Motion Pictures During World War I and II

Note: Writing an entry for an encyclopedia intended for high school and college libraries, as it turns out, is a lot like writing an undergraduate research paper: the concerns seem to be quantity rather than quality, breadth rather than depth. I found the process more than a bit maddening.

The American motion picture industry began making war movies soon after its first filmmakers stepped behind their cameras and yelled, “Action!” Over the many decades since, American audiences have come to experience war—its spectacle, excitement, sacrifice, and tragedy—via the larger-than-life visions projected on the nation’s countless silver screens. Because the Hollywood film industry blossomed during the early decades of the twentieth century, it was inevitably shaped by America’s involvement in the World Wars. And, conversely, the films produced and distributed by Hollywood’s studios contributed directly to the nation’s war efforts. When the call to war was sounded, filmmakers and audiences alike reported for duty.

In 1914, barely twenty years after Thomas Edison’s first moving pictures were exhibited in New York City, filmmaker D. W. Griffith employed engineers from West Point as technical advisors on his Civil War epic, Birth of a Nation (1915). The film startled audiences with its large-scale, realistic battle sequences, and set a standard for spectacle against which all contemporary war and historical films were judged. Audiences proved willing to overlook certain weaknesses in plot and characterization if the combat scenes were exciting and appeared authentic. To that end, Griffith borrowed Civil War artillery pieces and nearly bankrupted himself in his efforts to secure period costumes and to build convincing locations. Birth of a Nation set standards in other ways as well. As Lawrence Suid notes, American films made before the Vietnam era seldom focus on any but the most glamorous aspects of war. “Battle was not always shown as pleasant, but the films made it clear that pain was necessary for ultimate victory” (p. 3).

World War I

By 1916, the nation was deeply divided on the question of war itself, with President Woodrow Wilson struggling to maintain his non-interventionist policy toward Europe—this despite growing numbers of attacks on American civilians abroad and America’s growing financial interests in the war. That ambivalence is reflected in the anti-war movies of the day, including Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), Herbert Brenon’s War Brides (1916), and Thomas Ince’s Civilization (1916), all of which depict the toll of war without seriously addressing its root causes or complexities. Though lambasted by critics, Civilization, in particular, was a massive hit, and some have argued that its popularity and its pacifist sentiment contributed directly to Wilson’s re-election.

Soon after war was declared, however, Hollywood filmmakers, like much of the general population, mobilized to support the effort. Popular pacifist films from the year before were now heavily censored, if not banned entirely, and movie stars began to pitch liberty bonds. Even Griffith made Hearts of the World (1917), a contribution to the British propaganda effort, and studio films were equally polemical. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) was the most popular of the lot, but its success can be attributed in large part to its leading man, Rudolph Valentino, then Hollywood’s brightest star.

The Interwar Years

A notable change in the cultural climate had occurred by 1924, however, when King Vidor set out to make a realistic war movie told from a soldier’s perspective. Hollywood again turned to Washington, this time requesting trucks, troops, and a hundred airplanes. The Big Parade (1925) found great success with audiences and critics alike, despite its complex representation of man in war. The film’s protagonist is shipped to the western front where he loses a leg and watches his two best friends die, before returning to a very different life back home. Ultimately, The Big Parade questions accepted notions of heroism and imagines war as a deeply flawed and very human endeavor. That the War Department would so enthusiastically support such a production distinguishes the isolationist 1920s and 1930s from the two decades that would follow.

The other landmark film of the interwar years is All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Lewis Milestone’s adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s blistering anti-war novel. Told from a German perspective, the film was a risk for Universal Pictures that proved wise: All Quiet on the Western Front won two Academy Awards and is now considered one of the greatest war films of all time. The Russian-born Milestone, who had edited Army film footage while in the Signal Corps, and his German cinematographer, Karl Freund, commanded a cast of thousands and a budget of nearly $1.5 million, but their film soars on its cutting between epic battle sequences and smaller, quieter moments. The most memorable is a shot of the lead character being killed as he reaches for a butterfly, a single image that encapsulated widespread anti-war sentiment.

The Buildup to War

By the end of the 1930s, the American film industry was nearing its pinnacle, having weathered the storm of the Depression with comparative ease. Hollywood produced a string of recruiting pictures throughout the decade, including Here Comes the Navy (1934), Devil Dogs of the Air (1935), and Submarine D-1 (1937), all directed by naval reservist Lloyd Bacon, but, mirroring the climate of the country and the White House, studio executives steered clear of storylines that addressed German aggression in Europe. The most popular war film of the era, in fact, is arguably the most popular film of all time: the Civil War romance, Gone with the Wind (1939).

Like every other facet of American life, the course of Hollywood film history was dramatically altered by the events of December 7, 1941. The three months preceding Pearl Harbor had seen the opening of a Senate investigation into the production of “propaganda” films by the major Hollywood studios. Leading isolationists accused the studios of attempting to hasten America’s involvement in World War II by producing “preparedness” films such as Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), Dive Bomber (1941), Sergeant York (1941), and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), which was deemed “prematurely anti-fascist” by Senator D. W. Clark (D-ID). The investigation proved to be little more than political posturing, however, and was abruptly abandoned when America entered the fray.

World War II

When President Roosevelt declared war, Hollywood studios took advantage of the explosive levels of public interest in modern combat (and the box office revenue it generated). Likewise, the War Department became keenly aware of how the cinema might be used for its own purposes. A symbiotic relationship quickly developed, and by the end of 1942 several films based on actual events and made with the assistance of the armed services were released to a public brimming with patriotism and clamoring for swift and decisive victory. Wake Island (1942), Air Force (1943), and Bataan (1943) depict the Marines, Air Force, and Army respectively in their heroic efforts following devastating, “real life” setbacks in the South Pacific.

This first wave of World War II films helped to establish a template for what would become the standard service film. A “crusty old sergeant” serves as father-figure to a heterogeneous pack of raw recruits. His brave young men fight nobly against insurmountable odds, all in hopes of returning to their faithful women “back home.” The collective message of the films, quite simply, is that America was in for a good, hard fight, but that through perseverance and bravery, democracy would inevitably triumph over fascism. Steven Spielberg, like so many filmmakers before him, would return to this template six decades later with Saving Private Ryan (1998).

The American film industry’s contributions to the war effort extended far beyond the service film genre. Many actors enlisted in active service, most notably Jimmy Stewart, who was inducted into the Army Air Corps nine months before Pearl Harbor and eventually flew twenty missions with the 445th Bomb Group. The studios also produced a series of propaganda, training, health, and bond-buying films featuring Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and the stable of popular Walt Disney characters. The animation studio at Warner Brothers likewise enlisted the talents of its Looney Tunes crew—director Chuck Jones, writer Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, and voice artist Mel Blanc among them—to bring to life Private Snafu. Meaning “Situation Normal, All F—ed Up,” a common expression among soldiers of the day, Private Snafu would regularly make outlandish mistakes and teach valuable lessons in the process.

In the final years of World War II, the studios continued to churn out timely combat films, including Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), They Were Expendable (1945), and The Story of G. I. Joe (1945). But the war also served as a backdrop to films from other genres. The most famous is Casablanca (1942), Michael Curtiz’s romance starring Humphrey Bogart. Rick’s Place, the Moroccan night club in which most of the film is set, serves as a microcosm of its day, with a cast of characters that includes Nazis and “good Germans,” freedom fighters and politically-neutral French, Americans and Soviets. World War II also found its way into the plots of comedies such as Preston Sturges’s The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) and All Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), and also Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers, Lifeboat (1944) and Notorious (1946).

America’s war movies are snapshots of their day, capturing, for example, the isolationist mood of the 1930s and the patriotic zeal of the 1940s. As America entered the Cold War, that trend continued. The battlefields of the Western Front, Normandy, and the South Pacific served metaphorically for Korea, Vietnam, and the potentially apocalyptic stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union. War films serve as public landmarks around which the American public rallies, mourns, applauds, and protests. Fighting war on the big screen is surely entertainment and big business, but it is also catharsis, a safe place for Americans to confront the consequences of their nation’s conflicts.