A War Without End: Why Cinema Is Continually Drawn To World War II

It is almost impossible to fully tally the number of films that are based on the largest war ever fought. Despite this, it’s certainly clear their ranks far outstrip the nearest so-called competition. For example, it is estimated there are 10 World War II movies for every movie set in the trenches of World War I, with around 300 being produced during the war alone. Furthermore, despite a decline in interest in the 1990s, , and it has remained there to this day.

But why are we consistently drawn to the six-year conflict, and why haven’t other more recent, and therefore arguably more relatable, wars eclipsed it? Let’s take a look at the main reasons.

There Are Still Stories To Be Told

"Anthropoid" stars Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy.

“Anthropoid” stars Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy.

First and foremost is the unprecedented scale of the conflict. Although World War I was certainly global in nature, World War II took that concept even further — as a good sequel should. With theaters of war on almost every major continent, and millions upon millions of men mobilized, the sheer size of the conflict is enough to warrant extensive interest.

However, World War II movies do not exist today merely because of their potential scale. For example, modern CGI and filmmaking techniques mean modern action or science fiction movies can now outstrip even the largest World War II battle in terms of explosions and carnage. The scale of the conflict instead provides a different boon: A multitude of perspectives and stories.

Initially, many war movies were based on the major events of the war — the large battles and the great invasions. As time wore on, directors started to tighten their angle on the conflict, understanding that each individual soldier in those battles also had an incredible story to tell. Take for example, the upcoming Anthropoid (in theaters August 12), a movie from Sean Ellis that tells the Reinhard Heydrich, a.k.a the Hangman of Prague, who was the architect of the Final Solution and the third in command under Hitler. This story, fought away from the oft-visited front lines of France and the Pacific, instead focuses on only three men: Czech assassins Jozef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dorner), and their quarry Reinhard Heydrich. Check out the Anthropoid trailer below:

This story, and many like it, which are still untold in mainstream cinema, illustrate how the WWII is still replete with many tales of individual trials and tribulations deserving of remembrance on the big screen.

Telling The Same Stories In A Different Way

1970's "Tora! Tora! Tora!" (20th Century Fox)

1970’s “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (20th Century Fox)

As mentioned above, as soon as war was declared in 1939, the nations involved began making movies about it. Initially these were mostly British creations that aimed at increasing morale in the beleaguered isle, but later, American directors also created their own war movies that also did not lack in flag-waving and jingoism.

These early war movies, such as The Lion Has Wings, Guadalcanal Diary and The Fighting Sullivans, were often nothing more than propaganda designed to encourage recruitment and vilify the enemy. As such, they were rarely accurate or unbiased creations, despite being made when the war was actually being fought.

"Guadalcanal Diary," 1943.

“Guadalcanal Diary,” 1943.

Faced with this output, other directors felt the need to set the record straight. This coincided with the rise of historical revisionism regarding the war in the 1960s and beyond. Instead of seeing the enemy as a single evil whole, they began to understand there is good and bad in all societies — including their own. For example, World War II war movies such The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far and Tora! Tora! Tora! tried to show the many sides of the conflict, and not simply brave Americans mowing down “dastardly Jerries.”

This is not to say all modern World War II movies take this approach. For example, Pearl Harbor and U-571 have been criticized as exercises in post-Cold War US jingoism, but more recently, movies such as Downfall, Valkyrie and The Pianist have acted to redress past cultural indiscretions.

Check out the oft-parodied Downfall scene featuring Bruno Ganz as Hitler (with original subtitles) below:

A War We Can Feel Good About

The West now has a contentious relationship with warfare. The quagmire of Vietnam, the controversy of the Iraq War and the decade-long “war on terror” has resulted in political communities that are no longer united in a single opinion. The West’s enemies now no longer wear uniforms, nor do they mass together on front lines or obligingly engage in our traditional notions of a fair fight.

In this sense, World War II war movies might be trying to hark back to a simpler time when the moral rights and wrongs of conflict were not so blurred. Indeed, for many, World War II was a rare example of a just war, even if it wasn’t always fought justly by all involved.

World War II is relatively simple in its make-up. There are the Allies and the Axis, the good guys and the bad. It’s not hard to know which is which, and the war in general sits comfortably with our 21st century sensibilities — most of the time. Even the historical layman can make a relatively strong case that it was fought in the defense of freedom — which is not something you can say of all of the West’s more recent interventions and conflicts.

Nostalgia For The Past

Related to the above concept is also nostalgia for a simpler time. For older audience members, this might be a nostalgia for their youth; for younger ones it might be an imagined nostalgia, or curiosity, of a bygone era.

Indeed, unlike the 19th century, or even the early 20th century, the 1940s are recognizable to a member of the new millennium, and we can often see the roots of our modern society in these times. This, combined with the fact that many audience members have or had family members from this period, imbues it with a special significance in their hearts.

There might also be a sense that those who lived and fought during WWII constituted the “greatest generation that ever lived” — people who survived the Depression and then went on to defend freedom without complaint. This stands in stark contrast to our modern, consumer-orientated culture.

"Saving Private Ryan," with Tom Hanks and Matt Damo
“Saving Private Ryan,” with Tom Hanks and Matt Damo

Of course, even though the movies have dialed down the flag-waving in recent years, good ol’ fashioned patriotism still plays a major role. For British viewers in particular, World War II might act as a bookend on global greatness. Following the Suez Crisis of 1956, Britain increasingly lost much of its empire, prestige and clout on the international stage. For some Brits, WWII, in which it stood practically alone for some time, is a source of incredible national pride, and the last time in which Great Britain truly lived up to its name.

Of course, these are just some of the reasons that keep us returning to World War II, and other countries — namely, Germany and Japan — will also have their own reasons for creating and consuming movies concerning a dark time in their national histories. But one thing is for sure, while contemporary wars might have their time in the cinematic limelight and then retire to the history books, movies about World War II are likely to exist on cinema screens for quite a long time yet.

Are you glad to see World War II still on the big screen?

Anthropoid arrives in theaters on August 12.

Find out more about Anthropoid at .


Writer, cynic, Walter Mitty day-dreamer. Email: [email protected]