Very likely the best of all the WWII movies, The Longest Day is a masterful account of the preparation for and execution of the largest land and sea military action in history: D-Day. Starring practically every available movie star of its day and directed by a crew of directors including an unaccredited Darryl F. Zanuck, it’s a logistical achievement worthy of the momentous day it’s chronicling. All the major elements of Allied invasion are represented with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum taking on the roles of the commanders of the front line divisions, the former of the airborne, the latter of the marines. Robert Ryan, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, and Richard Todd also feature but more peripherally, the latter excelling as leader of a British commando unit. The Germans are represented in force too (with Curd Jürgens doing particularly well) as the action constantly switches back and forth between both sides.
Needless to say the acting is first rate with Mitchum especially standing out as the beleaguered general of those who were always going to be the hardest hit as they stormed the beaches. The battle sequences involving him and his men are by far the most thrilling and rightly so given how relevant they were to the entire invasion. That said, there isn’t a single battle sequence in The Longest Day which won’t have you on the edge of your seat and what’s more, they are all entirely different to each other in both logistics and execution. However, during all the back and forth shifting between battle sequences, it still finds the time for moments of quiet reflection and the tone which it sets during these moments is deeply affecting.
The most impressive feature of the film is without a doubt the fact that at all times, The Longest Day never fails to intertwine the role and perspective of the individual soldiers with the broader strategic advancements of their respective units. The later A Bridge Too Far did this too when chronicling Market Garden but not as well as it’s done here. The Longest Day puts us right in the middle of the action so that we feel intimately familiar with the ebb and flow of the advance and it’s thrilling stuff. The film is shot magnificently and even though the US, British, and German episodes are all helmed by different directors, there’s a seamless look and feel to the whole thing. Overall, The Longest Day is a captivating piece of cinema which shows great deference to the momentous events of that day. There are some fine movies which focus on the same events but none are as comprehensively great as this.
Rating: The Good – 73 Genre: War, Action Duration: 134 mins Director: David Ayer Stars: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman
Writer-director David Ayer’s gnarly actioner follows a WWII US tank crew as they take the war with Germany into the inferno of the crumbling Third Reich. Led by their legendary commander “Wardaddy” (a well seasoned Brad Pitt), their adventures repeatedly morph between a muse of personal and social reflection to a high intensity, mechanised struggle for survival. The WWII action genre saw its heyday come and go in the 1960’s and 70’s and the self conscious stylising of recent cinema has struggled to match the story-telling power of yesteryear’s movies. Perhaps the genre benefited from being made by people who had lived and even fought through the war or at least grew up in its aftermath but whatever the reason, glossy effects and hollow moral messages being shoved down the audience’s throats does this species of film no favours.
Fury is certainly a modern movie, powered forward as it is by stirring score and moments of earnest soul-searching. The fortune cookie meaning of war is given much consideration as Ayer tentatively paints the objective and subjective pursuit of its endeavours in a mismatch of Christian duty and cliched nihilism. Any caricatures, and there are plenty, are drawn along those theme lines from Shia LaBeouf’s lay preacher to Joe Bernthal’s monosyllabic cutthroat. However, despite such tedious trappings of the modern war movie, Fury achieves and maintains substantial traction in the hearts and minds of the audience and rolls forward menacingly to a more than pleasing close. Pitt’s honed presence is certainly a determining factor in this as he sidesteps the cliches associated with the trope of hardened platoon leader but it’s primarily the grit of Ayer’s directing and the unpretentious bite of the overall story that allows this movie to survive its more wooden screenplay. Nothing is dwelled on. Like the guys in the tank, Ayer just gets on with it and, in doing so, succeeds in unfolding a simple canvas of coherent action sequences from beginning to end. A truly unerring momentum and ever darkening tone transforms his depiction of war-torn Germany into a nascent underworld of hellish mythology more akin to something Dante would dream up than a Hollywood director. It’s an emphatic triumph for Ayer and one that marks his full evolution from writer of substance to director of note. Steven Price’s relentless hum of a score will prompt much admiration too and the ensemble cast as a whole remains interesting and worthy of our support. Overall, Fury counts as a rare success for a modern WWII action-retrospective.
Richard Burton leads a unit of commandos behind enemy lines to infiltrate the Alpine headquarters of the Wehrmacht located in an inaccessible fortress perched atop of a snow covered mountain. WWII based men-on-a-mission movies are very a different animal to the more mainstream WWII treatments. Emerging in the 1960’s & 70’s as a less cynical tonic to the earnestness (forced or otherwise) of the propaganda films of the 40’s and dramatised retrospectives of the 50’s, they were the first action extravaganzas of the genre – not to be taken too seriously but a pleasant distraction on a lazy Sunday afternoon. And Brian G. Hutton’s 1968 classic is arguably the best of the bunch as Burton and Clint Eastwood sidewind their way through a series of double crosses as labyrinthine as the formidable fortress amid gunfire, TNT, and showers of grenades, and all along to Ron Goodwin’s mighty soundtrack. The brilliant action becomes a cathartic backdrop to the intelligently constructed plot, and mirroring those dual tones are Burton and Eastwood at their most enigmatic. The former’s character with that mellifluously accented English being the very embodiment of intrigue and deception while the latter, Eastwood’s serial Nazi slayer, Lt. Schaffer, being the coolest and baddest assassin to ever grace a war movie. While classics such as The Dirty Dozen and Guns of the Navarone (also penned by this movie’s writer Alistair MacLean) mixed personality with an edge of moral commentary, Where Eagles Dare substituted any such sentiment for immense style and a callous bodycount making the whole thing a treat to the the baser depths of our brains. Given the more carefree vibe of the sub-genre, such stylish entertainment is perhaps its most critical quality and so Hutton’s movie rises to the top of the pot.
Rating: The Good – 71.1 Genre: War Duration: 117 mins Director: Mark Robson Stars: Frank Sinatra, Trevor Howard, Raffaella Carrà
“Padre, you’re priceless.” Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard pair up for this jaunty WWII actioner as senior Allied officers imprisoned in an Italian POW camp on the eve of the country’s liberation from Nazi rule. One being an improvisational US Air Corps Colonel, the other being a stoic by-the-book British Major, the two inevitably butt heads in how exactly they’re going to safeguard the entire prison camp across Italy after their camp wardens flee. It never really got the credit it deserves but Von Ryan’s Express is loaded to the hilt with fine action set pieces and defined by a cast with personality to burn. From the earlier scenes of the soldiers toiling in the prison camps to the frantic rail pursuit of the last two acts, the movie swings easily between explosions and wisecracks. That said, there are more pensive moments to be had here and there and a few dark tracks are crossed along the way. Sinatra is in cruise control but he seems to be enjoying every bit of it while Howard hams it up for all he’s worth. It’s not the most delicate turn from the great English actor but, like the movie itself, it’s bags of fun.
Rating: The Bad – 54 Genre: Drama, War Duration: 114 mins Director: Morten Tyldum Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode
Morten Tyldum’s moody WWII drama is based on the true life endeavours of Alan Turing as he attempted to crack the Nazi’s Enigma code by building a top secret machine that would become the platform for the modern computer. Outside of the broader premise which is executed rather well using montages of actual WWII footage, a lot has gone wrong here. The “extraordinary guy in an extraordinary situation” has become a staple of Benedict Cumberbatch’s career so much so that one struggles to think of him as anything but the socially inept, arrogant, patronising, superior mind so far removed from the rest of us that he’s destined to be misunderstood forever. What’s worse is that, over the last decade, this personality has crept insidiously into the television and Hollywood mediums like few others. Everyone from Hugh Laurie’s House MD to Claire Danes’ Carrie Matheson has had a crack at it and while a small few like Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network have done it with a level of complexity that humanises the conceit, most have bored the socks off us. If Cumberbatch’s Sherlock placed him among Eisenberg’s precious minority, his version of Alan Turing is very much the other kind – though his screenwriter Graham Moore (adapting Andrew Hodges’ biography) should shoulder some of the blame. Inaccessible but interesting isn’t easy to pull off but a lack of effort in achieving such balance is what is most concerning here. Everyone seems happy enough to portray the tortured mathematician as an oddball and nothing more. To celebrate it, in fact. As such we get a one-dimensional (not to mention cliched) central performance that scuppers the film from the outset.
Unfortunately, the screenwriting problems don’t end with its protagonist for The Imitation Game is the latest film to culminate every sequence of dialogue with an awfully clever sounding bit of folkish wisdom framing the entire scene around it as if to iterate that we’ve just heard something very special. You know, kind of like grabbing the audience by the back of the head and forcing them to appreciate the “genius” of the line up close. Sadly, more often than not, lines such as “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine” are borne of anything but genius and so the less attention they attract the better for everyone. But of course increasing the pace of the dialogue helps substantially in disguising inanity as wisdom and The Imitation Game isn’t about to buck the trend here either. Nor is it likely to pass up an opportunity to intertwine three different timelines from Turing’s life so as to tease out the ostensible profundity of the movie’s title (and that of his most famous book). After all, the dual relevance of mimicry to his personal and professional life is so subtle that it needs to be the central thread of any modern movie that has designs on being “smart”. What better way to achieve this than employing a similar backstory device as that used by The Social Network. And didn’t they talk really fast there too? Wait a minute! Is this a WWII version of Fincher’s classic? Well not quite because Fincher, Sorkin, and their cast gave their characters depth to begin with. The devices simply allowed for an artful way to unfold those layers.
With such bland characterisation, The Imitation Game instead gives one the distinct impression of being conned. Conned into thinking Turing is being humanised without him actually being humanised. That he and his fellow code breakers are intelligent in the absence of any really intelligent dialogue. That the film is profound even though it’s not. In fact, one could argue that it stands as testament to how far mainstream movie-making has strayed from the basics of storytelling so as to indulge gimmicks and the formula of those few thematically similar films that have proved successful. That it toils in a genre that has been addressed over and over again by previous generations of filmmakers perhaps underlines this more but it’s about time producers reinvested some trust in the writing process.
Rating: The Good – 74.4 Genre: War, Drama Duration: 134 mins Director: Leslie Norman Stars: John Mills, Richard Attenborough, Bernard Lee
An oft forgotten WWII movie dramatising the large scale evacuation of retreating Allied troops from the French countryside and ultimately the port of Dunkirk. We all know the story – a country awakens to the reality that another continental war is on its doorsteps only to rally and demonstrate its grit as hundreds of fishermen and private boat owners sail their own crafts into the war zone to pick up the battered troops from the beaches.
The incident became a banner call for the Allied resistance and it’s surprising we’ve seen so few attempts to capture it on film. That said, Leslie Norman’s treatment is a fitting testament given its balanced and comprehensive approach. We see the operation from most relevant perspectives. John Mills’ corporal and his ragtag squad are in retreat through a countryside crawling with German infantry and stalked by their Stukas (dive-bombers) above. Richard Attenborough is the business owner who reluctantly agrees to offer his recreational boat up to the Navy only to fully commit to the evacuation once he sees the tattered troops getting off the boats. As the film moves between its settings, we get a richer flavour to the time and place behind the story than we might otherwise have got if the story focused on one of them alone.
Mills is eminently watchable as usual as the reluctant commander while Attenborough and fellow boat owner Bernard Lee are terrific as the two civilians embodying the contradicting attitudes to the war as it morphed from its “phoney” stage to the stark reality of what the troops on the continent were experiencing. The beach sequences are ably handled and given impressive scope by Norman. Especially impressive is the manner in which David Devine and W.P. Lipscomb’s screenplay teases out the different social, military, and political perspectives both on the ground amongst the troops and back in England from the army headquarters to the public houses. A nicely nuanced piece of war cinema if ever there was one.
Rating: The Good – 75.8 Genre: Thriller, Mystery, War Duration: 148 mins Director: Anatole Litvak Stars: Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Christopher Plummer
A rather unique war drama that focuses primarily on a German military police officer’s attempts to identify a murderer of women at the height of the Second World War. As the story follows the main suspects, three untouchable Generals of the Wehrmacht and the SS, from Warsaw to occupied Paris, the investigation is interleaved with a military plot to kill Hitler and a romance between the daughter of one of the Generals and a lowly corporal. Though a little unorthodox in its set up, the strength to this film is, firstly, the several characters it devotes almost equal time to and, secondly, the manner in which it sets them against a most interesting historical backdrop. Peter O’Toole is the fanatical SS General whose cruelty is matched only by his manic obsessiveness. Donald Pleasence’s more genial General is more interested in military politics while Charles Gray is the self serving philanderer. Omar Sharif is the Colonel on their trail whose only interest is in seeing justice being done but who, nonetheless, gets a curious kick from taking on his higher ups.
O’Toole plays it very close to the edge but his twitchy psychopath makes for compelling viewing. Pleasence offers his usual steady presence infused with just enough duplicity to carry the intrigue of his subplots while Sharif is about as close as we come to a central protagonist even though he has a tad less screen time than the others. Enough however to raise the charm of the overall film. Director Anatole Litvak is to be largely commended for bridging the different plots into a smoothly progressing film. Though much varied in their pace and tone, he manages not to let the tension spill and, in those moments when O’Toole is ratcheting up the crazy, he sets a chilling tone just quirky enough to complement the unique aspects of the project. With figures like Field Marshal Rommel (played by Christopher Plummer) popping up during key scenes and depictions of the Valkeryie assassination attempt not to mention the decision to tell the story in retrospect from the point of view of a 1960’s Interpol investigation into the original murder, one will find The Night of the Generals difficult to predict and even categorise but ultimately that becomes as compelling a strength as the characters and its wider setting. Highly recommended.
Rating: The Good – 93.7 Genre: War, History Duration: 195 mins Director: Steven Spielberg Stars: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley
Steven Spielberg’s most personal film about the attempt of a German industrialist to save 1,100 Jews from the gas chambers by cajoling, bribing, and manipulating the greedy, preening officers of the SS camp in which they worked. There are few subjects so in need of honourable treatment than the Holocaust of WWII and that might explain why there are precious few cinematic accounts out there. That the most moving came from the master of the big screen adventure is both unlikely and likely. Yes, he is better known for movies aimed at younger audiences that leave little if anything to the imagination (because he succeeds so completely in getting it all up there on screen) but by the early 90’s, Steven Spielberg had already shown us he was capable of crafting touching broad-scale dramas with the likes of The Colour Purple. He had also demonstrated a cultured understanding of moviemaking with masterpieces like Jaws. That said, his experience with the ‘in-your-face’ cinematic techniques of the Hollywood emotional payoff is as much responsible for the effectiveness of this film as his more deft qualities. For the holocaust is a piece of history that requires in-your-face type confrontation. The cruelty and horror of what happened to the Jews needs to be shoved down our throats every now and then so we truly don’t forget. Yes, the artistry of the more subtle scenes elevates this film to the echelons of cinematic greatness and that is edifying for its status as a film, and yes, the more mature examination of the complexities of cruelty, guilt, and mass hatred can culture our understanding of humanity. But it’s the refusal to shy away from the raw horror of what happened that gives this film it’s universal resonance and that is imperative.
The result is a gruelling watch that will turn your face to stone yet in some small way do justice the suffering. Technically, there’s barely a false note played from the set and costume design to the sound production. But standing out is without doubt Janusz Kaminisk’s stunningly lit monochromatic photography. Spielberg’s use of his work here is nothing short of sublime from the moment he introduces his main character to the his final scene. In retrospect it seems now that nobody could inhabit this carefully constructed space better than Liam Neeson. He brings all the gravitas of an A-lister to the film but with the daring of an actor who has had to work for a living. It’s a tightrope of a turn that requires capturing all the ego, manipulation, caring, and bravery of the man. As his right hand man, Itzhak Stern, Ben Kingsley is beyond praise. Ralph Fiennes is to be commended too for giving what could’ve (and may well have been in reality) a mono-dimensionally evil character enough layers to, not excuse his actions (and those of many others like him), but to explain them.
However, whether the conversation be the acting, the editing, or John Williams deeply moving score, one always comes back to the director. It may have been a personal project but that in no way comprises his clarity. Despite the broad scale of both the story and the emotions it evokes, Schindler’s List is as focused a work as anything that has graced the medium and made with a level of skill that at times is breathtaking. The varied manner and innumerable methods that Spielberg uses to lay bare the cruelty and indignity with which the Jews were treated is as chilling as it is ingenious and it’s through these contrasts or critical junctures between the surreal and real that this indictment and essential analysis of one race’s inhumanity to another is enacted. And while one race in particular will be forever under scrutiny for these actions, the film’s greatest achievement is that it rises above the primal tendency to point fingers. That Spielberg chooses a German to be the hero in this tale is of course his essential message – the Jewish Holocaust was and is a human problem not a German one.
After successfully landing in Normandy on D-Day, a platoon of US Marines are sent on a unique mission of mercy to locate and bring to safety a soldier whose brothers have all been killed in action. Naturally, the orders put the men’s perspective on duty and morality at odds with one another as the needs of the few are seen to outweigh the needs of the many. Outside of the opening sequence which is undeniably terrific, Saving Private Ryan is a largely ham-fisted affair when placed side-by-side with the great WWII movies. Steven Spielberg shows little patience or subtlety and rather than giving us a real picture of humanity and war in the manner of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (released the same year), he instead falls back on a cartoon depiction of good guys versus bad guys. The greater success of this film comparative to Malick’s film, would seem to be therefore attributable entirely to the first 15 mins – a battle sequence so spectacular and visceral that it seems to act as a cloak for the rest of the film – as if the audience will be so desperate for the remainder of the film to be worthy of its opening that they will willfully ignore the most blatant of shortcomings. The simple truth is that the remainder of the film is driven by childish and cliched moral quandaries the likes of which were addressed just as superficially and ad nauseum throughout years of Star Trek: The Next Generation and its spin-offs. But it wouldn’t be nearly as frustrating if Spielberg wasn’t (as usual) trying to ram the sickly sweet sentimentality (so primitively intertwined with cardboard notions of patriotism) down the audience’s throats. This is something he has done for far too long now and with too few exceptional interludes to excuse it. This is not to say Spielberg is a poor director. He’s a truly brilliant director who just lives up to his talent far too seldom due to an over-reliance on visual effects and/or reluctance to move out of his comfort zone.
Rating: The Good – 84.5 Genre: War Duration: 149mins Director: Wolfgang Peterson Stars: Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer,
Wolfgang Peterson’s account of life aboard one of Germany’s infamous WWII U-boats provides the perfect metaphor for the confusion of war. Jürgen Prochnow plays the submarine’s captain charged with attacking the heavily protected Allied convoys in the Atlantic while contending with the often uninformed orders of his fleet command. Director Wolfgang Peterson wonderfully creates the sense of claustrophobia that came with being cooped up in such small quarters for extended periods of time. He is equally adept at using that claustrophobia to augment the boredom of the quieter scenes and the terror of the battle sequences as the boat dives ever deeper to avoid the depth charges of the Allied battle cruisers circling above. The release of that mental and physical pressure is also spectacularly captured on the occasions when the U-boat surfaces and Prochnow leads his boat through the waves from the top of his conning tower to Klaus Doldinger’s magnificent score. All this makes Das Boot a unique film going experience and one that stays with you long after seeing it.
Rating: The Good – 83.8 Genre: War Duration: 98 mins Director: Dick Powell Stars: Robert Mitchum, Curd Jürgens, David Hedison
Actor Dick Powell stepped behind the camera to serve up this timeless and expertly crafted WWII naval drama about two captains engaged in a battle of wits above and below the water respectively. Robert Mitchum plays the captain of the US destroyer who is supposed to be convalescing on an easy assignment after spending weeks adrift in the North Atlantic after his previous ship had been sunk. However, after unexpectedly encountering a German U-boat, he enters into a compelling game of cat and mouse with a German counterpart who shares every bit of his skill and acumen.
Mitchum gives a more reserved performance than his usual star vehicles offer but, ever the consummate movie star, his screen presence still works a treat. Mitchum belonged to that small group of stars who owned the camera when it was on him and The Enemy Below is no different. Curd Jürgens is equally good as the war-weary U-boat commander and the two do a fine job in playing off each other as mutually respecting opponents. Powell deserves a lot of credit too as he constructs one immense torpedo and depth-charge laden battle sequence after another. The photography is splendid whether above or below the water and Powell’s use of sound particularly in the underwater sequences is inspired. He also strikes a composed balance between the taut and quiet moments, efficiently using the latter segments to flesh out the personalities of the various support players.
However, it is Wendell Mayes’ adaptation of D.A. Rayner’s novel which provides the finishing touch to this epic because, without a doubt, the standout strength of this movie is the cleverness of the tactical and mental interchanges shared between the two captains. It’s in these moments that each of this film’s components come together so seamlessly to produce the type of spellbinding submarine action that has really only been since equalled by McTiernan’s The Hunt for Red October, if at all.
Rating: The Good – 73.7 Genre: War Duration: 119mins Director: Lewis Milestone Stars: Errol Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Walter Huston
Errol Flynn stars as a fisherman in Nazi occupied Norway who rallies his village against the vicious soldiers amid traitors, devout pacifists, and quiet folk just afraid for their lives. Director Lewis Milestone gives Edge of Darkness all the trappings of classic Hollywood movies. It’s paced beautifully and there’s drama bursting from all angles as a number of interesting subplots are played out, some of which are quite dark. The cast could’ve done more to give their characters a sense of authenticity as the abundance of thinly veiled American accents slightly detracts from the premise as the film progresses. However, that aside, the acting is generally competent and the large ensemble cast work well together with Flynn and Ann Sheridan bringing most presence to their roles. It all builds up to an exciting conclusion, wherein each of the subplots are tied off neatly and to much satisfaction. Edge of Darkness is classic propaganda fodder given the time it was made and the message it sent out. However, given the value of that message, it’s no bad thing and it certainly doesn’t take away from the overall enjoyment of the film.