Steven Spielberg: World War II Revisionist

With the acclaimed mini-series The Pacific released this year, Santosh Sandhu presents an updated look at the influence of World War II on filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s body of work…

Steven SpielbergSteven Spielberg’s father was a pilot in World War II and his stories formed a strong part in his son’s upbringing. Spielberg began making movies at the age of 15 and even at this young age his films Fighter Squad (1959) and Escape to Nowhere (1962) used World War II as a backdrop. It seemed inevitable that when Spielberg became a major Hollywood player he would make films about this war. Despite coming from the Vietnam generation, Spielberg has constantly revisited World War II throughout his career.

Having suffered anti-Semitism as a teenager, Spielberg sympathised with the civil rights movement but never felt comfortable with his own generation. He had little time for the counter-cultural movement of the late 1960s. With regard to filmmaking, Spielberg felt a greater affinity towards David Lean and Alfred Hitchcock than Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. He was even more apathetic about the Vietnam War as it presented itself as an obstacle to his filmmaking aspirations.

Today, Spielberg has yet to make a film about the Vietnam War as it may be too difficult a subject or it simply does not appeal to him. World War II however is a different story as Spielberg has always felt a greater identification with this generation.

Starting with the silly slapstick of 1941 (1979), a technically accomplished but unfunny comedy about the chaos that ensues after a Japanese submarine is spotted off the coast of America, Spielberg managed to offend not only his father but John Wayne who was originally offered a part in the film. They both felt that the film was disrespectful to the soldiers who had fought and died in the war.

Since the caricatured Nazis of the Indiana Jones series, Spielberg’s films have matured over the years. The Empire of the Sun (1987) based on JG Ballard’s semi-autobiographical book about an English boy (Christian Bale) separated from his parents and forced to survive in a Japanese POW camp brought critical acclaim but was dismissed as a calculated attempt by Spielberg to win the Oscar that had so far eluded him. Looked at today the film is impressive in its lack of sentimentality as Bale and other British prisoners in the camp are portrayed as strong and resilient to all the hardships they are forced to endure whereas Bale’s American ‘friend’ (John Malkovich) is portrayed as a narrow minded opportunist. Such a derogatory representation of Americans is a rare occurrence in an American film.

Schindler's ListEver conscious of his own Jewish heritage, in 1993 after years of deliberating Spielberg decided to make a film version of Thomas Keneally’s book ‘Schindler’s Ark’. The resulting film Schindler’s List (1993) about an Austrian businessman saving Jews from the gas chamber by employing them in his factory won over audiences and critics and secured Spielberg his long overdue Oscar. What was interesting about the film was Spielberg’s willingness to change his style after years of making blockbuster films in the wake of his own Jaws (1975). Spielberg deliberately shot Schindler’s List in black and white to mimic old holocaust newsreel footage coupled with an almost constant use of hand held cameras. The film also eschewed Spielberg’s motif for strong sentimentality and audience manipulation for the most part and featured dimensional Nazi characters such as Schindler (Liam Neeson) and Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes).

In an interview for the BBC program ‘War Stories’ in 1998, Spielberg told interviewer Mark Cousins that he never would have made Saving Private Ryan (1998) without the influence of Vietnam, namely media coverage of atrocities committed by both sides. He had always wanted to make a boys-go-on-a- mission World War II movie but he had to do some growing up before he could do it. The resulting film with its bleached photography was about a squad led by Tom Hanks who after surviving the D-Day landings were sent on a mission to rescue the surviving brother of a family of soldiers killed in combat. Whereas in Schindler’s List, Spielberg had spared the audience the awful sight of the gassing of the Jews, Saving Private Ryan used all the latest digital technology to bring violence to the fore.

Saving Private RyanSince the late 1960s, censorship laws had been relaxed giving Spielberg free reign to use strong language and violence. The film’s opening D-Day sequence is now a benchmark in mainstream movie violence. The film has no music playing over the scene to heighten the drama just the sound of machine guns and mortars as the American assault on Omaha Beach goes disastrously wrong. Soldiers are seen drowning, losing limbs and being blown in half with blood and guts shown in graphic detail. Unlike the traditional World War II movies, soldiers do not die instantly but scream in agony from their wounds. Interestingly, soldiers being shot through their helmets and underwater has also rarely been seen in a World War II movie.

Spielberg used hand held cameras together with vibrating lenses (frame jumping) to give a disorienting effect and to transport the viewer to the battlefield. Surprisingly, when blood and sand were visible on the camera lens, Spielberg did not rectify this. In many ways Spielberg wanted to emulate the famous photographs taken by World War II photographer Robert Capa on Omaha beach. His instinct was that instead of a stills photographer taking pictures how would a filmmaker with a motion picture camera have captured the battle? The resulting cinema verite style gave the film an almost documentary feel and the excellent use of sound effects made the audience feel as if bullets were whizzing past their heads. The immediacy of this action sequence has resulted in many subsequent films borrowing its hyper real style.

A major negative criticism of the film however was its unoriginal story (though based on a real family) and characterization (Tom Hank’s squad were stock World War II types) which was very much in the vein of many boys-go-on-a mission movies. Spielberg’s tendency to lapse into sentimentality was also denounced although when quizzed about this, Spielberg often admits that it is part of his character. The absence of other allies was also a contentious issue raised about the film.

While it is true that the Americans did not fight the war alone, it would be impossible to make a coherent movie featuring every single ally. The Longest Day (1962) and A Bridge Too Far (1977) featured all the allies that took part in those battles and these films suffered because of it. There was so much historical detail to get through and little time for character development that audiences were left watching one major battle after the next with little understanding of the soldiers taking part or their objectives.

Band of BrothersCreative consultant on Saving Private Ryan was historian Stephen Ambrose, whose often compassionate style of writing was a major influence on the film which did not hesitate in its depiction of human suffering. Having read Ambrose’s Band of Brothers as research for his role in Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks decided to re-team with Spielberg and adapt it as a 10 part Home Box Office (HBO) mini series. The resulting series was about Easy Company 506th parachute infantry regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. Easy Company took part in every major battle in western Europe e.g. D-Day, Operation Market Garden, Battle of the Bulge, culminating in their liberation of a concentration camp and capture of Hitler’s Eagles Nest. This series proved a major success borrowing much of its visual style from Ryan.

Using the book as a starting point and sticking very closely to it, the makers of Band of Brothers (2001) were also able to use interview footage of the surviving members of Easy company as vignettes within the series. The series was therefore very well researched with actors sometimes being able to liaise with their real life counterparts to add a greater authenticity to the proceedings.

Due to its longer running time, Band of Brothers was able to explore its characterisation more fully. Criticisms of Ryan were that it didn’t depict the Germans in a favourable light. Band of Brothers however went to great lengths to depict the Germans as ordinary fighting men. In the series, Americans were seen killing German prisoners and evicting Germans from their houses. When Easy Company commander Captain Winters (Damien Lewis) killed an unarmed German soldier, the look of terror in the young man’s eyes played painfully on the Captain’s conscience. After the German surrender, a German Captain spoke to his men about the war and the bond between him and his men was the same as the bond between the men of Easy Company.

As this series was solely about Easy Company, the other allies only made fleeting appearances. The British and French were also featured albeit not in a very flattering way. During the Battle of Arnhem (Operation Market Garden) which was spearheaded by the British, Easy Company were ordered to take the Dutch town of Eindhoven. Easy Company walked straight into a German ambush as a British tank commander ignored an Easy Company member’s warning to disable a hidden German tank. It was left to the closing credits of this episode to mention the 8000 British paratroopers who had died at Arnhem. Though this was a true incident and was taken directly from the book it seemed unfair to blame the failure of this mission on one British tank commander.

After the failure of Operation Market Garden, Easy Company rescued the British Red Devils trapped behind enemy lines. Though again this incident was taken from the book it played into the misconception that the Americans saved the British in the War. In the penultimate episode, the war in Europe was coming to a close and as Easy Company drove through Germany they saw a group of French soldiers brutally murdering German prisoners which was the only representation the French were allowed. Although these were actual incidents, as the makers had decided to include the other allies it would have been more admirable to also include the more positive contributions that they made as it was the allies that won the war.

Despite all this Band of Brothers was still an exceptional series. The battle scenes were riveting and realistic with soldiers cut down mid sentence. Easy Company triumphs such as the attacks on the guns at Brecourt Manor on D-Day and the capture of the French town of Carentan were better action scenes than any in recent cinema. Easy Company freezing, starving and lacking medical supplies through the Battle of the Bulge made for some heartbreaking episodes. The discovery of a concentration camp was truly horrific as it looked just like the real colour footage from the holocaust seen in the documentary America’s War: World War II in Colour (2002).

The PacificIn the wake of Band of Brothers’ success, Hanks and Spielberg produced the follow up The Pacific (2010), another 10 part mini series this time about the Pacific theatre of war seen through the eyes of three marines. Partly based on the books Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie and With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge, The Pacific is a much more brutal experience than Brothers. Unlike the Germans the Japanese were not bound by the Geneva Convention and were an often cruel and remorseless enemy. Their horrific treatment of POWs has now passed into legend and the series doesn’t flinch in its depiction of atrocities committed by both sides.

Surrendering is seen as a disgrace to the Japanese Bushido code so rather than be taken prisoner the Japanese commit hari kiri with a grenade often taking a couple of marines with them. This compels the marines to give up taking prisoners entirely and to casually strangle, bayonet or shoot wounded Japanese soldiers. On finding the mutilated bodies of their comrades, the marines openly begin cutting out the gold teeth of dead Japanese soldiers to keep as souvenirs.

When not fighting the Japanese, the marines are constantly fighting the elements such as rain, heat, mud and disease. An entire episode is given over to Leckie (James Badge Dale) battling dysentery and meeting other soldiers who are suffering mental breakdowns. With a two hundred million dollar budget, this series has the best fight sequences yet with three whole episodes dedicated to the Battle of Peleliu. The series is especially impressive not just in its superb fight sequences but also that it shows the awful mistakes that happen in war. The marines sometimes shoot their own men and civilians including women and children get caught in the crossfire of battle. The most moving moment is when Sledge (Joe Mazzello) comforts a woman whose stomach has been blown apart by a bomb.

Although the fighting is meticulously researched with the Japanese attacking at night and favouring frontal assaults, it’s the slower character building episodes that are the most affecting. After his brave heroics on Guadalcanal, John Basilone (Jon Seda) is sent back to America to take part in demeaning propaganda to encourage the American public to buy war bonds. At first he indulges in all the five star treatment and loose women he is afforded but soon becomes disillusioned especially as he is aware that his comrades are still fighting and dying. His feelings of guilt soon see him volunteer to be sent back into action on Iwo Jima.

Criticisms of the series were that it just wasn’t Band of Brothers 2. That’s because Brothers was about the brotherhood which develops between soldiers in a war situation and The Pacific is more concerned with how racist war can be. The Japanese are constantly referred to as ‘Dirty Japs’ and ‘Yellow Monkeys’. Whilst not as instantly engaging as Ryan or Brothers partly due to its lack of a leadership double act to anchor the series, The Pacific is still an impressive addition to the Hanks/Spielberg canon. It will be interesting to see what they come up with next. Perhaps a series about the Burma campaign? After all Steven’s dad did fly with the Burma Bridge Busters.

Santosh Sandhu graduated with a Masters degree in film from the University of Bedfordshire and wrote the short film ‘The Volunteers’.


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