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March 11, 2007

Best WWII Movies

...according to Sertorius, who sent me this last week.

By the way, I am really, really out of it due to a weeklong flu that seemed to be going away but now is back with a vengeance. I'm in a permanent fog of Tylenol Cold and Nyquil.

I know there are a bunch of emails I was supposed to respond to, but now I just can't remember what they were. If I haven't gotten back to you about something, email me again to remind me, please.

And regarding the donations people have made: I haven't forgotten about thank-yous for those; I just haven't had the focus to start writing them. I apologize for their lateness.

Anyway, on to the WWII flicks:

The Best (and Worst) Movies About World War Two

The best of the best: these movies are flawless, or nearly so; they are the cinematic masterpieces of World War Two. All are rock-solid as “war movies” but also stand as excellent cinema in their own right. Anyone with an interest in World War Two should own them all. The lists are all in alphabetical order, as it seemed silly and arbitrary to try to assign individual numbers to them.

Band of Brothers – Not a movie, but a miniseries, but so impressive it had to be included. Band of Brothers has it all: a great ensemble cast, a true story portrayed very accurately, commentary from the real men of the 101st Airborne between each episode, and a brilliant re-telling of the amazing story of Easy Company from airborne training to the stand-down following the end of the Third Reich. Pitch-perfect in every way. Great combat sequences, and in some ways more moving than Saving Private Ryan since everything really happened. If you buy the whole series on DVD, you are likely to start them at 1pm on a Saturday, and then suddenly realize it’s 2am on Sunday, you’ve smoked three packs of cigarettes, gone through two fifths of booze, and have no idea where the time has gone. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Bridge on the River Kwai –. Accurately portrays the brutality of the Japanese towards allied prisoners, and overlays a compelling (fictional) plot about Japanese efforts to construct a railway bridge and allied efforts to destroy it. Alec Guiness gives an incredible performance as the senior British officer, years before he was Obi-Wan Kenobi. The “What the hell have I done?” scene at the end is one of the greatest in movie history, and you’ll be whistling the “Colonel Bogey March” for the rest of your natural life. The only downside is that during the movie you’ll be occasionally fantasizing about the Japanese camp commander drawing his katana and Sir Alec responding by drawing his lightsaber.

Das Boot – The best submarine movie ever, period. Vividly portrays the absolute, visceral terror involved in being 600 feet under the water in a metal tube with depth charges that you can’t see exploding all around you. Although it’s a German movie, all of the major actors also spoke English so you can hear the movie without subtitles in 5.1 stereo. Despite the cause for which they fought, you can’t finish this movie without a profound respect for the 40,000 men who served in the German U-Boat fleet (3/4 of whom never came back).

The Dirty Dozen – Fictional story of a group of convict-soldiers given the chance to redeem themselves by “volunteering” for a suicidal raid on a German fortress used for R&R by the German general staff. Lee Marvin leads an all-star cast in one of the best adventure movies of all time.

Downfall – Another German movie, and this one has to be watched with subtitles. Suck it up and do it anyway. Downfall portrays the final delusional weeks of Hitler, when he is cloistered in the Fuhrerbunker issuing ridiculous orders to decimated German “armies” that exist only on paper while the Russian shells get closer and closer. It’s based on the recollections of Hitler’s private secretary, who survived the war. An unflinching look at the final days of some of the most notorious leaders of the Third Reich that leaves the viewer with more understanding of, but not sympathy for, these men.

The Guns of Navarone – Very well done story of a fictional commando raid on two huge German guns that would endanger the D-Day armada. Guns has a great cast, a realistic-ish (though fictional) plot, and tons of suspense. Spies, boats, double-crosses, chases, shootouts – Guns has everything a guy could want, but is never condescending or silly. What the Mission Impossible movies could be like if they were made by people with IQs greater than your average bacon double cheeseburger.

The Longest Day – Massive retelling of almost every aspect of the Normandy invasion, told from the both the Allied and German sides. The movie manages to tie together all of the disparate events of D-Day while still being exciting and maintaining a coherent narrative. The combat scenes aren’t very impressive in comparison to modern efforts like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, but it’s still a remarkable work. Anyway, it’s the Duke and D-Day – what red-blooded American could say no?

Patton – George C. Scott gives one of the best performances in movie history as General Patton. Although historians may quibble with a detail or two, overall the movie accurately portrays the major events in the life of the Allied general most feared by the Germans (with good reason). Patton is also, by a large margin, the most quotable of the World War Two movies. There are some great lighter moments such as Patton dismissing the “mongoloid Russians”, but the scene where the allied generals are scrambling to react to the German Ardennes offensive (the Battle of the Bulge) and Patton quietly states “I can attack with three divisions in 48 hours” is one of the great stand-up-and-cheer moments in all of Hollywood.

Saving Private Ryan – I don’t have much original to say, since almost everyone has seen this film. If you haven’t, mission control is calling and is wondering when your spaceship is going to land. The opening D-Day sequence is perhaps the most intense and compelling sequence ever put on film; only the final showdown in The Wild Bunch comes close. Although the larger story arc regarding “Private Ryan” is fictional, the combat scenes are balls-on accurate. No better portrayal of what it was like to be an infantryman in World War Two has been done, nor will likely ever be done. One of the few movies where men are officially allowed to cry at the end.

12 O’Clock High – Gritty, accurate portrayal of the strategic bombing campaign over Germany by the U.S.. Extensively uses real combat footage, and is a great study in the incredible stress suffered by men who went up for mission after mission, knowing that sooner or later their plane was going to be hit by fighters or flak and in that event, their chances of survival were low.

Hey, you ask, where are The Great Escape and Schindler’s List? Not here. Both are outstanding movies in every way, but I wanted a list of movies that focused at least partially on combat. My list, my rules. If this offends you, replace The Dirty Dozen and The Guns of Navarone (the two most “fictional” movies on the list) with The Great Escape and Schindler’s List in the top ten and call it even.

The ten runners-up. These ten are close, but not quite there; they are great movies with one or more flaws. Definitely worth your time and still classics, nonetheless:

Attack Force Z – Fictional, but realistic, account of a mission by Z Special Force commandos on a Japanese held island. Some uneven acting (one of the stars is a young Mel Gibson), but overall a very solid look at the commando war in the Pacific, something that hasn’t gotten much attention.

The Big Red One – Partially autobiographical account of director Sam Fuller’s experiences in the First Infantry Division. Lee Marvin is great as the grizzled veteran sergeant, but the rest of the cast is not as strong. It also has some pretty weird scenes, like an insane asylum and the birth of a baby in a tank. The voice-over is distracting and obnoxious. On the plus side, the combat sequences are solid, and Big Red One gives a great feel for the different kinds of operations carried out by the U.S. Army, from Africa to Italy to Normandy to Germany. Despite the occasional “What the hell?” moment while watching, it’s still a good one.

A Bridge Too Far – Accurate recounting of one of the biggest Allied disasters of the war, the massive airborne drop into Holland called Operation Market-Garden that led to the near annihilation of the British First Airborne Division. An impressive cast and respectable battle scenes, but director Richard Attenborough just can’t pull it all together in a coherent narrative that flows well. The end result is a bit disjointed, but still impressive. Also the apotheosis of the famed Caine-Hackman theory of cable TV movie scheduling.

Enemy at the Gates – Very well done tale of a sniper duel between a Russian and German sniper during the battle of Stalingrad. Great battle scenes, and a good Hollywood movie focusing on the Eastern Front was long overdue. Enemy would have been in the Top 10, except for an absurd love triangle subplot involving Rachel Weisz that chews up a lot of the movie. You can just picture some Hollywood suit saying “Hmm, we need to attract more women to see this movie, add in a pointless and distracting romantic subplot.” Fast-forward any scene with Rachel Weisz in it and you’ve got a much shorter but much better movie.

Enemy Below – Story of a fictional duel between a U.S. destroyer escort and a German submarine. A great character study, with both captains played intelligently and well by Kurt Jurgens and Robert Mitchum. Deftly portrays the almost chess-like strategy involved when a destroyer is pitted against a U-boat. It is a bit unrealistic in parts (e.g., Mitchum predicts the timing of the German torpedo reload to the second using only his stopwatch), and the special effects and model ships are a bit cheesy, but it’s still a winner.

In Harm’s Way – The least stereotypical “war” movie on the lists, In Harm’s Way follows the careers of two fictional navy officers (played by John Wayne and Kirk Douglas) from the attack on Pearl Harbor to island hopping offensives in the Pacific. The subplots involving the personal lives of the officers and naval politics are well done, and the movie provides an accurate “big picture” account of combined-arms operations in the Pacific. The combat scenes are sorely lacking by today’s standards, though.

Kelly’s Heroes – The undisputed king of the niche World War Two drama/action/comedy genre. American GIs stage a penetration far behind German lines to steal a fortune in Nazi gold bars. Sounds silly, and the plot basically is, but it works remarkably well even with the comedy bits thrown in. Well done combat scenes, and contains a rare cinematic look at soldiers clearing a minefield. Principally held back by the over-the-top plot and a totally anachronistic flower-child tank commander played by Donald Sutherland.

Midway – An incredibly accurate and entertaining portrayal of the carrier battle that was the turning point of the Pacific war. Sadly, it’s marred by two ridiculous, fictional subplots: a young pilot whose father apparently didn’t give him enough hugs growing up and the same young pilot’s highly implausible romance with a Japanese-American woman in an internment camp. Still, it gets bonus points for being a war movie starring Charlton Heston which more than make up for these flaws.

Stalingrad – German movie about . . .the battle of Stalingrad. Stalingrad is, by far, the most effective film of all time at conveying the utter despair of the average German infantryman fighting far from home in the brutal Russian winter. Sadly, Stalingrad’s combat sequences are a bit weak; this one could have used another 5 or 10 million Deutschmarks added to the budget. Still very compelling, though.

Tora Tora Tora – The story of Pearl Harbor, told accurately and without emotion from both the U.S. and Japanese perspectives. Comprehensive in scope and dead-on with the details, but like A Bridge Too Far, it is somehow less than the sum of its parts. This was perhaps inevitable given the multiple directors involved: too many cooks in the kitchen, too many chiefs and not enough Indians, etc. etc. In the hands of a single, visionary director this could have been a masterpiece and we might have been spared the Ben Affleck version.

Avoid at All Costs: There are plenty of other WW2 movies ranging from the pretty good to the mediocre to the awful, but four deserve special comment. These recent big-time Hollywood productions transcend the normal “bad” WW2 movie and reach that rarefied pinnacle of awfulness causing you to weep for two wasted hours (or more) of your life that you cannot ever get back. They are so dreadful that viewing these movies may cause post-traumatic stress similar to being shelled for two hours by German artillery.

Pearl Harbor – The story of Pearl Harbor filmed as if it were an episode of Baywatch, only not as good. If there is any justice in the world, the anonymous Hollywood exec that green-lit a movie about Pearl Harbor starring Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, and directed by the man who gave us Bad Boys and Armageddon, has been demoted to third assistant supervisor of Britney Spears’ videos. The result is what you would expect: feces. On the bright side, Pearl Harbor did earn a place in cinematic history by being so bad that Matt Stone and Trey Parker actually wrote a song mocking it in Team America: World Police.

Thin Red Line – If your idea of a good way to spend three hours is hearing angst-filled teenage poetry while on a bad acid trip, look no further! Supposedly about the battle of Guadalcanal, this abomination is long on dreamlike sequences of characters reminiscing about the home front or swimming in blue water with natives and very short on minor details like, oh, the actual battle of Guadalcanal. I’d rather watch fat women do synchronized swimming than sit through this again.

U-571 – Quick SAT analogy flashback: _____ is to Das Boot as Archie comic books are to Shakespeare. And that’s being pretty harsh on poor Archie’s comic books. This movie enthusiastically leaps across that subtle line separating “bad” from “so bad it’s unintentionally funny.” It not only tries to steal the British glory for capturing an Enigma code machine, but blatantly and clumsily tries to rip off famous scenes from Das Boot. U-571 contains moments so absurdly inept that anyone who knows anything about submarines will literally laugh out loud. Finally, Matthew McConaghey is so hopelessly miscast and out of his depth (heh) as a sub captain that I began secretly hoping I was watching Deep Blue Sea: The Sequel and a huge CGI shark would jump out and give the Sam Jackson treatment to Captain Matt. Alas, no such luck.

Windtalkers – Only Hollywood could take one of the most interesting details of World War Two, the Navajo radiomen who used their native language to confound Japanese eavesdroppers, and make this soulless piece of dreck. The “plot”, such as it is, revolves around the risible concept that each Navajo had a sort of bodyguard/assassin assigned to them who was supposed to protect them but also shoot them to prevent them from being captured. Nicholas Cage gives one of the worst performances in his less than awe-inspiring career, and John Woo’s direction proves conclusively that being adept with Hong Kong style action flicks isn’t the same thing as directing a World War Two epic. A movie that had Bugs Bunny “windtalking” using decoder rings from cereal boxes to fool Elmer Fudd would have been more realistic than this, and certainly more entertaining.


Allow me (Ace) to quibble. I just saw The Dirty Dozen yesterday, and I had the same impression of it that I always do: A few great scenes (Donald Sutherland as "The General," Lee Marvin's calling his fellow officer "emotional") in a generally silly, cliched movie where even the battle scenes are pretty damn lame. Very overrated.

How long, exactly, does it take to remove some ventilation-shaft covers and then pour in satchels of grenades and cannisters of gasoline? According to the Dirty Dozen, it takes, more or less, six and half hours. Of pure, silly tedium.

And that whole conceit -- the Germans all retreating to an underground bunker which just happens to contain lots of ammunition and explosives ready to be set off with a bit of fire -- obscures a question: Had Maggot not gone all crazy and ruined the plan by sending the German troops fleeing, how exactly did the Dirty Dozen intend to kill one hundred-plus armed men in a huge chateau containing lots of rooms and lots of defensible positions?

For that matter, why did nearly everyone flee to the bunker, rather than a good number of armed men knocking over tables to be used as cover and putting up a fight against the fourteen-man raiding force?

How exactly did the team plan on hunting down and shooting almost every single officer in that huge castle before serious reinforcements would arrive to kill them all?

Well, luckily Maggot went conveniently psychopathic and turned what might have been a very long hunt-and-kill effort against a hundred armed men into a somewhat quicker underground barbecue.

Quite frankly, I think any "men" who really like this movie are just homos for Franco and Posey.

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posted by Ace at 04:46 PM

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