World War II was the most epic conflict in history and war movies are a favourite with audiences and filmmakers, so it’s hardly surprising that cinema has been all over it it since hostilities began in 1939. From action epics to animated tragedies, knockabout comedies to brutally realistic dramas, here are the 50 greatest World War II movies as chosen by Time Out’s writers, aided and abetted by our guest contributor, ‘Inglourious Basterds’ director and war movie buff Quentin Tarantino.
A prison camp kickabout becomes an escape opportunity for Stallone, Caine, Pele and Moore.
It should be cinematic gold – football and war! Like those birthday cards in the For Boys section that picture a racing car jumping over a steam train full of cowboys, ‘Victory…’ apparently has everything for the sexually immature adolescent male. But this comic-book fantasy, wherein Allied POWs are forced to play a lose-lose football match against their captors, turns out to be something more subversive. By highlighting the charmless grandstanding of Sly Stallone over the silky skills of Pele and Bobby Moore, the film emphasises the common footballing culture of the assorted Krauts, Tommies and Frogs and becomes a rallying call to greater European integration. Paul FaircloughRead more
German soldiers wake an ageless evil in a crumbling Carpathian castle.
The joker in the WWII movie pack, at least until ‘Inglourious Basterds’ hove into view, was this utterly bizarre cod-spiritualist dark castle chiller from a pre-‘Miami Vice’ Michael Mann. The mist-shrouded opening sequences, as Jurgen Prochnow’s dead-meat Nazi platoon occupy the titular fortress, rumoured to be stalked by evil spirits, are breathtaking, Mann’s superb eye for visual detail fusing with some spectacular design work to create a real atmosphere of impending dread. But it all begins to fall apart with the introduction of Scott Glenn’s Jewish translator (it doesn’t help that he’s saddled with the name Glaeken Trismegestus), who has some mysterious connection to the old castle. The film was drastically cut and limped out to a disinterested public, but it’s unashamed weirdness and wondrous sets have helped to build a pretty solid fanbase since. Director’s cut, please! Tom HuddlestonRead more
Russia V Germany – the battle of the titans.
There are few war stories more grim, empty and defeated than Joseph Vilsmajer’s epic depiction of the backbreaking battle between the German and Russian forces at Stalingrad. While the similarly-themed ‘Enemy at the Gates’ tried to turn the Russian story into a heroic tale of young studs at war, Vilsmajer’s film, focusing on the German side, treats the conflict with wide-open eyes, taking in every horrific, inhuman detail, every gunshot, every death by starvation, every body buried in the rubble. And so, while the film may stand as one of the most realistic depictions of WWII, it’s far from pleasant viewing. Tom HuddlestonRead more
All aboard for ‘Nazi-occupied Sesame Street’!
Francois Truffaut’s cinematic swansong feels like a dense and hearty fruitcake compared to the light and fluffy soufflé that was his is first, ‘Les 400 Coups’, even though both were based on personal experiences. This handsome and nostalgic, if somewhat conventional ‘adult’ ensemble drama set almost exclusively in a Parisian theatre in the ’40s takes on ideas of heroism, fidelity, the interplay between art and censorship and the creative minutiae of putting on a play. Catherine Deneuve stars as an actress who is also the wife of a famed German-Jewish theatre director and the film documents her toil to conceal her husband from both the Nazis and braying anti-semitic drama critic, Jean-Louis Richard, while taking strange directions from the basement in which he is hiding. Though the film has its admirers – it cleaned up at the 1981 Ceasar Awards – one of the key criticisms it still faces (and one that Truffaut was fully aware of at the time of its making) is that the occupation of Paris is dealt with in only the most fleeting and superficial of ways. David Jenkins
Quentin Tarantino says...
‘I don’t like Truffaut’s “The Last Metro”. It seems very phoney, like it’s made on Nazi-occupied Sesame Street. The story is all about the director of a theatre group hiding from the Nazis inside the theatre and ghost-directing his wife, Catherine Deneuve, and the leading man, Gerard Depardieu, from his hideout. And I watched it and thought: This is a great premise for a comedy, but it really doesn’t work as drama.’
The birth of the 1,000-year Reich, according to arch-propagandist Leni Riefenstahl.
Perhaps the cinematic Rosetta Stone that unlocks much of the sentiment (mostly hatred and anger) on the remainder of this list, Reifenstahl’s ‘Triumph… ’ is still arguably the most famous propaganda film ever made. A gaudy celebration of Teutonic immovability, it documents the 1934 Nuremburg rally for which Adolf Hitler descends from the clouds like some toothbrush-moustachioed deity to ‘review the columns of his faithful followers’. Reifenstahl employed some of the most innovative cinematographic techniques of the day in order to capture the full glory of a revitalised Germany. From speeches, processions and shots of strapping, semi-clad men washing each other and engaging in a friendly tussle to epic panoramas filled with Aryan poster boys marching in strict formation, it’s a dangerous if dull film that now takes on more of a cautionary (pathetic, even?) tenor. Tellingly, it was exec produced by one A Hitler. David JenkinsRead more
Steven Spielberg adapts JG Ballard’s memoir of Japanese iniquity.
‘Empire of the Sun’ came smack in the centre of Steven Spielberg’s mid-’80s slump: ‘Temple of Doom’ had been excoriated for excessive violence, and there was still ‘Always’ and ‘Hook’ to come before the director’s ‘Jurassic Park’/‘Schindler’s List’ rebirth. As a result, the film tends to be passed over: weak box-office performance and lack of (then) recognisable stars left the film in a limbo from which it has never really managed to emerge. But there are some incredible moments in ‘Empire of the Sun’. The choice to hire Tom Stoppard to adapt JG Ballard’s autobiographical novel pays dividends with a tight, focused script and some memorable characters, not least John Malkovich’s Machiavellian hipster Basie. Allen Daviau’s sterling cinematography and John Williams’s stirring score add a sense of grandeur (and, at times, glitz), and Spielberg himself was still in his more-light phase, drenching the screen with dazzling searchlights, blazing buildings and, at the climax, Hiroshima itself. Tom HuddlestonRead more
Dum Dum Dum Dum duh duh Dum Dum... Zoom! Boom! Splash! etc.
‘The Dam Busters’ represents that particularly British type of cinematic military endeavour – one that isn’t considered to be truly up to snuff unless it has shuffled us in and out of an endless series of stuffy boardrooms, past a chain-smoking array of lab-coated eggheads and through a rigorous testing process before allowing its audience to experience anything approaching excitement. Happily for us, the lengthy development section of the film is lent charm and eloquence by an especially fine turn by the ever-impeccable Michael Redgrave as ‘bouncing bomb’ boffin Barnes Wallis. The actual busting of the dams of the Ruhr Valley is an edge-of-the-seat, seat-of-the-pants affair that wrings a good deal more exhilaration than it has any right to from sequences that deal in hand-drawn tracer-fire and obvious miniatures. Soon to be remade by Commodore Peter Jackson from a script by Wing Commander Stephen Fry. Adam Lee DaviesRead more
The war seen through the eyes of a brotherly band of North African conscripts.
Proof positive that there are still hundreds of untold WWII stories still to be filmed, Rachid Bouchareb’s powerful drama shines a light on those North African soldiers drafted in to fight for the Free French after D-Day. The film itself is no masterpiece – it’s entertaining and well-characterised, but a mite predictable – but what remains impressive are the ripples it created: after the film’s release, the French government agreed, for the first time, to begin paying compensation to the remaining widows of North African fighters. Proof that a work of art can have direct political impact. Tom HuddlestonRead more
Ollie Reed packs his trunk and heads for the Alps.
Long before he was Britain’s premier insurance salesman, Michael Winner was a reliable directorial journeyman, helming everything from ‘Death Wish’ to ‘Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood’. Winner's contribution to the ’60s-’70s Technicolor WWII boom was this odd, likeable Alpine adventure, in which plucky POW Ollie Reed (back when he was a dish, rather than a drunk) is put in charge of the elephants at Munich zoo and attempts to flee with one to Switzerland when the city is firebombed. Along with some spectacular landscape photography and the cheerful rapport between Reed and his pachyderm pal, most of the film's undoubted charm stems from a peculiar, compelling performance by the underused Michael J Pollard, cheekier than a boatload of monkeys as a renegade American platoon commander raising merry hell behind enemy lines. Tom HuddlestonRead more
Alain Delon’s war profiteer finds himself on the sharp end of a Gestapo investigation.
Following a great run of bleak British character pieces, American exile Joseph Losey headed to France in the early ’70s and threw himself wholeheartedly into the cause of the Euro-pudding: over-budget, half-baked historical dramas packed with periwigs and powder. But he also found time to make this gripping Paris-set holocaust thriller, which suffers from the same expanded runtime and unfocused plotting as its contemporaries, but benefits from a superb central character and some genuinely suspenseful sequences. Alain Delon plays Klein, a black marketeer profiting from the war by buying up the possessions of wealthy Jews before they are shipped off to the camps. But when Klein himself is mistaken for a Jew thanks to a bureaucratic mix-up, he finds himself on the same side of the fence as his victims, facing deportation and death. For all its failings, Losey’s film creates a compelling portrait of a city in the grip of terror, its populace struggling to maintain any semblance of normality. Tom HuddlestonRead more
Tarantino borrowed his title from this rip-roaring Italian take on ‘Cross of Iron’.
Genre-bending Italian showman Enzo G Castellari has long been something of a hero to some of us here at Time Out (not least for his bonkers 1976 vegetable-themed Spaghetti western – Ragout western? – ‘Cry, Onion!’). His 40-year career has gifted us half a dozen decent Euro-Westerns, a few cheapjack rip-offs of US ’70s classics, such as ‘Jaws’ (‘The Last Jaws’, 1981) and ‘The Warriors’ (‘Warriors of the Wasteland’, 1982) and the enduring ‘Detective Extralarge’ series on Italian TV. But thanks to Tarantino’s upcoming tribute, it looks like he will be best remembered for this WWII actioner. Explosive, colourful and slicker than you might expect, it follows a rag-tag bunch of Allied soldiers who… well, if you haven’t seen it, we don’t want to spoil if for you… Suffice it to say that it’s exactly what you might imagine and a good deal more. Next up for Enzo? ‘Caribbean Basterds’. Stronzo! Adam Lee DaviesRead more
Polanski tasted Oscar glory with this weary tale of Nazi persecution.
Following a lacklustre '90s which included soggy chamber drama ‘Death and the Maiden’ and surreal antique book-based chiller, ‘The Ninth Gate’, Roman Polanski kicked off the 21st century with a sophisticated old-school WWII survival drama which not only offered an authentic depiction of the Polish ghetto, but proved that Polanski could still deliver when it mattered. Adrian Brody deservedly picked up a Best Actor Oscar for his muted portrayal of Jewish concert pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman whose lone mission to stay alive against titanic odds served as a inspiring paean to the human instinct for self-preservation. David JenkinsRead more
A hugely influential men-on-a-mission docufiction.
Milestone was the master of the grunt's-eye view, and with this minute account of a few hours in the life of an American platoon in Italy he set the template for dozens of thoughtful war films that followed. The key to an almost real-time narrative is that nothing much happens, but when something does it’s unexpected, violent and irrevocable. There’s little in the way of heroics and barely a few moments of gunfire. The collection of fast-talking city rats, farmers and philosophers that make up the squad has become such a staple of the genre that the ensemble device can now seem clichéd but big-hitters since like ‘The Big Red One’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan’ owe a debt to this innovator of the style. The impression of warfare is neither of gung-ho glory nor of pant-wetting terror though both have their part to play; the overriding feeling is confusion, followed closely by a niggling sense of annoyance that in such a beautiful landscape one should have to be concerned with dying rather than living. Paul FaircloughRead more
Von Trier’s eccentric drama set in post-war Berlin.
As evidenced by his tabloid-baiting treatise on genitalia punishment, ‘Antichrist’, Lars Von Trier’s reputation as a devilish provocateur has long stood in the way of his chameleon-like abilities as a cinematic technician. Before all the Vows of Chastity and Brechtian dramaturgy, Von Trier produced a (literally) hypnotic noir thriller set in post-war Germany. Jean-Marc Barr plays an idealistic American GI who finds work as a train conductor on a German railway network, but is enticed by a terrorist cell allegedly looking to prevent a second Nazi uprising. A latter-day ode to noir, German expressionism and Kafka, Von Trier doesn’t hold back when it comes to setting off the visual fireworks, incorporating back projections, surreal voice-overs, double-exposures and as many in-camera tricks as he can lob at the screen. Also, this is his only film to take place within a recognisable historical context (‘Manderlay’? Almost, but not quite…), and it’s perhaps due to an added sense of responsibility to ‘real events’ that this fascinating study of how evil never truly dies remains one of the director’s best films. David JenkinsRead more
‘Broadsword calling Danny Boy...’ Eastwood and Burton raise hell for Jerry.
Famous for its genre-shattering punch-up on a cable car, this behind-the-lines whodunit is also reputed to clock in with the highest body count of any film starring Clint Eastwood, with hundreds of Central Kasting Jerries throwing themselves headlong into a squinting, square-jawed storm of lead. The twisting plot, concerning the mission to rescue a captured American general from an Alpine castle, serves up a string of ice-pick-sharp set-pieces but, more importantly, provides an excuse for Burton, Eastwood and the gang to get out of their itchy, ill-fitting British togs and look sharp in German officers’ uniforms. As de Gaulle once said of his Teutonic foes, ‘No moral compass – but what a tailor!’ Paul FaircloughRead more
War through the eyes of a German hausfrau.
One of the lynchpins of the New German Cinema and, alas, one of two female directors on this list (which says a lot about war stories being a predominantly male preserve), Helma Sanders-Brahms’s film may be played in a minor-register, but the sentiments it evokes are both assertive and achingly trenchant. A dewy-eyed romance between Lene (Eva Mattes) and Hans (Ernst Jacobi) blossoms into marriage, but their bliss is short lived as Hans is called away to fight for the Fatherland. The film then traces Lene’s ensuing toil, as we see her give birth during an air raid, have to walk her young toddler over sprawling mounds of bricks and mortar, and flee to the countryside where she is forced to trudge through freezing fields and filch supplies from the solidified corpses that speckle the landscape. And when a ceasefire is finally declared, the relief is short-lived, as Hans has been indelibly scarred by the suffering he’s witnessed, Lene develops a twitch which deforms the left side of her face and – most shocking of all – is told that the only recourse is to have all her teeth removed, which Hans casually agrees to. OK, it may sound like a proto-Lars Von Trier movie, for which a saintly women is drafted in as a human pin cushion, but Sanders-Brahms never judges her characters (even though they are based on her own parents) and bluntly demonstrates how relentlessly grim life in Germany was for the women as well the men. David JenkinsRead more
Clint Eastwood explores an iconic battle from both sides.
Given his hard-bitten reputation, it’s surprising Clint Eastwood hadn’t got around to directing a World War Two movie before 2006. But he made up for it with this groundbreaking pair, exploring a major historical conflict – the iconic battle of Iwo Jima – from both the American and Japanese perspectives. First to be released was ‘Flags of our Fathers’ which, as the title suggests, explores the American culture of war, and the way military struggles are filtered and distorted through the kaleidoscope of patriotism and propaganda. Clint’s eye on his subject is clear-sighted, but the film suffers from weak characterisation and occasionally bland segments. ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’, however, is a stunning piece of work: shot entirely in Japanese, it depicts a group of soldiers even more bound by tradition and honour than their American counterparts, trapped in an unwinnable war and dreaming only of home. To make a film treating Japanese soldiers as, in their own way, heroic – even 60 years after the fact – was a remarkably brave move from one of Hollywood’s most trusted insiders. Tom HuddlestonRead more
Stirring Soviet Palme d’Or winner.
Made in the brief proto-Glasnost that followed the death of Joseph Stalin, Kalatozov’s masterpiece is more akin to the ’40s British morale boosters like ‘This Happy Breed’ than to Soviet propaganda pieces of the immediate post-war period. The story, of young lovers torn apart and taken where the currents of war pull them, was nothing new in the West, but here it added a personal stamp to a tale more usually laced with willing sacrifice and noble collective spirit. Still, despite the new individualistic tone, this was still the USSR, home to black bread, deep thoughts and 20 million fewer people than at the war’s start; don’t hold out for any happy endings. Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Uresevsky went on to make ‘Soy Cuba’ together and their photographic style that made that film so mesmeric is evident here too, with a startling blend of audacious framing and hand-held shots that wouldn’t be evident in Western cinema for years. Paul FaircloughRead more
A poignant testament to British pluck and a call for social realignment.
No film evokes the everyday British experience of WW2 better than Launder & Gilliat’s self-sacrificial, stiff-upper-lipped epic. It’s also a masterpiece of social observation, reflecting the national shift away from class repression towards something more inclusive in its depiction of the lives, loves and heartrending losses endured by the lower-middle-class Crowson family. The closing sequence – in which munitions worker Celia (Patricia Roc) forcibly represses her grief over her dead lover and joins in a rousing factory canteen singalong – is almost unbearably moving. Tom HuddlestonRead more
Wintertime for Hitler and Germany in this searing, claustrophobic drama.
We’ve all been there. You haven’t slept for days. The place is a wreck. There are empties everywhere and you don’t even know who half these people are – but you just can’t come to admit it: The Party’s over. This unflinching account of the last days of Nazi Germany is told almost entirely within the dank and sweaty corridors of Hitler’s bunker beneath Berlin and is almost unbearably claustrophobic. But Bruno Ganz’s mesmerising, foaming, eye-rolling Herr Hitler is only one of a thousand reasons to see this incredibly bleak take on the final days of the Swastika. The sense of impending doom is palpable and, as much of what goes on is based on the recollections of Hitler’s personal secretary, scenes like the wild champagne jazz party to the backbeat of weeping and Russian artillery, ring bizarrely true. Sadly for these guests, history was about to gatecrash the shindig and the phrase, ‘I was only there for the nibbles!’ simply wouldn’t wash. Paul FaircloughRead more
The Sahara Desert is the only thing standing between John Mills and flagon of weak lager.
Easily caricatured as a festival of heat-damning pluck and British reserve, this purportedly fact-based tale of John Mills’s Eighth Army captain guiding a rag-bag ambulance crew across the North African desert is a complex psychological thriller. The Germans barely bother Mills – his big battle is with the case of gin he’s hidden in the vehicle and which, even without ice and lemon, sings a constant siren song to his dipsomaniac soul. The final scenes in the bar at Alexandria were re-shot for the American dry states in a mocked-up malt shop, with John Mills downing a chocolate-chip and macadamia milkshake. There is an apocryphal story that, after twelve takes , the actor had a terrible ice-cream headache. Whatever the truth, that bowdlerised print is long lost, and the film remains a heartfelt homage to the lengths to which a Brit will go for a swift half after work. Paul FaircloughRead more
John Sturges prints the legend in this rousing under-the-wire epic.
Maybe the most flat-out enjoyable WWII film of them all, this bank holiday classic continues to win fans, inform ad campaigns and drown out England football matches every time an impromptu rendition of its impossibly chipper theme tune bleats from thousands of dayglo promotional kazoos. Steve McQueen heads a top-notch cast of international talent – all of whom are given plenty to do by the lively script, and nimbly wrangled by Sturges’s muscular direction. It may rely a little heavily on cartoon Krauts and an extraneous motorbike finale (tacked on at McQueen’s insistence so he could showboat his facility with big boys’ toys), but otherwise it keeps closer to the facts than might be imagined and delivers in every department that counts. Adam Lee DaviesRead more
What could be so wrong with being a Nazi matinee idol? Oh…
‘What do they want from me? After all I’m just an actor,’ intones a repentant Henrik Hoefgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer), the limp-wristed matinee idol who sells his soul to the Nazi Party in order to secure personal stardom and absolution from his past dalliances with the commies. Hungarian director István Szabó never bettered this adaptation of Klaus Mann’s 1936, novel which went on to pick up the 1981 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Although the simplest reading of this magnificently multi-textured film is as a comment on the chasm between extreme politics and art, its most enjoyable facet is Brandauer’s tour de force central performance as the foppish Hoefgen – sure to go down as one of cinema’s most intense portrayals of stifled inner turmoil. And as corrupted souls on screen go, this would make a perfect double bill with Bertolucci’s ‘The Conformist’. David JenkinsRead more
Bogie keeps his head down in occupied Africa – until Bergman comes along.
Is there anything left to say about this canonical Hollywood melodrama that hasn’t already been churned into the public consciousness? Well, newsflash: it’s still a damn great movie. Set during the Allied invasion of North Africa, it focuses on Europe’s displaced flotsam as they pass through Humphrey Bogart’s stucco Moroccan fun pub before escaping to freedom. Of course, ivories are tinkled, transit letters are hidden and old flames newly romanced, with Bergman and Bogie making for the quintessential doomed couple. Yet, during more recent viewings, it’s Claude Rains’s Vichy-appointed police captain Louis Renault who proves to be the film’s most interesting and ambiguous character, perfectly representing France’s precarious situation during the war while also subtly imparting the psychological burden of an uncertain future. David JenkinsRead more
Paul Verhoeven pays a two-pronged tribute to Holland's resistance efforts.
Verhoeven’s decision to make ‘Soldier of Orange’ surprised many back in 1977: ‘Turkish Delight’ and ‘Katie Tippel’ had established him as the onscreen master of boundary-pushing eroticism, but now he was engaged in making a traditional, even rather sedate war movie, drawing openly on Hollywood filmmaking traditions to produce a tense but hardly groundbreaking tale of the Dutch resistance. Almost three decades later, Verhoeven returned to Holland in triumph to direct the film he probably should have made the first time around: dynamic, riveting thriller ‘Black Book’. Revisiting the resistance, he constructs a tale of Jewish subterfuge and erotic espionage, filling the screen with all the sex, death and pube-dyeing ‘Soldier of Orange’ may be said to have lacked. But what’s perhaps most remarkable about ‘Black Book’ is that beneath all the fucking and bloodshed is an intelligent, original study of occupation and revenge: the final shot, subtly drawing parallels between the occupation of Holland and the birth of Israel, is courageous and brilliant. Tom HuddlestonRead more
Alain Resnais's heartbreaking Holocaust document.
Ten years after the liberation of the concentration camps, Alain Resnais made this mournful 32-minute documentary which offers as clear-sighted and painful an insight into the National Socialist mindset as any film before or since. Austerely constructed, the film simply juxtaposes German newsreel and films shot by the Allies as they liberated the camps with newly filmed shots of disused railway sidings, empty fields and husks of buildings where thousands lost their lives. As a yardstick for the gravity of Nazi atrocities, Resnais’s film takes some beating. David JenkinsRead more
’60s California transplanted to ’40s Europe.
‘Why don’t you knock it off with them negative waves?’ Yes, the hippies finally do their part for national security as Donald Sutherland’s superfreaky tank commander Oddball joins up with Clint’s surly one-man warzone Kelly on a mission to raid a French bank and hightail it with buckets of Nazi loot. Naturally, Brian G Hutton and cast dispense entirely with any kind of historical reality, leading some to accuse the film of trivialising the war effort. Which it does, but with such warmth, wit and carefree insouciance that it’s impossible to resist. Pure pleasure. Tom HuddlestonRead more
Spielberg’s bleak, beautiful, black-and-white tribute to his fallen forebears.
The Magic Beard’s third flip at WWII (not counting the Indy films) is infinitely more involving than ‘Empire of the Sun’ (1987 – see page one) and a good deal less, well… a good deal less everything than his loopy, scattershot Pearl Harbour folly ‘1941’ (1979). Steven Spielberg – who was, almost inconceivably, fully immersed in the editing of ‘Jurassic Park’ during breaks from filming – regained his directorial mojo with a project that jibed precisely with his increasing interest in his Jewish heritage. Everything, from the casting of Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler to the decision to film in black and white to ‘The Girl In the Red Coat’ sequence is well judged. Any one of these choices could have derailed the film, but thanks to Spielberg’s – and, for his part, Neeson’s – wholehearted investment, they all pay off in spades. Adam Lee DaviesRead more
So you can see stars over the battlefield…
‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’ The Spitfire’s finest hour sees off the might of the Nazi air machine in a stirring, salty 'Boy’s Own' lodestone from ‘Bond’-movie mainstay Guy Hamilton that stars everyone from old pros Michael Redgrave and Laurence Olivier (as fruity as ever) to upcoming Carnaby Street faces like Michael Caine and Ian ‘Lovejoy’/’Deadwood’ McShane. Despite being made on film stock that looks like it was processed in milky tea, it features some of the most remarkable aerial photography ever shot (George Lucas has noted its influence on the space battles in ‘Star Wars’), some fantastically realised effects and the most evocative Nazi rallies ever put on film. That said, it’s not an altogether engrossing experience, but the care and expense that the producers went to in order to get these restored crates back up into the blue yonder makes for a rousing and authentically historical spectacle. Adam Lee DaviesRead more
Paratroop Command (1955)
A riveting men-on-a-mission corker.
Quentin Tarantino says...
‘This is a movie I’m a huge, huge fan of, directed by one of my favourite directors, William Witney, an American who quit the movie business to go into the army and made this after serving. You can tell it’s directed by someone who’s been there. It follows a group of paratroopers in Italy, but one of them is a fuck-up. And he accidentally kills one of his team. It’s an accident, but the team blames him. So he has people in the platoon who want to kill him, just waiting for the right gunfight. And the end of the movie is so exciting. They see these German tanks and they know they’re the only ones who know where these tanks are headed. So they have to cross a field of landmines. They use their grenades trying to blow up the landmines, but it doesn’t work. So they have no choice but to send one guy in after another until he gets blown up. Eventually, somebody will get to the other side. All these characters just start getting wiped out. It’s the entire last half hour of the movie.’
Old Golden Boy hurls us into the heart of hell on earth.
Spielberg; the Golden Generation; Tom Hanks; all those Academy Awards – it’s easy to come over a tad sceptical about the burnished overtones that colour one’s perception of ‘Private Ryan’. A repeat viewing, however, blows away those sugar-spun cobwebs with a near-perfect men-in-combat film which balances musings on duty and comradely bromance with gale-force action and plenty, plenty ketchup. Sentimental, yes; treacly, no. Adam Lee DaviesRead more
Alec Guiness misplaces his moral compass in the jungle heat.
Narrowly beating out Sunday afternoon staple ‘The Bridge at Remagen’ (1969), David Lean’s majestic PoW classic keeps getting better with age. Alec Guinness is in fine form as a captured British Colonel, overseeing Allied troops charged with assisting the Japanese war effort by building said bridge across said river. With his stiff upper lip wilting in the maddening Burmese heat and a copy of the Geneva Convention always to hand, Guinness presents an incarnation of how we all would like to imagine we comport ourselves in such a tight spot. William Holden’s scheming, wiseacre – and all too relatable – American GI, meanwhile, is quite unshakeable in his belief that the war would get on quite well without him thank you very much, and spends an enviable amount of the film goosing the nurses in a Ceylon military hospital. In the end, both men’s attitudes are compromised to the greater good and the bridge comes crashing down in a riveting scene of unbridled catharsis. Adam Lee DaviesRead more
The shifting moral landscape for French resistance fighters.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s twelfth film opens on a shot of the Arc de Triomphe, stood in quiet pomp as, slowly, a long line of Nazi soldiers goose-step across its base. This insidious, softly-softly approach to portraying the real traumas suffered by the people of Paris during the occupation sets the tone for the film, a riveting, steely-eyed chronicle of top-ranking resistance fighter, Gerbier (Lino Ventura). Based on a novel by author Joseph Kessel, the film remains a seminal instance of the power of restraint over hysteria, with Melville adopting a curt and undemonstrative shooting style to present his ‘heroes’ as a self-hating cadre of unlikely freedom fighters who think nothing of risking life and limb in the name of their great nation. Prison escapes are brief and unglamorous; torture is never shown on camera; murder is insouciant; espionage is gruelling and perilous, and emotions, speeches and friendships remain suppressed at all times. Yet, Melville is certainly not depriving us of these feelings of pride and purpose, simply delivering them through more subtle and unexpected outlets: a segment in which Gerbier is hiding out in London sees him just as enraptured at being in the same room as then leader of the Free French Forces, Charles De Gaulle, as he is watching ‘Gone With The Wind’ on the big screen (with US films having been banned in Paris). As a cold, meticulous drama about the pressures of propping an entire country on your shoulders, ‘Army of Shadows’ is peerless. David JenkinsRead more
The title says it all – gritty dad-friendly action par excellence.
As cutting as piano wire and cynical to the core, Robert Aldrich’s smart detailing of the mechanics of war follows through on the queasy promise of its tagline and ‘rips open the hot hell behind the glory!’ Joining up with the daintily named Fragile Fox company for a botched support mission during the Battle of the Bulge, we find ourselves caught within a clammy microcosm of the chain of command that witnesses cruel and unusual ‘gutless wonder’ Company Captain Eddie Albert representing the brass, Lee Marvin’s manipulative horse-trading standing for the institutional machinery and Jack Palance cracking with frustration as the leader of the grunts at the sharp end. A minor landmark that dared to suggest that in war, ‘Not everyone is a hero and not every gun is pointed at the enemy’. Adam Lee DaviesRead more
A pair of propaganda classics from homegrown legend Humphrey Jennings.
At the beginning of WWII, all British cinemas were forcibly closed for an indefinite period. But Churchill’s cabinet quickly realised that not only were the movie houses a great way for a put-upon populace to get a little R&R, they were also a perfect channel for the government to disseminate the right kind of information. But while Humphrey Jennings’s twin short-form masterpieces ‘Listen to Britain’, a celebration of British life through the medium of sound (skylarks, spitfires, the crack of leather on willow) and ‘Fires Were Started’, a semi-fictionalised portrait of London fire crews during the Blitz, may be unashamed propaganda, they’re also two of the most striking, inventive documentaries ever made on these shores. The former is more sedate, a sort of Radio 4 with pictures, building to a genuinely stirring crescendo of national pride in the face of overseas aggression. ‘Fires Were Started’ is pitched somewhere between documentary and drama in its depiction of a day in the life of a fresh-faced fireman, but through all the Blitz-spirit banter there’s an inescapable sense of dread, lives in the balance, and a city on the brink of absolute collapse. Tom HuddlestonRead more
The Holocaust remembered in sombre, lucid detail.
It’s 24 years since Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Shoah’ was first released and three decades since the French filmmaker first started work on this unique, immersive and poetic nine-hour investigation into the minute details and reality of the Holocaust. Lanzmann’s method was to dismiss inherited images and received stories of the genocide of the European Jews and to return instead to the sites of those murders and interview afresh those with first-hand experiences of events at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno and other death camps, from Jewish survivors to former Nazi guards and farmers who tended their fields in the shadows of death. So there’s not a second of archive footage in Lanzmann’s film: he rejects the over-familiar images of suffering which he sees as irredeemably tainted, either by being filmed for a political purpose by Nazi cameramen or by being shot through the eyes of Allied forces in 1945 after the real tragedy had already occurred. Lanzmann also rejects plain statistics and cold historical context. There’s no mention of ‘six million’ and barely a whisper of the names of those notorious figures in the Nazi government that top and tail many a GCSE history essay. This is sweeping oral testimony as conducted by a filmmaker who is ever-present in his film, bespectacled and smoking, prodding and pushing for detail and honesty above emotion and inexactitude. He mixes talking heads with footage of the remains of the camps – his camera movements often evoke the arrival of the trains – and he pulls you deeper and deeper into his subject while never offering anything so crude or reductive as a simple structure or narrative. What Lanzmann offers is an unprecedented form for an unprecedented tragedy. Dave CalhounRead more
Fritz Lang celebrates one of the great Polish resistance successes.
.Lang’s film, made after he fled Poland for Hollywood, depicts the resistance movement started by the citizens of Warsaw against their Nazi overlords, and the brutal repercussions carried out by the Germans under the direction of Reinhard ‘The Hangman’ Heydrich. It’s a superb, compelling noirish thriller, treating its bleak – and, to Lang, intensely personal – subject matter with wit, verve and invention. Tom Huddleston
Quentin Tarantino says...
‘When I was writing the script for “Inglourious Basterds”, I ended up looking at a different type of war film than I’d ever watched before. These were the propaganda movies made in the ’40s, mostly directed by foreign directors living in Hollywood because the Nazis had occupied their home countries, like Fritz Lang with “Hangmen Also Die!”. What’s really interesting is that WWII was going on, the Nazis were an actual threat, not a theoretical threat, not just movie bad guys. Those directors, in most cases, had personal experience with the Nazis, and obviously they had to be worried about their loved ones back home. And yet those films are entertaining, they’re thrilling adventure stories, and oftentimes they’re quite funny, there’s a lot of humour in them. And this goes against all the ponderous, anti-war, violin-music diatribes that we’ve seen in war movies since the ’80s.’
Knockabout comic brilliance in occupied Poland, anyone?
German émigré director Ernst Lubitsch had already poked fun at the intrinsic absurdity of fascist governments in 1939’s ‘Ninotchka’, but it wasn’t until 1942 that he produced one of the edgiest and most controversial comedies in cinema history. The film was lambasted at the time of its release for being in poor taste, particularly as the idiotic Nazi officers it lampooned were at the very same time sanctioning policies that were having a drastic effect on the European populace. More surprising is that Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’, which adopted a similar comedic stance (but was eventually undermined by its mawkish undertow), was a massive hit just two years earlier. Watching it now, ‘To Be or Not To Be’ strikes a note-perfect balance between risqué jibes and honest-to-goodness wit, with Jack Benny as the narcissistic Shakespearean actor working in Nazi-occupied Poland with his wife and leading lady, Carol Lombard (who died in a plane crash two weeks before the film was released). The pair become embroiled in a plot to harbour a resistance leader which involves Benny pretending to be high-ranking Nazi officer Col Erhardt (known among colleagues as ‘Concentration Camp Erhardt’ – a springboard to one of the film’s funniest gags). Indeed, ‘To Be or Not To Be’ is hilarious throughout, and proves that the famed ‘Lubitsch touch’ was just light enough to make us see the farcical core at the centre of one of the most appalling threats that humanity has ever faced. David JenkinsRead more
This Tarantino-approved classic is hardbitten and ruthlessly efficient.
Foul-tempered, lusty and ludicrously enjoyable, this suicidal symphony to the futility of war fully deserves its status as ‘The Greatest Men-On-A-Mission Movie Ever Made’™. Aldrich puts us through our paces on an unforgiving breaking ground of man’s man filmmaking while the richest grab-bag of perverts, psychos and scenery-chewing crazies ever assembled – including John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland - are trained for certain death and tossed into the Nazi war machine. Adam Lee Davies
Quentin Tarantino says...
‘What originally got me to sit down and write “Inglourious Basterds” were all those bunch-of-guys-on-a-mission movies made in the late ’60s and early ’70s, like “Where Eagles Dare”, “The Devil’s Brigade” and ‘"The Dirty Dozen”. I think one of the things that’s just amazing about "The Dirty Dozen", and why I don’t think it could ever be duplicated today, is the fact that you could never find eight actors like that now. It was just a different breed of man. Robert Aldrich threw a rock in a tree and Jim Brown fell out, Charles Bronson fell out, John Cassavetes fell out, and Telly Savalas… and that’s without even mentioning Lee Marvin. There aren’t guys like Charles Bronson and Jim Brown running around any more.’
Enemies find common ground in Boorman’s out-to-sea two-hander.
‘Two Enemies! One Island! No Subtitles!’ was not the tagline for John Boorman’s allegorical yarn about a Japanese soldier (Toshiro Mifune) and an American pilot (Lee Marvin) stranded on a South Seas island, but it damn well should have been. This perfectly pitched two-hander could easily have descended into an unholy mess of sentimentality and earnestness. But Boorman has never had too much time for easy resolution (‘Point Blank’, ‘Deliverance’, ‘The Emerald Forest’) and maintains an even strain even as his leads eventually realise that the only way they are going to survive their ordeal is if they cooperate. Marvin – a bona fide Pacific War hero – is as grizzled as ever, while Mifune – despite his Japanese dialogue being delivered sans subtitles – is better served than by any number of his other Hollywood outings (and, yes, we are counting ‘1941’). Adam Lee DaviesRead more
Cartoon carnage and animated anguish in this harrowing Ghibli tragedy.
Anyone who’s ever dismissed cartoons as being, you know, for kids, may want to seek out this haunting animated drama from Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki’s number-two guy over at Japan’s Studio Ghibli. His film adopts the template formed by Elem Klimov three years earlier in ‘Come and See’ by offering a child’s-eye-perspective of wartime atrocities. But like Miyazaki’s masterly ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ from the same year, it also expounds on the methods used by children to block out the horrors of the world (namely, day dreaming, fantasy, unrealistic optimism). It cannot be overstated how heartbreaking and painful ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is, following a young teenage boy and his toddler sister as they are forced to go it alone in the Japanese wilderness as US bombers lay waste to the cities. Their efforts to stay alive are initially successful, but as food becomes scarce and the willingness of others to share rations becomes more infrequent, the struggle for survival grows more and more futile. Critic Roger Ebert rightly named it the one of the greatest war movies ever made. One thing’s for certain: once seen, it will never be forgotten. David JenkinsRead more
Powell and Pressburger attempt to explain Anglo-American relations.
Impossible as it is to watch some Powell & Pressburger films without wondering if the pair were stuffing their pipes with something more than Old Shag, this skewed, kaleidoscopic take on the redemptive power of love tops all of their work for sheer ambition alone. As the title suggests, Big Themes are up for consideration as David Niven’s bomber pilot misses his rendezvous with death only to fall foul of the heavenly bureaucrats who insist his time is up. This being Niven, the sly old dog spends his final minutes of life chasing a pretty and enthusiastic young filly, in the process dividing heaven over whether their love should be allowed to blossom and he to live. There probably isn’t enough shooting and shouting here for some purists, but if a film that asks why some die and some live, and that rails against the cold indifference of the gods, isn’t a war movie, what is? Paul FaircloughRead more
Neo-realism meets street-level resistance drama in Rossellini’s first masterwork.
The scars of European conflict and Nazi occupation were still deep and tender in Rome circa ’44, but this unsightly vista of societal desolation chimed with the documentary instincts of Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini. The ironically-titled ‘Rome, Open City’ was written by neo-realist figurehead Sergio Amidei along with a then-24-year-old Federico Fellini and drew on the real issues and situations during the years of conflict. It’s split pretty cleanly into two main chapters, the first centring on the wedding of Pina (Anna Magnani, offering one of her most harrowing performances) to Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), a member of a tearaway clique attempting to hide resistance fighter Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero) from Nazi patrols. Without giving away the plot, the second part deals with the upshot of this set-up, and demands that we witness the inhumane operational tactics of Nazi command. Suffice to say, the brutality of the occupying regime is presented with a shocking frankness, not only its utter indifference towards class, age, gender and religion, but its total lack of logical purpose. Rossellini allegedly shot the film using leftover celluloid from other movies, which not only lent it a mussy, newsreel aesthetic, but a real sense of urgency and anguish. Three years later, the director chose to tell a similar story but from a German perspective in his document of the trials of life in post-war Berlin, ‘Germany Year Zero’. David JenkinsRead more
Sam Peckinpah reinvents the frontline action picture with big side portion of hell.Peckinpah's only war film, based on a novel by Willi Heinrich, displays his familiar preoccupation with the individual confronted by events beyond his control. Dealing with a German platoon involved in the 1943 retreat on the Russian front, the film reveals a special feeling for the universalities of war: lives in the balance, the single-suppression of emotion. Sombre and claustrophobic photography, an intelligent script, and Peckinpah's clear understanding of a working platoon of men, are all far removed from the monotonous simplicity of most big-budget war films. Read more
A country loses its innocence in the aftermath of war. Andrzej Wajda mourns.
Andrzej Wajda was part of that generation of European filmmakers who experienced the war as children or young adults, whose parents fought and died, whose friends and relations were killed or deported. But, as Tarantino points out in his comment on ‘Hangmen Also Die’ (see entry Number 14), these films are rarely gloomy, or even recriminatory. ‘Kanal’ is, admittedly, a daunting film, detailing the journey of a Polish resistance platoon from one side of Warsaw to the other following the uprising. Forced to take shelter in the sewers, the men are separated and picked off one by one. But it’s more tough than mournful: the film never feels less than absolutely real, eschewing holy-light heroism in favour of stark, truthful storytelling. ‘Ashes and Diamonds’ is even better, depicting one single day in the life of a puckish, rebellious teenager, played by ‘Polish James Dean’ Zbigniew Cybulski, as the Germans prepare to leave town. It’s barely a war film at all – moments of conflict are rare and sudden, though the sense of a people driven under by years of brutality can be felt throughout. This is a film more interested in life than in death, in youth, romance, and freedom: even if, as Wajda knew when making the film, that freedom was to prove short-lived. Tom HuddlestonRead more
Those Nazis picked the wrong sleepy village in this surprisingly tough English fantasy.
Those of us who grew up with much-missed national treasure Dame Thora Hird’s passive, grandmatronly demeanour sandwiched between every episode of ‘Countdown’ can only watch in amazement as, at the climax of Cavalcanti’s masterful wartime chiller, she gamely starts picking off invading Nazzies with a rusty old hunting rifle. The plot, in which Gerry parachutes into a sleepy English village and sets about clearing the way for a major invasion, may be fantasy, but it’s alarmingly powerful. Released well before the Normandy landings, ‘Went The Day Well?’ was made to remind all those bicycling bobbies, cheeky pub-dwelling chappies and self-satisfied lairds that they, too, may one day have to take on an entire paratroop division armed only with national pride and a malacca walking stick. Tom HuddlestonRead more
Sam Fuller revisits his own personal battlefield in this masterful travelogue.
The original ‘Band of Brothers’, and one of the most detailed, all-encompassing and nourishing WWII flicks of them all. For a long time, the film was chiefly remembered as the movie Mark Hamill made between ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Empire’, but thanks to a first-rate twenty-first century recut – restoring 47 lost minutes – the film has taken its place in the pantheon. It’s richly deserved: essentially a memoir of Fuller’s own wartime experiences – and a fitting tribute to the men who served alongside him – the film takes in almost the entire European theatre, from North Africa to Italy, and up into France, Germany and Czechoslovakia. But this is far from a straightforward shoot-em-up travelogue, bringing in bizarre and often cruel humour, marvellous characterisation and one of the oddest war-movie scenes of them all, as our heroes assist with childbirth in the belly of a stranded Nazi tank. All this, and one of the most intensely moving concentration camp scenes in cinema. A masterpiece, no less. Tom HuddlestonRead more
Jurgen Prochnow is running both silent and deep in this U-Boat chiller.
Originally made as a five-hour miniseries for German TV, cut to feature length for worldwide consumption and finally expanded again to a 210-minute ‘director’s cut’, Wolfgang Petersen’s breathless, terrifying U-boat drama remains the most unsettling and claustrophobic of all WWII movies. The film is a masterclass in economical, tight-space storytelling, piling the pressure on both characters and audiences until the sprockets squeak. The infamous ‘tiefer… ’ sequence, as captain Jurgen Prochnow pushes the sub to life-threatening depths, is almost unwatchable. Tom HuddlestonRead more
The grim poetry of conflict in Terrence Malick’s spiritual elegy.
Filmmaker. Journalist. Recluse. Inventor of the automatic catflap. By the time of ‘The Thin Red Line’, Terrence Malick had been languishing in self-imposed exile for two decades while his first two films, ‘Badlands’ and ‘Days of Heaven’, grew in both stature and influence. So it was no surprise that on his prodigal return to filmmaking, the Hollywood elite would line up to volunteer. The released cut of Malick’s film, an adaptation of James Jones’s fictionalised memoir of the battle for Guadalcanal, features Sean Penn and John Cusack in major roles, with smaller parts for Nick Nolte, George Clooney, John Travolta and Woody Harrelson. What’s even more astonishing is the list of folks who either hit the cutting-room floor – including Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman and Mickey Rourke – or were considered for parts but, for one reason or another, eventually missed out, including Nicolas Cage, Leonardo DiCaprio and Edward Norton.
Critics were largely nonplussed on first encountering ‘The Thin Red Line’: while some accepted its fragmented, episodic nature and mystical longeurs as part and parcel of the Malick experience, others found the film indulgent. Admittedly, it has flaws: there are moments when the voiceover becomes simply too poetic, too dreamlike, the entire movie seems about to drift off into some kind of dubious patchouli-induced spiritual trance. But such moments are few and fleeting, and what surrounds them is one of the great cinematic masterworks of the past few decades. The overriding theme in Malick’s work – the central core of every one of his films – is the transition from youth to adulthood, from innocence to experience, from paradise to reality, and ‘The Thin Red Line’ is no exception. Malick paints Guadalcanal as a kind of lost Eden, the two opposing armies as equally invasive, and ultimately insignificant in the face of eternal nature. The soldiers which comprise these armies are viewed as individuals, as questing souls on their own ultimately destructive spiritual journeys, but also as mere facets of the natural world, no more important than the plants, birds and insects which surround them. It's an extraordinary vision of war, and indeed of humanity – godlike but ultimately sympathetic. Malick avoids the icy subjectivity often attributed to Stanley Kubrick and explores not just hearts and minds, but the souls of men in combat. Tom HuddlestonRead more
The true face of modern warfare, and it's far from pretty.
Making the infamous opening 15 minutes of Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’ look about as brutal as a Sunday afternoon’s stroll down Chesil Beach, Elem Klimov’s hallucinatory ‘Come and See’ feels like the nearest cinema has ever come to recreating the ruthlessly discombobulating sensory experiences of war. After much angry deliberation, we thought it fitting to place this singular work at the head of the list, not merely in tribute to its bracingly original and candid take on the human toll of warfare, but as a work of sublime visual and aural intensity that uses every tool available in the cinematic arsenal to distinct and often nauseating effect.
With its title referencing the end of days as described in the Book of Revelations, Klimov’s desultory opera of human wickedness is often compared to Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ in the way it presents the onset of madness as a lone man burrows deeper and deeper into war-ravaged territories. ‘Come and See’, though, is told from the perspective of young Byelorussian lad Florya (Aleksei Kravchenko), an army recruit whose plucky optimism is ripped from beneath him as the platoon he’s inducted into are massacred. He is then forced on a torturous expedition across the countryside with would-be girlfriend Glasha (Olga Mironova) where he suffers unspeakable indignities at every turn.
Klimov does everything in his power to place us inside Florya’s head, from replacing the soundtrack with a high-pitched ringing when a bomb explodes in his close vicinity, to filming a shot where he has to wade through a huge puddle of mud in excruciating real time. Indeed, it’s ironic that the film takes place in the same country where such spiritually enlightened masters as Tarkovsky, Dovzhenko and Sokurov were able to hint at the presence of a divine being in their shots of shimmering fields and flickering fire, as Klimov’s film states in no uncertain terms that if there is a god, then he was out for a very long lunch in the early ’40s.
Though he said in a recent interview with Time Out that he'd not seen the film, Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’ contains numerous similarities to ‘Come and See’, not least its famous closing shot where Florya unloads a machine gun into a discarded portrait of the Fuhrer. Except, where Tarantino’s film playfully offers a self-reflexive fantasy of Jewish revenge, Klimov’s denouement contains altogether less encouraging connotations, suggesting that there are no heroes in war – only victims and perpetrators – and that no amount of guns and ammo will be able to expunge or reconcile the memory of the holocaust. A disorienting, downbeat and unforgettable classic. David JenkinsRead more