WWII Film Guide: War in Europe - The Part-Time Critic

Sunday, June 27, 2021

WWII Film Guide: War in Europe

*This post is part of a film guide on World War II. Click here for the main page
*For more context on the process behind this guide, click here for an introduction

Overview:
 Hollywood loves making films about combat in the European theater of World War II! D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge are probably the first visuals that come to my mind for most when the topic is brought up and that is likely more due to film than to history class. From the start of the war until this very day (with the exception of the 1980's which went heavy on Vietnam) Hollywood has been consistently putting out everything from expensive star-studded blockbusters to cheap B-films meant to fill out double-bills in the theater. The films in this category cover battles in the sands of North Africa, the hedgerows of France, the bombed out urban nightmare of Stalingrad, and much more. What you won't see in this category are any films that concentrate primarily on air or naval warfare - since those films have received their own categories. Thus, a film like 1969's The Battle of Britain, although it could qualify as the European theater, will be on the air warfare list and something like 1981's Das Boot about the submarine warfare in the Atlantic will be on the naval warfare list. The primary concern here are the major land battles in the European theater.

In order to get you to the thing most of you came for, "What's the best in this category? I've put my recommendations for you below. To learn more about the recommendations or any of the 25 films viewed for this category, then you can find them organized by release date (oldest to newest) with a brief commentary, a link to its IMDB page, and my grade. 

Recommendations
The Basics: Simply put, 2001's HBO miniseries Band of Brothers is the best thing ever made about World War II combat (in any theater). I've seen no other work that is as diverse in character, plot, action, and theme while retaining richness in a single narrative and maintaining consistently high production values. If you don't have the time for a ten-part miniseries, then watch 1998's Saving Private Ryan which plays like a condensed version of Band of Brothers that miraculously sacrifices little in its briefer runtime. To my mind, these two films are the best this category (or all of war cinema to be honest) has to offer.
  • The Best War Miniseries of All-Time: Band of Brothers (2001)
  • The Best War Film of All Time: Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Deep Dives: For those wishing to go further than the basic, I recommend an attempt at a chronological telling of the European theater. I haven't found any good films about the invasion of Poland, so we will start our viewing with 2017's Dunkirk to mark the monumental defeat of France/Britain that was remarkably redeemed. It wouldn't hurt to watch 2017's Darkest Hour for a little political background to Dunkirk and insight into Winston Churchill's rise as Britain's leader. From there I recommend a double bill of North African films that will give you a strong taste of that unique front, 1943's Sahara followed by 1953's The Desert Rats. Leaving North Africa, the best film (though not perfect) to get a taste of Stalingrad and the warfare on the Eastern front has to be 1993's Stalingrad. Hitting the homestretch, I recommend watching three films that will give you an overview of the final years of key battles on the Western front, but also some differences in genre. Start with 1962's The Longest Day for a taste of the jingoistic, mega-blockbuster, with some strong action sequences to mark the opening of the second Western front. Follow it up with 1977's A Bridge Too Far for a small pendulum swing with another mega-blockbuster, but this one has some cynical bite along with the Allied setback in Operation Market Garden. Finally, finish up with David Ayer's 2014 tank film Fury to get a taste of European tank combat and the physical and moral exhaustion experienced by the end of the war. Enjoy and let me know what you think.
  • Britain in Crisis: Dunkirk (2017) / Darkest Hour (2017)
  • Best of North African Campaign: Sahara (1943) / Desert Rats (1953)
  • Best of Russian Campaign: Stalingrad (1993)
  • Overview of the Western Front: The Longest Day (1963) / A Bridge Too Far (1977) / Fury (2014)

Individual Film Commentary (Oldest to Newest)
  • A+ = All-time Classic
  • A   = Excellent Film
  • A-  = Excellent Film, but some minor faults
  • B+ = Very Good film
  • B   = Good Film
  • B-  = Good Film, but some key faults
  • C+ = Average with some redeeming qualities, but major faults
  • C   = Mediocre Film
  • C-  = Poor Film
  • D+ = Bad Film
  • I don't usually rate anything lower
1. Sahara (1943) IMDB
- The most surprising find of the entire project! This film tells the story of an American tank squad forced to retreat after a failed tank battle in North Africa. As the squad retreats they pick up stragglers; some British serviceman and an Italian and German POW. The group eventually finds a small well but it is threatened when they discover a German battalion is on their way to make use of  it. This film was made during the war and has been criticized as a propaganda film – the Nazis’ are bad, Italians misguided, and everyone else works in Allied harmony. That is partly true - I admit that. However, it misses out on the bigger picture: this is a really compelling story about a rag tag group of people making hard ethical choices that have genuine consequences throughout the film. The writing here is great: a well-paced plot that keeps moving forward, strong and memorable characters, all laced with the question of ethics and goals in wartime. Bogart shines as an American tank Sergeant trying to do the right thing, even if it isn't the easy thing to do. One of the best war films I viewed for the project. GRADE: A-

2. The Rats of Tobruk (1944) IMDB
- Filmed by an Australian company. this is a dated war film about the battle for the North African city of Tobruk. Unlike 1943's Sahara, this film struggles with the limitations of the time. The production quality is poor and the whole film ends with a strange epilogue that sees a prolonged strangling of a Japanese soldier. It’s clear this was made while the war was still on and was unable to transcend it's propagandistic motivations. There are better films about Tobruk on this list. GRADE: D+

3. The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) IMDB
- This film tells the story of famous journalist Ernie Pyle as he covers an army division's liberation of Italy. It's not a bad war film, but there simply isn't enough good action or sense of geography here to break up what feels like one talking scene after another. Those talking scenes aren't all that insightful either. Everything here can be found in other movies, but done better. GRADE: C

4. Battleground (1949) IMDB
- Covering the experience of the 101st airborne in the Battle of the Bulge, this film features some good combat sequences, but its standout quality is the relationships between the soldiers. Compared to the stiff and tendentious dialogue of the archetypal characters in the other big war film in 1949's The Sands of Iwo Jima, this film feels like sitting in on actual troop banter. It’s not quite as good as the two part episode covering the same ground in Band of Brothers or as sweeping in action as The Battle of the Bulge, but this is worth a watch simply for the comradery and relationships among soldiers. GRADE: B

5. The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1951) IMDB
- Telling the final years of Erwin Rommel’s life, this respectful (if not reverent), and interesting biography remains a decent view over a half century later – in particular for James Mason’s sympathetic portrayal. Mason would take on the role again for 1953's Desert Rats. I love the idea of movies keeping some continuity in leaders, make it feel like they take place in the same universe. Covering Rommel's experiences from North Africa to the Atlantic wall, I felt the story was a bit too restrained and perhaps too reverential as the tale of a “Good Nazi” among the bad ones. I would have liked something more insightful as to what made him a tactical genius as well. GRADE: C+

6. The Desert Rats (1953) IMDB
- This was a lovely little gem to find in the stack. There are hundreds and hundreds of these 50’s and 60’s war films and it's hard to know which ones to watch and which to ignore. This film about the British holding out in the North African city of Tobruk against a multi-month siege from the Germans is stars Richard Burton as a ‘by the book’ commander. The film takes care and attention paid to bringing the audience into the geography of the main battle & their overall defensive strategy before jumping into the front lines. It features one of my favorite desert battles, a great behind enemy lines special forces attack, and a fascinating “what does it take to be a good leader” theme anchored by a great Richard Burton performance. Don’t miss this one. It's fast moving, features great production qualities, and one of the best examinations of leadership among the entire lot. GRADE: B+

7. Ice Cold in Alex (1958) IMDB
- Alex in the title here refers to the Egyptian city of Alexandria and cold refers to ice cold beer - the goal of the group once they reach Alex. A pair of British ambulance drivers along with two nurses attempt to drive from Tobruk to Alexandria, dodging mine fields, bombers, German troops, and a spy along the way. This is more of a slow character piece than a war film. There are a lot of supporters of this film out there and indeed there's some good stuff here. For me though, I thought it dragged too long. There's two moments that stand out to me - a scene where the group gets stuck in a salt marsh and a scene where they attempt to move a truck up a sand hill. Each scene feels like it lasts for ages and is meant to be a pivotal moment, but it just doesn't work for me. Just drink an ice cold one on your own instead. GRADE: C

8. The Young Lions (1958) IMDB
- Based on a beloved book, this is one skirts the line between a drama with a war backdrop and a proper war film. The focus is on the journey of three men: Marlon Brando playing a German officer, Dean Martin playing an American singer looking to avoid getting shot, and Montgomery Clift playing a socially awkward (surprise!) American soldier trying to get by in his unit. Clift's characterization is the best here and would likely have made a much better if the film was ostensibly about his character with Martin as supporting and Brando completely cut out. Brando's German officer here is easily the weakest link and not much would be missed by cutting him. Played sympathetically and sometimes as if he was half asleep - Brando's performance is unintentionally hilarious at times. By the time all three enter into the actual war, the film really becomes an unremarkable slog. Read the book, it can't be worse than this adaptation. GRADE: C-

9. The Longest Day (1962) IMDB
- An epic attempt to tell the events of D-Day from both sides by recreating the major conversations between generals/commanders and the spectrum of events that made the landings successful. Starring an all-star cast, this was conceived of as a can't miss event and has gone a long way to cementing the legendary status of D-Day in the mind of the public. You can think of this film is a progenitor of a certain kind of war film - the star-studded blockbuster recreation. Many will try to recreate what was accomplished here. Beyond the cast and story, there are several large and well done battle sequences. The money is clearly on the screen. It’s good stuff, it’s definitely worth a watch, but it has suffered a bit due to its reluctance (along with the standards of the time) to highlight the gruesome nature of war that has become standard today. After films like Saving Private Ryan, it's hard to go back to the more static and restrained sequences in this film. GRADE: B

10. Battle of the Bulge (1965) IMDB
- In the wake of The Longest Day comes this star-studded blockbuster attempt to give an overview of both sides to Hitler’s famous last major offensive on the Western front, the Battle of the Bulge. The two sides essentially boil down to Henry Fonda's Allied reconnaissance officer vs Robert Shaw's German armored officer. The history here seems pretty fishy and it’s not as well conceived as The Longest Day, but there is one major saving grace here. The ambition to include large scale practical tank battles sets this film apart from others. There are a couple large scale tank sequences that are unequaled in scope here, including the finale which remains one of the finest tank battles staged on film. GRADE: C+

11. Tobruk (1967) IMDB
- Rock Hudson as an American Major leads a British special forces team to go behind the lines and strike German oil supplies in the North African city of Tobruk. The film begins with a special force rescue of Hudson from Vichy forces and the plot never really lets up after that: encountering random tank columns, minefields, secret agents, and native tribes – it’s a packed narrative! Sometimes a little packed to be honest - there's not much space to breathe. Personally though, I'd rather an overstuffing than the emptiness that sometimes passes in movies. Inside that quick plotting is the theme of nationalities working together and against each other (Americans, Italians, British, Germans, Jews, Natives), in particular German Jews working for the British. There’s a lot of interesting things going on here beyond that packed plot. The film wraps up with a whiz-bang action ending on a grand scale – even if it’s not very believable or accurate to history. GRADE: B

12. The Bridge at Remagen (1969) IMDB
- Taking place after the battle of the bulge and towards the end of the war in Europe, this film covers the U.S. Army’s decision to swoop in and try to capture the last remaining bridge over the Rhine river and keep major divisions of the German army trapped. The first half of the film before the the town and bridge assault is subpar and feels like it is just biding time for the action and tragedy laden second half. I like some of the large scale spectacle, especially in the opening bridge sequence and an assault on a town. Ultimately, it's a decent view but there's a lot of filler and the attempt at highlighting commander indecisions on both sides is noble but doesn’t fully work how they want it. GRADE: C

13. Patton (1970) IMDB
- Perhaps the most overrated war film of all-time. This portrayal of the charismatic personality of General George S. Patton covers his leadership in WWII from North Africa all the way to the end of the war and his accidental death. George C. Scott is excellent of course, the scale here is large at times, but this gets bogged down in a lot of unnecessary behind the scenes back and forth. I've re-watched it a few times to see if I'm missing something, but every time the narrative finishes in Siciliy, everything just grinds to a halt. I also think that outside of the early North African Battle of El Guettar it fails to use its ambition and scale to deliver anything comparable for the rest of the bloated runtime. Watch the opening sequence of Patton addressing the troops and the Battle of El Guettar on youtube and you can skip the rest. GRADE: C+

14. A Bridge Too Far (1977) IMDB
- The final entry of the star-studded mega-blockbuster recreation (Tora! Tora! Tora! and The Battle of Britain will be featured in other lists) in the tradition of The Longest Day. The recreation at hand this time is a grand overview of the strategy, commanders, and events of a the failed Operation Market Garden. The commander conversations/strategy are the best of the bunch and everything ties together very nicely. There are strong dramatic sequences, action sequences, and a beautiful large scale recreation of the parachute drop the operation is famous for. This is the second best of that group of five and offers some good critique and commentary along the way. GRADE: B+

15. Cross of Iron (1977) IMDB
- Sam Peckinpah’s contribution to the war genre follows a German unit retreating on the Eastern front lines. James Coburn plays a beloved (by his soldiers) officer named Steiner who leads his squad on special operations. Steiner comes into conflict with his authority, Captain Stransky played by Maximillian Schell, when Stransky turns coward during a Russian assault that's only turned back due to the heroics of another officer. Instead of admitting his cowardice, Stransky takes claim of the heroics and demands an Iron Cross. Steiner is asked to back him up, but when he doesn't, Stransky takes his revenge. The essential purpose here is to cynically highlight the inner fights of glory hunting and payback among German officers and their soldiers. It’s a class-war played out in a violent and dirty war film. Competently made, engaging story, but a little too nihilistic and vulgar for my tastes. GRADE: C+
16. The Big Red One (1980) IMDB
- The meat of this film lay in two things: First, the quirk that one Allied combat unit (The Big Red One) got to experience nearly every major aspect of the European campaign, allowing this story to give a grand overview of the theater. Second, the experiences among the squad as they continue from battle to battle, lose close friends, and deal with replacements. Outside of that, the tiny budget gave this film a poor production quality that holds back this story a lot. Due to the budget, you never really see more than a few people on screen at a time. Every battle consists of a handful of people and the camera always feels locked down, because the set dressers couldn't afford to dress an entire landscape or battlefield. Additionally, to keep the cast low, Lee Marvin's commander never meets with other commanders to give us any sort of overall strategy. Instead, he just mentions getting orders or talks with them (off screen) through a field phone. This film is a good prototype for a miniseries, getting the chance to expand on different aspects of the war experience while following a company, and in fact, there’s a sense in which it’s a great forerunner of the much higher production valued Band of BrothersGRADE: C+

17. Stalingrad (1993) IMDB
- This German film follows a squad of infantry as they transfer from the sunny battlefront of Italy to the disillusionment and chaos of the Eastern front at Stalingrad. A lot of ground is covered in this sweeping story: building to building combat in the streets of Stalingrad, chaos and betrayal among leadership, lack of support, and ultimately betrayal and imprisonment. For not following orders they feel are unethical, the squad is imprisoned during the winter and suffer greatly. It’s a stark and cruel journey about the horrors of war and the depths of depravity that took place in that specific campaign. Probably the best overall film covering the battle of Stalingrad I’ve seen. GRADE: B-

18. Saving Private Ryan (1998) IMDB
- I saw Saving Private Ryan in theaters as a young teenager and I was speechless. I had never experienced a film whose action was so engaging, but also so horrific and repulsive. I think Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan is a milestone in war cinema - not just do to its greatness, but due to its influence. Nearly every war film that has come out since 1998 has adopted some of the aesthetic choices made by Spielberg. The film tells the story of a an Army squad developed to go behind the Normandy lines to retrieve and send home an airborne soldier named Private Ryan whose three brothers died in the war. The squad is led by Captain Miller, played by Tom Hanks, and consists of a motley crew. Along their journey the crew encounter several obstacles and allies, but the question that lingers over the entire missions is this, "Is it right to risk the life of several people in a squad, just to find one man?" There is no ultimate answer here, but the situation perfectly illustrates the central frustrations of all war in general - reasonably speaking, what sense does this make? 

The film is stuffed with great dramatic moments that have made their way into the cultural zeitgeist, with Hanks' final "Earn this" line perhaps being the most popular. However, there are many small moments that stand out to me and are favored moments still to this day: Wade talking about his mother in the church, Miller sharing his profession as a school teacher, Ryan sharing the story of his brothers, and Miller refusing to share his rose story. The film excellently illustrates the central absurdities of war (FUBAR), the various unique characters and personalities thrown into war together, the comradery of war, and likely the most impactful aspect - the violence and horror of war. 

From the D-Day landings to the Battle of Ramelle, these are MVP action sequences that if I had only one sequence to show someone that embodies the best qualities of a World War II battle, either of these best capture it. War is hell and these sequences show it, but if there is anything truly redemptive to find in war, these sequences show it too. For more on these sequences, check out my World War II action sequences listGRADE: A+

19. Band of Brothers (2001) IMDB
- Coming back to this venerated series so many years later and after running through war film after war film, I wondered if the quality of this series would hold up on re-inspection. Similar to the The Pacific miniseries that came a decade later – Band of Brothers gives a kind of overview of a major theater of war. In this case, the miniseries follows Easy Company of the 101st Airborne division from boot camp, to England, to D-Day, to French hedgerows and towns, to Operation Market Garden, to the Battle of the Bulge, to concentration camps, and all the way to VE-Day. The miniseries format gives the ability to tell multiple stories, chronicle a range of characters, and portray a full spectrum of war experiences. Because they are focusing on one company, the narrative always feels focused and cohesive, a trait that The Pacific lacked, despite its grander ambitions. The action in the series follows in the style of Saving Private Ryan with an emphasis on three things: intensity, violence, and tactics. The stand out feature here, and what separates this from its sister series The Pacific, is the series’ clear view that there really are some redeemable aspects to be found in the hell of war. The series identifies three in particular: The camaraderie and relationships built among the soldiers, the power of good leadership, and courage/bravery/perseverance in the face of great suffering and fear. This is why the characters of Band of Brothers, like Dick Winters, Lipton, Compton, Guarnere, Malarkey and Doc Roe, are revered by its fans and not more faceless soldiers forgotten as soon the screen goes black. The creators laid out the scope of the episodes perfectly, allowing a quick pace, constantly changing scenery that brings fresh settings, new characters getting focused on or old characters getting spotlighted for the first time.  The emotional climax of the series is the two-part episode covering the events surrounding the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne. In a genius move, as the men hit their lowest point of suffering, the series puts us in the shoes of the company medic, Doc Roe. We get to experience his day to day as he seeks to serve, despite harboring clear worries about if it all matters. The series finds time to validate another heroic role – giving comfort in the middle of suffering. Likewise, as they conclude their time in Bastogne, the focus centers on Lipton for the first time as he takes the leadership role and sees man after man go down. Particular affective is the mental breakdown of Compton, a once steadfast leader of the men. After the men take the town of Foy we are given one of the most haunting and striking images of all war cinema: Easy company sitting in a church, listening to the beauty of an angelic sounding choir, as we visually see the casualties of Easy company slow fade from existence. It's haunting. The film wraps up in its last few episodes by focusing on the rundown of the war. In my opinion, this is the single best primer on the American experience of the European theater in World War II - and more than that- one of the best pieces of art on war in general. GRADE: A+

20. Enemy at the Gates (2001) IMDB
- Very loosely based on the true story of the legendary Russian sniper Vassili Zaitsevs' exploits at the Battle of Stalingrad. The film's opening sequences of new recruits arriving at Stalingrad and crossing the Volga into battle, again although not accurate technically, capture so well the feeling and atmosphere of desperation, horror, and that the Soviet Union saw their only way to win as a numbers game - we'll be able to throw more at you than you can throw at us. The same can be said of the rest of the film - it's not very accurate to the true story, but it captures well the "feeling" of a sniper duel for the hopes of a nation. Given the film swings wildly in dramatic quality at times and gets a lot of the history wrong, I should probably rate this one a bit lower. For whatever reason, I guess you'd say this is a small guilty pleasure for me. GRADE: B-

21. El Alamein: The Line of Fire (2002) IMDB
- An Italian infantry squad mans a lonely outpost at El Alamein awaiting a major British counterattack. The film moves slowly as the soldiers battle thirst, dysentery, meaninglessness of war, and the illogic of their commanders. The film attempts to be reflective, but I would say its unearned and a little pretentious. The battle scenes just assume you are on board with the "tragedy of war" theme because rather than argue it, they just immediately go into slow-motion with sad music, The problem is that the film hasn’t quite argued it by force of visual – just music and style. This one struggles to find its niche – it doesn't work as a meditation on war, doesn't work as an action film, its not a procedural, or a morality tale; it's a kind of a bland imitation of what good reflective war movies are supposed to be. GRADE: C-

22. Days of Glory (2006) IMDB
- A well-produced French film about indigenous North Africans joining the French army to fight against the Nazi's. Along the way, they must also fight against discrimination as the French authorities often will treat them worse, supply them with less, and give them assignments that can amount to being cannon fodder. This is a well-written film with insightful characters and dialogue that are all based on true stories. GRADE: B

23. Stalingrad (2013) IMDB
- It’s tough to determine if this should be considered alongside other war films or as a fantasy action war film - that's how bad this film is. Ostensibly, this is a film about the war of attrition in the Battle of Stalingrad. The macho/jingoistic tone here is so dramatic and over the top that it is hard to take seriously - I think Michael Bay would blush at a few of the ideas here. Add to an overly simplistic plot with horrible acting, artificial and cheesy dialogue, and you have one of the worst films I watched for this project. On top of that, there is truly bizzare and forced framing device as this Stalingrad story is being told by a rescue worker talking to someone in the rubble of the Japanese tsunami in 2011. I mean, what? After getting the Russians out of the rubble they are asking, "Where is the man who told the story?" as if telling them this story got them through the horribleness. It's so strange. Imagine a film that started out with firemen arriving at the scene of the 9/11 World Trade Center rubble and then proceeding to help those trapped in the rubble by telling the story of perseverance he endured during the Second World War during the Battle of the Bulge. It's that strange folks. GRADE: D+

24. Fury (2014) IMDB
- This is my favorite tank centered movie I've ever seen. The story takes place towards the end of the war in Europe, stars Brad Pitt as the commander of a Sherman tank squad in the American army, and sees a young replacement played by Logan Lerman join Pitt's squad. The tank action is excellent with assaults that are nearly all practical and simple in their layout. The visual presentation is clear and the sound design (mixing orders, chatter, tank noises, guns, and score) is excellent. Pitt shines here as the physically and morally exhausted tank commander trying to achieve his orders and keep his squad together. The "loss of innocence" as soldiers experience the horror of war is a war film trope, but it feels freshly and organically presented. There is a dramatic sequence in a small town where the tank squad find a lovely apartment lived in by a mother and her daughter that bring physical and moral conflict to an unnerving point. 
GRADE: A

25. Dunkirk (2017) IMDB
- Director Christopher Nolan takes on the events of the great British evacuation at Dunkirk. Uniquely, the film is told in three different timelines: Over a span of a couple hours for the pilots, over a span of a day for the civilian boats, and the span of a week or so for the soldiers. This gives the film three different perspectives on the events and allows it to give us a wider view of what the historical event was like. I've previously written a review of the film so I won't go in full detail here. It's good, but it has some serious flaws. GRADE: B


2 comments:

  1. I had forgotten some of these. I love the Bridge to Far. One of the movies I return to on a regular basis. I also love the Longest Day. One of the reasons is imply the cast of charaters. I learned many things about Rommel and became one of my favorite enemy charaters of the war. SO often we forget the strength of character of the opposition because the winners write history and beinf from the US we get more about US charaters. One of the sad sides of most wars. I feel the same way about some confederate leaders, though in light of recent history it is hard to do so. IS there character in choosing th wrong side of a conflict or is one's side chosen for you because of where you grow up? Many spiritual lessons can be learned from the movie arts. Thanks for your insights.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Christian writer John Dickson recently tweeted, "No one who genuinely studies history - as opposed to "uses" history - can feel judgmental about our forebears and righteous about ourselves." I think he's right. Notice, not that we can't be judgmental about their own decisions or things they looked beyond, but that this judgmental nature will necessary envelope our ownselves as well. We are just as guilty.
      I do think this is one of the benefits of cinema - the chance to understand they motivations behind characters or people we might have written off. To my mind, it's done well when the film also is willing to judge - understand yes, but judge when necessary too. Some films seem to substitute "understanding" for "justifying" when they forget the judgment part

      Delete