Men and women in military service on all sides of the conflict received intensive practical training, and as a matter of course they also participated in activities designed to increase morale, unit cohesion, and unity of purpose. For many, this preparation included viewing hours of films both instructional and inspirational. In the United States, for example, training films ran the gamut from featurettes or "shorts" on personal hygiene, literacy promotion, and knowing the enemy to detailed elucidations of artillery, aircraft, or naval component operation and maintenance—even a 1942 U.S. Army series on horsemanship for cavalry recruits. The Disney Studios weighed in between 1942 and 1945 with dozens of animated and live-action educational shorts remembered with varying degrees of fondness by many World War II veterans.
In the years leading to war, film studios in the United States (which led world production) began addressing the larger political environment beyond its borders. Although most of the nation tended toward isolationism, Hollywood, with its influential Jewish contingent, reflected a concern with the growing Nazi and Fascist threat in Europe. Charles Chaplin portrayed a buffoonish Adolf Hitler–like character in his The Great Dictator (1940), and the horrors of life in Nazi Germany were revealed in Sherman Scott's Beasts of Berlin (1939), which harked back to a sensationalist World War I–era film, The Kaiser, Beast of Berlin. Hollywood also produced heroic nationalist films, such as Sergeant York (1941), a movie by Howard Hawks about Alvin York, a U.S. Army icon of World War I. Hollywood's anti-Germany/pro-Britain stance is most clearly seen in Henry King's A Yank in the RAF (1941), starring Tyrone Power as an American who joins the Royal Air Force. After the United States entered the war, the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt mobilized Hollywood with creation of the Office of War Information (OWI) in 1942. Directors and movie stars alike assisted the war effort in a wide variety of ways, from production of training films to starring roles in an increasing number of war epics. Director Frank Capra, famous for his screwball comedies, created an important seven-part documentary series intended for both military and civilian audiences, Why We Fight (1942–1944). Hollywood stars were also prominently active in bond rallies, United Service Organizations (USO) tours, and Red Cross events. Actress Carole Lombard, returning from a bond-promoting tour, died in an airplane crash near Las Vegas in 1942.
The studios steadily turned out films that portrayed the heroic efforts of the American armed services, including John Farrow's Wake Island (1942), Ray Enright's Gung Ho! (1943), Lloyd Bacon's Action in the North Atlantic (1943), Tay Garnett's Bataan (1943), Lewis Seiler's Guadalcanal Diary (1943), Delmar Daves' Destination Tokyo (1943), Zoltan Korda's Sahara (1943), John Stahl's Immortal Sergeant (1943), and Mervyn Le Roy's Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944). The studios also raised American audiences' spirits with patriotic comedies and musicals including Michael Curtiz's Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Charles Vidor's Cover Girl (1944), Bruce Humberstone's Pin Up Girl (1944), and George Sidney's Anchors Aweigh (1945).
While Disney labored to produce training films, it also released a popular cartoon in 1943 called Der Fuehrer's Face or Donald Duck in Nutzi Land. Warner Brothers, on the other hand, routinely spiced theater fare from 1939 through 1945 with a cavalcade of propaganda cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. More complex, studied treatment of the war's personal impact was offered in American films such as Curtiz's Casablanca (1943) and Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944). As the war ground on toward its end, grimmer depictions of real combat emerged from Hollywood, among them John Ford's They Were Expendable (1945), William A. Wellman's The Story of GI Joe (1945), Edward Dmytryk's Back to Bataan (1945), and Lewis Milestone's A Walk in the Sun (1946).
In Great Britain, the film industry responded to the war in a fashion mirroring its influential American counterpart. Before 1937, mainstream British cinema addressed little in the way of international politics or foreign policy, but with the onset of war in 1939—and under heavy government censorship via the Ministry of Information—Britain began one of the most aggressive propaganda film efforts of any warring power. Newsreels abounded, and dramatized documentaries such as Target for Tonight (1941), Coastal Command (1942), Fires Were Started (1943), and Western Approaches (1944) had widespread and enthusiastic audiences. Feature films such as Penrose Tennyson's Convoy (1941), Anthony Asquith's Freedom Radio (1941) and The Demi-Paradise (1943), Bernard Miles' Tawny Pipit (1944), David Lean's This Happy Breed (1944), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's controversial The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and the morality tale A Canterbury Tale (1944), and Asquith's RAF tribute The Way to the Stars (1945) personified the resolute British determination to see the war through to victory. Heroic acts of British warriors—not always in World War II—were portrayed in numerous movies, including Powell's The Lion Has Wings (1939), Harold French's The Day Will Dawn (1942), Charles Friend's The Foreman Went to France (1942), Powell's One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), Noel Coward's In Which We Serve (1942), Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat's Millions Like Us (1943), Sergei Nolbandov's Undercover (1943), Carol Reed's The Way Ahead (1944), and Sir Laurence Olivier's Henry V (1944), famously scored by composer Sir William Walton.
The Soviet film industry, in the firm grip of Stalinist censors by the mid-1930s, produced a string of propaganda works preceding the war that glorified traditional Russian and Soviet heroes such as Peter the Great, the young Civil War commander Vasilii Chapaev, and socialist-realist author Maxim Gorky, balanced evenly by a stream of purely escapist fare. Director Sergei Eisenstein anticipated the coming war with Germany in his epic Alexander Nevsky (1938) and obliquely depicted Josef Stalin's dictatorship in his sprawling, two-part Ivan the Terrible (1944–1946); both films were brilliantly scored by composer Sergei Prokofiev. Fridrikh Ermler directed perhaps the most emblematic Soviet narrative of the Great Patriotic War, She Defends the Motherland (1943), which, along with Mark Donskoi's The Rainbow (1944), celebrated Soviet women partisans. Ukrainian Mark Dovzhenko confined his output to Battle for Our Soviet Ukraine (1943) and Victory in Right-Bank Ukraine (1945). Eminent director Vsevolod Pudovkin portrayed Catherine the Great's military champion in Suvorov (1940), addressed the war with In the Name of the Motherland (1943), and labored on the eponymous film biography of the tragic nineteenth-century Russian hero of Sevastopol, Admiral Nakhimov, which was released in 1946. Unlike in other major Allied and Axis film industries, wartime Soviet production focused primarily on the war at hand, departing from that agenda only to present historical dramas or filmed versions of opera.
French cinema, the most cosmopolitan in Europe just before the war, divided its art between lighthearted fare like Sacha Guitry's The Story of a Cheat (1936) and Marcel Pagnol's The Baker's Wife (1938) and a darker stratum of melodramas typified by Anatole Litvak's Mayerling (1936) and Abel Gance's Paradise Lost (1939) and poetic realist films such as Jean Renoir's The Human Beast (1938) and Marcel Carne's Daybreak (1939). With the German occupation of France in 1940, directors and actors who did not emigrate (many went to the United States) were able to find work in the Vichy-governed free zone or with the German-controlled industry in Paris. Production by the latter rapidly outstripped that of the cash-strapped south. During this period, Pagnol and Gance filmed the trenchant Well-Digger's Daughter and The Blind Venus (both 1940). Filmmakers were safest, however, producing escapist comedies, musicals, and period dramas such as Carne's Children of Paradise (1943–1945), which nonetheless managed to boost the independent-French spirit. Postliberation film production at first concentrated on documentaries and features detailing the heroic French Resistance. Within several years, however, the war theme became submerged for a time as postwar French film reestablished its place in world cinema.
Italy, like France, endured wartime division, but one of both territory and time, marked by the September 1943 armistice and the subsequent military occupation by Germany of its former Axis ally. Since 1926, the Fascist Party had enjoyed a monopoly on the production of documentaries and newsreels, but it displayed ambivalence in using feature films as convenient propaganda vehicles. Only about 5 percent of the more than 700 films produced in Italy between 1930 and 1943 overtly championed Italian accomplishments or adventures in World War I (Goffredo Alessandrini's Lucio Serra, Pilot in 1938); in the naval dominion of the Mediterranean Theater (Roberto Rosselini's The White Ship of 1941); in the Spanish Civil War (Augusto Genina's 1939 epic The Seige of Alcazar); and in the conquest of Africa, glorified in Carmine Gallone's Roman costume epic Scipio the African (1937). The huge body of film not directly concerned with nationalist jingoism was characterized in 1943 by director Luchino Visconti as "a cinema of corpses." Visconti's own Obsession (1943) pointed the way out of the Italian morass of Hollywood-inspired "white telephone" features (which, set in opulent surroundings where elegant characters often conversed vacuously on such appliances, obliquely satirized the privileged classes in 1930s Italy) and empty costume dramas toward the postwar achievement of Visconti and his fellow neorealists, whose films offered simple depictions of lower-class life.
As the Nazis consolidated their power during the 1930s, film became the medium of choice for promoting their government's point of view to the German people. By 1937, the National Socialist Party exercised total control over the German film industry, and five years later no private film production companies remained in Germany. Joseph Goebbels took charge of monitoring the film industry, advising executives as to what constituted a "good" film and banning outright several dozen films he believed ran counter to Third Reich values. Of the more than 1,000 films made in Germany under the aegis of the Nazi regime, however, fewer than 15 percent constituted pure propaganda. These were powerfully conceived, such as Leni Riefenstahl's masterful prewar Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938). The ubiquitous newsreels, depicted as Goebbels saw fit, were designed to promote the Nazi Party as Germany headed toward war. Fritz Hippler's overtly anti-Semitic pseudodocumentary The Wandering Jew (1940) trumpeted the party's persistent shibboleths; Veit Harlan's Jew Suss (1940) couched its message in a costume drama. The numerous dramas and comedies produced for wartime entertainment were not without their political or ideological content: the Prussian spirit was lionized in Wolfgang Liebeneier's Bismarck (1940) and Harlan's The Great King (1942), the plight of Mary Queen of Scots at the hands of the English was set to music in Carl Froelich's The Heart of a Queen (1940), and the nobility of the Afrikaner resisting British dominion in South Africa was celebrated in Hans Steinhoff's Uncle Kruger (1941). Eduard von Borsody's Request Concert (1940) presented a cavalcade of German musical figures in support of the war effort. As the tide of war turned against the Third Reich, audiences were entertained by outrageous fantasy in Josef von Baky's Munchausen (1943). Harlan struggled to film his apocalyptic Kolberg during late 1943 and 1944; by the time of its premiere in January 1945, many German theaters had fallen to Allied bombs.
Japan's conquest of China spawned scores of films in the 1930s that lionized the military. As the army grew in power, it acted to control the medium through official means: by 1936 the film industry operated under the Media Section of the Japanese Imperial Army. Strict laws enacted in 1939 governed the production of national policy films designed to portray the dedication and bravery of Japanese warriors and their supporters on the home front, among them Tomotaka Tasaka's Mud and Soldiers (1939), Naruse Mikio's The Whole Family Works (1939), Ozu Yasujiro's Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941), Tetsu Taguchi's Generals, Staff, and Soldiers (1942), and Yamamoto Kajiro's The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya (1942). Kurosawa Akira's debut Sanshiro Sugata (1943) was followed by his industrial paean The Most Beautiful in 1944. Period epics such as Uchida Tomu's History (1940) and Kinugasa Teinosuke's The Battle of Kawanakajima (1941) bolstered reverence for Japanese tradition, and Uchida's Earth (1939) portrayed simple farmers. Kurosawa's They Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (1945) endured criticism from both Japanese and U.S.-occupation censors and was not officially released until 1954. The ravages of sustaining the war had taken a grievous toll: from its pinnacle in the 1930s, Japanese film production had dropped from a yearly output of about 500 releases to a mere 26 by the end of 1945.
Since the war's end in 1945, filmmakers in countries touched directly or indirectly by World War II have examined and reexamined its details and have tried to express its lasting political or personal effects throughout the world. Immediately after the war, films such as William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Fred Zinnemann's The Men (1950) depicted the trauma of servicemen returning to civilian life in the United States. Heroism and bravery characterized William Wellman's Battleground (1949), Allan Dwan's Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), and Henry King's Twelve o'Clock High (1949). More complex in tone were Zinneman's From Here to Eternity (1953) and David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). The 1960s and 1970s brought several epic historical dramas to the screen, including The Longest Day (Andrew Marton, Ken Annakin, and Bernhard Wicki, 1962), Otto Preminger's In Harm's Way (1965), Annakin's The Battle of the Bulge (1965), Franklin Schaffner's Patton (1970), and the Japanese-American collaboration Tora! Tora! Tora! (Masuda Toshio, Fukasaku Kinji, Ray Kellogg, and Richard Fleischer, 1970). American and British audiences also responded favorably to cinematic war stories such as J. Lee-Thompson's The Guns of Navarone (1961), John Sturges' The Great Escape (1963), Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen (1967), Guy Hamilton's Battle of Britain (1969), Brian G. Hutton's Where Eagles Dare (1969), Mike Nichols' irreverent Catch-22 (1970), and Richard Attenborough's A Bridge Too Far (1977). As the twenty-first century approached, the horrors of combat in World War II, which has been called "the good war," were startlingly revisited to great realistic effect, notably in Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998) and Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1999). Overblown and historically inaccurate blockbusters such as Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor (2001) have contributed little to the cinematic record of the war.
The Soviet Union's nearly Pyrrhic victory in World War II left an indelible mark on the USSR. Such was the collective trauma of coping with more than 20 million deaths in battle and in the ravaged cities that memorializing the Great Patriotic war soon displaced the great October Revolution as the national touchstone—becoming, in effect, the secular state religion. Film would become indispensable in the solemnization of the immense national loss, but in the immediate postwar period Soviet studios were hamstrung by a general ideological retrenchment that oppressively slowed film production. Emerging from this situation was a film expressing the apotheosis of the Stalinist cult of personality blended with the glory of the recent victory over Germany, Mikhail Chiaureli's two-part The Fall of Berlin (1949–1950). In the years after Josef Stalin's death in 1953, a cultural thaw gradually yielded more expressive and complex war films such as Mikhail Kalatozov's The Cranes Are Flying (1957), Grigorii Chukhrai's Ballad of a Soldier (1959), Andrei Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood (1962), and Alexander Askoldov's allegory of the October Revolution, The Commissar (1967). The stagnant Leonid Brezhnev years of the late 1960s to the early 1980s produced a string of mostly forgettable rote panegyrics to the war's memory, but standing out due to its massive scale, length (five parts), and sheer volume was Iurii Ozerov's epic Liberation (1972). This was balanced soberly in 1985 by Elem Klimov's tragic and unrelenting Come and See. With the artistic freedom afforded them beginning in the late 1980s by Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost, Soviet directors indulged in social and cultural criticism as never before. Yet the war still loomed in Ozerov's Stalingrad (1989) and Mikhail Ptashuk's August 1944 (2000).
France and Italy evinced complex and ambivalent political and artistic landscapes as a result of their war experiences. The war's compromised memory was expressed in haunting films from French director Alain Resnais such as Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Muriel (1963) and by Italian directors Roberto Rosselini's Open City (1945), Carlo Borghesio's satirical How I Lost the War (1947), and Rosselini's grim Paisa (1946) and nihilistic Germany, Year Zero (1948). The urban and economic ruins of postwar Italy informed classics like Vittorio de Sica's Shoeshine (1946), The Bicycle Thief (1947), and Umberto D. (1952). The Fascists and the war receded from mainstream cinematic view until renewed interest was revealed in such varied films as Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist and The Spider's Strategem of 1970, de Sica's Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1971), Federico Fellini's nostalgic Amarcord (1973), Ettore Scola's A Special Day (1977), Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982), and Gabriele Salvatores' Mediterraneo (1991). Acknowledgment of the German occupation and the Vichy era emerged in the work of French directors, including Claude Chabrol's Line of Demarcation (1966), Marcel Ophuls' The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), Louis Malle's Lacombe Lucien (1974), François Truffaut's The Last Metro (1980), Malle's Au Revoir les Enfants (1987), Ophuls' Hotel Terminus (1987), and Chabrol's The Story of Women (1988) and Eye of Vichy (1993).
Germany and Japan shared in their utter defeat and subsequent occupation by the Allies, and their film industries came under strict censorship. In Japan, copies of more than 200 films on topics forbidden by the Americans were rounded up and burned in 1946; similar German films not already expropriated by the Soviets were likewise confiscated. In East Germany, the base of the film industry, Wolfgang Staudte depicted the postwar situation in The Murderers Are Among Us (1946), while Slatan Dudow offered tribute to the new socialist order in Our Daily Bread (1949) and Gerhard Klein offered a study of love divided by politics in Berlin Romance (1956). West Germans were held to a strict regimen of Allied reeducation, under which depressing melodramas like Josef von Baky's The Sky Above Us (1947) found approval, but U.S. imports like Gone with the Wind were banned. In West Germany in 1951, Peter Lorre directed The Lost Man, Robert Siodmak exposed the Gestapo in The Devil Strikes at Midnight (1957), and Bernhard Wicki questioned the war in The Bridge (1959). Ichikawa Kon directed moving Japanese war stories in The Burmese Harp (1956) and Fires on the Plains (1959), Kumai Kei explored Japanese treatment of American prisoners of war in The Sea and Poison (1986), and Japan's nuclear trauma was expressed in Imamura Shohei's Black Rain (1989). Perhaps the most outstanding film ever produced about submarine warfare was the German film Das Boot (1982), directed by Wolfgang Petersen.
Andrzej Wajda of Poland directed significant films about the war: Generation (1955), Kanal (1957), and Ashes and Diamonds (1958). Polish film also addressed the aftermath of Auschwitz in Andrzej Munk's The Passenger (1963), and Janusz Zaorski's Mother of Kings (1976) examined Poland's history from the period of World War II to Stalinist times. The effects of the war on India were explored in Satyajit Ray's Distant Thunder (1973). In presenting the theme of a controversial romance between a Thai woman and a Japanese officer in wartime Thailand, director Euthana Mukdasanit's Sunset at Chaopraya (1996) moved almost full circle in echoing the similar tension of Japanese director Fushimizu Osamu's notorious propaganda film of 1940, China Nights.
Whether triumphant, tragic, sentimental, dispassionate, or cynical in tone, these postwar films bear witness to the persistence of World War II in collective human memory and the questions the war continues to provoke. Gordon E. Hogg and T. Jason Soderstrum
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Gordon E. Hogg and T. Jason Soderstrum