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Documentary Filmmaker Peter Hankoff on World War II Movies and Hollywood Accuracy

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Recently I had the chance to speak via email with Peter Hankoff, a World War II expert and documentary filmmaker, on the topic of World War II movies and how they are represented in Hollywood. The interview focused on the gap between fiction and reality in Hollywood movies and also what actually makes for a truthful representation of historic events.

Hankoff's experience, as both a documentary filmmaker and World War II expert, made him an ideal candidate to discuss such a topic. The results, as you can see, are quite interesting as he discusses his views on the use of film as an educational tool and the continuing importance of and interest in World War II for current generations.

To start off with, what would you say are the most accurate and truthful depictions of World War II, in cinema or on TV? What about these productions make them the most accurate and truthful?

Having interviewed dozens of WWII vets, sometimes it’s hard to say what’s really accurate. I’ve met one of the men who planted the flag at Iwo Jima; another who looked eye to eye with the Japanese pilots flying low at Pearl Harbor; and even a man who survived the bombing at Hiroshima. So to me "accurate and truthful" is more about a sense of terror, adrenalin, horror, and conviction. That said, Sophie Scholl felt truthful and accurate – and much of the dialogue was constructed from existing transcripts of her trial. Fires on the Plain also seemed accurate as a story of the privation and retreat of Japanese soldiers in the Philippines. I pick those two – both made by what would’ve been "the enemy" in WWII — because they focused more on human drama than firepower, and thus created a realism that seemed relatively unvarnished. Open City would be an additional choice — ironically, also from the Axis side of the war.

As far as American movies go, the beach-storming scene in the beginning of Saving Private Ryan was incredibly powerful. It employed extreme movie-making skill that may not have been in a raw verite style, but the consequences of war are not glossy or glorified as men picked up their own arms under the withering firepower of German machine guns.

Do you believe that audiences have adopted World War II TV shows and films as an educational tool? If so, why? Do you believe directors and writers are aware of the potential influence they can have on people when they create a World War II film or TV show?

The more recent WWII movies and shows have tended to be more accurate in terms of costume, weapons, and physical detail. I think these days most people have learned more about WWII from TV and movies than anything else. History seems to be getting short shrift in school – probably because it is a labor-intensive topic – our most important subject since it teaches us about our culture and promotes critical thinking.

Getting history from movies and TV can, at times, be very misleading. There are probably people who saw Inglourious Basterds and believe Hitler was killed in a Parisian movie theater.

History may be written by the victors… but it is often rewritten by Hollywood. The balance between entertainment and education can often be tenuous, but directors and writers are very aware people; how could they not know the influence of their storytelling?

Should Hollywood productions look to make as accurate a film as possible or is it okay to take a few liberties? What is your opinion on a film like Valkyrie which took a lot of liberties with the actual events but aimed for a sense of realism?

When specific events are portrayed, I feel that there should be as much accuracy as possible. With CGI and our vast Internet knowledge, it’s easier now to research and get it right. Taking liberties with the big things like the truth about Hitler and Nazis can inadvertently rewrite the facts and possibly glorify things that are heinous.

Shows like Band of Brothers and The Pacific start off with comments from World War II veterans, specifically those involved in the show; does that or should that force the show into portraying a more truthful and accurate account of WWII? Are they showing a truthful and accurate account of the war?

I loved that those two shows had the real guys telling their real stories. It gave a depth that is often too easily eclipsed by the battle action and dramatic tension of war. I felt Band of Brothers and The Pacific were truer to the events than other movies or shows I’ve seen. Though I’ve got some pet peeves about them, I think they each deserve an “A” for effort.

The Pacific has attempted to show the mental and psychological toll the Pacific campaign had on soldiers. While it’s made for compelling and confronting viewing, is it misleading viewers as to how the soldiers acted while at war or is it helping to portray a more accurate picture of the soldier’s life during World War II?

I’ve met many vets from the Pacific Theatre of Operations, and there is little doubt that the fight in the Pacific was a harrowing experience. I’ve walked the beaches on Iwo Jima, and to imagine hauling 80 pounds of gear and dodging shrapnel and bullets is almost impossible. None of the vets I’ve interviewed painted war as a glory ride or comic book adventure. That generation has never been prone to expressing their feelings the way their sons and grandsons have. It was a different time — a time in which men had already suffered the privation of the Great Depression and were all pulling together and – as the song of the time goes – “accentuating the positive.” I think The Pacific does help us see that war isn’t all a montage of heroic exploits.

Why do you think that even 65 years after World War II ended Hollywood still has an obsession with World War II?

WWII is the ultimate fight between good and evil. The good guys won. And the bad guys were some of the worst in history. I’d be surprised if we weren’t telling the stories of WWII 650 years from now.

Few mainstream films or TV shows attempt to show the war from Japan or Germany’s side; is this an important part of the guilt process Japan and Germany have to endure? Are we missing out on interesting and important stories? I know Downfall and Letters from Iwo Jima were some of the best and most powerful war films I’ve seen because of their focus on the ‘enemy’.

The war from ‘the enemy’ point of view is tough when it comes to rooting power. Showing them losing, like in the Japanese classic Fires on the Plain or defying the Nazis like in Sophie Scholl is more palpable. Letters from Iwo Jima was a great movie; then again, it was the story of men who were fated — not victorious. Das Boot is the movie that comes to mind that shows the rigors of war with an odd kind of rooting power. After all, the ships they were sinking were ours… and that’s hard for Americans to get behind.

War films often focus on the big flashy landmark battles during the war; do you think this aspect of the war has been exhausted? What battles still need to be told and people need to know about? Do we need to focus on some of the other elements like POWs, resistance movements or the effect of the war at home?

Whenever the human element can be expanded – and accurately told – people will never get sick of the story, even if it’s familiar. I can think of several under-told stories of WWII, but the one that comes to mind first is the story of the USS Nevada. That ship was bombed at Pearl Harbor; forced to beach; resurrected, and sent to support the troops in Europe at D-Day; then sent back into the Pacific as fire support at Iwo Jima — and ultimately sunk in a post-war atomic bomb test.

As our culture changes, I’m sure that WWII will serve as a backdrop to tell those stories from an historic point of view. We were the good guys, but we weren’t all that good. There was segregation and internment camps and friendly fire and atrocities. But we must not forget that there were huge battles and major sacrifice and we’ve earned those stories as part of who we are as Americans. It was a time that men and women from all walks of life put aside their differences and acted as one… and that is a lesson that must never be lost.

Have production teams ever reached out to an expert like yourself when creating a World War II film or show?

My job has been to find experts and eyewitnesses to history and to know the questions to ask. Often times the people I interview are surprised by how much homework I’ve actually done. I would have loved to do the interviews for The Pacific, but they did just fine without me. As far as the episodes went… well, I might have made a few different choices. Many people probably still don’t realize that the battle for Iwo Jima did not end when the flag went up; it was a grueling murder hole that still churned on for more than a month.

Finally, what benefits do you feel documentary filmmaking has over feature filmmaking and vice versa when dealing with World War II?

Hollywood has the power of money and the many skilled artisans who can bring history to life. Documentaries have the ability to show ‘here we are… this is the real place where it really happened’ and to say ‘this person was there and they are telling us what really went on.’ That kind of veracity that is always questioned when lines are coming out of actors' mouths instead of the real thing. Our veterans are dying at an average of 1000 per day. Soon they will all be gone. It’s important to get their stories on tape. Some of them have been silent for decades, but I find as they are approaching their final days they now want to answer the question that will soon be lost forever: “What did you do in the war?”

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