Hollywood varies its views on WW II

Movies pay tribute to veterans, show gory details of warfare

— Ever since the day that will live in infamy, filmmakers' views of World War II have shifted drastically � from propaganda and action-adventure stories, to courtroom and human dramas, to satire and now nostalgic reverence.

"Each generation of filmmakers perceives the history of the war not necessarily the way it truly was, but the way they want to see it at the time," says Donald M. Goldstein, a professor of war history at the University of Pittsburgh.

The $135 million "Pearl Harbor" debuts this weekend, promising a ferocious recreation of the Japanese sneak attack. Like "Saving Private Ryan," it's brutally realistic � and aims to pay tribute to the generation of soldiers who saved the world from the tyranny of Hitler and Tojo.

"It's sad, but we're losing thousands of World War II veterans every month," "Pearl Harbor" producer Jerry Bruckheimer says. "This movie is for them. It pays homage to their struggles, and I hope they love it."

Goldstein, author of several books about World War II and host of weekly screenings of WWII movies, finds it interesting that the graphic depiction of soldiers being blown apart in gory battles is now seen as a way of honoring aging soldiers.

"It all follows this idea that audiences want to pay tribute to 'The Greatest Generation' by showing how horrible it was," Goldstein says, invoking the title of Tom Brokaw's best-selling book about those who fought World War II and their families.

"The feeling in America now, as it was then, is that World War II was a good war. There was a truly evil enemy, and we were the good guys," he says. "Hollywood has romanced that idea, and that's why we see so many more movies about this war than any other."

Patriotic and edgy

The movie industry jumped into World War II almost as soon as the United States entered the fight.

Top Hollywood filmmakers began making patriotic propaganda, such as John Ford's Pearl Harbor documentary "December 7" and Frank Capra's "Divide and Conquer."

Even fictional films like 1942's "Casablanca" were seen as a way to unite Americans against the European enemy, while shorts like the 1944 cartoon "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips" dehumanized the Japanese.

American remained edgy and alert years after the war, fearful another menace would arise. That's perhaps why many World War II movies retained a jingoistic feel while boasting of victory.

John Wayne traded his cowboy hat for a helmet to lead scrappy fighters into South Pacific battles in films such as "Back to Bataan" and "Sands of Iwo Jima."

"These movies weren't very good," Goldstein says. "The camera work was pretty bad and the drama was overdone to emphasize the gallantry of it all while America recovered from the effects of war."

With nearly a decade of perspective, Hollywood offered more complex dramas like 1953's "From Here to Eternity," which championed pacifism, and 1954's "The Caine Mutiny," which questioned the wisdom of officers.

"There was a revisionist view in the 1950s," says Pat Hanson, an American Film Institute historian. "In this country, we were beginning to reflect on the war and really accept that it was over. Even while the Korean War was going on, many films were still dealing with World War II."

Portrayals of the enemy

This was also a time when German characters got their humanity back.

"Filmmakers began to take the view that not everybody on the enemy side was evil, that they were sometimes good, honorable people, misled people, who were trying to do the best for their own country," Hanson says.

For example, "The Enemy Below," a cat-and-mouse thriller about U.S. and German submarines, featured Robert Mitchum as the heroic U.S. captain but also starred German actor Curt Jurgens as a sympathetic Nazi rival.

"Jurgens was shown as a man who wanted to do right, an officer worthy of respect," Hanson says. "Of course, at this time, you still didn't see many films that dealt with Nazis with the Holocaust. For most people, it was still a war about soldiers."

The notable occasional exceptions were 1959's "The Diary of Anne Frank" and 1961's "Judgment at Nuremberg," which dramatized Nazi war crimes.

Hanson says Germans were fleshed out as real people in American films more than the Japanese, explaining: "There was still an anti-Asian feeling that remained."

An exception was 1957's "The Bridge on the River Kwai," which chronicled life in a Japanese prisoner-of-war work detail. Japanese-born actor Sessue Hayakawa played Col. Saito, who orders a group of captured British soldiers to construct a bridge crucial to the Japanese war effort.

The character is initially cruel and savage but becomes more sympathetic than the British officer played by Alec Guinness, who's later seen as unreasonable and misguided.

The role earned Hayakawa an Academy Award nomination, and the film won seven Oscars, including best picture.

"The story had a very cerebral way of dealing with the differences between the soldiers," says Michael Bay, the director of "Pearl Harbor."

He says his film tries to treat the Japanese with "reverence."

"There's reverence on both sides," he said. "We tried to treat everyone with dignity."

Composer Hans Zimmer, who scored "Pearl Harbor," says he tried to use music to make the Japanese seem ominous without being inherently evil.

"There are generations of Japanese citizens who had nothing to do with the war," he says. "And we don't want to create any negative feeling toward them now. I understand, being born in Germany, how it feels when your country is disregarded as, 'Oh, you Nazis ..."'

Another wars to follow

By the 1960s, World War II movies were filled with action and humor in pictures like "Von Ryan's Express" starring Frank Sinatra and "The Great Escape" starring Steve McQueen.

"Suddenly, it seemed like World War II movies weren't as important then," Hanson says. "It was OK to have a little more fun with them."

By 1970, as Vietnam still tore at the country, filmmakers looked back to World War II with renewed awe and respect, producing some of the most accurate film biographies and battle docudramas ever made � "Patton" starring George C. Scott and "Tora! Tora! Tora!" a film starring Jason Robards and Martin Balsam that showed the Pearl Harbor attack from both the U.S. and Japanese perspective.

"At the time, some people called it 'Terrible! Terrible! Terrible!' because it felt cold, like a documentary made with good actors," Goldstein says. "It stuck to the book, the plain truth � for the most part."

Bay said he wasn't trying for historical accuracy, preferring to use his movie as a backdrop for a romantic triangle (with Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale).

"To me, 'Tora! Tora! Tora!' was such a docudrama that there was no emotion to it," he says. "It just didn't feel like it had a soul."

World War II also became fodder for goofball humor and satire in the '70s.

The 1950s war-related comedies "Operation Petticoat" and "Mister Roberts" were tame compared to the anti-war sentiment contained in the 1970 film version of "Catch-22," about hypocrisy and cowardice in the military, and Steven Spielberg's "1941," which made light of Japanese-invasion hysteria on the West Coast.

Military movies turned attention on Vietnam by the 1980s but World War II was still featured in numerous TV and movie Holocaust dramas, crowned by Spielberg's "Schindler's List."

Then attention reverted to the soldiers, partly because of Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan."

"After that you had 'The Thin Red Line,' 'U-571' and now 'Pearl Harbor,' which, at this point, feels like we're doing 'Halloween 3,' 'Halloween 4,' and so on," Goldstein jokes.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.