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'World War II On Film' Explores The Genre's Accuracy Of Films About The War

Screenshot / Warner Bros. Pictures
"Dunkirk" is one of 12 movies examined in Dave Luhrssen's new book, “World War II On Film”.";s:

Updated 12:11 p.m

From 1942 to 1945, Hollywood created over 200 movies centered around World War II. Thus creating the genre of World War II films, which continued in its popularity even into the 21st Century.

In a new book, “World War II On Film”, author Dave Luhrssen examines the genre through 12 movies and explains how they painted a picture of the war that often blurred the lines of reality.

Luhrssen explains that the movie industry wasn’t alone in producing these films and that the federal government understood how creating World War II films could help their effort in the war.

“It was considered by the government to be a key part of the defense industry. Hollywood received special privileges for materials and personnel. There was no doubt that the U.S. government viewed Hollywood as a key factor in winning the war,” he says.

Often these films became entangled into people’s memories about the war. Most notably, often President Ronald Reagan would recount stories from his service in Europe during World War II, when in fact he had not served in the war but was in many movies about the war.

One of the movies Luhrssen covers in his book is “Saboteur” directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Watch the "Saboteur" trailer:

“Little known Hitchcock but it’s just filled with the anxiety of the early months of America’s involvement in World War II. People were afraid that Nazi saboteurs were at work in America,” he says.

The movie also touches on the fact that there were Americans who supported Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy during the war. Fans of Hitchcock will find that some of his most famous tropes can be seen coming to life in this movie.

“Casablanca” is another film covered in Luhrssen’s book and is known for showing some of the more human aspects of the war. Made by Warner Brothers Studios, they were the first film studio to actively criticize Nazi Germany. Studios worried about critiquing Germany too much because it was a major market for films and there were consequences for those who spoke out against the government.

Watch the "Casablanca" trailer:

“Warner Brothers was well situated to do a movie like this, which was not a combat movie either. I think combat movies tend to be kind of boring really, you know, mass causalties, things explode. It’s much more interesting to look at the human response to war,” he says.

That’s why Luhrssen thinks Casablanca has remained a popular movie throughout time as it explores the sacrifices that individuals made to fight for a greater good.

In more modern times, Luhrssen looked at another movie that depicts individuals working together for a greater good, “Dunkirk”. Released in 2017, “Dunkirk” is about normal people coming together to help evacuate Allied soldiers from the beach of Dunkirk.  

Watch the "Dunkirk" trailer:

“This is a remarkable accomplishment to dramatize how many thousands of people working for a common cause can make something important happen,” he says.

When looking at the genre, Luhrssen says that the best films are usually the ones that follow small groups of people working together to escape a difficult situation and that highlight the heroics of the individuals during the war.  

Audrey is a producer, host and reporter for Lake Effect. She is involved with every aspect of the show — from conducting interviews, editing audio, posting web stories and mixing the show together.
David Luhrssen is arts and entertainment editor of the Shepherd Express, co-founder of the Milwaukee International Film Festival and co-author of A Time of Paradox: America Since 1890. He is the winner of the Pace Setter Award for contributions to Milwaukee's film community from the Milwaukee Independent Film Society. David Luhrssen has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design and Milwaukee Area Technical College.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.