Tag Archives: Burt Lancaster

Jules Dassin: “Brute Force,” et al.

I was underwhelmed by the “legendary” 1947 prison movie “Brute Force,” directed by the “legendary” director Jules Dassin, who was blacklisted in Hollywood a few years later and went to Europe to make some critically acclaimed films. It’s hard for me to fathom that “Brute Force” was considered “shocking” and “gritty” in its day. It does not seem “gritty” now. Indeed, the inmates jammed into cell R-17, where about half the movie takes place, are preternaturally considerate of each other. They are like one of the diverse platoons in World War II Hollywood propaganda movies, getting along so well despite their divergent backgrounds. They even agree on a particular picture of a calendar girl to hang in the cell and absorb all the inmates’ loves for women they remember on the outside. (It’s flashbacks that provide roles for women in the movie, though these dissipate the tension of the prison storylines.)


It’s not that I was seeking violence, but the boys all seem to get along so well… Elsewhere there is terror and the execution of a “stool pigeon,” and there is a vicious, power-mad official increasing his control, but the cell is a surprisingly happy family. Another surprise is the lack of rivalry between clique leaders (a young Burt Lancaster and the eternally gruff Charles Bickford).

The two main storylines are prisoners planning an escape attempt and the sadistic de facto overlord of the prison, Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn) consolidating control with the approval of the state bureaucracy. Munsey’s methods are opposed sporadically and ineffectually by the warden (Roman Bohnen), seen through and criticized by the alcoholic prison doctor (Art Smith) who has good relations with the prisoners in general and Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) in particular. The doctor advocates humane treatment, but the devious bully’s harshness is what the state wants more of.

There are some compelling sequences with bravura editing, especially the one in the machine shop and the prison breakout when it finally occurs. Cronyn chews up a lot of scenery as the fascist bully. Lancaster clenches his jaw and is determined to play the irresistible force to Cronyn’s immovable object. Smith provides a liberal alternative to identifying with the main antagonists. The other characters are underdeveloped, and a lot of dialogue is stilted.


No doubt, the censors limited what could be shown, particularly, possible endings. Perhaps, as later in From Here to Eternity, the censors required that the sadistic captain and the mistreatment of prisoners be portrayed as anomalous. However, I don’t think the awkwardness of the overall construction and the boringness of more than a few scenes can be blamed on the censors.

Dassin had a fine cast (including Whitt Bissell, Jeff Corey, Howard Duff, Ann Blyth and Yvonne DeCarlo), an above-average musical score from master film-composer Miklós Rózsa (Double Indemnity, Spellbound) and a dead proto-Nazi, Richard Wagner. The great cinematographer William H. Daniels, who won an Oscar for shooting Dassin’s “Naked City” the next year, provided a cinema noir look—when he got outside cell R-17, the warden’s office, and the doctor’s office (which was not often enough!). At least one of the backstories is within the corrupt urban milieu (mined with femmes fatales) of cinema noir, but this is a prison movie, not a noir, despite what the box says!

I think that if Dassin had thrown away the backstories and focused more on the break-out that “Brute Force” would have been better. Much of the Dassin legend derives from the meticulous filming of the heist in “Rififi” and the best part of “Topkapi” is similarly the break-in rather than the development of the motley group of characters. At least there is not the pseudo-hip stating-the-obvious narration of “Naked City,” an even more overrated Dassin police drama with the curdled charm of Barry Fitzgerald on display.

For those not interested in assessing the oeuvre of Jules Dassin or the history of prison movies, the interest of “Brute Force:” might be in the supporting actors or in the showcasing first lead role of Burt Lancaster. Having recently seen or seen again Cronyn in Lifeboat, People Will Talk, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and the Seventh Cross, I realize that he had bigger and better roles in 1940s movies than the British actress he married and worked with on-stage and on-screen from 1944 until her death in 1994, Jessica Tandy.

Other Dassin films

“The Canterville Ghost” (1944) is a silly movie with a very hammy Charles Laughton that bears little relation to the story on which it is based.

“The Naked City” (1948) does not seem at all fresh to me. It plods along alternating between ersatz knowingness (the narration) and ersatz charm (Barry Fitzgerald, who is not quite as hammy as Laughton).

Thieves’ Highway” (1949), a noir about truckers and the San Francisco produce market starring Richard Conte

“Never on Sunday” (1960), which made Melina Mercouri an international star, playing a cheerful prostitute, and launched the theme song as an international pop hit. Dassin himself plays an American professor who needs to be shown how to live and plays it badly.

“Topkapi” (1964): I think the movie and Mercouri are supposed to be charming, but didn’t charm me, though the movie is fitfully amusing (Peter Ustinov) and the main event is suspenseful.

“10:30 P.M., Summer” (1966), which is awful, with Mercouri flailing and for a time sheltering a fugitive.

It’s been a long time since I saw “Rififi” or the noir shot in London with Richard Widmark, “Night and the City.” I have positive memories of both and, perhaps, if I saw them again, I might be less willing to challenge Dassin’s exalted rank (Once upon a time, I also liked his “Phaedra” with Mercouri in the title role and Anthony Perkins as the stepson for whom she lusts.)

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

“From Here to Eternity” (1953)

The screen adaptation of James Jones’s raunchy, best-selling, prize-winning From Here to Eternity swept the Academy Awards for 1953 (receiving 8 despite competition from “Shane”), is on the AFI list of hundred best American movies (#52; below “Jaws”?!), and contains a scene (Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr kissing on a beach as a wave washes over them) that is one of the most famous of screen images. Also, the casting of Frank Sinatra in the film provided another very famous image: the racehorse head in the bed from “The Godfather.”


Watching the film again did not lead me to suggest that it does not deserve its canonical status. To be made in the early 1950s required making the stories Jones told more conventional. Although multiple viewings has almost completely supplanted any memory of reading the book, it’s easy to see through the social club at which Lorene (Donna Reed) works as a bordello. It’s also fairly easy to remember that Karen Holmes cannot have a child because her husband, Captain Holmes (Philip Ober), infected her with syphilis (rather than failing to get medical assistance for her when she gave birth). The most serious betrayal of Jones’s novel is Captain Holmes’s mistreatment of the recalcitrant Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift at his most stubborn—or is it masochistic?) being observed by his commander and resulting in instigation of court-martial proceedings rather than getting the promotion he has been so eager to obtain.

At the start of the movie, Pvt. Prewitt arrives at Schofield Barracks on Oahu and chats with Pvt. Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra) who is raking in front of the commander’s office. Captain Holmes is rarely there. He’s either coaching the boxing team or off with women in Honolulu. The de facto commander, Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster) gets Prew set up. Then the captain welcomes the soldier who he sees as being the middleweight boxer his team lacks to his company. Pvt. Prewitt blinded a sparring partner and no longer boxes, a decision that the captain (to put it mildly) does not accept. The captain and the boxers whom he has made noncommissioned officers persecute Prew, but Prew takes everything dished out in the way of extra duty, laps for imaginary lapses, etc.

He gets a weekend pass and Maggio introduces him to the club at which Lorene is one of the hostesses. At the same club, Maggio tangles with “Fatso” (Ernest Borgnine), a sergeant who runs the stockade, but is pulled away by Prew. Meanwhile, Sgt. Warden has begun a very clandestine affair with his commanding officer’s wife. (The rolling around in the surf scene is earlier than I remembered and precedes rather than follows her telling him the story of her marriage.)

The conflicts set up early on come to climaxes and then are overshadowed by the Japanese attack of Dec. 7, 1941. Although the captain is brought down, other tragedies unfold. The movie ends with an eerie coda that, among other things, dispels any doubts that Donna Reed deserved the Oscar she received for playing Lorene. In that Frank Sinatra played to the hilt a part differing considerably from the hipster that became his screen image (after he added some pounds), not too many doubts could arise about his performance. As his nemesis, Ernest Borgnine is chillingly convincing. (I grew up watching the benign trickster Borgnine in “McHale’s Navy,” and he won an Oscar as the shy suitor “Marty,” but he could play viscous bullies, prototypically in “Emperor of the North Pole” for Robert Aldrich).

I think Deborah Kerr is insufficiently passionate as Karen Holmes, though she certainly manages the disappointment and bitterness in the role. Burt Lancaster is sufficiently passionate, though, for Lancaster, relatively restrained. He remains true to himself and his values by refusing to sign the papers applying to become an officer. Prewitt also remains true to himself and his values at a more visibly higher cost than that borne by Sgt. Warden (who affords Prewitt some measure of protection). As in “Red River” Clift wins a fistfight with a markedly bigger man, and also wins a knife-fight with a bigger and more experienced knife-fighter. The stubborn characters he played recurrently drew attention from sadists (Robert Ryan in “Lonelyhearts,” anti-Semite American soldiers in “The Young Lions,” John Wayne in “Red River,” Nazis in “Judgment at Nuremberg,” director John Huston in “Freud,” etc.). Both Maggio and Prewitt invite punishment, but I guess are not masochists. Similarly, Thomas More in Zinnemann’s later “Man for All Seasons” knows how to get along but refuses to go along with the arbitrary authority of the king in whose service he has been.

Incidentally, Clift and Lancaster both received Oscar nominations, though William Holden’s cynical POW operator in Billy Wilder’s “Stalag 17” won the award. Lancaster won the New York Film Critic’s best actor award, though if I were in charge, Clift would have received the various crowns.

Daniel Taradash managed to retain some of the rage of James Jones’s novel (though the best adapted screenplay of 1953 Hollywood in my view is A. B. Guthrie, Jr.’s for “Shane”). Disciplining the captain makes the audience feel better but betrays Jones’s vision. It seems to me that the scene of drunken soldiers singing “Re-enlistment Blues” (a song co-written by Jones) goes on too long and that the question Sgt. Warden would be asked would have been “Is this one of your men?” rather than “Was he a friend of yours?” but all in all, the movie is a tightly constructed soap opera on and around a 1941 military base with superb ensemble acting and crisp images (credited to Burnett Guffey, who picked up another Oscar for “Bonnie and Clyde”; IMDB also lists cinematography by Floyd Crosby, father of David, cinematographer of “High Noon” and Oscar-winner for Murnau’s “Tabu”) , and judicious editing (with many long takes not cut) by William Lyon.


“From Here to Eternity” is less sentimental than the first Zinnemann/Clift as a soldier movie, “The Search” and more re-creation than documentary, but was filmed on location (the price for which, I imagine, was the fate of Capt. Holmes in a more benevolent chain of command).

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

“It is a shameful thing to win a war”

In one of the bonus features on the Cohen DVD of “La Pelle” (The Skin, 1981), writer-director Liliana Cavani (The Night Porter) contends that Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957, né Kurt Erich Suckert) was a reporter — indeed, a great reporter — rather than a novelist (though Kaput (1944) is somewhat fictionalized). She noted that even the most grotesque events in The Skin were accounts of things that occurred, indeed, recurred in Naples after the Nazis left and the Americans took over. In (1983) essay “The Tragedy of Central Europe” novelist Milan Kundera, focused on Kaputt, wrote: “It is strange, yes, but understandable: for this reportage is something other than reportage; it is a literary work whose aesthetic intention is so strong, so apparent, that the sensitive reader automatically excludes it from the context of accounts brought to bear by historians, journalists, political analysts, memoirists.”


(Malparte in internal exile on Lipari, 1936)

The Skin (first published in 1949, quickly added to the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum) has lots and lots of dialogue in French. The scenes go on and on and on and do not seem to cohere into even a baggy novel. The dialogue between liaison officer Malaparte and the naïve colonel, Jack Hanmilton, who is eager to be a good guy, include many lectures about human nature in general and that of a starving conquered people in particular. The welcome of “liberators” was short-lived, and without selling their flesh and that of their children (Cavani only shows boys being pawed over by Moroccan soldiers; Malaparte wrote about very young girls as well as boys being sold for food or a few liras.) I don’t think the boyish colonel from Cleveland ever grasps that the Neapolitans regard him and the soldiers expecting cheap thrills regard their new rulers as not very different than the Nazis who ruled Naples before the Americans arrived or the fascists who ruled before that. Each successive regime required resourcefulness from those wanting to survive—and acquiescence to the prostitution or rape of women and children. Lecturing the Johnnies-come-lately, Malaparte said “You’ve no idea what a man will do, what deeds of heroism and infamy he can accomplish, to save his skin . . . They think they are fighting and suffering to save their souls, but in reality they are fighting and suffering to save their skins, and their skins alone.”


The movie replaces the colonel with 3-star general Mark Cork (a slight variant on Mark Clark), a publicity-eager commander of the 5th US Army annoyed by the arrival of the wife of a Massachusetts senator. Deborah Wyatt (Romanian-born Alexandra King in the only role in IMDB) is a pilot who flies her own plane in from Sicily. Malaparte plays Vergil to her Dante (though Malaparte is the one who writes about the post-apocalyptic reality).

Malaparte is urbane past the line of cynicism, but with compassion for the Americans as well as for the Neapolitans. Wyatt is another American unwilling to recognize the reality of either the locals’ desperation or the rapaciousness of the GIs. After she boards a truck filled with GIs and is manhandled she has had enough of occupation reality and goes home, much to the relief of Gen. Cork.

Malaparte shrugs in the Mastroianni manner. He has his villa on the coast of Capri and noble friends including the Principessa Consuelo Caracciolo, a mostly wasted Claudia Cardinale. (In none of the bonus features does Cavani comment on Cardinale’s reduced part. She enthuses about the graciousness and helpfulness of Mastroianni and Lancaster, however.)

Villa Malaparte

(Villa Malaparte, Capri)

Captain Jimmy Wren (Ken Marshall [Krull]) falls in love with the professional virgin (who displays her intact hymen to lines of soldiers for a price collected by her father) and retains some of his good cheer and eagerness to help Maria Concetta (Liliana Tari) and her light-fingered younger brother.

Malaparte does not call out hypocrisy, even while showing the deleterious effects of American naiveté mixed with self-righteousness: “No one on this earth save the Americans can move about with such easy, smiling grace among people who are filthy, starved and unhappy. It is not a sign of insensibility: it is a sign of optimism and at the same time of innocence,” he explains. “The Americans are not cynics, they are optimistic and optimism is itself a sign of innocence. He who is blameless in thought and deed is led not to deny that evil exists, but to refuse to admit that evil is inevitable and incurable. The Americans believe that misery, hunger, pain and everything else can be combatted, that men can recover from misery, hunger, and pain, that there is a remedy for all evil. They do not know that evil is incurable.”

Both book and movie show the American soldiers going all out to aid Neaoplitans after Mount Vesuvius erupts and a cloud of ashes fall on Naples. There is a great bit in the book in which American planes attack a could of molten particles before it can blow over the city. There is something crazy about machine-gunning a cloud so that it will drop what it is carrying, but the real folie de grandeur is plane that approaches too close, is sucked in, and explodes. The explosion results in the fall of the molten material over the sea. Before the advent of CGI, I assume that the scene was too expensive to try to film.

Concerned that American audiences would not accept a portrayal of “the greatest generation” as anything less than noble (well after “Catch-22” and “M*A*S*H”) led Warner Brothers to back out the contract to release “The Skin,” which never had a US theatrical release (though eventually receiving a splendid 2014 DVD with a commentary track and various bonus feature interviews of Cavani and set designer Dante Ferretti).

Not least for scaling back the portrayals of African American sex fiends and libertine homosexual communists (admittedly a switch from blaming fascism on homosexuals), but also in bringing out narrative lines, I think the movie is better than the book. I still think the greatest portrait of desperation in “liberated” Naples is the section of Roberto Rosselini’s “Paisa” in which an African American’s shoes are stolen and he follows the young thief to the cavern where hundreds of Neapolitans are living. Malaparte also reported the hunting of horny African Americans to rob, and with a greater taste for Grand Guignol, what Malaparte wrote fit with Norman Lewis’s more detached (and less probing) Naples 44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy (1978) and John Horne Burns’s more sentimental 1947 American best-seller The Gallery. (It seems to me that Malaparte was less harsh about the Americans than Burns, btw.)

The_Skin_poster (1)

Aside from the universal practice of post-dubbing dialogue rather than shooting with sound (so that even the Italians’ lines are out of synch with lip movement; Mastroianni allegedly spoke English in scenes with Lancaster and Marshall), there is the oddity of lines in Italian being translated (by Malaparte) into Italian. I don’t see why an international release could not have had the Americans speak English and the Italians speak Italians (it’s not like “The Leopard” in which Lancaster was playing a Sicilian character…).

Malaparte, who had marched on Rome with Mussolini in 1922 and had official backing from various periodicals, was ejected from the Fascist Party in 1933, and jailed and/or sent into internal exile multiple times before landing a position as Italian Liberation Corps Liaison Officer to the American High Command in Italy from November 1943 to March 1946. Consistently sympathizing with authoritarians, he flirted with the Roman Catholic Church and the Italian Communist Party (though continuing to look askance at homosexual communists) and at the time of his death was enthusiastic about Mao, who was engaged in the famine-productng disaster of “the Great Leap Forward.” Malaparte’s will left his villa on Capri to the PRC, though his family succeeded in contesting the will.


©2018, 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.