SELINSGROVE, Pa. – The experts are forecasting record gate revenues for the new World War II movie Pearl Harbor, which opened Memorial Day weekend. It is the latest in the growing list of recent blockbuster World War II films to be released in recent years – a curious trend considering the war is now over 50 years removed and America is at relative military peace.
But that’s exactly why the movies have been so lucrative, according to Anne Collins Smith, Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa.
Smith is a pop culture expert who has also been fascinated by the portrayal of World War II in film and on television.
Smith believes the present popularity of World War II movies is based on a growing legend about “The Big One.”
“The ‘Great Generation’ that fought in World War II is dying out; their children and grandchildren are seeking to reconnect with their roots by making sense of the experience that defined them.
“Moreover, while that generation was defined by WWII, and later generations by the Korean Conflict and the war in Vietnam, the current generation has faced no comparable common crisis,” said Collins Smith.
While she admits it is definitely a good thing not to have been involved in a major war recently, “war does have a way of sharply focusing the concerns of the nation away from petty issues and mindless consumption toward questions of life and death, right and wrong.
“It can bond a generation whether they march together into battle to fight or march together in the streets to protest.”
She said the current fascination with WWII goes beyond nostalgia, to a craving for this “watershed, defining, bonding event.”
Smith reports that different decades have had different reasons for being fascinated with World War II.
World War II was extremely popular on television during the ’60s and early ’70s, from gritty dramas like Combat! to lighthearted comedies like Hogan’s Heroes. “It’s no coincidence that these shows aired at a time when the nation was deeply conflicted about our involvement in the Vietnam War,” she says.
“On the one hand, they reflect a nostalgia for a time when good guys and bad guys were easily identifiable, right and wrong seemed clear-cut, and an average man or woman could become an undeniable hero. On the other hand, they also reflect a sly ’60s sense of subversion.”
The shows often featured mavericks, like the unconventional members of the Black Sheep Squadron, or even outright criminals, like the members of Garrison’s Gorillas.
“In one episode of Rat Patrol, a German spy is outwitted because one of our heroes refuses to obey orders blindly. As the spy is dragged away, he claims that the Allies will lose the war because their soldiers are undisciplined. The Allied commanding officer – the same one whose orders were disobeyed – says, ‘no, the Allies will win because their soldiers can think for themselves.’ Thus, these shows often validated nonconformity by projecting it back into a widely accepted and popular context.”