Richard Bevan takes a look at a selection of war films, some of which are unlikely to win any awards for historical accuracy.
Matthew McConaughey on the set of U-571, an American-produced film which portrayed the capturing of the Enigma machine solely as an American war-time success.
Today’s war movies tend to be primarily concerned with fantasy ‘other worlds’ and sci-fi rather than depicting real-life historical battles. Although there have been some classics over the past forty years, many celluloid depictions of war would be hard-pressed to help a student through a GSCE history exam paper.
Despite some new war movies – the hugely controversial Zero Dark Thirty (2012), which retraced the capture of Osama bin Laden; A Field in England (2013), a UK fantasy adventure with the English Civil War as backdrop; and, on the horizon, a $30m version of All Quiet On The Western Front and Destroyer, focusing on the Falklands conflict – currently television tends to be the main provider of historical drama and war stories.
Whether it is the racy shenanigans of the Tudors, or Cold War traitors during the 1950s, television has a broader audience to tap into and one which in some cases may be old enough to remember the events portrayed. It is for this reason that TV productions, even without the big budgets of their cinematic counterpart, strive to get events and facts reasonably correct.
Apart from a few cinematic presentations of war and military campaigns noted for accuracy (Platoon, Waterloo, Tora! Tora! Tora!), the silver screen has for decades taken liberties with famous battles or wartime escapades, mainly to simplify storylines and present obvious heroes and villains.
The American-produced movie U-571 (2000) which dramatised the auspicious capturing of an Enigma code box from a German submarine was inspired by a true event of 1941. The movie starred Harvey Keitel, Matthew McConaughey, and Bill Paxton who portrayed the event solely as an American war-time success, when in fact the mission was an exclusively British operation. In reality the daring assignment involved British personnel from HMS Bulldog boarding the German U-110 in the north Atlantic.
A dramatic battle scene from Tora! Tora! Tora! which depicts the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor with notable accuracy.
To appeal to American audiences, the event was given an Uncle Sam makeover, which, although resulted in the film becoming a critical and box office success, also raised protestations from the British Government at what it believed to be a blatant airbrushing of British wartime heroics.
Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair, even raised the matter in the House of Commons calling the movie an ‘affront’ to British sailors. The saddest aspect of this kind of Hollywood meddling is that it not only undermines the memory of the people who risked their lives and died due to their efforts, but also that it distorts history for future generations. Even the U-boat U-571, which provides the focus for the movie, was an odd choice: U-571 was never captured, in fact sinking off the Irish coast in 1944.
Attention to detail
Hollywood is not renowned for its diligent research efforts. One might cite as evidence the failure of producers of the 1960s adventure-disaster movie Krakatoa: East of Java to notice (before cranking up the publicity machine) that the real island is geographically west of Java.
But to erase an entire nation out of important wartime military campaigns in movies is not just down to technical errors but more likely to do with commercial concerns. Despite the plaudits for military accuracy in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), with its visceral presentation of combat during the WWII invasion of Normandy, the fact that not one British soldier is seen contributing to one of the war’s most bloody campaigns seems somewhat disingenuous.
One celluloid exception, where a multitude of nationalities are presented fighting a common cause against the Nazis, is the Richard Attenborough epic A Bridge Too Far (1977), a blockbuster festooned with more stars than Hollywood’s walk of fame.
Impressive in scope, scale, and acting, with superbly executed set pieces, the story about the allied failure to capture several bridges as part of Operation Market Garden during WWII still reflects the ambitions of the American backers by its biased tone.
Somewhat controversially, the movie, based on Cornelius Ryan’s best seller, portrayed one Lieutenant-General Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning in a negative light – prompting ferocious protests from his author widow Daphne du Maurier – and managed to leave Field-Marshal Montgomery out of the action altogether.
Romps and reality
The 1960s brought about a rise of Boy’s Own style movie romps. Here, Kirk Douglas stars in film typical of the time, The Heroes of Telemark.
The 1960s witnessed a run of Boy’s Own adventure and espionage war films such as Where Eagles Dare, The Blue Max, Operation Crossbow, The Heroes of Telemark, and The Great Escape. These films treated war with a light, sometimes comedic touch, avoiding the realities of battle.
Military-based errors or unbelievable scenarios in these movies can be forgiven due to the family ‘feel good’ adventure genre of which they are a part. However, even a Nazi-bashing romp like Alistair MacLean’s box office hit Where Eagles Dare pushes the boundaries. It is still mind-boggling to witness so many German soldiers being gunned down by Richard Burton and a bomb-planting Clint Eastwood in fifteen minutes of screen time and with no obvious means for restocking ammunition.
It took a new generation of cinema goers in the 1970s to engage with more realistic and graphic depictions of war; movies such as Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron (1977) about a squad of German soldiers fighting on the muddy, smoky Eastern Front during WWII.
Starring James Coburn as a battle-hardened German sergeant fighting Soviet attacks, this is a gritty, raw, and violent meditation on the horrors of war told from the German perspective. Apart from some discrepancies with some of the guns used in the film, Cross of Iron is a well-made anti-war message movie that depicts soldiers as ‘real men’ dreaming about surviving, getting home, and having sex.
Peckinpah’s masterpiece has been applauded as much for its bold themes and nuanced story-telling as for its visual artistry. Orson Welles described it as the greatest war film ever made, while auteur Quentin Tarrantino cited it as the main inspiration behind his own coruscating Inglourious Basterds.
It is not just wartime events that have, at times, been disingenuously re-imagined on the silver screen. In James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster Titanic starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, aside from the fabricated Mills and Boon style love story, 20th Century Fox/Paramount also saw fit to trash the reputation of a real life hero by portraying the screen character as a villain.
First Officer William Murdoch was perceived as a hero during the ship’s tragic final hours yet in the $200 million movie, Murdoch (played by actor Ewan Stewart) is seen taking bribes and shooting two passengers before committing suicide out of guilt.
After Murdoch’s surviving nephew raised complaints about this damaging slight to his uncle’s memory, Fox sent its vice president to Murdoch’s home town, Dalbeattie in Scotland to deliver an apology and a £5000 donation to the local school, which they could probably afford, given the Oscar-winning movie took $2,185,372,302 globally. Director Cameron himself issued a note of contrition on the DVD. And it is interesting to ponder why the producers felt the need to use William Murdoch’s real name at all, when they could simply have created a fictional character.
The war epics
It is rare to find a war movie from the post war era that depicts events realistically. The best of the bunch usually being those that simply focus on relationships and human endeavours in the midst of war such as the John Steinbeck-penned Lifeboat (1944), superbly directed by Alfred Hitchcock where ninety per cent of the action takes place inside a lifeboat.
But the late 1950s saw cinema take a gamble with mega-budgeted war movies utilising the latest widescreen technology in order to create visions on an epic scale. It was a trend that continued into the late ’70s with studio-bankrupting efforts such as Francis Ford Coppola’s $31m Vietnam War saga Apocalypse Now (1979), the making of which was saddled by a destructive typhoon, drug use, heart attacks, and threats of suicide.
Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), with auteur David Lean at the helm, has all the ingredients of a classic adventure yarn – epic in scale and presenting the kind of landscape vistas which in many blockbusters are often to the detriment of character.
In this gripping story of a British colonel (Alec Guinness) co-operating with his Japanese captors to oversee his men’s construction of a railway bridge, political machinations take centre stage with authenticity. Unfashionable at the time when the ‘new wave’ of films were beginning to focus on ‘kitchen sink’ dramas with working class characters, Lean’s big-scale movie was a critical triumph nonetheless winning seven Oscars. Ironically the film took longer to make than the actual events chronicled.
But even critically acclaimed blockbusters, adored by both the public and reviewers alike, can be far from a hundred per cent truthful in depicting real events on screen.
Zulu (1964) was painstakingly filmed on location in South Africa and impressively recreated the mission depot at Rorke’s Drift where 150 British servicemen fought 4,000 Zulu warriors in 1879. But despite the film’s visual authenticity the British movie is peppered with military inaccuracies and story fabrications.
The most glaring of these is that the battalion in the movie is described as a mainly Welsh regiment when in fact it was the 2nd Warwickshire Regiment of Foot and did not become the South Wales Borderers until two years after the battle.
A dramatic scene from Zulu in 1964. Although much-loved, the film was not without its historical inaccuracies, especially surrounding the attack on Rorke’s Drift.
The attack on Rorke’s Drift was not, as depicted in the film, ordered by Zulu Chief Cetshwayo. The Zulu King actually informed his warriors not to invade the British colony. And what remains today as one of the most memorable scenes in cinema history, where Zulu warriors display a mark of respect to the exhausted survivors of the British depot by saluting them, was pure dramatic hogwash. In reality the tribe departed when they realised a British relief column was on its way.
There are several anomalies with Zulu’s on-screen characters based on real soldiers the most serious being the reinvention of one Private Henry Hook VC. In the movie he is depicted as an alcoholic ne’er-do-well, malingering in the depot’s hospital. In reality he was a teetotaller and had been assigned to guard the building.
Even though the character is seen redeeming himself as the film progresses, the surviving daughters of Henry Hook were too upset by the movie’s presentation of their father to watch the whole of the première.
Despite these errors, Zulu is one of the country’s best-love war films. If dramatic licence helps us to get under the skin of real-life but distant and often dead figures then perhaps some mistakes and misdemeanours are permissible. Especially if they help us connect with the protagonists and heroes on the screen. After all it is why we pay money to watch films in a darkened room, in order to be engaged and moved by their dramatic journeys. Even if it means they occasionally trip over a few potholes on the way.