For Decades, Nazis Were Hollywood’s Ultimate Villains, the Polar Opposites of Any American Hero

A look back at how big-screen marketers embraced fascist foes

Indiana Jones was always up for punching a Nazi.

Stories need stakes, something that the protagonist is either trying to make happen or working to avoid happening. Those can be big—think about any of the recent superhero movies where a giant sky laser is threatening to bring down (fill in the blank invading army)—or more personal, involving family, relationships, jobs and the like.

For more than 50 years, Nazis were a good go-to antagonist for movies. Not only were they unquestioningly evil, but the stakes were implied by their presence: World domination, mass extermination of those deemed “undesirable,” and the collapse of the Western world.

In the past 15 years or so, they’ve been replaced to some extent by Middle East terrorists, who provide similar built-in stakes and seemed more relevant to the moment. World War II, after all, ended over 70 years ago, and those who fought in that conflict are disappearing every day. Young people in America today primarily know a world where non-white people are the go-to enemy, both in politics and popular entertainment.

In light of (cough) recent events, it’s worth revisiting the trailers for six movies that made it clear that America’s preferred response to those violently espousing Nazi ideology was a swift punch in the jaw.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

When Indiana Jones finds himself called into action by a pair of government operatives, he’s in a race against time to uncover a powerful weapon being sought by Adolf Hitler and his military. The trailer for Raiders of the Lost Ark makes it clear that Indy will be punching plenty of Nazis as he searches for the Ark of the Covenant before the bad guys can find it. Narration explains that it’s being sought by everyone, from those “who are good” (Indy and his allies) and “those who are evil” (the Nazis and their collaborators). While the main value proposition here is to sell the latest action/adventure tale from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, you can’t ignore the fact that operatives of the Third Reich are the bad guys.

Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino’s story of a ragtag group of American soldiers operating behind enemy lines in WWII escalated the response to Nazis and their ideology from a solid right hook to something much more drastic. That’s clear almost immediately in the trailer, as Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine explains to his recruits that their first and only job is killing Nazis in the most horrific manner possible. Their unit has a reputation for their violent methods, a reputation that’s soon shown to be 100 percent accurate. They’ve been harassing German soldiers for a while now and are moving from small one-off operations to a much bigger plan to take out German high command. There’s no negotiation or middle-ground. Lt. Raine wants his scalps and is happy to leave plenty of bodies in his wake.

Captain America: The First Avenger

The main villain in Captain America: The First Avenger is Hydra, the science division of Hitler’s Nazi army. That muddies the waters slightly, but not by much, as Hydra—through its main agent, the Red Skull—shares the same evil objectives for the world. The first trailer for the movie makes it clear that Steve Rogers is unwilling to sit on the sidelines because stopping Hydra and crippling its ability to help their cohorts is a moral imperative, something he must do.

The only way to beat an unstoppable army, we’re told, is with an unstoppable army of your own, and that’s what Captain America represents. “Stay who you are,” Rogers is told by the scientist responsible for his transformation, and that means staying someone who knows right from wrong.

The Rocketeer

Right off the bat, the trailer for this underappreciated Disney classic makes it clear that the stakes are a device that could be used to either fulfill dreams or destroy nations—but can change the course of history regardless. That device, the jet pack Cliff Secord eventually uses to suit up as a hero, is being sought by bad guys as well as the U.S. government. There’s a light tone to much of the trailer but it’s soon made clear it’s Nazis who are seeking the rocket for their own nefarious purposes. That means everyone has to work harder than they planned to keep it out of their hands.

The trailer doesn’t include one of my favorite moments, where the gangster played by Paul Sorvino changes sides halfway through a gunfight when it’s clear his employer, the actor/German spy played by Timothy Dalton, is working for the Nazis. That moment—“I may not make an honest buck, but I’m 100 percent American”—is a sentiment more people could stand to subscribe to.

To Be Or Not To Be

Director Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 classic starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard tells the story of a Jewish-run theater in Poland that is threatened by the Nazi-occupying forces. The trailer doesn’t play up that conflict, or the lengths those owners will go to in order to protect the people who work for them. Instead it’s more about selling the comedy and spectacle of the stars involved. But when you watch this short video from Criterion you can see that the impact of Naziism is a clear and constant theme throughout the story, showing that resistance in any form is the morally right choice to make.

The Producers

There’s more than one way to take a Nazi down a peg or two. Sometimes mockery works just as well as a baseball bat or punch. While the trailer for 1967’s Mel Brooks-written/directed The Producers doesn’t include the dance number involving dance girls dressed as stormtroopers, it’s gone on to be just about *the* touchpoint audiences have with the movie. The trailer for the 2005 remake (based on the Broadway musical) highlights more of “Springtime For Hitler,” showing how widely known it had become over the intervening 40 years.