The 50 greatest World War II movies: part two

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In Part Two we go on a murderous mission with Enzo Castellari, play the piano with Roman Polanski, wave flags, send letters and take a cable-car ride with Clint Eastwood and witness the final Downfall of Bruno Ganz…

Click here for 30 through to 21...

40. The Inglorious Bastards (1978)

Directed by Enzo G CastellariTarantino 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! ALD
Watch the trailer

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39. The Pianist (2002)

Directed by Roman Polanski 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. DJWatch Adrien Brody go bugnuts on the Oscar podium

Read the Time Out review
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38. A Walk in the Sun (1945)

Directed by Lewis MilestoneA 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. PFRead the Time Out review

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37. Europa (1991)

Directed by Lars von TrierVon 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. DJWatch the trailer Read the Time Out review

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36. Where Eagles Dare (1968)

Directed by Brian G. Hutton ‘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!’ PFWatch the infamous cable car scrap here
Read the Time Out review

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35. Germany, Pale Mother (1980)

Directed by Helma Sanders-BrahmsWar 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. DJRead the Time Out review

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34. Letters From Iwo Jima

Directed by Clint EastwoodEastwood 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. THClint discusses his Iwo Jima saga

Read the Time Out review of 'Flags...'
Read the Time Out review of 'Letters...'

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33. The Cranes Are Flying (1957)

Directed by Mikhail KalatozovStirring 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. PF Watch a clip from the film Read the Time Out review

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32. Millions Like Us (1943)

Directed by Frank Launder and Sidney GilliatA 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. THRead the Time Out review

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31. Downfall (2004)

Directed by Oliver HirschbiegelWintertime 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. PFWatch Hitler react to all those Youtube parodies Read the Time Out review

Click here for 30 through to 21...

Author: Adam Lee Davies, Dave Calhoun, Paul Fairclough, David Jenkins, Tom Huddleston, Quentin Tarantino


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