When a German general cautions his fellow conspirators in the new film “Valkyrie” that “nothing ever goes according to plan,” he was referring to an elaborate plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. But he could just as well have been talking about the spate of Hollywood World War II movies that have invaded multiplexes in recent weeks.
These current films include a wide mix of genres. There’s “Valkyrie,” the Tom Cruise suspense-thriller; “The Reader” examines notions of complicity and guilt, while “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “Good” try to derive further meaning from the Holocaust. Then there’s “Defiance,” a movie in which the Jews (led by Daniel Craig, no less) fight back. Even love-bug Baz Luhrmann got into the act, ending his epic romance “Australia” with his star-crossed lovers dodging bombs in Darwin dropped by Japanese Zero warplanes.
What these movies share -- and what sets them apart from most of the World War II films we now view as classics -- is their inclination to delve into moral ambiguity. Where prison movies like “Stalag 17" and “The Great Escape” and action films such as “The Guns of Navarone” and “The Train” and even “Saving Private Ryan” were content to let Nazis be Nazis, the new crop of films often prompt moviegoers to ask what they would have done if faced with unspeakable evil.
“Moral complexity is rather overdue in U.S. tellings of World War II,” says Nicholas Cull, director of the master’s program in public diplomacy at USC. “We need to go beyond the ‘Greatest Generation’ story that predominated in the 1990s.”
Thus far though, the new group of war films has been fighting a losing battle with critics and moviegoers. None of Hollywood’s recent efforts, including Spike Lee’s much-derided fall release “Miracle at St. Anna,” has scored a positive rating on the aggregate website Metacritic. And only “Valkyrie” has made a dent commercially, though “Defiance” has yet to go into wide release.
Not coincidentally, “Valkyrie” has the most in common with the old-school WWII movies. Yes, it too focuses (barely) on the idea of moral compromise and the consequences of inaction when faced with immorality. But mainly (and when it’s at its best), it’s about a group of high-principled men trying to kill Hitler. And Hitler, of course, is the modern metaphor for evil. Or, as Syracuse professor of media and popular culture Robert Thompson puts it, “Hitler is the Hitler of bad guys.”
And again, not coincidentally, Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, the German military officer leading the plot to assassinate Hitler, is played by Cruise, the most American movie star this side of Tom Hanks. And, though Cruise does don an eye patch for the role, he holds onto his homegrown, Stars-and-Stripes accent.
“Here in the 21st century, when we’re so distraught by a complete sense that the American soul and the American identity is in a bad place, World War II is an awfully refreshing place to go back to and visit,” Thompson says. “A lot of horrible things happened in that war, but at the same time, there really was a sense of dignity and unambiguous morality.”
Back in the day
Hollywood started making World War II movies before America even entered the war. Director John Ford enlisted his “Stagecoach” star John Wayne for the cargo-ship drama “The Long Voyage Home,” and then Ford himself enlisted in the U.S. Navy, making wartime documentaries. Bob Hope got “Caught in the Draft” and “Wizard of Oz” producer Meryn LeRoy remade “Waterloo Bridge.” And once America entered the war, Hollywood ramped up production, making dozens of dramas, action movies and flag-waving patriotic pieces that encompassed the events occurring in both the Pacific and European battlegrounds. Even Bugs Bunny enlisted for the cause.
“If you were growing up then, you couldn’t avoid those movies,” Clint Eastwood said in an interview in 2006 while promoting his own companion World War II films, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima.” Early in his career, Eastwood starred in two Good War movies of his own, “Kelly’s Heroes” and “Where Eagles Dare,” the latter an action flick that director Robert Zemeckis remembers as “the one where Clint Eastwood kills more guys than anybody else in movie history.”
“That’s the way it was with war movies then,” Eastwood says. “In some respects, they were an extension of the games boys would play in their backyards when they were kids.”
Those types of World War II movies are few and far between these days, though Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming guys-on-a-mission epic “Inglorious Bastards” (due in August) promises to revive the tradition, albeit in a postmodern fashion. Tarantino’s update might feel like a blast of fresh air compared to “Good” and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” movies that have prompted calls from some for a moratorium on Holocaust movies.
“In film, the Holocaust has become a topic addressed by journeymen writers and directors who seem to think that the importance of the subject will enhance the inherent modesty of their own gifts,” veteran critic Richard Schickel writes in Time magazine. “But this is not so; we emerge from their movies frustrated by their failures to grasp and shake our souls.”
Film critic Stuart Klawans echoes Schickel’s sentiments. In the online Jewish cultural magazine Nextbook, Klawans bemoans the current crop of World War II movies, directing particular bile toward “The Reader.” Noting the sexual relationship between a mature grump of a woman (played by Kate Winslet) and a very willing 15-year-old German boy, Klawans writes that Winslet’s character is “in this accommodating state because of a small, contrived interpersonal dilemma, which somehow calls for more of your sympathy than does the continent-wide atrocity in the back story.”
It’s unlikely, though, that we’ll soon see the end of Holocaust stories or films focusing on some aspect of the Second World War. The war had two fronts, a million stories and solidified the nation’s identity as much as the American Revolution and the Civil War. When World War II ended, Americans discovered, in just a few short years, the suburbs, the interstate and Elvis.
What Hollywood has yet to be able to do in the 21st century is make a World War II movie that captures the way people spoke and acted -- think Dana Andrews in “The Best Years of Our Lives” and not, say, Ben Affleck in “Pearl Harbor” -- in a manner that rings true to the time. Do that and add in strong stories of moral complexity and you’ll have movies . . . well, like the ones they’ve been making overseas for years.
“European filmmakers had noticed some time ago the ambiguity of the Allies defeating a bloody dictator but only through alliance with another dictator,” USC’s Cull says. “The wider world has also thought about the randomness of wartime identities. Most people don’t get to pick their side in the war. They just make the best of the uniform they win in the lottery of life.”