The Art and Musings of Felix Quinonez Jr.

Why is Hollywood Obsessed With World War II?

From Saving Private Ryan, Directed by Steven Spielberg

From Saving Private Ryan, Directed by Steven Spielberg

Felix Quinonez Jr.

It’s been over 70 years since World War II ended but on the screen, the fight goes on and on…and on. It’s no secret that American viewers love war movies but among all the military conflicts, World War II stands apart from the rest. It seems to be the one war that filmmakers and audiences are always ready to embrace.

Like most countries, The United States of America was born out of war. Our History is often defined by the wars we fight. And we frequently talk about different time periods in relation to the wars they are most close to. (Post WWI, during the Vietnam War, etc.)

We have been in wars or involved in military conflicts almost constantly, even now. Wars are always a tragic thing; there is really no such thing as a “good” war.  As John Steinbeck described it, “All war is a symptom of man's failure as a thinking animal.”

The loss of human life is always tragic. And by design, wars can’t happen or end without death. It’s especially tragic that so many of those killed are soldiers so young they’ve barely had to chance to really experience life. So many of them died and will continue to die for what are often nothing but abstract, stubborn ideals. Or even worse, complete fabrications that hide the real motivations. Many soldiers are sent to their deaths to defend a country that they’ve barely had the chance to see outside of their small hometowns.

A scene from Saving Private Ryan at Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

A scene from Saving Private Ryan at Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

But why does World War II stand out among all wars? It was by no means the only large-scale war the US was involved in. World War I was dubbed the war to end all wars and was one of the largest conflicts in history. It had wide ranging and long lasting impacts on the world. And there were other wars that lasted longer than World War II.

And the attacks on 9/11 happened not only on mainland American soil but at one of our major cities. Almost 3,000 people were killed, over 6,000 were injured and billions of dollars worth of damage was caused.

9/11 had a huge and long lasting impact on this country. And yet unlike Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attack that resulted in the US entering World War II, there are no Hollywood movies that lionize the events. And the movies that do deal with 9/11 are usually somber, often controversial and don’t attract a lot of audiences. Needless to say there is no Michael Bay directed “9/11 meets Titanic” summer blockbuster.

But there is something different about World War II. There’s no doubt that it was a huge war and that its impact is still felt today but why is it so popular on the big screen? While other wars make us want to look away, moviegoers very often embrace World War II movies. So, why is it so popular with Hollywood and audiences?

A lot of that has to do with the war itself. World War II was the last war to really unite us as a country. Since then, just about every military conflict and War the US has been involved in has inspired just as much protest as support. But in World War II, there was a clear delineation between the “good” guys and the “bad” guys. The term “good vs. evil” was something that was easily applied. And the impact of the war on the US is something that greatly impacts how we look back on it.

The fact that most of the fighting happened away from us plays a pivotal role in how we remember World War II and why many refer to it as the “good war” It also helped bring the nation out of the great depression.

But during the war, the soldiers had to live with the possibility that they might never come home again. Death was a constant presence. And because of this, many came home with a new appreciation for life.

They wasted no time getting married and starting families. This led to what is referred to as the “baby boom.” Having missed out on so much because of the war, the soldiers were eager to make up for lost time. They bought homes and went to college.

They have been often referred to as “the greatest generation” not only because they helped win the war but because they helped the country’s economy reach new heights in the late 40s and 50s. Having defeated the Axis Powers, there was a general sense of optimism in the country. There was a belief that there was nothing Americans couldn’t do. And the economy thrived as well.

In the eyes of the world, America had emerged as, not only a leader but also a global superpower. During the war, Over 60 million people were killed, which was about 3% of the 1940 world population (est. 2.3 billion) But America’s losses were minor in comparison to the other Allies and to the Axis powers. And unlike most of Europe, The US didn’t need any rebuilding and was the only nation that had the atomic bomb.

The global economy suffered heavily from the war but the nations involved were impacted differently. In stark contrast to many of the other countries, the US emerged with a very healthy economy. By 1950 its gross domestic product per person was much higher than that of any of the other powers.

Between 1945 and 1949 the United States was the most powerful nation in the world. And its dominance was unlike any other seen in history before. That's what World War II did for America.

Another big reason why World War II is the war we have no problem revisiting is because as, Stephen Ambrose, one of America's most respected historians, explains it, World War II gave birth to “the American spirit.”

Only 20 years had passed since World War I was dubbed “the war to end all wars.” But that certainly didn’t turn out to be the case. And Because of that, many people believed that the US should stay out of the war.

And as Ambrose pointed out, about 40 % of the American people were against entering the war. That is, until December 7th 1941. But after Pearl Harbor, public opinion about the war changed drastically. December 8th, 1941 had more enlistments than any other day in American history.

Because the war was no longer something happening overseas that could be ignored, Americans faced a common enemy and suddenly local problems didn’t seem so important.

Ambrose explained that, “World War II "strengthened us as a country "We were much more committed to the idea of country, rather than region. People didn't speak of themselves any more as being, 'Well, I'm a rebel, I'm from Mississippi.' 'I'm a Yankee, I'm from Wisconsin.' [It was], 'I'm an American.' That would always spring first to their lips."

The Omaha Beach Scene from Saving Private Ryan

The Omaha Beach Scene from Saving Private Ryan

And another reason why they make for such effective movies is the simple fact that Hollywood loves to tell large stories with big themes and in broad strokes. And the sheer scope of the war allows for that. The war can be used to tell stories about the “triumph of the human spirit” that movies like The King’s Speech, directed by Tom Hooper, embody.

The atrocities of World War II are so inhumane and shocking that they allow filmmakers to show the darker side of humanity in a way that screams “serious film!” without exaggerating or resorting to sensationalism. And the scale of human suffering works well with “Prestige storytelling.”

There is an almost unanimous agreement about the war. And it invites reductive story telling that eschews nuance in favor of simple truths. Movies like Saving Private Ryan propagate the belief and branding of World War II as “the good war.” That’s not to say that Saving Private Ryan isn’t an incredibly well done film. Most people would agree that its many merits outweigh any of its flaws.

But it and many other World War II movies depict American involvement as perhaps more crucial than it really was. They portray Americans as the heroes that stepped in and saved the day in a way that is very appealing to American audiences and critics alike. Most people talk about the realism of Saving Private Ryan but overlook the fact that it’s patriotic in such an uncritical way that the movie borders on propaganda. And if that movie was about any other war, more people would have called it out for the jingoism it, at times, resembles.

And audiences are so used to seeing World War II on the big screen that few people even think twice about the fact that Inglorious Basterds, directed by Quentin Tarantino, essentially turned one of the most heinous events in human history into a comedy. Again, that’s not a comment on the quality of the movie. But the audience reaction is very telling. It shows that audiences have become, if not desensitized, at least comfortable enough with World War II that it can be used as entertainment. 

Poster of Inglourious Basterds, directed by Quentin Tarantino

Poster of Inglourious Basterds, directed by Quentin Tarantino

But ultimately, the fact that World War II is the war everyone can agree on gives these movies a bit of a pass. Filmmakers can approach a project with a sort of safety net that comes from knowing that these movies are usually viewed through a less critical lens than movies about other wars.