Weird History
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The Dumbest Things Movies Have Us Believe About WWII

September 29, 2020 48.0k votes 14.9k voters 593.5k views13 items

List RulesVote up the questionable WWII tropes we're a little tired of seeing.

If Hollywood has taught the world anything about WWII, it’s that America won it singlehandedly, and they did so with some serious cinematic flair. But, while it’s somewhat understandable for an institution located in California to show bias in favor of the good ol’ US of A, it turns out that’s not the only myth that movies are pushing about WWII - as evidenced by the sheer number of WWII tropes that have little basis in actual history.

Sometimes, as with Michael Bay’s famous-for-all-the-wrong-reasons Pearl Harbor, it’s easy to sit back and point out all the inaccuracies, fallacies, and outright fictions. More often, however, it’s easy to get lost in the Hollywood magic and forget that the reality of WWII was far more unpleasant, unimaginable, and uncinematic than the silver screen could ever properly capture.

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    Ammunition Never Runs Out

    The Trope: Film characters can go an entire two-and-a-half hour movie without ever needing to reload their weapons, despite firing large and indiscriminate bursts of ammunition with alarming frequency.

    Why Is It Inaccurate?: Supply chains are an ever-underrated and pivotal aspect of warfare, and the limitations thereof have always ensured that real-life soldiers are a lot more conservative with their ammo than their Hollywood counterparts. This is especially true when it comes to WWII, with infantry usually able to carry a hundred or so rounds at most into battle, and often far fewer.

    It’s also especially true when it came to WWII-era aircraft. The notion of one pilot shooting down multiple enemy bogies on a single run is essentially fiction, with Spitfires specifically carrying 14 seconds' worth of ammo on them at a time. Apparently, nobody told Tom Hardy.

    Notable Offenders: Dunkirk, Saving Private Ryan, Where Eagles Dare. In fact, it’d be far easier to list those few programs that make of point of showing their characters reloading and conserving ammo, like Band of Brothers.

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  • 2

    The Uniforms Just Have To Look Cool

    The Trope: That the uniforms don’t all look exactly the same in every WWII movie should tell you something - clearly, somebody’s got it wrong.

    Why Is It Inaccurate?: The apparent ineptitude of Hollywood when it comes to crafting accurate military costumes is so prevalent that it has sparked rumors of an obscure law preventing exact replications, but in fact the Supreme Court has ruled the very opposite. It seems instead that the reason behind the inconsistency is just a clash between actual military advisers and costume designers with a flair for originality. As retired Marine Captain Dale Dye, who advised on Saving Private Ryan, describes:

    They figure that the wardrobe people will do their research. The problem is wardrobe people who've never worn a uniform can do their research but they don't know what they're talking about. They don't know how to wear it. They don't have the insight… I've said to costume designers, 'Where the hell did you come up with this? What is this?' 'Oh, it just looked cool.' And it immediately comes off.

    Notable Offenders: Pearl Harbor, Fury, Midway, and any other film where coolness is substituted for accuracy.

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  • 3

    Battles Involving Millions Of Soldiers Completely Depend On The Fortune Of One Or Two Characters

    The Trope: Though an entire world war may rage on around them, the actions of one protagonist soldier, and perhaps a couple of key supporting characters, are all that stands between their nation and total defeat.

    Why Is It Inaccurate?: Millions upon millions of men and women fought in WWII, and though many distinguished themselves with their singular bravery, battles never depended on the doings of a single person. The most egregious abuser of this trope is Enemy at the Gates, a film based on the breathless memoir of Soviet sniper Vasily Zaitsev, played by Jude Law. It reads:

    Kulikov fires off a blind shot. We have to arouse the sniper's interest. We decide to sit out the first half of the day; light reflecting from the scopes could give us away. In the afternoon our rifles are in the shade while the direct light of the sun falls upon the German's position.
    Something sparkles by the edge of the sheet. Is this a piece of glass that just happens to be there, or is the telescopic sight of a sniper's rifle?

    As the movie and Zaitsev himself seem to imply, nearly the entirety of the siege of Stalingrad hinged on a one-on-one sniper duel between him and his counterpart, Major Konig, whom the German high command had dispatched for the express purpose of neutralizing Zaitsev. In reality, the duel almost certainly never happened, Konig probably didn’t even exist, and the events at Stalingrad were far broader and more complex than Hollywood and its love of exceptional men would have you believe.

    Notable Offenders: Enemy at the Gates, The Great Escape, Fury

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  • 4

    Two Clear Sides Square Off Perfectly, With Little Confusion Over Who's Who

    The Trope: WWII battles appear to have been fought in much the same fashion as every other historical era of combat as portrayed on film, with two clearly distinct sides facing off against one another on a nice, neatly defined battleground.

    Why Is It Inaccurate?: Even with its predominance of trench warfare, even WWI didn’t truly match the above description most of the time, and the sequel was an entirely different experience altogether. WWII saw soldiers fighting in all manner of terrain and without always having the benefits of nice and neat battlelines. As such, chaos often reigned, as supply officer John Higgins recalled:

    The confusion in the jungle you have to experience. It's hard to believe that two infantry battalions could blunder into each other unless you were there in the jungle where you couldn't see, you know, 10 feet in front of you.

    Further evidence of that notion is given by the sheer number of fatal friendly fire incidents that took place in WWII, including mistakes that left hundreds of Allies dead at a time. As if that weren’t confusing and chaotic enough, Germans were even known to occasionally sneak behind Allied lines in stolen uniforms to wreak havoc, further blurring the fog of combat.

    Notable Offenders: Battle of the Bulge, Enemy at the Gates, Windtalkers

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