Tuesday, December 13, 2011

War movies worthy of World War II

War is a dirty business, yet, in a perverse fashion, war also entertains. In one of life’s tragic ironies, the senseless deaths of hundreds and thousands on the battlefield—civilian or combatant, ally or enemy—is reenacted on the big screen for the amusement of an audience that can scarcely perceive the true horrors of war. If you are not in it, how can you feel the pain? The audience can be, at best, sympathetic and, at worst, a mute spectator. I would like to think of war movies as awakening us to the terrifying realities of war and its aftermath, and educating and entertaining us at the same time. A reality check, as it were. 

A few days ago, I saw The Dirty Dozen, presumably for the twelfth time, and enjoyed the derring-do of US Major Reisman (Lee Marvin) as he leads a dozen dirty and convicted murderers on a secret mission to wipe out, what seems like, half the roster of German officers during World War II. Nearly every German officer and soldier is either gunned down or blown up. There are losses on the dirty-dozen side too with only Major Reisman and Joseph Wladislaw (Charles Bronson) surviving in the end.

This movie, for no apparent reason, set me thinking about the dozens of war films I have seen over the years; many of them true to reality. An anthology is beyond me. For instance, I haven’t seen many pre-1960 war films, mostly black and white but captivating nonetheless. So what I have done is put together a list of twenty-one of the finest (and panned) World War II films made over a 22-year period from 1957 through 1979. With the exception of Kelly's Heroes (1970), I have seen, or at least remember seeing, the remaining twenty films.

Mind you, this odd-numbered list is not the absolute roll-call of war films during this period and it’s likely I have missed some obvious ones.

As you will, no doubt, glean from the titles, the twenty-one World War II films are all blockbusters, pumped up with adrenalin from a terrific star cast that is every director’s dream and every viewer’s delight. These are fictional films but some have played out on the historical battlefields. For example, The Bridge on the River Kwai alludes to the construction of a railway in Burma in early 1940s while The Great Escape is believed to have actually taken place.

A random headcount reveals the following interesting aspects in these films:

* Richard Burton, Donald Sutherland, Robert Ryan, and Telly Savalas star in four of the films; Charles Bronson, Maximilian Schell, Henry Fonda, Michael Caine, Robert Shaw, Edward Fox, and Michael Byrne appear in three; and Richard Harris, Sean Connery, James Coburn, Clint Eastwood, Martim Balsam, and Donald Pleasence act in two movies each.

* Ken Annakin, John Sturges, and Guy Hamilton are the only ones to have directed two films each.

* Three singers, Trini López, Paul Anka, and Art Garfunkel, share a film each.

* Three of these movies are based on thrillers written by Scottish novelist Alistair MacLean (remember him?). Two others are adapted from the novels of Cornelius Ryan.

* Watch out for young stars like William Shatner, Harrison Ford, Dan Ackroyd, and Clint Eastwood.

With bayonets at the ready, let's run through some of the memorable war movies ever made this side of WWII.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Director: David Lean
Book: French writer Pierre Boulle
Cast: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, and Geoffrey Horne

Plot: Spirited British POWs are forced to build a bridge for their Japanese captors even as the Allies plan to destroy it.

Standout: Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson.

The Guns of Navarone (1961)

Director: J. Lee Thompson
Book: Alistair MacLean
Cast: David Niven, Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, Stanley Baker, and Richard Harris

Plot: A three-member British crack force is sent to occupied-Greece to destroy powerful German guns that loom over a strategic sea channel.

Standout: Gregory Peck as Capt. Keith Mallory

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

Director: Stanley Kramer
Cast: Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Maximilian Schell, Montgomery Clift, William Shatner, and Werner Klemperer

Plot: The war is over and most of the Nazi leaders have been prosecuted. The fate of four Nazi judges, however, hangs in the balance.

Standout: Spencer Tracy as Chief Judge Dan Haywood

The Longest Day (1962)

Directors: Ken Annakin & Andrew Marton
Book: Cornelius Ryan
Cast: Paul Anka, John Wayne, Robert Ryan, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, George Segal, Rod Steiger, and Robert Wagner

Plot: D-Day, the Allied landing in France, is told on a scale bigger than 70mm. Look out for the cameos.

Standout: John Wayne as Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort

The Great Escape (1963)

Director: John Sturges
Cast: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, James Donald, David McCallum, and John Leyton

Plot: Don’t miss the comic parts in this otherwise true story of an audacious plan by Allied POWs to escape from a German camp…by the hundreds.

Standout: Steve McQueen as Hilts ‘The Cooler King’

Battle of the Bulge (1965) 

Director: Ken Annakin
Cast: Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, Robert Ryan, George Montgomery, Charles Bronson, and Telly Savalas.

Plot: It’s the Battle of Belgium really, as Allied and German forces clash in the Ardennes in the last months of World War II. Round one to Germany.

Standout: Robert Shaw as Col. Hessler

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Director: Robert Aldrich 
Cast: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, John Cassavetes, Richard Jaeckel, George Kennedy, Trini López, Ralph Meeker, Robert Ryan, Clint Walker, Robert Webber, Tom Busby, and Ben Carruthers

Plot: The dirty dozen, a band of convicted murderers, give their lives for the Allied cause. Only one among them survives to tell the story of the secret plan to assassinate hundreds of German officers and soldiers.

Standout: The dirty dozen

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

Director: Brian G. Hutton 
Book: Alistair MacLean
Cast: Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, and Patrick Wymark

Plot: A US ranger finds himself in a secret British operation to rescue an American General held prisoner at Nazi headquarters, but there’s more than meets the eye.

Standout: Richard Burton as Major John Smith

Battle of Britain (1969)

Director: Guy Hamilton 
Cast: Michael Caine, Trevor Howard, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Michael Redgrave, Robert Shaw, Michael Bates, and Edward Fox

Plot: It’s the RAF vs. the Luftwaffe as the two countries battle for control of British airspace, and the invasion of Britain that never came.

Standout: Michael Caine as Squadron Leader Canfield

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

Directors: Richard Fleischer & Kinji Fukasaku 
Cast: Martin Balsam, Sô Yamamura, Joseph Cotton, Jason Robards, and James Whitmore

Plot: On December 7, 1941, Japan took America and the rest of the world by surprise with a Sunday morning air raid on Pearl Harbour at Honolulu, the capital of Hawaii. This film dramatises the events leading up to that fateful day, and Japan’s greatest blunder.

Standout: Jason Robards as Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short

Catch-22 (1970)

Director: Mike Nichols 
Book: Joseph Heller
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Orson Welles, Alan Arkin, Martin Balsam, and Art Garfunkel.

Plot: If you’ve read Heller’s satirical novel, then you know the film is about a USAF bombardier’s desperate effort to be certified insane to avoid combat flying missions. It’s a catch-22 situation because if the man does not seek an “unfit to fly” evaluation he continues to fly and if he is sane enough to seek one, it means he is not insane and still flies. That’s military logic for you.

Standout: Alan Arkin as Capt. John Yossarian

Kelly's Heroes (1970)

Director: Brian G. Hutton 
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, and Donald Sutherland

Plot: A group of US soldiers sneaks across enemy lines to get their hands on a secret stash of Nazi treasure.

Standout: Telly Savalas as Master Sergeant Big Joe

Patton (1970)

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Books: Ladislas Farago's Patton: Ordeal and Triumph and Omar N. Bradley's A Soldier's Story
Cast: George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Stephen Young, Frank Latimore, and Michael Strong

Plot: Patton tells the true story of General George S. Patton, the brave and outspoken US commander, nicknamed Old Blood and Guts, during World War II.

Standout: George C. Scott as General George S. Patton Jr

Raid on Rommel (1971)

Director: Henry Hathaway 
Cast: Richard Burton, John Colicos, Clinton Greyn, and Wolfgang Preiss

Plot: The ‘Desert Fox’ was to Germany what ‘Old Blood and Guts’ was to America. A British commando unit is on a mission to destroy German guns at Tobruk in North Africa, and along the way comes Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.

Standout: Richard Burton as Capt. Alex Foster

Operation Daybreak (1975)

Director: Lewis Gilbert 
Cast: Timothy Bottoms, Martin Shaw, and Joss Ackland

Plot: Operation Daybreak recounts the true story of a plan by a Czech resistance force to assassinate an SS General known as The Butcher of Prague. Don't miss the last heartrending scene.

Standout: Timothy Bottoms as Jan Kubis

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)

Director: John Sturges 
Book: Jack Higgins
Cast: Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasence, and Michael Byrne

Plot: A crack German parachute unit is sent to Britain to kidnap Prime Minister Churchill and bring him to Berlin. Don’t forget to read the book.

Standouts: Michael Caine as Colonel Steiner and Donald Sutherland as IRA ideologue Liam Devlin

A Bridge Too Far (1977)

Director: Richard Attenborough 
Book: Cornelius Ryan
Cast: Sean Connery, Ryan O'Neal, Gene Hackman, Dirk Bogarde, Michael Caine, Michael Byrne, Anthony Hopkins, James Caan, Maximilian Schell, Colin Farrell, Laurence Olivier, Robert Redford, and Edward Fox

Plot: With a solid cast like that you don’t have to bother with the story. Still, this historical film captures the Allies’ failed attempt to capture strategic bridges to Germany in Operation Market Garden.

Standout: Standout: Dirk Bogarde as Lieutenant-General Frederick 'Boy' Browning

Cross of Iron (1977)

Director: Sam Peckinpah 
Cast: James Coburn, Maximilian Schell, James Mason, and David Warner
Book: The screenplay is based on the 1956 novel The Willing Flesh by Willi Heinrich

Plot: Two German military officers are caught in an ego clash and spar over the decorated Iron Cross, somewhere on the Russian front.

Standout: James Coburn as Unteroffizier Feldwebel (Staff Sergeant) Rolf Steiner

Force 10 From Navarone (1978)

Director: Guy Hamilton 
Book: Alistair MacLean
Cast: Robert Shaw, Harrison Ford, Edward Fox, Franco Nero, Carl Weathers, Richard Kiel, and Michael Byrne

Plot: An assorted bunch of military experts team up to raid and destroy a bridge vital to German strategy.

Standout: Harrison Ford as Colonel Barnsby

The Biggest Battle (1978) 

Director: Umberto Lenzi
Cast: Orson Welles (narrator), Henry Fonda, Helmut Berger, Giuliano Gemma, John Huston, and Stacy Keach

Plot: Story of how WWII affected the lives of a German and an American family that had sons and fathers fighting in the war.

Standout: Helmut Berger as Lt. Kurt Zimmer

1941 (1979)

Director: Steven Spielberg 
Cast: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, Treat Williams, Christopher Lee, Tim Matheson, Robert Stack, and John Candy

Plot: Hysteria grips California following the bombing of Pearl Harbour as an assorted group of defenders try to defend the coast against an imagined Japanese invasion.

Standout: John Belushi as Capt. Wild Bill Kelso

Note: Material for this post has been sourced from IMDb and Wikipedia for factual correctness.

Don't forget to check out Tuesday's Overlooked/Forgotten movies at Todd Mason's blog at http://socialistjazz.blogspot.com


  1. I've seen and enjoyed most of these at some point. Cross of Iron was made from a very find book by Willi Heinrich.

  2. I completely missed the book, Charles. Thanks for mentioning it. I'm going to include this.

  3. Well done Prashant, this post a blockbuster in and of itself! KELLY'S HEROES is very much the joker in the pack, a 1960s counter-culture caper comedy masquerading as a war movie - but fun all the same! I noticed that you like Robert Ryan so much that he appears twice in the cast of THE LONGEST DAY - Incidentally, the Colin Farrell that appears on THE LONGEST DAY (and Richard Attenborough's other great war epis, OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR) is not the same person as the star of HART'S WAR.

  4. PS apologies for any conusion - the reference to Colin Farrell and Attenborough belong to the other Cornelius Ryan movie, A BRIDGE TOO FAR and not THE LONGEST DAY - the Farrell who is in the Attenborough movies is now in his mid 70s but is actually still a fairly busy thespian in the UK. I'm not quite sure why the Union didn't make the young Irish actor change his name, though the older actor is usually billed as 'Col Farrell' which may be the reason why.

  5. Thanks very much for your comments, Sergio. I can see I need to fine-tune the post a bit starting with knocking off Robert Ryan's name a second time from under THE LONGEST DAY. In fact, I read this post daily for any stupid mistakes I might have made.

  6. Great post. I've seen most of these and really need to watch the ones I haven't seen.

  7. Thank you, Mr Reasoner. I appreciate your views. I'm a sucker for war and western films.

  8. excellent post-I have seen maybe 1/3 of the movies-thanks for this very well done post

  9. Mel U, thanks very much for your comments. I love watching WWII and Cold War films.

  10. i have not seen most of the films in your post, but the posters really get my attention! Movie star portraits and great composition make a great poster.

  11. Don, thanks for visiting. Film posters in any language are always a visual treat. I hope to do one on Indian cinema soon.

  12. What a fine list of movies, Prashant. I have read 15 of them and some of them are among my favorite movies ever, ones we watch over and over.