From the Front Lines to the Homefront: The Importance of War Films Then and Now

This post was written by Criss Kovac. Criss is the supervisor of the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab. 

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the premiere of Fury Wednesday night and seeing the film (on film even!) reinforced what I know about World War II from the reels I see in NARA’s holdings on a regular basis. War is frighteningly loud; war is unbelievably gruesome; war reveals the best and worst traits of human beings. That being said, what struck me the most is how important film is in chronicling events from WWII in modern times and how important films were in documenting what happened at the time. Films were used to encourage enlistment, train troops, bolster morale, document the war, and inform troops and the American people about what was happening in Europe and the Pacific.

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The First Motion Picture unit in action. Local Identifier: 208-FS-1110-3

The United States military recognized the importance of motion pictures: Films could reach out to potential recruits, train troops, and disseminate information to the folks at home and soldiers spread across the planet. The Army Signal Corps had long been responsible for making training films, and after the United States’ entry into the war, the Army Air Forces got into motion pictures as well. In 1942, Gen. Hap Arnold commissioned studio head Jack Warner to establish the First Motion Picture Unit and contracted with Warner Bros. to produce Winning Your Wings, a film featuring Hollywood star and Army Air Force pilot Lt. James Stewart. Winning Your Wings is credited with inspiring 100,000 young men to enlist in the US Army Air Forces. The First Motion Picture Unit produced hundreds of films between 1942 and 1945.

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First Motion Picture Unit: Army Air Forces

Motion pictures were also vital to disseminating information about what was occurring throughout various fronts in the war and to inform the troops about what was going on at home. Newsreels produced by the military efficiently distributed information to members of the armed services. Subjects ranged from lighter topics, such as training war dogs, and training high schoolers to work in industry to bolster the war effort, to the way blood donations made their way to the front. Some of the footage in these digests is every bit as harrowing as some of the scenes in Fury as can be seen in this clip from the offensive on Tarawa. And, unlike in Hollywood, there are no sound effects, stunt doubles, or extras.

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 Army-Navy Screen Magazine #21 

At the same time, the Office of War Information ensured a steady stream of official films hit screens across the country. The OWI partnered with the Hollywood-based War Activities Committee for National Defense (run by George Schaefer, the former head of RKO Studios) to distribute films such as The Battle of Midway (1942) and With the Marines at Tarawa (1944)The Battle of Midway was the first time the American public saw troops engaging in battle in color and With the Marines at Tarawa was the first time audiences saw dead US Marines in color.

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The Battle of Midway

The legacies of the events of WWII live on because these moving images exist. As the veterans of WWII become fewer in number these reels will live on to tell the story of that era as only moving images can. While films like Fury are able to capture the sense of what it was like to live and die in a war the films in the collection at NARA can document the reality of life and death in a war zone.

About Audrey Amidon

Audrey works in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, which is responsible for performing conservation and preservation work on motion picture records held across the National Archives.
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3 Responses to From the Front Lines to the Homefront: The Importance of War Films Then and Now

  1. Phil says:

    The scope of the of these films is superb…and the shear number is overwhelming. This led me to pen “WARFILMS: An Overview of Motion Pictures Within Military Record Groups Held in the U.S. National Archives” that was published earlier this year. This eBook is available in many formats from the usual outlets. At ~90 pages (depending on the reading machine) it still only scratches the surface of the motion pictured held in the military collections. Another good article Criss!!!

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  2. Robyn Blanpied says:

    Don’t forget about censorship!

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  3. carolina klink says:

    Criss,
    I think you have an amazing job being able to preserve all these motion pictures for future generations. I haven’t studied preservation but I admire the work you do, and thank you for your contributions to ensure these are kept.

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