The Public Humanist

Oh, You Were There, Too? American War Films in Britain

Although the term special relationship traditionally defines a bond of friendship between the United States and Britain, I find it is much more appropriate in describing a long-standing bitterness. After all, the two nations were enemies for over 100 years: starting with the American Revolution, proceeding to war again in 1812, up to the American Civil War when Britain assisted the Confederates, and continuing on through the turn of the century.

In fact, as late as the 1908 London Olympics, the two nations had a serious misunderstanding when the US flag holder refused to salute King Edward VIII, stating that the American flag bowed to “no earthly king”. Even years later, it was unclear which side the U.S. would take in World War I, if any, having so many German and Irish immigrants at the time. Germany was at war with Britain, and the immigrants from Ireland were certainly not fond of their former neighboring isle. Indeed, it was only when the U.S. finally allied with Britain in the war, and then again in World War II, that any sort of amicable relationship was developed.

However, the present has shown that a degree of that rivalry still lives on, albeit through a more passive-aggressive medium. In the latter part of the 20th and early 21st centuries, America has produced numerous films on World War II awkwardly marginalizing Britain’s participation. The films portray the European theatre of World War II as a conflict primarily between Germany and America, with little-to-no involvement from the British. Such wanton liberty with an important historical event combined with the attitude of some Americans that Britain was “saved” from Nazi Germany by the U.S. leaves one to wonder how genuine the special relationship really is.

One of the more popular examples is Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. The film depicts American troops storming Normandy at Omaha Beach, a dangerous operation in which the Allies suffered heavy casualties. The film presents the landing as a solely American one, failing to acknowledge that the British transported that very American company to Omaha beach. Later, the film briefly mentions that the British were stuck on the beaches that they were responsible for, when in reality the British landings at the Sword, Gold, and Juno beaches were highly successful; more so than the Americans at Omaha.

The downplaying of British military participation by Hollywood is evident in other films, furthering British resentment. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds features only two British characters; one being an overtly-snooty, buffoon-like Mike Myers, and the other a spy who ends up blowing an important operation causing the death of everyone in the room. The rough-and-tumble Americans are then forced to shift their plans accordingly. Although few can expect seriousness or historical accuracy from Tarantino’s Basterds, the lack of British usefulness in the film may expose a grander picture of American public thought regarding the war and Britain’s role in it.

Most dubious of all was Jonathan Mostow’s U-571, released in 2000. In the film, US Navy submariners take control of a German U-Boat and make a groundbreaking capture of a Nazi Enigma machine: ultimately allowing for the Allies to crack encrypted Axis messages. This was a flagrant distortion of history as it was the Royal Navy that captured the first German Enigma machine, before the United States had even entered the war. U-571 angered the British to such an extent that Prime Minister Tony Blair condemned the film as an “affront” to British sailors. President Bill Clinton had to answer back with an assurance that the film was strictly intended as a work of fiction. The fallout was so great that its producers eventually put a disclaimer on the film stating that it was, in fact, the British who first captured an Enigma cipher machine.

That is not to say that America’s trivialization of Britain’s World War II participation is deliberate. Often it is simply a matter of money: Americans pay to see Americans win in movies. But it also reveals a subconscious desire for superiority over their former masters, something the British are also guilty of in their films. It’s more than possible to recognize James Bond as a tragic British desire to feel as though the world’s safety depends on MI6 and not the United States. One can simply watch Casino Royale and see that CIA operative Felix Leiter is balder, fatter, and generally less attractive than the more-dashing 007. While Leiter has plenty of financial backing to compete in the poker game, he lacks the intelligence and shrewdness of Bond to last. But regardless, America’s popular interpretations of World War II remain distinctly unpopular in Britain. Fortunately, this month the two nations will get a chance to take out their rivalries in a more physical manner: the US and England are set to face each other in the first round of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Perhaps a rousing match of football or soccer will finally settle a long-overdue score. Then again, it may simply fan an ongoing flame.

Patrick Vitalone blogs at Medium Historica

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