- Historic Sites
War In The Dark
Why World War II is so difficult to get right on the screen—and the movies that do it best
February/March 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 1
But combat proved to be disappointingly un-Hollywood. Shooting footage of air, sea, and land combat posed difficulties unique to each setting, and shots of actual ground fighting were perhaps the most difficult of all to make. Photographers and filmmakers at the time understood their problem very well: Ground combat, as practiced, did not easily submit to translation onto film. One of the most fundamental rules of infantry combat was “Never bunch up.” A “tight shot” for a camera was also a tight shot for the enemy. Both friendly and enemy fire was disobligingly invisible. If the air was full of lead or shrapnel, combat infantrymen tried to disappear. The most savage firefights seemed to take place on an empty battleground. And if it was nearly impossible to film one’s own side in action, getting a shot of enemy action was downright miraculous. In the entire Pacific war, despite near-suicidal efforts by battalions of cameramen, only two sequences of Japanese infantrymen in actual combat were ever captured. The disjuncture between the demands of reality and the expectations of audiences already conditioned by years of cinematic clichés about war, and enforced by the prohibition on re-enactments of combat, was too much for John Huston. Huston’s film The Battle of San Pietro , acclaimed when it was released to theaters in 1945 and afterward as the most realistic visual documentation of combat in the war, was shot well after the fighting it purported to depict. Sound effects were added in the editing room, along with the narration. Screams of pain and anguish were not available for recording, but the Army Air Force Orchestra, the St. Brendan’s Boys’ Choir, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir filled in the blanks. As Maslowski observes, “Watching a video of San Pietro with the sound turned off is a supremely dull experience.”
If combat cameramen risking their lives around the world contended dangerously with the inherent barriers between film and war, neither was Hollywood free to indulge in artistic license. Especially during the first two years of the war, when an Allied victory was by no means a foregone conclusion, the Office of War Information and the Office of Censorship exercised reviewing authority over both print and film. Not until mid-1943 was a photograph of a dead American soldier shown anywhere in the United States, not in print, not on news film. In the last two years of the struggle, concerned about war weariness on the home front, government officials thought they might reinvigorate domestic morale by permitting more violent representations of the struggle; showing more bodies would remind everyone how serious this war still was, just in case they missed the deliveries of the Western Union telegrams.
Under the circumstances it was hardly surprising that theatrical filmmakers kept clear of reality. Instead the eighty million people who attended the movies each week were treated to wonderfully forgettable offerings such as Bowery Blitzkrieg (1941), starring Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall, or Joan of Ozark (1942), with the redoubtable comedienne Judy Canova. Citizens of College Station, Texas, concerned about Japanese saboteurs in their midst, found alarming confirmation of their fears in We’ve Never Been Licked (1943). They need not have worried; the cadets of Texas A&M were on the job. Newsreels and official films gave the public its closest look at the real war. Those few theatrical films that pretended to depict combat on the ground, such as Sahara, Guadalcanal Diary, and Gung Ho!—all released in 1943—merely increased the distance between the fighting fronts and the home front. The best wartime film, Casablanca, was not even about war as such; here the war was simply a great inconvenience, or a great opportunity.
The best American World War II films appeared at war’s end and after. By then the public had other sources to draw upon for its understanding of the war: those who had actually fought in it. But combat veterans weren’t particularly interested in talking; even if they had been, a public that knew of war only as depicted in the movies knew so little it did not even know what questions to ask them. Too, making a film about war in the victory years was commercially as well as artistically risky; what combat veteran would pay to see a pale version of his experience? How could a filmmaker take on such a job when he knew that thousands of veterans would be looking over his shoulder, critiquing every frame, every shot, every piece of dialogue, every piece of action?
More war films were made anyway, and soon. The Story of G.I. Joe, which took its plot from Ernie Pyle’s famous wartime eulogy to a beloved infantry captain in Italy, was released in 1945. Pyle’s account of one infantry captain’s death was highly sentimental, suitably antiseptic for wartime consumption, and promoted the comforting notion that all soldiers loved and admired their officers. Eisenhower thought it was the best film of the war. But Pyle himself was unable to enjoy its success. He was killed during a mopping-up operation on an obscure Pacific island that year.