Tag Archives: Andrzej Wajda

19th-century Polish farce: “Revenge”

Zemsta” (Revenge, 2002) is an adaptation by the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda of what is apparently a verse play dating from 1834 by Aleksander Fredro (1791 – 1876) that is as well-known in Poland as “Romeo and Juliet” is in the Anglophone world. The English subtitles are very prosaic, so a lot is lost in translation. I’ll have to take it on faith that in Polish the characters sound sonorous rather than overblown, though surely the puffed-up Józef Papkin played by Roman Polanski (just after having won an Oscar for directing “The Pianist”) is a windbag in Polish.


Polanski had appeared in Wajda’s “A Generation” back in 1955 and in several of his own movies (most memorably slashing Jack Nicholson’s nose in “Chinatown” and as the paranoid title character in “The Tenant”) and seems to have enjoyed himself in this comic role.

Papak is the coward delegated by a notary, Cześnik Raptusiewicz (Janusz Gajos) to see if a widow (the very buxom (Katarzyna Figura) will wed him and to challenge the owner of the other half of the castle, Rejent Milczeka (Andrzej Seweryn), in which he lives to a duel. Czenik’s niece Klara (Agata Buzek) and Rejent’s only son Waclaw (Rafal Królikowski) are infatuated with each other (very Romeo and Juliet, though the play is a farce rather than a tragedy).


Rejent wants his son to marry the widow for reasons of property as well as to spite Czenick, which makes Czenik eager to marry the young lovers to spite Rejent for ruining his marriage plans. (The widow seems to have initiated Waclaw to sex some time before her most recent widowhood, or even before that marriage). It’s all pretty standard farce (the later French playwright Jaques Feydeau’s in particular) with lack of knowledge about identities and inheritance foiling the plots the characters concoct to attain wealth, property, and conjugal bliss.

The movie (shot by Pawel Edelman, also fresh from Polanski’s “The Pianist”) looks like a play, with all the scenes, except one early on of Papkin trudging through the snow toward the castle, set in the castle in which the two grumpy old men unpeacesfully coexist and connive.

I think one needs to be Polish or at least to understand Polish to appreciate this movie. But the plot would have even fewer surprises then. I’d never heard of the play and I knew from the setup pretty much how things would turn out for everyone except the widow.


©2010, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

Wadja’s “Danton” (and Robespierre)

Andrzej Wajda’s first movie made outside Poland, “Danton” (1983) is remarkably lacking in point of view or striking visual compositions. Gérard Depardieu, in the title role returning in 1794 to try to quell the reign of terror, and Wojciech Pszoniak, as Maxim Robespierre, go through their motions of rallying The People, and the Terror is ongoing at the end I don’t know why Wajda (fresh from the struggles of Solidarity that underlie his “Man of Iron”) wanted to make a movie about the French Revolution’s Stalin triumphing over its Trotsky (with Louis Saint Just, chillingly played by Boguslaw Linda, as its Lavrentiy Beria).


Though talky (based on a 1931 play “Sprawa Dantona” by Stanislawa Przybyszewska), it has confrontations, not just monologue lectures, and is relatively cinematic. Much of the dialogue is very stilted (plus the dubbing into French of many Polish actors’ lines) and the street scenes are low-budget studio shots. Though very long (138 minutes), those unfamiliar with the history of “la Revolution” in power will find the context confusing and certainly not laid out in the movie. There is very little backstory and no text at the end telling audiences what happed to Robespierre and the bloodthirsty St. Just.


Georges Danton, who first proclaims “Despotism is killing innocent people so that the guilty don’t escape,” and later “I’d rather be executed than be an executioner,” predicted that if he were executed, Roberspierre would soon follow, and was right. As a favorite of Robespierre who chose to die with Danton, Camille Desmoulins, Patrice Chéreau was a standout in the cast.


Depardeieu’s Danton is much earthier than Trotsky and Wojciech Pzoniak far more fastidious than Stalin. I doubt they were on Przybyszewska’s mind, though they certainly must have been on Wadza’s at the time of his exile, along with the Solidarity revolt that had been the subject of his previous movie, “Man of Iron” (with General Jaruzelski as an inhibited Robespierre?)

©2006, 2018, Stephen O. Murray


Six daughters in a 1920s Poland manor

Andrzej Wajda’s 1979 “Panny z Wilka” (released in the UK as “Maidens of Wilko,” in the US as “Young Girls of Wilco”) was nominated for a best foreign-language film Oscar (losing to “The Tin Drum”). It has to be one of Wajda’s least political films. Indeed, if it were in Swedish rather than Polish, I would guess that it was a film made by Ingmar Bergman rather than one made by Andrzej Wajda. The title characters are six daughters of the Wilko manor.


Some time during the 1920s, Wictor (Daniel Olbrychski) returns to stay with his aunt and uncle at the next manor. He stops briefly at the Wilko manor and learns that Fela, one of the young girls there who had been besotted by him before the war is dead. Wictor’s return after fifteen years stirs up the surviving sisters who had been rivals for him and one, Tunya (Christine Pascal), who was then too young to be a contender, but who resembles Fela and is very available.

Her elder sisters vie for Wictor’s attention. Two are married, though only one husband is in residence (a miserly ogre) though rarely present on screen. Wictor pretty much has the run of the hen house again. He and the women of Wilko have regrets about his failure to choose one of them when he was 20.

Wictor is as oblivious to the pain he causes on his return visit as he was as a youth. In some way he cannot choose one sister, because he is in love with them as a set. It doesn’t seem to me that he wants to be a brother; more like he would like a harem all doting on him. Passion is not within his character and he fails to recognize or understand it in others (to the frustration of his aunt and uncle as well as to the Wilko women who all feel spurned).

Wiktor is so lacking in agency, self-knowledge, or taking responsibility for anything as to be very unsympathetic. I think that this means that Daniel Olbrychski did a great job. It is easier to credit Krystyna Zachwatowicz’s Kazia, the most insightful of the sisters and the one on whom running the household has devolved. Being the only grown-up looks to be without fun or rewards, but Kazia has a son to shape (she’s teaching him French).

Although I was irritated at Wiktor from early on, I was not bored. The low-keyed penultimate scene is particularly impressive. It involves a visual trip from summer on one side of the river (green and clear-skied) to autumn (overcast with trees having already lost most of their leaves) on a hand-operated ferry. The final scene or epilogue shows a nearly empty train compartment with the author of the poetic novella on which the film is based, Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz —and a snowy passing landscape. (Iwaszkiewicz also appeared earlier, walking through the woods with a book and a walking stick, passing Wiktor. Iwaszkiewicz was apparently one of the most revered of 20th-century Polish writers—but the only two whose work I know are Gombrowicz and Milosz, both of whom went into exile.)


The DVD includes multiple talking heads, including two by Wadja, one by Iwaszkiewicz’s daughter, a particularly illuminating one by cinematographer Edward Klosinski, one by screen adapter, Zbigniew Kaminski, and others by actors. I found all of them interesting. There are some other Wadja materials (a letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from Steven Spielberg, the 2000 Oscarcast fanfare for him, and clickable boxes of two dozen Wadja movie DVDs.


The music is mostly work of Karol Syzmanowski,particularly the second violin concerto. Iwaszkiewicz knew Syzmanowski between the world wars and was pleased with the music used in the film, and, indeed, with the film.


©2008, 2017, Stephen O. Murray


A “hero of labor” unraveling

The 1977 “Czlowiek z marmuru” (Man of Marble), directed by Andrzej Wajda’s (1926-2016) concerns the vagaries of adulation and debasement of a socialist hero, a “lead worker,” Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), who was eager to build a modern, industrial Poland and World War II. Being very photogenic, he was filmed smashing the record for bricklaying (the team he led laid more than 30,000 in a shift) and then went around the country showing others (many of them not at all keen to learn) how to increase productivity.


In addition to being filmed in many newsreels, Birkut also posed for a heroic statue in the socialist realist style—hence the “man of marble.” After being used by the party, he was discarded and disgraced. Those who had besmirched his teammate, Wincenty Witek (Michal Tarkowski) fell from power and were themselves condemned, so that Birkut and Witek were rehabilitated. Witek was prepared to play the games of gaining power in the shifting currents of party dogma. Birkut was fed up and disappeared from public view, taking a new name.

His story is pierced together, “Citizen Kane” style, by a lanky blonde young film-maker, Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda). Her project makes everyone uneasy—not only those who knew Birkut but those running the government-owned and -controlled film industry. At first, she seems an intrepid Searcher After Truth. I guess that she remains that, but her ruthlessness in stalking people, using hidden cameras and microphones, persisting in interrogating Hanka (Krystyna Zachwatowicz), a sports star who left Birkut after he was arrested, etc. make me come to regard her as more than a little of a monster. She is ready to use her beauty to get an interview with a film director and to counterfeit female solidarity and sympathy to cajole Hanka into talking to her (while covertly recording the conversation).

There is no “Rosebud” moment, and the ending is IMHO unnecessarily equivocal for viewers who have invested 160 minutes in watching Agnieszka’s hunt for Birkut. That cost the film a star in my rating. The deconstruction of how the regime built up and tore down proletarian heroes is, nonetheless, brilliant. Since the regime the cynicism of which was shown in Wadja’s film (and in Agnieska’s) was still very much in power, I am astonished that it was made and released.


Krystyna Janda and Jerzy Radziwilowicz delivered genuinely great performances of considerable complexity. Zdzislaw Kozien is delightful as Agnieszka’s father, getting her off the couch when she has despaired, and Michal Tarkowski provides able support (in a character whose actions and motivations remain obscure).

The mixture of pseudo-archival black-and-white propaganda films and hard-edged 1970s desaturated color cinematography of Edward Klosinsk (who also shot the moody period piece “Gloomy Sunday”) also deserves special praise. The tracking shots through long corridors fits the American paranoid thriller style of the day quite remarkably.

©2007, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

Poland after the Nazi surrender

Andrzej Wajda’s famous 1958 film “Ashes and Diamonds” (Popiól i diament) looks striking (très noir) but is very confusing. The intentions of the killings at the start become clear, but I don’t know why the assassin who no one knows is one runs and is shot near the end (other than to provide a photogenic ten-minute dance of death). In between the shootings is a lot of talk, though it does not clarify the politics. The whole movie puzzles me in that I thought Soviet control was established quickly and the movie is set after the fall of Berlin to the Red Army and at the time of the German surrender. With the kitsch Hitler portrait, the anti-Soviet plotters come across as leftover Nazis, rather than as fighters for Polish independence. I guess that must have been a necessary accommodation to the regime that allowed the movie to be made. (Non-Nazi opponents of the communist probably could not be shown.)


At the time, Zbigniew Cybulski may have seemed to be “the Polish James Dean.” From a later perspective, his womanizing and arrogance (and destruction) seem much more like the young Warren Beatty (in movies made after 1958).


And the middle adumbrates “The Fireman’s Ball,” not one of my favorite movies, but hailed for showing aspects of Soviet bloc society that were already on display a decade earlier in this Polish film.

Wajda’s trilogy is available from Criterion as “War Movies by Andrzej Wajda” with “A Generation” and “Kanal,” neither of which is as perplexing as “Ashes and Diamonds” is. (BTW, I’s have labeled the three as “End of the War Films by Andrzej Wajda). The great director, who was born in 1926,  died in 2016.


©2004, 2018, Stephen O. Murray


Hell in the Sewers of Warsaw

Just out of film school in 1954, painter-turned director Andrzej Wajda‘s first feature film “Pokolenie” (A Generation), based on the novel by Bohdan Czeszko, who also wrote the screenplay) remains impressive. There are painterly chiaroscuro compositions, but also gripping action sequences, and strong characterizations. (And unlike Pasolini’s first movie, Accatone, there are well-done tracking shots and none of the lingering on scenes that are dramatically finished.)


A lot happens in the 83-minute running time of “A Generation.” Set in the outskirts of Warsaw in 1943, the movie starts with a group of young male slackers (just like “Accatone” does). Three of them jump onto a German train hauling coal toward the eastern front. Pillaging a bit is their form of resistance to the Nazi occupation. One is killed by a guard’s bullet and the film settles onto a shocked protagonist, Stach (Tadeusz Lomnicki), grazed by another bullet.

He stumbles into what seems to be a brick factory and (I think) perceived as being an opponent of the German Reich is taken on as an apprentice in a furniture-making factory. Being the most junior employee, he is run ragged. Sent off with a more senior one, Sekula (Janusz Paluszkiewicz), he receives a brief lecture on surplus value. (This might seem like elementary Marxist propaganda, but in the very informative Criterion edition interview with Wadja that I heartily recommend watching before the movie, I learned that the Polish authorities wanted this cut lest Polish workers think that they were still not receiving most of the value of their labor, though it was going to the state rather than to private owners.)

A very attractive young woman, whose code name the viewer will learn is Dorota (Urszula Modrzynska) distributes leaflets to the workers urging them to join the People’s Army, Stach is smitten both by her and by the glory of fighting the occupiers. He forms a band of freedom fighters (one of whom, Jacek (Ryszard Kotas) says he is already a communist, but is torn by the need to stay alive to support his father and engaging in high-risk actions).


There is a killing that the occupiers consider an act of “terrorism.” There is exemplary punishment, an extended chase (not as extended as in “Odd Man Out,” but even more stylishly shot), a carnival set up by the Germans just outside the walls of the burning Warsaw ghetto, a daring rescue operation, intrigues, romance, a Gestapo visit, a beating, and more. The ending looks like standard Soviet glorification of a band of anti-Fascists, though is open to other interpretations (not only from the tears in the eyes of the man making the rendez-vous, but in that he has now learned what these smiling partisans soon will about the costs of an insurgency against a military occupation).

Relatedly, I don’t think the movie pretends to provide a representative sample of the political factions in the Polish Resistance, or that anyone ever thought so. The band shown here was not doctrinally communist, and in Lenin’s terms are adventurers engaged in “infantile leftism. “A Generation” does not show the Soviet indifference to the crushing of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt or indicate that the future was trading one set of masters (from the Nazi empire) for another ((from the Soviet empire). There are hints of the latter, but giving the partisans of 1943-44 such foreknowledge would have been anachronistic. The idealism of the characters is tempered by seeing the high costs. Those who survive are not dewey-eyed!

In “On Becoming A Filmmaker” (the 2003 interview running 34 minutes), Wajda provides much interesting information on how a band of recent film school students (including the 6th-billed Roman Polanski; center in the still above) made it up as they were going along in location shooting and the despair at how the movie was transformed before its release by the cultural commissars. He thinks the film is valuable as a record of how things looked in war-devastated Poland, but there is much more of value in the fervently acted and impressively filmed movie.

The Criterion restoration is meticulous, and, along with “Andrzej Wajda: On Becoming A Filmmaker,” (which includes film clips and some explication of the milieu by critic Jerzy Plazewski as well as Wajda speaking) the disc includes the second of Wajda’s three student films, a 10-minute film. “Ceramics from Ilza,” and a gallery of 98 images of the production and publicity for the film. The subtitles are yellow, so do not disappear against white backgrounds.

“A Generation” was the first of what became a trilogy about anti-Nazi activities in Poland in 1943-44 with  “Kanal” (1957) and “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958) (in which it is an official being imposed by the Kremlin who is assassinated) twice. All show the destruction of a generation of young Poles with more enthusiasm for resistance than ideology or political analysis. “A Generation” and “Kanal” were shot by the brilliant Jerzy Lipman (who had shot “Ceramics from Ilza” and would also shoot the first feature directed by Roman Polanski, the very impressive-looking “Knife in the Water” (1962).


©2017, Stephen O. Murray

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 Navarrone, 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.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray

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