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.