Military History World War II in Film
Nicholas Warner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0205


World War II was unprecedented both in its magnitude and its horror. The massive conflict—which lasted six years, spread across thirty countries, and involved some seventy million combatants—left more dead, both civilian and military, than any other war in history. As if the brutality of the Blitz, Bastogne, Guadalcanal, the siege of Leningrad, the bombing of Dresden, the D-Day invasion, and countless other instances of death and carnage were not enough, there were Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and, of course, the unfathomable evil of the Holocaust. The nature of that evil, the stark polarization of the world between the Allies and Axis powers, the storytelling potential of men and women confronting the dangers of combat or the challenges of life on the home front, and the propagandistic capacities of the film medium all help to explain the powerful pull that World War II has exerted on filmmakers. Yet another factor is the sheer diversity of the contexts in which the war unfolded. There were the multiple theaters of war in Europe, the Pacific, and North Africa; the expansion of naval and aerial warfare in addition to land combat; new and frightening technologies of destruction culminating in the apocalyptic power of the atom bomb; widespread social changes resulting from the war; the exploits of antifascist Resistance movements; and the multiple dimensions of the Holocaust. These varied and numerous facets of the war seem almost to demand some form of cinematic representation—the result being an enormous, and still growing, number of films dealing with World War II. That the war’s beginning coincided with the maturation of the global film industry—and, ironically, with what has often been called Hollywood’s greatest year, 1939—only underscores the seemingly inevitable association of this war with its renderings on screen. Recent scholarship on World War II has shifted its emphasis from those in high command to the subaltern perspectives of the rank and file; a similar pattern has gradually emerged in film. To be sure, some earlier productions also emphasized the perspectives of common soldiers—two famous examples are The Story of GI Joe and Ballad of a Soldier. But this tendency has become more prevalent in recent years, so that once popular movies about generals (e.g., Patton and Tora, Tora, Tora) have given way to films that focus on enlistees and lower-ranking officers, such as Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, Dunkirk, and The Pacific, among others. Moreover, films today increasingly depict the participation of women and racial minorities in the war (as in Pearl Harbor and Fury). Black fighting units especially have received more attention in such films as Red Tails, The Tuskegee Airmen, and Miracle at St. Anna. These and other patterns of historical continuity and change in films of World War II receive attention in the scholarly studies reviewed in this essay. And, not surprisingly, the scholarship about World War II films is immense. To keep the list of citations manageable, the focus here is primarily on feature films, with categories including broad-based overviews, studies of individual directors, and discussions of such issues as genre, gender, race, the Holocaust, and the war’s depiction in different national cinemas. These categories are intended not to be comprehensive, but rather to indicate the range of scholarly work already completed, and to suggest pathways for yet further explorations of a seemingly infinite subject.

General Guides and Overviews

Each of the following texts is useful as a reference for research into military or combat films made during, or about, World War II. Eberwein 2012 provides a film studies perspective on the war film in general, including some works of pertinent film theory, and contains an informative section on World War II films. The filmographies listed here have some overlap, but while Shull and Wilt 1996 and Wetta and Curley 1992 focus on American films, Brode 2019–2020 and Evans 2000 are international in scope. Suid 2002 is rightly often called “definitive” in its study of the relationship between filmmakers and the US military throughout the 20th century. Fyne 2003 is an excellent short introduction to Hollywood’s treatment of the war. Still one of the broadest and most useful overviews of World War II films, with samples from cinema around the globe, is Manvell 1974.

  • Brode, Douglas. From Hell to Hollywood: An Encyclopedia of World War II Films. 2 vols. Orlando, FL: BearManor Media, 2019–2020.

    Not truly an encyclopedia but more of an annotated filmography. The films are arranged in thematic sections (e.g., “The Gathering Storm,” “Britain and the Blitz”), with the author providing a synopsis for each, along with his own highly personal capsule evaluations. Although not a scholarly resource, this is a potentially useful tool for finding basic plot and production information for hundreds of films. A brief essay introduces each volume.

  • Eberwein, Robert T. “War Film.” In Oxford Bibliographies in Cinema and Media Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    Authoritative discussion of such topics as the war film genre, the years leading up to World War II, cultural and historical factors of the war, and films about the Holocaust. An excellent introductory essay reviews the broader topic of war’s representation on screen. Since the overlap between this bibliographic article and the present module is not extensive, scholars should find that the two resources complement rather than duplicate one another.

  • Evans, Alun. Brassey’s Guide to War Films. Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 2000.

    More than two thousand films from numerous countries, dealing with wars from ancient times to the late 20th century, are listed in alphabetical order, with brief annotations. A helpful list of films arranged by period at the back of the book makes it easier to identify World War II films by theater of action, branch of service involved, and topic (e.g., Atomic Bomb, espionage).

  • Fyne, Robert. “World War II: Feature Films.” In The Columbia Companion to American History on Film. Edited by Peter C. Rollins, 125–136. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

    A short but highly informative, judicious review of some of the basic themes and landmark films about World War II from the 1940s to the 1990s. A good resource for someone starting out to study the ways that films have represented World War II.

  • Manvell, Roger. Films and the Second World War. South Brunswick, NJ: Barnes, 1974.

    International in scope, arranged in several chronologically ordered chapters, and copiously illustrated with film stills, this book manages to balance a broad survey with incisive comments on individual representative pictures from different national cinemas. Both popular features and documentaries are examined in the book’s presentation of “a cross section of films about the Second World War” from 1939 to 1970. Packed with information that is conveyed in concise, accessible prose.

  • Shull, Michael S., and David E. Wilt. Hollywood War Films, 1937–1945: An Exhaustive Filmography of American Feature-Length Motion Pictures. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1996.

    A huge and hugely useful compendium of information that is far more than a filmography. The first part of the book includes short, informative chapters on the prewar period, while the second part deals with the period after America entered the war; each section is followed by a relevant filmography. A helpful set of appendices rounds out the volume.

  • Suid, Lawrence. Guts and Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film. Revised and expanded edition. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002.

    This massive project includes several chapters on World War II films. Suid himself describes the book as a work of military rather than film history, and provides a detailed account of the shifting American military image over a century of filmmaking, as well as background information on the interactions between Hollywood and the military in the production of war films. A valuable guide whether read all the way through or dipped into for reference purposes.

  • Wetta, Frank J., and Stephen Curley. Celluloid Wars: A Guide to Film and the American Experience of War. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1992.

    Begins with two chapters that distill key issues of aesthetic approaches to war films, and of war films’ portrayal of combat experience. Subsequent chapters consist of filmographies, accompanied by brief introductory commentaries, for various American wars; there are two filmographies for World War II—one on wartime films and another on postwar films. Pithy but never oversimplified.

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