The Part-Time Critic

Friday, July 23, 2021

WWII Film Guide: Air Warfare

11:57 AM 0
WWII Film Guide: Air 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 best air warfare films are able to tell memorable war stories that dramatize the unique psychological and sociological trials of air combat through the visual spectacle that is unique to the wonder of flight. That particular combination is pretty elusive to the films on this list as most find themselves with only one of those features...if they are lucky. In fact, I think this is a weaker category for a couple reasons. First, it's always difficult to create good war stories that stand out from the pack - this category is not immune to that hurdle. Second, this category struggles in that it faces a technological barrier that other war films don't. Before the era of good CGI, it was very difficult and expensive to pull off convincing "era-accurate" aerial warfare. Once we finally got to an era this could make use of computer graphics in this area, say the 2000's and later, the hunger for aerial WWII films in audiences had largely gone out. It's not all negative however, there are some strong films in this category and I think they've been identified and clarified below.

It is in World War II when aerial combat (often termed aerial superiority) became one of the most important (some would argue the most important) factors in determining victory in a war. Yes, it was increasingly important near the end of World War I, but they just didn't have the technological advancements to make the sky the terror it became in WWII. The airplane took on a wide variety of roles in the second world war, but the two most common portrayals in film is in aerial dogfights between fighters and in bombing runs. Each of these roles had unique trials and struggles for their pilots and crews not experienced by other types of service. 

Before going further, I think it's important to restate that I'm not a World War II expert, nor am I an expert on military planes. I know enough to be able to recognize the major differences between the legendary planes that flew in WWII, but I couldn't identify the specifics. For instance, if there's a film on this list that is supposed to feature a B-17 bomber but the plane in the film is a version of the B-17 that has a different type of glass that only featured on a later edition of the B-17 then I would never really notice. That stuff has its place, but it doesn't really concern me for this project. What concerns me most is this, "What was it like to be a bomber/fighter pilot?" Yes, a certain amount of technical details are important here, but I'm interested much more in the visceral experience of aerial combat and the psychological/sociological effects it had. I'll try my best to steer you towards the ones I think are worth your time. 

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 14 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 Basics: The best film in this category is easily 1949's Twelve O'Clock High. There's no other film that examines leadership and the psychological toll bombing runs take on there air crews than this one. I've read that the film is used in Air Force and Navy schools to this day to discuss leadership. Watch it with a group and discuss it afterwards. The biggest gap in the film is that it lacks aerial combat. If that's what you are seeking, the best overall film about aerial combat is 1969's Battle of Britain. While it doesn't have the scope and detail of later CGI films, it's easily the best film about what is was like to live, fly, and die as a fighter pilot. Lots of effort went into using physical planes, and not relying on miniatures, and recreating the historical events. Between these two films - you're experiencing the best of bombers and fighters.
  • Best Bomber Story: Twelve O'Clock High (1949)
  • Best Dogfight Story: Battle of Britain (1969)

Deep Dives: If you are interested to delve deeper into the nuance and history of the category I have two major suggestions for viewing. First, I recommend a triple billing of The Dam Busters, The Malta Story, and 633 Squadron. Each film here is decent and tells a slightly different story about bombing runs. Finally, a double feature of Midway and Red Tails would give you a strong dose of the best in CGI dogfight sequences. Careful though, it will also be a double dose of cheesy and sentimental filmmaking too!
  • Specialized Aerial Bombing Stories: The Dam Busters (1955) / The Malta Story (1953) / 633 Squadron (1964)
  • CGI Aerial Spectacles: Midway (2019) / Red Tails (2012)
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. Air Force (1943) IMDB
- Directed by the legend Howard Hawks and produced by the legend Hal B. Wallis, this Oscar nominated film was made in 1943. It's a unique year to make a film about Pacific war events; by that time the war had turned in favor of the Americans but the real slog and price of island hopping was still yet to come. The film they made tells the story of the "Mary Ann" B-17 bomber crew that flew into Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7 1941...yes, the day the Japanese attacked. From there they are shipped off to Philippines, but must stop off at Wake Island to refuel. Again, they land at an airfield on fire after attacks from the Japanese. At this point, we are an hour (halfway) into the film and it's essentially been flying from point a to point b to point c, with conversations along the way. I suppose this structure could work in 1943 when audiences were eager to see recent history on screen, but let's be honest - the first half of a movie being basically a crew flying from air base to air base is a studio making a propaganda war film as cheaply as possible. It allows for a lot of dialogue, but none of the dialogue is that interesting. I kind of felt like Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, "Ummm, you do intend to have war in your war movie right?" Thankfully the last 45 minutes or so of the film eventually does pick up the pace and give the audience a lot of action - so much that it seems they must have spent their entire budget on it. However, the action sequences are painfully generic, obviously inaccurate at times (even for a non-expert like me), and lacking a general "battle" strategy and commonsense. The finale bombing sequence of a Japanese convoy looks pretty darn great for the time and was appropriately nominated for visual effects at the Academy Awards - I just wish it all made more sense and felt better connected to the actual storyline. Surprised this was also nominated for writing - it's one of the more overrated (aside from the era special effects) war films I've seen for this project. GRADE: C- 

2. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1945) IMDB
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the American military drafted up plans of a revenge strike on the Japanese capitol - Tokyo, Japan. Captain Jimmy Doolittle was put in charge and began training B-25 bomber groups at Eglin Air Force Base for the risky and difficult task of taking off from aircraft carriers. The eventual bombing would be known as the Doolittle Raid. Three other films about the raid were made during the war years: Destination Tokyo (1943), The Purple Heart (1944), and Bombardier (1943). I chose to view this film as a representative of the group (I had to draw the line somewhere!) since this film is the most accurate and highly rated of the group. It's mostly a straight forward narrative from plan conception, to training, to preparation, and then the raid. The characters are not all that interesting and some are played as one-dimensional stereotypes that really grate: like the Texas loving Manch and the country bumpkin from Billings. This film is very similar in construction to something like 1955's The Dam Busters, but rather than construct the film as a serious of obstacles requiring genius and skill to overcome (how do we get heavy bombers off a carrier?) like The Dam Busters did for their bouncing bombs, this film just solves the problems off screen and we assume the leaders have figured it out. It makes for a very uninteresting story that just kind of unfolds without much conflict, however accurate it is. That's not why you watch this film though is it? When it comes to the actual raid (the takeoff, the flight, bombing, and landing in China) this film shines. There's practically no music, just the sound effects, and excellent art direction and visual effects. It's easily the highlight of the film. After one of the bombers crash lands, the last 40 or so minutes follows their journey in China to evade the Japanese and be discovered. Unfortunately, this is about thirty minutes too long as it is practically its own film - leisurely unrolling the events with the pilots treated unreflectively as royalty by their hosts. I'd say the film title is pretty accurate, watch this one for the dramatic sequence of being thirty seconds over Tokyo and not much more. GRADE: C

3. Twelve O’Clock High (1949) IMDB
- An American bomber unit in England is suffering from high casualty rates and low morale. Bombing runs are a matter of probabilities. If ten planes go out and 8 come back, that's an 80% chance of survival. What about the more missions you take? Each mission is like playing the odds, you never know when your number will come up. Unlike land combat where you can sometimes see your enemy, bombing runs are most often done in the distance - you rarely see the plane or flak that takes you down. Bombing runs push a unique kind of stress that bomber crews faces and the film displays it well. A tough and disciplined commander, played excellently by Gregory Peck, takes over the demoralized crew and is determined to make them into the best bomber unit in the Air Force. Unlike the more simplistic “Leaders gotta be disciplined men” tales (which can have their place) led by John Wayne in films like The Flying Leathernecks and Sands of Iwo Jima, this film examines the issue with much more nuance and reflection. 

Peck is able to eventually get more effort and more efficiency from his men, but at what cost? There is a very interesting dramatization here with the question, "What is the right amount of effort a leader should get from their men?" sitting right at the heart of it. How do you even gauge what maximum effort is? What if maximum effort leads to high burnout and breakdowns? This film argues, successfully I believe, those questions aren’t as obvious as we often suspect. There's another feature to this film I really enjoyed and that's the rhythm of a bombing crew run. From the initial briefing, to taxiing, to takeoff, landing, and the post-interrogation. The glaring omission here is a standout sequence of an actual bombing run - though it isn't really necessary to the central dramatic focus of the film. It's just something I would have liked to be a more all around film. The "maximum effort" and "sanity" of a bombing crew that a story like Catch-22 deals with in comedic and ironic ways, this film handles dramatically. I think this is film is more successful and one of the best representatives of the category. GRADE: B+

4. The Flying Leathernecks (1951) IMDB
- John Wayne leads a squadron of Marine Wildcat fighter planes during the Battle of Guadalcanal. Directed by Nicholas Ray, this is the kind of somewhat stiff, simplistic, and jingoistic war film this time period is stereotyped with. Wayne plays the gruff officer looking to discipline wide-eyed innocent pilots who just need the whip to be successful soldiers. The combat is just as simplistic (and mostly relying on stock footage) – a pilot gets a bloodthirsty eye for Japs and leaves the formation, Wayne yells, “Get back in formation!” and the pilot ends up dead. If he only just listened to authority! Look it’s not that there isn’t some truth to this trope – it’s just done so simplistic and ham-handedly. GRADE: C

5. The Malta Story (1953) IMDB
- The island of Malta sits in a historically strategic spot in the Mediterranean Sea, between Sicily/Italy to its north and Tunisia to its south. During World War II, the British island of Malta sat right along key transport and resupply routes for both the Allies and the Axis. This film looks to tell the story of the Axis powers siege of Malta. Alec Guinness plays the role of a reconnaissance plane pilot and Jack Hawkins as the commander of the island. The island of Malta story plays out a bit like a microcosm of the main island of Britain early in the war - dependent on aerial fighters to engage the constant Axis air raids and dependent on naval convoys to bring fresh supplies or else they will be entirely cut off. The aerial sequences here are done serviceably with models and mixed lightly with stock war footage. There is a light subplot featuring a Maltese family and a Alec Guinness' officer, but this film is primarily about the military story. For me, that's the most interesting part so I'm glad that's where the focus is here. It's not quite as good as 1953's The Cruel Sea or The Desert Rats - but it's another solid entry into that uniquely great year of British war films. GRADE: B-

6. The Dam Busters (1955) IMDB
-  A British film covering the development and first use of “bouncing bombs” dropped from airplanes to attack German dams and weaken their industrial capability. It’s a nice little procedural film that follows the quirky inventor coming up with the idea, trying to sell the British top brass his ideas, testing and experimenting to perfect them, and finally training the right pilots to use them. The finale bombing run on the dams is a good action scene, a little dated, but very influential for the time. I wish it was a bit more reflective on the risk/reward of the actual mission and there's nothing here that I would say is "best in class" but in dramatizing how a technological development can open up new war scenarios and is run through the ranks of the establishment - this is a strong film. GRADE: B

7. The War Lover (1962) IMDB
- Steve McQueen plays a hotshot B-17 bomber pilot who loves breaking regulations and living fast. He looms large in the film as his flaws lead him to attempt to steal his bunkmate's girl and threaten all the lives of his bomber crew on runs. There are a couple bomber missions here done pretty well, the action is poor however, and the drama is mostly unremarkable and insignificant. This is a forgettable film with forgettable characters headed by an unlikable lead. GRADE: C-

8. 633 Squadron (1964) IMDB
- In this fictionalized war story, the titular bomber squadron is assigned to take out a Nazi rocket fuel site in a secluded fjord in Norway. If the fuel site is untouched, then the Nazi's will be able to fuel and launch their V2 rockets into England to ruin the D-Day landings. To prepare for the specialized bombing run, a war-weary but determined Cliff Robertson leads his squadron of light and fast deHavilland Mosquito bombers into the mountains of Scotland, which leads to some pretty awesome visuals. The second act sees some minor obstacles during training, but a nice twist is thrown in when an important Norwegian resistance member is captured by the SS. The British determine that it is necessary to bomb the Norwegian Gestapo headquarters, where the resistance member is being held, to keep him from talking, and save the vital mission. It's an interesting ethical choice. This nice mid-film twist and following action sequence provides a meaningful and unexpected addition when the 2nd act of other films like this often end up just feeling like filler. The finale sequence is relies heavily on miniatures, mixed with some real footage, and studio mockups of the cockpits. It's editing turns it into an engaging and effective aerial sequence despite effects that are dated and shots that are often repeated. This is a solid, but not spectacular, war film. GRADE: B-

9. Mosquito Squadron (1969) IMDB
- This is basically an inferior copy of the template set in 633 Squadron. In this British film, the bomber crew is tasked with taking out a secret Nazi site for the development of new weapons, likely an advanced version of their V1 and V2 rockets. Everything feels pretty standard here (briefings, specialized training runs, subplot of love drama) and there isn't much that isn't done better in similar films about specialized bombing runs like The Dam Busters and 633 Squadron. The second act twist in this film is that the Nazi's have decided to house British POWs on the site to deter any kind of British attack. The ethics of the situation are mulled over and a new and riskier bombing plan is put in place. This plan requires a mission to evacuate the POWs first before dropping the bombs on the site. This finale sequence is decent and features not just the bombing run, but ground action between the Germans and the French resistance covering for the escaping POWs. This is decent, but skippable fare. The Dam Busters and 633 Squadron is similar, but much better. GRADE: C

10. The Battle of Britain (1969) IMDB
-In the vein of 1962’s The Longest Day and 1965’s Battle of the Bulge, this is a well-meaning big budget recreation of a pivotal event of the European campaign. It portrays the four to five month period of 1940 where Germany's Luftwaffe (Air Force) sought to gain air superiority over Britain in order to cut it off from re-supply and defense in preparation for invasion. Per the usual blockbuster formula, we get the commanders on both sides feeding the viewers their strategy and mindset and then we are given waves aerial dogfights featuring lots of physical planes and many of the real airfields. It’s a bit dated in that kind of pre-Vietnam films (which upped the violence bar), CGI (which upped the scope ante), and Saving Private Ryan (which combined the other two into a new 'visceral' desaturated look that became the standard) war blockbuster way of the 60’s, but this is handsomely produced, informative, and well performed. Two little moments stand out to me from the film, I'll share here. First, there's a touching subplot about air raid shelters that has stuck with me. Second, for some strange reason I absolutely love the aesthetic of British pilots waiting to scramble for orders by sitting out in lawn chairs on the green grass runways. It's a very particular image that feels very "Battle of Britain" to me. GRADE: B+

11. Memphis Belle (1990) IMDB
- The Memphis Belle is an American B-17 Bomber that famously completed all 25 of its missions without being shot down. The film looks to portray a fictionalized version of their last mission flight. For about twenty minutes, this film shines as it depicts the banter and different roles of everyone in the bomber group on their way to the bombing location. After a fighter plane takes out another bomber in their group we grieve along with the men as they deal with it. For that sequence alone, the film is worth it. It honestly had my hopes up too. Unfortunately, outside of those moments, the film just goes downhill from there. Since it's a fictionalized version, the writers decide to throw nearly every obstacle at the crew on one flight. This means the bombing mission gets too dramatic with everything going wrong that possibly can, everyone getting almost shot up, falling out, dying, etc. You can feel the screenwriter at work manipulating the story. There's a decent film to be found but you have to dig underneath far too much sensationalism and dramatics. GRADE: C+

12. The Tuskegee Airmen (1995) IMDB
- This HBO film tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen: the first African American fighter group to fight in the American Army. The story is very conventional, but it is well acted and still very effective. What's not forgivable is just how much this film relies on stock war footage for their flying sequences. For a film in 1995 to use stock war footage for their action sequences is jarring. It leads to ridiculous inaccuracies like white capped mountains and green fields often appearing in what are supposed to be North African desert landscapes. These issues and the formulaic but engaging story combine to produce mixed feelings. GRADE: C+

13. Red Tails (2012) IMDB
- Coming 17 years after The Tuskegee Airmen, this film also looks to tell their story, but with more of a combat focus. This film is a bit of a flip from the 1995 HBO version. Where the 1995 film shined in its dramatic performances, but struggled mightily in the action - this film is just the opposite. If it was possible to combine the character work and dramatic execution of 1995’s The Tuskegee Airmen with the visual presentation of the aerial action from this movie then you’d have a classic telling of the story. Instead, this film will give you some excellent aerial action sequences sandwiched by static and cookie cutter characters and plot conflicts. GRADE: C+

14. Midway (2019) IMDB
- This film was included in the "War in the Pacific" series for its portrait of the Battle of Midway. I doubled it up here for making the pilots and planes the central focus of the story. This is essentially an aerial film about the Battle of Midway. Roland Emmerich, creator of films like Independence Day and The Patriot, tells the story of the major turning point in the Pacific campaign, the air and naval battle of Midway. The first two thirds set up the main battle by covering Pearl Harbor and other run ups to the circumstances before Pearl. The film does a good job portraying the mindset of the Japanese officials and their planning going into the battle, but the attempt to dramatize the American soldiers involved is a huge misstep. The portrayal is accurate to the basic history but is so stereotypical and poorly written that it weighs down the better portions of the film. The final third of the film is a collection of sequences covering the the air and naval battle. If you can put aside the cheesy drama and character portrayals, you are treated to the greatest CGI World War II Navy battle ever put to film. The sequence is fairly comprehensive of the actual battle, but the meat and potatoes begin with US torpedo squads spotting the Japanese fleet and failing in their first run. Eventually the U.S. dive bomber squads arrive and take on the fleet with great success. These bombing runs are beautifully shot, tense, and the gem of the entire film. The visuals are breathtaking: an ocean packed with naval vessels, a sky packed with planes and flak, bomber runs going for carriers with flak flying all over. This is director Roland Emmerich’s greatest achievement as the bombing runs on the Japanese carriers do justice to being a dynamic action sequence, accurately portraying a real-life battle, and cover the emotions and worries of the commanders and pilots on all sides. Skip the 1976 version and give this one a view - as you look past the cheesiest elements. GRADE: B-

Friday, July 16, 2021

WWII Film Guide: Prisoners of War

10:23 PM 0
WWII Film Guide: Prisoners of War

 

*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:
Pound for pound, there's likely no better WWII film category with as much quality per entry as this one. It's a strange sub-category, as it isn't directly about action or fighting per se; in fact it's about soldiers being taken away from direct action and are left to try and fight the war in their own ways, fight boredom, fight for hope, and in some circumstances fight for their own survival.

War films always struggle to balance the exciting/romantic aspects of combat with the sobering realities of war and this conflict is still evident in POW films. If you watch just the most famous films in this category, you'd arguably believe being in a camp was like being in a heist film – with guards who aren't very bright and security features being present to make escaping a fun game, sometimes fatal, but mostly all in jolly good fun. You'll find that while I think those are good films, the BEST POW films embrace the sobering realities of POW camps in the stories they tell.

There are a lot of natural ethical questions that arise with the idea of prisoners in war. To house, feed, and guard thousands of prisoners costs a lot of money, takes a lot of manpower, and uses a lot of resources. In the middle of an existential total war, these kinds of considerations become greatly taxed and strained. Do states have a responsibility to treat prisoners humanely? According to the Geneva convention they do, but why bother with a Geneva convention when millions of your countrymen have fallen? When your own soldiers and countrymen are not housed and fed well? This is an area ripe for examination in this genre. On the other side, do prisoners have a responsibility to act humanely to their captors? How much cooperation becomes aiding or even collaborating. In many of these films, Allied prisoners talk about the principle that they are bound to make as much trouble for their captors as possible and escape as often as possible. The thinking goes that every soldier and dollar they tie up on them, is a soldier and a dollar taken away from the war front. However, if prisoners decide to be as troublesome as possible, does that give their captors excuse to be more troublesome to them? For example, if prisoners are trying to escape, does that give the prison allowance to feed them less and be more physical in their punishment? This is a fascinating ethical back and forth in my mind and one not examined as much as the fun puzzle like escape aspects of the genre. There's more mined in the movies below than just those topics, but I want the reader to realize that there's a lot more going on here than just some soldiers being kept behind barbed wire fences.

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 9 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 Basics: It would be easy and traditional to recommend one of the big three POW films, the ones the Oscars will show clips of, the ones your dad and your grandpa talk about: Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, or The Great Escape. However, I feel the true masterpiece of this genre and one of the most underrated gems of war films is the 1965 film The Hill. The film is based on a play, directed by Sidney Lumet, and stars Sean Connery in one of his more underrated performances. The "escape" centered films might be more fun, but this one brings hard earned truth and insight. 
  • Best POW Film: The Hill (1965)

Deep Dives: In a stacked category like this one - it's difficult to slim down my recommendations. After you've seen The Hill and are wanting a deeper taste of the genre, then I'd recommend a double feature of The Bridge on the River Kwai and To End All Wars. Based on similar accounts about life in Japanese POW camps, the two films tell similar stories with different emphasis: BOTRK on the irony & ignorance of British "superiority" and TEAW on faith in the midst of suffering. From there, I'd recommend a double feature of two fun escape films, The Colditz Story and The Great Escape. Finally, though they are different in nature, I'd recommend the somewhat odd pairing of Stalag 17 and Empire of the Sun. Both have a cynical edge to them, find humor and wonder in ironic places, and focus on a kind of loss of innocence. There are lots of great films in this category that dramatically sketch out the adventurous qualities and sobering realities of life as a WWII POW.
  • Pacific POW Stories: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) / To End All Wars (2001)
  • Escape Stories: The Colditz Story (1955) / The Great Escape (1961)
  • Humor & Wonder in Cynical Spaces: Stalag 17 (1953) / Empire of the Sun (1987)

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. Stalag 17 (1953) IMDB
- The most intimate and personal portrayal of prisoners out of the great WW2 trinity of POW films (Bridge on the River Kwai and Great Escape being the other two). This excellent film, directed and adapted by Billy Wilder from a play, balances a big sense of humor with the sober reality of prison life and escape attempts. The added element of a possible German spy hiding out in the prison barracks turns up the tension on this one quite a bit. William Holden is really excellent as the lead character here. For my tastes, I think the film is balanced a little too far in favor of the humor and sillier aspects. Still, an enjoyable and moving view. GRADE: B+

2. The Colditz Story (1955) IMDB
- Colditz Castle in Germany became a holding place for many Allied POW’s who had a history of trying to escape. Based on a true story, this film recounts the efforts of different Allied nationalities at busting out and the films ends with the first successful escape. There are a lot of creative escape attempts shown here and it’s never not an engaging viewing. It doesn't reach the "escape" scheming heights of something like The Great Escape, or the personal drama of Stalag 17, but if you like heist type films, you’ll enjoy this one. GRADE: B

3. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) IMDB
- I would rank this one as the "think piece" of the WWII POW Trinity. It’s the most serious of the three films and unlike the other two, takes place in the Asian sphere of the war. Set in a Japanese prison camp, the British prisoners are required to help build a railway bridge. The Japanese commander and British commander, played by a locked in Alec Guiness, square off in a battle of wit and wills. I like this film, but like the entirety of the POW trilogy, I feel there’s always something here keeping it back from being a real masterpiece. In this case, the film does drag quite a bit as it follows a commando (featuring William Holden) subplot that could have been reduced by nearly half. GRADE: B+

4. The Great Escape (1961) IMDB
- The final part of the great WW2 trinity of POW films and it is easily the most fun. From the very beginning, the men of the camp are devising ways of escape. The enjoyment of this movie is in learning all the different roles each man takes on the escape and all the clever ways they use to trick their guards. In that way, it's very much like the joy of a heist film - instead of cracking a safe or getting around an alarm system, you have the camp security. It’s a lot of fun. That’s the strength and its also a bit of the weakness. It’s fun to watch the creative escape attempts, but often it feels too easy at times and the guards feel a little too Hogan’s Heroes 'esque. I think a bit more realism and difficulty would only serve to enhance the amazing true story the film is based one. After the major escape takes place, I feel the film drags a bit following the different soldiers in their attempts to get free. Some are more interesting than others. GRADE: B+

5. The Hill (1965) IMDB
-  Leave it to Sidney Lumet to bring the sobering reality! In a twist on the typical POW film, this film (based on a play) takes place in a British military prison (for soldiers charged with crimes) in North Africa. The camp is run with brutal order and severe discipline. Right in the middle of the camp is the titular hill that prisoners are forced to run up and down for punishment. The film begins with the arrival of five new prisoners with Joe Roberts, played by Sean Connery, among them. The prisoner introduction sequence is effective and brutal: it introduces us to the prison geographically, our five new prisoners, and a few of the staff guards who can run the spectrum of fair, tough, and sadistic. They days go by and a sadistic guard named Williams (played incredibly well by Ian Hendry) pushes a prisoner too far. The prisoner dies in the night and the camp guards and doctors begin looking to shift the blame and angle for an accidental death. What works so well, and Lumet and the screenplay capitalize on this, is the brutally honest/insightful psychology at work. You can see all the contradictory instincts of how each prisoner and guards wants to help each other, do what's right, look out for themselves, do their duty, justify their own actions, and find some little comfort in these horrible circumstances. It all comes to head on a crazy day that begins with a near riot settled down with great delicacy and ingenuity by the Sergeant Major. The ends with a showdown in a prison cell where hierarchies of power, order following, and self-protection all come to clash in an intense and insightful sequence. I guess this film is close enough to being a "seventies film" that if has to offer one last bitter note near the end as well. There are lots of good POW films - this is the best. GRADE: A

6. Empire of the Sun (1987) IMDB
- A mostly forgotten Spielberg film, but a very good "coming of age" film set in a Japanese internment camp. A young British boy, played by Christian Bale, is separated from his family when the Japanese invade Shanghai and he winds up into a prison camp for nationals. Trying to balance the line between childlike wonder at war and the sobering realities of it the film takes a lot on its shoulders. Like many in this category, it’s a bit overlong and overstuffed, but there’s several worthy moments along the way. GRADE: B+
 
7. To End All Wars (2001) IMDB
- This film is adapted from British soldier Ernest Gordon's book Through the Valley of the Kwai. The film is about Gordon's time as a POW in a Japanese camp in Burma/Thailand where the prisoners were required by the Japanese to build a railroad. If that sounds familiar, it is because Bridge on the River Kwai was adapted from the same real life circumstances, just from a different soldier. Where Kwai wasn't necessarily focused on realism and instead chose to center the battle of wills between American/Japanese officers and the folly of British "superiority", To End All Wars has chosen to focus on realism, suffering, and faith. That the suffering is genuine and real is necessary because the emphasis on forgiveness and hope in later moments would come off superficial. I won't ruin the particulars here, but I will say that I quite enjoyed the dramatic faith moments and think they are well earned by the production's commitment to realism throughout. I'm surprised this one was so overlooked at the time. It remains a hidden gem of the genre. 
GRADE: B+

8. Hart’s War (2002) IMDB
- It takes fifty minutes for the inciting event of this film to come into play. Until then, it's just a routine POW film whose specific goal or conflict is near completely absent. This is a problem. The inciting incident is the framing and murder of an African American prisoner by the German guards. Though this is kind of passed over until a white prisoner is killed and the other African American solider in the camp is found standing over him. This happens about an hour into the film. The point of all this setup is that there's going to be a court-martial trial for the murder of the white soldier through the rest of the film. A game Colin Farrell and a stoic/mysterious (or just bored) Bruce Willis play captured Lieutenants and Farrell plays the role of counsel for the accused. While you think this is the point of the film, it's actually a ruse for Willis' character to plot something else. If this all sounds a bit unfocused and scattered, it's because it is. It's never outright bad, there's one or two nice "court" moments peppered in there, but it's never really all that compelling either. There's like 3 or 4 surprise revelations at the end that play less like revelations and more like dramatic overreaches to try and make the plot ends connect and give character arcs happy endings. Not bad, but it's certainly one to skip out on in this genre. GRADE: C

9. Unbroken (2014) IMDB
- The last film in this category is directed by Angelina Jolie and tells the story of Louis Zamperini's perseverance as a prisoner of war in the Pacific campaign. Zamperini's story feels like fiction - an Olympic runner, shot down in the Pacific campaign, survives in a lifeboat for over 40 days, and then survives two different POW camps. The novelization is apparently fantastic, the Coens had a hand in the screenwriting, and Roger Deakins is on cinematography duty. Even better, Jolie and Deakins say they were inspired by the masterpiece The Hill (also on this list) in filmng this. What could go wrong? 

The film begins with a well-executed sequence depicting a U.S. bombing run with Zamperini as the bombardier. Near the end of the run, we have one of those moments when the camera zooms in on the adult eyes and we zoom back to childhood. These flashback scenes of Louis Zamperini's life are filled with stereotype, cliché, and bad acting. We get catch phrases that are non-sequiturs in their context like, "A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory" and "If you can take it, you can make it." This whole sequence is genuinely bad, stick outs when compared to the strong opening bombing sequence, and casts a sickly shadow on what might come for the rest of the film. What does happen is a pretty workman like telling of the story that, like the childhood flashbacks, indulges a bit too much in easy cliché. I think this life story, which is stuffed with big happenings, is probably dramatically better structured for a mini series. Olympics, being a bombadier, lost at sea for 47 days, POW camps, and even the untold story after his return - these are all big enough to fill individual movies or episodes of their own. Still, that said, it's a fascinating individual story that's fairly well told. GRADE: C+

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

WWII Film Guide: Fantasy Action

7:02 PM 0
WWII Film Guide: Fantasy Action

*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:
It's hard not imagine how World War II would have been different if certain things were changed? I don't mean if a certain battle went a different way necessarily, but what if somehow a special operation was actually able to kill Hitler or Churchill was captured by German agents? What if groups of soldiers decided to strike out on their own and steal Nazi gold? The World War II genre is filled with such action films that aren't exactly about soldiers in frontline battles, nor are they attempting to be a kind of realistic film about some kind of special operation or resistance group that has some detailed basis in truth. This category is basically an action film with all its far-fetched fictitious Hollywood silliness, but in the setting of World War II. This type of film had its heyday in the mid-1960's through the end of the 1970's. I would argue that Russian cinema like T-34 and a few others I chose not to watch after seeing T-34, are unintentionally part of this genre. I think they are trying to make war films (with Zach Snyder in their hearts), but its so bad and over the top, it belongs here in this category. As you will see from the commentary, this is probably my least favorite category. I generally feel the stories that come to us from the war are already so fascinating and diverse, embellishment with fantasy and horror mostly serve to detract. Most of the time the fantasy, horror, and shading of morality don't add up to anything meaningful or substantive - it was just for a bit of fun, vengeance, or to make things interesting. Not good enough for me most of the time.  

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 10 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 Basics: I have my reservations about it (noted in the commentary below), but I think the best representative (for good and bad) of the category here is 1967's The Dirty Dozen. The film best embodies fun the "what if?" nature of fantasy action, but also has the drawbacks. 
  • Category Representative: The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Deep Dives: The 800 pound gorilla in the room is Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, which I gave a B-. The film is probably the most publicly loved and critically acclaimed of the group. Indeed, the sequences are probably the most memorable as well. So why not recommend it as the category representative and not Dirty Dozen. One word, meanness. Not because I want to be mean, but because I think the film crosses too far into the line of meanness without redemption. While it's good, I have serious qualms about recommending it and I've outlined those reasons more in the commentary below for you to read. Still, for those looking to go deeper, you've be good to start there. Beyond that, checkout Captain America: The First Avenger which features a fantastic first half and comic book style setting. Von Ryan's Express is a well-made POW film kicked up a notch with some train action. 
  • Mixed Recommendation: Inglorious Basterds (2009)
  • Comic Book Style: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
  • POWs + Trains: Von Ryan's Express (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. Von Ryan's Express (1965) IMDB
- The first half of this Frank Sinatra action vehicle plays out like your typical World War II POW film. Sinatra, playing the titular Von Ryan, is imprisoned in an Italian POW camp and becomes commanding officer. After some controversial decisions and an Italian withdrawal from the war, the POWs are captured by the Germans after an escape attempt. They are placed on a German prison train headed for Germany and this is where the film takes a unique turn. Von Ryan and the officers successfully escape, take out some guards, and take over the train. Forced to keep the ruse up, the prisoners devise ways to pass through German rail checkpoints, Gestapo snooping, and other obstacles. It's all pretty engaging and well made. It ends with a good, not great, finale in the mountains including planes, shootouts, and troop trains. One of the better and more grounded "fantasy" entries into the genre. GRADE: B-

2. The Dirty Dozen (1967) IMDB
- What if the military used some of its most ingenious and diabolical prisoners as a special unit that went behind enemy lines to kill German officers? If they mess up, they were bound for death row anyway. If they escape, they will be behind enemy lines. If they are successful, then they cause havoc. What could go wrong? That's the basic premise behind this film: an Army Major played by Lee Marvin is given the task to put together a special operations group made up of 12 notorious prisoners - they Dirty Dozen. The twelve prisoners are played by an incredibly diverse cast including Donald Sutherland, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas, and Trini Lopez. On the surface, this is a slickly made film, with several entertaining sequences. I really love the war games sequence where the group breaks about every rule in order to win a bet. The central problem I have with this film and others like it (Kellies Heroes, Inglorious Bastards, and even others in its wake like Suicide Squad) is that in order to make us relate to and enjoy the central characters they downplay their evil and just turn them into anti-social, anti-authoritarians, or just misunderstood thugs. There is a moment in the finale sequence where Telly Savalas' Maggott character goes crazy and almost ruins the entire operation. This is one of the only times in the film where there's genuine acknowledgement and consequences for using criminals. It's jarring and out of place. It's just not enough. This can often be a fun movie, but requires a bit too much suspension of my moral convictions to give it a rating of anything higher. GRADE: B

3. Where the Eagles Dare (1968) IMDB
- In this 2 hour and 40 minute (!!) fantasy/action/spy film, Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton join a team of Allied Spies who drop into German territory to rescue an important American General from Nazi custody in a secluded castle. The conflict is that the spies must reach the general, who knows the plans for D-Day, before the Nazi's are able to get the info from him. This is the conflict presented by the film, but as you will learn there are many more layers and twists and turns to the film...all the way to the ending. I'd argue the film is a little too layered as at some point there is what feels like thirty minutes of straight exposition back and forth as people lie and change sides and then reveal the real "truth". The film also feels a bit too long for what should be a quick-moving romp. Thankfully, there's an extended "escape from the castle" finale sequence that saves the film (IMO) and makes it a worthwhile viewing. GRADE: C+

4. Kelly’s Heroes (1970) IMDB
- This is one of those movies that thinks when you yell your complaints that it is really funny. I found the comedy elements to be wince-inducing. Beyond that, the story is one of those anti-war comedies where all the commanders are idiots, every action the army does is absurd or a contradiction, so everyone kinda just looks out for themselves amidst the madness. The last act of the film is the bank heist and it does a pretty good job redeeming the annoying first two acts. Skippable film. GRADE: C

5. The Eagle Has Landed (1976) IMDB
- This World War II actioner imagines an attempt by Hitler to parachute into England and kidnap Winston Churchill. Robert Duvall, Michael Caine, and Donald Sutherland play key German/Irish roles and their attempts to approximate an accent are laughable. It’s a slowly unfolding procedural that’s rather small in scope, involves a pretty lame love story, and fairly random and trivial things that foul the plan up. At no point do you feel Churchill (who doesn’t show until 30 minutes left of the film) is actually in danger, in fact once the overly dumb American army leader starts the firing its all effectively lost anyways. Interesting idea, poorly executed. GRADE: D+

6. The Inglorious Bastards (1978) IMDB
- With a tagline like "Whatever the Dirty Dozen did they do it dirtier!" it's not hard to tell where the heart of this film is. The premise is similar to its spiritual predecessor, a diverse group of military prisoners find themselves with the need to work together to escape to Switzerland after their military transport is interrupted by a German attack. This mostly means working together to escape a series of minor gunfight skirmishes that aren't all that interesting.  The group is a motley crew each equipped with their own quirks. Like Dirty Dozen, some of the bad guys here aren't really all that bad and some are legit creeps. I guess this combination is supposed to allow the audience to retain some kind of moral compass, but it doesn't quite work for me. Ultimately, the film comes down to an extended action finale where the bastards must hijack a train carrying a prototype V2 rocket warhead. It's the best part of the film but it feels as though it belongs in another film. This is a Frankenstein film, pieced together from different influences (The Dirty Dozen, The Train, and The Great Escape to name a few) that fails to come together to tell a compelling story. You're better off sticking to its much more thoughtful predecessor. GRADE: C

7. Inglorious Basterds (2009) IMDB
- A revenge fantasy where a special U.S. Army squad led by Brad Pitts as Lt. Raines seeks to go behind the lines and kill as many Nazis, as gruesomely as possible, to spread fear in the Germany army. What has always frustrated me about Quentin's movies it just how talented Quentin is as a creative. as a writer, and as a director, yet his talents never amount to anything with a greater moral message or purpose behind it. For example, lets take the German SS officer in charge of hunting Jews in France, the iconic boogeyman Hans Landa. As the film's opening sequence unfolds and we begin to understand how Landa employs his education, articulation, and sophistication to carry out his depravity and evil aims - we marvel. The writing and acting unfold to surprise the audience - Landa literally talks a man into giving up the Jewish family he is hiding. It's incredible. What's frustrating is that Landa is a fiction, the story is a fiction, and it's primarily meant for entertainment rather than something with more depth. Take the iconic and awesome basement bar sequence as well. We all love it, its written in a way that slowly ratchets up the tension, interaction by interaction. First, the Basterds join this British plot (which isn't really explained why the Basterds are needed for it, or would want to work for it, since they have their own Nazi game going), the female spy picks the basement (an odd choice since they don't need to meet in public at all), then the bar so happens to have extra German soldiers (another odd turn of luck), then the bar also happens to have an SS man in the background (another odd turn of luck). Then just when all seems fine and the tensions die down, a small gesture of the hand gives away the group (another odd turn of luck). After the famous shootout is over Hammersmark leaves behind her shoe and her writing for...guess who to find? Landa (small world right?). 

It's all effective and it works, but because it's all fiction (and none of it really necessary for the main lesson or plot of the film), this essentially becomes a writer's exercise for fun. All of the coincidences and parties coming together (Shoshanna, Landa, the Basterds, the Spies, Hitler) is just a writer doing it to serve his fantasy story. In the end, when the clever Landa has the group right where he wants them, what happens? Surprise - he wants to get out of Germany and our "good guys" have a chance to go free. Except, up until this point, Landa is so evil and such an iconic antagonist that for him to just become a non-obstacle due to his own personal change, (he's smart enough to know a deal wasn't likely to be honored) it just feels so writerly and again, doesn't add up to anything more meaningful. It just allows our heroes to get out of the box the writer put them in and give the audience the revenge fantasy. Nothing wrong for that, just makes it feel less meaningful in the end to me. Perhaps you will have a different take.  

I would describe Tarantino's work as like having a diamond encrusted remote control. I mean, I won't complain as it classes up the rather workman-like object, but there's better and more valuable ways to use diamonds. It's not a great analogy, I just want his talents used for something more meaningful. I'm grateful that Spielberg used his immense talent on pictures like Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I'm even more grateful that he also made it for Schindler's List because the subject matter is so serious and important that I'd want my best talents working to convey it. This doesn't mean Tarantino is bad or his art is "inferior" - I just wish it all added up to a better message instead of what it often is: really well written violence fantasies with memorable dialogue and characters. This film is a fascinating story with memorable characters and...in the end...I have a hard time celebrating it because it's just a revenge fantasy where the heroes don't just protect and defend and fight the war, but go out of their way to brutally and cruelly torture and kill the enemy. By the end of the film it veers so hard into fantasy, that it all becomes a practice for fun. As Hitler and the Nazi party watches the constant violence in the film premiere and enjoys it, is it supposed to be commentary on us enjoying the violence in this movie? If so, why? That's the whole point of the movie, we are supposed to like it, the movie revels in it, and we know Tarantino does as well. There doesn't seem to be a point other than aesthetic and temporal enjoyment. How are we supposed to respond to Raines' carving of the swastika in Landa's head in gory detail? Serious question, how are we supposed to view that? I don't know at all. It's hard to walk away with anything deeply truthful, beautiful, or good since even the "good" writing and characters are all in the service of a basic revenge fantasy. Others feel different, but that's where I stand. I'd recommend other Tarantino films over this one. GRADE: B-

8. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) IMDB
- Marvel's entry into this category asks the question, "What if there were greater powers working behind the scenes of World War II, scientists successfully making super soldiers and finding powerful artifacts like infinity stones? Despite the fantasy premise, the film remains at its core a character piece - this is about the essential goodness of a young maned named Steve Rogers; a weak man given the opportunity to be part of a scientific experiment to make super soldiers from a special serum. Unlike the main character in every musical biopic ever created, the sudden rush of success and power doesn't corrupt Steve. The best part of the movie is the first half when it is largely developing Steve's character. The last half, nowhere near as interesting or engaging as the first, evolves into a series of rather subpar action sequences where they learn about and try to stop Red Skull. A great character introduction with some nice World War II moments mixed in but it ultimately amounts to just an okay film for me. GRADE: B-

9. Overlord (2018) IMDB
- What if you could cross a World War II movie with a zombie/Alien like horror film? That's the basic premise here. This film opens with a squadron of soldiers preparing to jump behind German lines in to take down a radio tower in advance of the D-Day landings. In a pretty harrowing opening sequence, their plane and others around begin taking on intense flak and ground fire. Amidst the confusion, violence, and explosions, only a few make it out and onto the ground. The squad leftovers regroup and move on their target...which just so happens to also be a secret German military experimentation facility (that's where the zombie/alien things come in). Only, the film stalls for another 30 minutes with just a tease of the facility and a lot of filler nonsense inside a local Frenchwoman's house. Eventually, the group assaults the facility, but even then it's not until 25 minutes left in the film that the real horror stuff begins and...it ain't all that great. If you like the idea of this genre crossover and give most horror films a pass as mindless entertainment, you will probably get something out of this. I think it's a bit of a failure as it never offers anything exceptional (no great story, moral message, amazing villain, over the top effects, iconic characters, standout sequences) that justifies any of its indulgences beyond basic production competence and quality. Skip. GRADE: C 
10. T-34 (2018) IMDB
- A special T-34 unit, taking out multiple panzers, is forced to train the Germans how to become better. The T-34 tank unit has other things in mind, fights back, and escapes. The tank action sequences in this Russian language film have become a bit of a darling on Youtube for combining tank sequences with Michael Bay 'esque penchant for grand staging and Zach Snyder 'esque slow motion violence. The film loves to show tank volleys being fired, traveling, and interacting with the other tanks armor – sometimes glancing away or penetrating to various ends. However, these sequences eventually become Fast & Furious levels of ridiculousness as one tank disposes of six or seven German tanks and is able to survive multiple strikes themselves. It’s so over the top that it really works against the level of creative realism the visuals bring. It's a shame because these are handsomely staged and inventive tank battles, but they are burdened with overly macho/romantic view of war turned to a level of ridiculousness that it doesn't fully work. This is best summed up as macho-fueled jingoistic foolishness that is blessed with a creative visuals and handsome production values. Watch the action scene highlights and skip the actual film. GRADE: C-

Back to the World War II Home Page

Saturday, July 10, 2021

WWII Film Guide: War in the Pacific

6:43 PM 0
WWII Film Guide: War in the Pacific

*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: After exploring the best of films in the European campaign, let's turn now to the Pacific. You'll notice that there are less films here than the last guide. I think there are two main reasons why there are less films about the war in the pacific 1) The depravity seems to be worse, especially in the case of the land battles. The casualty rate for the American military is at all-time high here. Few people want to be reminded of this and given censorship issues I think this likely led to film more about the naval battles or aerial battles of the Pacific - you can distance the violence and suffering while differentiating from the more land-based European films. 2) I think we found ourselves able to relate more to having Germans and European settings than with the Japanese in Asia. It was easier to portray Germans (you could get Hollywood stars to do it, like Jackie Mason playing Erwin Rommel, or Orson Welles playing a sympathetic German officer) but portraying the Japanese was more difficult, there seemed to be much more hate for them.

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. Following that, if you'd like to learn more about the 12 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 Basics: Similar to the European campaign, there is a one-two punch here represented by a film and a mini series and a film that just can't be beat. First, you have to begin with 1970's Tora! Tora! Tora! which covers and recreates in great detail the Pearl Harbor event that kicked off America's active involvement in World War II. From there, you can't get better than following 2010's The Pacific to get a taste for how the rest of the pacific land battles went from a view of the soldier. In viewing both you have the inciting event of the Pacific campaign and most the highlights on the long haul.
  • Best Blockbuster Recreation: Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
  • Overview of the Horror: The Pacific (2010)
Deep Dives: If you are looking for a deeper dive and analysis I still recommend beginning with my basics. From there I would recommend 2019's Midway as the turning point in the battle for the Pacific. I'd recommend a double feature of The Thin Red Line with Hacksaw Ridge for two films that try and make sense of the troubling violence of war in very different ways. For an insight into the psychology of those Japanese who died by suicidal attack, those who surrendered, and those who held out - I'd recommend a double feature of Letters from Iwo Jima and Oba: The Last Samurai. Finally, if you would like a look into one of the more colorful generals of the campaign who featured in many of the key decisions and moments than MacArthur might be worth a view.
  • Aerial Spectacle/Turning Point: Midway (2019)
  • Reflections on Violence: The Thin Red Line (1998) / Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
  • Japanese Perspective: Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) / Oba: The Last Samurai (2011)

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. The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) IMDB
- When people talk about a "traditional" film - this has to be the first to come to mind. In a rarity for an early WWII film, the film covers a marine infantry squad, their training, and their landings/battles on Tarawa and Iwo Jima. The action sequences are competent, large-scale, and interspersed with real war footage. For its time, these are very well done and must have been pretty awesome to sit in a movie theater in 1949 and watch them. The action however, is not the main feature of the story. The film is mostly remembered for John Wayne as Sgt. John M. Stryker giving definition to the "I'm a hard Commander, but that's just cause I'm preparing you for war in the best way I know how" trope. This is the central element of the film and I find it stiff, not very nuanced, and fairly unsuccessful. The film is a bit too jingoistic and filled with tropes for my taste - but still worth a watch. GRADE: C+

2. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) IMDB
- "Tora! Tora! Tora!" was the call sign the Japanese pilots were to send back to their officers if they were able to achieve the surprise they so desperately wanted and regrettably were able to achieve. The surprise attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor is one of the major turning points in American and world history - bringing the United States fully into World War II. It's not a surprise then that the event has been covered many times in several films. No film has covered it better than Tora! Tora! Tora! and it is easily the best of the mega-budget large scale event recreations to come out of the 60s-70s. The leadup to the attack takes up the first half of the film and sets the stage perfectly; introducing the key figures and mindsets on the American and Japanese sides. The second half of the film pays off in a sequence that is allowed to build and feature multiple facets of the attack. Being before the age of CGI, there’s a commitment to doing things practical that payoff in ways that films today just can’t pull off. Sweeping aerial shots have a different feel when we know the planes in them are real and the damage being done is practical. There’s some jaw dropping stunt work and large-scale explosions here as well. Mixed in with the real location work is some hit and miss miniature and rear screen projection work. Despite some distracting miniature and rear projection work and the lack of the more dynamic CGI shots of Michael Bay’s 2001 Pearl Harbor sequence, this one remains a cut above. I might like a couple of the eye-popping CGI shots, but it completely lacks the cheesy Hollywoodization that Bay’s “let’s get revenge on them Japs” version lets run throughout the sequence. This 1970 version is the single richest recreation in terms of scale and it is immensely benefited by allowing the sequence to speak for itself without filling it with cheesy glamorous supporting roles that only serve to distract. Most action films need it, but war recreations like this one certainly don’t. This is one of the gems of not just World War II cinema, but war cinema in general. GRADE: A-

3. Midway (1976) IMDB
- This is the ugly stepsister of those mega-budget, all-star, recreations of turning point events. This films begins with the destruction and fallout of the Doolittle raid over Tokyo. The Japanese want to deal a decisive blow to the American fleet, prevent repeats of air raids over Japan, and force the US to sue for peace in the Pacific. The behind the scenes build up to the battle is decent stuff that gives you a good idea of the background on both sides. There are two glaring flaws in the film. A subplot love story about Japanese girlfriend to one of the U.S. participants in the battle is under federal suspicion. The entire subplot feels forced, out of place, and not integrated well into the overall story. Second, the battle of Midway itself - and this is the biggest strike against the film. The production struggled finding authentic planes to use for this film and so many aerial shots were repurposed from Tora! Tora! Tora!, other war films, and stock war footage. This isn't a horrendous fact as many other films in the 40-60s did this along with actual war footage, but for such a big budget recreation it feels cheap and distracting. Sometimes, a single plane is represented by several different planes from different forces and even German and British planes (who took no part in the battle) are used for dogfights and crashes. Despite these flaws and frustrations the producers put together something that is workable, though not very accurate or as dynamic as it could be. There's no "great" film about the Midway events to point, but I'd recommend the 2019 film over this one. GRADE: C+ 

4. MacArthur (1977) IMDB
- This biopic of the famous American General Douglas MacArthur roughly covers the time period between his 1942 withdrawal from the Philippines to his dismissal by President Truman during the Korean War. Lots of events in this time are covered (think the strategy behind New Guinea and Philippines campaigns) and it is nice to see them reflected upon and connect to other films. Little connections are kind fun like watching MacArthur telling a Philippine soldier to join the resistance which would play out in 1945's Back to Bataan, MacArthur leaving the Philippines on a PT boat which featured were featured in 1945's They Were Expendable. or hearing MacArthur argue that defense of Australia strategy was going on offense and thinking of the the "Gloucester/Pavuvu/Banika" episode of The Pacific. One recreation I particularly liked, and hasn't been featured in anything I've seen yet, was the recreation of the infamous Pearl Harbor Pacific strategy meeting with Roosevelt and Nimitz where MacArthur pushes hard for a strategy ensuring the capture of the Philippines before the island of Formosa (Taiwan). MacArthur's stubbornness and wily character comes across nicely here, played well by Gregory Peck. In the end, it's a pretty static affair whose best achievements lay in filling out and connecting moments in history that haven't received full cinematic treatment. Beyond that, there isn't much deeper here to the man that challenges the audience or asks us to reconsider. GRADE: C+ 

4. The Thin Red Line (1998) IMDB
- In 1998, Terrance Malick released The Thin Red Line, his first film in decades, focusing on the Battle of Guadalcanal. After a short first act introducing our main characters and their struggles, the film settles into a fairly long sequence (occupying 40 minutes or so) that plays out the drama and action of taking a Japanese defended bunker as if it were a miniature movie itself. The sequence plays out from multiple perspectives, from overall commanders, to the individual squad commanders. The camerawork highlights the natural beauty against the violent slaughter as men go through panic attacks, refuse orders, die in an instant, or suffer greatly for all to see. The final portion of the sequence features a squad clearing out a bunker that kept an entire company pinned down. Malick uses this well-staged and violent war sequence as a contrast to nature. Are men beasts in whom war and violence is inevitable or are they more like the beauty and purity of nature? You can see this contrast and struggle play out as Nick Nolte's iconic commander continues to encourage and command the advancement at all costs to life as other commanders and soldiers and others attempt to keep their sanity and humanity. This whole 40 minute sequence is probably my favorite thing Mallick has ever done, the only time I've felt his "tone-poem" style connected, and one of the best sequences in any war film ever. In The Thin Red Line, the there isn’t any glory because to be at war is to be disconnected from our natural state. Thus, the men crawl through beautiful natural landscapes, with painterly shots of waving grass that would make Monet jealous. Within that landscape erupts moments of violence and moments of conflict between men, commanders, and within themselves gasping to remain normal. To Malick, no one is fit for war. 

Unfortunately, once the narrative about the line of battle moving forward ends, the film still has an hour or so to go. This final hour feels to me redundant, too slow moving, and entirely unnecessary. It's the kind of stuff that frustrates me most of Malick's work. If the film had nailed the landing this would be a war classic in my mind. As is, I think the 40 minute sequence, comprising the second act of the film, is worth the viewing alone and could be a mini-movie in and of itself. GRADE: B

5. Pearl Harbor (2001) IMDB
- I was a young teenager who was blown away by the special effects of Michael Bay's 1998 sci-fi action film Armageddon and the trailer for Pearl Harbor promised even greater visual effects wonders set to the background of a major historical event. I remember hearing some pundits think this was possibly going to be the next Titanic event. I was so excited, I bought tickets to see it on opening day...twice...with two different groups of friends. Needless to say, after seeing it the first time time - I was regretting that I'd already committed to a second viewing. To be fair, the actual treatment of the attack is mostly well done. It features some of the most spectacular and awe-inspiring special effects shots of all time. However, the attack is embedded between a godawful love story and a godawful epilogue about the Doolittle raid. Rendering the Pearl Harbor events a kind of subplot to a soap opera-esque love triangle story is an incredibly bad idea and glossing it up with Michael Bay's machismo and whiz bang only exacerbates it. Outside of the titular action sequence, you can skip this one.
GRADE: C+

6. Windtalkers (2002) IMDB
-  In this mediocre WWII film director John Woo attempts to tackle an American war film about the use of Navajo Marines in cypher and code work during the Pacific campaign – specifically the invasion of Saipan. The film just isn't in the right hands here; it's miscast (Nicholas Cage is pretty bad here) and John Woo, who seems like a slam dunk for this action material, doesn't prove a good match for this material. Unfortunately, Woo does not adapt his iconic style enough to the material; the bombastic, stylish, and heroic flourishes that defined his previous work doesn’t quite work with a serious war film about the horror filled battles in the Pacific campaign. Much of the film feels like a styles clash that comes off as way too "Hollywood" and frankly, it's often pretty cheesy stuff. If this had come out in the early to mid-nineties, it would likely have been looked upon better, but coming out post Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers it feels like its from another world that just doesn’t understand war. GRADE: C

7. Flags of Our Fathers (2006) IMDB
- This film covers the famous flag raising event on Mount Suribachi a few days into the Battle of Iwo Jima and how the famous photo of that raising would go on to be change the lives of all the men who were thought to be part of it. A few of the soldiers who were part of the raising (and one who was not) are sent home to be part of bond raising campaign where they struggle with the demons from battle and their roles as "heroes". Unfortunately, this side of the story is just not as compelling and interesting as the actual battle side. Flags of Our Fathers spends 12 minutes overviewing the initial landings on Iwo Jima and this sequence does a better job of telling the overall story of an amphibious landing in the Pacific War than any other I’ve seen. It spends money on CGI for a convincingly realistic and epic landing convoy, with destroyers blasting the island, and landing craft driving ashore along with other support craft. The land battles are good and feature the gamut of realistic explosions, violence, and machine gun action that any war film post-2000 is expected to have. I particularly appreciate the couple of aerial dogfight shots that showcase the battlefield geography and give a wonderful dynamism to the sequence – and give it a nice way to transition between land and sea sequences as well. It’s excellent as an overview – feeling like I got a good sense of the battle. Outside of these compelling war sequences are the less compelling dramatics back on the home front, as well as a framing device about a son investigating his father's past military service. None of it gels together in a way that is more than the whole. Part of the reason is that early on the creatives decided their story was too big and they needed to create a second story. This film would go on to be Letters from Iwo JimaGRADE: B

8. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) IMDB
- This was filmed right after Flags of Our Fathers by Clint Eastwood as a companion piece to that film that would tell the Japanese view of the Battle of Iwo Jima. The story begins with the arrival of General Kuribayashi, played by Ken Watanabe, to the island well before the American forces land there. Kuribayashi surveys the defenses and makes significant changes, bucking the older more traditional officers on the island. We also get the viewpoint of several foot soldiers as they prepare for the invasion and deal with the battles. later in the film As the battle begins, Kuribayashi is shown to be an able commander and resists the urge to throw soldiers into fruitless banzai attacks for no good reason, despite what his older officers urge him to do. This is a more cohesive narrative than Flags of Our Fathers, but it suffers from the exclusion of the extremely effective war action sequences found there. I wish that the “flag” plot of Flags of Our Fathers would have been held to a small epilogue and the two narratives would have been intercut between the American and Japanese sides of the battle. As one story, these two films contain an interesting look into Iwo Jima, separately though they both feel lacking to some extent. GRADE: B

9. The Pacific (2010 – Miniseries) IMDB
- Without a doubt, this is the most miserable war film I’ve ever seen. Since it is a mini series instead of a 2 hour film, the experience lasts nearly ten hours. To be fair, a miserable experience does not equal a bad film and as you can tell by my rating, this is not a bad film at all. After the success of Band of Brothers, most of the same creatives came together to make another miniseries covering the Pacific side of World War II. In doing so, they had a small problem to address, Band of Brothers was iconic and already cemented great tales of leadership, courage, and heroism in the popular imagination. Heck, "Band of Brothers" men's groups became popular in many churches I was part of. Was this new miniseries just going to be another Band of Brothers but with palm trees instead of European hedgerows? How could The Pacific differentiate itself? 

The one area that Band of Brothers covered but did not dwell upon fully and certainly did not make its goal, is the "War is Hell" aspect of battle. It seems clear to me that the producers and writers purposefully wanted to counterbalance the public reverence of Band of Brothers by stripping the battle scenes of tactical stories, conventional shows of heroism, and comradery. In its place, The Pacific crafted sequences that drove home to the viewer that this campaign was a nasty business that changed its participants forever. Even the musical theme is more somber and doesn’t have the nostalgic heroism of the Band of Brothers. The series covers Guadalcanal, a layover for restoration in Australia, then back to many key island battlefields including Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. We do grow to know the characters, but the episodes are tougher to watch for a couple of reasons: the characters and issues they have chosen to highlight, mostly the ugly side of war, aren’t as compelling, rousing, and redeeming as the viewer expects. The entire thing is educational, but it feels like having to eat your vegetables without a lot of dessert or meat to balance it out. In the depiction of the Battle of Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, the high production standards are still there, but the framing is more claustrophic, with epic scenery almost always in blur behind our characters. It feels like the directors had two goals: to educate the viewer on the basic geography of the battle and to make you sick to the stomach at the violence of it. There is little comradery (in fact they seem to focus more on combative relationships), there is no conventional heroism (outside of John Basilone on Iwo Jima), there is little technical prowess or tactical excellence, there is only suffering and death. 

By the time the Battle for Okinawa has completed, the war action becomes overwhelming - there's no comic relief or typical redemption. This kind of war film is harder to view because it's not as entertaining or fun as others, but it does provide a necessary pendulum swing. The creators likely would not deny that conventional heroism existed in these battles and that tactical brilliance could have easily have been shown. What they have done instead is fill in the blanks on our World War II experience maps that are only lightly sketched - the intense dehumanization of war. It's a bear, but it's greatly appreciated. We need to be reminded that war is hell and that it ends up taking from everyone involved. GRADE: A-

10. Oba: The Last Samurai (2011) IMDB
- The American invasion of the island of Saipan (imagine this film picking up where 2002’s Windtalkers left off) is nearing its end with a determined remnant of Japanese soldiers holding out in the mountains. Told from the Japanese perspective, we witness their last banzai charge attack for death and glory…except that some soldiers survive. Rather than die, they see their job as joining other holdouts on the island and protecting as many Japanese civilians as possible in the process. One of the more fascinating stories of Japanese imperial army is their unwillingness (not uniformly, but certainly widespread) to be taken prisoner, preferring to die by suicidal attacks (or straight up suicide). This is a helpful film in understanding the psychology of those Japanese who died by suicidal attack, those who surrendered, and those who held out. Its not perfect, some on the American side are a bit caricatured (like Daniel Baldwin’s officer), but it’s a fairly balanced dramatization of the reasoning and emotions on both sides of a difficult issue that caused a lot of death and extended the war beyond the major actions. GRADE: B-

11. Hacksaw Ridge (2016) IMDB
- Mel Gibson directs this portrayal of the first man to earn the Medal of Honor despite never firing a gun and killing the enemy. Desmond Doss is a pacifist and conscientious objector who wants to serve, but not as a front-line "killing machine" soldier. His superiors don’t appreciate this and throughout boot camp believe they can bully the pacifist out of him. By the time Doss arrives at the Battle of Hacksaw Ridge on Okinawa Island he’s at the front lines but not wielding a gun. The battle sequence that follows is one of the best depictions of charging into a battle and having to survey the landscape, take cover, and fight from position to position, bunker to bunker. It covers the gamut of emotion and it feels like a genuine back and forth fight. The hell of the violence here is similar to what we found in the 2010 series The Pacific - it's grotesque and overwhelming. If Terrance Mallick argued in The Thin Red Line that war is at natural conflict with and corrupts our human nature, then Gibson argues in this film that within the hell of war can be found roles that are redeeming. Even though Desmond Doss won't fire a gun, we see his courage and bravery as he seeks to save as many on the battlefield as possible – going beyond the job of a medic and using the cover of night to personally rescue men off a dangerous battlefield. Yet, the film argues we also need people willing to pull the trigger as well. Yes, war is hell, we can have different beliefs and different views, but we can each find our natural place within it - some as rescuers, some as soldiers, some as leaders, etc. This is a good film, not without some faults, and Doss’ story really is one of the more remarkable ones to come out of this war. GRADE: B+

12. Midway (2019) IMDB
- Roland Emmerich, creator of films like Independence Day and The Patriot, tells the story of the major turning point in the Pacific campaign, the air and naval battle of Midway. The first two thirds set up the main battle by covering Pearl Harbor and other run ups to the circumstances before Pearl. The film does a good job portraying the mindset of the Japanese officials and their planning going into the battle, but the attempt to dramatize the American soldiers involved is a huge misstep. The portrayal is accurate to the basic history but is so stereotypical and poorly written that it weighs down the better portions of the film. The final third of the film is a collection of sequences covering the the air and naval battle. If you can put aside the cheesy drama and character portrayals, you are treated to the greatest CGI World War II Navy battle ever put to film. The sequence is fairly comprehensive of the actual battle, but the meat and potatoes begin with US torpedo squads spotting the Japanese fleet and failing in their first run. Eventually the U.S. dive bomber squads arrive and take on the fleet with great success. These bombing runs are beautifully shot, tense, and the gem of the entire film. The visuals are breathtaking: an ocean packed with naval vessels, a sky packed with planes and flak, bomber runs going for carriers with flak flying all over. This is director Roland Emmerich’s greatest achievement as the bombing runs on the Japanese carriers do justice to being a dynamic action sequence, accurately portraying a real-life battle, and cover the emotions and worries of the commanders and pilots on all sides. Skip the 1976 version and give this one a view - as you look past the cheesiest elements. GRADE: B-