We have retold the stories of the Second World War without pause since it drew to a close in 1945. Films are an increasingly important way in which we remember the Second World War. But yet, these films, while engrossing in character and wildly popular, do not always reflect how the Second World War actually panned out. For the eagle-eyed historian out there, it’s incredibly intriguing to look into how these films may or may not reflect reality. War films are indeed not documentaries; they are made for the purpose of entertainment, with artistic licenses being taken for dramatisation. When we analyse these films, it is imperative we do not devolve ourselves into nitpicking historical details, but rather look at broader historical narratives and how they may influence our perception of the war.

How filmmakers portray Second World War era weapons and equipment is one of the biggest challenges they would face, particularly in the drive for authenticity. A common way films got around this, particularly the “old classics” of films from before CGI, was by refitting Cold-War era tanks with mock-ups of WW2 era turrets, hulls, or chassis. This can be seen in A Bridge Too Far, where the viewer clearly sees a Cold War Era German Leopard I tank that has been modified to try and emulate a Wehrmacht Panther tank. 

This phenomenon can be seen in many other movies as well, which has undoubtedly shaped public perception, because we don’t get to see what tanks and armored vehicles looked like in the war. There is an argument to be made that the modern audience simply wouldn’t notice that incorrect vehicles are used to portray Second World War equipment, but for the avid historian out there it stands out like a sore thumb. 

Over the 80 years since the end of the Second World War, we have seen an innumerable number of films about that conflict. For both a historian and an avid film connoisseur, it’s intriguing to look at how war narratives have shifted from films made in the 1950s-1980s, to how films portray the war now. So called “classic” films often took a broader look at the war and made an effort to demonstrate the brutality and messiness of battle. Films such as A Bridge Too Far or The Longest Day are prudent examples of this narrative. Neither film focuses too much on individual characters, and instead they look at their respective historical events through the lens of numerous different people involved in different places of the battle. It is arguable that such a shift towards stronger individual narratives began with Saving Private Ryan, one of the most iconic films set in the Second World War. This is common with other such films in the post 2000s, such as Fury, Dunkirk, Inglourious Basterds, and Downfall.

One can speculate why such a shift has happened. It’s possible that this is what a modern audience wants; an involved story in which the audience gains an understanding and emotional connection to the characters, rather than a grand depiction of the confusing and hectic war. However, I am more convinced that there has been a shift because producers are more interested in telling character driven narratives than grand films depicting the epicness of war. Given what we know about the importance of character driven storytelling in modern film, this shift does not seem too surprising. This new common narrative definitely takes away from a perception of the war being large in scope, with each individual person playing only what is a small role in the war as a whole. Modern films make it seem like war is a collection of heroes doing what they do out of camaraderie, or a sense of altruism. This definitely is one of the most important ways in which film shapes our perception of the war. Modern audiences like a good hero, and the Second World War, while almost certainly had its heroes, was not a war won by heroism. 

Second World War films are not, however, simply a monopoly of Hollywood or the British film industry. Films made in Germany or in Russia often approach the war from very different angles and make for incredibly interesting viewing. The most famous example is undoubtedly Downfall, a film perhaps more infamous for being the source material for the “Hitler Rants” parodies across YouTube. Barring it’s creative meme uses, it’s an incredibly interesting film given that it is a German film that looks at Hitler’s last days in power of the Third Reich. The New York Times headlines their review with “All-Too-Human Hitler on your big screen”, which summarises the film perfectly. Making a film about Hitler is incredibly difficult, and Downfall commendably humanises hitler while simultaneously warning the world about the dangers of a flawed person such as him being seen as a god.

Second World War films, while perhaps a dying art form, still undoubtedly have a large influence on our perception of the war. From the way writers construct narratives to shape our perception of how war was fought, to how war is visually represented through the medium of film, these films have continually shaped how we remember the most deadly war in the history of warfare.