WWII Film Guide: Fantasy Action - The Part-Time Critic

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

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


Introduction 
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 Top Shelf: Best in this category belongs to...
  • The Dirty Dozen (1967): 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. 

The Deep Dive: For those wanting a broader and richer journey...
  • Inglorious Basterds (2009): 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. 
  • Captain America: The First Avenger (2011): 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 (1965): A well-made POW film kicked up a notch with some great and clever train action. 


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-

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