A Hill of Beans: A Few Good Movies About World War II

Naturally it’s a subjective list: these are movies which satisfy me to some high degree emotionally, dramatically and aesthetically. Their quality as “war films” ranks low on the totem pole. Judged just by its combat scenes, Saving Private Ryan would certainly make the cut, but since its action is in service of a false, even pernicious, idea, I left it off. I’m also not smitten with gung-ho heroism, hence you’ll search in vain for The Sands of Iwo Jima here. For me the value of the World War II film lies in its concentration on the unlikely protagonist; fittingly, the war against fascism gave rise to some of the most egalitarian-minded films in the history of cinema, with many of the greatest ones coming from the Axis nations. The protagonists here aren’t heroes because they’ll charge a machine gun. The vast majority of them are little people, often weak, often cowardly, and almost always unprepared, but the intensity of their reactions to the cataclysm around them makes Bogart’s famous line in Casablanca—“The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”—look simply wrong. Even the characters in uniform work to stay alive mainly to return to the normal, non-military life that existed for them before the world lost its mind. These movies make their characters’ humanity the subject of their stories, even in such cases as Army of Shadows or The Conformist, where that humanity is subordinated to a wider cause. Asterisks appear by the titles which mean the most to me—the ones that landed closest to where I live.

I close things out with a short list of films which many people dote on, and several of which are considered classics, but which, for one reason or another, have the same effect on me that The English Patient had on Elaine Benes; I mention them not to be a contrary asshole, but simply to forestall the incredulous query “You mean you haven’t seen The Pianist? Why, it’s the most wonderful thing in the world!” I also omitted a handful of films I love or admire (The Long Voyage Home, A Matter of Life and Death and Notorious among them) in which the war was mainly an incidental or peripheral factor. And, obviously, I’ve omitted the ton of movies that aren’t worth ranking at all. (Hail, The Battle of Britain! Ave, The Secret of Santa Vittoria!) God knows what movies I’ve forgotten, overlooked, or need to catch up on, but I’d be grateful for tips on all of them.

Wartime

The Mortal Storm (Borzage 1940)

mortalStorm_b

49th Parallel (Powell 1941)

To Be Or Not To Be (Lubitsch 1942)

The Pilot Returns (Rossellini 1942)

Went the Day Well? (Cavalcanti 1942)

went ealing

Casablanca (Curtiz 1942)

Air Force (Hawks 1943)

The More the Merrier (Stevens 1943)

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell 1943)*

lifeanddeathofcolonelblimp

This Land Is Mine (Renoir 1943)

Le Corbeau (Clouzot 1943)

Lifeboat (Hitchcock 1944)*

lifeboat

Western Approaches (Jackson 1944)

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges 1944)

Hail the Conquering Hero (Sturges 1944)*

hailconquering1

Rome Open City (Rossellini 1945)*

Objective, Burma! (Walsh 1945)

They Were Expendable (Ford 1945)*

they nurses

La Bataille du rail (Clément 1946)*

Paisà (Rossellini 1946)*

Les Maudits (Clément 1947)

Germany Year Zero (Rossellini 1948)*

egermany-year-zero

Home of the Brave (Robson 1949)

home of the brave

La Silence de la Mer (Melville 1949)

Battleground (Wellman 1949)

The Axe of Wandsbek (Harnack 1951)

Decision Before Dawn (Litvak 1951)

Forbidden Games (Clément 1952)

forbidden

The Caine Mutiny (Dmytryk 1954)

Attack! (Aldrich 1956)

Kanal (Wajda 1956)

Four Bags Full (La traversée de Paris) (Autant-Lara 1956)

A Man Escaped (Bresson 1956)*

man_escaped

The Burmese Harp (Ichikawa 1956)

The Battle of the River Plate (Powell/Pressburger 1956)

The Cranes Are Flying (Kalatozov 1957)

Cranes_are_Flying_One_Scene_Image

The Devil Strikes at Night (Siodmak 1957)

Bitter Victory (Ray 1957)

The Enemy Below (Powell 1957)

Ice Cold in Alex (Thompson 1958)

bar-scene

Fires on the Plain (Ichikawa 1959)

The Ballad of a Soldier (Chukhray 1959)

The Bridge (Wicki 1959)

the-bridge

General della Rovere (Rossellini 1959)

Il Federale (The Fascist) (Salce 1961)

Der Fall Gleiwitz (The Gleiwitz Case) (Klein 1961)*

Hell is for Heroes (Siegel 1962)

hellisforheroes

Ivan’s Childhood (Tarkovsky 1962)

The Great Escape (Sturges 1963)

It Happened Here (Brownlow/Mollo 1964)

Diamonds of the Night (Němec 1964)

diamonds-of-the-night-28202_1

King Rat (Forbes 1965)

In Harm’s Way (Preminger 1965)*

La ligne de démarcation (Chabrol 1966)

Army of Shadows (Melville 1969)*

The Conformist (Bertolucci 1970)*

conformistb

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (De Sica 1970)

Distant Thunder (S. Ray 1973)

Lacombe, Lucien (Malle 1974)*

lacombe-lucien

Zerkalo (Tarkovsky 1974)*

Overlord (Cooper 1975)

Seven Beauties (Wertmüller 1975)

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pasolini 1975)

1900 (Bertolucci 1976)*

1900-01

Mr. Klein (Losey 1976)

The Ascent (Shepitko 1977)*

Cross of Iron (Peckinpah 1977)

The Tin Drum (Schlöndorff 1979)

tin drum

Christ Stopped at Eboli (Rosi 1979)

The Marriage of Maria Braun (Fassbinder 1979)

The Big Red One (Fuller 1980)

Das Boot (Petersen 1981)

Night of the Shooting Stars (1982 Taviani)

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Oshima 1983)

mrlawrenceblu00015

Come and See (Klimov 1985)*

Au Revoir, Les Enfants (Malle 1987)

Empire of the Sun (Spielberg 1987)

Hope and Glory (Boorman 1987)

hope and glory

Grave of the Fireflies (Takahata 1988)*

grave-of-the-fireflies

Story of Women (Chabrol 1988)

story of women

Black Rain (Imamura 1989)

Europa Europa (Holland 1990)

Schindler’s List (Spielberg 1993)

The Thin Red Line (Malick 1998)

thin_red_line_blu-ray_12x

Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage (Sophie Scholl: The Final Days) (Rothemund 2005)*

ssw964

Indigènes (Bouchareb 2006)

Letters from Iwo Jima (Eastwood 2006)

Vincere (Bellocchio 2009)

The Hangover

Murderers Are Among Us (Staudte 1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler 1946)*

Shoeshine (De Sica 1946)

Without Pity (Senza pietà) (Lattuada 1948)

senza pieta

The Search (Zinnemann 1948)

the search 1

The Third Man (Reed 1949)

Pigs and Battleships (Imamura 1961)

Das zweite Gleis (The Second Track) (Kunert 1962)

Wings (Shepitko 1966)*

Camp de Thiaroye (Sembene 1988)

Digital Fusion Image Library TIFF File

Enemies, a Love Story (Mazursky 1989)*

enemies36

Documentary

Memory of the Camps (Bernstein/Hitchcock 1945)

Days of Glory (Visconti/De Sanctis/et al. 1945)

(The Battle of) San Pietro (Huston 1945)*

san-pietro

Blood of the Beasts (Franju 1949)*

beasts

Night and Fog (Resnais 1955)*

Night and Fog

The Sorrow and the Pity (Ophüls 1969)*

The World at War (BBC 1973)*

The Memory of Justice (Ophüls 1976)

Shoah (Lanzmann 1985)*

The Doomed City: Berlin (Darlow 1986)

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Hara 1987)

Emperor

Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (Ophüls 1988)*

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The Eye of Vichy (Chabrol 1993)

eyeofvichy2

But Not For Me

The Great Dictator (Chaplin 1940)

Let There Be Light (Huston 1946)

Stalag 17 (Wilder 1953)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (Lean 1957)

Kapo (Pontecorvo 1960)

Two Women (De Sica 1960)

Judgment at Nuremberg (Kramer 1961)

The Pawnbroker (Lumet 1964)

The Night Porter (Cavani 1974)

The Damned (Visconti 1969)

Sophie’s Choice (Pakula 1982)

Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg 1998)

The Pianist (Polanski 2002)

Downfall (Hirschbiegel 2004)

Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino 2009)

5 Responses to “A Hill of Beans: A Few Good Movies About World War II”

  1. plwinkler Says:

    Hell Is for Heroes was directed by Don Siegel.

  2. Glenn Hendricks Says:

    In Harms Way was pretty good technically, historically and showed the folly of war. The Flame and the Citron was a good look at life behind the resistance.

  3. Chris Lanier Says:

    Intrigued by the inclusion of Blood of the Beasts – but yeah, it makes sense.

    Am a little surprised to see The Train on the list. I like the movie, but I have a hard time connecting it to WW2 in a meaningful way. Scofield and Lancaster are great (Lancaster’s slide down the ladder is an indelible bit of macho grace), the thing is suspenseful as hell, and I don’t know if Frankenheimer’s compositional eye has ever been better – the train tracks give him all sorts of vanishing points to carve up the picture plane. I don’t know if there’s a word for the technique, but Frankenheimer had a real talent for framing the beginning of a shot with absolute compositional authority – you can’t imagine things being placed in the frame in any other configuration – and then he pans or moves the camera, and closes the shot with another, different framing that seems just as perfectly balanced.

    But all the stuff about the value of art versus the value of human life, the connections between culture and war, etc, seemed pretty ersatz – canned, versus genuine, ironies. I had a similar experience watching Morituri recently – another suspense film that uses WW2 as a backdrop, with boats instead of trains. Both films have good central performances, surrounded by sharp character actors in chewy smaller parts. Both are beautifully shot – Morituri’s cinematographer was Conrad Hall, and on top of orchestrating some ambitious helicopter shots, he has one genuinely inexplicable shot of Marlon Brando traversing the bowels of a German cargo ship, where Brando seems to teleport through space as the camera tilts up away from him in close-up, then finds him again on a catwalk a couple storeys higher.

    Morituri is stupider than The Train in terms of its plotting, depending on a couple egregious coincidences to keep the thing moving along, but it arguably has a couple more genuine insights into Nazi culture. Brando plays a saboteur posing as an SS officer, and part of the reason he gets away with his pose for as long as he does is the pervasive paranoia of the Nazi power apparatus – everyone is afraid they’re going to offend someone higher up in the hierarchy, either because they’re being too suspicious, or because they’re not being suspicious enough.

    But by the end of both movies, there’s a sense that WW2 is a big canvas for a rollicking Boy’s Adventure. The actors maybe deliver a sort of moral weight, or at least a sense of conviction, to the goings-on – the movies don’t feel dishonorable, in the way that the Nazi stuff in Indiana Jones feels dishonorable. But I start to wonder if I’m just making excuses – if the gap between The Train and Indiana Jones (or to pick a less frivolous WW2 “action film,” Inglorious Basterds) is really as big as it feels.

  4. Tom Block Says:

    Yeah, I wound up cutting The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Train and The Dirty Dozen–my soft side won out before. (My head and my heart are still scrapping it out re The Great Escape.)

    >Intrigued by the inclusion of Blood of the Beasts – but yeah, it makes sense.

    Yeah, all you have to do is hold just 3-4 images from it in your head and ask yourself if any European could have put them all together in 1949 and NOT had the war somewhere in mind.

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