Just How Historically Accurate Are Second World War Movies?

There have been more films made about the Second World War than any other, but which ones are accurate and which aren’t?

The hell and horror of the Second World War has provided film makers for decades with a wealth of material to base engaging and dramatic movies upon. Yet for every gritty and harrowing slice of realism from history’s darkest chapter, there’s some irrelevant tripe which plays hard and fast with historical fact and actual events.

No matter how well made or convincingly acted, no film can truly capture the unimaginable slaughter, sorrow, and sacrifice or document the heroism, humanity, and hope that held the world in its bloodied fist between 1939 and 1945.

A handful of well-crafted and subtly nuanced films have come very close to portraying the “reality of war,” but many more remain a million miles removed from affording the audience any understanding or empathy of what happened when the whole world was dragged into the abyss and forced to engage in conflict on a mass scale.

With this in mind, let’s have a look at some of the most accurate and inaccurate war films ever made.

German Troops

Das Boot (1981)

Hitler’s U-boats played a vital role in the Second World War, and Wolfgang Petersen’s German epic based on Lothar-Guenther Buchheim’s autobiographical book perfectly captures the claustrophobia, tedium, and sudden excitement of battle U-boat crews must have felt every exhausted hour of every weary day.

With German dialogue throughout, the film quite literally reeks of realism and the corrosive bitterness many of the men must have felt at being condemned to die in a little sardine tin at the bottom of the Atlantic.

However, despite their chances of actual survival being one in four, the men don’t actually die at sea. Led by their openly anti-Nazi Captain through thick and thin, the young, pale, and weary crew finally find safety at the harbor of La Rochelle on Christmas Eve, only to be killed or wounded by bombs from Allied planes.

Japanese Troops

Pearl Harbor (2001)

Pearl Harbor has been described as a war movie based on war movies and not on real events. The artistic liberties taken with historical fact angered Pear Harbor survivors to such a degree that they dismissed the movie as “pure Hollywood.”

Admiral Kimmel is depicted as playing golf on the morning of the attack; he wasn’t. Neither did he receive any prior warning of the attack, as he does in the film, when he is notified of the Japanese embassy leaving Washington D.C.

Countless other dramatic falsehoods, such as inaccurately painting the Japanese Zero fighters green and sensationalizing action scenes has left Pearl Harbur with little credibility. Pearl Harbor veteran Kenneth M. Taylor said it best when he described the film as a “piece of trash.”

Schindler’s List (1993)

The poisoned heart of darkness at the centre of World War Two, was of course the Nazi’s twisted ideology, and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is unrelenting in forcing the viewer to confront the terrible realities Hitler cast millions of people into.

However, in amongst the vile, unpalatable, and repugnant depictions of brutality and cruelty that occurred daily in the concentration camps, the film’s message is one of hope in humanity. And that humanity is German businessman Oskar Schindler, who is played to perfection by Liam Neeson.

The film’s message that one person can make a difference is conveyed beautifully in the stark and timeless nature of this black and white film, which is emotive but not overtly sentimental.

American Troops

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is guilty of taking the moral ambiguity and complexity of war and turning it into a simplified comic-book drama, where Brad Pitt is the good guy who kills and tortures all the bad guys until everyone is happy.

The film is all style and no substance, but then that was probably Tarantino’s ambition. Its plot about a team of Jewish Allied soldiers out to assassinate Hitler and kill as many Nazis along the way has no basis in history.

The film is both amusing and entertaining, but as an accurate portrayal of the Second World War, it fails miserably. Its high quota of cartoon characters along with its obsessively detailed violence and feel-good factor thrill kills leave a bad taste in the mouth when you consider what actually occurred during that time period.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Nothing on film has ever come close to capturing the all-consuming and completely overwhelming horror and panic of battle than the harrowing opening 25 minutes of Spielberg’s Second World War classic.

Admittedly, the rest of the film never lives up to its opening, but then what ever could? The men who stormed the Normandy beach-fronts on D-Day turned the tide of the war, and the hell they went through and the sacrifice they made to do so is captured here in absolutely astonishing footage.

The depiction of the men landing on Omaha beach is sonically savage, visually compelling, and horrifically intense. It will fill you with a quiet despair, but also an immense gratitude and abiding respect towards the brave men whose courage it honors.

D-Day

[Photo by Keystone/Getty Images]