Tuesday, December 9, 2014

War and Remembrance: Great 20th Century War Movies


I like movies. Granted, a lot of the movies I tend to favor are not "cool" these days. I reference movies in class a lot and last spring I had a class tell me that I needed to put together a movie list for them. I said if I did that, then they had to promise that they would watch some of them. They did and I did. How can you be 18 years old and not have seen the original Red Dawn or The Longest Day! What a travesty! I am a lot of things (mostly bad, but that goes without saying) but I am not a film critic. I also do not pretend to be a film critic in bars. It is far more fun to pretend to be a doctor! (j/k) When I watch movies it is kind of like when I read novels. I search for no deeper meaning. I just want a good story that will keep me entertained. And with movies, there is an added requirement. There can be no clowns in it as the surprise appearance of a clown on screen will necessitate my changing my drawers. So as I cast about for a fun topic to write about today, I decided I would write a little about my favorite war films relating to 20th Century conflicts. This is not a top ten list. I am merely talking about my favorites and why I like them. Feel free to add you own to my list. This is final exam week for me and so I am busy inputting grades and there is nothing better than having a good movie with some explosions in it while I am handling such important matters as the education of the leaders of tomorrow! So here are my favorite 20th Century war movies, in no particular order.

1. Das Boot

I challenge any of you to watch this film (the Director's Cut) on a big screen preferably with surround sound and not be drenched in sweat by the end of it. Your heart leaps with each shout of Alaaaaarrrrm! You may even find yourself craving a quick smoke too. This is, quite simply, a masterpiece. The whole story of the filming is a blog post in and of itself but I urge you to read up on the story of how the movie was filmed. It is based on a novel by a German war correspondent, portrayed in the movie by Lieutenant Werner. The novel was based on the actual experiences of the author though put in a fictionalized form. Read the book too. It is equally good. But nothing captures the claustrophobic feel of a German unterseeboot like this movie does. It is incredible. 

2. The Longest Day

Ah yes, the good old days of Hollywood movies with an all star cast! And yes, despite this movie featuring John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and Henry Fonda, I pick the still with the hot French girl. The German soldiers were so impressed that they allowed a hay wagon with escaped allied flyers hiding inside to pass by. All joking aside, what I remember the most about this movie is that my grandfather had it on VHS tape. I watched it probably a hundred times at his house as a kid. It opened up a dialogue between the two of us that involved his telling me about his own experiences. Since he was involved in the inflatable army which you can read about here, this was fun since otherwise my grandfather was a man of few words. My interest in this movie allowed me to have conversations with my grandfather that would have not been possible otherwise. This movie is done in an almost docu-drama style where you feel more like you are watching a documentary rather than an actual movie, but as it is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by the great writer Cornelius Ryan, this makes perfect sense. Yet another must watch! And it is currently available on Netflix so there is no excuse for not watching it. 

3. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

I really don't need to say anything else about this one. It speaks for itself. The 1930 one is the classic, not the John Boy Walton remake they did in the 70s. (At least I think it was the 70s.) Both the novel and the film are on the one hand, the greatest war movie/novel ever made and on the other hand the greatest antiwar novel/movie ever made. I heard a rumor that Hollywood was considering a remake. I have only this to say. Stop remaking every film over twenty years old. Have an original idea for a change you morons! You CANNOT remake a classic of this magnitude. So don't even try. Remarque wrote another novel called A Time to Love and a Time to Die which is set during World War Two. It was also made into a movie and if you can find it, definitely give it a watch. It is almost as good.

4. Dawn Patrol (1938)

previously wrote a post about this aviation classic. The story line is great and the aerial combat sequences were very well done for the time period. Today, in the era of CGI special effects, we forget that they once did things the old fashioned way and had to be much more creative. Of course, we also have the great tune Hurrah For the Next Man That Dies (though it does go by some other names too) that features prominently. Though aerial combat is often glamorized in the movies and sometimes in real life, but this movie stands as a tribute to men who braved all sorts of odds to give their lives (in often horrific ways) just as their counterparts in the infantry. 

5. Full Metal Jacket

Needy I say more, you slimy toed bucket of s#@&! I think this movie is every teenage boys favorite! Which is saying a lot since it does not have any nudity that I recall, though there is a scene with a clothed prostitute. The opening scene is worth watching alone. And yes, I have Gunny's opening monologue memorized. I may, or may not, have fantasized about doing it on the first day of class. But that would be at the top of the list of "Things That Will Get Me Fired." It really is a good movie though. I'm not a big Kubrick fan, but this film is excellent. I remember when it came out because they had a movie for it at Howard's Grocery Store in my hometown, but I don't remember anyone talking about it. I saw it for the first time when I was in junior high which is saying a lot since my mother's take on movies was that anything more than Shirley Temple was blasphemous. Though I think my dad is the one who let me rent it from Blockbuster. Do not under any circumstances watch this film if thou art offended by profanity as even an accomplished cusser as myself can learn from the R. Lee Ermey, a true Potentate of the Profane. Bishop of Blasphemy. King of Cursing. I could go on, but I'll spare you.

6. Piece of Cake (Miniseries)

Of all the books I have read in my life, Piece of Cake by Derek Robinson has had the biggest impact on me as a writer. I read it four times, once each year, that I was in high school. It is, quite simply, brilliant. Though it isn't one that very many people seem to know about, other than hardcore readers of military (and especially military aviation) fiction, it should be read by everyone with even a remote interest in World War Two or the Battle of Britain. As is often not the case, the miniseries here was just as good as the book. One of the things that makes the novel so good is all the back and forth between the pilots. The movie manages to capture most of the one liners, though you have to pay attention to get them all. If you've read the book, it follows the plot damn near to the word, so it certainly does not disappoint in that regard. Often when I enjoy a novel, I find myself disappointed in the screen version, but not here chaps. You can order it fairly cheap through Amazon. Do so. Then hop in the cockpit of your Hurricane, don your leather cap, pull down your goggles, and bag yourself some Jerry planes!

7. Der Untergang (The Downfall)

Want a visual depiction of the collapse of Berlin at the end of World War Two? Look no further than this film. Though most are familiar with it due to the numerous "Hitler Rant" parodies that have made their way across the internet (many of which are hilarious, by the way), the movie is also good. For the ultimate point of irony, a Jewish actor plays Hitler! I find that to be poetic justice in many ways. The story is based on the recollections of both Traudl Junge, one of Hitler's secretaries, and a few other accounts of those who survived the Nazi collapse. (Such as Soldat by Siegfried Knappe.) To see what goes on as a society collapses is interesting to say the least. Even with Russian artillery pounding the heart of the city, Hitler still orders fictitious armies into battle. And yes, he rants. In the interest of full disclosure though, I must also state that I think the actress who played Ms. Junge is incredibly hot. She made German sound like a romance language. (And that says a lot!!!)

8. Tora! Tora! Tora!

I am the first to admit that in my personal interests and writing interests I tend to focus more on Europe when I discuss World War Two than I do the Pacific. I do not know why, but that has always been where my primary interest lay. However, even a World War Two Europhile like myself can recognize a good movie about the Pacific Theater. And what better movie than one about the attack which started it all? This movie is particularly interesting since it shows the Japanese side as well as the American side in a way that was not all that common for the time period. This version of the attack on Pearl Harbor is much better than the overly sappy Pearl Harbor which came out several years ago. Tora! Tora! Tora! is like watching a documentary. I cannot speak with any authority on matters of accuracy, etc, but it is one hell of a film. The followup movie, Midway, is also good but only as an extension of Tora! Tora! Tora! You have to watch this one before you watch Midway. I believe it is currently available on Netflix as well, so no excuses or R. Lee Ermey will pay you a visit! 

9. Patton

"We're gonna grab onto him by the nose. And we're gonna kick him in the ass. We're gonna go through him like crap through a goose!" This is one of my all time favorites. Again, this is another one that I watched with my grandfather who got to meet Patton on a couple of occasions. (One involved hiding in a cabinet because he was out of uniform.....) My grandmother also had a brother who served in Patton's 3rd Army. He is truly one of our greatest battlefield commanders and deserving of the accolades that he often receives. This movie is a worthy monument to him although they did have to take liberties with some of the actual events to fit them into the movie. I don't see how anyone can go into this movie and not come out of it at least respecting, if not fearing, the man who Hitler called "The Crazy Cowboy General." Often the measure of a person is what their opponents think of them. Patton was the only general in the American Army whom the Germans were truly afraid of. I think that says it all. So watch this movie so you won't have to "shovel shit in Louisiana." 

10. Unsere Mutter, unsere vater (Generation War)

Friends, I implore you. If you have Netflix, drop everything you are doing, log in, and watch this IMMEDIATELY. If you do not have Netflix, drop everything you are doing, sign up for it, log in, and watch this IMMEDIATELY! You will not be sorry. This is quite simply the best war movie I believe I have ever seen. It is actually a three part series which aired on German television. Any student of World War Two needs to watch this film. If it weren't so long (about four and a half hours), I'd show it in class. Understand that it was quite controversial in Germany and the rest of Europe. There are a few reasons. First, it shows the Russian soldiers murdering wounded Germans soldiers and raping women. (All of which is a fact, and to be fair, it also shows some German atrocities too.) It shows a unit of Polish Partisans as being a little on the antisemitic side. While not all of them were, of course, some did have those views and thus the inclusion in the film is historically accurate. I read one review of the film when it aired on British television that kept referring to the main characters as Nazis. Obviously that writer missed the point of the movie. 

It is about the lives of five young people, all friends, caught up in events beyond their control. They are not ardent Nazis. Some are at least somewhat sympathetic to the Party but one is Jewish and another is executed by the Nazis. I'm wondering where said reviewer got their information? Russia Today news network? One German soldier said that he penned his memoirs because suffering is universal. That is certainly the case in this movie. I think people feel uncomfortable because they can't help but feel for these youths who are put through horrendous trials. And then you look at the uniform they are wearing and feel bad about feeling bad for them. I can't speak for the filmmakers, but perhaps that is what they were going for. This was billed as a German Band of Brothers, but that is not really true. You can't compare it to any film, really, as I do think it is a little unique. But seriously, you must watch this immediately. The combat sequences are some of the best captured on film. The hospital scenes are gut wrenching. You shiver along with the characters when the Russian winter sets in. You desperately hope they survive while you know that in all likelihood, they won't. It sucks you in and won't let you go. But if you only watch one more World War Two movie in your life, make it this one!

And it is a German movie, which means............................German girls! Jawohl! Seriously though, it is in German though on Netflix and DVD it is subtitled, not dubbed. If you have at least a basic knowledge of German, you can follow along pretty easily.

So there you have it, Dear Readers. These are my favorite war films. I expect all of you have your own, so feel free to comment either here or on The Historian Facebook page. If you have not "liked" my Facebook page yet, General Patton and Gunny Ermey command you to do it at once. And then you can watch Generation War.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who secretly wishes he could write and direct blockbuster World War Two movies. I'm afraid I'll have to settle for writing about them instead. Spielberg I aint. 

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