Best Action Scenes of All-Time: WWII - The Part-Time Critic

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Best Action Scenes of All-Time: WWII

*To get straight to the list, scroll past the following introductory paragraphs

World War II took place from 1939 to 1945, involved over 100 million participants, and 30 countries. The war changed the political, economic, and military structure of the entire world. It's no surprise then that we have made a lot of movies about the event. In fact, Wikipedia estimates that there's over 1,300 films (and counting) made about it! Many of these films are about battles, raids, and special operations that would fall under the category of "action". After doing the comparatively small scale sequences in my Westerns Action List it was nice to transition into a category that spanned nine decades of sequences and includes some of the most epic and vast sequences ever attempted.

I've collected, ranked, and commentated on well over forty sequences below. I won't discuss my feelings much here since I think the commentary on each sequence (especially as you get to the top ten) speaks for itself, but there needs to be at least a little something said about war sequences before I begin. War really is hell and many of the sequences depicted in the sequences below are true stories or based on them. This list is not meant to celebrate real life violence or by critiquing an action sequence minimize the real life suffering that went into it. For this reason, I won't be sharing any links to sequences this time. These often very violent sequences, unlike a fancy kung fu fight or Western gun shootout, are tied to their dramatic context in vital ways that require a viewing of the entire film to really rightly approach. This list is about the artistic depiction and expression of war in movies and my goal is to invite you to think about these following sequences that I believe reveal some kind of truth, beauty, goodness in how they depict war. 

Finally, a word on my personal taste in war "action" sequences. Ideal "war/battle" action scenes try to balance the following elements: clarity of action (what's going on?), tactics and strategy (how did they accomplish that?), verisimilitude (is that what it feels like?), and a message (why did I just watch that?). As you'll see below, many sequences get elements right or choose to favor one over the other. As we get closer to the top ten, you'll start to see those elements come into focus in a powerful way. In fact, since this is such a long and exhaustive list, feel free to scroll down to the top ten which contains the most meaningful sequences. Feel free to let me know what you think.

Some Honorable Mentions: 
T-34
  • "Finale: Mountains, Planes, and Trains" -Von Ryan's Express (1965): Allied prisoners have hijacked a train and are making their way into the Alps when German planes swoop in and attack. After debris temporarily closes off a bridge a German troop train pools in behind and a shootout ensues. This finale isn't very exciting, but it's clear, well shot and definitely worthy a viewing.
  • “Left Behind: Germans Retreat & Don't Tell Steiner” -Cross of Iron (1977):  A vengeful German commander neglects to tell Steiner’s platoon that their unit is retreating. Steiner’s platoon is overwhelmed by advancing Soviets and must find themselves retreating through foxholes, trenches, and a factory as soldiers and tanks fire upon them. Decent infantry work here. 
  • "Finale: The Battle of Palo Passage" -In Harm's Way (1965): Large scale naval sequences done before the age of CGI had to pull it off with the real thing, models, or with stock footage. This film pulls the models route and gets a mixed response. On one hand, the models look decent and are able to give a scale to the battle that no non-CGI film could hope to give. On the other, the models are obvious and do distract. Still, a worthy view and mention on this list.
  • "Blowing a Hole to Get Off the Beach” -The Longest Day (1963): An effective sequence here led by a strong Robert Mitchum performance as he is determined to get his pinned down men off the beach. He refuses to retreat, gathers his resources, and deploys his engineers to blow a hole in a concrete road block to give his men an exit. It’s well shot and one of the more dramatically effective sequences in the film.
  • “River Assault and Taking the Nijmegen Bridge” -A Bridge Too Far (1977): A sweeping and well shot river assault led by Robert Redford. The river is crossed by scores of boats as artillery and machine guns bear down on them. It’s a bit by the numbers, but it is effective. This is how a bridge can get taken. A little too straight forward for my tastes, but the scale makes up for it.
  • “Close Combat: Taking a Warehouse Step by Step” -Stalingrad (1993): The battle of Stalingrad is a difficult one to put to film because it consisted mostly of urban warfare that doesn't always translate to great action sequences. This is an example of urban warfare - a mix of close combat horror, chaos, and some advancing tactics – this is pretty good, but is a bit chaotic in the end.
  • “Opening: Lone T-34 Takes on a Group of Panzers in a Village” & “Finale: Tank Battle from Town Square to the Bridge” -T-34 (2019): This sequence is a star right now on Youtube because it features some visually creative tank battles that have a Zach Snyder like emphasis on using extreme slow motion. The film loves to show a tank volley being fired, traveling, and interacting with the other tanks armor – sometimes glancing away or penetrating to various ends. However, these sequences eventually becomes 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.
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The Devil's Brigade
40. "Army Advances on the Ridge & Town Near Remagen Bridge" -The Bridge at Remagen (1969)
- In order to swoop in and capture the last remaining bridge over the Rhine river and keep the German army trapped, an advance armored Army unit moves onto the ridge and town overlooking the bridge. Lots of real tanks are used on the ridge to assault the 88 gun emplacements on the other side - great explosions ensure. A few armored units and infantry enter the town and while it isn't anything special on the infantry tactics side, there are a ton of great practical tank movements, shelling, and large-scale demolition of the town. Seriously, there's one shot of tanks/soldiers moving across a road horizontally with an entire block of brick-style four story buildings crumbling/imploding in the background. There's a nice moment where the unit encounters a small barricade setup by the town's civil defense and after rolling tanks through they capture the group of old men and boys. It's a nice sequence worth watching.

39. "Battle of Saipan: Invasion" -Windtalkers (2002)
- John Woo depicts the marine invasion of Saipan with wide visuals, bombastic explosions, and over the top action. A beautiful Hawaiian mountain valley stands in for Saipan with hundreds of soldiers with planes strafing above them frontally assaulting Japanese pillboxes, rifle trenches, and artillery batteries. There's moments of strength here, particularly in showing the use of Navajo code talkers, but it's burdened by a lot of cheesy attempts at dramatic depth and other war tropes that come off as superficial and shallow. 

38. "Struck by a Submarine & Abandoning a Fire Laden Tanker" -Action in the North Atlantic (1943)
A dramatic "disaster" sequence like the sinking of an oil tanker by a submarine would normally be better classified as a dramatic sequence but this gem from 1943 plays out with lots of dramatic action as well. After being struck twice by a German submarine, an American tanker (with Humphrey Bogart on deck) 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. It's all top notch stuff that despite a couple dated miniature shots wouldn't feel out of place in a film today.

37. “Finale: Holding off the Germans at a Lonely Well in the Sahara” -Sahara (1943)
- A small group of Allied stragglers dig in at a lonely well in the Sahara. They decide to try and hold off a battalion of Nazi’s who need the water badly. The sequence is well staged, the location work is easy to follow, but like most of the action of the time period, very static “shot of something firing, shot of explosion” type stuff. Some of the better stuff for the period though - I mean it was filmed while the war was still going on. A better dramatic sequence than action sequence by the end.

36. "Finale: The Battle of Monte La Difensa" -The Devil's Brigade (1968)
- This standout sequence caught me by surprise since it comes at the tail end of a movie that really doesn't stand out at all. The Devil's Brigade loosely tells the story of the development and first major actions of the First Special Forces, a precursor of divisions like the Green Berets. The final action sequence requires the special force, led by William Holden, to scale a cliffside during a diversionary artillery barrage in order to assault a German mountaintop position that has bogged down the Allied advance. The physical location shoot is a great boon to this sequence as the location, art direction, and cinematography really sell the difficulty of the mission. After a decent climbing sequence (easily besting the scaling sequence in Guns of Navarone) there's a fantastic assault sequence on the German positions. The quality here is unusual as we get lots of wide shots, explosions, and great stunts punctuated throughout the sequence. There's even sprinkles of the violence that would become common in war films a couple of years later. Memorable stuff from a fairly unmemorable film.

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The Great Raid
35. “Battle for the Town of Ambleve” -Battle of the Bulge (1965)
- As the German panzers advance the U.S. digs in at the town of Ambleve and puts up a fight. The panzers line-up outside the city and exchange artillery fire in grand and convincing visuals. After waiting out the night, the panzers advance in the morning and we get some decent close quarters action that forces the U.S. to retreat. It’s not overly great stuff, but its all practical, there’s a lot being destroyed, and there’s genuine explosions happening. It’s passes the bar for infantry work and war spectacle.

34. “Finale: Bank Heist in a Nazi Guarded French Town” -Kelly’s Heroes (1970)
- This is an almost great action sequence – as it ends just when you get the feeling this is going to be great. The film is patient in cleverly setting up the ambush machine gun spots around a French town and then a decent execution of the ambush. When the first Tiger tank is taken out, you get the feeling you are in for a good game of cat and mouse for the last two tanks. Ultimately though, the second Tiger just kind of gets stuck and the third Tiger surrenders. The scene lacks a third act that could have launched it into classic status.

33. “Taking Over U-571 & Destroying a U-Boat Attacker” -U-571 (2000)
- This is an engaging but pretty hard to believe submarine sequence that begins with a bit of special operations subterfuge (no pun intended) that sees the Americans pose as Germans to take over their U-Boat. After a successful raid, another U-Boat shows up and destroys the American sub, forcing the remaining Americans to crash dive and battle U-Boat to U-Boat. Somehow, the Americans figure out all the German systems, dive, and outduel the other U-Boat! That’s the ridiculous part. It all looks and sounds great though.

32. "Finale: Castle, Down the Cable Car, and to the Airfield" -Where Eagles Dare (1968)
- I almost didn't include this sequence as I wonder if its more just an action than a war sequence - but here it is. This sequence is essentially the entire third act of the film and includes and excellent and practical chase sequence to an airfield.

31. "Finale: Raid at Cabanatuan" -The Great Raid (2005)
- The titular raid of the film is immensely helped by the film's commitment to spending a lot of the film laying out the geography and the strategy of the action. The raid itself saw a unit of rangers perform a risky nighttime raid on a Japanese POW camp to rescue 500 American soldiers. Nearby and part of the action is a Japanese force of 1,000 or so held down by local Philippine resistance fighters. The battle explodes (in a nice sequence of suspense) in violence and plays out with clarity and intensity. I like how we see units adapt, interact, and execute their orders. In one nice sequence, a unit moves to counter a flanking Japanese squad and catches them in a crossfire in a riverbed. Solid stuff here.

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The Dam Busters - 1959
30. “Finale: Bombing Raids on German Dams” -The Dam Busters (1959) & "Finale" Bombing Raid on the Nazi Norway Site" -633 Squadron (1964)
- George Lucas loved The Dam Busters and used the finale sequence of highly risky raids using "bouncing bombs" on German dams as his inspiration for the finale of the original Star Wars (think the trench run and getting a shot within a small open target).  Five years after The Dam Busters would come a similar finale - a bombing run on a highly specialized site only this time it is set in a Norwegian fjord and the object is to take down a mountain to have it destroy a vital factory below. Each sequence relies heavily on miniatures, mixed with some real footage and studio mockups of the cockpits. I prefer the editing in 633 Squadron but these are engaging, effective, and influential aerial sequences worth watching even if the effects are now a bit dated and distracting.

29. The Band of Brothers (2001) Standard Action Sequence: 
  • “Hedgerow War: Easy Saved by Shermans” -Band of Brothers: Episode 3
  • “Market Garden: Easy is Pushed Back by German Armor” -Band of Brothers: Episode 4
  • “Catching Two German Companies Off Guard” -Band of Brothers: Episode 5
- To my mind, Band of Brothers is one of the finest pieces of art about war ever created. You'll see a couple sequences from the series place higher on this list, but this spot is reserved for what I would call the traditional Band of Brothers sequence. I wont' get into the details of each of the three battles above, but what is common to them is the following: commitment to high production values, the basic Saving Private Ryan aesthetic of intense but clear action, commitment to showing tactics, diversity of action on display, and finally some kind of unique theme for each sequence. For instance, the hedgerow war is the first time we get a basic line vs line battle and the threat of armor. The dramatic theme is the first time we analyze a battle from the perspective of a reluctant participant - in this case the soldier Blythe. In the Market Garden sequence, is a small farm town with armor and the theme is dealing with their first major defeat/retreat. The episode 5 sequence is framed as the commander Winters writing an after-action report and thinking about the battle. We see Winters strategically plan another well-designed assault at night and in the morning recognizes they must rush the Germans or be flanked. In the morning rush, Winters gets ahead of his company and catches the Germans by surprise – taking them out one by one until his company catches up and it becomes a turkey shoot. This is less about dynamic action and more about strategy, leadership, and the conscience that weighs after. 

28. “Finale: Last Round with the Grey Wolf and a Surprise” -Greyhound (2020)
- The film Greyhound covers a couple day period where a group of German subs harass and attack a convoy. This sequence is the final showdown with the remaining German subs and it features the tactical evasion of torpedoes, a face to face rush down, and welcome air support saving the day from a surprise participant. Strong production values make this one of the best naval sequences you will find.

27. “Landing on the Beaches of Iwo Jima” -Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)
- 1949's Sands of Iwo Jima depicts two famous battles involving amphibious landings: Tarawa and Iwo Jima. This battle portrays the landing on the beach, establishing cover fire, and the taking of a Japanese pillbox. The scale here is a bit larger than Tarawa and I think it just comes off a bit grander than its similar counterpart. This is probably one of the best sequences of the “old guard” war films: jingoistic, spliced with real war footage, and Hollywood stars playing serious heroes.

26. “Japanese Charge to Retake the Ridge” -Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Hacksaw Ridge depicts a battle in the Okinawa campaign and this sequence comes after Hacksaw Ridge was occupied at great cost to the Americans. The Japanese charge the soldiers in the morning forcing a retreat, but it’s a tactical retreat. The charging Japanese forces feel intimidating and overwhelming. The sense of fear they produce is palpable and the retreat is sensible and shown in stages. Well done, but like much of the movie – it’s a little over the top for my tastes. I'll explain that a bit more in my explanation of a top ten scene later.

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Stalingrad - 1993
25. "Finale: Taking Out Tobruk's Guns & Oil Supplies" -Tobruk (1967)
- North African films continued to surprise me (except for 1944's Rats of Tobruk, don't watch it), as the action finale for this one is surprisingly large-scale and practical. It begins with an assault on a cliff side concrete naval gun bunker by a group of English and Jewish commandoes. Germans counter-attack with a column of tanks pinning the commandoes on the beach. After a flanking move with flamethrowers (what a phrase!) a group gets off the beach, commandeers a tank and takes out the oil supplies in a fiery explosion. This is inspired by a true story, with the exception that the true story actually failed. In Hollywood though, no problem making it successful!

24. “Hold the Line: Snow Infantry Take Out a Tank Advance” -Stalingrad (1993)
- A small group of German infantry are dug into the snow outside of the city of Stalingrad, holed up in their foxholes, and looking to hold the line against the Russian advance that includes several tanks. Incredibly, despite their fear and ragtag nature, they manufacture ways to disrupt the tanks (special bombs and an anti-tank cannon help) and a couple machine gun nests wrap up any other Soviet infantry.

23. “Finale: Showdown with the Germans in the Church" -Anthropoid (2016)
- This sequence comprises the final 20 minutes or so of the film and sees Reinhard Heydrich’s (a Nazi leader in Hitler's inner-circle) 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. The sequence is given a lot of time and detail, it’s clear the director wanted the viewer to remember this moment, but there’s a few moments where soldiers just kinda run directly into the fire of the assassins – it’s really dumb on behalf of the soldiers and does bring an otherwise strong war/action sequence down. The final half sees the assassins holed up in the basement try and resist. This is played less for action and more for the tragedy.

22. “Finale: Holding a Town in Alsace from a German Squad” -Days of Glory (2006)
- A small squad of French North African infantry attempt to hold a small town in Alsace, France against a larger German squad. This is a strong infantry sequence in the vein of Band of Brothers - well shot, emotional, and visceral.

21. “Battle for the Harbor and Casino of Ouistreham” -The Longest Day (1963)
- What a missed opportunity here! This standalone action scene from the early 60's epic is graced with an impressive one take crane/copter shot that gives an incredibly satisfying sense of scale, geography, and strategy to this battle. The back and forth between the Allies and Germans is clear, real obstacles are encountered, and the destruction is impactful. Unfortunately, what could be an all-time sequence is hampered by the simplistic conclusion. One man runs off “to get tank support” and a minute later arrives with a tank to blow up the guarded casino. If a tank was sitting there just off screen, why did they not use it to start? If they were okay with blowing up the casino, why didn’t they lead with the tank in the first place? It doesn’t make any sense even if the moment feels really good. Additionally, I wish the battle felt more integrated into the larger D-Day story as I don’t really know the importance of this town or this spot.

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A Bridge Too Far - 1977
20. “French Forces Take an Italian Mountain with High Casualties” -Days of Glory (2006)
- The newly recruited indigenous North African soldiers are put to the test in their first major engagement in the war. They are to frontally assault a mountain held by Germans. It’s a large scale assault and German mortars and machine guns make it difficult - producing high numbers of casualties. It is revealed that the commanding officers are using the indigenous troops as cannon fodder to reveal strongly held German positions and then shelling them with their own artillery. It’s an effective sequence depicting the precarious trust between your commanding officers and your duty as a soldier amidst the shock, fear, and horrors of battle.

19. “Battle of Britain - Round 1: Radar & Airfields vs. Fighters” -The Battle of Britain (1969)
- Handsomely staged with real planes and location work, this aerial sequence looks good and gets across the facts of the first round of the Battle of Britain. The aerial fights are coherent but a bit static: shot of German plane, shot of British plane and sound of shooting, German plane explodes. The damage feels a bit restrained compared to other strong aerial sequences because the aerial fights lack strong tracer bullets. Hard to differ from a static formula when you can’t show the bullet traces and see it being shot and its effect in the same sequence.

18. “Finale: One Sherman vs SS Batallion at the Crossroads” -Fury (2014)
- This is a hard scene for me to rate. It’s a “last stand” sequence where a single U.S. tank looks to do as much damage to an SS battalion as possible before they are killed. The atmosphere hangs heavy with doom, the visuals do a great job conveying the furious fight, and the scene is very effective. I mean, unless you have anti-tank equipment, how do you take out a tank with basic guns? Even if you are a battalion strong? It’s all great stuff with the high visual standards of the rest of the action in the film, but it goes on for far too long in my opinion. It goes on so long (there are like four phases to this fight), they are so successful, and key characters get such slow and dramatic deaths, that it all begins to feel a bit too Hollywood. It’s one of those odd situations where because it’s not “based on a true story” it’s not very believable. I shorter sequence would have been more effective.

17. “Recruits Cross the River and Into the Battle of Stalingrad” -Enemy at the Gates (2001)
- Does a great job of introducing you to the oppressiveness of the battle of Stalingrad – it’s hell just getting across a river and to the city as they get strafed and bombed while in transport boats. Once in the city, they don’t even have enough guns and are forced to pick up the guns off their dead comrade. After a failed attack, a single soldier takes out a small German crew with just a few shots. Its accuracy is not great, but in conveying the "feel" of Stalingrad and the perilous nature the Soviets were in, this is excellent stuff.

16. “Starting Market Garden: Allied Corps Punch a Hole Down the Road” -A Bridge Too Far (1977)
- A great bombastic beginning to Operation Market Garden as the Allied Corps need to begin down a road to meet up with the soldiers parachuted behind enemy lines. The sequence begins by depicting the Allies shelling a German line at large scale – a fantastic demonstration of a “Creeping Barrage”. You can feel the intensity. The Allies advance and encounter German resistance that packs a nice little punch. The Allied counterpunch, concluded with air support, is strong enough to force a surrender. It’s not long, but it’s very well shot, clear in what is happening, and feels grounded and realistic. I love that you can already see some of the hubris and folly of the operation contained within this small sequence. The big bombardment to open is effective, but the Germans get right back to it after the shelling. Once one Allied tank is disabled in the roadway, the entire column is stalled and slowed. A microcosm of what was to come in the entire operation.

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Battle of Britain - 1969
15. “D-Day: Jumping Behind Enemy Lines” -Band of Brothers: Episode 2 – Day of Days
- What would it have been like to parachute behind enemy lines the night before D-day? All the high production values of the Band of Brothers series are applied to this question. Even in this early time of CGI, the visuals are solid here. You really feel the anticipation and fear of jumping right into the thick of things – the flak, the planes on fire, soldiers getting hit while waiting, and just waiting for the green light to drop. It’s top notch stuff here.

14. “Battle of El Guettar” -Patton (1970)
- This sequence is told primarily from a general’s viewpoint (Patton’s to be exact). The scale of this desert battle is vast and the cast of soldiers and numbers of tanks on display are large. On a practical level, this is one of the largest recreations I’ve ever seen. Mostly told in wide shots of a desert valley, we see the large volleys from artillery and tanks in one shot and their destructive power in the next. Patton’s army take the Germans by surprise and this largely turns into a rout. Beyond that, we don’t sense any give and take or really feel the intensity from a soldier’s level. It feels a bit distant and disconnected, but large and grand – that is probably intended. The impression given here is that Patton, using lucky intelligence, planned an ambush and it largely played out as a rout. I like Patton’s punctuation at the end of the scene, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!”

13. “Assault on Carentan” -Band of Brothers: Episode 3 – Carentan (2001)
- Easy Company is given the task of securing the town of Carentan. Outside of the major actions like storming the beaches of Iwo Jima, this has to be one of the finest World War II town assaults I’ve ever seen. The German positions are presented clearly, presenting obstacles to Easy who must work together to flank the main obstacles. The highlight here is the camerawork – highlighting the tasks of clearing machine guns and clearing individual houses. The cinematography here is very layered, often putting soldiers in the foreground behind a corner, with a second and third layer of action behind them. It’s short and mostly inconsequential, but if it was paired with something like the town tank clearing sequence from Fury – it would be top ten quality.

12. “Final German & American Tank Battle for the Fuel Depot” -Battle of the Bulge (1965)
- Topping the Battle of El Guettar, I think this is the largest scale tank battle of any film I’ve seen. It seems clear that this is the sequence the producers of the film were geared up to make as they poured a lot of time and energy into getting a lot of practical tanks onto the screen at once. In a fairly open field of battle (which is not quite how I remember the Battle of the Bulge), the advancing German panzers face off against the American reserve tanks for the spoils of a fuel depot. It’s quite a spectacle and I like following a few of the commanders to get an “inside” view of the strategy and feeling of the men. There are a couple phases to this battle, some nice explosions, but it does still end up feeling a bit chaotic and redundant.

11. “Finale: Waves of Fights Turn into a Scored Montage of Death” -The Battle of Britain (1969)
- The final twenty or so minutes of the film features a couple waves of aerial battles that are just as well done as the first action scene wave, using real planes, locations, and even crashes. What sets this sequence apart from the earlier one on the list is that it eventually loses all diagetic sound and is essentially just musical score as we get a montage of death and destruction. At first I didn’t notice what they were trying to accomplish – I mean as hard as they tried, those aerial battles tend to blend after a while. Once you catch on though, it becomes a kinetic sequence that draws you in and gives you a gut punch of reality. The second best practical aerial sequence on the list.


10. THE AERIAL STANDARD
“Battle of Anzio: Dogfights Lead to an Airfield Attack” -Red Tails (2012)
- Red Tails is not a great film, but it was the first to feature CGI WWII aerial battles that were essentially as photorealistic as doing it practically. This sequence features an African American squadron getting their first chance at fighting German planes as air support for the Battle of Anzio landings in Italy. The Red Tail squadron first dogfights with a squad of Germans and then follows a crippled German plane back to their airbase and destroy it. The banter/dialogue is cheesy (a weakness of the entire film), but the presentation of the aerial action is top notch. The photoreal CGI work is combined with enough practical cockpit shots and real airfield explosions that this looks just as good as the real battle footage. This is my favorite WWII aerial sequence over the European theater. 


9. THE OLD SCHOOL GEM
“Siege of Tobruk: Opening Tank & Infantry Skirmish” -The Desert Rats (1953)
- This was my favorite find of my World War II research. Coming near the opening of The Desert Rats, this war sequence plays out better than the finales of most war films. There’s care and attention paid to bringing the audience into the geography of the battle & the overall defensive strategy of the North Afircan city of Tobruk before we jump into the front lines. This is done primarily through commander briefings that are for the viewer's sake as much as the participants. We witness short preparations and then a sandstorm rolls in with the German army behind it. There’s tension as the Germans feign taking a different rout, but ultimately, they go right into the Allied defense stragey, who wait until the last second before opening fire. There’s quite a lot of mayhem with actual war footage mixed in with the film battlefield footage. Eventually, we focus in on Richard Burton’s section (playing a British commander) of men who maneuver on some infantry and end up having to take on a tank on their own. There’s even time for Burton’s character and a subplot about a court-martial for disobeying orders to take place. For its time, this is one of the clearest action sequences that retains scope, intensity, without sacrificing any drama or character. It's easily the gem of old school war sequences.

8. WAR IS HELL
“Battle of Peleliu, Iwo Jima, & Okinawa” -The Pacific: Episode 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 
- Comping almost a decade after Band of Brothers, The Pacific looks to tell the story of the American Pacific Campaign of World War II. The problem is that Band of Brothers was iconic - and already told great tales of leadership, courage, and heroism. How could The Pacific differentiate itself? The one area that Band of Brothers covered but did not dwell upon fully, 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 Brand of Brothers by stripping the battle scenes of tactical stories, obvious shows of heroism, and comradeship. In its place, The Pacific crafted sequences that drive home to the viewer that this campaign is a nasty business that changed it's participants forever. In the depiction of the Battle of Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, the high production standards are still there, but the frames are more claustrophic, with epic scenery almost always in blue 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 typical heroism (outside of John Basilone on Iwo), there is little technical prowess or tactical excellence, there is only suffering and death. In that sense, it doesn’t feel like “war action” it feels like more like intense “war horror” for an extended period of time. By the time the Battle for Okinawa has completed, this kind of sequence becomes overwhelming - there's no comic relief or typical redemption. It's harder to watch as a viewer because it's not as entertaining or fun as other sequence, but I greatly appreciate the goal here. We need to be reminded that war is hell and war takes from everyone involved.  

7. THE TANK EXPERIENCE
“Tank Assault to Rescue Pinned Down Platoon” -Fury (2014)
“Three Shermans are Ambushed by a Tiger Tank” -Fury (2014)
- 2014's Fury is the best tank centered movie I've ever seen. I've included two sequences in this spot because I have a hard time separating them, their qualities are so similar. The first tank sequence is the first in the movie and it introduces the audience and Logan Lerman’s new recruit to tank warfare. Wow does this sequence nail the anticipation of violence soldiers must feel! Despite its relatively small scale it packs quite a punch. The tank assault is nearly all practical and it’s a very simple layout – four tanks with infantry columns relieve soldiers pinned down by German machine guns and anti-tank guns. Pitt shines here as he leads the tank division, calling out orders and seeing threats. The sound design is great: mixing orders, tank noises, guns, and score. Visually, everything is clear, the bullet tracers are dynamic (if used a bit too much), and it alternates between scale and intimate horror. Emotionally, the horror of the cold-blooded nature it takes to be successful comes through clearly. As an “action” war scene, there really is no give and take here. The Germans miss everything they fire, no one gets harmed, and plans change. 

In the second sequence a Tiger tank ambushes a column of four Sherman tanks as they are traveling to a crossroads. We get a well-laid out tactical fight between them as the Tiger takes the hits and picks them off one by one. It ends with a nice circling showdown. It’s a strong sequence. The improvement in these two scenes that isn't in any other tank movies is in the realism of a being a tank squad in battle– how they interact, work with each other, and their back and forth chatter - with contemporary production values. The mix of strategy, practical, CG, music, chatter, battle sounds here is second to none when it comes to tank warfare.

6. THE LEADERSIP TEMPLATE
“Easy Company Assaults a German Battery at Brecourt Manor” -Band of Brothers: Episode 2 – Day of Days
- When I think of an action scene from Band of Brothers, this is the one that I think of. This entire episode, covering some of the actions of Easy Company during the D-Day landing, is a showcase for Dick Winters as a combat leader of men. Winters is notified his company is to assault a fixed battery of four German guns. From that command on, we see Winters take charge, and lead men to accomplish the goal. He gathers his company, explains the mission (helping the audience also get some geography on the matter), and assigns each man with confidence to a role. The execution of the scene plays this out well with an intense mix of chaotic but clear camerawork. All along the way, Winters steps in, adapts, leads, encourages, warns, etc. No one is a superhero, no one is a Hollywood stereotype, he’s just confidently analyzing the combat scene and doing what has to be done. At the end, another officer arrives and asks for his company to take over the assault. In a bit of glory seeking mistake, he leads the men out of the trench to capture the gun, leading to casualties. The contrast is clear – good leadership makes a big difference. War puts asks of men impossible tasks – leadership can maximize the good or maximize the evil. War is hell – but sometimes the lesser evil – and we need men like Winters lead it. It is exactly the kind of portrayal that The Pacific was trying to balance. Yes, there are men like Winters in battle, but often there are not. Taken together, I think we have a much better view of war.

5. THE NAVAL MASTERPIECES
“Battle of Midway: Dive Bombers vs. Carriers” -Midway (2019) 
“Greyhound & Dicky Take on a U-Boat Together” -Greyhound (2020)
- Taken together, these two sequences give the viewer an excellent understanding of the major conflicts in the naval theater - both Atlantic and Pacific. The final third of 2019's Midway is a collection of sequences covering the Battle of Midway. If you can put aside the cheesy drama and character portrayals in the run-up to the battle, 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. Its too bad this sequence wasn’t in a better movie!

The following year saw the release of Greyhound. The film stars Tom Hanks as he commands a naval convoy heading through the Atlantic Ocean to England. The sequence on the list 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.

4. THE AMPHIBIOUS OVERVIEWS
“Taking the Beaches of Iwo Jima” -Flags of Our Fathers (2006) 
“D-Day Landings Across Normandy” -The Longest Day (1963)
- For post #4, I have chosen to combine two sequences that share a similar goal: the overview of a major amphibious landing in the war. The goal and best quality of these sequences are in their "survey" aspect and nature. They are not interested in dwelling on a single aspect like the horror of war, or the bonds of fellowship, or whatever. Instead, their major focus is simply showing you the battle from as many fronts as possible. Clint Eastwood's 2006 film 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. When it comes to dramatics, personalities, or moral lessons – the sequence is lacking compared to it’s peers. On a more practical level, the sequence feels like it lacks a true ending as we know the goal is to ultimately take Mount Suribachi. Well, that’s great, but for this 12 minute action sequence, it just feels like it goes on until the editors decide to take a major break and shift focus to another time.

The ambition of 1963's The Longest Day covering the D-Day landings is admirable and the scale of the practical production is awe-inspiring. If it hadn’t been for a movie that will come later on this list and the addition of an intense visceral element to war scenes, then this would likely stand as the definitive action take on the D-Day landings. Alongside epic shots from A Bridge Too Far, Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Battle of Britain, and The Battle of the Bulge, the flying camera shots over the D-Day beach invasions are the most impressive large scale war sequence in pre-CGI war cinema. I like how the sequence attempts to cover multiple beach landings, showing the varying levels of difficulty at each. In addition to the beach landings, the climbing sequence at Ponte De Huc is a standout sequence that would be a classic with a few modern additions to punch it up. If you are looking for a survey of what it was like to make epic amphibious landings, without a lot of editorializing or lessons, then these are the action sequences you want to seek out.

3. THE THEMATIC BLOODBATHS
“Guadalcanal: Battle for Hill 210” -The Thin Red Line (1998) 
“Assaulting Hacksaw Ridge: Bunker to Bunker” -Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
- In contrast to the distanced observer nature of Longest Day and Flags of Our Fathers action sequences are these two sequences that recreate major violent battles for a very particular purpose. In 1998, Terrance Malick released The Thin Red Line, his first film in decades, focused on the Battle of Guadalcanal. After a short first act, the film settles into a a 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 40 minute sequence is probably my favorite thing Mallick has ever done and the only time I've felt his tone-poem moments made a lot of sense. In The Thin Red Line, the only thing romanticized is nature, war is something unnatural, that corrupts and poisons. There isn’t any glory here, because to be at war is to be disconnected from nature. 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.

On the other hand, we have Mel Gibson's 2016 Hacksaw Ridge. The sequence 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 Pacific - it's grotesque and overwhelming. If Mallick's sequence argues that war is at natural conflict with who we are, it is corrupting of humanity, then Gibson's sequence argues that within the hell of war can be found roles that are redeeming.  One redemption is the pacifist Desmond Doss who won't fire a gun, but seeks to save as many on the battlefield as possible. 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 why the violence is so base and even extreme to the point of silliness at times - it allows Doss and his acts of heroic courage in battle to be put side by side as “good” and even romanticized. Who is ultimately right? I think they both have a point here and think they can be somewhat harmonized if one wanted to go that direction. However, taken together we can grasp a better understanding of war and the conflicts of World War II in particular.

2. THE HISTORICAL RECREATION
“Attack on Pearl Harbor” -Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
"Pearl Harbor Attack & Counterattack" -Pearl Harbor (2001)

- Tora! Tora! Tora! features the greatest large-scale World War II re-creation before the age of CGI. Taking up the nearly the entire second half of the film, the sequence 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.

1. THE MVP SEQUENCE
“D-Day Landing” -Saving Private Ryan (1998)
“Finale: Battle of Ramelle” -Saving Private Ryan (1998)
- I saw Saving Private Ryan in theaters as a young teenager and I was speechless. I had never experienced a film whose action was so engaging, but also so horrific and repulsive. I'm a bit of an oddity I think, but since my first viewing of the film, I've thought about the final action sequence, the Battle of Ramelle, just as much as I've thought about the D-Day landing. I've tried to separate them, but I can't. To me, each sequence is about as perfect as a "war" action sequence can get. All of the elements I've praised about the previous sequences are found here, balanced, and executed in excellence. Let me try to explain. 

The D-Day landing sequence on Omaha Beach is laid out in three distinct phases: 1) Hitting the Beach 2) The Machine Gun Nest 3) Mopping Up In Close Combat. Each phase highlights different aspects of war action and introduces us to new characters. The opening phase highlights the horror, folly, and chaos of war. When I think of the sequence, I can still hear the encouragement and orders of the officers, the sound of the waves, the engines of the Higgins boats, the mortars, and the constant machine gun fire. When the doors of those Higgins boats open and the soldiers struggle to clear the beach we are beyond the fear and experience the horror: death comes quickly, the suffering is grisly, and the violence is shocking and grotesque. There is a fine balance here of showing the geography and scale, while keeping it grounded from the soldier's eye view. This is largely accomplished with a heavy fog shrouding the German concrete bunkers and Spielberg choosing only to show the German machine gunners as silhouette. This gives the viewer their bearings, but keeps the feeling of chaos and mystery that we need to relate to Hanks and other soldiers as they struggle through the hell that the beaches have turned into. Hanks plays Captain Miller here and we experience the shock primarily through his eyes. This visceral cinematography is so good, it has essentially set the style of war films ever since. Finally, in this first phase of the battle we experience the folly/absurdity of war as well: a soldier with a typewriter to set up field operations, conflicting orders between officers, helping an injured soldier who is surely a goner while hell is still all around you. After the initial horror and shock of the beach, the men assemble, and through Captain Miller's leadership they begin to use their tactics to counter the killing field setup for them. They use Bangalore torpedoes to get through barbwire fences. In the second phase of the battle, their work as a squad under the leadership of Miller to lay covering fire and find defilade to overtake a machine gun nest and set up an exit to the beach. Finally, the group is brought into close combat, sometimes within feet, where prisoners are accidentally and purposefully shot, soldiers let Germans burn instead of killing them, and soldiers enjoy a turkey shoot. It's nastier (in a moral sense) than people give it credit. All throughout, we are introduced to a lot of characters: the medic Wade, the Bible verse quoting Jackson, the right hand man Horvath, the Jewish soldier Mellish, and the competent Captain Miller. Taken together it's a powerful experience that is able to encapsulate and highlight the inherent extremes of war: chaos and focused strategy, humanity and inhumanity, fear and courage, isolation and community. No one has pulled it off better...except for later in the movie when Spielberg equals his great opening feat.

The Battle of Ramelle is similarly laid out with three distinct phases: 1) Springing the Ambush/Stopping the Tanks 2) Adapting to the German Counterattack 3) Falling Back. Though, being the finale, instead of introducing us to new characters, we are able to witness the closing of character arcs during the action. Unlike D-day, which throws us into the chaos, our group gets the time to strategize and layout their defense. In this sense, the roles have reversed, the Americans are on defense and await the German invasion. Once the action begins we have snipers, machine guns nests, moving squads, sticky bombs, etc.. The sound design of the tanks approaching and wondering if they will take their strategized bait is incredible here. Will they take the bait? Will they be able to take out the tanks? Will Ryan stay alive? Is is even right to give this much for one man? Will the Corporal Upham give in to violence?  All questions that hover over this sequence. The actual action is shot just as well as the D-Day landing with clear maneuvering by both sides giving us some tactical education along with the visceral presentation of the gun fights and violence. The journey of Corporal Upham in particular, wavering between fear and courage is immensely relatable. The goal is clear – stop the Germans, save Ryan and blow the bridge at last resort. As we lose character after character and the first goal feels doomed, we genuinely wonder if the final two will be as well. 

I consider these MVP sequences because if I had only one sequence to show someone that embodies the best qualities of a World War II battle, either of these best capture it. War is hell and these sequences show it, but if there is anything truly redemptive to find in war, these sequences show it too. 


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