Q: This is the 100th anniversary of America’s late entry into World War I. Why are there so many movies about World War II and so few about World War I — or even more mention of the war in general? Weren’t the casualties just as severe?
W.C., of Edwardsville
A: Interesting question, and until you brought it up, I never gave much thought to how unbalanced the numbers are.
After World War I, there was, of course, a spate of movies, from Charlie Chaplin’s “Shoulder Arms” to “Wings,” the 1927 flick that won the first best-picture Oscar. But in the past 50 years, the Great War as a major plot device has figured in only 11 U.S. movies (the latest being “Wonder Woman”) and, to my count, 62 from studios around the world. By comparison, there have been nearly 100 on World War II since 2010 alone (including this year’s “Dunkirk,” the highest grossing World War II flick of all time, $524 million worldwide as of Nov. 2).
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Why the massive disparity? According to both film and geopolitical historians, several reasons help explain Hollywood’s continued love affair with World War II while, relatively speaking, snubbing the War to End All Wars. And, although you may disagree, some may spill over into why there’s less discussion in general. See what you think:
You may have partially answered your own question when you mentioned “late entry.” The U.S. first declared war on April 6, 1917, three years after it began, so we stayed out of most of it, which limits movie subject matter pertinent to our contribution. Although the United States saw roughly 53,000 combat-related deaths in 19 months, it was a fraction of the 400,000-plus suffered during nearly four years of fighting in World War II. (By the way, an estimated 70 million to 85 million died in World War II versus 15 million to 18.4 million in World War I.)
Second, although roughly 360 are dying each day, there still are roughly 500,000 U.S. World War II veterans alive. By contrast, Frank Buckles, the last World War I vet, died in 2011, which makes that war seem even more distant and, thus, less likely to draw an audience. Likewise, even though they were critical to our nation’s history, there have been by some counts only about 150 American Civil War films and just over two dozen about the American Revolution.
Moreover, the morality of World War II may have been much more clear-cut, thus lending itself to a more popular storyline. Audiences can cheer the good guys as they stop the evil Hitler and Hirohito. The story behind World War I, many historians argue, is more murky, which may be why some of the best movies of the conflict are such great anti-war classics as “The Big Parade,” “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Paths of Glory.”
In a related vein, although there were the Marnes, the Jutlands and the Verduns, much of WWI was seemingly endless months of trench warfare, which does not make for breathless cinema. Often, poor Allied battle tactics did not help. Again by comparison, Hollywood was well into its Golden Age by the time of Pearl Harbor. With photojournalists helping to leave a detailed war record and the biggest movie stars lining up to serve, WWII inspired the industry to tell war stories like never before.
“A history of World War II looks like it was written by a screenwriter,” David Stewart, an Australian teacher and perhaps a typical moviegoer, once opined. “There are clear bad guys who did demonstrably evil things. The bad guys clearly won to start with, but the goodies rallied and managed to take back Europe. World War I doesn’t have the drama, the tales of conflict or the fascinating narrative. It’s just a large, depressing quagmire called the Western Front full of young people dying in large numbers.”
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Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: She was born Helen Beck in tiny Elkton, Mo., but she would rise to fame as fan- and bubble-dancing sensation Sally Rand, a name reportedly given her by movie mogul Cecil B. DeMille, who apparently was inspired by the Rand McNally atlas. She was in debt when she died in 1979 at age 75, but Sammy Davis Jr. reportedly wrote a $10,000 check to cover her bills.