The 50 best World War II movies
We count down the 50 greatest World War II movies with the aid of guest expert Quentin Tarantino
Fri Aug 29 2014
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.
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 Fairclough
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 Davies
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 Jenkins
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 Jenkins
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 Huddleston
Alain Resnais's heartbreaking Holocaust document.
Ten years after the liberation of the concentration camps, Alain Resnais made this mournful and 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 Jenkins
’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 Huddleston
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 Davies
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 Davies
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.’
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