12. The Great Escape

Continuing the theme of WW2 films that don’t take place amidst the actual fighting, The Great Escape (from now on referred to as TGE) is the sweetheart of Christmas-time TV schedulers, allowing them to go home early without putting any real thought in their jobs over the holidays. That and Scrooged. I must be one of the few people to have not seen this film before, spending most previous Christmas holidays gluing pieces of metal to other pieces of metal or playing computer games.

Richard Attenborough down a hole. A caption competition beckons. Man I wish I had quicker wit. I bet I'll think of something funny in a couple of week's time.

Do I have to summarise the plot? I mean, surely just whistling that tune brings to mind all the storyline for you? OK then, basically the Germans have set up a swish new resort for the most hardcore serial escapees amongst the allied POWs. Putting all these bad eggs in one high-security basket, they hope this will efficiently allow them to keep a lid on things. Now I hate stereotypes, but how German is that? The counter to this is that it provides the multi-national inmates the resources and will to attempt an escape on a scale hitherto unheard of. It is the conception, preparation, carrying out and aftermath of this endeavour (based on a real-life event) that the film revolves around.

About as iconic as you can get, really.

There are plenty of characters, and in the tradition of war films from this time, there are many big names on the cast list. To be honest, I think that the entertainment comes from watching the plan take shape, and the tension building as the day of the escape approaches, rather than from seeing the development of any characters or individual plotlines. That’s fine by me; I think that films these days can try to do too much in this regard. I won’t criticise the performances- I just think that the film concentrates on the escape and asks the actors to facilitate this.

The friendship between these two characters (whose names I'm ashamed to say have escaped me) is a relatively rare bit of character development in TGE.

An enjoyable experience, that sees the event through to the end. If you haven’t seen this film yet, congratulations, you’ve been even more sheltered than I. It’s time to escape from your wicked uncle’s basement, and when you next have access to a television set I can guarantee that TGE will be on sooner or later.



11. Life is beautiful

After watching the pianist, I began to uncover a theme in my current batch of discs from Lovefilm. The premise for this film sounded very similar to my previous viewing experience, so I settled in for another heavy bout of misery. I could not have been more wrong.

An unlikely looking chap for the lead of a drama, the charisma of Guido Orefice (not pronounced "Orifice" I think) is enthusiastically portrayed by Roberto Benigni.

To be honest, Life is Beautiful defies easy description. Set in Italy (made in Italy by the looks of it), the film’s main protagonist is an irrepressibly cheerful man, one of those annoying types who makes friends wherever he goes. Gifted with a vivid imagination and no limit to his ambition, he spends the first part of the film setting up his dreams, from having decent hat to being with the woman he desires the most. And so the first half of the production plays out like a heart-warming comedy- for there are many laughs throughout.

Yes, that's our star in women's clothes in a concentration camp. A pretty good metaphor for the incongruity of his personality against the backdrop of the situation.

There follows a sudden jump in time; our main character and his wife now have a child and seem perfectly happy. However, to cut a long story short, the situation where they live gets progressively worse as the Fascist government asserts its influence, and they end up embarked to a concentration camp. At this point I was wondering where the film was going, because surely the characters couldn’t maintain any semblance of the happiness they felt before without the film going completely off the rails. But they do, and the film doesn’t suffer for it. In the face of adversity and the prospect of the industrial murder that could happen to any member of his family, the main character continues to produce moments that spark laughter for the audience. The ending of the film is very touching, although I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice to say I won’t forget him marching off.

The family together. The sentimentality of the film is combined with poignancy and pathos.

Again, a question as to why this is categorised as a war film, but a good drama and one of the most unusual productions I’ve seen.



10. The Pianist

Phew.  Well, can’t tell any jokes about this one.  Serious face.  Let me start by saying that this film is really, really well done.  Acting, mood, suspense, yep it’s all there.

Set before, during and after the setting up and clearance of the Warsaw Ghetto, the main character is brilliantly played by Adrien Brody.


I don’t know if it’s just me, but there were a couple of things that rubbed me up the wrong way on this one.  Portraying Germans in a bad light seemed to override portraying the struggles of the lead characters for much of the early film.  The Holocaust is not one of my favourite areas of study in history (I’d be worried if it was), but nonetheless I have never been of the opinion that maybe the Nazis weren’t all that bad.  Never once has the notion crossed my mind that “ah, well, perhaps it’s just an exaggeration, all that industrial murder and ideological genocide”.  But I got the impression that this film wanted to teach me a thing or two, and show me how it really happened, when in fact I already had no illusions and needed no preaching to on this subject.

A very powerful scene. I'm not sure whether or not we are supposed to feel sorry for the German officer at the end of the film. I mean, it's all very well to help one Jew out at the end, when you know you're about to lose. I bet he didn't save any earlier.

The second thing that puzzled me, and this really has no bearing on the quality of the film, was why is this in the top 100 War films?  Granted it’s set during a war, but I don’t count that as a qualification.  The poor soul who seems to be buffeted around throughout the film is not a participant in it, the only effect the war seems to have on his situation is when it ends and he’s granted freedom.  If I made a documentary about selling ice cream in modern Afghanistan, that wouldn’t make me a war documentarist.

Not only a gifted musician, our protagonist can entertain with Jazz Hands.

Overall a really powerful story, if somewhat depressing and heavy going.  One to watch if you fancy watching some great film-making, less a one for a party.

9/10 as a film.  As a war film, 2/10.


9. Stalingrad

Reading the short blurb on the packaging of this DVD, I have to admit to a certain degree of reluctance to watch this film.  It’s a German production about the German army in World War 2, with an emphasis on the conduct and points of view of the soldiers themselves- most significantly their transformation from proud ubermensch into broken remnants on the battlefields of the Russian front.  I figured this would translate into a kind of self-flagellation, a chance for a nation to whip itself whilst uttering “Oh I’ve been soooo naughty, I must be punished”- with a German accent.

An indicator as to the levity of the film.

Watching the film, I was gratified to find that it was not as apologetic as described.  It takes the same attitude as Saving Private Ryan towards the war- the soldiers’ motivations towards themselves and each other are more important than the overall campaign.  The battle scenes are gritty and uncompromising- as befits the Stalingrad setting, possibly the most bitter warfare ever in human history.  I didn’t feel attached to any of the characters, however- perhaps the obvious dubbing into English helped to divorce me from them to an extra degree.

I was pleased to see actual T34s being used in the battle scenes- not mock ups but the real deal.

Overall, a very well made account, however the subject matter inevitably makes the film heavy going.  If I hadn’t undertaken to review the top 100 war films, then I would probably never have seen Stalingrad, and it makes me glad to have taken up the challenge.



three Kings

When I received this one through the post from Lovefilm, I have to admit that I knew nothing at all about this film.  Not even which war it was set in.  Thus armed, I had the most enjoyable episode of confusion in this film tour so far.

After what begins with the feeling of an armed picnic, the American soldiers come into contact with the harsh reality of warfare.

Set during the Gulf War (the first one- the less morally unacceptable one), Three Kings takes place after the war was supposedly over and Kuwait liberated.  After a brief introduction it looked like I was just settling down to see a comedy, maybe laughing at the screwball japes of bored GI’s for a couple of hours.  Then it all went a bit Kelly’s Heroes, with a rogue expedition setting off into enemy territory to help itself to some gold that was stolen from it’s previous owners- in this case the Kuwaiti government by the Iraqis.  And then a dose of real life injected into the mix- reprisal attacks by the Iraqi army against civilians who rose up against Saddam Hussein.  An unexpected moral conundrum for those who hitherto were on a treasure hunt, and are now looked to for support.

Three Kings is shot in a variety of styles which seems to be as conflicting as the morals that the characters struggle with.  Action-packed shootouts lie on the same film reel as crazy acid-trip visual sequences.  The film does not beat about the bush, going straight for the historical jugular at several points, even if there an overly cosy ending.  Put it all together and it seems to work though.



7. Black Hawk Down

Right then, long time, no review.  Have watched several, just need to put ’em up here.  This is the last fim that not only appears in the top 100 War films list, but also in my personal collection.  Thank goodness for Lovefilm, eh?

I was looking forward to rewatching this one- for too long it had been languishing at the bottom of my DVD pile (see the second review entry on Troy for details of my archiving system).  This film brings us into what we call in wargaming circles the modern period- anything after World War 2.  Somalia is in the grip of a civil war that is butchering it’s civilian population.  The Americans are backing up the UN by attempting to apprehend the Warlord in charge of the capital, Mogadishu; the bulk of the film is based upon a real-life raid into the city.

The focus is always primarily on the americans and their viewpoint. I gather though that there were some Somalians in the city at the time of the raid.

I must have been rather impressionable when I first bought this film around 9 years ago.  This time around I quickly got kind of bored by the preliminary messing around, justifying America’s presence, clumsily establishing the characters and trying to establish a sense of urgency.  The scenes introducing the various soldiers is almost painful to watch- banter, calls home, boasting, discussions about their families- you can actually tell who is going to die and what their last words are going to be.

Where this film shines is in its realisation of the combat.  All of a sudden it becomes obvious where the budget to this film went.  So realistic is it that the actors actually look scared in the middle of it.  The pace doesn’t let up, and as the mission goes from bad to worse you can still get a rough idea as to what’s going on.

The need to protect crashed helicopters, or rather their occupants, becomes the main problem for the Americans after the raid starts.

Alas, during the course of the rest of the film, the earlier scenes come back to haunt the screen, as soldiers lay dead or dying.  The trouble is that if you didn’t buy into the cardboard cutout characters earlier, you really can’t care less if they die now.

Yes, we get it. Despite going through hell and back, the bond of brotherhood that these brave young men share will never be broken. Enlist now and fight for YOUR country.

The film is a two-hour advert for the US Army Rangers, who in real life were put in a situation they should not have been in, but have been given this lousy piece of film reel to commemorate those of them that died.




It’s now 1879 and the British Empire bestrides the globe.  Not content with giving people on every other continent reason to hate them, the British government has decided to make it’s presence felt in Africa.  In doing so, it has found that it’s colony in Natal borders the African equivalent of the Spartans: the Zulus.  Realising that continued expansion is threatened by the warrior civilisation, the British manoeuvre the Zulus into a war that they cannot win.

Lt Bromhead as 4,000 Zulus appear on the horizon: "Hang on a minute lads. I've got a great idea".

On 22 January 1879 a British column was engaged and destroyed at the battle of Isandlwana, and 4,000 Zulu reserves, denied glory in that victory, bear down upon the small British outpost at Rourke’s Drift, and it is this event which the film is based upon.  The defence of Rourke’s Drift is one of the most famous areas of British Army history, and this movie sought to honour the martial spirit of both sides.

"You're a big man, but you're out of shape. With me it's a full time job".

The film itself reeks classic, and as such has become a fixture on the Christmas programming list for planners wanting to set something running and go home early.  Probably.  Great acting across the board, but one has to mention Michael Caine’s signiature performance as young Lt. Bromhead (who in real life was much older).  The battle scenes set the pulse raising, as if the phrase “At one hundred yards! Volley fire, present! Aim! Fire!”  is somehow ingrained into the national psyche.  The frenetic close quarters fighting, rehearsed in detail by the cast, really looks authentically dangerous.

Desperate defence

Overall, a gripping tale of a clash of cultures, of defiance against staggering odds, and the practical application of a stiff upper lip.