietnam War). Later war films like Catch-22 (set in WWII) and the black comedy MASH (set in Korea), reflected some of these attitudes.
In the decades following the War, the American film industry produced many war films either critical of American involvement in Vietnam, depicting American war crimes or the negative effects of war on combatants. These films included works by the most prominent actors and directors in American film and garnering the highest accolades and commercial success including:
- Taxi Driver (1976) — nominated for four Academy Awards, directed by Martin Scorsese.
- Coming Home (1978) — winner of three Academy Awards, directed by Hal Ashby.
- The Deer Hunter (1978) — winner of five Academy Awards, directed by Michael Cimino.
- Apocalypse Now (1979) — winner of two Academy Awards, directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
- Full Metal Jacket (1987) — directed by Stanley Kubrick.
- Casualties of War (1989) — directed by Brian De Palma.
Oliver Stone trilogy of Vietnam War films:
- Platoon (1986) — winner of Academy Award for Best Picture.
- Born on the Fourth of July (1989) — winner of two Academy Awards.
- Heaven & Earth (1993)
Another subgenre were films that portrayed the American government cynically by reflecting upon the Vietnam War POW/MIA issue, the most known of which were Missing in Action (1984) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985).
1990s to 2000s
The success of Steven Spielberg's ultra-realistic Saving Private Ryan in 1998 helped to usher in a revival of interest in World War II films. A number of these, such as Pearl Harbor and Enemy at the Gates were aimed fairly squarely at the blockbuster market, while others, like Enigma, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, and Charlotte Gray, were more nostalgic in tone. Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line was released in 1998.
The military and the film industry
Many war films have been produced with the cooperation of a nation's military forces. The United States Navy has been very cooperative since World War II in providing ships and technical guidance; Top Gun is the most famous example. The U.S. Air Force provided considerable verisimilitude for The Big Lift, Strategic Air Command and A Gathering of Eagles, filmed on Air Force bases and using Air Force personnel in many roles.
Typically, the military will not assist filmmakers if the film is critical of them. Sometimes the military demands some editorial control in exchange for their cooperation, which can bias the result. The German Ministry of Propaganda, making the epic war film Kolberg in January 1945, used several divisions of soldiers as extras. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels believed the impact of the film would offset the tactical disadvantages of the missing soldiers.
If the home nation's military will not cooperate, or if filming in the home nation is too expensive, another country's may assist. Many 1950s and 1960s war movies, including the Oscar-winning films Patton, Lawrence of Arabia, and Spartacus, were shot in Spain, which had large supplies of both Allied and Axis equipment. The Napoleonic epic Waterloo was shot in Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union), using Soviet soldiers. The D-Day scenes in Saving Private Ryan were shot with the cooperation of the Irish army, and all of the major sequences in Dark Blue World were shot in the Czech Republic, at a disused air force base.
- Genre film theory
- List of war films
- List of films based on war books
- List of World War II films
- Fiction based on World War I
- Fiction based on World War II
- Fiction based on the Vietnam War
- Military science fiction
- Battles in film
- The United States Marine Corps on film