The Part-Time Critic

Sunday, September 12, 2021

WWII Film Guide: Resistance & Special Ops

6:47 PM 0
WWII Film Guide: Resistance & Special Ops


 *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: A significant number of World War II stories take place in the grey zone between the home front and the war front. These aren’t front line soldiers engaging with the enemies best defenses or soldiers on patrol preserving the homeland and home life. These are the stories of the warriors who fight from the shadows. These are the stories of people who resist through secret assaults, sabotage, deception, double-cross, assassination, disinformation, and the like. The civilian versions of these stories often play out like mafia films with rings of resistance fighters (thugs) being led by bosses and also engaging in underground market crimes along the way...all for the cause of course. The military special operation stories, often mixed up with civilian resistance stories, often play out like a mix between an action and espionage film. A key question at the base of this genre is this: How can you actively fight in a war other than in direct combat? There are a lot of fascinating stories to be told here - often more fascinating, layered, and exciting than those directly about battles.

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 19 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.

The Basics: The best entry in this entire genre has nothing to do with guns or military tactics. The best overall film about resistance is 2005's Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. It's a lean two hour film that details the final days of Sophie Scholl, a young woman part of an anti-Nazi resistance (non-violent) within Germany. It's World War II's A Man for All Seasons, but simplified and streamlined. The film nobly captures the courage and conscience behind Sophie's resistance and how when done righteously, those who have compromised look away in shame, but are condemned in soul. It's a beautiful film.
  • Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005)

Deep Dives: This category is blessed with several solid entries telling a wide spectrum of stories from the war. If you are looking for the best film that portrays a real life special operation, then check out 2016's Anthropoid or 2005's The Great Raid. Anthropoid methodically covers the Czech resistance's operation to assassinate General Heydrich and the Nazi reprisals that followed. The Great Raid does a fantastic job weaving the story of the underground Philippine resistance with a Ranger rescue of 500 POWS. For a great education on the emergence and organization of the French resistance, watch a doubleheader of Army of Crime and Army of Shadows. Together they are the most realistic and educational films you'll find in this category. To pair with Sophie Scholl, watch the workmanlike Valkyrie or even A Hidden Life to get an idea of the different ways people within Germany tried to resist against the Nazi's. 
  • Real Life Operation: Anthropoid (2016) / The Great Raid (2005)
  • Organized French Resistance: Army of Crime (2009) / Army of Shadows (1969)
  • Resistance Within Germany: Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) / Valkyrie (2008) / A Hidden life (2019)

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. Back to Bataan (1945) IMDB
- Released just weeks before end of the Japanese campaign in World War II, this film attempts to cover the Filipino resistance after the Battle of Bataan as organized by an American commander named Madden, played by John Wayne in his usual manner. The story moves quickly and at just an hour and 35 minutes it doesn't outstay its welcome thankfully. The film shows some sabotage, ambushes, and behind the scenes coordination as the Japanese struggle to respond to the guerilla warfare. The screenplay here is smarter than I expected and plays around with the themes of colonialism, nationalism, and the moral tradeoffs of resistance. The film concludes with the guerrillas playing a role in holding a key road that could be used to reinforce Japanese resistance to freshly arrived American invaders. It's a decent ending to a decent film - a minor miracle considering the rapidly changing real world events going on as they were filming it. GRADE: B-

2. The Guns of Navarone (1961) IMDB
- A large German artillery gun (the guns of Navarone!) is protected on a fortress island and threatens a key naval passage around Greece. In order for the Allies to effect a rescue armada for some trapped Allied soldiers in the area, a team must infiltrate the island and take out the guns. The team is led by Gregory Peck (because of some nonsense about his ability to scale a cliff that actually plays very little role in the grand scheme of things) and filled out by a great cast. This is one of those "mixed" films where the film clearly has ambitions to be smart, layered with crisscrossing allegiances, and about something more than just explosions, but it doesn't always execute those ambitions well and the film can drag quite a bit through long stretches. It's good, but doesn't quite live up to the hype I'd read going into it. GRADE: B-

3. The Heroes of Telemark (1965) IMDB
- Smuggled information from a Nazi heavy water testing facility in Norway indicates that the Germans might be ahead of the Allies in producing an atomic bomb. The Allies decide that the facility must be destroyed in order to slow down German development. To do this, it's determined that working with British SOE trained Norwegian resistance fighters is the best method. The setup of characters and settings in the Norwegian town is a bit clunky. It's also a bit odd that Dr. Pederson, played by Kirk Douglas, is also a gung-ho soldier type as well as a doctor in physics. He immediately picks up a gun, helps detour ship mines, parachutes, and skis without batting an eye. It's never quite explained why he's so good at all that when he's a doctor in physics.

About midway through the film it finally gets engaging. There's a really nice ten to fifteen minute sequence, largely in silence, of a sabotage raid on the heavy water facility. The commitment to location shooting here really gives the sequence a unique and distinctive feel. The cinematography, longer takes with a lot of depth and width showing off the landscape and facility, gives a genuine feeling of how a stealthy raid could be conducted. This is the standout sequence of the film. Following the raid, the commandos disperse as the Nazis search for them and we get a nice ski chase sequence as well. After the Germans bring the facility back up to code, the Allies call in a bombing raid that the local resistance is certain will kill much of the local town as well. When that bombing doesn't destroy the facility, the resistance must resort to taking out the hydro ferry carrying the heavy water. This is another scene reminiscent of the silent raid on the facility, but it never quite connects like that one. The film ends with a bit of a manufactured wimper in my opinion. The second half of the film is superior to the first, but in the end it's just pretty good. See it for the beautiful winter locations and the mid film sabotage scene. GRADE: C+ 

4. The Train (1965) IMDB
- It's 1944 and as the Allies get a foothold in France the Germans begin evacuating as much valuables by train as they can. French train workers, secretly part of the resistance, get word that the Germans are evacuating a large collection of cultural art. Burt Lancaster heads up the resistance efforts here and Paul Scofield plays the central Nazi antagonist looking to stop the resistance. The major defining feature of the film is the focus on the trains - much of it very practically filmed with strong performances. Personally, I struggled with this film - it's heart is in the right place and it works hard to be practical and grounded. Unfortunately, all these efforts amounted to an experience I found interesting but never fully engaging. The film moves at a pretty slow pace and feels about 20-30 minutes too long. To my mind, it's also not even the best WWII film centered around trains to come out in 1965 - as Von Ryan's Express is smarter and more exciting in my book. If you are a train aficionado then you'll likely enjoy this more than I did. GRADE: B-

5. The Devil’s Brigade (1968) IMDB
- Coming out a few months after the 1967 hit The Dirty Dozen, this film got lost in its wake. It's not hard to see why, they both feature a story of getting no good soldiers trained up to become a force for special missions. This film is loosely based on the true story of the Devil's Brigade which is seen as the predecessor to American special force units like the Green Berets. The difference in cast likability between this film and The Dirty Dozen is noticeable immediately. At least The Dirty Dozen exuded charisma and tried to get you to like their horrible characters. In a real strike against the film, most of the soldiers, apart from Willian Holden's commander, in The Devil's Brigade are just not that likeable or interesting. 

That being said, it doesn't mean the film can't be passable as mostly mindless entertainment for a couple of hours and that's just what it is - especially in its action-centered last half. The story is basic (our unit can do it!) and not overly original, but it does manage to hit the right story notes when it must and closes out the film with a strong 30 minute war sequence that is worth the watch alone. GRADE: C+

6. Army of Shadows (1969) IMDB
- I have to be honest, I didn't quite "get" this film at first. I think it took about 20-25 minutes or so before I even caught my bearings on what was going on and why. Once I did however, things began to connect and I settled in. Even for someone like me, I can sometime be surprised by the style of a film and this is one of those films where they don't really exposit in the beginning, they prefer to kind of leave you dangling to put things together over time.

In addition to that style, the plot of the film is more about vignettes or sequences, rather than one linear plot. So rather than the story of a particular cell in the French resistance from birth to death, we get dropped into a snapshot of one cell and then have to piece things together. Anchoring the film is a strong performance from Lino Ventura as the central character and unifier of the story strands. Along the journey we get a nice education on the dangers, paranoia, and operations of being caught up in the resistance. Thanks to the shooting style and writing, this is likely the most grounded and realistic (along with 2009's Army of Crime) depiction of the French resistance put on film. If this commentary seems a bit scattershot, it's because I'm not really sure how to write about it. I found myself both loving and put off by how the story unfolded and the grounded direction/cinematography - which can give a very realistic feel to it or just make things drag out more than they should. Still, this is really good stuff that is worth a watch if you enjoy resistance style films. GRADE: B+

7. Too Late the Hero (1970) IMDB
- Set on an unnamed Pacific island, a small squad of British troops (highlighted by a salty Michael Caine performance) are led by an American officer (played by Cliff Robertson) behind enemy lines into the jungle. Their goal is to take out a Japanese radar site before it can spot a U.S. ship convoy and notify Japanese reinforcements. The squad is a motley crew who struggle through the jungle with inept leadership and complaining soldiers all the way. When the group arrives at the radar site, the commander calls an audible and causes a rift with the American officer. The Japanese pursue the remaining Allied soldiers as they attempt to make it back to their base. The overall tone of the story is cynical and the subtext is the experience of ineptness, futility, meaninglessness of the Vietnam War (which was still raging at the time of filming). It’s watchable stuff with a story that manage to keep attention, especially the ending stretch. However the production scale feels small in a distracting way, the story feels unnecessarily bloated at 2 hours and 13 minutes, and there’s nothing here that's better than "alright". There's ultimately nothing you can’t find better in other films of this type. GRADE: C

8. Force 10 from Navarone (1978) IMDB
- This official sequel to The Guns of Navarone has very little to do with the events of the original film -though it does share the same penchant for spending much of the running time in a labyrinth of various resistance and partisan groups ending with blowing something up. The film begins with another force for a special operation being assembled and dropped behind enemy lines on a secret mission in Yugoslavia. From here the group is harassed by German forces, then double-turned by a group they thought were Allied resistance, then finally connected with the resistance overseeing the bridge they are ultimately meant to bomb and deny to the German forces, then their objective leads them back to the German camp, then they fail because someone on their resistance is actually German, so then back to a German ammo dump, then on to their actual mission at the dam/bridge. As you can tell, it's quite plot heavy and convoluted. These sequences aren't bad by themselves but they don't feature great action and rely heavily on "just in time" help from others or random events out of their control to give them new opportunities. Our main characters do seem to be advancing mostly on luck or at times new obstacles are created by their own stupidity (like badly tying up prisoners or leaving guns on them) - which makes the whole thing feel...well just not as fun as it should be I suppose. The final act dam and bridge destruction is decent, but not enough to make the rather mediocre offerings two hours previous worth it. GRADE: C

9. Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) IMDB
- With the director behind epics like The Mission and the The Killing Fields combined with a starring role for Paul Newman telling the story of the Manhattan Project, I was pretty excited about this film on paper. Unfortunately, it's a drab and unengaging telling of the production of the first atom bomb. At least there's some discussion of the ethics of the bomb, but it's all background chatter that never really engages. What a wasted opportunity. GRADE: C-

10. The Great Raid (2005) IMDB
- After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor crippled the U.S. Navy, the Japanese were able to invade U.S. held islands like the Philippines without worry of a naval counterattack. This left the U.S. forcers and their allies on the Philippines essentially cut off. The Japanese captured many prisoners, many of whom died on the way to camps (the infamous Bataan Death March) or in the camps. As the war came neared a close in the 1944, the U.S. invaded the southern Philippines. U.S. intelligence discovers a POW camp of nearly 500 men just 30 miles from their front lines, but believe there's s strong chance the Japanese will kill the prisoners before they can liberate the camp. A group of U.S. rangers are assembled to conduct a raid on the camp and bring back the POWs.

The film largely follows three groups: the experience of the prisoners in camp, the rangers making their way for the raid, and the local resistance helping the prisoners as best they can. The story, largely adapted from two different novels, combined with strong production values does a nice job giving an overview of ways the resistance worked and detailing the plans, journey, and adaptations necessary for the raid. While feeling very literary (characters get fleshed out more than usual), the pace of the film does suffer a bit. The rangers set out in the first act of the film and take about an hour and a half it seems to get to the raid. 

Thankfully, the titular raid really does deliver. Thanks to the runtime devoting to the setup, we are clear on the strategy and geography of the battle. The battle provides suspense, clear visuals, and a genuine sense of intensity. In all, this is one of the best 'start to finish' films portraying a real American special forces operation. It has some dry parts, but is a workmanlike product that ultimately delivers. GRADE: B

11. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) IMDB
- Did the entire country of Germany join in the Nazi party or look the other way? We know that the targets of German occupation and persecution fought back, but did the ordinary German? This film tells the story of the last days of 21 year old Sophie Scholl, a German citizen who decided to resist. Sophie, along with her brother Hans and a few other members, formed the non-violent resistance group known as the White Rose. Comprised of well-educated members, the White Rose wrote pamphlets and fliers looking to expose the German governments war crimes and counter their propaganda.

In a bold move, Sophie and her brother Hans go to Munich University to secretly distribute their most recent pamphlet. In an excruciatingly suspenseful sequence, the two place the pamphlets around the school while class is in session. Unfortunately, a maintenance man observes the two as they finish. They are taken into custody and questioned by the Gestapo. The strength and moral resistance during their questioning is not displayed heroically or as some kind of superhuman feat. What makes these sequences and the whole film really, so special to me, is the simple moral righteousness that underlies their commitment. Much of the film takes place in these interrogations and they were wise to set it here. In the end, Sophie and her brother are charged and stand trial for treason. The trial, rushed into court, is a sham and rather than giving us a courtroom triumph, the film gives us grace under fire. Sophie and her brother are condemned, but always remain courageous and confident in their goodness. The moral goodness isn't braggadocios or arrogant - it's a grace that sees the moral situation clearly and has given up caring what happens to their destiny. You can sense this in two particular quotes from Sophie and Hans respectively, "[to the court] You will soon be standing where we stand now." and "[to the court] If you and Hitler weren't afraid of our opinion, we wouldn't be here."

Coming from a Lutheran background, the film does well to imagine Sophie in the vein of Martin Luther - driven by her religious convictions against a system that demands she deny them. In a revealing moment her police interrogator asks, "Why do you risk so much for false ideas, young as you are?" Sophie responds, "Because of my conscience." This film swims in the same vein as A Man For All Seasons and while not being as good as that film, illustrates well the soul that refuses to "go along" - that refuses to not say what her conscience demands. At the heart of "resistance" films is the conflict - will you compromise your conscience and go along with the others for the sake of your life, or will you fight back? This is one of my favorite stories of a German who decided to fight back. GRADE: A-

12. Black Book (2006) IMDB
- A story of Dutch resistance against the Nazi's in the Netherlands - this film starts out great, has some strong moments, but ultimately suffers from trying to be and do far too much. After Rachel, the daughter of a rich Jewish family in the Netherlands, is flushed out of her hiding spot she connects with members of the Dutch resistance. She is eventually betrayed, sees her family murdered, and yet manages to survive. To take out revenge she joins the Dutch resistance and is quickly used to infiltrate the Gestapo headquarters through a romantic relationship with the top Nazi. 

There are a lot of twists, betrayals, and miscommunications along the way and some of them really work well and others...just feel superfluous, convoluted, and unnecessary. The story is directed by Paul Verhoeven and you can tell he revels in the violence and sex - something that starts out as an interesting aspect of the film but like the plot ultimately becomes unnecessary. When I first saw the film as a young adult I was pretty into it, but it hasn't held up as well for me on a repeated viewing. See it for some strong moments, especially the sad and rarely explored tragedy of the revenge taken out on female Nazi collaborators, but know that the film ends up being too interested in becoming an R-rated, sex filled, unpredictable, thriller that it loses sight of the center of its story. GRADE: C+

13. Valkyrie (2008) IMDB
- Dramatizing one of the more famous inside plots on Hitler's life, director Bryan Singer turns in an enjoyable suspense thriller that engages the viewer while providing also providing some insight for audiences on a complex real life plot assassination plot. After an injury sustained during the North African campaign, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (yes that's a real name) is placed on staff in Berlin alongside a high-ranking Nazi official already engaged in conspiracy plots. Tom Cruise plays Colonel Claus and despite his decent performance and clear commitment to the role - the character is a bit boring and stiff. That can be said for much of the great cast here - there more like boring pawns in a story that's far more interesting than they are. I liked learning the details and complications of the plot and there's some decently staged suspense scenes here, but the film still never feels like it comes together to be more than engaging and interesting. GRADE: B-

14. Flame and Citron (2008) IMDB
- The story of two assassins, one nicknamed Flame and the other Citron, in the Danish resistance. Inspired by true accounts, the two fighters initially assassinate just Danish Nazis, but are soon tasked by their leader, taking orders from the British, to expand to high-ranking German officials. Things get even more complicated when Flame and Citron believe their leader is playing them and getting them to kill his own enemies and not Nazis. Stylistically, this film owes a lot to Road to Perdition and the twists and turns the plot takes plays out much like a mafia and gangster story where everyone seems to have more than one loyalty and turf wars are the name of the game. It’s not surprising since many in the resistance were genuinely parts of organized crime. This is a decent film that offers an introduction into the often, necessarily sometimes and purposefully sometimes, grey moral zones those in the resistance were forced to operate. GRADE: B

15. Army of Crime (2009) IMDB
- Germany has occupied Paris and begun harassing Jews, identifying communists, and responding to any resistance with great force. This French film's first act introduces us to a wide variety of characters who all suffer as a result of the occupation and find themselves looking to respond. At first, isolated acts of resistance are taken: propaganda leaflets, killing German soldiers, taking on new names to hide, etc.  Enter the Armenian poet and communist Missak Manouchian. He is arrested and taken away to a camp until he, to his deep shame, signs a paper saying he is not a communist. He returns to Paris, reunites with his wife, and is called upon to join a more systematic and organized resistance force - all the isolated partisans are. As each considers a more organized role, they each struggle with their own ethic. Missak for instance refuses to kill and another partisan remarks, "A partisan fights for life. For life, against those fighting for death. And Olga, is my life...We kill people, but we're on the side of life."

The team that is assembled is known as the Manouchian group. The film does a pretty good job of showing how the Manouchian network worked, took out targets (some jobs failed and some jobs successful), and how their ethics were challenged along the way. The group is ultimately unraveled with a tragic betrayal and old fashioned police work. Here again, there's insight into the spectrum of ways the French people informed on their own, investigated their own, and took up the charge against Resistance fighters. Why? Well, some were just afraid of the Germans and didn't want to suffer or get left out of power. However, it's clear that others didn't care for those who often made up the Resistance cells: immigrants, Jews, and communists. German propaganda labeled these groups an "Army of Crime" you see - they aren't true patriots. True patriots go about their day and collaborate. It's pretty sad stuff. Similar to 1969's Army of Shadows, this is great stuff, lots to learn and enjoy here, but I still give this just a B+. I wouldn't put this film in the "A" range for me because I never found myself wrapped up in the story or greatly moved by a sequence or key idea - this is probably the best "educational" film about how Parisian resistance networks developed out of Jewish, immigrant, and communist groups, how they operated, and how they were taken out. GRADE: B+

16. The Monuments Men (2014) IMDB
- Are there rules in war? If you were to ask 100 people they would probably come up with slightly different answers, but I think most would agree on not actively targeting civilians and taking care of prisoners as best as possible. One of the grey areas we don't really think about it how cultural landmarks and achievements should be treated in war. If you want to occupy a town, but many of the buildings are historic or filled with irreplaceable art and cultural objects, do you have a moral duty to protect them? If you occupy the town at great cost to your army, do you have a moral duty to not plunder the art? These questions were put into play during World War II where the Axis powers occupied many countries and cities loaded with cultural artifacts. While the city of Paris itself was spared by the Germans when they pulled out, the Nazis were able to loot much of its treasures. This film argues that while people can rebuild streets and houses, culture is irreplaceable and it's worth saving at cost. 

That's the concept behind the group known as "The Monuments" a real life section of the American Army whose job it was to protect as many cultural treasures as the war would allow. This film looks to tell the story of that group. An all-star cast, that includes Billy Murray, Matt Damon, John Goodman is headed by George Clooney, make their way into Europe and spread throughout the continent just at the edges of the Allied advances to secure as much art as possible. The basic idea for this movie is great. but the execution is a real mixed bag. The cast pays dividends as they are enjoyable to watch and mostly play things light, but they really aren't given a ton to do here. The film has lots of little side stories, moments, and tone changes that never feel like they add up to something cohesive or meaningful. At one point it can be light and breezy, the next serious, and the next super broad and preachy. The central conceit of the film that it's worth risking lives over art is never really challenged thematically - which is a lost opportunity. It's a film that has some pleasures, but I think it's better to just explore some of the real history behind the film. GRADE: C+

17. Warsaw '44 (2014) IMDB
- In most American tellings of World War II, we rarely make time and room for the Polish aspect of the war - unless it is about Hitler's invasion to start the war or from the Holocaust angle. Poland, trapped between Germany to the west and Russia to the east was, due to many circumstances, essentially allowed to suffer on its own for over five years at the hands of the Germans between 1939-1945. One of the stories often not told is that the largest underground resistance movement/uprising in all of World War II took place in Warsaw, Poland against the German occupiers in August of 1944 as the Russians front was nearing.  Wikipedia reports that nearly 50,000 participated in the uprising on the Polish side and the German side. Casualty reports are shocking with reports that over 16,000 resistance members died and somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 civilians. To put that into perspective, about 111,000 American soldiers died in the entire Pacific campaign. Additionally, a quarter of the cities buildings were destroyed in the fighting. After the uprising was put down, the Germans leveled another 35% of the city. By the end of the war, over 85% of the city was leveled. 

I go through all of these details because I was hoping this Polish film, released on the 70th anniversary of the uprising, would do justice to such a monumental and tragic episode of the war. Unfortunately, this isn't the case. The first clue should have come in the "Hollywood" look for all the young stars. You know how television shows about any young adult event will feature people who all have that unique Hollywood starlet look - even those meant to be nerds and anti-social are really just great looking people with unfashionable glasses? That's kind of what's going on here too. Coupled with a few modern Zach Snyder like slow motion flourishes (set to anachronistic pop music no less) and this stylistic choice became really off-putting for me. The first foray into the uprising follows a group of youths (all fashionable, great looking, and looking for love) naively join the resistance. Eventually their naivete is punctured, but we unfortunately get to witness the uprising from their perspective - which is greatly limited. I would have loved for a different angle into this event that would have allowed for a better understanding of the geography of the uprising, the different people in charge, the difficult strategic and ethical decisions, etc. Instead, we mostly get a group of young people narrowed eventually to a young couple trying to survive the German counterstrike, escape the city, and find love. That's a valid story - I just think the story and style choices here are a bit narrow and shallow given the real life historical context and stakes. GRADE: C-

18. Anthropoid (2016) IMDB
- The title of the film gets its name from the real-life Operation Anthropoid - the mission to assassinate the high-ranking SS General Reinhard Heydrich in Czechoslovakia. The film begins with British trained resistance members, played by Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy, parachuting into Czechoslovakia and making contact with the local Czech resistance. After a while they make their mission clear to the resistance and there is...resistance. You see, Heydrich is certainly a dangerous and bloody man, the main architect behind the use of gas chambers for mass genocide of the Jews, and a worthy target of taking out. However, the blowback to Heydrich's assassination the Germans bring on the Czech people could be monumentally disproportionate. 

The film does a really good job at two important strands in this story: first, it explores the ethical conundrum of whether or not it is worth it to assassinate a deadly man even if it means many innocent people will die in the process; second, it methodically depicts the assassination attempt and the final stand by the resistance against the Nazi's with great care. This final standoff sequence comprises the final 20 minutes or so of the film and sees Heydrich’s assassins surrounded in a church, where they had been hiding. The first half is a strong action sequence as many of the assassins are on the upper floor and hold off the Germans for some time as they try different tactics to approach. In the end, the Germans reprisals saw nearly 13,000 people arrested, many tortured for information, and by some estimates some 5,000 killed. Was it worth it? It's a fascinating question. GRADE: B

19. A Hidden Life (2019) IMDB
- Franz Jagerstatter is a Austrian peasant - he works simply on a farm in a rural town. When the Germans arrive and are recruiting men to serve he has to make a tough decision. Franz refuses to join the fight. At first he is mostly ignored, but there is pressure from within the town, as he is seen as a coward, and skipping out on his duty. Eventually, the Nazis take him in and imprison him for treason. This is based on a true story.

That's the basic plot, but in the hands of a filmmaker like Terrance Malick, plot ultimately means very little - considering it moves at something less than a snail's pace. Malick's 1998 film The Thin Red Line made a dent into my Pacific Campaign and Top War Sequences lists, but I'd consider that film an outlier. You see, Malick is a polarizing director with a very distinct style that revels in what is sometimes called a "tone poem." Let's just say that I'm pretty strongly on the side that his style is overhyped, boring, and not what I look for in movies. This three hour film is noble, admirable, contains a beautiful little message, but is a slog to get through. Perhaps you'll feel differently. GRADE: C+

Sunday, August 8, 2021

WWII Film Guide: Naval Warfare

2:08 PM 0
WWII Film Guide: Naval Warfare


*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: The 1960 film The Gallant Hours opens with a haunting choral theme, "I knew a lad who went to sea and left the shore behind him. I knew him well the lad was me and now I cannot find him. Away, away, away he went, in deep and salty water." The theme seems to stir up something in the listener and touch that strange and mystical connection humans have had with the sea for thousands of years. It reminds me a bit of the mysteriously affective opening shot of the dark and deep ocean in Titanic. Our naval vessels may traverse the giant sea, but seem to do so only by leave of the ocean; a permission that can be rescinded at any given moment. The sea makes us feel small. The sea reminds humans that we are not in control. Our ships are little floating islands of civilization in a vast sea of chaos. If humans view traversing the skies as something done with wonder and freedom, traversing the sea often feels more like a mythical challenge that brings what seems like inevitable doom for those who undertake it.

I think these factors, and likely many more, are why naval films seem to connect with me in ways that the aerial warfare films just didn't. Largely taking place in the great expanses of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, World War II naval films run a large spectrum of stories but can typically be classified into two categories: surface ship stories and submarine stories. Each category contains classics and are worth your time checking out. 

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 16 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.

The Basics: The quality and variety of this category make it nearly impossible to suggest just one simple movie as the best in class. Instead, I offer two double viewings for each of the major types of naval stories. To get the best introduction to the life of a surface ship I recommend the comprehensive coverage of 1953's The Cruel Sea (the Master and Commander of WWII) and the intense focus of 2020's Greyhound. Turning to the submarine story, you have two films that comprehensively cover what life on a submarine is like, but each do so from a different perspective. For a more romantic, adventurous, and positive spin, I recommend 1943's Destination Tokyo. For a undiluted anti-war gut-punch, then find the director's cut of the 1981's Das Boot.
  • Surface Ship Classics: The Cruel Sea (1953) / Greyhound (2020)
  • Submarine Spectrum: Destination Tokyo (1943) / Das Boot (1981)

Deep Dives: Moving beyond the classics I've mentioned above then the next double-header you'll want to view is on leadership. Check out Humphrey Bogart's PTSD affected Capt. Queeg in 1954's insightful The Caine Mutiny and follow it up with a more positive example of leadership in 1960's The Gallant Hours covering a key five weeks in the life of Admiral Halsey played by James Cagney. Lastly, I think 1958's Run Silent, Run Deep and 1965's In Harm's Way are both strong naval films, but also do well to fill out what life in the WWII Navy would have been like. You cant' do wrong in giving them a view either.
  • Leadership at Sea: The Caine Mutiny (1954) / The Gallant Hours (1960)
  • Life in the Navy: Run Silent Run Deep (1958) / In Harm's Way (1965)

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. Action in the North Atlantic (1943) IMDB
- Made in the middle of the war, this is a kind of "what was the merchant marine service like?" educational adventure film with a dramatic story composed of threadbare characters and premium action set pieces structured around it. Or put more cynically, this is a propaganda film meant to lift morale and encourage people to join the exciting merchant marine service! There's a handful of scenes devoted purely to propaganda purposes and technical inaccuracies that haven't aged well, but there's also a handful of informative (like the convoy planning conference) and engaging action sequences that more than make up for the film's downside. The opening moments of the film introduce us to the main cast of sailors and gives us one of the best ship sinking sequences captured on film. After being struck twice by a German submarine, an American tanker (with Humphrey Bogart on board) goes up in flames. Rather than just a couple shots of miniatures and some quick fire cuts, this is a ten minute sequence with dozens of incredible fire stunts with real people on real sets that are covered in fire. As the ship explodes, burns, and sinks the sequence creates real suspense as men are trapped and work against time to find stragglers, navigate the fire obstacles, and get life rafts and boats into the water. For good measure, due to the oil in the water, the fire spills out into the ocean and there's a harrowing sequence where a lifeboat cuts through the fire and two stuntmen swim through - their heads getting lapped in flames occasionally. Combine this with a submarine wolfpack attack set piece later in the film whose ambitions, scale, editing, and visual effects combine to create a pretty intense sequence and you have a war film that a young me would have eaten up. In fact, it wouldn't be until 2020's Greyhound that a better Atlantic convoy sequence would be be made. GRADE: B- 

2. Destination Tokyo (1943) IMDB
- I thought about passing this film up. It didn't really get a lot of talk on "Best Submarine Films" lists I researched and I've just about hit my limit of "old" style war films. I love it when I get rewarded for sticking it out and giving it a chance. This has to be the most underrated submarine film I've seen. The basic premise here is that it's 1942 and a submarine slips out of San Francisco Bay. They read out their orders and are surprised to see they are to head to Tokyo Bay, right into the lion's den to gather information to be used for the Doolittle raid. Along the way we get a full spectrum of events that can take place on a sub. We get great relational scenes showing fellowship among the sailors; A small musical troupes playing songs Christmas songs they practiced all year just for the big day, a sailor with a female doll he uses as a gag to get dames on shore, the ship cook playing Santa - in just the first twenty minutes they've established multiple characters, rapport, and culture, while still getting the plot underway. Add to that a spectrum of suspenseful and dramatic sequences, some of which are new to me and sub films: an air attack from the surface drops a bomb that doesn't explode forcing a sailor to try and defuse it, finding an audio record of a sailor killed in action and discovering it was a message from their family, performing an emergency appendix removal, sending out secret operatives at night, and the classic sinking and death charge scenes as well. The film isn't interested in great character arcs, it's more of an observational film. The pleasures here bear out in the little details: the crew waiting in just the right place to get hints from which maps the Captain asks for to discover their orders; seeing routine life with showers, haircuts, quarters, mess, bunks, and the control room; overhearing conversations about Japanese culture, thoughts about dames, about children, about God, prayer, and why we fight. The acting is relatable and headed by a quiet but confident Cary Grant. It has some problems with propaganda sequences, some dated moments, and other small faults - but to me, this is the classic "romantic" view of submarine life. It has a little bit of everything, with enough action, drama, and everyday detail that it feels grounded and realistic. GRADE: B+

3. We Dive at Dawn (1943) IMDB
- Filmed in 1942 at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, this WWII submarine film begins with a British submarine crew going on shore leave. It's not long before their leave is cut short to take urgent action against the German battleship Brandenburg. The British sub hopes to track and find her before she gets free in the heavily defended Baltic Sea. Unfortunately, they miss out on the Brandenburg and decide to bravely venture past sea mines and sub nets and enter the Baltic to search for the battleship. After a fruitless search they finally happen upon the Brandenburg, fire their torpedoes, and dive. Destroyers attack until the Brits, through some subterfuge, are able to get away. Down on fuel, the film concludes with a risky night raid of a Dutch harbor to obtain fuel. 

The film is a slow starter, a bit stiff in its style, and lacking virtually any special effects, but it still manages to tell a solid little submarine story. It's hard to knock it for including all the submarine cliche's when it pre-dates most of the films on this list - so let's just say it turns in a decent rendition of the standard submarine sequences. This is a good film for 1943, but I don't think it transcends its era or demands a viewing in this crowded category. GRADE: C

4. They Were Expendable (1945) IMDB
- This John Ford passion project starts in the Philippines in 1941 as two Lieutenants, played by Robert Montgomery and John Wayne, try to convince a Navy Admiral that PT Boats should be a bigger part of the Navy arsenal. Soon the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor reaches them and Japanese planes harass their base in Manilla. It's here you can see one of the strengths of the film - the action sequence features real planes and real PT boats exchanging fire and taking hits. It's a nice change of pace from the traditional time period reliance on stock war footage and back projection. The rest of the film covers events surrounding the Battle of Bataan regarding the torpedo patrol boats and...well...this is where it gets pretty slow moving and uninteresting - including a romantic subplot with Donna Reed (Mary from It's a Wonderful Life) and John Wayne. They talk about a lot of action happening, but they just don't show much of it. There's an action finale that's decent but the ending of the film drags from there for way too long. If it wasn't for a couple decent quick action scenes, I'd give this would be in the D range. Skip this one unless you were a huge fan of Hulk Hogan's Thunder in Paradise and can't get enough of speed boat action. GRADE: C-

5. The Cruel Sea (1953) IMDB
- Based on a 1951 book of the same name, I'd call The Cruel Sea the "Master and Commander" of World War II naval films. In the same way that 2003's Master and Commander gave its audience a glimpse into life on a ship of the line during the Age of Sail, The Cruel Sea gives the audience a glimpse into life on a convoy escort ship in the Battle of the Atlantic. Told over several years, Jack Hawkins plays Captain Ericson and we witness a showcase of the many roles and experiences an escort ship takes on: keeping ships in convoy on rough seas, picking up survivors of downed ships, and hunting U-boats. We also glimpse the difficulties and trials of trying to maintain a personal life as well. 

For its time in 1953, the film is surprisingly hard-bitten and cynical without ever feeling tedious or tendentious. It’s not really a surprise to find out the film is based on a book as the story beats, dialogue, art direction, and relationships feel like they derive from first-hand experience and careful research. In one particularly difficult moment, a U-boat chooses to hide underneath a group of survivors and the captain must choose whether to depth charge the U-boat and kill the men in the water, or leave the U-boat and risk his own boat’s death. Small details and moments like that pervade the entire film. This is a grand overview of the merchant marine life and a wonderful hidden gem of a naval film. GRADE: A-

6. The Caine Mutiny (1954) IMDB
- It's 1943 and the USS Caine minesweeper is a ragged, decrepit, and aging ship. Her captain knows it, her officers know it, and her crew know it. The ship is serviceable, but they've stopped following Navy regulations by the book. The film begins with a new Ensign Keith coming aboard and shocked by the standards of the Caine. Eventually the laid back Captain, who clearly gave up on running a tight crew after the years of service added up and amounted to not much action, is replaced by Humphrey Bogart's demanding Captain Queeg. As Queeg drives the crew hard they become resentful and personality flaws begin to show as well, like dressing down officers at the expense of the ship's safety, ignoring orders to escort ships to within 1,000 yards of a beach because he became rattled, or fixating on a quart of stolen strawberries. The last straw for Executive Officer Maryk, played by Van Johnson, is when Queeg freezes up and begins giving belligerent and contradicting orders in the middle of typhoon that endangered the entire ship. Maryk relieves Queeg of duty and guides the ship through the storm. He faces a court martial for mutiny and a possible hanging for his actions. 

The last 30 minutes or so of the film is given over to the court martial. It's flies by and introduces two excellent actors, Tom Tully and Jose Ferrer, as the prosecutor and defender respectively. With each witness called the case looks bleak. What will happen? I don't want to give up too much here let's just say that it ends with a succession of powerful sequences that really help to define the movie and give it a more powerful punch than just being a great little story. You see, the final sequences, punctuated by Jose Ferrer's out of left field punch in the mouth, turn this from a basic story of bad leadership into a nuanced story of bad fellowship. It's remarkably insightful and recasts the entire film in new light. Beyond Ferrer, this must be the best Van Johnson performance I've ever seen. He's older here, more mature, and plays salt of the earth goodness with a few extra layers than most of his "young rookie" roles from earlier. The star of the picture is Bogart's iconic paranoid Queeg. Between this role and 1948's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre - I'm not sure anyone's played paranoid and delusional better. GRADE: A-

7. Above Us the Waves (1955) IMDB
- Most people are aware that German submarines worked hard to try and sever the British Isles from supplies by sinking as much shipping as possible. However, it was also major German battleships that threatened Allied shipping and one of the biggest ships available to the Germans was the Tirpitz. For the most part it was docked in a Norwegian Fjord, but just the threat that it might get loose and attack shipping meant that the British had to assign a fleet of ships to watch here; ships that were much needed elsewhere. After the failure of air bombing, Britain looked to try midget submarines in a real life Operation named Source. Unlike many "special operations" naval and aerial films - this one doesn't follow the typical introduction/training/mission act structure. Over half the film this time is given to the actual mission of using a fleet of midget submarines to take out the Tirpitz. Along the way there are a lot of trials and obstacles (mechanical failures, German patrols, mines, etc.) and it's all portrayed with the basic kinda British proceduralism I've come to expect from their 50's and 60's war films. Oddly, the unreliability of the midget submarines and the trials they encounter make a good case for why they should never have been used in the first place - at least executed like they were. In this film at least, those midget submarines come off as deathtraps. It's all just okay stuff. I think a better training intro to acquaint the audience with the sub, it's strengths and weaknesses, would have been helpful. This is the kind of film that would've really benefited from coming out in a time period of better visual effects too. Better effects would have really sold the main conceit of the film - the intrigue of underwater special operations. In real life the mission was a mixed bag, lots of losses, but the Tirpitz was put out of action for nearly a year. The film here doesn't quite acknowledge the mixed success (similar to The Dam Busters), it just kinda ends with the captured British sailors being saluted for their bravery by the German admiral. Meh. GRADE: C

8. The Enemy Below (1957) IMDB
- A U.S. destroyer commanded played by Robert Mitchum is patrolling the South Atlantic when they come across a German U-Boat commanded by Curt Jurgens. The movie plays out over 24 hours as they battle back and forth trying to outmaneuver and outthink the other. The sub set is a little corny, but the destroyer stuff feels really good, especially the depth charge explosions which are real, practical, and gorgeous. The battle of wits is nice, but its all the standard submarine stuff – which is a bit tiring if you’ve ever seen it before. A basic story told pretty well. Can do better in the genre, but can do much worse too. GRADE: B-

9. Run Silent, Run Deep (1958) IMDB
- The film opens with Clark Gable commanding a US sub that is sunk. Gable survives but is put behind a desk for a year. Gable gets the chance to command a boat again and is hellbent on returning to the region of his previous sinking and getting revenge on the Japanese destroyer that did it. The catch is that Gable has to ignore part of his orders to achieve it. Gable's second in command is played by the always reliable Burt Lancaster. Lancaster butts heads with Gable when its clear that Gable is out for revenge - eventually leading to a leadership crisis. On the whole, this is one of the better submarine flicks thanks to strong art direction, quality action that is snappy (it doesn't linger around as if we are to be amazed by another depth charge sequence!), and the primary focus of the story being relational - the conflict between Gable and Lancaster. It's good, but I think it wraps up a little too easily and the conflict is never allowed to signify anything deeper than just basic commonsense/loyalty vs revenge. GRADE: B-

10. The Gallant Hours (1960) IMDB
- The film begins with the awesome choral theme song, "Away He Went" as the titles come on the screen. It immediately sets a mood of solemnity and retrospection - almost as if the angels are looking down on a sacred time of history. Covers a key five weeks in the service of Admiral Halsey. It begins with his flight to the South Pacific to inspect forces and help understand why Guadalcanal was not going way. As he lands, Halsey is put in command of the South Pacific forces. Reluctant, he's taking over for an Admiral whom he admires, but ready to take on the task, Halsey convenes the key generals to discuss the problems with Guadalcanal. This is where the unique style of the film really begins to shine. Unlike other war dramas, this film has a semi-documentary style in that it has a narrator who cuts in often to give the audience insight. It's clear the film wants audiences to understand the situation - it's teaching us the character, wills, and strategy behind this important moment in history when the battle against the Japanese began to take a turn for the Allies. The beautiful black and white cinematography highlights the faces of the leaders and gives the sets a stark seriousness. In the generals meetings, each new admiral or general that speaks up about the problems gets a a small narration giving some of their key background and history. It really works well here, giving a large cast of characters some immediate focus and clarity. 

This style really appeals to me, but it does have its drawbacks. As the film progresses, you see another style choice - no battles. The choice to not include depictions of the battles or even stock battle footage does leave a bit of a hole here for a film striving so hard to be comprehensive and realistic. The decision is likely admirable, trying to put the focus on the individual leaders and not the "kinetic action" (and likely to save money as well) - but the final product feels lacking without them to me. Ultimately, the last hour of the film takes place mostly in meetings rooms and covers the competing strategies between the armies. There are some key historical events telescoped into this five week period (most notably Yamamoto's death) that generally work okay, but then make you wonder why the filmmakers imposed a 5 week narrative if they wanted to a broader scope. This is one of the greater frustrations as well - choosing to focus on such a short span of Halsey's life means we miss out on the numerous other major events he played a part in. Yes, we got to know the man under fire at a major turning point, but it still feels incomplete in a way. While this is educational, allows Cagney's great performance to shine, and bears strong production quality, it feels clinical and sterile - even if it does give us battles from the perspective of admirals far behind the lines. I suppose that means the viewers frustrations mirrors the admirals frustrations. Still, its a film first and foremost - not a book. GRADE: B

11. Sink the Bismarck! (1960) IMDB
- This film is similar in plot to 1955's Above Us the Waves - it portrays the British military's attempts at taking out major German battleships that threaten the vital Atlantic shipping lanes. In this case, the battleship is the Bismarck and instead of being in dock in a Norwegian fjord like the Tirpitz it had broken free of the Baltic Sea and into the North Sea. Left alone, the Bismarck could seriously threaten all shipping lanes. What follows is a nice little procedural film about the hunt for the Bismarck - from the planes and ships sent after her to the command room they were launched from. Focused and informative, but hurt a bit by it's dated visual effects and restrictions. GRADE: C+

12. In Harm’s Way (1965) IMDB
- An interesting pairing with this film would be 1953's From Here to Eternity. As that dramatic Navy film ends with the dawn of the Pearl Harbor attack this one begins with it. This is less a combat film about naval warfare and more a drama following the lives of several characters with naval warfare bookending the film. It is well-written, filled with natural dialogue, and has high production values. The acting and cast really stand out in this one. The chemistry between John Wayne's "Rock" and Patricia Neal's "Maggie" is pleasure to watch. Neal as a weathered and tough Navy nurse is so good I wish her role was expanded further. Wayne gets to play his normal command role here, but he's more relaxed and reflective than usual. Kirk Douglas is always reliable and brings energy and character into every one of his scenes. As the story brings weaves the characters from Pearl Harbor to the fictionalized South Pacific (Guadalcanal is the likely model here) battles, a cynical undertone flows through many of the subplots: a shady Congressman, politics within military leadership, frankness about rape, suicide, divorce, and estrangement -  this film doesn't sugarcoat things. The film ends in a large scale naval battle that claims the lives of many central characters. This isn't a perfect film and if you don't find yourself buying into the dramatic relationships as much as I did then you likely in for a slog of a view. That said, despite its fictionalized narrative, this is one of the more honest, biting, and insightful war films on this list. GRADE: B

13. Das Boot (1981) IMDB
- For better or worse, there is simply no better submarine film than 1981's Das Boot. In particular I am referring to the director's cut version of the film that adds about an hour of runtime - making it about 3 and a half hours long. The film follows a German U-Boat crew on a mission in the Battle of the Atlantic in 1942. Their mission is typical - locate and sink as much Allied shipping as possible. The mission is essentially an excuse for the filmmakers to de-romanticize the experience of being a submariner by portraying the most visceral and realistic depiction of submarine life ever put to film. My favorite aspect of the film was how realistic the cramped sets were, the authentic relationships between the crew, the feelings of the submariners toward the German army and toward the Nazi party, and the anti-war stench of existential meaningless and folly that hangs over the entire picture.

I opened saying this is the best submarine film for better or WORSE because the commitment to depict the miserable experience often makes the viewing quite miserable as well. To be blunt, the film can be boring and monotonous at times. The film features all the basic submarine moments - firing on enemy shipping, navigating in storms, getting depth charged, and going beyond their authorized depths. Given the thesis of the film, instead of condensed for intensity and action, these sequences often are stretched out over lots of runtime and play out in repetitive and tedious ways. I know it's a fine line between conveying tediousness and making a tedious movie, but I think Das Boot too often ends up on the wrong side to be a genuine 'A' level classic. Hopefully you get more out of it than I did. GRADE: B+

14. U-571 (2000) IMDB
- Technically, this is an excellent submarine film. The special effects, sound design, music, and editing are really engaging and tense. The problem is the screenplay, which wants us to believe a small skeleton crew of American sailors can man and maneuver a broken German sub well enough to essentially outwit the German navy. It’s too much to ask. The fact that much of this is historically inaccurate and that the real history could have been just as gripping, makes it worse. Additionally, it struggles to overcome the basic submarine formula: torpedoes, dive, depth charges, wait, how far down can you go? Rinse and repeat. GRADE: C+

15. USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage (2016) IMDB
- If you've seen Jaws there's a scene you'll never forget - Quint telling the story of the sinking of he USS Indianapolis and the shark feeding frenzy that ensured. It's one of cinema's great monologues and although it does exaggerate, it gets the basic facts right:
Quint: Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was comin' back from the island of Tinian to Leyte, just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn't see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. Thirteen-footer. You know how you know that when you're in the water, Chief? You tell by lookin' from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn't know... was our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. Heh...Y'know, by the end of that first dawn... lost a hundred men. I dunno how many sharks. Maybe a thousand. I dunno how many men, they averaged six an hour. On Thursday mornin', Chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland- baseball player, boatswain's mate. I thought he was asleep, reached over to wake him up... bobbed up and down in the water just like a kinda top. Upended. Well... he'd been bitten in half below the waist. Noon the fifth day, Mr. Hooper, a Lockheed Ventura saw us, he swung in low and he saw us. Young pilot, a lot younger than Mr. Hooper. Anyway, he saw us and come in low and three hours later, a big fat PBY comes down and start to pick us up. Y'know, that was the time I was most frightened, waitin' for my turn. I'll never put on a life jacket again. So, eleven hundred men went into the water, three hundred sixteen men come out, and the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945.
2016's USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage looks to dramatize into a feature film the true story Quint famously shared back in the 1970's. Nicholas Cage stars in the film as Captain McVay of the USS Indianapolis which is under attack in March 1945 off Iwo Jima by Japanese kamikaze pilots. Crippled by a hit, the Indianapolis goes back to San Francisco for repair. It is decided by higher ups that the Indianapolis will secretly be the sole transport for the atomic bomb the US will look to drop on Japan. After delivering the bomb to the island of Tinian they make their way to Leyte when they are hit by a Japanese submarine. The ship goes down quickly and the men are stranded into different groups holding on to rafts and anything that will help them float. Left in the water they fight hunger, thirst, the sun, sharks, and even themselves. These sequences aren't great, but they also convey he horror and struggle decently well. 

In the end, the writing is poor, the dialogue is inauthentic, and the entire production feels like it's trying to ape the style and character cheesiness of Michael Bay's 2001 Pearl Harbor. I don't know, perhaps they thought they could turn this into a Titanic like blockbuster? Anyways, the visual effects are far worse in this lower budget film and the acting is a genuine embarrassment. The central characters are so bland and unlikeable that it becomes hard to care what ultimately happens to them. Do yourself a favor and just watch the Quint scene from Jaws again. GRADE: C-

16. Greyhound (2020) IMDB
- Based on the book The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester, Tom Hanks stars as Captain Krause in this modern World War II instant classic. The story focuses on about a forty hour or so period of time where an Allied ship convoy, headed by Hanks, crossing the Atlantic Ocean is harassed by a German submarine wolfpack. As the convoy leaves North America it receives a plane escort, making it fairly well protected from subs. However, there's a gap in air coverage over the Atlantic - the North American planes and British planes can only cover so far. It's this approximately two day gap that is the most dangerous sub hunting grounds and the center of the story. 

Hanks must lead not just the convoy ships but also coordinate the destroyer screen protecting it. During the unprotected pocket he encounters a hungry German sub pack and the tension, drama, and action essentially doesn't stop until they get back into air coverage. The film is a lean experience that cuts out extraneous subplots about romances, home life, or deep character analysis in favor of an extremely narrow focus. What's it like to be in the shoes of a convoy captain during the Battle of the Atlantic? What's it like to make life and death split second decisions on hunches and incomplete data in the hunt for subs, when to use resources for a rescue, and when its best to sacrifice a ship. I absolutely love the focus here. It just so happens to give us the single best submarine war sequence told from the perspective of a surface ship as well. 

The sequence, coming about the middle of the film, involves two destroyer escorts tracking and destroying a German sub. It is masterfully shot and edited -the contemporary advancements in CGI, like in Red Tails and Midway have allowed for convincing photorealistic ship battles that when done well don't distract, but enhance in ways that could not be accomplished practically. The suspense of an enemy pip appearing on the radar, the mystery of where your silent killer sub might appear, to the sudden spotting of a periscope tower where a sub has surfaced to fire – this captures the nerves and fears of this kind of warfare so well. The special effects are not perfect, but they are still able to put in you the moment, it feels (about as close as possible) like you are witnessing a genuine battle in the Atlantic ocean. In this sequence, a periscope is spotted and two destroyers, the Greyhound and Dicky, initiate action against the possible U-boat. As they tactically maneuver against the U-boat the sequence is filled with constant authentic sounding military chatter and commands between ships, commanders, and crewmen that would make Aaron Sorkin proud. The U-boat fires torpedoes and misses and the destroyer (“Dicky”) follows up with depth charges that force the U-boat to surface. What follows is an interesting cat and mouse where the U-boat attempts to stay alive by getting close enough to the destroyers that their guns cannot hit them and will put the other destroyer in a cross-fire. We get some great visuals of cross-fire that feel straight out of Master and Commander and a battle in the age of sail. It’s an effective maneuver and one can just imagine the U-boat crew and captain working to make this happen. This is great stuff that doesn’t sacrifice the drama and stakes as the film always takes the chance to emphasize how the American Captain must make many split decisions that put his ship and others in mortal danger. What a surprise that another Tom Hanks WWII film finds its way on the top of one of my lists. GRADE: A-