Book Review: From the Battlefield to the Big Screen: Famous Actors of the Second World War


by Melody Foreman

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2022. Pp. xviii, 230+. Illus., notes, biblio., index. . £22.00 / $49.95. ISBN: 152673771X

Actors at War

This is an episodic and gossip filled account of the acting careers, and World War II military experiences of Audie Murphy, Lawrence Olivier, and Dirk Bogarde. Melody Foreman devotes a chapter to each calling Audie Murphy’s chapter "Action," Olivier’s "Lights", and Bogarde’s "Camera". Vivien Leigh is covered in Olivier's chapter, as his Oscar winning second wife who risked her fragile health to entertain the troops in North Africa.

During World War II, Bogarde served in the Royal Signals Corps, went to Officer Cadet Training, and was then assigned to the Royal Artillery. In early 1944, he was posted as an Aerial Photographic Interpreter to RAF Medmenham Central Interpretation Unit (CEI), “a story of British genius at its best.” (p. 160). During the liberation of France he was assigned to a CEI unit, and served in Belgium and at Arnhem, duties which probably saved his life: Brigadier Hubert Essame, commander of his former Army unit, the 214th Independent Brigade that fall, told him "We lost almost half the Brigade; Bloody lucky you got out when you did.” (p. 173).

After VE-Day, Bogarde ended up working for the RAF in India and after VJ-Day was on occupation duty in Indonesia, but unfortunately, the author provides no details on his work during that period.

Already an established actor when World War II began, Laurence Olivier was part of a British ex-pat community in Hollywood. He wanted to enlist, but Alexander Korda persuaded him to play the role of Horatio Nelson in That Hamilton Woman, with his wife, Vivien Leigh. Superficially about the famous romance between Nelson and Lady Hamilton, Foreman points out the film “was pure propaganda for the British war effort.” (p. 60), so much so that Republican Senator Gerald K. Nye's committee interrogated Korda because of “his heavy handed British sympathies.” (p. 61). Returning to England in January 1941, Olivier, 33, who had a pilot's license, joined the RAF as a fighter pilot, but made several more war pictures, including 49th Parallel. Posted for a while at a Royal Navy Air Station to train air gunners, he was soon working on films promoting morale and the war effort, such as Demi-Paradise and Henry V, while Vivien Leigh alternated acting – including Caesar and Cleopatra – with tours of bases in North Africa

The shortest section of the book deals with Audie Murphy, the most decorated American in the war. Given he had no acting experience until after the war, including him in what is essential a book primarily devoted to two famous British actors is surprising. Nevertheless, Foreman does give us a discussion of how he came to be an actor, and reviews his modestly successful postwar film career.

All three of these men used their wartime experiences in their postwar film roles.

Audie Murphy's war pictures included Beyond Glory, the film version of his autobiographical To Hell and Back, and, perhaps his best performance, The Red Badge of Courage. After the war Olivier played roles in a number of wartime films, perhaps most famously as Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding in the 1969 Battle of Britain. Bogarde drew on his wartime experiences in such films as A Bridge Too Far, They Who Dare, The Night Porter, and Appointment in London. He liked his role in the last of these films because “at last there was some reality for him to interpret and portray.” (p.197).

Foreman points out that Bogarde was perhaps the most influenced by his wartime experiences, notably a visit to the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp a few days after its liberation. During the visit, he met a young Estonian girl who spoke English and borrowed a newspaper from him; just a few hours later he found she had died clutching the newspaper. In the post war years, he spoke out about the murder of six million Jews, challenging Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites, telling author Foreman “No one can tell me the Holocaust didn’t happen because it bloody well did. I saw it with my own eyes.” (p. 175).

In addition to the four people mentioned in the title, Foreman touches briefly on the wartime experiences of many other actors notably David Niven and Ralph Richardson, offers a lot of insights into the film business, both before and during the war, and more, such as the role of women in the services.

This is an idiosyncratic study of three men with varying military experiences and post-war movie careers. While Vivien Leigh is mentioned, neither her wartime activities nor their influence on any of her postwar roles is mentioned. A book should be written about the heroism and patriotism of Leigh and the many other actresses who toured the battlefields entertaining the troops and boosting morale.

Of general interest, this will probably be read mostly by those interested in these actors, who may be curious about what they did during World War II.


Our Reviewer: Henry Strum is professor of history and political science at Russell Sage College, and a former 2021-22 Sherman David Spector Faculty Fellow in Humanities. He previously reviewed Contested Commemoration: The 1876 Centennial, Independence Day, and the Reconstruction-era South and Fugitives: A History of Nazi Mercenaries during the Cold War.



Note: From the Battlefield to the Big Screen is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Harvey Strum   

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