World War Two Cinema – Depiction through the Decades

Posted by Simply HE on

Just over 77 years on from the Dunkirk Evacuation, the memory and respect of those involved remains fresh in not only the British public's memory but of the whole world. One of the most anticipated movies of 2017 hits the silver screen on Friday the 21st of July. Showcasing the heroic Dunkirk spirit that saved over 330,000 fighting men, awakening the sleeping British lion in a moment all Britons can truly be proud of.

A moment in history that should never be forgotten has been remembered and displayed through the art of cinema for decades. The release of Dunkirk brings the portrayal of WW2 full circle, as Christopher Nolan brings us a new version of the original film so expertly made 59 years earlier despite the limitations of technology.

Cinema has changed drastically in this time period, most obviously in the development of CGI. However there have also been dramatic changes to how war is represented in cinema, based on society’s attitude towards conflict, and the characters embroiled within it.


Dunkirk (1958)

Starring: Richard Attenborough, John Mills and Bernard Lee

The original Dunkirk certainly stands the test of time, telling the story of a small band of soldiers caught behind enemy lines trying to regroup with their repositioned battalion. The reluctant Corporal "Tubby" Binns (John Mills) leads his small band of lost soldiers to the beaches of Dunkirk, desperately trying to get to the safety of the British shores and away from the Jerry bombing raids.

Whilst the journey of this band of brothers fills you with hope what happens on those Dunkirk beaches snatches it away, as the faceless evil of the Jerry Luftwaffe destroys ship after ship sinking the morale of the men along with them. Dunkirk does not shy away from looking at the atrocities of war and the hopelessness that the men on the front lines often faced, painting a bleak picture of their chances of survival. However it tunes into that Dunkirk spirit highlighting what can be achieved by coming together against all odds, immortalising the efforts of the heroes involved.

Not only is the front line featured in such majesty, there is also a large focus on the valiant efforts of those at home. John Holden (Richard Attenborough) an army buckle manufacturer goes through a cathartic journey. He rises above his comfortable and profitable situation to go out and directly help save the boys on the beaches, reminding us that the heroes of the war weren’t always in uniform.

Director Leslie Norman was tasked with taking on American cinema to create a British war film that could hold its own globally. He surpassed his goal with Dunkirk.

Now is the perfect time to revisit this masterpiece of classic British cinema, whether that is watching the original as it was intended or watching the newly restored HD version released in September on DVD later this year.


The Great Escape (1963)

Starring: Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough

The Great Escape needs no introduction. Undoubtedly it has cemented its place in the war film hall of fame, and will probably continue to be shown every Christmas until the end of time!

The Allied Forces find themselves in a compromising situation with little hope on their side, locked in a Nazi PoW detention camp with almost no chance of escape. Though as we all know, that is not the case. Richard Attenborough, once again, is around to save the day as he orchestrates a bold escape plan tunnelling underneath the fences leading 76 men out of the camp.

Much like Dunkirk, all success must be taken with a pinch of salt as the battle through German held territory proves too much for most of the escapees. Despite heroics from all the men, most notably Steve McQueen iconically riding a motorcycle through heavy gunfire, only three prisoners manage to escape back to Old Blighty. Where Dunkirk and The Great Escape differ is that in the end it is every man for himself, whilst some may slip through the cracks you certainly can’t outsmart a German war machine as a solitary soldier.


A Bridge too Far (1977)

Starring: Sean Connery, Michael Caine and  Ryan O’Neal

A Bridge too Far tells the story of the tragically failed Operation Market Garden. With a stunning all-star cast, the film shows us every step of the operation, from the pompous political motives to land a victory against the Germans before Christmas, right through to the ranks of paratroopers trying to secure the bridges. With a run time of almost 3 hours it achieves an astounding sweep of historically accurate coverage, revealing the detail of what goes into military ventures.

Whilst A Bridge Too Far may not be repeated every Christmas, it would be wrong to claim its depiction of WW2 is not powerful. The disastrous outcome of this particular military engagement, where a political failure resulted in such an unnecessary and excessive loss of life, reinforces the horrors of war.

However, it should be noted that the political climate in the late 1970s swayed Hollywood away from World War II. They were much more interested in the Vietnam War, resulting in epics such as Apocalypse Now and the Deer Hunter leading the genre.


Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Starring: Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi and Toshiko Shinohara

Grave of the Fireflies might feel like a surprise addition because it’s not a war-action film but it is essential viewing to appreciate the profound and personal impact of World War II. The Japanese animated war drama made by Studio Ghibli tells the tragic story of two children in Kobe, Japan and their struggle to survive the war without their parents.

The film highlights the effect that war had on civilian populations and did an incredible job at humanising both sides of the conflict. Earlier WWII films focused on heroic acts of bravery and sacrifice whereas Grave of the Fireflies is unquestionably an anti-war film in showing that although soldiers are admired, the impact of the War on the two children will leave you questioning if war really is the final answer.

It certainly turns the genre on its head. Traditional war stories such as Dunkirk shows the human spirit to be triumphant. Grave of the Fireflies, on the other hand, reveals how it can fail in the most devastating and enduring way.


Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Starring: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon and Tom Sizemore

Saving Private Ryan will go down as one of, if not the best, American made WWII films of all time. The mission to save the last of four brothers, Private Ryan (Matt Damon), led a small band of soldiers deep into enemy held territory. Despite the reservations of those led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks)  – they all believed the “entire mission is a serious misallocation of valuable military resources” – they fall in line and play their heroic part in the attempt to return Private Ryan back to his grieving mother.

The film features some of the most epic war action scenes ever seen on cinema, including the valiant final stand protecting the bridge and the storming of Omaha beach in Normandy. CGI technology creates the devastating impact of the scenes, but the direction and story stand supreme as our emotional bonds to many characters are severed in the most brutal of ways.


Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Starring: Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and Diane Kruger

Quentin Tarantino’s highly acclaimed Inglorious Basterds took a large step away from telling the momentous stories of WWII and instead looked to make its own. The film brought a fantastical side to the War with a story of two fictional assassination plots to wipe out Nazi Germany’s political leadership. The perfect war film in the age of ‘fake’ news!

War cinema is always subjected to artistic license but Tarantino goes a step further. The fantasy aspect allows the audience to feel like they are getting revenge on history as the gory dispatching of Nazi Soldiers and the head honcho himself feels all so satisfying to watch from outside the blood splatter zone. The break from reality was also a welcome addition to the WWII genre as it injected a dose of witty entertainment, with mesmerising linguistic jousts, wrapped up in a superb modern soundtrack.

This may be a war film with great action sequences, but it is defined by the story. The characters are not your everyday men of war, fighting for family back home, but are a highly capable team of companions hell bent on destroying evil in the form of the Nazi party. It makes a welcome change from worrying about odds of survival and instead enjoying watching the lengths they will take to achieve mission.


Dunkirk (2017)

Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy

The release of Dunkirk this month brings the portrayal of WWII films full circle as director Christopher Nolan looks to bring back the reality to war epics. Audiences accustomed to watching CGI aerial battles will be thrilled to learn that Nolan’s determination to adhere to reality, led to him using real Spitfires over the British Channel for Tom Hardy’s tense aerial fight scenes.

Nolan takes a new approach to War with his Dunkirk, focusing on how much man can endure. He doesn’t dwell on heart-wrenching stories of his characters, instead he concentrates on the tension of the action which makes us feel the sheer terror of Operation Dynamo. Scenes are accompanied with a ticking clock to ramp up the tension as time is of the essence. It will leave you shell-shocked.


The representation of war in film drama through the decades has changed massively, from showcasing the effectiveness of pooling together in times of trouble to the bitter reality of the chaos of war.

To truly experience how far the war genre has come make sure to relive the original Dunkirk (starring John Mills and Richard Attenborough) as well as this year’s biggest blockbuster. Pre-Order your copy here >

Please leave a comment below to share your opinion.

Share this post

← Older Post Newer Post →

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published.



Sold Out