Archive for the 'World War 2' Category


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.



5. A Bridge Too Far

Right then, back to the blogging.  Have had a bit of a hiatus from the writing, but have still been doing the watching.  Something of an epic in my eyes, this film covers a World War 2 campaign and attempts to dramatise from the operational level down to the troops on the ground.

Who could look at this picture and say that war isn't fun?

The western front has progressed somewhat from the time of Saving Private Ryan, and the Germans are on the backfoot and trying to come to terms with a war on multiple fronts.  The Allies for their part are struggling with an ever-extending supply line, and frustrated by not being able to deliver the killing punch, Field Marshall Montgomery hatches a plan that would cripple the German war machine at a stroke.  Operation Market Garden, as this was called, has become one of the most famous campaigns of the war, and the subject of a friend of mine’s masters study, so I have heard not a little of the facts, theories and myths surrounding the battle.  To cut a long story short, it ended in an Allied defeat after the over-ambitious plan failed to account for various incidents of bad luck.  Of course, failing to account for the unexpected has been the downfall of many a battle plan in the past, so that’s not much of an excuse.

The fighting around Arnhem cemented the British Airbourne as one of the outstanding fighting units of the war. It's very British to lose in style.

The film ticks many of my boxes for an old-school war epic- extensive duration, lots of big name actors and the sort of shooting that makes war look like fun.  There are some gripes I have with the movie, though.  It appears that British High Command has a myopic view that the scheme can only end in success, and everyone else is convinced that it can only fail.  There’s a lot of judgements made that should only have come with the benefit of hindsight.  Some of the acting seems a bit wooden too.

Overall,  a great sunday afternoon film, although a hefty time investment.



3- Where Eagles Dare

My dad loves this film.  This was a Sunday late afternoon film when I was little, so as such I think I grew up with a sense of loathing for it, knowing that it would be school tomorrow.  Then I remember watching it once whilst at University, and realising how fantastic it is.  This was still so long ago now that when I saw that this was, quite deservedly, on ‘the list’, I relished the treat I had in store.

To summarise the plot, a handpicked team of (predominantly British) Allied specialists is dropped into German territory to effect the escape of a captured US General from the evil Nazis.  The US General has knowledge of the pending D-Day invasion plans, so the clock is ticking to rescue him before he breaks, and to top it all off he’s being held in an impregnable fortress.  As the mission begins, it becomes apparent that the Allied team has a saboteur within, working to kill off his fellows and foil the plan.

Being spies, the stars get to dress in the snazzy uniforms of the German Army. I'm sure this was a clever move on the part of the filmakers

There is so much to enjoy about this film.  It mixes the tension of a spy film with the action of a war film, and very well indeed.  Richard Burton (who I first ever heard as the narrator to the War of the Worlds) is brilliant as the consummate British spy, and lends his skills as a first-rate actor to a genre that sometimes doesn’t get the best.  Clint Eastwood does excellently as the cold, efficient killer from the American secret service.  Mary Ure portrays an excellent female character, a highly capable operative from a genre and time when ladies weren’t given particularly strong roles.  That said, many films these days show female characters as some unusual blend of cyborg and ninja, so another plus for this film is that the girls are simply as competent as the men.

The British are unflappable, the American shoots stuff (a lot), the Germans are flavourless and the Gestapo officer is sneaky and suspicious. All war-film stereotypes, but Where Eagles Dare stands out from the crowd.

Where Eagles Dare works on all levels for me- in visuals, sound, and story.  Everyone should watch it at least once.  A film over 40 years old that still carries itself as well as any modern offering I can think of.



1- Saving Private Ryan

Well then, may as well start with a good film to review to get me underway. 

The piece is set at the beginning of the greatest invasion in human history.  A massive undertaking that changed the balance of a war and turned a psychological corner on both sides.  Although the D-Day landing were still dwarfed in size by the sheer scale of the confrontation on the Eastern Front of World War 2 (where our glorious comrades already had the fascists on the back-foot), its failure could have resulted in anything.  The bulk of this film focuses in on one small group of men, and in particular on Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), from their tumultuous arrival on the beaches of Normandy through those tense early days after the beachead was made.

The D-Day landings. Saving Private Ryan starts with events at Omaha Beach

One thing about this film that stays with me as setting it slightly apart from the bulk of others is the way that the human side is handled.   By this I mean that usually the overriding plot arc places the military objective as the basis for a successful ending, and the personalities and goals of the protagonists are secondary twists to fill out characters and these can be sacrificed in order to fulfil the mission of blowing up the bridge, stealing the documents, or capturing the town.  In Saving Private Ryan, the human part is the objective, quite literally as Captain Miller is sent with a small team of the 2nd Rangers across a warzone to retrieve the last surviving son of a woman who has lost her other children to the war.  The moral question of risking the lives of several men to find and save one other is repeatedly raised, particularly as the inevitable attrition ocurrs and men who are obviously known by the Captain and his unit are killed.  I think that the way in which this is dealt with throughout the film is what keeps the audience’ attention.

As a war film, one should expect a decent review to comment on the action.  Well, there is plenty of it here- possibly one of the most famous opening scenes in film history.  Spielberg’s direction is amazing at capturing the terror and chaos of the combat.  The action, however, is not portrayed as to be enjoyed in a popcorn sense- this film makes no bones about the indiscriminate brutality and to have compromised on this would have done as great a diservice to those who actually fought in the war as it would to have shown them easily swatting aside the evil Nazis whilst cracking one-liners. 

The opening scene received praise from veterans of the beach landing for its accuracy.

Overall, this film was a critical and commercial success, and rightly so.  It comments on the value of life, even in the middle of the most brutal of conflicts.  The characters are succintly but poignantly portrayed by talent both established and new at the time, and a production team that truly new what it was doing.