Sam Fuller’s “Steel Helmet”

The 1959 movie, starring Gregory Peck, directed by Lewis Milestone, about taking and holding a tactically meaningless position, “Pork Chop Hill,” is probably the best American movie set within the Korean War (for discussion of others and of the great Korean movie set in the war see here), Sam Fuller’s (1951) “The Steel Helmet,” however, is my favorite, one from which Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg drew in “Raging Bull” and “Saving Private Ryan, respectively. (Spielberg also cast Fuller in “1941,” as did Wim Wenders in “The American Friend.”)

“The Steel Helmet” is available on DVD in the barebones (no extras) Criterion Eclipse series, along with Fuller’s baroque tale of forging land records, “The Baron of Arizona” and “I Shot Jesse James” with John Ireland (Red River) playing Robert Ford.

Racism was a recurrent subject for Fuller (most memorably the black “nlgger”-hater in Fuller’s surrealistic 1963 “Shock Corridor). Many Hollywood films set within the Korean War showed black men in the newly integrated US Army proving themselves, none more often than Sidney Poitier. The platoon in “The Steel Helmet” has considerable racial diversity even without the Korean orphan boy who adheres to the very gruff WWII survivor, Sgt. Zach (Gene Evans).

The helmet that is the backdrop for the opening credits turns out to be on the head of the sergeant, who has been tied up. The Korean boy, whom he will dub “Short Round”* (William Chun) approaches with a knife and cuts the bonds. Sgt. Zach doesn’t call him a “gook,” but provides the dubious compliment of saying that the boy “looks more like a dog face than a gook.” Throughout the movie, he resists the attempts of the boy to befriend him or turn him into a surrogate father. The viewer suspects that Sgt. Zach cares more than he admits, and eventually proves it… in a way that was so shocking to American audiences of the time that it led to an FBI investigation of Fuller (a very blunt-speaking WWII veteran, like Sgt. Zach). Back in those days, it was unthinkable that Americans might contravene the Geneva Conventions (let alone contend that there was no need to be bound by them, as the current president’s legal hacks like John Woo did).

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A North Korean major (Harold Fong) who has become a prisoner of the platoon goads Zach, along with attempting to establish a solidarity with Sgt. Tanaka (Richard Loo — who is called “Buddhahead” by Sgt. Zach) on the basis of race and the racism both know to be prevalent in the US, not least in the incarceration of Japanese Americans during the Second World War.

Not that American racism is ancient history within the movie or confined to the US homeland! Like the black medic, Corporal Thompson (James Edwards), Sgt. Tanaka is far more competent than the white soldiers — and the officer too stupid to listen to the voice of experience, when it comes from anyone nonwhite. Despite their ongoing frustrations, neither Tanaka or Thompson takes the bait and pull together against the assaults from without (a low-budget attack) and the Red Devil (communist) trying to mess with their loyalty to their country inside the Buddhist temple that shelters them — and is rather filled by a large Buddha that looms over the proceedings).

The camera, often shooting from low angles, moved fluidly, and Fuller overcame a tiny budget ($100K) that allowed only ten days of shooting (in the studio and in Griffith Park, a not obviously Korean-looking locale!) by showcasing hard-headed individuals (race not being the only basis of differentiation; for instance, there is Pvt. Baldy, who would return along with Evans in Fuller’s bigger-budget but more generic “Fixed Bayonets”).

Rational analysis would question the survival of the small band of Americans through a massive assault and the devotion of “Short Round” to Sgt. Zach can easily be interpreted as racial masochism in ways in which the story participates in rather than clearly critiquing (as would be the case for that in Fuller’s later “Shock Corridor.” I was able to suspend disbelief with ease (much greater ease than for Fuller’s would-be Summa, “The Big Red One”), fascinated by the dynamics both among the Americans and between them and their high-ranking captive.

A remarkable thing about “The Steel Helmet” is that it was made in 1951, while the war was raging, but that is far from being its prime or only interest.

—-

* None of the Americans is interested enough to ask the boy’s name. “Short Round” is insulting in that it refers to a bullet that does not make it to its (lethal) destination. It has some irony in that the boy was not short by American (let alone Korean) standards.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

Also see my review of Fuller’s other 1951 Korean War movie, Fixed Bayonets.

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3 WWI Comedies from 50-60 years later

In my list of the best WWI films, I excluded comedies. The notable ones that occur to me are ones I saw decades ago, but one of them won the (1976) Academy Award for best foreign-language film.

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I’m not completely sure that I saw Richard Attenborough’s film-directing debut, a guest-star-studded 1969 adaptation of “Oh What a Lovely War.” I saw the play three times in two weekends (due to a shortage of date venues in East Lansing, Michigan during my freshman year) and conflate it with the 1967 WWII absurdist comedy “How I Won the War.” The play was a story of “jukebox musical,” i.e., a parade of WWI hit songs. Along with its throwback music, the dialogue draws heavily on quotations of the knaves who were the political and military leaders of the UK in the supposed “war to end wars.” A docu-comedy? A docu-musical?

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The earlier (1966) “King of Hearts,” directed by Philippe de Broca (whose masterpiece was “That Man from Rio”) became a cult classic in American college towns a few years later. I thought of it (and think of it) as a movie in which Catch-22’s Yossarian succeeds in being judged crazy. Alan Bates played the soldier who is sent into a French village (Marville) to defuse bombs planted by the retreating Germans late in the war. He takes refuge in the local insane asylum, presenting himself (to the Germans) as the King of Hearts. His subjects offer him the young and gorgeous  Geneviève Bujold as royal consort/queen. She tells him where the German bomb is planted, but his detonating it leads to a battle during which the inmates return to the refuge of the asylum. And he decides they are less crazy than the generals.

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The most-acclaimed WWI black comedy is set far from the main military action. Directed and co-written by Jean-Jaquess Annaud (Enemy at the Gate), released in English as “Black and White in Color” (1976) the French title was “La victoire en chantant” (which does not mean enchanting victory, but a tuneful victory). Learning that France and Germany are at war (at the start of 1915, news traveled slowly!), some French traders and missionaries in French Equatorial Africa (the film was shot in the Ivory Coast) assemble a troop of “natives” to attack German traders. The backdrop is gorgeous, though the Europeans don’t seem to see that. They are absurd in their jingoism and the attempt to inspire their troops to identify with the glory of France.

The French colonist set up a picnic to view their troops overcoming the Germans(‘), but it turns out that the Germans organized native troops of their own and the carnage of trench warfare is replicated in Africa, after a heretofore pacifist French geographer, Hubert Fresnoy (Jacques Spiesser), takes over and “professionalizes” the French troops.

All three films could be faulted for hammering too long and not very subtly that the officers are knaves (the humanist solider-come-lately is every bit as callous about the lives of “his” troops as the jingoists he supplanted) and the high-casualty war (WWI) particularly pointless.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

The greatest German WWI film

Georg Wilhelm Pabst (1885-1967) was one of the trinity of great German silent-film directors (with F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang), and the one whose sound films most overshadow his silent ones.(Die Freudlose Gasse/Joyless Street (1925) with Greta Garbo; Die Büchse der Pandora/Pandora’s Box/Lulu (1928) and Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), both with Louise Brooks, being the canonical silent classics. His most notable sound films were Kameradschaft/Comradeship (1931), Die Dreigroschenoper/3-Penny Opera (1931) and the truncated Don Quixote (1933) with the legendary Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin in the title role).

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“Westfront 1918” (released in Germany in 1930 with the title of the novel by Ernst Johannsen on which it was based, “Vier von der Infanterie” — Four from the Infantry) was Pabst’s first sound movie. It has sparing dialogue, but a great deal of the sounds of gunfire and explosions (and tank treads and a wounded French soldier screaming as he slowly dies between French and German lines, plus way-too-long dance-hall entertainment). Pabst was determined to maintain the visual richness of silent movies despite the near immobility of the first sound cameras. I imagine that much of the sound was added later.

The movie was released after the worldwide best-selling novel about the disillusionment of some German infantrymen in the trenches of the First World War, Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front (which was published in 1929, filmed in Hollywood in 1930, directed by Lewis Milestone and winning a best picture Oscar; it arrived in European cinemas six months after “Westfront 1918,” but in North America half a year before it).

“Westfront 1918” does not portray the arc from schoolboy innocence through enthusiasm for the war to numb weariness of trench-warfare carnage. At the start of Pabst’s movie (which takes place entirely in the war’s last year), the soldiers are already weary and demoralized, though there is some entertainment provided them, and “the very blond soldier always called “the Student” has a relationship blooming with a French (Belgian?) barmaid Jacqueline (Jackie Monnier). To see her, the Student volunteers to take a message to regimental headquarters to correct the aim of the artillery, which is killing soldiers with “friendly fire.”

As he is returning to his unit, he meets a comrade, Karl (Gustav Diessl) going on leave. The middle third of the movie chronicles Karl’s disheartening homecoming.

When Karl gets to his working-class neighborhood in Berlin, his mother has spent half a day in a food queue and though seeing him, is unwilling to give up her place in line to go greet him. What instead “greets” him is finding his wife in the arms of another man, one who has been called up to military service, due to leave the next day. (Being a butcher’s assistant, he was welcomed in part because he brought food with him.) There are some very melodramatic confrontations and one of the scenes of a staircase that are practically a signature of German directors who got their start between the world wars.

Karl is eager to return to his comrades, but seems to have developed a death wish that will drag them to special danger. For reasons other than patriotism, Karl volunteers to lead a patrol to be in position to attack the flank of an expected French attack. As it turns out, the attackers so outnumber the defenders that after inflicting many casualties, those who stayed behind are wiped out as completely as those who volunteered for the dangerous mission. (The Student has died a gruesome death during Karl’s furlough, and the patrol buries his corpse).

Having lost all those he commanded, the lieutenant (Claus Clausen) goes crazy. In a French hospital, Karl dies with his wife’s parting plea for forgiveness (which he was unable to give her) haunting him, and a wounded French soldier holding his hand. This prefigures the ode to solidarity in Pabst’s great movie about a mining disaster and brotherhood, “Kameradschaft.”

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The movie was sensational. Reportedly twenty people fainted during its première, and the movie was then ferociously criticized from the right for “defeatism” and from the left for failing to provide any indication of how the soldiers came to be in their hopeless position. It is not difficult to see the basis for either side’s viewing. There is no patriotism on view, and not only is there nothing in the way of background to the war (why the men were fighting), it seems to me that there is precious little about the four infantrymen. “the Bavarian” (Fritz Kampers) likes to sing and drink and would rather pick of flees than volunteer for any dangerous mission, the lieutenant is a fanatic pursuer of glory for the Kaiser, the Student wants to have romantic/sexual experience before he dies, Karl’s furlough looked forward to his furlough home. None of them is at all rounded a character, and without the German title for guidance, I would not have known that the movie was about four infantrymen (I’d have thought two: Karl and the Student, the two who have some experiences away from the lines shown, more like the German soldiers in “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

It is difficult for today’s audiences to realize the accomplishment of Pabst ca. 1930 in integrating sound while not losing the dynamic visual aspects, including camera movement, or of cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner (who had shot Murnau’s “Nosferatu” and Lang’s “M” and would shoot Pabst’s closely related masterpiece “Kameradschaft” in making night-time scenes credible and in moving the camera through the trenches and across No Man’s Land. The combat scenes in the first and in the final third are impressive images of chaos and terror. There is no Rambo-like action hero, no aestheticizing of battlefield slaughter (as in “Thin Red Line”) or romanticizing of death. Death generally comes very quickly, but sometimes agonizingly slowly. “Westfront 1918” is not a movie that would make anyone march off to war.

The movie ends with a placard “Ende?!” Obviously, the answer was “Nein!” A whole lot more warmaking was brewing. As soon as Hitler came to power, the movie was banned. Pabst survived the war and in 1955 made a movie “The Last Ten Days of Adolf Hitler” (as observed by a captain played by Oskar Werner).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Ricky Schroeder goes to war (WWI)

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The 2001 Ricky Schroder vehicle “The Lost Battalion” has remarkably graphic violence for a tv (A&E) movie, though I have no doubt that being there (the Argonne Forest) then (October 1918) was infinitely worse. For me “the Great War,” the “war to end all wars” was particularly pointless: it shouldn’t have happened, the US should have kept out of it, and given the continuation 21 years later in an even bigger war, victory was Pyrrhic even beyond the slaughter of a generation of Europeans plus a few Americans.

Except when romanticizing fly-boys, movies about World War I tend to highlight the combination of callousness and sheer idiocy of Allied commanders (the US involvement was as “associates,” and after the Versailles Treaty was repeatedly rejected by the US Senate, the US declared a cessation of hostilities in 1921). “Paths of Glory,” “Oh! What a Lovely War,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Life and Death of Col. Blimp,” “For King and Country,” Gallipoli” are examples, while others show the futility of war-making in a more general way “Regeneration,” the not-very-good movie adaptation of Pat Barker’s great WWI trilogy does some of both, though focusing on post-traumatic distress (then known as “shellshock”).

“The Lost Battalion” is a celebration of the valor of the nine units of the United States 77th Division, roughly 554 men ordered to take and hold a ruined mill in the Argonne Forest under the command of Major Charles White Whittlesey (Schroeder), who had been a lawyer (and, incidentally, a socialist) before the war. At least in the scenario, Gen. Robert Alexander (Michael Brandon), commander of the 77th Infantry Division, is contemptuous of the non-career officer and does not expect him to be able to carry out a mission that the major has told him is suicidal.

As in many a Hollywood war movie (and perhaps in reality), the soldiers are filled with contempt for ethnic and regional differences, but their differences melt into fraternal bonds under gunfire. There is a lot of that, not only from German machine guns, rifles, and flame-throwers, but “friendly fire” from US artillery. There are no
friendly fire” by rifle deaths, though some close calls.

A genuinely lost company arrives at a good time. The “Lost Battalion” was “lost” in the sense that they were thought to be lost to the Germans surrounding them or dead, but not only did Maj. Whittlesey know where he and his men were, but where they were was exactly in the position he had been ordered to take and hold.

The movie does not explain how the shelling co-ordinates were established, though showing that the wounded carrier pigeon made it back with Maj. Whittlesey’s message to stop. The US Army Air Corps dropped supplies to the Germans. This disheartening aspect is not in the movie, nor is the postwar suicide of Maj. Whittlesey, one of the five recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor for the crazy endeavor.

I thought that Schroeder was very good (as I also thought was just after this tv movie as Danny on “NYPD Blue”; I have not seen any of his subsequent tv work or his child star work either). He mostly had to look determined and concerned about the soldiers under his command. Some of them were quite colorful and all were convincing.

When the survivors (194 of the original 554) are finally relieved Gen. Alexander revives Maj. Whittlesey’s fury at the general’s notion of “acceptable casualties.” I have already stated my belief that the US forces should not have been there (which is not accompanied by any wishes for the Germans and their allies to have won the war), and adding that relief should have been provided more quickly to “the lost battalion,” I think that the so-called “Grand Offensive” of early October 1918 did lead to German surrender (11 November), though the collapsing Balkan Front was also a factor.

The American heroics pushed back the middle of the German lines and was the action much publicized in the US, the basis for boasts about “how we won the war.” The exceedingly bloody Grand Offensive included pushing the Germans back in the north and south as well as in the middle and fresh British and American troops broke the stalemate and forced German forces backwards — though not onto German soil.

Though the direct attacks of closely massed troops into machine-gun fire were folly (evidence of the backwardness of US military thinking stuck half a century back in the civil war), Gen. Alexander does seem to have been right about the larger picture. The movie celebrates the pluck of the mostly NYC troops and a kind of insubordinate subordination that is native to Hollywood war movies. And handheld camerawork has become mandatory since “Saving Pvt. Ryan.” It was supplied here, creditably, by Jonathan Freeman.

The DVD includes a History Channel program, “Dear Home: Letters From World War I” and biography (to 2001) of the once and future Ricky Schroder (he was billed “Rick” on “NYPD Blue” but no longer in danger of being seen as boyish, has reclaimed the diminutive form). A bonus feature discussing the larger picture of “the Grand Offensive” would have been more useful than either of these.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

The Best World War I Movies

Writing about the 2001 tv movie “The Lost Battalion” forced me to think of other movies focused on “the Great War,” which was supposed to be the war to end wars and to make the world safe for democracy. In my view it was a particularly senseless war, entered into with great enthusiasm by Europeans. In the US, Woodrow Wilson was re-elected president on a platform of keeping out the stalemate. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think it would have been good if Germany had won. The fresh cannon fodder and supplies from the US won the war, but the peace treaties guaranteed future trouble. One instance is the creation of Iraq out of what had been three provinces of the Ottoman Empire. The most obvious one is that Germany launched another war in 1939 and conquered much more of Europe (and Africa) than it had during the First World War. My hindsight is that the Germany that had not been united for long should have been broken up (and a Kurdistan created, and…)

Movies and popular memory — insofar as the two can be separated — are dominated by romantic air duels in single-engine planes (Snoopy and the Red Baron even more than the actual WWI flyers) and the misery of trench warfare. The latter included going “over the top” across barbed wire under heavy fire from machine guns.

By the time the US was mobilized by revelation of the Zimmerman Telegram and the sinking of the (British) Lusitania, the European generals had learned a thing or two about machine guns, but the American ones came still mentally fighting the Civil War with massed infantry charges. The callousness about the lives of ordinary soldiers is the major leitmotif of movies about the WWI ground war. What many consider the best WWI film, Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957) and Joseph Losey’s “King and Country” (1964) show a bit of the trench misery, but are mostly court martial trials (for, respectively, refusal to continue an impossible attack and desertion). The stars are the defense lawyers, Kirk Douglas and Dirk Bogarde, respectively. Both movies show the cynicism and lack of interest in the human costs of command decisions. “The Immortal Battalion” has some of this, too, though the operation was a success (and a third of the soldiers were able to walk out after having held a position that was indefensible by any rational calculus). Carnage there was, a lot of it.

Five Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to leaders of the “lost battalion” (which was right where it was ordered to be, not wandering through the Argonne Forest lost). The most celebrated of WWI American war heroes was Sgt. Alvin York. Gary Cooper won his first Oscar portraying Sgt. York in Howard Hawks’s 1941 biopic of an Appalachian sharpshooting pacifist applying his technique for turkey shoots to capturing a German position (and 132 prisoners). Walter Brennan escalates the hokey hillbilly cliché-mongering, but Cooper makes it mostly work.

Hawks had earlier directed the romance/melodrama “Today We Live” (1933) based on a story by William Faulkner and also starring Gary Cooper, here vying for Joan Crawford with Robert Young. It is very gallant with war offering the loser a gallant exit.

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The great WWI submarine movie, “Hell Below” also dates from 1933 (the year Hitler became chancellor of Germany) with Robert Montgomery playing an insubordinate officer of the crusty Walter Huston. Lt. Thomas Knowlton (Montgomery) is in love with his commander’s married daughter (Madge Evans) who must stand by her man when he is badly wounded. If you don’t know the rest, extrapolate from “Today We Live.” Maybe there is a Hollywood WWI leitmotif of death with honor for those who lose in love… BTW, there’s another court martial within “Hell Below.”

And a fickle Jean Harlow was the apex of yet another triangle (well, the flyers were brothers, not just brothers in arms) in Howard Hughes’s “Hell’s Angels” (1930) which is mostly notable for its aerial photography.

William A. Wellman directed “Wings” to the first best-picture Oscar in 1927. It also involves a love triangle (stateside) played by Richard Arlen and for a woman Former “It Girl” Clara Bow, quite demure herein as Mary, is in love with Jack (Buddy Rogers). Jack is in love with cars and does not notice Mary. David (Richard Arlen) does notice and lust after her, but he and Jack become buddies in the Army Air Corps. Mary follows Jack to France (in the Women’s Motor Corp) and there is quite a melodramatic ending.

A comedy version (extending back to earlier armed combat) with rivals bonding (in the US Marines) was Raoul Walsh’s 1926 screen version of Maxwell Anderson’s play “What Price Glory?” with the points of the triangle played by Victor McLaglen, Dolores del Rio, and Edmund Lowe. John Ford remade it in 1952 with James Cagney, Corinne Calvet, and Dan Dailey as the triangle members.

I guess the two 1931 movies about the spy Mata Hari going gallantly to her death, “Mata Hari” with Greta Garbo and “Dishonored” with Marlene Dietrich have to be included. The European-born movie stars show as much sang-froid facing a firing squad as Robert Young and Robert Montgomery did piloting boats on kamikaze missions. Garbo had a better supporting cast (Ramon Novarro, Lionel Barrymore) but Dietrich had Josef von Sternberg at the helm. Also Dietrich was the better dancer.

And the 1947 French triangle in “Le diable au corps” (The Devil in the Flesh) with Gérard Philipe. Jeez! I almost forgot Georges Franju’s adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s Thomas l’imposteur (Thomas, the Impostor, 1965). Maddeningly unavailable on DVD, I still retain images from it after decades. A later (1989) and very good French film, directed by Bertrand Tavernier was “La vie  et rien d’autre”/“Life and Nothing But,” starring Philippe Noiret sorting through and trying to identify corpses form the Battle of Verdun. It also out of print.

I am a major admirer of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. The 1997 movie condensation by Allan Scott (as “Regeneration”) is not bad, just the books are so great. Jonny Lee Miller was quite dashing looking as the fictional working-class lieutenant among the soldier-poets and shellshock-treatment pioneer William Pitt-Rivers (Jonathan Pryce).

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My favorite WWI movie is David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) with a megalomaniac British misfit, T. E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) organizing Arabs, being sodomized by a Turkish officer (José Ferrer), and disillusioned when the politicians (Claude Rains et al.) break the promises by which he led Arabs (Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, et al.) against the tottering Ottoman Empire. There is action, there is carnage, there is self-disgust and disgust at the conduct of those on Lawrence’s side (Arab and British). The movie also shows press manipulation and celebrity creation (Arthur Kennedy playing Lowell Thomas, making Lawrence a legend). (WWI looms in Lean’s 1965 “Dr. Zhivago,” also starring Omar Sharif, but I don’t consider it a “WWI movie.”)

I’ve been to Gallipoli and seen the narrow beach and high bluff Australian and New Zealand soldiers were thrown onto. I thought that Peter Weir’s 1981 movie “Gallipoli” was good, but it made Mel Gibson a star, which blocks positive memories of the movie, so is not on my list!

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Based on the international best-selling anti-war novel by Erich Maria Remarque, “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930, directed by Lewis Milestone) is remarkable for telling the story of disillusionment of a gung-ho recruit (Lewis Ayres) to the German army. Trench warfare was hell for the Germans as well as  for their opponents (the Americans were not technically “Allies” and eventually declared an end of hostilities after the Versailles Treaty was not ratified by the US Senate).

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Georg Wilhelm Pabst directed “Westfront 1918” the same year, showing not only the terror of trench warfare, but how bad things are back at home, when the soldier Karl, played by Gustav Diessl, goes back on leave. The small-town German boys do their part without ideology or enthusiasm. It has a near-documentary feel with pioneering sound engineering. And a harrowing tank attack. In Germany the movie was then ferociously criticized from the right for “defeatism” and from the left for failing to provide any indication of how the soldiers came to be in their hopeless position.

The most antiwar of WWI movies was Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun” (1971) with a harrowing performance from Timothy Bottoms as a soldier who has lost his arms, legs, eyes, ears, mouth and nose, but not consciousness. Among his hallucinations (unfortunately) is Donald Sutherland as Christ. “Gods and Monsters” (1998) was certainly haunted by WWI traumatic memories, and links to “Johnny” (and other movies discussed above) in seeking death without committing suicide. Frank Borzage’s “Three Comrades” (1938, best remembered for supplying F. Scott Fitzgerald’s only screen credit) is mostly postwar. It interestingly involves Germans, including one played by Robert Young. As usual the comrades-in arms (Robert Taylor and Franchot Tone are the other two) are in love with the same woman (this time, a dying Margaret Sullavan).

Another portrayal of the detachment from reality of generals (on both sides) is “Joyeux Noel” in which those languishing in the trenches have a very unsanctioned-from-above Christmas truce. Though conflating several instances, this movie is, like “The Immortal Battalion” and “Sgt. York” based on what actually happened.

Jean Renoir’s classic “Le grande illusion” (Grand Illusion is a prison escape movie, the prisoners being French officers (Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay), the POW commandant an honorable Prussia Erich von Stroheim.

The classic airborne gallants movie, “The Dawn Patrol” (1930), starring Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., was directed by Howard Hawks. Though there are several dawn expeditions from which only about half the planes return, Hawks’ movie ends with a dusk suicide mission for one. The movie was remade in 1938  as an Errol Flynn vehicle, directed by Edmund Goulding. Flynn played the Barthelmess part of jaunty, insubordinate flyer promoted to making decisions about sending others out to be shot down.

I have not seen the 1965 German adaptation of Joseph Roth’s esteemed novel The Radetsky March or the 1933 RAF drama “The Eagle and the Hawk” (with Fredric March and Cary Grant) or the 1966 RAF “The Blue Max” with George Peppard and James Mason. More embarrassingly I have not seen more than a clip of  King Vidor’s (1925, silent) “The Big Parade” with John Gilbert.

I have seen both screen adaptations of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, but the hospitalized American lieutenant does not flashback to what got him wounded. And I’ve seen the Vivien Leigh/Robert Taylor tearjerker “Waterloo Bridge,” which also is set away from the fighting, so not a “WWI movie.” Ditto for “Cavalcade.” (which I also found exceedingly boring). And the lovin’-the-same woman “Legends of the Fall.”

An actual list? You want a list? OK. But it will be of my favorites, even if headed by what is also the best. (I know that some would accord this to “Grand Illusion” and would press for including “Paths of Glory.”) And four could be challenged as being included among “war movies.”

Lawrence of Arabia

Westfront, 1918

Thomas l’imposteur

Hell Below

Dawn Patrol (the 1930 one)

Joyeux Noel

Le grande illusion

King and Country

Dishonored

Wings

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

I have also posted a list of the best WWII movies and a survey of Korean War movies.

And I wrote about three WWI-set comedies made 50-60 years after the war here.

Korean War movies

Quite apart from its sizable tv audience, I’d guess that the 1970 movie “M*A*S*H” (the acronym for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) is both the best known and most popular film about the American military in the Korean conflict (1951 to be more exact), and the only successful comedy, however black a comedy it is.

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Soon after it, I became a major admirer of the work of its director, Robert Altman, but could not share the general enthusiasm for “M*A*S*H” — not because of its gallows humor (which was actually quite mild) or its flouting of hierarchy and convention (also quite mild), but for the expectation that the audience would join the film’s physicians in finding sexual harassment delightful (and even good for the harassed). I also could never muster much enthusiasm for Donald Sutherland as a leading man, though he was cast as one by some estimable directors during the 1970s. I found Elliot Gould funnier than Sutherland in “M*A*S*H.” Altman clearly found him more simpatico (maybe because Gould refused to support Sutherland in attempting to get Altman fired during the shooting).

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“M*A*S*H” takes place in a field hospital. I don’t think that it has any battle scenes. “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962, directed by John Frankenheimer) also has scenes set in Korea and involving military personnel, but no battle scenes. Rather, captured GIs including Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey are brainwashed by the North Koreans and sent back to the US. The whole group says exactly the same words about Raymond (Harvey), and the movie showcases one of the great sick mother-son ever with Angela Lansbury chewing and spitting out the scenery as Raymond’s mother.

In a 2004 remake without much fizzle, directed by Jonathan Demme, Denzel Washington played the Frank Sinatra part and Meryl Streep Lansbury’s, and Live Schreiber Harvey’s, with an implant rather the conditioning.

There are loose body parts in “M*A*S*H” and unhinged brains in “Manchurian Candidate.” I’m pretty sure that the Korean film “Taegukgi Hwinalrimyeo” (The Brotherhood of War, 2004, written and directed by Kang Je-Gyu) is the goriest one. The considerable emotional punch of the film does not come from the explicit mayhem, however, but from the relationship between two brothers drafted into the army of South Korea. Let’s say that one, the elder, Jin-tae Lee (Jang Dong-gun), becomes an efficient killing machine, while the other, Jin-seok (Won Bin)), attempts to remain humane. Both kill many other Koreans and take risks that it is difficult not to categorize as “insane.” Although very, very, very graphic, the implausibility of either of them surviving some of their endeavors makes it impossible for me to say the film is “cinematic.” (I didn’t think they looked much like brothers in the film, but in the poster they do so more. And, as I wrote, for taking extreme action, they very much resemble each other. Also in stubbornness.)

The music (written by Dong-jun Lee) strikes me as bombastic and I don’t like the jiggling camera for some combat scenes, but, for me, the most gripping drama set amidst the Korean War has no visible Americans (though some allusions are made to them). And, unlike the American movies that are limited to a single time/place, “Tae Guk Gi” sweeps from before to after the combat, with plenty of atrocities and arrogance in between.

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“Tae Guk Gi” makes the American war movies that were hailed as providing new heights of “realism” seem tame in comparison, though they are less sprawling, and one of them, “Steel Helmet,” has major Korean characters (including a vicious one), rather than the faceless, demonized Other of the other American Korean War movies I’ve seen.

My favorite Korean War film is one that was made during it: Written and directed by Sam Fuller, “The Steel Helmet” was released in February of 1951. The camera, often shooting from low angles, moved fluidly, and Fuller overcame a tiny budget ($100K) that allowed only ten days of shooting (in the studio and in Griffith Park, a not obviously Korean-looking locale!) by showcasing hard-headed individuals… and “Short Round” (William Chun) a Korean orphan who hero-worships the very hard-bitten Sgt. Zach (Gene Evans) who doesn’t want to be a surrogate father… or to be in the fix he is in with a lieutenant likely to get everyone killed and a ragtag group… and a captured North Korean major trying to undermine the commitment of a black medic and Japanese American sergeant to the Stars and Stripes. “Steel Helmet” is one of Fuller’s best films and takes questions of racism in the American ranks head on. The action scenes are obviously low-budget, but the personal dynamics in the shelter of a Buddhist temple make for something close to being a masterpiece.

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What I think is the best American movie set on a battlefield of the Korean War is “Pork Chop Hill.” It was directed in 1959 by Lewis Milestone who had made the definitive World War I movie (All Quiet on the Western Front” (the best picture Oscar-winner for 1930) and some fairly formulaic, propagandistic World War II ones, particularly “Edge of Darkness” (1943), “The North Star” (1943), “Purple Heart” (1944), “A Walk in the Sun” (1945) and “The Halls of Montezuma” (1950), as well as some other standouts “classics” including “The Red Pony” (1949), “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946), “Of Mice and Men” (1939), “The General Died at Dawn” (1936), and “The Front Page” (1931).

Based on the book by solider/historian S. L. Marshall, and regarded by some as “the first modern war film,” “Pork Chop Hill” is the account of K Company, led by a stony Lt. Clemons (Gregory Peck), ordered to retake Pork Chop Hill from the Chinese in 1953, while negotiations to end hostilities are underway at Panmunjom. The hill has no particular strategic value, but those commanding Clemons believe that holding it will show US resolve to the communists. It is not for him or his men to understand, they’re just the ones dying there. Orders are orders, and theirs is not to reason why, but to stand and die — in considerable numbers— 107 of an original 135— if less considerable than the number of those trying to retake the hill after K Company takes it and digs in.

It is not just a matter of “face,” but of testing determination. It can easily seem childish “If you have it, I want it, if you want it, I want it,” but this is a dynamic not unique to the stalemated war in Korea!

The real Lt. Clemons was a technical advisor for the film, and Peck (whose production company made it) sought a gritty, realistic look. Peck is stalwart in battle, while being more than a little frustrated at the lack of promised flanking support and reinforcement needed to resist the teeming horde (the demonized enemy). Unlike Clemons, Peck had considerable support from George Shibata (the Japanese American second-in-command), black actors Bob Steele and Woody Strode, and white ones including Martin Landau and Rip Torn, et al.

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The Bridges at Toko-Ri,” (1954, directed by Mark Robson [Home of the Brave, Champion, Valley of the Dolls]) based on a best-selling novel by James Michener is darker than most big-budget, star-studded Hollywood movies. I regard it is the best American Korean War “action picture” particularly the final aerial assault on the heavily guarded bridges and the tense aircraft carrier landings.

There is a boring relationship (“the mushy stuff”) between William Holden and Grace Kelly slowing down the movie, as a bickering married couple. The real standout performance is Mickey Rooney’s as Mike Forney, a helicopter rescue pilot. Frederic March is also quite good as an Admiral keenly aware of ordering pilots into certain death missions. And Holden was always good as a fatalistic action figure who will glower and maybe bemoan, but eventually if ungraciously will bite the bullet. His wife wants him to be flying combat missions even less than he wants to be flying them.. and the movie demonizes the opposition for daring to defend territory and shoot back. (That anyone resisting American troops must be evil seems to be a part of The American Way, especially in movies, even if “Bridges” is soberer than many…. and though “Brotherhood of War” shows that the Koreans were plenty capable of demonizing each other!)

War Hunt” (1962, directed by Dennis Sanders) is notable for containing the screen debuts of Sydney Pollack (as Sgt. Van Horn) and of Robert Redford (whom Pollack was later direct in many movies), as the still-humane newly deployed Private Loomis, who is warned against associating with loose cannon Private Endore (John Saxon), who ventures out and carves up North Koreans at night (a sort of serial killer permitted by the US army). Endore has a young Korean orphan servant/charge whom he calls “Charlie” (Tommy Matsuda), perhaps influenced by the relationship between a gruff American long in the frontlines in Korea and an admiring Korean orphan boy in Samuel Fuller’s “Steel Helmet.”), though Sgt. Zac was grizzled, but not psychotic.

Loomis attempts to pry the boy away from Endore, but Endore is so determined to hold onto Charlie that he deserts to live in the mountains with him following the cease-fire that is still in effect (no peace treaty ever having been signed). In showing a psychotic American soldier and attempts to survive without committing war crimes, the movie looks forward to “Platoon” and “Casualties of War” from the Vietnam War canon. “War Hunt” was shot in the US on a very low budget and before Redford had developed as an actor, but is surprisingly effective.

Sam Fuller’s “Fixed Bayonets” is a more conventional war, talkier (sometimes dawdling) movie than “Steel Helmet,” which he made only a year before. Nonetheless, it provides an interesting portrait of a NCO who flunked out of Officer Cadet School because he could not lead facing the increasing certainty that command for a rear-action deployment of two platoons is going to devolve on him. Richard Basehart (:a Strada, He Walked by Night, The Brothers Karamzov), who played corporal Deno, who is thrust into command by the death of the officers of the two platoons, was a master of portraying neuroticism. Here he is brave and Gene Evans prepares him as best he can (being less egotistical but not less tough than he was for Fuller in “Steel Helmet.”) Basically, it’s Thermopylae in the snows of the Sierra Nevadas (that are supposed to be mountains in Korea) with an American man Rising to the Occasion. The movie has outstanding cinematography by Lucien Ballard and a once popular soundtrack by Roy Webb. And a very brief appearance near the end (but enough to get on the poster reproduced here!) of James Dean.

BTW, the US 1st Infantry Division did not serve in Korea, Fuller names his General and Regimental Commander after his the men he served under in WWII, service portrayed I “The Big Red One” (1980) Terry de la Mesa Allen, Sr. and George A. Taylor

Sayonara” (1957, directed by Joshua Logan [Mr. Roberts]), based on another James Michener bestseller is mostly about US servicemen on R&R in Japan during the Korean war and breaking the taboos of interracial romances. It was nominated for 10 Oscars, including best picture, netted 4, including best supporting actor (Red Buttons) and best supporting actress (Umeki Miyoshi).The cinematography of Ellsworth Fredericks and acting of Marlon Brando garnered nominations (the latter, quite undeserved, as Brando seemed to be sleepwalking through the part as a Southern pilot while some of his comrades in arma EW discovering another world).. Ricardo Montalban’s kabuki actor providing editorial comments is best forgotten, and this is far more an “American occupation of Japan” movie (and “Orientalism exoticism”) than a “Korean War movie,” even though the American men are part of the war machine.

“All the Young Men” (1960, written and directed by Hal Bartlett) has Sidney Poitier as a sergeant put in command of a small detachment of Marines very much in harm’s way in the snows of 1951 Korea. There is, of course, a hardcore Southern bigot (Paul Richard), a busted-down rival preferred by the men (a way-too-old-for-the-part Alan Ladd) along with the usual wild mix of Hollywood war movies, including Swedish heavyweight champion (at the time) Ingemar Johansson, smart-mouthed New Yorker Mort Sahl, teenage hearthrob of the time James Darren (Gidget, etc. and, the next year, “The Guns of Navarone”), and a Native American with the subtle name “Hunter” (Mario Alcalde). The movie is very, very predictable and less interesting than the much earlier (1949) “Home of the Brave,” when the burden of proving the black soldier more than the white soldier’s equal was carried by James Edwards (in an unlikely WWII situation there and again in Korean in “The Steel Helmet”).

The Hunters” (1958, directed by Dick Powell [The Enemy Below]) is based on a superb book by “writer’s writer” James Salter, who was a fighter pilot in Korea. The aerial part of the movie (the first part) is good, but when hotdog F-86 pilot Robert Wagner and weary (heavy-lidded) veteran pilot Robert Mitchum are shot down and have to make their way cross country together, the movie becomes a hokey yawner. “Grounded” it is in every sense! For that matter, the adultery soap opera back at the base in Japan is also very phoned-in. Mitchum and May Britt have no chemistry. At least Wagner can irritate Mitchum a bit! The best parts are the airborne parts.

Douglas Sirk’s recurrent leading man, Rock Hudson (e.g., Written on the Wind), appeared in “Battle Hymn” in 1957. The movie about a guilt-wracked WWII bomber pilot (he accidentally bombed a Japanese orphanage) turned minister who reups for the Korean War received a Golden Globe (the award of the Hollywood Foreign Press) as “Best Film Promoting International Understanding”! It is based on the story of Colonel Dean ‘Killer’ Hess (played by Hudson). Its main interest for someone who has seen a lot of 1940s Hollywood movies is that it features Dan Duryea as an amiable can-do sergeant loved by the children(!). The story drips treacle (do I need to say more than the word “orphans”?), though it also has some good aerial bits.

Battle Circus,” directed by Richard Brooks from his own novel in 1953 is a very bad adumbration of “M*A*S*H” with Humphrey Bogart staffing a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital and unconvincingly romancing June Allyson, band with attempts at humor falling flat. “The Rack” with Paul Newman and “Sgt. Stryker” with Lee Marvin show legal actions for former prisoners of war of the North Koreans. I haven’t seen the Howard Hughes movie (his last) starring Robert Mitchum and Ann Blyth, or the1986 Dutch/South Korean”Field of Honor.” One I’d like to see is the 2010 Korean film “The Front Line.” “71” is another.

Far and away the worst Korean War movie I’ve seen, however, is “Inchon” with Laurence Olivier failing to convince in the role of Douglas MacArthur that Gregory Peck had mastered in the less fanciful but still far from good Korean War-focused biopic “MacArthur.” Financed by Moonies, “Inchon” is in league with “Battlefield Earth” in more than suspect financing in being a serious competitor for the label “worst movie ever.”

Also bearing mention are some movies featuring American veterans of the Korea War returned to the US: A Hatful of Rain, Manchurian Candidate, In Cold Blood, Shock Corridor, The Big Lebowski, Big Fish.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

Also see my list of the best WWII Movies here.

 

The Best World War II dramas about combatants

There are a very large number of movies set in and around the Second World War, including the various holocaust/Jewish survival movies such as

The Shop on Main Street (directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, 1965)

Europa, Europa (directed by Agnieszka Holland, 1990)

The Pianist (directed by Roman Polanski, 2002)

Misa’s Fugue (directed by Sean Gaston, 2012)

Opansi put (directed by Mate Reija, 1963)

Schindler’s List (directed by Stephen Spielberg, 1993)

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (directed by Mark Herman, 2008)

Higher Principle (directed by Jiri Krejic, 1960)

Devils on the Doorstep (directed by Jian Wen, 2000)

The Diary of Anne Frank (directed by George Stevens, 1959)

The Cranes Are Flying (directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, 1960)

The Seventh Cross (directed by Fred Zinnemann, 1944)

 

and many about the traumas of war on civilians, including

Jeux Interdits (Forbidden Games, directed by René Clément, 1952)

Two Women (directed by Vittorio de Sica, 1961)

Malèna (directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, 2000)

Au revoir, les enfants (1987), and Lacombe Lucien (1974), directed by Louis Malle

Empire of the Sun (directed by Stephen Spielberg, 1987)

Mrs. Miniver (directed by William Wyler, 1942)

Hope and Glory (directed by John Boorman, 1987)

Army (1944), Port of Blossoms (1943 and 24 Eyes (1954) (directed by Kinoshita Keisuke)

The Fifth Seal (directed by Zoltán Fábri, 1976)

Grave of the Fireflies (anime directed by Takahata Isao, 1988)

Don’t Cry, Peter (directed by France Stiglic, 1964)

plus Night of the Shooting Stars (the Taviani brothers, 1982), also involving confused noncombatant males in an Italian village,

This Land Is Mine (directed by Jean Renoir, 1943) with a French coward finding courage,

Hangmen Also Die (directed by Fritz Lang, 1943) with a Czech family

Closely Watched Trains (directed by Jirí Menzel, 1966) with a young Czech rising to the occasion and sabotage

Written Off (directed by Aleksander Djordevic, 1974)

Au Revoir, Les Enfants (directed by Louis Malle, 1987)

Hiroshima, Mon Amout (directed by Alain Resnais, 1959)

and some Chinese films with longer historical arcs, even though the war there began earlier than in Europe (and Siberiade, which also has a long temporal span)

 

I have also excluded prisoner camp/escape movies such as

Robert Bresson’s masterpiece “A Man Escapes” (Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut)

The Great Escape

Stalag 17

King Rat

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Railway Man

 

I have excluded these war-related genres and also movies focused on commanders such as Rommel (The Desert Fox) and Patton, and those involving Humphrey Bogart reluctantly getting involved (Casablanca, To Have and Have Not) to focus on dramas centering on combatants (air, land, and sea). I am saving comedies for another list.

My final prefatory note is that I am well aware that the three of the four most recent entries of my list all have some vociferous detractors. There are bases for criticism, though the vehemence with which some have been pressed puzzle me.

(15) Like “Saving Private Ryan,” “Enemy of the Gate” (2001), directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, starts by throwing the audience into the chaos of war, in this case the German attack on Stalingrad. The terror of the evacuees is compellingly portrayed, but a hero is needed. In the rather unlikely person of the almost-too-handsome Jude Law as a shepherd from the Ural Mountains, one is manufactured. The propaganda machine is nearly as much of a focus in the movie as is the duel of wits between the Soviet champion Vassily Zaitsev (Law) and an aristocratic German officer sent to eliminate him, Major Koenig (Ed Harris). Both are superb marksmen, so the duel ultimately depends not on their marksmanship but on information. Gabriel Thomson’s Sasha is insufficiently realized, and I think that the rivalry for Tania.(Rachel Weisz) between private solider Zaitsev and officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), who is his de facto publicist, is a distraction. Bob Hoskins’s scenery-chewing Kruschev is not a distraction, because the considerations of building a hero to rally the people of Russia is absolutely central (in both Soviet and Nazi warmakers’ views). The cinematography and set construction would be hard to fault.

(14) The great American poet of violence, Sam Peckinpah, also directed a duel within an army movie. From the title, “Cross of Iron,” it is obvious that the army is the German one. It has Maxmillian Schell was the well-connected, vainglorious captain sending a subordinate who sees through him, is considerably more competent and cares about his men (James Coburn) to be eliminated. (James Mason is quite unlike Lee Marvin as the colonel in command, however.) In my view, it drags often and is inferior to “Attack!” The movie about Germans I’m including is the ultimate submarine movie Das Boot, directed by Wolfgang Petersen in. I have not seen the director’s cut, and my memory of seeing the movie in its theatrical release in 1981 is hazy. Human beings in a small underwater metal tube commanded by a savvy professional not wrapped up in Nazi ideology is also on view in “The Enemy Below.” The focus of “Das Boot” is entirely on the German sailors. If I remembered it better or watched the director’s cut, it would probably make my list.

(13) The earliest Hollywood movie that I’ve seen that shows some real agony rather than the “natural” triumph of the American military in WWII is William A. Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe (1945). The ersatz heartiness of Burgess Meredith as Ernie Pyle and some sentimentality of his narration (and the mascot dog) slightly undercut the gritty realism. There is the usual wide range of American types thrown together and Robert Mitchum as a brave and resourceful and caring lieutenant (later promoted to captain) whose unit the famous correspondent keeps finding in the Italian campaign. (The cast was heavily populated by recent G.I.s and war correspondents playing themselves.) The pace seems slow after decades of subsequent WWII movies, but the grand-daddy remains moving in my opinion. I find it more realistic and less sentimental than John Huston’s documentary “The Battle of San Pietro,” noting that it was heavily censored—and the combat scenes staged/recreated. And less sentimental than John Ford’s “Battle of Midway,” the other heralded US combat documentary from the war.)

(12) That Clint Eastwood shot a movie almost entirely in Japanese is pretty astounding. That it is very good is not astounding. I think that in general he should empower an editor to prune his movies, though I didn’t feel this about “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006). The movie shows the Japanese infantrymen as regular guys who wish that they were home, yet are often courageous, while showing a very authoritarian (not to mention suicide-drenched) officer culture, even for a military culture. Though Gen. Kuribayashi  (Ken Watanabe) tells his men not to kill themselves but to kill the enemy, he is not immune to the cult of the noble death and of suicide rather than surrender. And the whole exercise of defending the island (with undertrained as well as underarmed troops) is suicidal (the Japanese running out of ammunition and food, having to subsist on a diet of worms). (It is grim, but not in comparison to the Japanese movies occupying the top three slots on my list!)

(11) The concluding piece of a trilogy, Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958) has haunting scenes of a bombed-out church, a chase, and a liaison formed near the end of combat in Poland. The star, Zbigniew Cybulski, was a charismatic young actor whose early death cemented his reputation as “the Polish James Dean.” It has some slow stretches, but is very visually striking. The preceding (1957) “Kanal” set largely in the sewers of Warsaw as the Red Army waits for the Nazis to kill off rebels is also very impressive. (The First, “A Generation” [1955} is about Nazi-occupied Poland, but not about combatants.)

(10) Terrence Malik’s adaptation of The Thin Red Line (199) by James Jones (whose From Here to Eternity and the great Fred Zinneman film, though about soldiers and ending with the Japanese attack on Hawaiian military installations on Dec. 7. 1941 I don’t consider a World War II novel or film) is also very visually striking with some slow stretches that seem like dawdling for those seeking nonstop action sequences. Using different techniques than Spielberg’s in “Saving Private Ryan,” Malik plunges the viewer into ground-level action (and the pauses with death continuing to lurk). It also contains revelatory performances by James Caviezel as Private Witt and Sean Penn as Sergeant Welsh.

(9) Stephen Spielberg’s many detractors level the charge of sentimentality at the last part of Saving Private Ryan (1998), too. The Omaha Beach landing in it is the most compelling part and far superior to depictions in other movies (such as “The Longest Day” and “The Big Red One”), and it juxtaposes intense action scenes with genuine character development, including Matt Damon’s title character’s, Jeremy Davies’s clerk, and Tom Hanks’s Captain Miller.

(8) I think the best WWII straight-ahead heroic action flick is The Guns of Navarone, directed by J. Lee Thompson in 1961. Based on a hugely successful novel by Alistair MacLean (who also wrote Ice Station Zebra and Where Eagles Dare both of which were turned into less memorable action movies). Gregory Peck was at his most strong, laconic, and  heroic, leading a motley crew on a seemingly impossible mission (to neutralize the title artillery on a Nazi fortress on an Aegean island). Anthony Quinn was flamboyant and ethnic (Greek), David Niven was wry (maybe even flippant) as an explosives expert. Both were in top form in their specialties. I have not included the later, somewhat similar raid by “The Dirty Dozen” directed by Robert Aldrich, despite the performance by Lee Marvin, mostly out of repugnance for a mission to incinerate civilians, which even wives of German officers and local French prostitutes were.

(7) Robert Aldrich’s Attack! is primarily a duel movie, though the duel is between American army (reserve) officers, the politically well-connected cowardly captain played by Eddie Albert and the seething lieutenant played by Jack Palance, who promises to come back and rip out the captain’s heart if he again fails to provide support for a platoon sent into the lion’s mouth. The combat scenes are excellent, and both the interior and exterior black-and-white cinematography of Joseph Biroc are notable, but it is the performances of Albert, Palance, Buddy Ebsen, William Smithers, and Lee Marvin that make the movie, overcoming some lame attempts at comic relief and an ending I find difficult to credit. I also think that Aldrich’s sardonic 1970 “Too Late the Hero” with Michael Caine and Cliff Robertson is very good and undeservedly forgotten.

(6) In my view, one of the best WWII action movies is the little-heralded 1965 John Frankenheimer movie The Train. I enjoy movies about duels of wits (such as The Enemy Below, Enemy at the Gate) and this one features a formidable German officer played by Paul Scofield and a resourceful French railroad controller played by Burt Lancaster. It has great railroad sequences, including a real crash. The DVD has a fascinating commentary track by John Frankenheimer (who reported that Lancaster insisted on doing all his own stunts). Jeanne Moreau needlessly slows things down, but Lancaster and Scofield are superb, as is the black-and-white cinematography by Jean Tournier and Walter Wottitz.

(5) Although the glamorous fly-boys are more a staple of movies about World War I than about World War II, and about the Korean War than World War II, they are not lacking altogether. The Air Force entry on my list, however, goes to one that does not glamorize. Twelve o’clock High (1949), one of the many movies starring Gregory Peck that was directed by Henry King. Peck plays a hard-driving general (with the unsbubtle name Savage) whipping into a shape a demoralized unit and pushing himself to breakdown. The supporting players, including Dean Jagger’s that got him a well-deserved Oscar, are convincing, but it is Peck who makes “Twelve o’clock High” a masterpiece.

(Peck also anchored “Pork Chop Hill” the greatest American-made Korean war movie. And he carried the unjustly forgotten “The Purple Plain” as well.)

(4) Roberto Rosselini’s Paisà[/n] is more uneven than “Twelve o’clock High.” It portrays a series of episodes in different locales from Sicily to the Po River estuary as the American Army pushed the German one north through Italy. The focus is more on relationships between the American troops and the Italians being liberated (but in dire straits) than about American-German combat and might be consigned to the “effects on civilians” subgenre. The battle scenes in the marshes are very unusual, though the most memorable sequence involves an African American MP and a desperately poor young boy who steals his boots when the MP passes out drunk in the rubble of Naples.

(2 and 3) Some of Rosselini’s film has a documentary look, some is actorly. Most of the movies on my list get down and dirty. The top spot goes to two very extreme (hyper-real?) 1950s movies directed by Kon Ichikawa, Fires on the Plain (Nobi, 1959) and The Harp of Burma (Biruma no tategoto, 1956). “Fires” portrays the desperation of Japanese soldiers on the Philippines at the end of the war, a tubercular one (Tamura, indelibly portrayed by Eiji Funakoshi) in particular, and “Harp” a haunted Japanese solider (the lute-playing Mizushima, portrayed by Shôji Yasui) burying the dead in Burma after failing to convince a company of his compatriates dug-into a mountain redoubt to surrender. “Harp” is more lyrical, though both are desolating reflections on life and death, compassion and ruthlessness.

(1) “The Human Condition III: A Soldier’s Prayer,” directed by Kobayashi Masaki has a harrowing performance by Nakadai Tatsuya dying in the snow trying to get home from Soviet captivity. The whole trilogy is gripping.

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©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Also see my overview of Korean War movies here. And a survey of WWI movies here.