I promise – it wasn’t my plan to have seven of the ten films on this portion of the list focus on World War II. But, if we look back at the biggest international conflicts of all time, World War II is the one that provides the most opportunity. It’s a chance for a number of different countries to look at the same war from different perspectives. In this portion alone, there’s a French film, a German film, a Hungarian film, a couple British/American films, and a few American films – all about varied aspects of World War II.
40. The Killing Fields (1984)
Directed by: Roland Joffé
Conflict: Cambodian Civil War
For all the films made about World War II and larger scale conflicts, the few that depict smaller, more concentrated ones are sometimes more effective. Roland Joffé’s 1984 drama The Killing Fields hones in on Cambodia, right in the middle of a battle with communist Khmer Rouge. The civil war is a byproduct of the Vietnam War – here, we look at the relationship between a Cambodian photographer named Dith Pran (Oscar winner Haing S. Ngor) and an American journalist named Sydney (Sam Waterston), who are taking photos of the execution of two military operatives. They find themselves arrested and, while Sydney will have no issues if he decides to leave, it’s not as easy for Pran, as the communist powers close in. That doesn’t deter Pran, who works with the American forces to send his family away, but agrees to stay in Cambodia with Sydney. Sydney eventually leaves (thanks to Pran), but, upon returning to the U.S., starts his own personal mission to locate Pran and remove him from the bloodshed. Joffé’s film is eye-opening – a rare look inside a part of the world with which the general public is less familiar. All the more engaging is the fact that the story is based in reality and the horrors aren’t imagined. Joffé never achieved this level of quality again, but his work here is exemplary.
39. Jarhead (2005)
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Conflict: Operation Desert Storm
It’s not exactly an antiwar film: it doesn’t celebrate war. Sam Mendes adapted Anthony Swofford’s 2003 memoir in 2005, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Swofford. Jarhead takes place during the first Gulf War, following Swofford through training and eventually to the oil fields of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. And that’s it. What results is Swofford, his roommate Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), and the other marines in this camp as they just kind of sit around. They are all thirsty for combat, but all they can do is wait, guard the oil fields, and try to keep from going crazy. Less about the dedication to the armed forces than it is about the paranoia soldiers have about their home lives, it gave a nice platform for Gyllenhaal to show off his acting chops and provided the world with a Marine-focused trademark phrase (Staff Sergeant Sykes’ “oo-ra”, delivered by Jamie Foxx as Sykes). After Mendes’ Oscar juggernaut American Beauty blew up in 1999, he found himself shifting to various other topics, from the less successful gangster/father-son film Road to Perdition, then to this. They all focus on the way our inner demons drive our responses during the various situation in which we find ourselves, but Mendes never found the same success as Beauty until he became the chosen one to helm the latest James Bond set of films, starting with Skyfall.
38. Army of Shadows (1969)
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville
Conflict: World War II
The first World War II film in this portion of the list, Army of Shadows is Jean-Pierre Melville’s semi-adaptation of Joseph Kessel’s 1943 book of the same name. The film was actually criticized heavily in its first release in 1969, with French critics latching onto its perceived support of Charles de Gaulle. As a result, it was basically shelved for 40 years, until it was restored in the mid-90’s and re-released in 2006, where American critics gave it glowing reviews. Army of Shadows centers on the head of a Resistance network named Philippe (Lino Ventura) who gets arrested, but subsequently escapes from a French prison camp. He begins working his way through Europe by submarine, to bars and farmhouses, assembling a team of fellow resistance members, eventually finding out how large the web of resistance within Europe is. Melville’s film is dark and gritty – it makes no effort to sugarcoat any aspect of the effort. Army of Shadows paints a truly realistic picture of what people in these metaphorical shadows were doing while trying to escape Adolf Hitler’s growing fascist Nazi regime. Not every army was a group of gun-toting foot soldiers.
Conflict: Battle of Mogadishu
It may be one of the more one-sided films on the list, which went to great lengths to vilify the Somalis in such a difficult time in their history. Based on the 1997 book by Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down is a detailed account of the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia, where United States military raided the area in an effort to capture warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. After the United Nations made an effort to help Somalia during their time of civil war and famine, Somali militia eventually declared war on the U.N. personnel, forcing the U.S. to send in troops to capture Aidid. What results is an action-filled, near real-time depiction of the event, which didn’t go according to plan. As the title card at the end explains, 19 American soldiers were killed; over 1,000 Somalis were. Black Hawk Down tried to take advantage of Josh Hartnett’s short-lived star power, Ridley Scott’s history with action films, and the production dollars of Jerry Bruckheimer and was at least moderately successful. The film grabbed two Oscars for Editing and Sound, as well as nominations for Cinematography and Director. But, in a post-Saving Private Ryan world, it wasn’t as popular with the general public. There was no heartwarming discussion; no downtime. Just soldiers trying to do their jobs, however unpopular it may have been.
36. Empire of the Sun (1987)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Conflict: World War II
Long before he contributed to Saving Private Ryan’s surprise Oscar loss at the hands of Shakespeare in Love (he was the screenwriter and won the Oscar), Tom Stoppard actually adapted J.G. Ballard’s novel for Steven Spielberg for make 1987’s Empire of the Sun. Starring a fresh-faced little kid named Christian Bale, this coming-of-age story revolves around Jim Graham (Bale), a boy who gets moved from wealthy living in Shanghai to living in a Japanese war camp during World War II. Originally slated as a project for director David Lean, Spielberg was attached to produce, but eventually shifted into the director’s chair. It’s really Spielberg’s first foray into the stories of World War II, which he has since become so interested in rehashing. Empire of the Sun, at its basic level, is a story of enlightenment and understanding, as a spoiled child goes from thinking nothing of the horrors of the world to being pushed full force into them. The film was the first major exposure of Bale to the world, landing the part thanks to Amy Irving, his co-star in the TV Movie Anastasia: The Mystery of Anne, who just so happened to be Spielberg’s wife at the time; in addition, Ballard felt that Bale actually resembled him at the age at which he based his semi-autobiographical novel. Beyond its release of Christian Bale to the world, Empire of the Sun is one of Spielberg’s more under-appreciated works and, despite going home empty-handed, tallied six Oscar nominations. Above all, it’s a touching portrait of growing up in a way no child should have to.
Conflict: World War II
Looking for the hands down, best portrayal of Adolf Hitler on film? Look no further than Bruno Ganz’s turn in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall (German: Der Untergang), which shows the final ten days of his reign over Nazi Germany in 1945. In the history of cinema, there are historical figures that are never portrayed in a positive light; Hitler is certainly one of these. While Downfall doesn’t turn him into a hero, it does create a three-dimensional character out him never really seen on film before then. Opposed to a stereotypical mad villain, it shows Hitler as a frustrated leader, realizing that his master plan is failing and his rule is nearing the end. We see him talking to advisors and soldiers, as he tries to figure out ways out of his doomed situation. He’s still the insane fascist we have all grown to hate, but he is also a living, breathing human being. As Roger Ebert said about the Hitler of Downfall, “Admiration I did not feel. Sympathy I felt in the sense that I would feel it for a rabid dog, while accepting that it must be destroyed.” Downfall was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, coming up empty handed. But, this unsettling, but surprisingly even-handed look at one of history biggest monsters is a rare and under seen cinematic feat.
Conflict: World War II
This film, based on Władysław Szpilman’s autobiographical book about surviving the Holocaust, was the frontrunner for Best Picture for most of the Oscar season, eventually losing out to Chicago. Though it didn’t take home the top award, it walked away with an Adapted Screenplay Oscar, a Best Actor award for Adrien Brody and a Best Director Oscar for the great Roman Polanski, still in Europe, avoiding American sentencing for unlawful sex with a minor 25 years earlier. Brody plays Szpilman, a Polish-Jewish pianist playing on the radio in Warsaw when the station is bombed by Nazi forces during their invasion of Poland. From there, it details his survival as his life increasingly gets worse and worse, from internment camp to slave laborer to eventually just being lost in the rubble of various Polish cities. Despite its surface appearance, The Pianist is less about perseverance and more about basic survival and luck. Władysław never does anything terribly heroic – he simply does what needs to be done and comes upon some very beneficial circumstances. It doesn’t make the film any less powerful and moving. Brody gives a master class in acting and Polanski’s approach to the story is harrowing, at best. Still, in a war that gives birth to quite a few gung ho, “victories over evil” style movies, it’s a welcome relief to see what happened long before the world powers stepped in and what it took ordinary people to survive.
33. The Guns of Navarone (1961)
Directed by: J. Lee Thompson
Conflict: World War II
A British-American action/adventure film directed by the man who, the following year, gave the world the original Cape Fear, The Guns of Navarone stars Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony Quinn as members of a British team sent to take down a German base that controls an important sea channel near the Greek island of Navarone. As German forces see the war slipping away, they begin pushing the neutral country of Turkey into joining their campaign. To do this, they capture a group of British soldiers, holding them on an island in the Aegean Sea with only one way out, which is guarded by two massive batteries alongside the island of Navarone. So, the military sends a group of soldier in on foot to meet with Greek military and try to disarm the guns, despite the danger of a spy being in their group. The film grabbed seven Oscar nominations, winning for Special Effects. The Guns of Navarone was part of a group of World War II adventures that premiered in the last 50’s and early 60’s (some of which are on this list) and, despite its adaptation from the Alistair MacLean novel of the same name, was rewritten significantly by producer and screenwriter Carl Foreman. Thompson’s film is certainly not the most recognized of that era of WWII films, but it stands on its own as a successful collaboration between British and American production companies. Besides, it almost killed David Niven, which almost forced the film to be cancelled. Thankfully, he pulled through.
32. From Here to Eternity (1953)
Directed by: Fred Zinnemann
Conflict: World War II
This is the movie that Pearl Harbor tried to be, but failed miserably to achieve (thank you Michael Bay). Based on James Jones’ novel of the same name, From Here to Eternity starred Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, and Frank Sinatra as three soldier stationed in Hawaii in the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Private Robert Prewitt (Clift) is transferred to Oahu and gets pressure to take part in amateur boxing, but refuses. Meanwhile, First Sergeant Warden (Lancaster) is preparing court martial papers and comes to blows with Prewitt, who only gets help from his friend and fellow Private Maggio (Frank Sinatra – Oscar-winning role). Meanwhile, Warden begins an affair with Captain Holmes’ (Philip Ober) wife Karen (Deborah Kerr), giving the world the famous embrace on the beach in the tide. It’s a soap opera leading up to the attack. That being said, it’s a delightful picture of how trivial the problems of these people were before they all had to band together in one way or another to fight a common enemy. In the end, whatever differences these men and women have may still bubble below the surface, but they’re all on the same side, whether they silently hate each other or not.
31. Come and See (1985)
Directed by: Elem Klimov
Conflict: World War II
It’s like an extended explanation of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, inflicted on a young Belarusian boy during World War II. Come and See is an incredibly dark Russian psychological thriller about boy who finds an old rifle and gets the itch to enlist in the Soviet army. He quickly learns that his camp is extremely underprepared and short on weaponry and manpower, seeing dozens of his people murdered by what feels like an unstoppable German army. While many films have shown young men “come of age” during warfare, Come and See not only shows a young man maturation during battle, but results in the loss of grip on reality and sanity. The lead performance from Aleksey Kravchenko is magnificent; director Elem Klimov’s epic battle to get the film made began in 1977, fighting with censors for the duration. Eventually, the only change he was forced to make was the name, which was originally “Kill Hitler.” The film was made in chronological order and we watch as Kravchenko dissipates on screen, thanks to a strict diet and incredible fatigue. There have been plenty of antiwar films. There have been plenty of naturalistic war films. But Come and See if a different animal – a shock-filled vehicle of death and degradation that is more art film than combat film.
— Joshua Gaul