War in the Movies: Through the 1940s
Birth of a Nation
Whenever we celebrate Memorial Day or any other "holiday" that commemorates our history, war, and our military and war heroes we commemorate with war movies on TV stations across the nation. When I decided to write this piece I had several war movies in mind but when I began to research I was both shocked and amazed at the amount of war movies that have been made. Hundreds of war movies have been made by Hollywood and by other countries as well. Shortly after Hollywood began making movies they began making war movies.
One of the earliest and probably the most controversial was Birth of a Nation in 1915. This is a black and white, silent film. The first time I saw it my husband and I looked at each other and said, "Are they GLAD the KKK is there?" Turns out they were. This movie made to show the South and it's reconstruction after the Civil War was extremely racist. If they tried to make this movie today I question whether it would ever have made it to the screen. Then famous actress Lillian Gish starred in this movie either not aware or not caring about the controversial content (She was the heroine). The Birth of a Nation, in the director's eyes, included the birth of the Ku Klux Klan. Due to it's controversial nature it was banned in many cities AND it was used as a Klan recruiting tool! The main story was that of two friends from the south who fought on different sides and how their lives were affected when they returned from the war. The problem with the birth of the Klan is that it is glorified in this movie and depicts the slaves as rapists and murderers. Even now over ninety years later it is difficult to watch this film and not flinch or recoil at the message it is trying to convey.
Birth of a Nation
Some Great War Movies of the 1940's
The Great Dictator - 1940
In Which We Serve - 1942
Casablanca - 1942
The Fighting Sullivans - 1944
Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo - 1944
They Were Expendable - 1945
The Best Years of Our Lives - 1946
The Sands of Iwo Jima - 1949
To Hell and Back
Now that I hope I have your attention, stop a minute and try to list some of the war movies you've seen.... What do you think are the best war movies? I know that's subjective because there are lists of top war movies all over the Internet and while many share some common titles the list seems to be endless. Before I go on to top war movies, let's take a look at a war movie from 1955 that depicts a war hero played by the war hero himself. (This movie shouldn't have been included since it was made in 1955 but it just seemed to fit.) Do you know who it is? Audie Leon Murphy. Audie Murphy was the most decorated soldier in WWII, receiving two dozen medals. Apparently Mr. Murphy had trouble enlisting in the military because of his size but was finally accepted by the Army. After the war Mr. Murphy wrote a book about his WWII experiences which was later made into a movie, To Hell and Back. Originally he wanted Tony Curtis to play him in the film but was somehow convinced to play himself. He went on to success in Hollywood as well and made somewhere around 44 movies. But, the war movie is what we are looking at here. The greatness of this movie lies in Audie Murphy. He was 5'5", not the man you would think would be the greatest soldier but his life made this movie not only an interesting movie but one that led people to believe it is not your size that matters, but the stuff you are made of.
To Hell and Back
Gone With the Wind
Back to top war movies. As I said, the list is long and subjective so I am choosing some of my favorites. It's impossible to list them all because the list is too long!
Have you thought of Gone With the Wind made in 1939? Really, this was a great war movie! I know it's a romance and can get a bit sappy at times for those not interested in the romance part (though I am), it is a truly great war movie and one of it's greatest scenes of course is the burning of Atlanta. The film begins on the eve of the Civil War and ends with Rhett Butler walking out on Scarlett...there is sooo much in between. Scarlett's love for Ashley runs throughout the movie but there's also her marriages and conniving nature. Her marriage to Charles Hamilton, Melanie's brother, before he leaves for the war is the first marriage. Charles dies of pneumonia in the Confederate Army leaving Scarlett a widow for the first time.
There are scenes showing what the women in the south suffered while their men were away at war and the conflicting feelings between the north and the south despite the war. Union troops pillage Scarlett's beloved Tara (her homestead) and she and her family begin picking cotton with the servants - something that wouldn't have even been considered before the war.
There are many Civil War battles mentioned and depicted in Gone With the Wind. I think I've given you enough about Gone With the Wind because if you haven't seen this Emmy Award winning movie by now, it's time you did!
Gone With the Wind
Sgt. York - 1941. Sgt. York was a biographical film about a country boy who did not want to shoot his gun against other men and did not want to kill anyone. This movie is based on York's diaries and the only way he was convinced to make a movie was to let Gary Cooper play him.
This is a WWI film and to me was very interesting being so old and a true story. Alvin York was just a poor country boy. However, he's a poor country boy who happens to be an excellent marksman. His drinking and hell raising stop when he is struck by lightning and he promises God he will turn his life around. Therein lies the crux of the matter...he does not ever want to raise his hand or gun against another man now that he is a God-fearing, religious man.
Although he is a conscientious objector he is drafted into the Army anyway. He is quickly promoted when his officers see what a marksman he is, but he's still a country boy. One of his officer's realizes the dilemma York is facing and tells him to go home and read the Bible to see why it is necessary to defend himself. He does and realizes it is a necessary evil and the quicker this war is over the better.
Without going into all the detail, York is sent to Europe and with a handful of surviving soldiers manages to capture 132 Germans. The officers are amazed when he returns with his prisoners. Fortunately for York when the war ended he was able to return to Tennessee, marry his sweetheart and buy the land he always wanted.
Alvin York was one of the most decorated soldiers in WWI having taken 32 machine guns, killing 28 Germans and capturing the aforementioned 132 Germans.
So many more there isn't space to write about. I started out with a general piece about war movies trying to pick the top war movies but as I wrote I realized that was an almost impossible task - unless I was going to write a book. So, I have decided to break things down. My next war movies hub will be the 50s and 60s.
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