War is hell but it sometimes provides the backdrop for great movies. The recent Blu-ray release of 1917, followed by the 50th anniversary, this week, of the Oscar-winning Patton, starring George C. Scott, is as good an excuse as any for cinephiles to hunker down in the trenches of an impromptu war movie marathon (especially if you’re stuck at home right now due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic).
With that in mind, here’s a mission for you, soldier: work your way through this chronological list of the best war movies of the last fifty years. “Best” is ultra-subjective, of course, but when you’re Alamo-ed up in a fort of pillows in your living room and there’s nothing good on television, few of these movies should disappoint.
If the definition of an auteur is a director whose authorship is self-evident from their signature filmmaking style — so much so that you could theoretically identify their movies without seeing a name credit — then Terrence Malick is a winning candidate for the title. Left unchecked, Malick’s style of whispery voiceovers and immaculately framed nature scenes can be overbearing. In recent years, he’s fallen out of critical favor, earning increasingly mixed reviews … in direct proportion, it would seem, to how newly prolific he’s become.
Since the late-career peak of The Tree of Life in 2011, Malick has raised his output significantly, releasing a swift succession of films. Some have accused those films of playing as little more than extended cologne commercials, with movie stars cavorting to classical music. There was a time, however, when a Terrence Malick film was more of an event, one that might only come along once every two decades. After helming two landmark New Hollywood films in the 1970s, Badlands and Days of Heaven, Malick did indeed go on hiatus for twenty years.
We are now another twenty years removed from his comeback film, the star-studded World War II epic, The Thin Red Line. Backed by an all-time great Hans Zimmer score, the movie went into limited release in late December 1998. The years have not lessened the effect of its visual poetry. This is a motion picture that plays like a prayer, probing the duality of the human spirit, showing the struggles of numerous characters as the war and Mother Nature play out indifferently around them. Martin Scorsese was right: it’s one of the best films of the 1990s.
This friday Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness opens in New York and Los Angeles. It ought to have a decent run at art houses in select cities after that, particularly if it wins the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film this year. (If anything is poised to upset A Separation, it’s this one.)
In In Darkness, Holland, director of Europa, Europa and a few key episodes of The Wire, tells a fascinating true story of a group of Polish Jews who survived for over one year in a city’s sewer system. In the press notes she commented that, just when we thought we’d heard all the World War II stories, she discovered this one. It got me thinking that, yes, not only are there a number of great World War II stories out there that haven’t been told, there are already so many that deserve to be rediscovered by a new audience.
So, with that, let’s set the way-back machine to the madness of mid-century and check out some tremendous art that grew from tragedy.
We’ll kick this one off with one of the most depressing and difficult to watch movies I’ve ever seen.
For those that felt Schindler’s List candy-coated the horrors of the Nazi extermination camps, I offer The Grey Zone. No narrative film has more directly detailed the functions and living conditions at Auschwitz as Tim Blake Nelson’s story of a rebellious group of Sonderkommando. The Sonderkommando, if you don’t know, were the groups of healthy, young Jews who were kept alive and forced to aid the the machinery of death at the camp. Yeah, pretty bleak stuff.
The story of this impossible revolt (and there were others – check out Jean-Francois Steiner’s book Treblinka for a similar tale) is a fascinating portrait of bravery in the face of insurmountable odds and absolute evil.
Hope and Glory (1987); John Boorman, director
Okay, we need to lighten up a little bit, and quick.
Hope and Glory is told from the point of view of a ten year old boy who, despite a vague understanding of distant suffering, thinks World War II is the greatest thing that ever happened to him. School is constantly cancelled, the London blitz offers new destroyed houses to stomp around in and he gets to spend some nights sleeping in the subway station.
It’s hard to make the war seem fun without being flip but Boorman’s quasi-autobiographical tale does the trick. It features a wide and wonderful cast of characters, the full tapestry of British society that held that country together. Among my favorites, the men rejected by the fighting army but relegated to the secretarial pool, puffing their chests and reminding themselves that “we’re typing for England!”
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946); William Wyler, director
After the bullets fly and the flags are planted, the war still rages within the minds of the men who fought it.
Best Picture winner The Best Years of Our Lives was one of the first American films that showed the psychological damage done not only on the battlefield, but on the homefront as well.
Three men of different social classes meet after the war on their way back to a fictional midwestern city. Each finds it difficult to reintegrate into their previous lives. There’s drinking, flashbacks, marital regret, love affairs and adjustments to physical handicaps. The Best Years of Our Lives is basically soap opera, but it is striking to see such issues framed in the conventions of 1940s cinema.
The Best Years of Our Lives won a whole slew of awards, including a Best Supporting nod for “non-actor” Harold Russell, a war veteran who lost both of his hands. Don’t judge this movie too harshly by the clip shown above (one of the few I could find.) Once you get into it, it really is quite good.
Stalingrad (1993); Joseph Vilsmaier, director
Okay, back to the action.
It was Wolfgang Peterson’s 1981 masterpiece Das Boot that made it “okay” to root for Germans in a World War II film provided that a) we were on the side of simple soldiers caught up in the larger machinations of war and b) lots of Germans died. Stalingrad takes this formula and runs it head-on into the ice cold hell that was the Battle of Stalingrad.
Joseph Vilsmaier’s epic features sieges, tank battles, the horrors of penal colonies, assaults on civilians, survivalism and an examination of loyalty versus common sense. There were 260,000 men in Germany’s 6th Army who went to Stalingrad. 6000 returned.
Like what you hear? Want to hear similar episodes in the future? Send feedback to slashfilmcast(AT)gmail(DOT)com or call and leave a voicemail at 781-583-1993. One correction to note: the last track that is played, “Fantasia on a Theme By Thomas Tallis” was composed by Ralph Vaughn Williams. Eugene Ormany, who we mention, conducts the orchestral performance.
Update: Some people have reported experiencing audio problems with this sound file. Please try downloading the file to your computer, rather than playing it in your browser. That should fix the problem (If it does not, shoot me an e-mail or leave a comment below). Thanks! Read More »