WWII Film Guide: War Backdrop - The Part-Time Critic

Thursday, October 7, 2021

WWII Film Guide: War Backdrop

*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

Introduction: There are several films that use World War II as an influential setting, but primarily examine life on the homefront or use the setting as a background for a genre entry. While this category is largely dominated by romance films, there is much to be found here for fans of any genre. This broad category features family drama's like Mrs. Miniver; romances like The English Patient, Captain Corellis Mandolin (an English Patient wannabe), From Here to Eternity and Atonement; martial arts films like Ip Man; musicals like South Pacific; political dramas like The Darkest Hour; animated films like The Wind Rises; and the genre busting masterpiece Casablanca.

In order to get you to the thing most of you came for, "What's the best in this genre? I've put my recommendations for you below. Following that, if you'd like to learn more about the 11 films in this section, then you can find each film in this category organized by release date (oldest to newest) with a brief commentary, a link to its IMDB page, and my grade.

Recommendations
The Top Shelf: Best in this category belongs to...
  • Casablanca (1942): Shocked! I'm shocked to find the masterpiece of this category is 1942's Casablanca. Let me be up front with you, I am biased; this is one of my favorite films of all-time, I watch it about once a year, and it's only gotten better with each viewing. It was written and made in the middle of the war and it manages in the character of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) to capture the American attitude of an cynical idealist who has reason to be skeptical but eventually comes around to doing the right, scratch that, noble thing, by joining in the fight against the Nazi's. Remarkably, he's even able to begin a beautiful friendship with a (poor) corrupt French policeman by the end. Don't be misinformed, don't watch Casablanca for the waters, watch it because it's a classic story that deepens with repeated viewings. Okay, that's enough quote references for this short recommendation. Read the review below if you want more.

The Deep Dive: For those wanting a broader and richer journey...
  • Mrs. Miniver (1942): Have you ever wondered what an episode of Growing Pains or Family Ties might have looked like if they lived in Britain through World War II? If so, check out the delightful family tale Mrs. Miniver that covers a family living through the beginning events of the war. 
  • Atonement (2007): I think the best romance, albeit one with a lot of philosophical and meta-introspection, is the gorgeously produced Atonement.
  • Ip Man (2008): Finally, one of the greatest martial arts films of all-time uses the Japanese invasion of China during the war as its setting. You can't go wrong checking it out. 

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. Casablanca (1942) IMDB
- I love this film. It's my second favorite film of all-time. It's one of the masterpieces everyone talks about that still holds up when you get to it. I tell you this so that you'll understand that my bias is up front in this commentary. This classic film is set in the titular town of Vichy occupied town of Casablanca in 1942. Morocco is the final destination for many immigrants and refugees looking to flee Europe and get a plane to Lisbon and then America. Since the town is controlled by the Vichy government, approved travel papers are required to get out and these can be secured from Capt. Renault played by Claude Rains. It just so happens that two blank transit papers were stolen off German couriers and were to be traded in the popular cafe "Rick's" owned by the American Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart. The papers went missing in the cafe just as the infamous French resistance leader Victor Laszlo and his wife Illsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) show up in the cafe. The rest of the story revolves around Laszlo trying to secure those transit papers and leave occupied territory - but the Vichy and German authorities as well as Rick Blaine all figure into the story as different kinds of obstacles. 

This film straddles many of my WWII subcategories and so you'll find it in the special ops/spy/resistance category as it's primary story is about a French resistance leader escaping the authorities and the primary theme sees the main character learning that there's some things important enough to stick your neck out for (a not so subtle dig at isolationists). However, the film would be just as comfortable in the comedy section. In fact, I think it has more famous jokes and laugh lines than any comedy I've put in that category. It also finds a place in this category. Yes, this film is about resistance but at its center is the romance between Rick and Ilsa. I couldn't bring myself to keeping it in just one category.

I tend to watch Casablanca at least once a year and like all the great films, Casablanca is so rich and layered that it rewards multiple viewings & seems to change the older I get. In my teens, I was surprised by the film's wit and humor. It was the first time I found myself laughing out loud & quoting a B&W film. In my twenties, I was taken in by the love stories: Rick-Ilsa, Ilsa-Laszlo, and even the near tragic sub-plot of the two Bulgarians cleverly weaved throughout the film. Now I'm moved by the film's cynical atmosphere, Rick's idealism broken into scrupulous pragmatism ultimately redeemed by a noble forgiveness and self-sacrifice, and finally Laszlo's inspiring and dogged patriotism. The performances are iconic and spot-on, especially the delightful Claude Rains who gets most of the films funniest lines. Few films boast a roster of characters this memorable, this enjoyable, and this heartbreaking. The writing, which at first can seem convoluted, deftly introduces a large cast of well-drawn characters who each play their own important role in telling the story. Everything leads up to that famous third act, which features a few quickly paced twists that continue to feel fresh to this day and remain enjoyable even after seeing the film well over ten times. GRADE: A+

2. Mrs. Miniver (1942) IMDB
- The opening sees Mrs. Miniver, played wonderfully by the Academy Award winning Greer Carson, buying a lovely hat from downtown London and then Mr. Miniver, played well here by Walter Pidgeon, buying a new car. They both know their purchases are a bit expensive and they have a bit of trouble telling each other about them. This sequence, played lightly and mostly for laughs, settles the film in as a well-balanced drama about an upper middle class British family just before the war. The tone, writing, and performances make it remarkably likable. There is a natural and organic feel here to the family scenes, reminded a bit of how homey and breezy 80's family sitcom way - think Family Ties or Growing Pains. The drama plays out with moments from the evacuation of Dunkirk to the Blitz and Battle of Britain going on in the background. It's easy to see why this became a favorite as a pro-Allies propaganda film as it's essentially a wealthy family happily and lovingly struggling through, giving what they can in different ways to the war effort. This are some faults here, but man this is an enjoyable film with laughs, heartwarming moments, and even a tear or two. Give it a watch. GRADE: A- 

3. Lifeboat (1944) IMDB
- The film opens with the sinking of an allied steamship by a German U-boat. A lone lifeboat remains and is picking up whatever survivors there are. It turns out before the ship went down, it was able to shell the U-boat and her crew jumped over either. As survivors populate the boat they get one more unexpected guest - a German U-boat survivor. Based on a story by John Steinbeck, this Alfred Hitchcock film plays out like a class drama and mystery thriller combined. As the eclectic group of survivors get to know each other and conflict over the German, their roles, the rescue plan, and various other things while they discover the German is sabotaging their rescue. 

As an examination of class and attitudes toward "enemies" the film is interesting and fairly successful. It does, however, get a little long in the tooth. Despite strong production values, especially for the time, that get everything they can out of the one setting - by the last twenty minutes or so of the film I'm wishing it would just end already. When it does, it is pretty underwhelming stuff. GRADE: B

4. From Here to Eternity (1953) IMDB
- Set in Hawaii before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the film a newly transferred soldier Robert E. Lee Prewitt, played by Montgomery Clift, who refuses to box for his company and therefore suffers the hazing of his fellow soldiers. Sgt. Warden, played by Burt Lancaster, of the company is a by the books guy who falls in love with the Captain's wife and they have an affair. That's the basic outline of the conflicts, but the film becomes so much richer than its basic plot. It's a story about broken people and the ways our broken lives crash into the brokenness of others. The brokenness is embodied by several well-drawn characters and stellar performances. At the center is the dogged, but persistent Montgomery Clift who is willing to take all the unjust punishment because he's drawn a moral line. 

The two central heavies in the film are Lancaster's Warden and the Captain. While the Captain is pretty much just a louse, Lancaster is able to draw in some light to his role giving it some earned sympathy. The supporting roles from Frank Sinatra, Deborah Kerr, and Donna Reed are also uniformly great. It's a fantastic ensemble playing memorable characters. This is great news because the drama/romance stuff can be hampered by the conventions of the time period and come off too melodramatic. There's also a turn or to in the plot that feels a bit too manipulative. Otherwise, the film is engrossing, intelligently written, and deserving of is reputation. For a 1950's film, it is quite surprising how willing this film is to depict infidelity, soldiers being hazed, drunk, unhappy, and visiting brothel-like establishments. There's a sadness that hangs over the film. Also hanging over the film is the impending Pearl Harbor attack which comes near the end of the film. It's an interest event that trivializes all the great plans and desires our characters have.  GRADE: B

5. South Pacific (1958) IMDB
- I've never really connected strongly with a Rodgers & Hammerstein production and this musical proves no different. In fact, this might be one of the most overrated "classic" musicals I've ever crossed. Let's start with the story, 30 minutes into this 2.5 hour musical and the only thing they've established is that a bunch of horny soldiers want to get over to this mythical island of Bali Ha'i where they think a bunch of French women are. We then learn a newly arrived Marine wants to get a rich French planter, named Emile, to help him setup an observation post on a nearby Japanese occupied island. This is ostensibly the plot, but only takes up a few minutes of the screen time in the first two hours. This transitions to the second main story - the love relationship between Emile and a young nurse from Arkansas. Emile, an older sophisticated and wealthy Frenchman on the island with a majestic estate with a stunning view of the South Pacific wonders in song if he has a chance with a young nurse from Arkansas. Gonna go out on a limb here - is he an idiot?

Eventually, an hour and a half into the film, they finally go to that island they want to go to, find the most stereotypical "islander" layout ever set to film and "Bloody Mary" pimps out her possibly underage daughter to the Marine commander. He falls in love, but has to go. All of these love relationships are shot through a color filter that looks godawful and must have been a unique trend at the time that has not aged well at all. Along the way, there's really only one been one number I thought was any good "There is Nothin' Like a Dame" - everything else is pretty standard stuff.

Honestly, I'm not sure how this one has become a classic. The plot is not that engaging, with the main stories not that well tied together, filled with pretty offensive depictions of the Islander natives, and with not a lot of great musical numbers. Aside from the beautiful location shooting, there's very little to like here. GRADE: D+

6. The English Patient (1996) IMDB
-  This film seems to have produced a love/hate relationship between viewers. On one hand it won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture. On the other, it produced a passionate fanbase of people who didn't like the film - leading to pop culture moments like this episode of Seinfeld. I myself, landed (no pun intended) somewhere in the middle. This is a pretty engaging prestige World War II romance film. A man mysteriously crashes his plane in the Egyptian desert and can't quite remember his past. As the film progresses we begin to learn of his past - which includes archaeological digs, love affairs, and possibly some espionage. His past eventually catches up to him where he is being cared for by a nurse in Italy before the end of the war. I won't say much more about the plot. While I don't quite find myself enraptured in the love story, it's hard not to admit the tone/atmosphere/setting of the film draws you in and does keep you wondering for most of its runtime. It's fairly successful and I think it garners its hate mostly because it's a decent film that is overpraised rather than an outright bad film. GRADE: B 

7. Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001) IMDB
-  A Greek woman, played by Penelope Cruz, is caught in a love triangle between a cultured Italian officer, played by Nicholas Cage, who has occupied her island during World War II and a local man, played by Christian Bale, who has returned from war in rough condition. Unfortunately, this well-produced movie is torpedoed by a glacial pace and the horrendous acting (including an all-time worst accent from Cage) and characterization of Captain Corelli. Once Corelli enters the film it all feels like a farce (when it is played seriously), not just for the misplaced acting, but because the character makes little to no sense the way he is portrayed. He's a walking stereotype that seems to not exist in the real world setting of World War II. It's a miscalculation that essentially sinks the entire film because it makes no sense for Cruz to fall in love with him. This is another prime example that Cage is one our best and worst actors of all-time. This film was likely greenlit with the success of The English Patient in the minds of the producers. For those who dislike that film, this film is pretty much a demonstration of how poorly that one could of gone in different hands. GRADE: D+

8. Atonement (2007) IMDB
- Atonement begins like a Jane Austen novel about young upper class English aristocrats set in the 1930's and interrupted by a crime...A crime in which through a serious of misunderstandings and misremembering's of a young girl, the wrong person, James McAvoy's Robbie Turner, is imprisoned. In this sequence we also meet the wealthy Cecilia Tallis, played by Keira Knightley, who has finally come around to show her love for Robbie Turner, despite their class differences. 

In the second act, Robbie has been drafted out of prison to take part in the British Expeditionary Force in France to defend against Germany. Robbie and a couple other soldiers are separated from their division and trying to make their way back to the main forces across the French countryside and the devastation it has seen. Eventually they make their way on the BEF and French forces on the beaches at Dunkirk. It's here we get the famous one-shot take tour of the massive recreation. It's an overwhelming sequence that lives up to its reputation and sells the desperation and hopelessness better than I ever felt in Nolan's Dunkirk. It's a gut punch of a sequence, a grounded fever dream, to our lead who wants to get home and start his life back over. 

The final phase of the film shifts to Briony Tallis, the young girl (played by Saoirse Ronan) who makes the fatal accusation that seals Robbie's fate, who is now an eighteen year old nurse (played by Romola Garai) and trying to atone and assuage the guilt she feels for her actions as a young girl. I won't give away the ending here except to say I didn't care for it much when I originally saw it in 2008, but was greatly moved by it upon re-watch. Director Joe Wright has always been interested in framing his dramas as more than just dramas and the way he plays with the film as a novel (making perspective, memory, and fictions by the author a thing we must deal with) mirrors the plot and the themes that play out. It ends up becoming an intellectual and emotional journey that quite surprised me. GRADE: A-

9. Ip Man (2009) IMDB
- In the the 1930's city of Foshan in South China, Martial Arts Clubs were popular and thriving. Foremost among the martial arts masters in the city is Ip Man, who fights using a system known as Wing Chun, but does not take on students. As newcomers arrive to the city and setup rival Martial Arts Clubs, they seek to challenge Ip Man, but all challengers find themselves completely overmatched. This is the setting when the Japanese army invades and closes down all schools, police the population, and food becomes scarce. 

Hard times fall on Foshan and the population is starving, even Ip Man's family, whose home is confiscated. To put food on the table, Ip Man is forced to manual labor. Word spreads that the occupying general is a Japanese martial artist and will pay Chinese masters to fight him. It's in this dramatic section where this martial arts film sets itself apart from others in the martial arts genre. You see, Ip Man is the best martial artist in the film - it's never even in doubt. There's never a fight where he's in genuine danger. This is unusual for a martial arts film because the main character's skill is where the arc comes in for most fight films. The last fight typically is when a character's skill peaks. So if Ip Man starts the best and ends the best, where is his arc? The arc and character growth comes in the sacrifices he is forced to make to put food on the table. Later, when he is forced to train factory workers against bandits, to fight to put food on the table, and fight to bring pride to his countrymen, he learns to see his martial skill with new importance. It's not about growing in skill, it's about growing in perspective. These sequences work well and are executed with unusually high production values. It's odd because the drama is normally the worst parts of these kind of films. 

The drama alone would mark this as a standout film, but the action and central character manage to upstage it and become the true icon of the picture. The quiet and understated Ip Man (loosely based on the real Ip Man) is played by Donnie Yen, one of cinema's greatest martial artists, and in this character he finds a perfect match - a character he would become most known for. In another case of the stars aligning, the director is Yip Wilson (who honed his action chops with previous Yen films) and legendary action choreographer Sammo Hung. Together, these three manage to put together several iconic action sequences that are able to take the Wing Chun form and make it into a cinematic delight. Instead of big and showy moves, Yen stays largely in one place, rarely leaving a basic center line, making rapid but detailed strikes and blocks. This style is showcased throughout, but is never more memorable than when Ip Man takes on ten Japanese fighters single-handedly. It's a short but brutal sequence featuring the now infamous Ip Man rabbit punches. The war backdrop provides the setting here, but the character and action sequences shine brightest. This is a martial arts masterpiece that so happens to take place during World War II. GRADE: A-

10. The Wind Rises (2013) IMDB
- A heavily fictionalized account of Jiro Horikoshi, one of the main designers of Japanese fighter aircraft used during World War II; most famously the Mitsubishi Zero. The story begins with Hiro as a young boy, a kind a thoughtful boy, but given to daydreaming about airplanes - especially planes by Italian designer Gianni Caproni. We follow Jiro's journey through his life (school, relationships, earthquakes, depression, tuberculosis pandemics) leading up to his work on fighter planes. This animated film, adapted and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, is filled with all the great hallmarks of Studi Ghibli work: excellent animation, sensitive supporting music, an unusual eye for insight into human behavior and the beautiful little things about life. At the core of this story is something seen in other Ghibli stories that focus on nature vs industrial technology as well, that's the irony of using the plane, something Jiro finds so fundamentally beautiful and inspiring, for something evil like war. I won't so much more about how the film goes on telling this part of the story. I will say that my usual admiration for Ghibli films, but ultimately a slight disconnect has continued on with this one. Check it out. GRADE: B

11. Darkest Hour (2017) IMDB
- The political situation for Britain in May 1940 is dire. Germany's invasion of France, which was thought to at least result in a stalemate, has surprised everyone in how quickly and swiftly they have pushed back the Allies. The political situation has suddenly favored the installment of a new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill onto the scene. With the disaster of Dunkirk in the air, Churchill must decide whether to sue for peace (as France, Denmark, and Norway would all later do) or to go on with the fight. The film follows the political machinations and back and forth during that tumultuous period.

Like most of Joe Wright's films (including the Atonement earlier on this list), the plot becomes largely an excuse for some other symbol or theme on his mind. In the case of Atonement it was how our perspectives can mislead us and how our words play vital roles in telling lies that can both ruin and restore. Similarly, The Darkest Hour is ostensibly about Churchill's historic moment, but it's moreso about the power of words - with great care given to how his words (rightly or wrongly) were the galvanizing instrument of the hour - even if they were often divorced (in ideals) from reality. The real key to the interests of the writer and director here are in the last words of Lord Halifax, "He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle." As a bravura performance from Oldman and an examination of how language is used in wartime this film shines. As a historical film covering those moments fairly, it's not so great. GRADE: B


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