Essays · Movies

From the Frontline: The Real WWII Films to Watch Before ‘Dunkirk’

Before you head out to watch ‘Dunkirk’ this week, meet the Hollywood filmmakers that enlisted into service to allow America to see the true stories of World War II.
By  · Published on July 18th, 2017

Before you head out to watch ‘Dunkirk’ this week, meet the Hollywood filmmakers that enlisted in order to show America the true stories of World War II.

Christopher Nolan’s newest feature film follows the true story of the evacuation of Dunkirk, France in 1940. With the context of history, World War II narratives are stories people love to see, myself included. No matter how heartbreaking specific moments are, we know how it ends. Filmmakers during the war couldn’t benefit from audiences’ consequential understanding of the events they depicted. They didn’t know what the result of the war would be. With careful construction of real events in their films, they made their audiences believe in the future that we know now.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hollywood decided to break its silence on the threat of war when the government approached five directors to use their talent in storytelling to support the war. Chief of Staff General Marshall first asked Italian immigrant and notable Hollywood director Frank Capra to use film to convince young men that World War II was worth fighting. Movies were engrained into American culture by then and just as every other aspect of civilian life, it needed to continually support the war effort. He began working on a series of films called Why We Fight, including the first installment that would win an Oscar Prelude to War. From there the War Department would need more help from Hollywood.

Storytelling on the fly

While Capra was using his experience at home in D.C., other Hollywood directors were sent out with soldiers to document the fighting that was happening in the war. John Ford, known now for his westerns, was in charge of overseeing all Navy filmmaking. He was sent to Midway to document an expected Japanese attack. During the air raid, Ford stood on a raised platform—in plain sight of Japanese bombers—in order to get the best shot of the fighting. Ford still films a victorious and patriotic documentary, despite the deliberate close-ups of wounded soldiers and footage from the funerals of those who died. The purpose of his assignments was to show the country what was happening to their men, but never relinquish their hope of a greater victory in the process. His approach was a more realistic one, but he still had to choose what aspects to shoot for a story that would build morale in the United States. Determined to depict the men he witnessed in the epic style of his features, Ford was wounded in the process. The result was The Battle of Midway, which was the first time Americans would see a war in color film, a style usually reserved for escapism and fantasy in Hollywood.

‘The Battle of Midway’

Similar in his approach to documentary filmmaking was William Wyler, Jewish director originally from France. When he was asked to fake footage using miniatures for his documentary on the bomber crew of the Memphis Belle, he refused and took flight courses so that he could be on the plane with the men as they completed their mission in Germany. He didn’t spare the audience anything, even the boredom of air war, in his film The Memphis Belle: A Story of a B-17 Flying Fortress. He fought the War Department to make sure his film reflected the real experience of the mission and because of that, it was a massive hit with audiences in the States.

The only writer in a group of filmmakers selected to be sent out with soldiers was John Huston, son of American actor Walter Huston. Unlike Wyler and even Ford, Huston wasn’t afraid to recreate the action that happened in battle after the fact. In his film San Pietro, Huston had the surviving men of the battle recreate it for the cameras. Faking action and climbing the mountain as they did before, soldiers provided Huston with footage that appeared to be real. Even though some footage was faked, all of the gruesome shots of the dead soldiers were real and shocking to audiences, who hadn’t seen slain soldiers like that in film before. At the end of the film, it reveals that some of the scenes were filmed before and after the events occurred. If the audience believed the footage was real and it invoked the same feelings that a 100% real film would, then Huston believed it did its job.

‘San Pietro’

Continuing his work with the Navy, John Ford joined forces with George Stevens, comedic director in Hollywood who finally was sent out with the Army, to film the quintessential event known as D-Day. They witnessed violence beyond their imagination when they filmed Allied soldiers dying on the beaches of Normandy. Their footage was too brutal for newsreels at the time. The monstrosities Ford saw broke him and sent him on a three-day drinking binge. He never filmed for the Navy again. Stevens, however, was just getting started. He continued to film the liberation of France after his D-Day experience. He kept much of the footage in his own archive, unseen by many until his son found it after his father’s death. It’s the only color footage of D-Day in existence and even features Stevens in uniform.

His most important World War II footage would be what he filmed at a concentration camp in Dachau. Chilling and horrific to even a viewer of today, Stevens’ raw footage of the surviving victims and thousands of dead prisoners documented the horrors of the Nazi regime for the first time. The film he compiled was essential to the prosecution of Nazi military leaders in the Nuremberg Trials. It was also released in the United States, where the country first became aware of such camps. His experience scarred him for life and he could never watch it again, even when preparing for his film The Diary of Anne Frank. However horrible, Stevens’ work showed America that all the sacrifices they made to defeat the Germans were well worth it.

The power of their work

‘Let There Be Light’

Huston, Ford, Wyer, and Stevens all returned from war deeply affected by what they experienced and their postwar films reflect that. From Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives to Huston’s Let There Be Light, the directors continued to honor those they stood beside during war even after they came home. Their films became darker but just as remarkable as before the war, if not more. 

Even without scripts, these directors were able to tell the stories of World War II as well as any filmmaker does in retrospect today. Genius enough to know what audiences would want to see even with true stories, these directors filmed the war with a vision in mind. Their breakthrough raw style influenced not only documentary war footage later on with Vietnam but a number of war dramas that followed.

The Netflix miniseries Five Came Back is essential for anyone interested in film history or World War II in general, with commentary from Stephen Speilberg, Guillermo del Toro, and Francis Ford Coppola. Prelude to War, San Pietro, The Battle of Midway, Let There Be Light and The Memphis Belle are available on Netflix too. 

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_