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War in the Movies: Through the 1940s

Updated on July 29, 2013
tillsontitan profile image

Mary has been a movie fan since she was a little girl. She watched movies every night of the week on Million Dollar Theater..

WWII Aircraft
WWII Aircraft | Source

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

Sergeant York

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.

Sergeant York

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.

Copyright Tillsontitan - All Rights Reserved

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    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 5 years ago from New York

      I can remember being shocked the first time I saw Birth of a Nation...reading and research explained it a little better. Glad you enjoyed my choices and so glad you took the time to read these hubs!

    • ThoughtSandwiches profile image

      ThoughtSandwiches 5 years ago from Reno, Nevada


      I had the cinematic misfortune of watching Birth of a Nation in a Cinema appreciation you was brutal. To Hell and Back and Sergeant York were staples around my house whenever they came on TV!

      Great choices!


    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 5 years ago from New York

      Certainly a compliment coming from you Cogerson! Thanks for stopping by and reading. Glad you enjoyed. Ready to post my 1950s hub.

    • Cogerson profile image

      Cogerson 5 years ago from Virginia

      Great list of war movies. Many classic movies that I have seen numerous times in my lifetime. I think the classic Gregory Peck movie, Twelve O'Clock high would also be close to making your list. Loved the clips you added to the hub...especially the one from Cooper's York. A very interesting hub to read...job well done....voted up and awesome.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 5 years ago from New York

      Thanks Docmo. Hope to have the next one - next week! Have some family time coming up.

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 5 years ago from UK

      Oh I love the movie mentioned here ( except perhaps the birth of a nation!) i like the way you've summed up plotlines and given a 'best of' list too. The trailers and clips are the icing on the cake. Cant wait for the next one!

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 5 years ago from New York

      I'll be looking. I like to add people I admire and whose writing I really enjoy on my profile

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Seen them all and it's a great list. Mary, I just noticed you included me in your profile. Thank you so much for that kind gesture. You might want to pay attention to the hub I post tomorrow....just sayin'.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 5 years ago from New York

      That's okay Effer, I never pictured you as the war movie type but somehow knew "Gone With the Wind" would be another story! I got sucked in years ago between my husband and my boys and after a while I found I actually liked them -- well some of them anyway.

      xstatic "The Best Years of Our Lives" was a brilliant film. Very, very moving. Glad you liked my hub.

      Ugly Honest, well at least you are honest ;) Due to all it's controversy Birth of a Nation is a big deal. Yup, the difference with Sgt. York though was he was one of like 13 children, but truly a humble man.

      Casablanca stands alone Jools. I haven't gotten up to movies like Platoon yet :)

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 5 years ago from North-East UK

      My favourite of these is Sergeant York but my favourite war movie of all time is probably Casablanca, closely followed by Platoon.

      Voted up etc, etc.

    • Ugly Honest profile image

      Ugly Honest 5 years ago from Within the New York/DC Megalopolis

      Terrific ... I even have a copy of "Birth of A Nation" !! Embarrassed to admit I did not know SGT York was a Real Person ... You've just confirmed the obvious ... "They really don't make em like they used to .... Up & Interesting !!

    • xstatic profile image

      Jim Higgins 5 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

      Casa Blanca and The Best Years of Our Lives are two od my favorites. We just watched Best Years recently since my wife had never seen it. Another favorite is Battle Ground, not to mention Battle Cry, could go on & on. Great Hub!

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 5 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Good hub with much info, Till...and I'm gonna have to admit I'm not a "war movie" fan. I have seen a few thoughout the years, probably because I happen to like the actors.

      I have to rank war movies up there with Horror flicks. It's sort of a waste of time for me since I spend 75% of the time with my hands over my eyes.

      Of course "Gone With the Wind,"...this is a wonderful classic. Rhett and Scarlet....what a pair!! UP++

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 5 years ago from New York

      Wow Bob, I'm impressed. I don't remember Red Tails, will have to look that one up. Thanks for stopping by and you enjoy your day too!

    • Civil War Bob profile image

      Civil War Bob 5 years ago from Glenside, Pennsylvania

      Good hub, TST...voted up, interesting, and useful. I've seen "Gettysburg" 37 times, "Gods and Generals" 15, "Memphis Belle" 11, lots of other war movies various numbers of times, and can now recommend "Red Tails" since I just saw it for the first time the other night. Enjoy your day!

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 5 years ago from New York

      Thanks Wilbart. There are so many war movies, but the good ones are really worth watching.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 5 years ago from New York

      SS you're right on the ball. First comment, thank you. Glad you enjoyed. I wonder if any men will say they want to watch Gone With the Wind?

      Joan glad I could bring back memories. Thanks! I will be writing more. Hope you have a good day too.

    • profile image

      Wilbart26 5 years ago

      Hi there, you have an excellent list of war movies, I love war movies too just like my interest on weaponry. War movies is like watching a game of intelligence and strength. Voted up, keep up the good work.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi, good Hub! It brought back memories... I have seen Gone with the Wind several times, and it always hooks me! Keep writing some more so that I can rememeber some more, and maybe look the movies up again. Voted up, etc. Have a good day!

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 5 years ago from Orlando, FL

      I want to watch Gone With The Wind now. Well, not right now, but soon! I like war movies. Not the blood and gore ones. Excellent hub! Shared!:)