Seraphic Friend Katherine asked for some World War Two movie recommendations. It’s interesting, there have been tons and tons of movies set during World War Two, but I’d like to confine my list to a few films that are really interesting or totally obscure and deserve to be seen. As you’ll see, for this list, my definition of a war movie is quite elastic. I did not want to confine myself to movies that just emphasized combat.
In no particular order:
Too Late the Hero, 1970. Cliff Robertson joins a group of British soldiers on a secret mission in the Pacific. What’s special about this film is that all the soldiers absolutely hate each other. The mission is a mess from beginning to end. Michael Caine, as an insubordinate medic, is just brilliant as he goes head to head with every single officer and every order that comes his way. The Japanese are the enemy, but the greater conflict comes from the betrayals—small and large—among the men who fight on the same side. This is not a well known film and I just saw it for the first time on Turner Classic Movies. Highly recommended for all ages.
The Great Raid, 2005. A rousing old-fashioned war movie made only three years ago. It’s the true story of a daring raid to rescue 500 Americans from a brutal Japanese POW camp in the Philippines. The film intercuts the various stages of the raid, and powerful scenes of the plight of the POW’s. The fine actress Connie Nielsen does a great turn as the American lover of one of the POW’s who is also secretly fighting the Japanese. This is a wonderful film that’s perfect for the entire family. The rousing third act will bring tears to your eyes.
Patton, 1970. This movie has the greatest opening shot of any movie in recent memory. The script by Francis Ford Coppola is a masterpiece and Frankln J. Schaffner’s direction is assured at every turn. George C. Scott’s performance is simply towering. He gets under Patton’s complex skin—warrior, mystic, egomaniac—and doesn’t let go for one minute.
The Winter War, 1990. This obscure Finnish film is one of my all time favorites. In 1939 Russia invaded Finland and the tiny Finnish nation fought an incredible 100 day war against the might Russian army. This movies tells the story of a group of ordinary farmers who fight in a reserve unit. The battle scenes are authentic and gripping. There is very little heroism, just a group of desperate men fighting to survive the relentless onslaught of an overwhelming enemy. Powerful and beautifully acted. Scenes at the home front will just tear at your gut as wives, mothers and sisters watch their men march off to almost certain slaughter.
The Big Red One, 1980, Written and Directed by Sam Fuller. Fuller fought with The Big Red One during the war. I’ve read Fuller’s bio, The Third Face, and I recognize numerous scenes from the film as incidents that Fuller actually witnessed in combat: the slaughter on Omaha Beach, a woman giving birth in a burnt-out tank, a shoot-out in a Belgian insane asylum. Fuller’s film follows four baby-faced GI’s and their tough-as-nails Sergeant, Lee Marvin, from North Africa (shot in Israel) to liberating the concentration camps. The film was originally four hours long. The studio released a severely truncated version. The DVD restoration is a revelation.
The Mortal Storm, 1940. This isn’t actually a war movie, but it’s a fine Hollywood film that explained to American audiences what was going on in Europe—the evil that was infecting the continent—before Americans were really quite ready for war. Can you imagine Hollywood making such a film now? Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan star as citizens of a small alpine community who watch in bewilderment as Nazis gradually seduce and corrupt their neighbors. A fine script by Phyllis Bottome, and George Froeshel. The great Frank Borzage directed.
They Were Expendable, 1945. John Ford’s best war movie. PT Boats and their crews from Pearl Harbor to the fall of Bataan. Robert Montgomery stars with John Wayne and the luminous Donna Reed. Oh boy, was she something before she became America’s TV mom. Duty, honor, sacrifice, courage, and dignity are hallmarks of this wonderful film. Wayne gives one of the best performances of his career as he peels away layers of vulnerability in his scenes with Reed.
Band of Brothers, 2001. This HBO mini-series follows an airborne infantry company from boot camp right until the end of the war. This is television at its best; concentrating on details instead of huge set-pieces. The realism is impressive and emphasis is always on survival, not false heroics, nor big speeches. Essential viewing.
Fires on the Plain, 1962. A Japanese private is dying of TB. His Sergeant gives him a grenade and orders him to kill himself. The soldier wanders on the Philippine Island of Leyte, a landscape of rotting corpses, rabid dogs, and cannibal Japanese soldiers. Director Kon Ichikawa with his screenwriter wife Natto Wada, understands that Japan has brought utter devastation to this land. There is only survival. One breath after another. Not for children.
Come and See, 1985. This might be the most powerful and brutal war movie I have ever seen. It’s a Soviet film that tells the story of young Florya, a naive 16-year old Byelorussian, who joins the partisans to fight the Nazis. Soon he finds himself in a scorched landscape where slaughter is the norm. Glascha, a mystical peasant girl, joins him in his odyssey and scenes of incredible brutality alternate with scenes of great lyricism—Glascha doing the Charleston in the rain in a primevil forest. There is a long, harrowing set-piece where an S.S. unit slaughters everyone in a
Byelorussian village. It’s so powerful, so painful, so authentic in its portrayal of casual mass murder that I chewed my lip raw. This is a great and powerful film; there are no great heroic battles, no charges to take pill boxes, just slogging through mud, the utter chaos of battle, the gut-crunching fear of death, the desire for blood vengeance, and the animal desire to stay alive. Do not let your children see this film, nor is it for the faint-hearted.
The Devil’s Arithmetic, 1999. Okay, a little shameless self-promotion. I wrote this film, adapted it from the brilliant book by my friend Jane Yolen, co-produced it with Dustin Hoffman and Mimi Rogers. Kirsten Dunst plays Hannah, a contemporary mall rat who is being forced by her family to attend a Passover seder. She wants to get a tattoo. At the seder Hannah drinks some wine and then opens the door for Elijah the Prophet. Boom, she’s surrounded by a mysterious white light and wakes up in a small Jewish Polish village in 1943. Hannah wants to escape from this fever dream, but she can’t.
And then German soldiers arrive in the village. Hannah tries warning the Jews that they are not being relocated to the east, instead they are being sent to a concentration camp to be murdered. “Sha, you’ll make the soldiers angry,” she is scolded. And so Hannah is taken to Auschwitz where, yes—she finally gets her tattoo. That’s just the first act.
I won my Emmy Award for this film. It’s a unique look at World War Two, a fresh time-travel movie, and a Holocaust film that speaks directly to contemporary audiences—Jewish or not. Kirsten Dunst and Brittany Murphy give brilliant performances. Oscar winner Louise Fletcher is stunning in a supporting role. Director Donna Deitch does a great job with my script. We shot the film in Lithuania during the winter, using an abandoned Soviet army barracks as the location for the concentration camp. Hence the film has an incredible, authentic feel.
I get letters from kids all over the world who have seen The Devil’s Arithmetic and are deeply affected by its message. The best letters are the ones where the kid tells me that because of my film they have decided not to get a tattoo.
As always, I invite my readers to add their list of favorite World War Two movies. Karen and I wish all our Seraphic Friends a wonderful Labor Day Weekend.
And oh yes, Haveil Havalim #132 is up. I’m not going to rewrite the title. Life in Israel didn’t provide one and I don’t have an article in this week’s edition so I don’t feel right about doing my usual rewrite and look-back to some great Hollywood actor, director or writer’s career. Anyway, it’s a wonderful round-up and you should all check it out.