NON POLITICAL DISCLAIMER: I had planned to write this post in the middle of the awards season, between the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards, long before the presidential election. Any similarities between a candidate or events who are said to resemble the people or events of World War II are merely coincidental.
Prior to the 19th century, William Shakespeare’s plays were gradually coming to be regarded as classics, and novels were still, well, a novel idea and recent market. Through everything, there have been two stories which have been consistently lauded by literary critics for many centuries: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. In case you don’t know, the Iliad tells the story of the great Trojan War, with the great warriors Achilles and the story of the Trojan Horse. And I would say that before the 20th century, the Trojan War and the story of the Iliad was the best known war around the world. Then of course, there was the first Great War, then World War II. The stories of both World War I, and especially World War II, are constantly retold in history books and film adaptations.
My point is this – the Trojan War was over 3000 years ago – The Iliad was put to oral tradition some short time after that – and those events have since been surpassed by more recent history – namely, the Second World War II. The space where The Iliad and similar myths about Ancient Greece and the Greek Gods used to occupy is now occupied by the stories and films depicting the World War II.
Every awards season, there are a handful of films that are frequently called “Oscarbait,” because of how desperately they are trying to win an Academy Award. But what does Oscarbait entail? Thinking back to Best Picture nominees of the past few years, let me say that a couple of things grab the academy’s attention – whatever’s topical, such as transgender rights with The Danish Girl or equal rights among all races as with Selma – whatever’s British, such as The Theory of Everything – or whatever retells history, new or old, such as Bridge of Spies, American Sniper, or The Wolf of Wall Street. But more than any of these smaller topics, a much more popular topic for Oscarbait is World War II.
There are so many World War II films at this point that seemingly every other year there’s a movie nominated for or winning Best Picture at the Oscars – The King’s Speech, The Imitation Game, and presumably, soon to be Hacksaw Ridge. But those are only the recent ones – so many classics, Casablanca, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Patton, The Pianist, Pearl Harbor, Letters from Iwo Jima – or even those cases which are blatantly fictional, such as Inglourious Basterds or Life is Beautiful.
World War II produces so many stories because it has so many characters. In some way, the War affected just about everyone in the world. It isn’t called the “World” War for nothing; when much of the world is involved, there are many stories to be told. You could tell the story of Jewish people as they return to their homes from concentration camps, as in The Truce. Or you could tell the story of a British man who creates the first computer in an attempt to spy on the Nazis, as in The Imitation Game. Or maybe you’d like to tell a story about soldiers on submarines, like in U-571. Or perhaps you want to tell the story of a great athlete during the late 1930’s visiting Hitler’s Germany, like in Race. Or a movie about trying to kill Hitler, like Valkyrie.
But more than the sheer number of stories, it’s the gravity of these stories. Rarely does it feel as though the whole global community faces one singular threat, but World War II’s Axis powers were fairly close to a universal threat. If nothing else, Hitler was certainly a universal villain – someone doing something clearly wrong. No matter how much we vilify Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, or Game of Thrones’ Ramsay Snow, nothing will make these characters as evil as the harsh reality of Adolf Hitler. As consumers of media, we tend to think that all the most evil characters are relegated to fiction, but Hitler disproves this. Hitler had two motivations for his evil deeds; he wished to control all the world, and he hated people who weren’t like him. This makes him both Darth Vader and Voldemort. Likely, there never has been, nor never will be, a villain of life or fiction, more sinister than Adolf Hitler.
There’s no way I can bring up WWII without mentioning the Holocaust. The horrors and humanity of the Holocaust are depicted in films such as Life is Beautiful or Schindler’s List or The Pianist or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas – it makes sense that there are so many depictions of the Holocaust because it is one of the most traumatic events in recent history.
And against the evils of the axis powers, there were many heroes from many nations. World War II was a time of such extremes – the most despicable villains, the most courageous heroes. The greatest human suffering, the greatest human triumphs. Where once we might talk about Achilles or Hector, we now talk about Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Mussolini, or Tojo. Where once we talked about Helen of Troy, we talk about Anne Frank and other victims of the Holocaust. Where once we talked about the Trojan Horse, we now talk about the brave individuals who stormed the beaches of Normandy.
If a history teacher spends more time teaching about World War II than any other time in World or US history, they explain the War’s place in modern mythology. If a studio produces a film which chronicles what life was like during World War II, they build the War’s place in modern mythology.
Throughout this post, I’ve likely made it quite apparent that my favorite film set during the time period is Life is Beautiful, but I’m more interested to hear what my readers have to say; do you have a favorite World War II film?