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)
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
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 (1999), 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 The Eagle Has Landed, 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.