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.
Ammunition Never Runs OutPhoto: Dunkirk/Warner Bros.
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.2,7611,860Pretty dumb?
Everything Important In The War Was Done By Americans
The Trope: If there’s one thing that Hollywood serves to reinforce, it’s that America won WWII more-or-less singlehandedly, with only the occasional assist from someone with a British accent for the sake of variety.
Why Is It Inaccurate?: Not only did America not even join the war effort until December of 1941, when it had been raging for over two years, they were far from the solitary supplier of soldiers to the Allied cause - nor were they the largest. That honor goes to the Soviet Union, who had an estimated 12.5 million people in service at their peak, just edging out the US’s 12,364,000 (and total Soviet casualties were far, far higher than America's). Millions more fought alongside the Allies from nations like India, Canada, Australia, and the Philippines.
Occasionally, American-made films will even go as far as to insert Americans into WWII stories that have nothing to do with them. Such is the case of U-571, which insinuates it was the US - and not, as it actually was, Britain - that captured the Enigma code machine from a German U-boat. At the time of its release, British Prime Minister Tony Blair called the film an “affront.”
Another prominent example The Great Escape, took the 76 real Allied soldiers - from nations as diverse as Norway and the Netherlands - and replaced them with Americans like Steve McQueen. In reality, all of the real-life Americans involved in the breakout from Stalag Luft III had been transferred to another facility before the plan was hatched.
Notable Offenders: U-571, The Great Escape, The Pacific3,0842,084Pretty dumb?
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.
[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 Bulge1,8321,220Pretty dumb?
The Uniforms Just Have To Look CoolPhoto: Fury/Sony Pictures Releasing
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.2,0201,350Pretty dumb?