WORLD WAR II (1939-'45)
Yes, the big one. The truth is there have been more films made about this war than any other. Probably because it was actually ongoing at a time when the movie business was so powerful that Hitler himself appointed a Minister of Propaganda to oversee the distribution of films in Germany. And also of course, because we won, pretty unequivocally. The people that make movies have vivid memories of this time, and right away set to work documenting and narrating the epic struggle at hand. But with the passage of decades, even more great and insightful films came about from the minds of great directors who didn’t fight, but remembered growing up at the time, or were otherwise shaped by that defining experience, and the people that made up the “greatest generation.” Here are the various fronts of WWII, as explored by some of the masters.
MRS. MINIVER (1942) Greer Garson, Teresa Wright. Dir. William Wyler
“This is the People’s war. It is our war. We are the fighters. Fight it then. Fight it with all that is in us and may God defend the Right.” - Vicar
Despite the vast release of patriotic propaganda films in the year 1942, the Best Picture winner of that year was the movie that tackled the onslaught of somebody else’s homefront, one that saw such brutal bombardment for so long as to virtually leave its cities in total wreckage. Yet, they still kept charging onward. We’re talking Britain of course, whose battered London was under assault by the Germans for two straight years, years in which the British people literally lived and worked in homes and buildings that saw the roofs blown off, had to sweep the wreckage from their porch in the mornings, and always be on the ready to flee for the bomb shelters at the next air raid. Mrs. Miniver depicted that reality during the actual war, and was a very affecting, grandly moving and enormously popular movie both in England and here in the States (where people could only imagine the frontal assault on our home shores the way the Brits experienced it). Best Actress winner Greer Garson was a proudly patriotic mother and head of household, whose oldest son served in the RAF and husband in a local patrol militia. The dramas of their little family play out amidst the everyday struggle, and she’s the pillar of strength and the Churchill-inspired resistance symbol of the British people. Wyler was a classic Hollywood master of human drama, with his other big Oscar winner The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), a perfect distillation of the trials of the returning vets in America. Here he tributes the extraordinary resolve of one family as a paean to their nation, with an emotionally stirring and fortifying climax that serves as a patriotic boost to all nations currently mired in the dog days of war, upholding the promise of a better future for all.
Original 1942 Trailer:
THE THIN RED LINE (1998) Nick Nolte, Jim Caviezel. Dir. Terence Malick
“In this world, a man himself is nothing. And there ain’t no world, but this one.” - Sgt. Wels
Terence Malick staged a smashing comeback after being absent from film for two decades, having marked his debut success Badlands (1973) with the stunning follow-up Days of Heaven (1978). His re- entry into the movie world became his most honored and recognized film, which garnered walk on roles for nearly every actor in Hollywood, who likely wanted to appear in a Malick film just in case he took another decades long sabbatical. The Thin Red Line was a ponderous, meditative, philosophical war film, decidedly un-Hollywood in its design and effect, sort of the anti- Saving Private Ryan, which came out in the same year. It’s easy to see why the latter, which was the far more accessible and mainstream film, went on to become the massive hit that it did, while audiences mostly shied away from this one, but for me there’s no contest between the two. Set in the 1942 battle for Guadalcanal Island in the Pacific, Malick takes on a lyrical, dreamlike approach, following a group of soldiers in the chaotic setting as they maneuver their way through the onslaught, many suffering bloody and gruesome deaths along the way. The battle scenes are hard hitting and powerful, involving you in the action while at the same time hovering over it from above, next to the rare birds of Pacific beauty. The film is occasionally peppered with narration from different soldiers- poetic, mystifying intonations about death, life and memory that are never clear in their meaning, which makes the impact that much stronger. The incredible beauty of the land (actually filmed on Guadalcanal and in Australia) is always seen and contrasted with the violent bloodshed taking place on its shores. Malick did not disappoint fans of his work with what he managed to craft: never a traditional war film, and all the better for it, leaving you to absorb its meaning for yourself.
Original 1998 Trailer:
ARMY OF SHADOWS (1969) Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret. Dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
Army of Shadows delves deep into the everyday lives of the resistance fighters of the French underground during the Nazi occupation. France had surrendered to the Germans in 1940, its leaders preferring to live life in the ensuing police state rather than have its population become victims of the slaughter that would undoubtedly occur. That meant the government consisted of French officials who voluntarily acted as puppets for the Germans, the now shamed “Vichy” government of the war years. Of course, not everyone accepted this fate, and what followed was the creation of the French resistance, its leader Charles de Gaulle (the only member of Parliament who refused to vote for surrender) exiled to Britain, where he commanded no troops and could only serve as a voice over the radio to his subjugated people. That left the resistance members to fend mostly for themselves, organizing raids, meeting in abandoned houses, and continuously forced to take out fellow fighters for giving up names under the brutal torture regime enforced by the Gestapo. In short, it was not a pleasant life. Melville’s film vividly documents these proceedings, and intimately exposes us to the mindset of the fighters, heroes who know they will likely never be rewarded with recognition, only death. It’s no surprise that some of them cannot go through with their pledged commitment- after all, they’re fighting on behalf of a country that officially surrendered, and are confronted with traitors at every turn, most of them in uniform. Melville himself actively served as a member of the Resistance, and it’s a coldly realistic take on what went on during those dark years, filled with elaborate and well intentioned plans but mostly setbacks and missteps, for lack of any real support system. You’re liable to walk away with the impression that all resistance is futile, but still filled with admiration and sympathy for those who saw light at the end of the tunnel and tried as hard as they could to do what they knew was right, in the face of such hopeless circumstances. A powerfully affecting film.
SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993) Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes. Dir. Steven Spielberg
"This list...is an absolute good. The list is life." - Itzhak Stern
When you think Spielberg, you tend to think heart, sentimentality, and emotion, or at least I do. His best stuff has always had a streak of wonder and wide-eyed innocence running throughout, which sometimes works tenfold (E.T.) and other times goes overboard with sappiness (Hook). So when it comes to this, his best film and most important work, I honestly didn't think he had it in him, and it left me shaken to the core. A rendering of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of two men, Oskar Schindler (Neeson) and Amon Goeth (Fiennes) both Nazis who travel vastly different paths over the course of the war. Schindler is an amoral profiteer who cares less about eliminating Jews than he does making money, even if he has to use them to do it. Goeth is the embodiment of evil and hatred who sets about running the concentration camp he heads through terrorism, picking off Jews left and right for sport. But the war does things to these two men, as only something like it could. If you yourself see only and are the cause of death, destruction and suffering, day in and day out, it seems natural that one of two things would happen. Either it turns you off your screws and into an inhuman monster capable of anything, or your conscience finally gets to you and you feel the helpless need to do something about what you're witnessing. We all know what happens to who. A personal passion project for Spielberg, this film saw his sentimental streak nearly abolished as we see up close and personal the horrors enacted on an entire people, coupled with a stunning black and white visual style (that I also didn't know he had in him) and powerful performances from then unknowns Fiennes and Neeson to create a truly cinematic and absorbing tale documenting one of the worst tragedies in human history. Is that a slight in and of itself? To use a tragedy like the Holocaust to create something that could be construed as entertainment? Some thought so, but my take is that given how many people saw this movie (and will continue to see it) and given how Spielberg never whitewashes the reality of what happened, while also giving audiences a sense of ultimate faith in humanity by the true story of Schindler's transformation, what better medium is there to ensure mass audiences never forget a time that could otherwise be lost to the history books as the Greatest Generation starts to pass on? Schindler's List will survive, and that is the monument of a true work of art...and remembrance.
Original 1993 Trailer:
INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (2009) Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz. Dir. Quentin Tarantino
“I love rumors! Facts can be so misleading, but rumors, true or false, can be often revealing.” - Col. Hans Landa
Tarantino scored a knockout with this, his biggest hit and most widely acclaimed film since Pulp Fiction. It’s a gleefully demented re-write of World War II history, and a thrillingly satisfying one, I have to say. But yeah, don’t mistake any of this for truth- it’s pure historical fantasy from the vengeance and gore-fueled mind of QT, with both sparkling dialogue (in many dialects) and performances all around, but one in particular that so thoroughly jumps off the screen that it’s as much a joy for us to watch as it clearly was for him to play. That’s Col. Hans Landa, the “Jew-hunter,” played by Austrian actor Christoph Waltz in what was incredibly his film debut, but he so completely ate up the role with pure, unabashed relish that he landed an Oscar his first time out. It was too good to resist. The man who speaks all languages and plays for the side that offers him the most rewards is the primary villain, but still a supporting character, as is usually the case in Tarantino’s ensemble films. The rest of the cast is filled out by Diane Kruger as an undercover German spy, Michael Fassbender as a heroic Brit soldier, Melanie Laurent as a Jew in occupied France, and Brad Pitt as the leader of the “Basterds,” a rag-tag group of American fighters sent in to do a job. Tarantino weaves together a rich tapestry of intersecting storylines among various European factions of the war, my favorite of which involves Laurent’s plot to blow up a theater full of Nazis in retaliation for the death of her family, but the connecting thread among them is always Landa, who moves in all circles and threatens all victories. Our star director also imbues the film with intense energy and visual flair, his signature dialogue exchanges enhanced by stylish period settings, the use of several different languages (never thought I’d see foreign actors speaking “Tarantino”), and the high stakes setting of the war provides a natural urgency as opposed to an artificially constructed one (which can sometimes be the case with Tarantino: see Death Proof). A seamless, completely entertaining, gloriously bloody show. If only this was really how it all went down, right?
The Korean War was a relatively brief conflict that ended in a standstill, with not much hoopla in celebration. Our first foray into South Asia, one that foreshadowed our ultimate quagmire in Vietnam, and the tone in films about it starts to get a bit cynical as well, the absurdity of war in general beginning to clash with specific questions as to our reasons for involvement at all. Stay tuned for ultimate disillusionment.
M*A*S*H* (1970) Donald Sutherland, Eliot Gould. Dir. Robert Altman
“Oh, Frank, my lips are hot! Kiss my hot lips!” - Hot Lips O’Houlihan
Robert Altman’s debut film was a smash hit, despite the chaos that went into the filming of it. Altman’s rebellious style was on full display here, with a massive cast of actors who had no idea what he was doing. Set in a medical unit at the frontlines in Korea, and ultimately about the measures a group of doctors and nurses take in order to stay sane in the face of death day in and day out. Altman filmed with an ironic, detached tone that matched the spirit of the docs themselves. Donald Sutherland and Eliot Gould are the surgeons who wreak havoc on the camp and play pranks on the staff, and Altman’s camera moves among them and the huge extended cast, wryly documenting the antics, jokes, conversations and interactions between characters. The Altman style immediately became identified as naturalized acting, overlapping dialogue, and a camera that stays detached in objective observance of the goings on. The story behind the scenes is that Sutherland and Gould, fed up with months of filming with no adherence at all to the original script, tried to have him fired in an attempt to salvage the film. But they needn’t have worried. The brilliance of Altman is his ability to seem utterly removed from the proceedings, only to have it all weave together seamlessly into a coherent and greater meaning by the final reel. There’s a magic to his madness, there really is. MASH spawned the long running TV series of course, and remains a hilarious and darkly satirical anti-war film to this day.
Original 1970 Trailer:
The U.S. conflict in Vietnam was no WWII as far as collective pride and clear cut goals were concerned. No, Vietnam was the first war to spawn a full scale public backlash over the course of the fighting, with massive protests, draft dodging, and ultimate distrust of government officials. Idealism was dead. The disaster in Vietnam led to movies about it similar in tone, but most not made until after the war was over, when there had been time to reflect. Cynicism and hopelessness are on full display for the following epic war films, all considered some of the very best ever made.
PLATOON (1987) Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe. Dir. Oliver Stone
“All you gotta do is make it out of here. It’s all gravy, every day the rest of your life, gravy.” - King to Chris
Oliver Stone, that political rabble rouser, actually fought in Vietnam, then came home and became a screenwriter and director, starting with his trilogy of films about the Vietnam war experience, including this, Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven and Earth. Platoon was his own personal story though, and maybe that’s why it stood head and shoulders above the others. Charlie Sheen was the stand in for Stone, the young infantryman who actually volunteers for duty in 1967, but almost immediately regrets his decision after being thrown into the frontlines upon arrival in Vietnam. That is to say, as much of a front as there was in ‘Nam, our first guerilla war against an entrenched insurgency you could barely even see. Fighting in the jungles with its marked terrain , unbearable weather patterns and invisible enemies takes its toll on Sheen and his unit, made up of young actors like Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker, Kevin Dillon and John C. McGinley in some of their earliest roles. There’s also a story involving the rivalry between platoon Captains Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger, whose long tours of duty have threatened to drive them to the brink. Platoon was expertly shot on location in the Philippines, and is probably the best war movie that actually conveys the experience of being there, immersing you thoroughly in the day to day struggles of the enlisted men and draftees who, almost as soon as they set foot in the jungle, become lost in the madness of their everyday life and forget why and for what reason they’re even fighting. It places you directly in the center of the action and soon you too forget what the mission is supposed to be, the harshness of the surroundings closing in on you and sealing your mind off of anything but simple survival. Platoon deservedly won Best Picture and Best Director in 1987, an even bigger feat when you consider that OTHER epic war movie that came out in the same year…
Original 1986 Trailer:
FULL METAL JACKET (1987) Vincent D’Onofrio, Matthew Modine. Dir. Stanley Kubrick
"Son, all I've ever asked of my marines is that they obey my orders as they would the word of God. We are here to hep the Vietnamese, because inside every gook there is an American trying to get out. It's a hardball world, son. We've gotta keep our heads until this peace craze blows over." - Pogue Colonel
That’s right, it was this one. There really was no better material for a guy like Kubrick, the ultimate cynic, than the war in Vietnam was there? This, from the man who made Paths of Glory about WWI thirty years earlier. Possibly a bit overlooked at the time of its release, due to the overpowering shadow Platoon cast on the whole subject, Full Metal Jacket is now considered a classic in its own right, getting its just due in later years from critics and movielovers alike. Kubrick’s technique here was to split the movie in half, with the first part a cynical and absurdly dark comedic take on what goes on in the army boot camps. D’Onofrio is a slow enlistee who becomes the scorn of the marine sergeant who heaps punishment and insults upon him until he literally can’t take it anymore. It’s a heavy criticism of the training process that prepares young men to become human machines capable of anything. Then, the second half switches over to Vietnam and the city of Saigon, with army journalist Modine taking over the lead as the dry and detached observer of chaos and havoc being wreaked by the ongoing battle on the frontlines (city fighting this time). Like Platoon, FMJ observes the hardening of the human soul in the face of destruction and mass murder, but with that Kubrick-ian cynicism that leaves no room for a potential happy ending or optimistic future. But this time around he’s not the odd man out, as the whole topic of our misadventure in Vietnam had become the subject of scorn and regret for the general public, a widely regarded mistake never to be repeated. Or so one would hope.
Original 1987 Trailer:
APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola
"I love the smell of napalm in the morning." - Lt. Col. Kilgore
A war film on an epic scale, this one is another heavy meditation on the loss of sanity and human feeling the madness of war can drive you to. But in many ways, this is a different kind of film than the others. There are no real battle scenes, and the story itself was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novella, "Heart of Darkness," which was set in Africa. Francis Ford Coppola updated it to Vietnam, as the plot of a troubled and barely sane special operations officer (Martin Sheen) seemed a fitting analogy to the chaos in South Asia. Sheen is assigned to travel to the other end of the country to locate the mysterious Colonel Kurtz, a US officer feared to have gone rogue, and ”terminate” his services. He accepts the task and undergoes the long journey, which shows us the fruits of Coppola’s massive undertaking to actually get this movie made. It’s been said that the making of the film was itself something of a mind numbing nightmare, with accidents on the set, rewrites to the 9th degree, and various illnesses striking the cast and crew left and right. It eventually did wind itself into a disturbing, effective and powerful film really more about madness in its various forms that takes over and twists the human soul. Marlon Brando is the larger than life Kurtz, in a perfect melding of actor and role (he was himself starting to be seen as something of an eccentric and later would go on to play parts that were more or less a version of his “crazy” persona). Co-starring a young Lawrence Fishburne, Harrison Ford, Dennis Hopper, and a scene stealing Robert Duvall, Apocalypse Now is a trippy, mind altering journey you’ll never forget. Oh, and uh, stay away from the extended edition, whatever you do. It’s more than an hour of totally unnecessary and tedious extra footage that adds nothing to the original impact, in fact, if anything I’d say it dilutes it. I know directors hate to cut their films, but you know what guys? Sometimes you really did get it right the first time.
Original 1979 Trailer:
So now, we come to our most recent military debacle in a foreign country, one that inspired much protest and anger, but the difference this time was the lack of a draft, which sadly led the military to shoulder the complete burden of a conflict divorced from much of the public. Interestingly enough, this may be the reason that unlike Vietnam, many Iraq-themed films released in the latter years of the war fell flat, both with the public and critics. The disillusionment this time around fell off to indifference in many cases, with one exception so far, and that’s the following.
THE HURT LOCKER (2009) Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie. Dir. Kathryn Bigelow
“You realize every time you suit up, every time we go out, it’s life or death. You roll the dice, and you deal with it.” - Sgt. JT Sanborn
Known as the little film that could, The Hurt Locker was the one Iraq War film that was beloved by critics, but again fell on the largely apathetic eyes of the public. Still, it managed to hang on and eventually sweep the Oscars, following in the tradition of the many epic war movies of decades past. It deserves to be ranked with the best of them. Part of its success may have been due to its apolitical stance, focusing instead on the personal toll the war takes on its subjects, namely the troops that are fighting this fight without the added cost of public scorn, but also lacking the benefit of even public attention. Set in 2004 Bagdad, at the height of the insurgency, THL takes you directly into the heart of an elite bomb squad unit, whose mission is to go around disassembling active bombs found in the side of the road and elsewhere. The utter futility of their mission is instantly conveyed, as however many are found, there are always more to go, signaling the endless cycle of danger that makes up their lives. Jeremy Renner is the squad leader whose expertise is matched only by his recklessness, but he’s the kind of guy needed to survive the constant threat, he thrives on it. Kathryn Bigelow directs the film with a fierce intensity of purpose that has the effect of immersing you in its action and becoming a kind of suspense thriller; the bomb deactivation sequences are stunningly paced. You’ll be holding your breath every time these guys go out on a mission. The “you are there” feeling is reminiscent of Platoon, and filming was in Jordan within miles of the Iraqi border, giving it an even greater sense of authenticity. The psychology of the soldiers is portrayed as being stuck in a desert hell with no recourse of why they’re really there, again similar to the conflict in Vietnam, but always keeping it within a personal, individualized touch that shows you how separate the whole thing has become, even from the guys’ families back home. They’re living in a different reality from the rest of us, and no one is really looking either way.