From the very beginning, Hollywood has corrupted the history of World War II. Did you know that? There’s a not-so-subtle fiction in the war pictures that started coming out of the studios from 1942 on, and as late as Saving Private Ryan the warping continued.
I’m talking about the ages of the actors playing soldiers in that war. I grew up thinking that WWII was fought by middle-aged men. My favorite war movie of all is Battleground, the 1949 MGM blockbuster about the Battle of the Bulge starring 33-year-old Van Johnson, 35-year-old John Hodiak, and a couple handfuls of other MGM contract players. Granted you saw a few younger guys like Marshall Thompson (age 24), Ricardo Montalban (age 29), and Richard Jaeckel (age 23). But co-starring was 47-year-old George Murphy playing a character named “Pop” and aged-well-beyond-his-years Douglas Fowley as a G.I. with dentures. None of these guys represent the real fighting men of the Ardennes Forest.
I stumbled upon another MGM war picture the other week, The Men of the Fighting Lady, about a Korean-era aircraft carrier and landing there were the supposed hotshot pilots, Van Johnson (again, now 38), Keenan Wynn (38), and Frank Lovejoy (42).
I’m smack-dab in the middle of the real WWII these days writing about the Eighth Air Force, and I am astonished about how young these pilots under Jim Stewart were. He was an “old man” of 35 when he commanded a bomber squadron operating out of England, and all his pilots, and I mean all his pilots, were 22 or 23 or at the oldest 24 years of age, guys right out of college. The technical sergeants serving as radio men and gunners were 19 and 20. If you go to the mall and look at the kids hanging out there giggling and trying to look adult, or visit your local high school or college campus, that’s who fought World War II. That’s representative of the 400,000 Americans who died and whose names are carved in honor rolls in every town in the United States. Among the front-line personnel, the privates were 18 or 19, the sergeants were 20, lieutenants 22, and captains and majors 24. Stewart had a hell of a time getting off the ground when he earned his wings at an advanced age of +30. They were reluctant to let a man that old and slow behind the controls of a four-engine bomber—he didn’t have a prayer of operating a fighter plane, which all the pilots wanted to do.
There are stories of guys who landed at Normandy Beach and didn’t take their boots off for the next six weeks; at the end of it they didn’t have to peel off their socks because they had liquefied. These guys didn’t eat or sleep for days and they were digging foxholes everywhere they went. Facing life-or-death situations at every turn. It was survival of the fittest and the fittest were 18, not 40.
When Tom Hanks played Capt. Miller in Saving Private Ryan, he was 42 years old. In the real war, someone the age of his son would have been Capt. Miller.
The actors go where there’s work, like they always have. During the war, studios churned out war pictures because that’s what people wanted to see, and who could play in their product but the men they had under contract, those not off to war themselves, and this talent pool was what it was. It only became burlesque occasionally, like when Alan Hale played a flier in Desperate Journey at age 50 or a submariner in Destination Tokyo at 51. For Hale it was a living and he was a fine character actor, and it’s always nice to see him. Just keep in mind you are looking at Bizarro World War II when it’s being fought by Alan Hale. We’d be speaking German right now if the war had been fought by Alan Hale. Or Harry Carey (a whopping 65 at the time he made Air Force) or George Tobias (43 in Air Force).
What’s another benchmark of World War II pictures? The Longest Day, I guess. You might as well call it The Longest of Tooth Day, with John Wayne the 55-year-old paratrooper leading Red Buttons the 43-year-old paratrooper. I guess this is one of the reasons my friend Clem, who fought in World War II and bailed out of two crippled planes in two months (a technical sergeant not yet 20) and lived out the war in a German prison camp, doesn’t care for war pictures. He sat through Unbroken increasingly disgusted, muttering as he is wont to do, “That’s not history, that’s Hollywood.” The reality of it was that when 19-year-old Clem hit the earth after his first bail-out he broke a leg; in the second he was looking out for his still-broken leg and broke some ribs. So you think Red Buttons at 43 could have been a real paratrooper?
Next time you see a veteran of World War II, think how young he was when he saw what he saw and did what he did. Think how fast he grew up. Think how many years he has lived with the memories of his friends dying around him during training or on the ground, in the air, or at sea. It’s an incredible story of the most brutal war in history fought by kids who these days might not be entrusted to do their own laundry or take out the trash.