What Happened To World War II Movies?

Hollywood film and TV shows tied to Nazi menace say plenty about modern times

Collective moments are a fascinating thing to examine.

When society fixates on something, it tells us about our internal processes and what is bothering us or drawing our curiosity. This happened in the late 1990s with the explosion in popularity of World War II movies.

Half a century after the defeat of the Nazis, filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Terrance Mallick, Clint Eastwood and more began pumping out historical military projects like “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Thin Red Line,” “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Valkyrie,” “Pearl Harbor,” “U-517,” “Enemy At The Gates,” “Miracle at St. Anna,” “Windtalkers” and “Band of Brothers.”

This wasn’t the first time the war had been put to film. The 1940s and 1950s were filled with waves of patriotic propaganda movies that valorized the recent war, such as “Sands of Iwo Jima,” “The Longest Day” and “They Were Expendable.”

Sands of Iwo Jima - Trailer

What set this WWII renaissance apart was a collective reckoning about the nature of the war itself.

Three decades ago, aging WWII veterans began to talk about their experiences openly for the first time. It was generally rare in the 1950s for veterans to talk about the war, given how much trauma and survivor’s guilt they felt.

By the early 1990s, WWII was mythologized as the great American triumph, and the descendants of the Greatest Generation wanted to hear the repressed experiences of their grandparents. Thousands of stories finally began to be told in memoirs, biographies and interviews. Many people are learning their loved ones were war heroes for the first time.

This resulted in a swath of bloody, realistic, yet still, patriotic and valorous war movies—where Americans were unreserved good guys and the horrific experiences meant something. Their sacrifices were worth it, but the bloody reality of the war intensified the movies and made them more grisly, realistic and tragic.

Contemporary war fiction around this genre conversely proved more morally relativistic.

As Andrew Klavan argued in 2008, movies like “Redacted,” “Rendition,” “In the Valley of Elah” and “Lions for Lambs” “characterize our soldiers and government agents as rapists, madmen, murderers, torturers of the innocent or simply victims caught up in a venal and bloodthirsty American foreign policy.”

In the Valley of Elah 2007 Trailer HD | Tommy Lee Jones | Charlize Theron

Contemporary war movies and period-piece epics like “Kingdom of Heaven” and “The Last Samurai” chafed against the idea of American cultural imperialism. They depicted America as a morally bankrupt, petty, shallow and nationalistic country run by corrupt bureaucrats and corporate contractors.

Regardless, romantic WWII entertainment remained omnipresent between 1998 and 2008, with dozens of popular video games chasing the trend like Call of Duty, Battlefield, Brothers in Arms, and Medal of Honor.

It even became popular during this time to jokingly call the History Channel the “Hitler Channel,” because of its excessive amount of WWII documentaries.

However, the increased cynicism of modern war movies was a sign of another cultural shift, partially due to the negative reaction to the War on Terror. By 2008, WWII projects were on the decline.

The History Channel was moving on from military documentaries to reality shows like “Pawn Stars.” Their last major WWII project with any media attention was “WWII in HD,” which was more a showcase for the recent transition away from standard definition television.


The year 2008 marked a curious transition in the national mood.

It was the year Barack Obama was elected president. Buchanan published his contrarian “Churchill, Hitler and The Unnecessary War,” claiming that the World Wars were partially the cause of the West’s decline. It was also the year Quentin Tarantino directed “Inglourious Basterds”—a brutal satire of how war films are used as a tool of warfare and propaganda.

Some combination of stress from the financial crash, Obama-era moral relativism and ascendant isolationism fundamentally changed the public’s desires for constant WWII entertainment. Maybe people felt it was backward-looking or stale or merely had their minds on the present.

As a result, the tone of the genre changed.

“The Pacific,” “Red Tails,” “Fury,” “Midway,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Dunkirk,” “Greyhound” and “Masters of the Air” all felt more detached, less passionate, or more cynical than their predecessors. The sweeping orchestras and valor of prior WWII projects were replaced with reflections on the horror of death and the meaninglessness of war.

Masters of the Air — Official Trailer | Apple TV+

At the very least, they were no longer part of a cultural moment. The video games were even shifting away from WWII toward modern settings.

People were moving on to the next thing.

World War II remains a massive subject among the populace, as a conflict as large and traumatic as the Second World War can’t help but stay on people’s minds. In June 2019, we celebrated the 75th anniversary of D-Day, and it naturally brought the few remaining WWII veterans out of retirement for a rightful moment of celebration. 

The 75th Anniversary Of D-Day - The Ben Shapiro Show Sunday Special Ep. 53

Still, our cultural attitudes toward war have changed. Conservatives are becoming more isolationist and skeptical of war, with many having come around to sharing Buchanan’s unromantic view.

On the left side of the aisle, the war has been nominally re-mythologized by the Antifa movement, if only because they see themselves as modern soldiers running off to gleefully kill Nazis.


The shift still marks a notable change. Older war films’ themes can often be reduced to “America Good,” while nowadays the sentiment has shifted to “Nazis bad.” That might not seem sizable, but it marks a startling difference in viewer’s motivations.

Most modern WWII movies—particularly foreign language and arthouse films—are reflections on the nature of fascism, anti-semitism and the complicity of the societies that enable evil. We see this in films like “The Zone of Interest,” “Never Look Away,” “Bardejov,” “Son of Saul,” “The Captain” and “A Hidden Life.”

War dramas also continue to be popular, with films like “Oppenheimer,” “Operation Mincemeat,” “Imitation Game” and “Allied” finding sizable audiences; exploring the messy morally questionable underbelly of technocracy and espionage—a further curiosity for modern people’s moral relativism.

Often when WWII is explored nowadays, it is in fantasy settings.

“Overlord” is a zombie film set during WWII. Video games like “Call of Duty: WWII” and “Wolfenstein: The New Order” explore the war in fantasy settings with bombastic, steampunk, supernatural, and science fiction elements that make the setting feel more fantastical.

These trends suggest the public isn’t interested in romanticizing the past like before. They either want to exist in the murky grey of history, forget that it was a real war with real consequences or exploit it to advance their own vision of the future.

WWII fascination is nothing if not a useful way to gauge culture. It can be a unifying symbol of patriotic victory, a warning against human depravity or a bludgeon to beat against our political opponents.

It is certainly worth examining these tendencies.


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Within the next decade, the average age for surviving WWII soldiers will exceed 100 years old, meaning the few of them left will disappear and take their first-hand experiences with them. And as resurgent anti-semitism and authoritarianism rise once again, so goes the warning their sacrifice might offer us.

These movies will be the way most people engage with history going forward.

It’s unlikely culture will ever produce another romantic wave of WWII projects as it did between 1998 and 2008. These projects flowed out of an authentic cultural desire to grapple with the truth of our grandparents’ lives. It isn’t something that can be reserve-engineered.

Tom Hanks can only produce so many WWII movies.


  1. What about “ Cross of Iron is a 1977 war film directed by Sam Peckinpah, featuring James Coburn, Maximilian Schell, James Mason and David Warner.

  2. What about “Cross of Iron”, is a 1977 war film directed by Sam Peckinpah, featuring James Coburn, Maximilian Schell, James Mason and David Warner. An excellent movie depicting a Wehrmacht recon company escaping from behind Soviet lines.

  3. Pathetic.. Lumping in those who choose to use movies to delicate Leftist fantasies is a crime. Perhaps this is why these movies bombed so badly. I do not recall that Hacksaw Ridge in any way question the need to fight in the war or its purpose, thus highlighting the author’s purpose. The same goes for flags of our fathers. Utter balderdash. Have you asked AOC to write a review of war films. Perhaps it would be more objective.

  4. You are silly moronic people who prefer the dream world of the 1950’s to reality. To act as if the military has always acted correctly even after you know BUSH LIED ABOUT WMD and killed HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE BASED ON A MOTHER EFFING LIE really shows what horrible human beings you are. No wonder you obsess over the race of CARTOONS you are UNSAVED , HELLBOUND SCUM.

    1. For someone who deliberately comes here every day just to spread hatred and vitriol, to bring in sin and salvation in is real rich. Looked in a mirror lately?

      1. Well, I must say the amount of whining of leftists never fails to surprise me.

  5. Hitler was the bad guy and Stalin was of course part of the Allied group. However, there’s not many movies showing the horrors committed by the Soviet Union. Poland was butchered by both Germans and Soviets and a movie depicting the Katyn massacre would be an aspect not typically covered by Hollywood – although Poland did make a film on this matter back in 2007, understandably. I believe this is because of Hollywood’s past and its close association with communism. A subject like VENONA would make a fantastic movie but it would expose what many people have known all along and that is the democrat party’s mid-20th century communist roots that nourish today’s modern DNC.

  6. My dad fought in WWII. He was 18 years old when he hit Normandy beach as a UDT Frogman. He went back there for the 50th anniversary and it really opened him up about it. I think he and my uncles all felt it was their duty to fight for their country and they had nothing but pride over their service. As far as media, I don’t remember him paying much attention to movies about it but my brother and I were very much into the TV shows and movies and books. I disagree with the assessment of Masters of the Air – my wife and I watched it twice and thought it was very well done. As was Pvt Ryan and Band of Brothers. There of course was the hangover of all the violence these soldiers and sailors felt when they returned. According to my aunts dad was fairly depressed after the war it was like coming off a surreal memory to a new reality of peace. It took him some time to adjust but he did and rose to the occasion. I wouldn’t want him to see Pat Ryan – that movie never fails to break me up when I see it because the old man in the beginning reminds me of my dad. Today’s youth needs heroes – they have none. We at least had our soldier citizen parents who battled and fought two vicious enemies and saved the world from totalitarian rule.

  7. It’s better to make a longer series such as BoB, Pacific, or Masters of the Air instead of a 3-hour movie.

  8. Hollywood is completely enamored with Nazis and Hitler. He hasn’t gone away. They always find a way to have another Nazi and Hitler movie. Isn’t “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” another such movie. Unusually, they don’t see how the Leftist Progressive politics has turned against Jews and Zionism. They are indifferent Communists that don’t care about America’s freedoms.
    Don’t forget Jojo Rabbit (2019). Hilter is just a caricature today.

  9. My personal favorite World War Two movies are “Hacksaw Ridge”, “The Bridge On The River Kwai”, “Schindler’s List”, “Empire Of The Sun” and “Saving Private Ryan”.

      1. I can’t believe both of you failed to mention: PATTON, The Great Escape, Bridge at Remagen, A Bridge too Far and the ULTIMATE World War Two movie of all time 1941 Starring John Belushi!

      2. Add Stalag 17, The Longest Day, Battleground, Tora Tora Tora, The Dam Busters, The Best Years of our Lives, and Midway (1976). and Das Boot. Also, Band of Brothers.

        On a lighter side, add Operation Petticoat, Mr. Roberts, and Kelly’s Heroes.

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