American war movies of recent vintage have focused primarily on the Vietnam War. This is understandable not only because it is our most recent armed conflict of any duration and consequence but also because it was the occasion for a political and moral crisis that continues to divide Americans to this day. Wherever conflict runs that deep on so many levels, and wherever the ethical imperatives are so profoundly ambiguous, you will always find fertile ground for drama.
Still, the Vietnam conflict is not the only war involving American troops that provides exceptional fodder for drama. The Second World War furnishes filmmakers with clear-cut good guys and bad guys to a degree not often found in international politics. Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito make pretty convincing villains by just about anybody's lights. Interestingly, there seems to be a trend developing in American war films toward looking back once again to World War II. This month's made for cable HBO release, "When Trumpets Fade," anticipates the heralded release of Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" in choosing "the Good War," as Studs Terkel has called it, as the setting of its tale of combat action.
Naturally, these films bring to bear the perspective of fifty intervening years. If your interest has been piqued by these latter day World War II movies, you might try seeking out some of the war pictures of the forties for comparison. Here are some titles to look for on home video.
"Air Force" (1942). Director Howard Hawks, himself a veteran flyer, strove for authenticity in this portrayal of the crew of a B-17 bomber. One of Hawks's hallmarks was the dramatization of the bonding of a group of men under stress. This is one of the films that earned him that reputation. Made during the war, "Air Force" is typical of many films of the period in its jingoistic propaganda. The Japanese, in particular, are portrayed as inhuman vermin whose extermination would be a boon to humanity.
"They Were Expendable" (1945). From director John Ford, one of the great poets of the American cinema, came this poetic meditation on warfare and soldiering. In contrast to Hawks, the Air Corps veteran, Ford was a Navy man. Here he recounts the story of the origins of the PT-boat fleet in the Philippines. Using the story as a springboard, Ford weaves a moving tribute to the military spirit. He seems to see war as a paradox, grounded in the most degraded aspects of human nature, and yet capable of calling forth great nobility from those who put their lives on the line for the sake of a greater cause.
"Objective Burma" (1945). Errol Flynn starred in this harrowing story of a mission behind enemy lines. When a group of paratroopers jump into Burma to destroy a Japanese radar station, they find themselves boxed in by the enemy and unable to rendezvous with their rescue plane. Left with no other alternative, they are forced to make their way through the Burmese jungle on foot.
"Battleground" (1949). A veteran of both the French Foreign Legion and the Lafayette Escadrille air corps, director William Wellman was well acquainted with warfare. He had told a stirring tale of World War I in his silent drama "Wings" (1927), winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture. This film was his tribute to the dogfaces of World War II. James Whitmore and Van Johnson head an outstanding cast.
"A Walk in the Sun" (1945). Director Lewis Milestone is best remembered for a World War I picture, "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930), which presented a strong pacifist message, but this chronicle of the lives of World War II soldiers is in its own way equally memorable. Superficially it presents little more than a day in the life of a group of soldiers attempting to carry out an assignment, making their way from a beachhead six miles inland to capture a farmhouse. From this deceptively simple framework, Milestone and script writer Robert Rossen created an involving and moving portrait of the stress of combat and its effect on the fragile human beings who suffer under its yoke.As you can see, the war films of the forties ran the gamut from flag-waving propaganda to sober considerations of the heart and mind of the individual soldier. Next week we'll take a look at a few more attempts to capture the war onscreen.