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The Dumbest Things Movies Have Us Believe About WWII

List Rules
Vote 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 single handedly, 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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  • 1
    3,164 VOTES

    The Soldiers Were Men In Their 30s And 40s

    The Trope: The typical WWII combatant was a tough and grizzled 30- or 40-something, best portrayed by Hollywood’s leading middle-aged actors like the Toms Hanks and Hardy.

    Why Is It Inaccurate?: The average WWII soldier was much younger than the average age of the actors who portray them on film. Or, as the Saturday Evening Post puts it:

    [I]f you were the average frontline G.I., you would fit the following description.
    You are a 26-years-old white male with nine years of education, who comes from New York and is named John. You were drafted into the army and are now a rifleman in the infantry with a rank of private.
    Back home, you have a wife and at least one child hoping for your return.
    You are five feet, eight inches tall, and you weigh 144 pounds. During your basic training, which you received at Fort Benning, GA, you gained 5 to 20 pounds and added an inch to your 33 ¼” chest.

    That may not sound like the stuff of a blockbuster action flick, but it is reality. And while older actors may add gravitas to a role, so too does the knowledge that the majority of those who fought and perished in the war still had their whole lives ahead of them.

    Even combat officers tended to be young; for instance, Easy Company's commander, Major Dick Winters, was all of 27 when the war ended. By contrast, Hanks was 41 when he portrayed the fictional Captain John Miller in Private Ryan (although, according to this fan wiki, the character is supposed to be "only" 34). Meanwhile, Tom Sizemore, who played Sgt. Horvath, was 35 when Ryan was filmed.

    Notable Offenders: Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day, Battle of the Bulge

    3,164 votes
  • 2
    2,757 VOTES

    PG-13 Films Can Accurately Portray The Carnage

    The Trope: In any PG-13 WWII flick, there may be a little death and destruction, but only of the family-friendly variety. A soldier may perish, but usually only from a single gunshot wound that produces little blood and allows him enough time to squeeze in a quick soliloquy.

    Why Is It Inaccurate?: War is hell, the kind of hell that can only be replicated by the hardest of R-ratings. Though gunfire undoubtedly produced far more gruesome injuries than those seen on the big screen, the grisliest scenes were often the result of artillery and mortar fire, which could reduce an entire human being to a fine red mist. 

    If a film were to accurately portray the true, ceaseless carnage of WWII, it would turn the stomach of most audience members, as it did for many of those who had to witness it firsthand. Take Quentin Aanenson’s recollections, for instance:

    It was on one of my early missions that I knew I had, I’d killed men..We caught a group of Germans that were on a road in an area where there were no trees. And I remember the impact it had on me when I could see my bullets just tearing into them. That was my job. This is what I’d been trained to do, and I dealt with it fine. But when I got back home to the base in Normandy and landed I got sick. I had to think about what I had done. Now that didn’t change my resolve. I went out and did it again. And again and again and again.

    Notable Offenders: Pearl Harbor is probably the worst offender, but it’s actually easier to list those few films that come close to capturing the carnage, like Hacksaw Ridge and Saving Private Ryan.

    2,757 votes
  • 3
    2,876 VOTES

    Women Spent The War Sitting At Home, Pining Over Their Sweethearts

    The Trope: If you’re seeing a woman in a prominent role in a WWII movie, it's almost certainly as a love interest back on the homefront, pining for a sweetheart off playing a prominent role in the actual war.

    Why Is It Inaccurate?: Women didn’t just contribute to the war efforts of every nation involved in WWII, they were unquestionably integral to them. When it came to America and Britain, women aided Allied victory through both indirect - think Rosie the Riveter - and direct means, including serving in the military itself as nurses and in other various roles, and dying for their country right alongside the men. Sixteen American women were slain as a direct result of enemy gunfire while with the Army Nurse Corps, and many others were slain in bombing raids while serving near the front lines.

    Women from other Allied nations were even more engaged, with some 800,000 Soviet women serving in army units throughout the war, including famed sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who took out 309 German soldiers.

    Notable Offenders: Battle of the Bulge, The Pacific, Band of Brothers

    2,876 votes
  • 4
    4,858 VOTES

    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.

    4,858 votes
  • 5
    2,889 VOTES

    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

    2,889 votes
  • 6
    2,765 VOTES

    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

    2,765 votes