Tag Archives: Gregory Peck

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.

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1958 somewhat revisionist western, “The Big Country”

I like both Gregory Peck and Jean Simmons a lot, so was inclined to like William Wyler’s “The Big Country” (which I saw on tv many decades ago). In some ways it is a revisionist western, somewhat like “High Noon,” not as radical as “The Searchers,” or even “The Gunfighter” (with a mustachioed Peck), the first of the revisionist westerns of the 1950s.

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Peck played James McKay, a Yankee sea captain, who has come west to wed Patricia Terill (Caroll Baker), the devoted (to an unhealthy degree) daughter of doting cattle baron, Major Henry Terrill (the gravel-voiced Charles Bickford). McKay refuses to prove his masculinity in public, though the audience is privy to demonstrations his fiancée is not, including fighting the major’s foreman, Steve Leech, played by a surly Charlton Heston, in a memorable knock-down, drag-out fistfight shot from far above. There is also a God’s eye (well, at least canyon rim top) view of the final one-on-one gunfight between the stubborn patriarchs (Burl Ives, winning his Oscar). There are more conventional, closer-up shots of the duel between Peck and the eldest, weasliest son of Rufus Hannassey, “Buck” (Chuck Connors).

None of the four Hannasey boys is a testimonial to good child-raising. As the eldest, “Buck” had to have had more time with a mother. His father deplores him, but has to have a major share of the blame for Buck’s character. Rufus otherwise seems a perspicacious observer and interpreter of what is unsaid. And he is either the only one who remembers despicable deeds by the major, or the only one with the courage to allude to them. (I don’t know what the major did that so riled Hannassey, and Patricia certainly won’t listen to anything disparaging of her father.)

In addition to the Hannassey’s Blanco Canyon (shot in Kern County, California’s Red Rock State Park) and the major’s vast holdings (shot in the Sierra foothills east of Stockton), there is a river with year-round water, the Big Muddy, on land owned by Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), who allows access to the water to both the Terrill and Hannassy cattle. She lives in town and teaches school, the ranch she inherited (form her grandfather; I have no idea what happened to her parents) is fallow (well, ungrazed). She and Pat and the major are friends, but she abides by her grandfather’s promise to allow the Hannasseys access to the Big Muddy.

Having resisted offers to sell from both sides, Julie precipitously accepts an offer from McKay to buy the property. Steve and his henchmen drive Hannassey cattle away, though neither Julie nor McKay would support this. (I don’t think Steve knows the deed had changed hands, and am not sure whether he is acting on his own or following orders from the major.)

Buck seizes Julie. The major’s mini-army is set to go in the narrow canyon to rescue her. McKay knows this is just a pretext and goes in himself to get her out. Violence follows, if less than the threatened “river of blood.”

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McKay is as stubborn as the two patriarchs, though trying to make peace between two clans that do not want that and not at all given to public posturing, in contrast to the senior antagonists and their junior ones (Heston and Connors). Peck was very, very good in the role (fresh from the monomania of Captain Ahab), as were the old enemy patriarchs Ives and Bickford played.

I can’t see McKay being so smitten by the superficial Patricia as to give up his way of life and go to wed her in her own (that is, her father’s) turf. It is obvious that Julie is smarter and more compatible. Do they love each other? I’m not sure, and though they are together at the end, there is no indication they will live together happily ever after, or at all. And the heirs of both Terrill and Hannassey ranches are less prudential than the patriarchs, and it is difficult to foresee McKay keeping the peace that he has tenuously established by pushing the old men to fight each other rather than to sacrifice surrogates to their enmity.

Veteran cinematographer Franz Planer (who was Oscar-nominated for Wyler-directed “Roman Holiday” and “The Children’s Hour”) did good work. Presumable the shooting from up and away was Wyler’s decision. Jerome Moross’s rousing western score (kicking in in the opening credits; thankfully this is one 1950s western without a ballad!) foreshadowed scores by Elmer Bernstein and Ennio Morricone, and was Oscar-nominated. (Dimitri Tiomkin won for “The Old Man and the Sea.”)

The adaptation to a big-screen, all-star, 165-minute-long movie from a story by Donald Hamilton (creator of Matt Helm) was credited to Wyler and to Jessamyn West, the author of Friendly Persuasion, which Wyler had directed an adaptation of (not crediting her work beyond the novel) in 1956. It centers on a pacifist who was played by Gary Cooper (who took up arms in Howard Hawks’s “Sgt. York”).

I’m still not sure that Burl Ives deserved the Oscar for his part here, but for me the alternative choice would have been his “Big Daddy” in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” He definitely peaked in 1958! His Golden Globe for 1958 was also for his role in “The Big Country,” btw. And Wyler went on (even before shooting was complete) to Rome to direct Heston in the title role of “Ben Hur,” for which both won Oscars.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray