Why World War II is so difficult to get right on the screen—and the movies that do it best
Well before the film’s debut we could hear the drumbeat of publicity. Steven Spielberg, America’s favorite moviemaker, was going to give us a film about World War II. The title, Saving Private Ryan , gave away nothing. Unlike Schindler’s List , which translated Thomas Keneally’s best-selling book on the Holocaust to the screen, Saving Private Ryan would build its plot around an obscure incident from the invasion of Normandy.
Well before the film’s debut we could hear the drumbeat of publicity. Steven Spielberg, America’s favorite moviemaker, was going to give us a film about World War II. The title, Saving Private Ryan, gave away nothing. Unlike Schindler’s List, which translated Thomas Keneally’s best-selling book on the Holocaust to the screen, Saving Private Ryan would build its plot around an obscure incident from the invasion of Normandy. Four brothers from the Niland family had had a very bad war by the summer of 1944: Two had been killed on D-Day, and another was thought to have been killed in Burma. The last brother, Fritz, had jumped with the 101st Airborne Division into Normandy, where the odds were that he would make his family’s final contribution to the Good War. An enterprising Army chaplain, Father Francis Sampson, found the paratrooper and pulled him out of the fighting. The story was good enough to merit the approval of the most jaded critic, and it was true besides.
But Hollywood could never leave a fact alone. Father Sampson would disappear during the script conferences, to be replaced by eight Rangers, led by a captain played by Tom Hanks. Having survived their own assault on Omaha Beach, Hanks and his men now have the mission to rescue the last of the brothers. Hanks & Co. have little enthusiasm for this crackbrained idea, but they are experienced combat soldiers and therefore can expect to have acquired an intimate acquaintance with “chickenshit,” a wartime term best defined by former 2d Lt. of World War II infantry, now Emeritus Professor Paul Fussell as that which “has absolutely nothing to do with winning the war.” Of course Hanks’s squad completes the mission, but not without cost.
Few can doubt that when the history of film in the twentieth century is written, Steven Spielberg will have a place in the front ranks. He has learned to calculate our cultural rhythms so keenly that we invest his work with transcendent significance. We so cheerfully accept his power over our imagination that we forget his other talent as one of America’s great entertainment businessmen. His market power is now at least as great as his artistic power. The fabled promoters of movie history, Cecil B. DeMille, Darryl F. Zanuck, and Irving G. Thalberg, are amateurs compared with Spielberg. So what began as a drumbeat became a tightly composed symphony of press releases, photo ops, tie-ins, interviews, and film clips. Web sites and chat rooms began to appear on the Internet. For weeks before the film’s release, hardly a day passed without reference to Saving Private Ryan on television.
The buzz said that Saving Private Ryan was going to be a new kind of war film, one that unflinchingly depicted the sharp end of war, the essence of war itself—the infantryman’s war. Saving Private Ryan was going to be the greatest war film ever made, hands down, no kidding, about any war. When Saving Private Ryan hit the screen, it would immediately be recognized as the gold standard for an entire genre of film, and that standard would be founded upon the very action that had always defied being captured on film: combat soldiers, individually and in small groups, more threatened than assisted by the vast mechanical accessories of modern war.
Spielberg and his equally gifted star, Tom Hanks, struck just the right notes too, promoting the film in modest, even reverential tones, selling their movie by understatement. Indeed, the impression conveyed was that this film was not to be seen as entertainment. Dark precautions went out: The first twenty-five minutes, re-creating the assault on Omaha Beach, might be “too intense” for some people. The film had a serious, high-minded purpose. Saving Private Ryan would not be an empty military pageant like The Longest Day, shuttling platoons of stars across the screen to declaim hollow patriotic rhetoric. Nor would it burden its audiences with cynical reservations about the war or the cause for which it was fought. No need to fear such dialogue as that from The Naked and the Dead, uttered in exhausted fatalism by the member of a much less successful infantry patrol, “…we broke our ass for nothin’,” which elicits the reply, “Higher strategy.” No, by telling a simple story, Saving Private Ryan would reinvest the Second World War with the straightforward dignity it deserves and by so doing take its audience closer to the essential truth of this war—perhaps any war—than any other film had ever done.
When the film actually appeared, any doubts that this movie was quite as good or as original as advertised were quickly shouted down. Box-office returns, which quickly exceeded fifty million dollars and as of this writing are nearly two hundred million, overwhelmed contrarians like Vincent Canby of The New York Times and Louis Menand of The New York Review of Books . The thoughtful reviews they offered were widely regarded as acts of lese majesty. Other commentators happily perpetrated all manner of rhetorical inanities, using the film to wag reproving fingers at effete baby boomers who were filling up theater seats. We were happy to be insulted, and to insult. On the Web the chat, as captured by John Gregory Dunne in a recent New Yorker article, was less than genteel when someone named Brad declined to be impressed. “Let me guess. You are a wannabe hippie. Take your poetry reading, latte-drinking, non-shaving, sandal-wearing BUTT to Arlington National Cemetery and then come back on line, pudboy.” This, from Darren, who despises Brad because Brad has the bad grace to suspect that war is not fun. Darren thinks he knows more about war by eating popcorn in the dark. Hell hath no fury like a noncombatant.
So a question worth asking is how we came to think we know more about war than we actually do. What body of knowledge did we rely upon before Saving Private Ryan came along? The answer is that what most Americans today know of war comes from film—theatrical films, contemporary newsreels, propaganda and training films, documentary films, video films, and now gun-camera films. From the Mexican War onward armies and cameras have gone to war together, producing still photography now easily adapted to film. But if one were to calculate which war dominates film, as Peter Maslowski has done in his fine study Armed With Cameras: The American Military Photographers of World War II, the Second World War has no competitors.
All the major armies of the Second World War deployed still and film camera units to document combat action. Millions of still photos, thousands of miles of film were shot on all fronts, at sea, in the air, and on the ground. Some of the American photographic units included veteran filmmakers, among them John Huston, Darryl Zanuck, Edward Steichen, George Stevens, and David O. Selznick. Filming the war demanded not only technical expertise but courage as well, for American cameramen labored under strict instructions not to “re-enact” combat footage. Combat film would be shot in combat. The lengths to which photographers went to capture just a few minutes of fighting were extraordinary. On several occasions combat cameramen raced ahead, unprotected, toward enemy lines, just to make a shot of an American assault head-on.
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.
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 .
Six years after Sergeant Stryker died in front of a Japanese pillbox on a Hollywood back lot, a movie was released that would share with Sands of Iwo Jima the dubious fame of fixing in the minds of America’s youth a picture of combat and how one should behave in combat that has been sustained until the present day. To Hell and Back was a war film with a difference: Audie Murphy, America’s most highly decorated World War II soldier, played himself, suggesting that here was a chance for the audience to see what combat was really like. What the audience didn’t know was that Murphy was still suffering from the aftereffects of his real war and would continue to do so for the rest of his life. The experience of trying to reproduce his life in combat was not easy for him, nor did he regard the result as particularly satisfying. To Hell and Back was a more highly stylized view of war than any number of war films, and Murphy knew it. He was “a lot braver” in the film than he had been in the war, he said, but his modesty only added to his aura. War could be heroic again, at least until all the future heroes in the audience found out otherwise.
The fifties and early sixties were the heyday of the war movie. War movies with a hard edge were still being produced, but they were not about World War II. In 1951 The Steel Helmet , set in the Korean War, came out, followed three years later by The Bridges at Toko-Ri . In 1957 perhaps the best World War I movie ever made, Paths of Glory , revealed Stanley Kubrick as a director with a decidedly unsentimental view of war. Kubrick’s film was banned in France for a time and, notably, from some American military posts. Lewis Milestone filmed S. L. A. Marshall’s Korean War saga, Pork Chop Hill , in 1959. All these films had much in common with their predecessors: Like the best of the earlier films, they reduced the war to the individual human level. Unlike the worst, they refused to indulge in the easy moralizing that had proved so irresistible so often to Hollywood.
Late in the fifties David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai inaugurated a subclass of war film that proved to be incomparably more popular. The military extravaganza capitalized upon new film, sound, and screen technology. In Lean’s film and the blockbusters that followed—The Longest Day (1962), In Harm’s Way (1965), and The Battle of the Bulge (1965)—the screen always had more people on it than were in the audience and more military equipment than one would need to defend a small nation. These were films on the industrial scale, made with the enthusiastic and substantial assistance of the Department of Defense. Grand history, great events, great men provided the rough plots for these panoramas, but beyond that anything that got between the audience and the popcorn was unwelcome. That included reality.
The Vietnam War effectively and promptly killed the war movie, or so film historians say. Why produce a theatrical film about war when the American public saw the war in Southeast Asia on the evening news? Yet even in 1970, as the war was grinding to its melancholy conclusion, one of the most popular war films ever, Patton, was released, and so was the dreadful Pearl Harbor extravaganza Tora! Tora! Tora! Compared with the war in Vietnam, the Disneyfied version of World War II was more satisfying to contemplate than body counts. Perhaps this was when Studs Terkel conceived his idea of “the Good War.”
Once the Vietnam War was safely past, World War II extravaganzas returned to the Pacific with Midway in 1976 and MacArthur in 1977, the latter proving that films on military egomaniacs don’t automatically sell. But Patton , portrayed so broadly and with such near-psychopathic glee by George C. Scott, was as satisfying to the war lover as to the most diehard antiwar activist.
Film historians and critics might regard Patton and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now as antithetical. But while filmmakers were still trying to tell a whole story, audiences were reading segments of their films, some no longer than a television commercial, as reference points for themselves. Scott’s memorable opening monologue in Patton, giant American flag filling the screen, could by itself be made to bear any number of interpretations quite apart from how the director and the actors saw the scene as contributing to the rest of the production. Robert Duvall’s burlesque portrayal of the slightly mad Air Cav colonel could be alternately hated or admired, without regard for the meaning Francis Ford Coppola invested in it. Today, if I were to ask my students, all professional soldiers, to replay a scene from Apocalypse Now, Duvall’s scene would be the one, but their interpretations of it would be as varied as they are.
In The Barefoot Contessa, Humphrey Bogart’s character, a director, delivers this line: “Life every now and then behaves as if it had seen too many bad movies.” During the Gulf War, as troops in one particular unit began their attack on Iraqi ground defenses, their commander ordered “The Ride of the Valkyries” played over loudspeakers on their tanks and fighting vehicles. I later asked their commander if he had a great number of Wagnerians in his unit. But no, of course not. That was what Robert Duvall had his own loudspeakers play during his heliborne assault on the VC village in Apocalypse Now , both to unnerve the enemy and to suffuse his own men with Götter-dämmerung-like frenzy—a case of life imitating art imitating life. If it wasn’t true in the film, real battle would make it so, and the real commander, a decade after, knew exactly the effect he wanted to achieve. This improbable convergence between film and combat was momentary no doubt. As the more unfortunate among these troops would discover, the distance between film and combat was as great as ever.
At first I had no intention of seeing Saving Private Ryan. Having studied with and taught professional soldiers about the experience of combat for twenty years, I had no desire to see an attempt to reduce to film anything I knew about this subject. But I knew, too, that my students would want to know, insist on knowing, what I thought about this movie—not as a film critic but as a military historian. How did this film compare with others of its kind, the ulterior question being, of course, How close does it come to the real thing? In the end avoiding the film seemed like avoiding responsibility. So I went, unenthusiastically, as an obligation, in self-defense.
I saw a good war film, one that was informed by a high purpose, executed with the technical brilliance we have come to expect from its director, played by skilled actors representing the usual collection of American “types”: the selfless officer, the tough sergeant, the wise guy, the hick, the intelligent one who will funk it, the medic, and so on. The plot line was, well, dopey, but then the troops drew lots of dopey missions during World War II, and on the scale of dopiness, this one wasn’t that high. Any night attack was dopier. The dialogue was noble and pure and thus quite unsoldierly, since the linguistic currency of the World War II American soldier came down mostly to inventive variations on the word fuck , made to serve a multiplicity of meanings. But that would have made for a dull script, and one completely at variance with the film’s high-mindedness. The twenty-five-minute gush of violence on Omaha Beach could hardly have moved a theater audience now inured to the daily police blotter roundups that pass for the evening news everywhere or nightly television programs featuring “Greatest Disasters on Video.” I saw several families, complete with small children, happily munching their way through the whole film. Everyone else seemed pleased to be getting their money’s worth.
Aficionados of war films often judge their quality on the basis of accuracy—of historical fact, of military equipment, of technical military procedures. Some will have discovered by now that on the real Omaha Beach the defending Germans did not emplace their machine guns outside the casemates but inside them. Students of the finer points of minor tactics will have noted the highly improbable, near-academic discussion between Hanks and his men on the best way to silence one of said annoying German machine guns. How many discussions on setting up enfilading fire had there been in the maelstrom at Omaha Beach? These characters were supposed to be veterans, and veterans communicate and move in close combat by nonverbal means, signals, a jerk of the head, a wave of the rifle or hand—if even that. They don’t talk because experience will have taught them that no one can hear anything above the din of combat anyway. Screaming is common, however, not to communicate but to expel the overwhelming rush of terrified excitement. Soldiers old and new have testified frequently to being hoarse after a battle, though they don’t recall having spoken to anyone.
Afterward, once Hanks and his men embark on their quest for the immensely valuable Private Ryan, it is clear that no one is in any danger as they stroll across the Normandy meadows in perfect view of the cameras, and the enemy too. Showing hours of a seemingly empty Norman countryside of course was beyond even the talents of Steven Spielberg to make interesting. Some acute fans of aerial warfare will also wonder what the marvelously beautiful P-51, an “air superiority fighter,” was doing busting tanks when the incomparably ugly P-47s commonly drew ground-support missions and the weapons to do the job. Details of this sort, interesting as they may be to future tacticians and military historians, merely distract us from the uglier facts about what is actually happening in such situations.
As for these ugly facts, including what modern industrial-strength war does to human beings who get in the way, the intense combat action so inventively filmed at the invasion beach, which in reality took several movies’ worth of hours to accomplish, would not have made a movie by itself. Cinematic conventions had to be obeyed, and so the combat action does not resume until the end is near, when a highly problematic defense of a village guarding a vital river crossing is hastily mounted. The Germans advance with machinelike confidence, somehow knowing, as we do, that they have the Americans outgunned. Not during the spectacular on Omaha Beach but here, during the fighting for the village, is where we see the single most violent scene. It is also the most intimate. Two soldiers engage in hand-to-hand combat, in a grappling frenzy of rifle butts, fists, and knives, reducing the whole war to a small room. We see one soldier consummate his victory over the other slowly, while he whispers soothingly to his enemy as if he were a lover. Outside, the combat builds toward a conclusion we know by now is not going to be a happy one. Of course the noble Hanks will be killed, but his death is arch-heroic. His mortal wounds are invisible, but the high-mindedness of his death fills the screen. Horatius is at the bridge again.
Audiences have every reason to be impressed by Saving Private Ryan. And Spielberg has every reason to be happy with what he has done. In addition to the box-office returns, he has been acclaimed by veterans’ groups and even awarded a medal by the Army to add to his already substantial laurels. Perhaps no other war film has received such approval from old soldiers, who rather more willingly than before have come forward to recount their own experiences. But what, exactly, are the veterans approving? The film may refresh their experiences, but it is highly unlikely that the film will add to their memories. No, the film is for everyone else. Beginning and ending in an American military cemetery in Normandy, it is a eulogy to the victory generation, and it is praise thankfully received.
One of the great myths of war is that fighting in one somehow makes one a better person, someone who has gained admission to a world on the extreme edges of human behavior that everyone else can only imagine. But war still holds its appeal to those who are innocent of the real price required to know it. Some commentators have actually expressed regret they did not fight in World War II (a regret, it should be noted, that is easy to express half a century later). This kind of knowledge cannot be had on the cheap. War in the dark is no substitute. Judged by this standard, there never has been a good war film, and there never will be. But, for me, the best films about war are those whose makers try to look squarely at war for what it is, not for how they think it should be. Such a standard is not often compatible with artistic or commercial or vicarious ambitions, which is why there are so few good war movies to choose from.
Just as certainly, scenes, bits of dialogue, or expressions of character will be enlisted for the public storehouse of imagined knowledge about modern war. Inevitably, some who have seen Saving Private Ryan and others like it will decide that war is an experience worth having. They need not be denied. If they are serious, these cinematic warriors need only go find themselves a war. The world has plenty to choose from. There they will learn that some experiences are better had only on film.