A Comprehensive Guide to The Second World War Films – Part 3

The world seems to be obsessed with war. We see it or the idea of it everyday in the newspapers or on the news. One of the horsemen of the apocalypse is busy making people fight. And he was busy the most, at the time of the second world war. Being the bloodiest of them all, it was also the object of affection of historians, writers, filmmakers. Sometimes we look at the films which come from the film industry and think that if Adolf Hitler wouldn’t exist, what would filmmakers make a film about?

Second World War started by the occupation of Poland by Germany on September 1, 1939. And the European war front ended after Germany’s surrender on 8 May 1945 (Allied Forces conquered most of Europe). The Pacific War Front ended after Empire of Japan’s surrender on 2 September 1945 (Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). In six years, approximately 85 million people died, including the Holocaust of 6 million European Jews and the deaths resulting from the atomic bombs in Empire of Japan (about 250000 people). There were larger than life figures like Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin and their circles of people whose biographies were made into films.

This list in no particular order is intended to be a comprehensive guide to the Second World War films.

21. The Pianist (2002)

Credit: Focus Features

Wladyslaw Szpilman is a Jewish pianist in Warsaw. When Nazis occupied Poland, he and his family had to move to the Ghettos of Warsaw. The Ghetto life in Poland is really hard but at least he can still play his piano and live with his family. But when the Nazis take the people of ghettos to the concentration camps, he luckily manages to escape from their hands and started to live in the streets of deserted Warsaw. After working awhile for the Nazis again, he escapes from there too. Some of his old friends help him to hide from the Nazis for years. He is all alone and starts to lose his mind when he meets a Nazi Captain, he is sure that he will kill him. But to his surprise he helps him because of his talent, his beloved piano.

The question you ask yourself while watching Pianist is would you do the same, escaping and hiding all alone for years to survive or would you go to the camp with your family? In the end, we can see that maybe he was right, he was alive and well when the war was over. This is an unbelievably powerful story of a man who decided to survive no matter what and reaches his goal, too. Roman Polanski made us see that what wars can do to cities and people, showing the streets of Warsaw full of collapsed buildings. Adrien Brody won the best actor Oscar for his performance (with a very interesting acceptance speech!), while he suffers, you feel it in your heart. Thomas Kretschmann plays the Captain who helps him in the end, his story doesn’t go well for him either, he becomes a POW (Prisoner of War) and probably gets killed by the Russians. The director and the writer also won Academy Awards and Polanski also got the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

22. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)

Credit: Miramax Films

From the book by John Boyne, Mark Herman made a film about a Nazi Officer’s son and his friendship with a boy who is a prisoner in a concentration camp. There are no racial and religious discrimination in the eyes of the children and they are always right, putting adults to shame. When Bruno realize there is a concentration camp near their new house, he takes it as a farm, because he doesn’t have a clue about what a concentration camp is. Although the boy’s father was a high ranking officer, responsible for the camp, thankfully his mother is a more sensible person. Bruno doesn’t have a permission to leave the garden but he is determined to go to the farm and to make new friends.

Some day he finds a way for doing that and meets a boy with a strange name, Shmuel. Then a friendship begins even in these strange conditions. Until the ending, we  couldn’t realize the bad things going on there because just like Bruno we couldn’t see them. But when the inevitable happens, just like his family, we feel devastated. Bruno is played by Asa Butterfield, David Thewlis is Bruno’s father, Vera Farmiga is his mother and Rupert Friend is an evil Nazi, and they were all great.

23. Patton (1970)

Credit: 20th Century Fox

“I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country.”

Famous American General  George S. Patton’s biographic film is written by Francis Ford Coppola and directed by Frankin J. Schaffner. One of the actors I admire the most, George C. Scott portrayed him wonderfully and won an Oscar for his performance. Then a historic moment came and he became the first actor who refused to accept his Oscar because he  believed that each actor’s art is unique and not comparable to others. Patton was a colourful historical figure of American army, especially at the time of World War Two. The film starts to tell us his life story from North African front, about his rivalry with British General Montgomery, his friendship with General Bradley, his relationship with Ike, General Eisenhower and his respect and admiration for his famous foe, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.

He helps the Allied forces to overcome the greatest obstacle they have ever encountered in North Africa, the military genius of Rommel, the Desert Fox. With his great military thinking and his reckless behaviour and words, Patton  made a name for himself. He used to read a lot about the historical wars and that helped him for his strategies of war, so Germans became afraid of him. But he had also a very frank personality and didn’t care about politics in his relationships with other people and he started to lose his power among the Allied forces. He always believed he was destined to achieve some great things like conquering  Europe and ending the war  but life isn’t always what we expected it to be. Karl Malden is also in the cast as the five star general Omar Bradley. Eisenhower who was the Allied Supreme Commander In Chief was another general with five stars. Patton won 7 Oscars.

24. The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1951)

Credit: 20th Century Fox

Erwin Rommel is one of the most famous figures of WW2. He was a much loved  and respected German Field Marshal because of his military talent and his ethics of war. He was the People’s Marshal in Germany, everybody loved him. He was the commander of the Afrika Korps in the North African Front of the war, he won the respect of his enemies. He was given the nickname “Desert Fox” because of his successful attacks in the African deserts, as for the Arabs he was the “liberator” from British rule. Then he was stopped by the Allies at El Alamein in Egypt. After that he was sent to defend Normandy Beach, he used his clever tactics for defense but German Army failed miserably nonetheless.

He was disillusioned by Hitler’s talent for leadership and because of his probable participation in 20 July Plot, a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler, he was sentenced to death. But because of his importance in the eyes of German Nation he was “allowed” to commit suicide rather than getting killed by shooting. James Mason is very reserved and cool as Rommel and the film is important because It’s telling the story of a relatively unknown part of WWII history from a German General’s perspective although it uses a British Colonel as the narrator.

25. The Young Lions (1958)

Credit: 20th Century Fox

“The German army is invincible because it is an army that obeys orders. Any order. No matter how distasteful. It has no sentimentalists, no moralists, no individualists. You will have no future in it if you don’t understand that. You may have no future at all if you oppose it. I trouble to tell you this because you have a fine record. You will be a creative soldier, once you get all this ‘thinking’ knocked out of you.”

From Irwin Shaw’s novel, Edward Dmytryk directed The Young Lions, a war film that tells the story of three soldiers. A very blonde Marlon Brando (to make him look like an Aryan German I guess) plays a German soldier, while Montgomery Clift and Dean Martin play Americans. A very young Maximilian Schell also plays a Nazi. Three of my all time favorite actors (Brando, Clift and Schell) are in this film so I had to watch it more than once. And I have to say, this is a decent war drama, more focused on the effects of war on soldier’s psychologies then the action. I like its atmospheric soundtrack too.

26. The Longest Day (1962)

Credit: 20th Century Fox

“He’s dead. I’m crippled. You’re lost. Do you suppose it’s always like that? I mean war.”

A lengthy film that centers around D-Day – Operation Overlord, we can see the Allies and Germans’ points of view of the day. Hitler and his army waited the Allied forces from Calais whereas General Eisenhower decided to land on Normandy on 6 June 1944. The allied troops were tired of waiting but the weather was inconvenient for the landing for a long time. Then came the long awaited hour. From the coast and the air they started to attack the Germans who were surprised by this operation. Many soldiers died in the coast because of the German leader, Erwin Rommel’s deadly defense tactics. But the weather was very bad that day, so he thought that the invasion of Allies wasn’t possible and went to his home in Germany because it was the birthday of his wife. He was shocked when he learned the invasion had started. And the rest is history. Film cast is full of big Hollywood stars like John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Sean Connery and Robert Mitchum and the film had 2 Oscars.

27. A Bridge Too Far (1977)

Credit: United Artists

“Arnheim… auslöschen (Flatten Arnhem)”

A Bridge Too Far tells the story of Operation Market Garden, a failed attempt to secure the bridges that could take the Allies to Berlin. The 3 important bridges were Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem on the Dutch border of Germany. British General Montgomery planned the operation and sent thousands of paratroopers to complete the mission. But the Germans had the advantage and defended the Arnhem bridge well and the Operation Market Garden failed enormously. Historians say that, this probably caused the delay of the victory of Allies in Europe. Director Richard Attenborough made a film of this operation from William Goldman’s screenplay. The cast is star-studded, Dirk Bogarde, Sean Connery, Ryan O’Neal, Gene Hackman, Edward Fox, Michael Caine, Robert Redford, Anthony Hopkins, James Caan, Maximilian Schell, Liv Ullmann and Laurence Olivier. This must be the cast which every director dreams of. A Bridge Too Far tells the story of both sides, Allies and Germans alike and it’s a very realistic war film, a great film rewarded with 3 Baftas.

28. The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

In this very engaging and entertaining adventure film, we witness an American major gathering the criminals in a military prison and making real soldiers out of them to go to a house in Europe where high ranking Nazi officers relax and to kill as many Nazis as possible. Robert Aldrich is the director who has a good cast including Lee Marvin (he is born to play these kind of roles), Ernest Borgnine, Donald Sutherland and Charles Bronson. When I hear the name of this film, the term that comes to mind is “team spirit”, you can really feel it.

29. Saul Fia – Son of Saul (2015)

Credit: Mozinet

In this tragic Hungarian film, director  László Nemes shows us the mood of a Sonderkommando. A Sonderkommando is a Jewish camp prisoner who is forced to do the dirty works of Nazis in the camps like burying the bodies of dead Jews. Saul is one of them, he is too  quiet, he seems to have accepted the dire situation he is in. We usually see his face especially his eyes on the screen, this is an unusual decision by the cinematographer but it works for the film’s tense atmosphere. But his calmness and desire to survive runs out when he sees his son’s dead body. He is determined to bury him properly, according to his religion. While trying to do that, he enters a resistance group in the Sonderkommando. Soon things get more complicated for our main character. Son of Saul was the best foreign language film Oscar winner of 2016.

30. Talvisota – The Winter War (1989)

Credit: National-Filmi

“If it gets any colder we’ll need dynamite to break up the cheese.

 Let Russian artillery do it for us.” 

In 1939, at the beginning of WW2, there was a war called “The Winter War” between USSR and Finland. Stalin wanted a buffer territory in neutral Finland to use against Nazi Germany. When Finland didn’t agree with him, he sent his tanks and thousands of Soviet Troops to invade Finland. He thought it would be an easy victory for them. He was wrong. Finnish soldiers (mostly farmers) made it very hard for them to win this war. With their snow camouflage white suits in the deep forests of their country, they invented the anti-tank ammunition called “Molotov cocktail” which was named after Soviet foreign minister. Red Army’s seemingly invincible tanks became vulnerable against these new weapons with the help of their roadless forests. So Stalin had to make some reinforcements.

When the war was over, there were ten times more dead Soviets than Fins and they signed a peace treaty in 1940. Finland gave 11 percent of its land to the Soviets. The advantage of cold and snow for the Russians in Stalingrad against Nazi Germany was at first their disadvantage in Finland which they probably learned something from. Talvisota (meaning The Winter War) is a Finnish film that tells this war’s story from their eyes. It focuses on two brothers who were normally farmers joining the Finnish army and fighting against the Red Army. The film is directed by Finnish Pekka Parikka and lasts about 3 hours, full of moments of realistic horrors of war. And even in these harsh circumstances, a stray cat which they found in the middle of the war helps the soldiers feel better.


Gamze Akan

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