Hollywood rose up during the Iraq War to criticize America’s involvement in the region, savaging President George W. Bush in the process.
Think movies like “In the Valley of Elah,” “Rendition,” “Redacted,” “Grace Is Gone,” “Lions for Lambs” and “Green Zone.”
It wasn’t always this way.
During World War II some of the industry’s biggest names stepped off the set and into a U.S. Army barrack. Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Paul Newman, Charles Bronson, Audie Murphy, Henry Fonda and future President Ronald Reagan all served their country with honor to defeat the Axis powers.
Their heroism will soon be commemorated as part of the Walkway to Victory, a memorial being assembled at the Airborne Museum in Sainte Mere Eglise, Normandy, France. The museum, located where the D-Day invasion began on June 6, 1944, allows donors to purchase engraved memorial bricks to honor living and deceased veterans who fought in the European theater during World War II.
Some World War II-era stars proved as heroic as their on-screen characters.
The U.S. Army initially rejected Stewart, star of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” for being underweight, but he came back after packing on some weights and enlisted with the Air Corps. He racked up serious flight time, allowing him to take basic flight training at Moffett Field in California.
He later went to England as part of the 703d Bomb Squadron, tallying 20 combat missions before hostilities ceased.
The Hollywood section of the Walkway also remembers directors like George Stevens of “Shane” fame who helped the Allies in their own unique way. Steven Spielberg honored his peers recently with the Netflix documentary “Five Came Back,” highlighting the work of Stevens, John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston and Frank Capra.
Michael Reagan, the late Commander in Chief’s eldest son, is the President of the Reagan Legacy Foundation. The organization is spearheading the “Walkway to Victory,” part of his ongoing mission to make sure we never forget the battle to free Europe during World War II.
D-Day Order June 6, 1944 by General Dwight Eisenhower: statement as issued to the soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force#walkwaytovictory #reaganlegacyfoundation pic.twitter.com/cPVq4MG83G
— Mauermuseum (@Mauermuseum) June 5, 2018
Reagan’s personal connections to the war effort and his father’s contribution to it endure.
“I was going through my father’s stuff years ago, [he] actually bought me a war bond three days after I was born,” says Reagan, adding both the future president and his mother, actress Jane Wyman, helped the country sell them at the time. “He never told me … I happened to find it [years later].”
The man known as “The Gipper” did far more than that. Reagan says his dad made 300 films for the war effort, including training features to help new soldiers.
The young Reagan grew up with some of the children whose fathers also served, noting he still stays in touch with the son of acting great Glenn Ford. He didn’t learn about their military exploits, though.
“None of them really talked that much about it,” he recalls. Instead, Reagan got his military education from his father, sometimes in the form of a song.
“Riding out to the ranch with my father on any given Saturday … he would just sing them to me. I learned about the different branches of the military that way,” he says.
It’s not entirely fair to compare the Second World War to the Iraq War. The former represented an existential threat to Europe, and the Japanese war machine made sure the U.S. couldn’t sit out the battle.
The Iraq War left America divided in more ways than one. That fissure can be seen in how Hollywood portrayed the two wars.
“Back then during the war we were all on the same team,” Reagan says. “The movies from that era were really positive toward us and what we were doing.”
The Walkway to Victory will remind visitors of that time, one given our current culture seems much longer ago than merely 70-plus years.