The 50 greatest World War II movies: part five
In Part Five, we’re travelling from the depths of the Atlantic to the hallowed halls of heaven, from the deserts of Africa to the bunkers of bombed-out Warsaw, and on to the jungles of the South Pacific.
10. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)Directed by Isao TakahataCartoon 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. DJWatch the subtitled trailer
9. A Matter of Life and Death (1946)Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric PressburgerPowell 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? PF
Watch a clip from the film Read Time Out's review
8. Rome, Open City (1945)Directed by Roberto RosselliniNeo-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’. DJWatch one of the film’s most horrific sequences
Read Time Out's review
7. Cross of Iron (1977)Directed by Sam PeckinpahSam Peckinpah reinvents the frontline action picture with big side portion of hell.Sam Peckinpah’s odyssey on the Russian front manages to have its ration cake and eat it, consistently espousing anti-war philosophy through protagonist Sgt Steiner (James Coburn) while revelling in some of the most beautiful carnage ever committed to film. As shell bursts slice men in slo-mo and trees explode into matchwood, Steiner reveals himself a stoical killer with loyalty only to his squad, and we love him even more because he just can’t help sticking it to the officer class. Not even fatherly James Mason escapes Steiner’s ire, so what hope is there for Maximillian Schell’s fantastically camp poodle of a Prussian officer who is out to gain the Iron Cross and show his war hero Papa that having a manicure in a war zone doesn’t make you any less of a man. If the persistent rumour that Sergio Leone was planning a Stalingrad movie with De Niro makes you weep for what might have been, take some comfort here, where the Iron Crosses grow. PF
Quentin Tarantino says:
‘I’m a big fan of Peckinpah’s “Cross of Iron”. I saw it the day it opened. It was playing in a theatre that I would ride my bike or take a bus to, but for some reason I couldn’t take the bus and my bike was jacked up, so I had to walk, which took three hours. And then I was hit on by the janitor of the theatre. I was terrified. But I still went back and watched the movie. I was a little boy, I didn’t know anything about the Russian front, so I guess it went over my head. I learned to appreciate it later. But one of the interesting things is that it came and went in America but was such a hit in Europe that it inspired rip-offs for years. And one of them is the movie that I took the name “Inglourious Basterds” from. It was an Italian rip-off.’Watch a clip from the film
6. Kanal (1957)Directed by Andrzej WajdaA 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. THWatch the incredible four-minute tracking shot that opens ‘Kanal'
Read Time Out's review (Kanal)
Read Time Out's review (Ashes and Diamonds)
5. Went The Day Well? (1942)Directed by Alberto CavalcantiThose 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. THWatch a clip from the film Read Time Out's review
4. The Big Red One (1980)Directed by Samuel FullerSam 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. TH
Click here for an intro to the 2004 restoration Read Time Out's review
3. Das Boot (1981)Directed by Wolfgang PetersenJurgen 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. THWatch footage of a real Nazi U-boat in action
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2. The Thin Red Line (1998)Directed by Terrence MalickThe 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. TH
Watch a trailer for the film
Read the original Time Out review
Author: Adam Lee Davies, Dave Calhoun, Paul Fairclough, David Jenkins, Tom Huddleston, Quentin Tarantino
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