Almost 70 years after its close, cinema still continues to be fascinated by World War Two. It could be because a conflict as vast and wide-reaching offers scope for so many diverse stories, or because the ghost of the war still lingers as a forever-timely argument for peace. Right now, we find ourselves between releases, of two very different WWII movies out of Hollywood that will be vying for gold this awards season: David Ayer’s apocalyptic tank movie, Fury, and Angelina Jolie’s Louis Zamperini biopic, Unbroken. Though Fury and Unbroken have the requisite financial backing to guarantee mass exposure, not all of the great WWII movies from cinema’s past are today remembered as widely as perhaps they should be. Ten of the best of those can be found below.
How can something so meager possess such power? Dirty Dozen cast member-turned-writer/director Stuart Cooper fills the budget-necessitated holes of British WWII drama Overlord with copious archive footage, to tell the tale of a Brit draftee named Tommy (what else?). Put through military training in preparation for D-Day, Tommy and his fellow soldiers suspect they’ll be slaughtered almost instantly. Before his departure for Normandy, Tommy briefly romances a girl, only to be haunted by the possibilities were it not for a war he’s reluctant to fight. Bolstering the fiction filmmaking with documentary footage achieves some mesmerizing effect here—rather than cheapen the film by highlighting its budgetary shortcomings, the decision to include archival material retains a vital tie to the past. The film basically plays one sustained note about the death of innocence, but Cooper chooses the perfect chord.
Set at the tail end of the war, Bernhard Wicki’s The Bridge relocates the teen movie to a Nazi Germany on the verge of collapse. In this film, the schoolboys of a rural Bavarian town curse school, interact awkwardly with girls, and fantasize about killing for the Fatherland. Seven eager chums eventually get their wish when Hitler’s Total War drafts them into a desperate endgame, the noble adventure continuing in the boy-soldiers’ brainwashed minds even as the rest of the German army retreats around them. Gleefully shooting at tin cans lined across the bridge they’ve been assigned to protect, these are children in uniform, playing at war; until, of course, they’re not, and the agonizingly protracted final battle does away with innocence forever.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Andre De Toth’s Play Dirty would be nothing more than a fruitless cash-in attempt on Robert Aldrich’s classic The Dirty Dozen. After all, it shares 50% of the title and the whole “rogue leader takes crims on a suicide mission” plot does seem a little familiar. In fact, Play Dirty’s a tighter and vitally less-bloodthirsty film: whereas Aldrich’s Dirty Dozen are taught to love the army and hate the German, the men of Play Dirty, led by the dashingly amoral double act of Michael Caine and Nigel Davenport, never see their mission as anything other than FUBAR. With enemy tribes freely roaming the borderless desert landscape and morally lax hired guns positioned as the “heroes,” Play Dirty can feel closer to a western than a war movie—and one of Peckinpah’s at that. The pointlessness of man murdering his fellow man is noted in a whimper of a finale, a melancholic stroke that caps off one of the more entertaining men-on-a-mission movies.
It seems almost unfathomable that Mikhail Kalatozov’s films could exist in a time before CGI and the Steadicam. The wonder of his visuals and effortless control over crowd scenes is most evident in his titanic piece of propaganda, I Am Cuba, but his Palme D’Or-winning The Cranes Are Flying is the holistically superior film. Romance between Veronika (Tatiana Samoilova) and Boris (Aleksey Batalov) is put on hold when Russia enters the war and Boris volunteers to fight, beginning simultaneous tales of life on the front and at home in the former Soviet Union. Whereas I Am Cuba feels like Marxist didacticism as well as an exercise for the director to display the full splendor of his technique, the incredible tracking shots and opulent framing here serve only the story. Covering four years of struggle in a concise 97 minutes, The Cranes Are Flying makes more famed epic war romances like Dr Zhivago and Reds look positively indulgent (more so, anyway).
An obvious forebear to his 1967 masterwork The Red and the White, My Way Home is another example of director Miklos Jancso’s hypnotically fluid storytelling set in war-ravaged Eastern Europe. The film follows a teenage student (Andras Kozak) who finds fate out of his control on the way home to Hungary, as he’s captured by Russian forces, freed, then captured again, and forced to work out on a farm with a young Russian soldier (Sergei Nikonenko). For Jancso, the politics of war only baffles the men fighting in it—nothing about war makes sense on the ground level. The lack of a common language between the student and the soldier—dialogue comes only at intervals as outsider hearsay and rumor—helps reduce them to their most basically human. Removed from the conflict, the two develop a bond dictated by their inherent humanity rather than governmental decree.
Better known for his shattering WWII drama from 1987, Au Revoir Les Enfants, Louis Malle’s French occupation movie from the previous decade, Lacombe, Lucien, is a much darker, more obscure affair. It’s paradoxically a character study of a character we never truly know, the titular dim-witted farmhand (Pierre Blaise) who spots a shortcut to personal power in collaborating with the Nazi invaders. We spend the entire movie in the unpleasant company of this young man, watching for sparks of redemption as he carries out orders against his countrymen, and often without the obvious capacity to understand or care that he’s doing wrong. Malle works in the subtlest shades of gray here—he doesn’t ask you to sympathize, but to question why.
The flipside to Lacombe, Lucien (at least in terms of perspective), Army of Shadows tells the story of the French that resisted Nazi occupation. It’s a black-and-white film made in color, Jean-Pierre Melville’s predominantly gray-blue color palette lending a chilly air to a decidedly bleak and minimalist saga less about the heroism of defiance and more about surviving the consequences of resistance. The film is as subdued as the phantom-like men and women fighting for reclamation of their land, visually as murky as the actions perpetrated by either side of the fight. Melville’s tenth was virtually unknown until 2006, when his film—widely derided at home on initial release—finally opened in the United States to critical acclaim. In the wake of its relatively recent re-evaluation, Army of Shadows stands, along with Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, as one of the defining films about the French resistance.
In Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain, Tamura, a Japanese infantryman with consumption (Eiji Funakoshi), makes a directionless pilgrimage through the Philippine jungle, looking for means to survive following the Japanese army’s defeat by U.S. forces in the region. Forced into an ascetic life, Tamura’s journey becomes a kind of religious experience—retaining his soul means sharing with others and not resorting to cannibalism, his body wasting while he clings onto his humanity as though that alone will keep him alive. A platoon of Japanese soldiers clamber over each other in the night like bugs, lit up by the enemy tanks about to decimate them; a dying soldier hungrily eats a handful of mud. Almost everything, from the dread-heavy score to the frighteningly dazed performance by Funakoshi (the actor reportedly ate so little in preparation that filming halted for two months while he recovered), tells us to abandon this savage epic. Yet its perverse beauty is hard to turn away from.
Woody Allen considers it one of the greatest American pictures, and the shame about Sidney Lumet’s WWII-set prison movie The Hill is not just that one of Lumet’s best has been largely forgotten, but that the film probably would be recognized as a WWII classic by many were it only more widely known. Making optimum use of its single setting, a British military stockade in the middle of Libya, The Hill features far and away Sean Connery’s finest performance, as a former sergeant major convicted of assaulting his CO, as well as some dazzling cinematography that highlights the baking claustrophobia of prison life in the North African desert. It’s a story of injustice and the best kind of war movie absurdity—the punishment is to be taken off the frontline and relocated to behind the relative safety of prison walls?—and whether Lumet, king of tales of law and order in The City, ever bettered himself is arguable.
Apparently highly influential on Fury, Elem Klimov’s Come and See is the war movie as expressionist horror, a gallery of violence and dreadful symbolism that’s also a cruel coming-of-age spectacle. Perhaps Klimov could only comprehend the genocidal reality of the Nazi war machine storming Belorussia through this hallucination of sound and imagery: corpse-piles attracting clouds of flies, dairy cows machine-gunned by tracers at dusk, forest bombing raids that leave the lead character’s (and the film’s) aural faculties muffled. Though we’re witness to atrocities, including a climactic annihilation of a Belorussian village that may be the single most effective anti-war scene in cinema, the damage done to young hero Flyora (Aleksei Kravchenko) is what’s most unforgettable, as he enters the picture fresh-faced and idealistic and leaves it withered and hollow. The title is a line taken from the Book of Revelation; the epic terror implied in the biblical quotation is absolutely fitting for what might just be the greatest war movie ever made, and undoubtedly the most harrowing.
Brogan Morris is a UK-based freelance writer, and editor of online film/TV magazine Screen Robot. Opinions on film range from the pretentious to the frankly laughable. Find him on Twitter.