They Used Cameras: The Story of Hollywood and World War Two
Their weapon was a camera: Hollywood goes to war against the Nazis and the Japanese
If we are to win this war, Americans must be ready to sacrifice comforts, necessities, and life itself. Public opinion polls indicate that some confusion still exists as to the issues for which this war is fought. Unless every American clearly understands how much he has at stake, the nation cannot gear itself to the all-out effort necessary for victory.
The motion picture should be the best medium for bringing to life the democratic idea. We practical-minded Americans can easily grasp such tangible programs as sugar-rationing or pooling cars to save rubber. It is a challenge to the ingenuity of Hollywood to make equally real the democratic values which we take for granted (Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry).
Franklin D. Roosevelt was a man of his times. He understood that in order to prepare the country for war there would have to be “propaganda” campaign. To accomplish his goals of selling the war, or educating as the government would prefer to call it, the administration would have to tap into the best medium: film. Despite a depressed economy, Americans still went to the movies to get away from their troubles. What better way to reach the people than through film. You could educate them without beating them over the head with open imagery, though some films were not as subtle about it as others
Henry King’s Wilson (1944) show’s the World War I president in a positive light, a man who saw the future and what it held for the world in throngs of a war. The film was released in the midst of the current war and shows the mistakes of the past. While it could be easily summed up as “those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it,” the film itself is on-point when it says the United States, whether it wants to be or not, is a partner in the security of the world. The film was a box office failure, but it’s timing perfect as the tides of the war turned toward an Allied Victory. The underlying tones of the film are clear as the world was indeed changing, and everyone needed to change with it. And it stands out as one of the hundreds of films released by Hollywood during World War II that the government encouraged filmmakers to create because it appealed to the nation’s history and above all, patriotism.
There were also a handful of films made during the war years that have subtle themes of patriotism or hints of what is wrong and right behavior in times of war. The government’s propaganda arm, the Office of War Information, was so worried that it wrote an instruction manual for the movie industry on how to go about making films aimed at educating the masses. You can find that here. It’s a long read split up into parts, but goes to show you the length to which the government wanted to make sure the best of American ideals made its way into films. Pick a film made in 1943, and you’ll likely find imagery or subtle hints sprinkled throughout about rationing, the black market, and making sure the bad guys always lose. The manual reads like marching orders to the studios. And in some cases, they played ball.
King, like others in Hollywood, served in some capacity. He was a member of the Civil Air Patrol at a coastal base in Texas. His mark on Hollywood’s willingness to serve was small compared to the heavy-hitters: Frank Capra, George Stevens, John Ford, John Huston and William Wyler. Men, who in the their height of their careers, went to war with their cameras. They dig in along side the fighting men and in the air. Their footage has been used and re-used countless times in documentaries and films long after the war ended. Their contributions educated troops about the dangers of combat and while telling them why they’re on island fighting a relentless enemy, digging sand out of their boots or capturing the horror of war crimes Dachau. Their vision became the world’s view of World War II—one that still continues today.
Stevens, Capra, Ford, Huston and Wyler are the subject of a soon-to-be released multi-part documentary series on Netflix based of the 2014 book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris. It tells their story of leaving their careers to go to war in the service of their country and then returned to share those experiences through their bodies of work. Wyler’s 1946 film The Best Year of Our Lives stands out as one of the best post-war films and the effects of war on the millions of men returning to civilian life.
The three-part series is set for release on March 31st. Netflix will also stream a handful of the documentaries made by the men during the war for the Armed Forces, some of which were later released to the public.
Jenn’s list of World War II-themed movies to check out
- Wake Island (1942), this was the first film released by a major studio about the war. The script was written as the battle of Wake Island was happening. Also a little known fact, the battle happened simultaneously at the same time as the attack on Pearl Harbor. Pay attention to the stingy civilian contractor and the attachments of the men to their humanity.
- Bataan (1943), this film tells about U.S. military forces and civilians joining forces to make a last stand against Japanese forces. Also has the distinction of being distributed by the Office of War Information. The film also plays footloose with historical accuracy in that it depicts a desegregated military unit.
- Guadalcanal Diary (1943), another one of the early combat features made soon after the battle occurred. The film was heavily criticized for its generic and cliched battle scenes.
- Since You Went Away (1944), made during the latter years this film is about the home front. The themes are blunt and to the point. From the use of black market to get rationed home goods and food to the impatient businessman waiting for a train and beyond. But also shows how the folks back home were dealing with the effects of loss, grief and sacrifice.
- The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) is as much about Ernie Pyle, the famous war correspondent as it was about the American infantryman. The film is based on Pyle’s dispatches from the European Theater of Operations. Hint, pay attention to the little dog.
The first three films were well received by military fighting forces. And they also boosted enlistment for their respective military branches. Bosley Crowther, the film critic for the New York Times wrote about the special showing of Wake Island to a group of Marines was met with boastful cheering.
Going beyond the war years we have these films worthy of a screening
- Battleground (1949), the story of the Battle of the Bulge and is considered the first significant film made about the war after it ended. Features a wild range of characters who all one point, considers going AWOL. It’s also about the hardships of new recruits face when first joining a unit.
- Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), the John Wayne film is almost self-explanatory about its topic. If you’re not clear, it’s about the Marines and the battle on Iwo Jima. It also came at a time when the government was considering getting rid of the Marines. The film is credited for boosting enlistment and saving the land-force of the U.S. Navy.
- The Longest Day (1962), is an epic war film because it’s told from multiple perspectives about the Normandy Invasion. The U.S, the British Empire (England, Scotland), French and German sides were all presented in this all-star filled cast. Given the timing of the film, it’s depiction of German soldiers is more softened than what it would have been ten years earlier or ten years later. The reason quite simple: political climate of the times.
- Tora, Tora Tora (1970), chronicles the bombing of Pearl Harbor from both the American and Japanese perspectives. Hollywood could have gone over the top and portrayed the Japanese as the evil caricatures of the decades earlier, instead it was a depiction of honor. And it’s with good reason: the war in Vietnam was still raging. We needed Asian partners. and by this point, Japan was an ally.
The modern World War II films
- Schindler’s List (1993), not all Germans were bad, that’s one takeaway from this Oscar-winning film from Steven Spielberg. Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist and a member of the Nazi party, sacrifices money and risking his life, to save more than a thousand Jews from certain death. The second takeaway, as member of the Nazi party, he was deeply troubled by the actions being carried out against the Jews. What started off as a way to make money off the war by making materials for the German army, Schindler at some point he decided spend nearly four million Reich marks to “buy” the workers at his plant, although he did say many years later he had no choice, he had to save them. His Catholic upbringing perhaps played a big role in the decision to help. While the film chronicles only a few years, it neglects Schindler’s earlier history as a member of the Abwehr, German intelligence. He used those connections but those in the Wehrmacht to bribe and scheme his way during the war years.
- Saving Private Ryan (1998), this film must be viewed through a modern context. A film like Private Ryan likely wouldn’t have been made during the war years because of its singular mission plot. Some British critics panned because of the two or three references that painted General Bernard Montgomery as ineffective. However, this time is the really the first post-Vietnam War era film that paints the military unit in a good, positive light. It also comes after the military failure in Somalia. It gives America when portions of Hollywood felt compelled boost American military moral.
An honorable mention must go out to two HBO mini-series: The Band of Brothers and The Pacific. If you get a chance, I recommend both for their value in depictions of the soldier in war. While the above films only afford a few minutes to the emotional toll, both series spend a considerable amount of time on the psychological effects of combat.