This past weekend, Dunkirk was the biggest movie in the country, earningrapturous reviews and quickly establishing itself as one of the greatest, most immersive World War II films ever made. While all kinds of war movies have been made over the years, the battle between the Allied forces and the Axis powers has always been the most compelling for filmmakers. There are obvious reasons for that: World War II very much felt like a conflict that would decide the fate of the planet; Adolf Hitler was a true-life villain so monstrous that he was impossible to ignore; and, for the Allies (which included the U.S.), there was a built-in happy ending that argued that good will always triumph over evil.
Directors all over the world have made great World War II movies, but we wanted to focus on Hollywood films that have depicted this bloody conflict over the years. Starting in the early 1940s, American audiences have gone to the theater and seen that same war play out, but the style and attitude of these films have shifted as we move further away from the actual events. As a result, Hollywood’s evolving depiction of World War II can serve as a handy guide to what was going on in the film business, and America, at different times.
The films we spotlighted aren’t necessarily the greatest of the genre — although several of them are pretty terrific — but they’re all representative of their eras. Each of them dramatizes a moment in history, but each of them is also an apt time capsule for their own moment.
What’s Going On in America? Premiering less than a year after Pearl Harbor, Casablanca is the only film on this list that was made during World War II. Before the Japanese attack, America was deeply divided over whether to enter into another global conflict; the war itself had started in 1939 and been building for much of the 1930s. But by the time Casablancawent into general release in early 1943, the country was already deep into its assault on Germany and Japan.
What’s Going On in Hollywood? Americans may have been torn about joining the Allied cause before Pearl Harbor, but after the attack President Franklin D. Roosevelt made sure he had Hollywood on his side to sell voters on the war. As chronicled in journalist Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back(which later was adapted for a Netflix documentary series), FDR created the Office of War Information’s Bureau of Motion Pictures, which recruited well-respected filmmakers, like John Huston, Frank Capra and John Ford, to produce documentaries on the importance of defeating the Axis powers. Along the way, Casablanca also was affected by this sales job: The film’s original writers, Julius and Philip Epstein (working from the unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick’s), had to leave the project to work with Capra on his Why We Fight documentaries.
People love Casablanca for the love story between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman — World War II is merely a backdrop — but the characters’ resistance to the Nazis, especially during the famous scene when singing German soldiers are drowned out by impassioned French patrons singing their national anthem, hints at the pro-Allies mood of the country. As New York Times critic Bosley Crowther put it at the time, “We will say that Casablanca is one of the year’s most exciting and trenchant films. It certainly won’t make Vichy happy — but that’s just another point for it.”
‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ (1946)
What’s Going On in America? This Best Picture-winner was made a year after the Allied triumph, depicting three soldiers returning to America and trying to get back to their lives. But rather than a rah-rah picture, The Best Years of Our Lives was a somber look at how hard that transition can be for veterans. As producer Samuel Goldwyn explained at the time, according to A. Scott Berg’s biography, “Every family in America is part of this story. When [soldiers] come home, what do they find? They don’t remember their wives, they’ve never seen their babies, some are wounded — they have to readjust.” Rather than focusing on the glory, the movie asked viewers to consider the repercussions of war on those who waged it.
What’s Going On in Hollywood? As World War II dragged on, combat pictures were proving to be box-office disappointments. (Goldwyn knew this all too well: His 1943 movie The North Star had been a commercial dud.) So Best Years was hardly a guaranteed hit — the film also ran nearly three hours and featured downbeat subject matter such as alcoholism and adultery. And yet, Best Years was a sensation, winning nine Oscars. Along the way, it became the template for several generations of movies — everything from The Deer Hunter to The Master — that turned their attention to war’s aftermath, bringing attention to the psychic wounds that soldiers carry with them long after they escape the battlefield.
‘From Here to Eternity’ (1953) and ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957)
What’s Going On in America? In the 1950s, the country put the experience of World War II behind it. People moved to the suburbs, raised families and generally savored the postwar economic boom. On screen, the war became fodder for grand, populist drama. Two of the standouts of the era were From Here to Eternity and The Bridge on the River Kwai, both of which won Best Picture. The former (based on the James Jones novel) focused on a group of soldiers living on a Hawaii barracks right before the Pearl Harbor attack. The latter (based on the Pierre Boulle novel) revolved around British and American soldiers taking on a Japanese platoon in 1943. Although not without their emotional sophistication, superb performances and thematic nuance, the two movies turned the war into entertainment full of romantic melodrama and rip-roaring action sequences.
What’s Going On in Hollywood? If a decade earlier Hollywood had to contend with the fact that audiences didn’t want war movies, the 1950s saw them come back into vogue. Beyond From Here to Eternity and River Kwai, the era featured a number of dramas that were major Oscar players, including Decision Before Dawn, The Caine Mutiny, Mister Roberts and The Diary of Anne Frank. But, perhaps just as importantly, World War II found its way indirectly into the sci-fi genre, where fear of nuclear weapons — first utilized by the U.S. against Japan — sparked films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and the screen adaptation of The War of the Worlds.
‘The Great Escape’ (1963) and ‘The Dirty Dozen’ (1967)
What’s Going On in America? Given the divisiveness of the Vietnam War, it isn’t a surprise that audiences chose to escape to the theater to watch films about a war that wasn’t so controversial. The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen are big, rollicking World War II adventures with clear-cut heroes and boo-hiss villains. They’re also super-macho. As Quentin Tarantino put it, “The thing that’s just amazing about The Dirty Dozen, and why I don’t think it could ever be duplicated today, is the fact that you could never find eight actors like that now. It was just a different breed of man.”
What’s Going On in Hollywood? In the 1970s, Hollywood would reinvent itself through a group of maverick filmmakers, like Martin Scorsese, who were inspired by the counterculture movement. But in the 1960s, the studio system was running on fumes, challenged by the rise of television for American viewers’ attention. Nonetheless, producers could still churn out sprawling action flicks that did robust business. (This period was the time of brawny pictures like The Guns of Navarone and Patton.) And although a more subversive, anti-authoritarian kind of Hollywood picture would soon arise — such as Bonnie and Clyde and Five Easy Pieces — these conservative, blood-and-guts epics would inspire later filmmakers. The most prominent of them was Tarantino, who credited The Great Escape as “one of those bunch-of-guys-on-a-mission movies that got me to sit down and write Inglourious Basterds.”
‘Empire of the Sun’ (1987)
What’s Going On in America? We can all recite the litany of clichés about Reagan’s America in the 1980s — trickle-down economics, the War on Drugs, Wall Street greed run amuck — which was a conservative reaction to the counterculture. But it also was a period in which World War II was mostly held up as a triumphant origin story of the U.S. as a global superpower. It wasn’t a time, in other words, when people were thirsting for a serious coming-of-age period drama that’s more about the British, Japanese and Chinese World War II experience — and especially not from the guy who had made his name in part by directing a fun World War II-era adventure called Raiders of the Lost Ark. But that’s exactly what Steven Spielberg attempted with Empire of the Sun. Not surprisingly, nobody showed up to see it.
What’s Going On in Hollywood? By the time Empire of the Sun opened in December 1987, studios were still making war movies — just not about World War II. Starting in the late 1970s, Hollywood had turned its attention to Vietnam, and the resulting films split into two very different categories. On one side, you had Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and Platoon — dramas that measured the emotional, physical and spiritual toil that misguided war wrought on its participants — while on the other you had escapist action-thrillers like the Rambo movies in which Sylvester Stallone’s troubled Vietnam vet refights the conflict so that America, in essence, can end up winning.
Based on J.G. Ballard’s novel, Empire of the Sun felt out-of-step with both camps, depicting a young Christian Bale as a British boy living in China who has to learn to survive after he’s separated from his parents as World War II looms. The movie was a commercial and critical disappointment. (Spielberg’s next film was the much more crowd-pleasing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.) But its reputation has improved over time, with critics now seeing it as his first step toward the more accomplished dramas he would make in later years, like Schindler’s List.
‘Schindler’s List’ (1993)
What’s Going On in America? In 1980, Congress voted to create the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as a way to commemorate the millions of Jews who were killed during the Holocaust. By the time the museum opened in April 1993, there had already been several significant films about the Holocaust, including The Diary of Anne Frank, The Sorrow and the Pity, Judgment at Nuremberg and Shoah. Later that same year, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List earned a spot on that prestigious list, Hollywood’s most commercial filmmaker delivering a stripped-down, black-and-white, three-hour drama, which won seven Oscars, including Best Picture. Since then, Spielberg has gone on to create the USC Shoah Foundation, which is “[d]edicated to making audio-visual interviews with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides a compelling voice for education and action.”
What’s Going On in Hollywood? Spielberg’s adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s prize-winning book was hardly a surefire hit, and for quite some time, it seemed that he wasn’t the director to make the movie. Universal bought the rights in the early 1980s after Spielberg suggested it, but for years Scorsese was attached to the film. Eventually, though, the two directors swapped projects — Spielberg would take Schindler’s List and Scorsese would take Cape Fear — and the rest is history. But because Schindler’s List was so successful — it was one of 1993’s highest-grossing films — it opened the door for many more World War II movies that focused on the Holocaust. Everything from The Pianist to Life Is Beautiful to Son of Saulhave, arguably, enjoyed a wider audience simply because of Schindler’s List’s existence.
‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998) and ‘The Thin Red Line’ (1998)
What’s Going On in America? A few months before Tom Brokaw published The Greatest Generation, his bestselling book about World War II and the Americans who fought, Spielberg’s own salute to the troops became a summer smash. Like The Greatest Generation, Saving Private Ryan takes its inspiration from the 1944 D-Day landing on the beaches of Normandy, depicting the invasion as a violent, harrowing ordeal. Saving Private Ryanwas soon followed by Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, which adapted James Jones’ novel about the Battle of Guadalcanal, both films honoring the sacrifices of soldiers and looking back at a war that now happened so long ago that it was draped in myth and legend.
Though the two films were very different in tone — Spielberg’s patriotic and sentimental, Malick’s poetic and mysterious — they spoke to a country that had gone a long time without experiencing a conflict in which America was clearly victorious and its cause unquestionably just.
What’s Going On in Hollywood? The directors behind these two films couldn’t have been more different. Spielberg was at the height of his powers, winning a Best Director Oscar for Schindler’s List and enjoying continued major commercial success with the first two Jurassic Park films. He’d win his second Oscar for Saving Private Ryan, which was the highest-grossing movie of 1998. Meanwhile, Malick, though a revered filmmaker, hadn’t finished a project since 1978’s Days of Heaven, cultivating an aura of reclusive genius. Around the time of The Thin Red Line’s release, Vanity Fair ran a long investigative piece about what Malick had been up to since Days of Heaven, including stories of the fame-shy director disappearing for weeks without even telling his wife where he was going.
The two movies helped kick-start a new rash of war films, including Three Kings and Black Hawk Down. More specifically, any subsequent war movie with intense sequences of combat footage will inevitably get compared to Saving Private Ryan’s brutal D-Day opening — it remains the high-water mark for realistic, bloody war scenes. As for The Thin Red Line, the film brought Malick back from the cinematic wilderness — in the last 20 years, he’s made six movies, his most prolific period.
‘Letters From Iwo Jima’ (2006)
What’s Going On in America? Five years after 9/11 — and three years after the start of the Iraq War — conservative filmmaker Clint Eastwood made not one but two movies about World War II, each of them speaking to the pessimistic spirit of the times. Flags of Our Fathers examined the ways that the American government capitalized on the stirring photo of soldiers raising the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima, using the servicemen as cheap marketing tools for the war effort.
But even more powerful was Letters From Iwo Jima, which focused on the doomed Japanese soldiers in that same battle, who knew they had little chance of survival against the superior numbers of American troops. In an era when many Americans were questioning our place in the world and how our foreign policy affected others, Letters From Iwo Jima boldly asked viewers to consider “the enemy” as people with their own hopes and fears.
What’s Going On in Hollywood? Antiwar films such as Platoon and Three Kings have demonstrated how American soldiers wrecked havoc on the people they encountered overseas, but it remains remarkable that a major studio, Warner Bros., financed Letters From Iwo Jima, which was essentially a foreign-language drama with no major stars. Even more remarkable was that Letters emerged as an afterthought while Eastwood was developing Flags of Our Fathers. While doing research about the Battle of Iwo Jima, the filmmaker became interested in the Japanese commanding officer, who would be played by Ken Watanabe.
“General Kuribayashi was a unique guy,” Eastwood later said. “He liked America. He thought it was a mistake to go to war with America. He thought America was too big an industrial complex, from a practical point of view. … [H]e turns out to be an interesting person. And in our research, we found out there were many other interesting people that were there. The young Japanese conscriptees that were on the island were very much like the Americans. They didn’t necessarily want to be in the war.”
Deeply sympathetic to its Japanese characters, Letters is an astounding movie that paints the U.S. troops as the bad guys — a rarity in Hollywood war films.
What’s Going On in America? We’re living in the Trump years, and we don’t like it. In fact, Trump’s behavior is so commonly compared to that of a fascist that Hitler comparisons happen just about every day (hour? minute?). Although Dunkirk doesn’t explicitly reference Trump, it’s easy to make the connection if you’re looking for it. The film takes place during the Battle of Dunkirk, which occurred in the summer of 1940, more than a year before the U.S. got involved in World War II. There are no American characters — just British soldiers and civilians doing what they can to stave off the Nazi advance. Writing for The New York Times, film critic Manohla Dargis closed her rave review by noting the while watching the movie’s stirring message of perseverance and vigilance, “[Y]ou are reminded that the fight against fascism continues.” In the age of mass protests against Trump, Dunkirk speaks to that spirit of determined resistance.
What’s Going On in Hollywood? Dominated by superhero films, modern-day Hollywood is taking a risk with Dunkirk, a summer blockbuster that features no major stars and is inspired by a World War II battle that’s not well-known in the States. Even if the film is directed by Christopher Nolan, responsible for several smashes (including the Dark Knight trilogy, Inceptionand Interstellar), there’s no guarantee this $150 million film will make back its money.
Nonetheless, Dunkirk has already proven to be that rare event movie at a time when audiences have so many entertainment options. Shooting the film with large-format cameras, Nolan is putting out the film in IMAX 70mm and traditional 70mm, creating a massive theatrical experience that can’t be replicated at home. That’s important when Hollywood is trying to encourage people to leave their couch to see movies at the multiplex. On screen, Dunkirk depicts the war against the Nazis. But for the film industry, this action-thriller is battling everything from Netflix to prestige television — enemies that may not fall as easily as the Vichy.