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The Greatest World War II Movies

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World War II did not lead to a wave of great literature, especially given its overwhelming importance in the twentieth century. But it sure led to a wave of great film. Perhaps no other event has so dominated global film. Some of this is of course lucky timing–the postwar world saw arguably the artistic peak of French, Japanese, and American filmmaking, three of the critical nations in the war. At least to my knowledge, it took the German film industry a good while to get going after the war, but then certainly it did. Late-Stalinist Soviet film is best not really talked about much, but even later Soviet filmmakers managed to put out some incredible war films. And there are of course scattered greats from other nations too. Moreover, these nations put out lots of war films at the time, some of which are fantastic. The war remains an enduring subject of film. These days, I’d argue most of them are not very good or covering tired ground, but there are exceptions.

So, if we consider the totality of World War II films, from early Nazi film through the war and into the decades later, what are the greatest? I can’t give a definitive answer as I haven’t seen all of them. But here are my 10 favorites on this very day, along with some additional possibilities or films that at least need to be mentioned. Other days, this list would look differently.

  1. The Burmese Harp

Simply one of the most beautiful films ever made, Kon Ichikawa’s 1956 masterpiece is the story of a soldier who attempts to get his fellow soldiers to surrender to the Allies. When they all commit suicide anyway, he spends the next years walking around southeast Asia, finding Japanese corpses he can bury. A film that really apologized to the world for Japanese imperialism probably wouldn’t work, so perhaps this is not the political statement some might want, but it’s a beautiful and touching film.

2. Army of Shadows

Sure, you want to glamorize the French resistance a little bit. Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 film doesn’t do that. Instead, it tells what being a resistance member was really like, which was mostly that you figured you would die at any time. It’s all pretty hopeless, but what else are you going to do?

3. Night and Fog

The Holocaust has taken on a life of its own, especially in the United States, where it ultimately had more resonance than in Europe. To some extent, this is negative, as we have seen this week with the pushback in calling American concentration camps by their name because only the Nazis could have done that and we are not Nazis. In 1945, except for the Jewish and other survivors of them, the Holocaust did not get that much attention in Europe. That was a project and it took a lot of time. In later decades, the Holocaust would become the signature moment of the war, even more than the use of atomic weapons. It’s now been filmed over and over again, from the epic (Shoah, which I have never seen) to the clownishly awful (Life is Beautiful). But to me, the most powerful is really the first one, Alain Resnais’ 1956 short Night and Fog, which just quietly revisits the ruins of the camps before anyone had thought to use them as sights of remembrance. Incredible and historically very important.

4. The Third Man

Carol Reed’s film about postwar Vienna is one of my personal all-time favorites. Vienna is divided between the Allies, grifters are killing children through adulterated medicine, and Joseph Cotten is trying to find his good friend Orson Welles. The zither, the angular camera shots, the ability to shoot inside the Hapsburg palace portrayed as regular housing, and then the Ferris wheel. Oh, the Ferris wheel. When I was in Vienna, I went out to the amusement park where it still exists with the same cars as in 1949 and rode it, all the while quoting Welles’ great lines from that scene to my wife, who still has never actually watched it. This was, and I speak in all truth, one of the best moments of my life.

5. The Thin Red Line

Terrence Malick’s masterpiece. And I say that loving Badlands very much. Take the quality battle scenes from the vastly overrated Saving Private Ryan and then construct a beautiful and incredibly personal film around it instead of the dreck that Spielberg put together after he needed a plot to follow the D-Day scene, which I admit is epic.

6. A Generation/Kanal/Ashes and Diamonds

Choosing Andrzej Wajda’s trilogy from the late 50s is a bit unfair, but they can’t be separated. The first is about the Polish resistance at the start of the war, the second about the Warsaw Uprising, and the third about putting the nation back together after the war. These three films started one of the greatest careers in film history and Wajda would return to World War II again and again.

7. Ballad of a Soldier

Grigoriy Chukray’s 1959 film about a solider on leave from the front and attempting to visit home in the winter is a wondrous vision into the war in the Soviet Union.

8. Bridge on the River Kwai

No, David Lean’s great film is not exactly historically accurate. But of all the big Hollywood epics about the war, this is by a good bit the best, with an outstanding cast and an amusing look into the British officer mentality through Alec Guinness, no matter if he probably wouldn’t have survived staying in that hot box for so long. Bonus: the Japanese general was played by Sessue Hayakawa, who was something of a star in the silent days, including in The Cheat, where he brands a white woman who has fallen in debt to him, a totally over the top Orientalist film.

9. The Best Years of Our Lives

Yes, it’s treacly. It’s also astounding that a film this real and honest about the cost of war and what happened to deeply damaged (physically and mentally) soldiers as they returned home to a normal that could never really be normal again actually got made in 1946 and that it was made this well. Obviously William Wyler was an astounding director, but still, what an achievement.

10. Hiroshima

Perhaps the most remarkable World War II film I’ve ever seen, Hideo Sekigawa’s 1953 film is a furious condemnation of the Americans dropping the nuclear bomb, focusing on the aftermath for people still living with the effects of this hellish weapon. Combining documentary footage with really impressive set design and effects and with righteous politics, this is a truly amazing piece of work that is nearly unwatched. There are all of 55 rankings of this movie on IMDB, including mine. However, you may actually have seen some of it, because most of the scenes about the bomb and its aftermath in Hiroshima Mon Amour are lifted straight from Sekigawa’s film.

There are really so many other films of note. Here are some, in the order in which I think of them.

To Be Or Not to Be is Ernst Lubitsch’s ridiculous comedy about Nazis made in 1942 with the line “We do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping.” This shouldn’t hold up as well as it does, but it is in fact a really great comedy and on most days, I would find a spot in the Top 10 for it.

The Battle of San Pietro is the finest of the U.S. government’s effort to get top name directors to make war documentaries for the public. John Huston decided to make a real film about a trivial battle that led to very litt, get up close into the action, and show that this battle, brutal and hard in the middle of the Italian campaign, really didn’t lead to much at all. It was so controversial that it was only released with an introduction from a clearly irritated Mark Clark talking about how critical the battle was. Uh huh. The Great Dictator is actually not a favorite of mine, but it’s obviously extremely important, to Chaplin and historically.

The League of Gentlemen is a lesser known film, but the British filmmaker Basil Dearden was making killer films about social issues in the late 50s and early 60s and in this he takes a bunch of veterans with PTSD and turns them into a team making a big robbery.

Casablanca, well, I don’t know how that didn’t make the top 10. I obviously like it more than many of the other films, but anyway, maybe because it deals less with social issues than the others it falls down on this list?

Bad Day at Black Rock is a good film dealing with the hatred of the Japanese in the immediate postwar California as Spencer Tracy goes to the home town of a dead Japanese-American soldier serving under him and confronts all that hate.

Roberto Rosselini’s Rome Open City is another film that should be on the top 10 list. It’s really the best resistance film except perhaps for Army of Shadows and the first two of the Wajda trilogy. There are so many powerful scenes in this film, which I managed to see on the big screen a few years ago.

Speaking of Wajda, Man of Marble, about the building of Polish communism after the war, really should be considered a World War II film and is wonderful. And he ended his spectacular career with Katyn, a film about that legendary and awful massacre, which killed Wajda’s own father.

I suppose I should say something about Schindler’s List. It’s technically brilliant. It’s also really hard to watch a film making the Nazi slave driver the hero. It’s like Saving Private Ryan–Spielberg’s technical abilities and ability to make truly mass entertainment are second to no one, but he also panders to his audiences’ worst notions (see the Christian conversion scene in Amistad for a truly wretched example of this) and has an emotional emptiness to his filmmaking that at best makes one feel used, such as in Schindler’s List. I haven’t watched this in a long time and I really don’t know how I would respond to it. I don’t get the sense anyone really watches it anymore.

Cross of Iron is the last good Sam Peckinpah film and actually pretty entertaining if you want to see a German soldier as the protagonist, such as James Coburn’s character can really be seen that way. I think this film works mostly because no one is really a committed Nazi, which sort of undermines it. There’s Maximillian Schell as the old Prussian elite who hates Hitler but is also a coward for all his posturing and then good ol’ James Mason as the commanding officer who seems sort of indifferent to it all.

I’ve always been something of a fan of Leslie Fenton’s 1946 film Tomorrow, the World, about a young German boy come to America to live with his uncle and who then tries to spread Nazism in his new home. It’s kind of ridiculous, but also enjoyable if you like depictions of fascism.

Speaking of American films about fascism from 1946, Orson Welles’ The Stranger is probably the most underrated film he ever made. It wasn’t a passion project for him, which is why it gets short shrift in the cult around the man, but you can’t beat Welles as a Nazi trying to pass as someone else in his new country, plus Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young, plus the first Hollywood film to show documentary footage from the Holocaust.

Das Boot and Dunkirk are both near perfect classic military films, within the somewhat limited framework of the genre. I don’t know that either quite hold up to the very best films on this list, but I also don’t know how either could possibly be better. Both deserve a ton of credit and I want to say a special word about the latter. It’s really, really hard to make a fresh World War II film at this late date and Dunkirk pulls it off.

There’s no way to make this list without mentioning Triumph of the Will, but other than acknowledging its tremendous technical achievements, I’m not going to say anything.

There are certainly many others as well, no doubt some great films I am forgetting, and then of course the overwhelming amount of mediocrity coming out of Hollywood in the twenty years after the war. It’s kind of weird that there were so many crappy and somewhat romanticized films about a war in which the nation just fought. Never quite got the audience for these. To me, they are summed up more in blandness of Strategic Air Command than the ridiculousness of The Sands of Iwo Jima.

Anyway, have at it.


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