New Cruise Flick Pits Good Against Evil
It's that season again. No, I'm not talking about Christmas. I'm talking about the incessant television ads that bombard you with reminders of the movies that open on Christmas. And nothing says Christmas like Tom Cruise dressed as a German officer from the Nazi era. In the movie Valkyrie, the megastar plays Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, a leading figure in the failed plot to kill Hitler with a bomb on July 20, 1944. Hitler's narrow escape from the assassination attempt has inspired countless "what if" scenarios in the years since Hitler committed suicide and Germany surrendered in 1945. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was connected with the Valkyrie plotters, almost certainly would have evaded martyrdom, for example.
The lure of box office riches keeps filmmakers returning again and again to this era. A little more than a year ago, Ken Burns released his latest acclaimed documentary, titled simply "The War." The title needed no adjective, because everyone knows the reference. At one point, this simple title might have belonged to the Civil War or maybe World War I. But today, World War II is the war that helps us forget all other wars, especially those shrouded in controversy - namely Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq.
So what is it about World War II that sustains our interest?
Some answers are obvious. No other war can compare with the sheer scale of this global conflict, contested in the deserts of Africa, the mountains of Italy, the oceans linking West to East, and countless places in between. Then there's the unique role played by America. Most citizens of the United States originally opposed involvement in another European conflict. But Pearl Harbor girded them for war, and the determined pursuit of victory on two fronts eventually turned the 20th century into the American Century. While the rest of the world rebuilt, America prospered, with enough spare change to reconstruct Western Europe as a bulwark against its next great enemy and one-time ally, the Soviet Union.
I would suggest another reason, more basic but perhaps less obvious, for our continued interest in World War II. The Valkyrie trailers tease the movie as a classic good vs. evil struggle. And that's how most Americans remember the war. The United States was "suddenly and deliberately attacked" by Japan, ally to Germany, which declared war on America. There were no messy authorization votes, no Tonkin Gulf resolutions in this war.
But that's just the Western front. What are we to make of the apocalyptic evil vs. evil matchup between Hitler and Stalin on the Eastern front? You don't hear much about that part of the war in American history books. Surely Cold War politics shaped our memory of World War II. It's hard to see how the United States could have intervened to help Great Britain without the war in Russia to distract Hitler. Nevertheless, Americans see themselves as good guys who selflessly step in and save the day.
By and large, this self-perception endured in America until recently, surviving even the protracted and costly Vietnam War. The latest Iraq War seems to have damaged this view, perhaps permanently. What would it take for America to deploy its military might overseas in a new conflict? Another terrorist attack? Genocide? Defense of an ally such as Israel? May we never need to answer this question again in our lifetimes.
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Read about the life of theologian and Valkyrie conspirator Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Christian History Issue 32.
Valyrie production photo courtesy of United Artists.