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
Postwar films were about to take on a new, harder edge, antisentimental and antiheroic. High-mindedness was suspect, and life in film became darker, elemental, colored with the fatalistic outlook of a soldier who had seen too much combat. The war found its way into films that had nothing to do with war, but snatches of dialogue still wore combat gear. Life was no longer fair. Honor was a sucker’s game. Being good had nothing to do with whether one survived. From the gangster film White Heat (1949), listen to this exchange between Paul Guilfoyle and James Cagney:
“You wouldn’t kill me in cold blood, would you?”
“No. I’ll let you warm up a little.”
A Walk in the Sun, based on Harry Brown’s novel and directed by Lewis Milestone, who in 1930 had brought All Quiet on the Western Front to the screen, came out in 1945 and was the first in a class of hardheaded war films: no patriotic diction here, no improbable heroics, no references to irrelevancies such as grand strategy or the self-important angst of high command, just a morning’s march with infantrymen who have had a long war that is getting longer by the minute. For the characters here the war was not about the Four Freedoms; it was about getting through the morning alive, and maybe the afternoon and night too if they were lucky, and then about doing it all again the next day and the day after.
But A Walk in the Sun was not going to tell any veteran of infantry combat anything he didn’t already know. Only one postwar film spoke directly to the veterans in terms that may have helped them contend with their experiences. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) followed three veterans as they struggled to return to normal life in a world that seemed to understand little and care less about the war they had just survived. The movie won eight Oscars.
As The Best Years of Our Lives made plain, memories of the war were already fading, shouldered aside by postwar routines and Cold War anxieties. At some indiscernible point, as if by common, unstated agreement, filmmakers pointed their war films at those who were innocent of war altogether. Like A Walk in the Sun , 1949’s Battleground was unlikely to appeal to combat veterans because it aimed to reproduce their experiences. Producer Dore Schary had trouble finding support in Hollywood for making yet another war film. Even so, audiences in 1949 saw the release of the best ever movie about war in the air, Twelve o’Clock High, and, importantly, John Wayne’s now-fabled Sands of Iwo Jima.
No two films are less alike. Based on a script by two veterans of the 8th Air Force’s bomber offensive against Germany at the height of the war, Twelve o’Clock High follows a bomber-group commander—Maj. Gen. Frank Armstrong in real life—as he fights against the pressures of wartime command, eventually succumbing to its fatigues. Gregory Peck’s portrayal of the haunted commander is so appealing the film is still shown to approving audiences in the military academies.
Sands of Iwo Jima is one of two films that belong in movie history not so much because of how faithfully they reproduce war as because of their influence upon those who saw them. After John Wayne’s portrayal of the tough marine, Sergeant Stryker, hit the screen, there were proto-gyrenes all over America, and they took Wayne’s cinematic conduct as a standard of behavior with them into their own wars. Veterans of World War II might react suspiciously to Wayne’s heroics, but their sons did not. Marine trainees at Camp Pendleton were hired as extras for Tony Curtis’s 1961 film biography of Ira Hayes, the Native American who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima, The Outsider . When the director asked them why they had enlisted, half of them said it was because they had been inspired by Sands of Iwo Jima .