The War That Never Ends

What World War II movies tell us about America’s only cultural consensus.

The good war is now being refought in America’s multiplexes for the umpteen-zillionth time—only this time the commanding general is Quentin Tarantino, a filmmaker whose interest in goodness, judging by his previous films, would seem to be rudimentary at best. Yet Mr. Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” a gore-soaked live-action cartoon about a platoon of renegade Jewish soldiers who hunt down Nazis and hack swastikas into their foreheads, opened big three weeks ago and is looking like a solid box-office success.


George C. Scott in ‘Patton,’ 1970.

Why has the creator of “Pulp Fiction” and “Kill Bill” chosen to make a movie about World War II? Perhaps the word “about” should be encased in quotes, since Mr. Tarantino has described “Inglourious Basterds” as “a spaghetti western, but using World War II iconography as opposed to cowboy iconography.” This implies that the real subject of the film is not World War II but, as is usual with Mr. Tarantino, film itself. On the other hand, I doubt that many of the people who are flocking to see his latest revenge fantasy are film-studies majors who rush home from the theater and earnestly catalog the inside-joke references to other movies with which “Inglourious Basterds” is encrusted. If I had to guess, I’d say that at least two-thirds of the film’s viewers are taking it at face value—as a movie, in other words, whose fundamental premise is that the Nazis were truly evil.


World War II in Film

Some movies that have formed lasting images of the war over the years.


‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’

The building of a bridge in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp and the contrasts in character between British, American and Japanese officers become a study in honor and heroism. 


‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’

The result of filmmaking diplomacy, this Japanese and American co-production tracks the events on both sides that led to Pearl Harbor, culminating in spectacular battle scenes. 


‘Das Boot’

This German production, set inside a U-Boat playing cat and mouse with Allied vessels, balances tense battle sequences with claustrophobic scenes of monotony and isolation.


‘A Soldier’s Story’

One of many WWII films set far from the battlefield, this suspenseful drama starring Denzel Washington pivots on the murder of a black soldier to explore racial tensions on the home front.



This German film depicts the final days of the Nazi regime from Hitler’s bunker. Recently it had a second life in videos by Internet satirists who added their own English subtitles to send Hitler into a rage over Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and other topics.


This, of course, could be another of Mr. Tarantino’s endlessly self-reflexive jokes-within-jokes, but it might also be his way of playing both sides of the street. The Good War, after all, has always been a hot ticket. Hollywood has been cranking out World War II movies since the smoke cleared over the skies of Oahu, and the same cinematic guns are still booming. To be sure, Vietnam and the Civil War also find their way onto the screen from time to time, but World War II has never left it. The Second World War is to filmmakers what chicken is to chefs, a canvas on which every imaginable kind of picture can be painted. “They Were Expendable” is elegiac, “From Here to Eternity” romantic, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” implicitly pacifist, “The Dirty Dozen” comic, “Patton” triumphal, “Saving Private Ryan” grimly hyperrealistic. No matter what you want to say about war—or, it seems, anything else—World War II can serve as your vehicle.

Why has no other war in the history of mankind seized and held the imagination of American directors and producers for so long a period of time? Well into the ’70s, one of the reasons was technical. While a movie about Gettysburg or Ypres was by definition a costume piece, difficult and expensive to design in a plausibly authentic way, World War II looked more or less contemporary to a generation of Americans who owned rifles and drove Jeeps. But even after modern technology changed the face of combat, the eyes of American filmmakers would remain fixed on the four-year-long slice of history that is bookended by Pearl Harbor and Nagasaki.

So what is it that sets World War II apart? The answer, I suspect, lies not in our movie stars but in ourselves. On Dec. 7, 1941, America contained a large number of people who believed that the war in Europe was Europe’s war, a conflict to be avoided at all costs. A week later, everything had changed. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and its ally Germany declared war on the U.S., American isolationism was a dead letter—and once it became known that the Nazis had attempted to exterminate the Jews of Europe, the vast majority of Americans concluded that the war they had just fought was not merely necessary but just. Six decades later, an equally vast majority of Americans continues to agree about World War II: We think it was a good war, and that the Nazis were bad people.

Such broad-gauge consensus views have always served as the basis for the American film industry, and for mass culture in general. Successful movies tell ordinary people what they want to hear. But America has become a more contentious country in recent years, and I can’t think of any postwar historical event, not even 9/11, about which most of us now share a true consensus view. This is why Vietnam, though it inspired a few good films, never acquired cultural traction in Hollywood—and why the Gulf wars have yet to inspire a widely popular film.

How do you make big-budget movies in a country where fewer cultural values are shared and common-denominator opinions are growing less common? Might it be that the film industry as we know it is doomed to decline so long as America remains a 50/50 nation? I’m not sure I’d go that far—not quite, anyway. But the success of “Inglourious Basterds” suggests that most Americans, no matter how they feel about waterboarding, gay marriage or health-care reform, pine in their secret hearts for a lost world in which everyone can agree on at least one thing: Nazis are no damn good.

Mr. Teachout is the Wall Street Journal’s drama critic.


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