I have an intense passion for movies, and I believe that film critics help people think better about the media they consume.
The time of the Oscars is upon us again, and while I really enjoyed nominee The Shape of Water, looking at the list, I know what will take home awards immediately by reading synopses and looking at trailers. The World War Two films. This year, there are two nominated for Best Picture. So, I dedicate the following rant to everyone who, like me, is not only sick of there being so many films set in World War Two, but so many of them overshadowing other films that are just as good or better during award season and being praised as philosophical and deep by critics, because they are set in World War Two.
Now, there are a handful of good WWII movies. Films like Grave of the Fireflies and Diary of Anne Frank work by showing the horrors of wartime survival through the eyes of vulnerable children. But here's problems with the "WWII movie" genre in general.
When they made Wonder Woman about World War One instead of Two (which is when the Amazon's original story is set in the comics), I was a little shocked, but it was a bit refreshing as well. I thought maybe, finally, some filmmakers were getting just as tired of WWII movies as audiences are. I'm not going to bother Googling it, but I bet that if you looked, it would be rare to find an award season between the current year and Schindler's List that didn't prominently feature movies about Hitler, Nazis, Churchill, and how American bombs saved the day. If you're not sick of WWII movies yet, you're probably just not paying attention to movies. How many do we need? Do you people honestly think that you can recreate the magic of a movie like Schindler's List just by having a movie set in the same time period? Just stop it.
Overshadowing Other Time Periods
This is a problem in America, not just for movies, but I see it with biographies, historical nonfiction, historical fiction, and documentaries. Sometimes I think if I see another book about Hitler in Barnes & Noble I will scream to the heavens. This is like seeing, oh look, another YA novel featuring supernatural romance between an ordinary (boring) teen girl and a supernatural hottie. Or like seeing another goddamn anime that takes place in a high school. The life of a connoisseur is pain. Don't follow my path.
Anyway, why is this problem especially egregious when dealing with WWII stuff? Well, because, since I have extensively studied the history of humanity in its entirety, I can say that there are other wars, other battles, and other interesting historical conflicts, both ancient and modern, that are just as interesting if not more so than WWII, and yet nobody is giving those events any attention, outside of academic dweebs like me. It's pathetic and sad.
They Focus Solely on Men
Now I know there are exceptions. The Molly series by American Girl TM for example: it showcases the challenges of being a young girl at home with her mother while her dad is away fighting the war. Her mother has to work hard as a nurse to support Molly, working long hours. Molly looks for an escape by going to the movies, much like I do in my life. They plant a victory garden, which becomes a symbol of hope that the human spirit will prevail through dark times.
But in adult fiction, the lives of women back at the home front, as well as those who served the military, are pretty much ignored. Filmmakers evidently see more cinematic potential in men throwing bombs, driving tanks, and shooting guns, which is splashy and exciting, than in the quotidian sorrow of women longing for absent husbands and fathers, or nurses tending to endless rows of broken bodies. We're also not seeing the "Rosie the Riveter" story of how women took on "male" occupations out of necessity during WWII, such as heavy manufacturing, proving that women are stronger than society thought they could be. This paved the way for the feminist movement as we know it today, because men came home and wanted the "male role" back, pushing women into the historically domestic "female role", but women weren't having it. So we saw from the 1940's on an increasing drive for female equality and independence.
I'd also like to see more films about politically prominent females, such as queens, politicians, activists, and other prominent historical figures. All these WWII movies, are, by necessity, about male leaders and politicians, because that was a time when women were effectively barred from political life. And at the time, there were very few women serving in the armed forces, because society didn't see that as the proper role for women. Movies need action and conflict, so when talking about WWII they often focus on the combat aspect of the war, but that means focusing almost exclusively on men.
Why can't we instead have a movie about the true story of Pocahontas? Why isn't there a prominent movie about Boudica, a Celtic queen who heroically fought against the Roman invasion of her land? Will we ever get a movie about Queen Elizabeth I that doesn't sensationalize her love life and focus on that to the point of ignoring her political achievements? Will we get a Thor movie where the Valkyries aren't dead (which doesn't even make sense, because they were immortal attendants of the goddess Freya), or featuring prominent goddesses and female figures in Norse mythology? Could we see a movie about Empress Theodora of Byzantium and the drama surrounding the rule of her husband Justinian? How about a movie about fiery 1600's Italian female artist Artemisia Gentileschi, who was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence? Maybe a film about Egyptian Queens Hatsheput or Nefertiti - not sensationalized like Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra? No, none of these movies are likely to exist, because it's apparently so much easier and safer for Hollywood to keep making WWII films.
Obvious Oscar Bait
Such films are usually depressing dramas, Glurgey inspirational films, and examples of man’s inhumanity to man – as such, an abnormally large proportion of Oscar Bait films are set during The Holocaust.
— TV Tropes
These days, it's hard for me not to think of "Oscar bait" and "WWII film" as synonymous. Sure, a film can be Oscar bait and not be about WWII, but a WWII film usually makes it to the nominees list for Best Picture, and usually ticks off the expected "Oscar bait" boxes. This is basically torture for someone who really is a passionate film connoisseur, because it means that every year I have to see the same thing over and over again to see what critics are raving about. I don't understand how the Academy can have such a fetish for WWII films that never wanes in passion. How can they keep seeing the same movie over and over again without being bored?
Why is "Oscar bait" so bad? Well, it essentially means that a filmmaker is looking for a cheap, easy way to make drama. This usually means there will be a predictable setting, WWII and America in the South during some sort of period of racial tension being the two most popular targets. An Oscar bait film may also exploit the suffering of a person with a disease or disability, which only serves to other such people, making them seem less normal than they really are. The main problem is that it creates films that are so formula-driven and predictable that they don't have an ounce of entertainment value. After all, for something to be truly entertaining, it has to have something unexpected, new, surprising, some kind of twist or new way of looking at things. Oscar bait movies lack that. Even if they win Oscars, I fail to recognize them as truly "good". There's a big difference between a genuinely good film and a film that simply does what it thinks critics want it to do.
All About England and America
This shouldn't be terribly surprising, but it is a bit infuriating nonetheless. I swear, the way to make sure I don't see a film is to have the name "Winston Churchill" in the synopsis.
When I think of WWII, as a history buff, I think of Japan, Russia, Germany, those countries between Russia and Germany that got fucked, China, SE Asian countries, Korea, Manchuria, Siberia, etc. What most Americans think of is a simple conflict between Goodie Churchill and Baddy Hitler (I get into why the binary morality of WWII movies is also an issue for me later). There is this narrative about the "grand story" of WWII presented in these kinds of movies that is inaccurate and shows an Americentric bias on the part of the writers:
- England is in trouble, and they're our buddies (don't let the War of 1812 fool you).
- America heroically rescues England in her darkest hour.
If you think about it, even films about the Holocaust and concentration camps aren't about the victims of the Holocaust, so much as they're about the Big Damn American Heroes that fight their way into Germany and Poland to rescue them at the end of the war. The war narrative is incredibly eagle-y, one-dimensional. Also, you won't see or hear about Stalin, or the fact that Germany's loss was as much owed to his disastrous attempt to invade Russia as it was owed to the Americans entering the war. I can count films taking place in the Pacific on one hand.
Not only are these films taking attention away from other important historical events, they're showing a view of WWII that is inaccurate and Americentric.
When I think of WWII, some things interest me, that are almost never shown in film, include:
- Hitler's aforementioned attempt at invading Russia.
- Hitler's motivations and intentions.
- How the Holocaust happened without most Germans knowing about it.
- As I said before, the personal struggles of women and children at home.
- The moral complexity of our decision to drop the bomb on Japan.
- Japanese imperialism and expansionism.
- Chinese struggles between communists and nationalists.
And the list goes on and on. But oh please, please, keep making movies about England and the bombing of London and Churchill!
Black and White Morality
I believe that what killed fairy tales, as a genre, was that they tend to have simple moral messages (since they're mainly written for children), and these moral messages can get repetitive and dull if you read many of them. Most of them are Christian ethics, making the tales a simple way parents would explain Christian moral views to children using the illustrative power of simple tales.
World War Two movies reflect contemporary moral sentiments in much the same way. We hear the same moral messages from these films over and over again. Racism is bad. Genocide is bad. Expansionism is bad. Bad people need to be stopped. America's role in the world is to stop the bad people and save the good people. America is good.
In film, because of time constraints, it's necessary to have a villain who is obviously evil to be fought and heroes who are obviously good, but underdogs. Disney is good at this. The reason I think that movies like WWII so much is because rarely in history do you get a situation that's so morally black and white. More recent conflicts were messier, and it was trickier to rally against a single bad guy the way the U.S. and England rallied against Hitler. Hitler is the closest thing in real life to a fictional movie supervillain there's ever been or likely to ever be.
But these filmmakers, because they're creating deliberate propaganda, are ignoring the fact that Hitler and other top Nazis were still human. There's this tendency to make them almost into evil superbeings. But Hitler was really more like Lady Eboshi, the villain in Princess Mononoke. They both thought of themselves as a champion of their people, even to the point of being willing to go to extremes to do what they consider best in order to serve what they believed to be the interests of the people. Hitler didn't grab power for himself, but in the name of the needs of the German people and to restore the honor lost to the country in WWI. Sure, he went a bit nuts with that aim, but even he started with good intentions. That's not something you're likely to see in the typical Hollywood pictures.
Moral complexity also surrounds America's role in WWII, much like it did in other conflicts. Did we have to drop the bomb on Japan? Did we have to bomb two cities? Did we do it for the reasons we said (to save lives by expediting the end of the war), or to show our power to the Russians? Another thing nobody talks about, especially not Hollywood, is Stalin, and how the United States and England needed his help to win the war, even though we had rocky relations with the USSR after the war was over. Are they going to show the gulags where our "important ally" worked his own people to death? Are they going to show Japanese internment camps where, on US soil, we imprisoned our own citizens for having an East Asian appearance, even those who were not Japanese? Will movies ever reveal the full moral complexity of WWII? Or will the genre continue to just be pro-American propaganda?
Where I'm standing right now, I probably won't see any movies set in WWII for a while. No matter how many critics talk about how "good" these movies are. No matter how many awards they win. They're not good, for the reasons I've listed above, and I'm sick of everyone pretending these polished dog turds are diamonds. The emperor is naked, people. Deal with it.