As mentioned above, the most frequently depicted war in Hollywood films is World War II, and the most popular form of the World War II war movie has been the combat film. This subgenre became so popular that it in turn influenced ways of telling stories in westerns, science fiction, and other generic "wars." Important titles include Ford's They Were Expendable (1945), with John Wayne; Wyler's Battleground (1949); The Longest Day , an epic recreation of D-Day; Fuller's The Big Red One ; and Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan , a movie that inspired a new spate of World War II movies.
The primary characteristics now associated with the combat-film genre derive from the film Bataan , released in June 1943, a little more than a year after the peninsula fell to the Japanese. Its reviews were uniformly excellent and its box office was solid. The historical model for the film's characters and action was the 1934 Ford film, The Lost Patrol , written by Dudley Nichols. Bataan tells the story of a group of hastily assembled volunteers who, through their bravery and tenacity, hold off an overwhelmingly large group of the enemy long enough to buy much-needed time for American forces. Because all die at the end, it is an example of "the last stand" celebration of American bravery, the most familiar mythic example of which is the story of the Alamo.
Many World War II combat films contain the story elements found in Bataan : a group that is a democratic ethnic and religious mixture; a hero who is part of the group, but who is forced to separate himself in order to be a good leader; a specific objective to be met; a specific enemy; and recognized military equipment and costume. The basic narrative conventions of hero, group, and objective of the World War II combat genre can be traced from films released from the 1940s onward, decade by decade. In the 1950s such films as Halls of Montezuma (1950), Battle Cry (1955), and Men in War (1957) continued the tradition. Even though Halls of Montezuma and Battle Cry are set in World War II and Men in War in Korea, all three retain the basic story in which a diverse group of soldiers are on patrol under stern leadership, seeking to achieve their objective while fighting a difficult enemy. Similar films from the 1960s include Marines, Let's Go (1961), Merrill's Marauders (1962), Up from the Beach (1965), and the Vietnam-based The Green Berets . The 1970s brought Kelly's Heroes (1970) and The Boys in Company C ; the 1980s The Big Red One and Heartbreak Ridge ; and the 1990s A Midnight Clear (1992) and Saving Private Ryan , which, although it was hailed as a "new" and "different" World War II combat film, followed the generic convention in many ways. The visual presentation is more graphic and realistic, but the narrative is the familiar story of a tough hero (Tom Hanks) who has to separate himself from his men in order to be an effective leader. His group is diverse, including an Italian, a Jew, a cynic from Brooklyn, and a mountain sharpshooter. Their difficult objective is to rescue a single soldier, the only brother of four not yet killed in combat, as a symbolic mission. The new millennium has continued to bring war films based on the original format, such as Windtalkers and We Were Soldiers (both 2002) and Tears of the Sun (2003).
Once the conventions of the combat film were set, they were used for many wars, such as Korea ( Men in War ), Vietnam ( The Green Berets , The Boys in Company C ), Grenada ( Heartbreak Ridge ), an imaginary future war on American soil ( Red Dawn ), the Persian Gulf ( Three Kings ), and Somalia ( Black Hawk Down ). Although the purpose of the combat film is not the same in 1998 as in 1943, its conventions still serve a purpose. Each of the postwar combat films reflects the decade in which it was released. Saving Private Ryan , for example, modernized the genre with new technology and increased violence, and put the older elements together to challenge movie-goers to think about the increased use of violence as well as to consider seriously the sacrifices combat soldiers made for Americans during World War II.