Representing Reality: World War II on Film

Cinematic representations of real events are not hard to come by. Biopics consistently make up a huge portion of the late-fall Oscar bait, and major event-based films are a dime a dozen. War films are no exception.

When considering documentary films, it is understood that they carry with them a large measure of truth (this in and of itself is a fascinating discussion to have, though one for another time). But what of fiction films which ostensibly deal with non-fiction events? They may certainly bear some truth, but can they ever come close to accurate representations of reality?

I recently saw two World War II-focused films, both originally released in 1998; one was new to me, and the other I have seen many times. The first, Terrence Malik’s The Thin Red Line (1998), is a poetic, elegiac rumination on universal themes brought into focus by war: ethics and morality, life and death, love and loss. These themes are also addressed in the second film, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), though I would argue with a much heavier hand.

The Thin Red Line

Malik’s film addresses interiority in a way many might be personally unfamiliar with. Not many of us are likely to have poetic interior monologues, not to mention ones accompanied by achingly beautiful cinematography of the South Pacific. And yet there is still something that feels so real to me. It feels beautiful, it feels complicated, and it feels honest.

Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan, on the other hand, feels tenfold more “Hollywood.” The very basis of the plot ““ several men risking their lives in the early days of the Allied Invasion on a mission to find a man whose brothers have died, in order to send him home to his mother ““ is flatly unbelievable. Coupled with the swelling orchestral accompaniment to every agonizingly slow death, it strikes me as a far more sentimentalized representation of these events. But what do I know?

Canadian Troops being transported to Juno Beach

My grandfather served in World War II with the Queen’s Own Rifles. He invaded Juno beach with the rest of the Canadian contingent on the morning of June 6th, 1944. He saved one of his fellow soldiers by dragging him to safety in this house after he was hit, and was luckily not one of the 143 men from his company who were killed or wounded on that day. He fought in France for six more days, until he was gravely wounded by shrapnel and sent to convalesce. By the time he was well, the war was over, and he never saw active duty again. He would always say, “If there’s ever another war, there’ll be three guys going: me, and the two guys dragging me.”

That was about all he ever said about his experience in the war. He was a child of the Depression, and grew up, like many men of this era, believing that showing too much emotion was a sign of weakness. He was a loving father and grandfather, and lived a good and happy life. In 1998, my mother took him to see Saving Private Ryan in a theatre near his home. He watched the entire thing, absorbed. Following the film, they went out to dinner, where my grandfather proceeded to talk about the war. In detail. For hours. The film had brought back a flood of memories, or perhaps just given him the opportunity to discuss them. This was not a unique reaction, either. In fact, watching the graphic battle scenes was a traumatic experience for so many veterans that the American Department of Veterans Affairs established a hotline for them to call.

It is clear that for these men, my grandfather included, the film sparked something. It was, to a degree, real. So while I may have a clear experience of “truth” with The Thin Red Line, and not Saving Private Ryan, this is only my own experience. For those who have lived through the events represented, it may be quite different. Hollywood does not render reality completely moot. It may dress it up with high-sheen gloss, but it still holds a grain of truth, which can burst forth in the right circumstances.

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