World War II  
  Close this window to return to the World War II Guide  

Hollywood's World War II Combat Movies

Ninety million Americans went to the movies every week during World War II. The shows began with a newsreel. The audience saw Hitler dancing a jig or Pearl Harbor engulfed in flames or Roosevelt meeting with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. A cartoon followed, perhaps Bugs Bunny "Nipping the Nips." Then came the main attraction, with Errol Flynn spitting grenade pins out of his mouth or John Wayne using a bulldozer to push an enemy tank off a cliff.

Many of our deepest images of war's glory and ugliness come from World War II combat films. They helped shape our very conceptions of courage, patriotism, and teamwork. Their images remain firmly etched in our imagination: of Axis troops torturing and mutilating prisoners; of heavily outnumbered American GIs fending off enemy forces; of a corporal telling a young marine, "Nothing wrong with praying. There are no atheists in foxholes."

In comparison to Hollywood's efforts to promote public support for the war effort during World War I, the wartime movies of World War II tended to be much more subtle and restrained. Where many films made during the First World War had focused on real or alleged enemy atrocities - depicting wicked German soldiers ravishing innocent Belgium women - Hollywood's World War II produced a more diverse response, ranging from films like Mission to Moscow, presenting our Soviet allies in a positive light, to Casablanca, with its portrait of a Rick Blaine's gradual shift from self-centered detachment to active involvement in the Allied cause.

Of the many kinds of films that Hollywood produced during World War II to rally the public behind the war effort, perhaps the most distinctive was the combat film. Films like Air Force, Destination Tokyo, Flying Tigers, Guadalcanal Diary, Objective, Burma!, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, and Wake Island gave viewers on the home front a vicarious sense of participating in the war. Employing an almost documentary style, these films helped bring the war home. But these war films did much more: they helped educate viewers in the reasons why we fought by depicting "democracy in action." Apart from offering a sense of wartime crisis, these films were allegories of a democratic nation at war.

Typically, these films focused on an small group of men involved in a life-or-death mission: struggling valiantly to hold an island or to attack a target deep behind enemy lines. Thus, the film Air Force told the story of a single B-17 Flying Fortress; Wake Island, the tale of the small group of marines and civilians who struggled to hold off a much larger force of attacking Japanese; and Destination Tokyo, on a single submarine's efforts to enter Tokyo Bay in preparation for Jimmy Doolittle's raid on Tokyo in 1942. By focusing on a single isolated group, Hollywood was able to reveal the human meaning of war to individuals that the audience could identify with.

Invariably, this small group was a microcosm of the American melting pot, made up of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, men from diverse ethnic groups, and distinct personality types. Objective, Burma! had, for example, a Hennessy, a Miggleori, a Neguesco. The group's very composition underscored the fact that this was a democratic war - a peoples' war - drawing upon every segment of society.

Although these groups were usually commanded by a strong leader, success ultimately depended on the men's ability to operate as a team, balancing individual acts of heroism with professionalism and mutual cooperation. In Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, the story of Jimmy Doolittle's bombing raid, each man played a critically important role, whether he was a mechanic, a navigator, a bombadier, a pilot. Individualism and cooperation both were necessary, according to these films, to preserve American freedoms.


The key crises in these films's plot tended not to come from the threats posed by enemy forces - which the men faced with remarkable stoicism - but rather, as Robert B. Ray has noted, from the arrival of an outsider - a coward, a malcontent, a reckless loner - who threatens group cohesion and the men's ability to concentrate on the task at hand. The plot ultimately turns on the whether this outsider can be successfully integrated into the group and become a contributing member of the team. In one of the most famous examples, in the film Wake Island, a selfish civilian contractor, who initially refuses to obey air raid warnings, ultimately joins a marine commander in a fox hole in a desperate attack to stave off the Japanese attack.

Much more than mere entertainment, the combat films of World War II were veritable civic lessons that taught Americans winning the war required the country to live up to its democratic values.

Back to Top