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The Impact of World War 1 and World War 2 on Film

The world wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45 would be, perhaps, the defining events on the twentieth century; influencing the shape of society, culture and political landscapes across the globe.

It’s no surprise therefore, that they would have a significant impact upon the great, new and all-conquering art form of the century – film.

World War 1

Film was already exploding into the public consciousness by the outbreak of war in 1914. The growth of cinemas had been increasing for almost a decade across Europe and the USA with ever burgeoning film industries gaining prominence in these regions.

However, with war came change; change that would, in many ways, shape the future of film moving forward.

Sociologically, the war was significant as it represented the first major examples of film as a source of historical record and documentary. As the war progressed and became ever more bloody, cameras were sent to front line, capturing the horrors as never before; although shaping the coverage of all conflicts to come.

A by-product of this factor was the increased importance placed upon editing processes, filmmakers and broadcasters controlling the images the public should view.
For the film industry itself, the war’s impact was enormous, changing its landscape forever.

As with many industries across Europe, film was somewhat decimated by war. The major studios and producers of North and Central Europe virtually ceased to exist. Some of the great exponents and artists choosing (or indeed, being forced) to up-sticks and find a new location for their skills.

And so began a cultural migration to a land far removed from the fighting and the harsh conditions – to California and the studios who would go on to dominate the following decades.

World War 2

By the time of the Second World War, film had matured significantly as both a cultural form of information and entertainment but also technically. Films now incorporated sound and dialogue and, frequently, colour. The films themselves had also become more sophisticated, a far cry from the single reel short-movies of the past.

With this sophistication however, it was perhaps no surprise that the potential for film as a vehicle for propaganda was grasped.

Nazi Germany was prolific in its use of film as propaganda to promote the supposed power and popularity of its regime and also to further (and try to justify) its anti-Semitic agenda.

On the Allied side propaganda in film came from Government approved sources, such as a series of British recruitment-oriented films as well as from mainstream movie producers with major Hollywood directors including Frank Capra, Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock releasing films related to the war.

The war also dramatically impacted the types of films that would come into the mainstream for decades to come. War was a backdrop to epic story-telling, the legacy beginning while the world was still fighting; films such as Casablanca (1941) inspiring a generation of future directors. Films with a meaning, a moral core or message emerging in the wake of this great ideological struggle.

Conversely, however, would come the equally influential rise of more escapist fare – soldiers and civilians alike, looking for some release from the daily horror of conflict. From The Wizard of Oz (1939) to the surging popularity of Disney animation, the sentimentality of Capra or the thrill of a Hitchcock suspense.

Out of the dark days of the war would arise what we now refer to as ‘The Golden Age’ of Hollywood and indeed, the birth of genre cinema.