When Hollywood Went to War

by | May 19, 2003

Once upon a time there was a vicious attack on America -- an act of war -- and Hollywood's biggest stars had plenty to say -- and do -- about it. With the war in Iraq practically over and Hollywood liberals making themselves scarce, it's time to put Hollywood and war in perspective.

Once upon a time there was a vicious attack on America — an act of war — and Hollywood’s biggest stars had plenty to say — and do — about it. With the war in Iraq practically over and Hollywood liberals making themselves scarce, it’s time to put Hollywood and war in perspective.

Take Jimmy Stewart. Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Stewart became the first Hollywood star to enlist, talking his way into the Air Force after being refused based on his weight (too thin).

Stewart flew 20 combat missions, commanded a squadron, became a colonel and earned the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross and seven battle stars. After the war, Stewart continued to serve in the Air Force Reserve. He became the highest-ranking entertainer in the American military: brigadier general.

Stewart had company. At age 41, Clark Gable enlisted as a low-ranking private in the Army Air Corps. Gable’s wife, actress Carole Lombard, had died in a plane crash while selling war bonds — after she had raised $2.5 million. For Gable’s efforts, which included bombing missions and spying on Nazis, he was targeted for assassination by the Third Reich.

Hollywood stars who supported the war — not just “the troops” — included James Cagney. Cagney transformed the most decorated combat soldier of World War II Audie Murphy into a star.

Cagney was so moved by Murphy’s war record — Murphy killed more than 240 Nazis during his service as a soldier — that he brought Murphy to Hollywood, where Murphy became a movie star (Red Badge of Courage, To Hell and Back).

Other patriots of the motion picture industry included Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, director John Ford, who proudly made war propaganda movies and was even wounded on ship during the Battle of Midway, and Leslie Howard, who played Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. Howard returned to his native England to defend Britain. He died when his plane was shot down by the Nazis.

German born actress Marlene Dietrich renounced Germany after Adolf Hitler was elected in 1933, she rejected Hitler’s plea that she return and she steadfastly supported the United States by performing for American troops, reportedly as close to the front as she could get.

Actress Hedy Lamarr’s war acts are legendary. The Austrian native (who played sensual Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah) detested National Socialism.

When she learned that her husband, a German arms dealer, had become involved with the Nazis, Lamarr drugged her maid and escaped. Lamarr, who did not attend college, later collaborated with a composer and inventor named George Antheil. Together, the pair created technology for radio-controlled torpedoes — an idea that is the basis for modern mobile communications.

Today, stars taking a stand on war — following an attack more barbaric than Japan’s strike at Pearl Harbor — oppose what may be World War III.

Yes, Martin Sheen, Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn are among the voices for pacifism, but there are also actors whose pictures profit from war: Matt Damon (Saving Private Ryan), Laurence Fishburne (Apocalypse Now) and MCI spokesman Danny Glover, whose career includes his roles as a commander in Flight of the Intruder, a captain in Operation Dumbo Drop and the four Lethal Weapon movies. Glover also played a sergeant in Buffalo Soldiers, a TV movie about an all-black calvary troop that he executive produced.

Glover, Fishburne, and Damon belong to Win Without War, a group which rejects America’s right to strike an enemy before the enemy strikes us.

It only took 60 years for Hollywood to go from producing war heroes to a group of hypocrites and pacifists, none of whom would be free to make movies without America’s Revolutionary War.

The cultural contrast is captured in the Academy Awards of 1943, when soldiers Tyrone Power and Alan Ladd presented a banner honoring America’s military, and this year’s Oscars, which generally evaded the subject of war when its winners weren’t denouncing it.

Ladd’s son, producer David Ladd, remembers his father’s views on war. The star of Shane, a picture which dramatizes one man’s stand against tyranny, considered it his duty to go to war. As David Ladd told CBS News, shortly after the Sept. 11 attack on America: “(It) was embarrassing to be kind of living in the lap of luxury in Hollywood when other men were out dying.”

Scott Holleran's writing has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Classic Chicago, and The Advocate. The cultural fellow with Arts for LA interviewed the man who saved Salman Rushdie about his act of heroism and wrote the award-winning “Roberto Clemente in Retrospect” for Pittsburgh Quarterly. Scott Holleran lives in Southern California. Read his fiction at ShortStoriesByScottHolleran.substack.com and read his non-fiction at ScottHolleran.substack.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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