31 May 2010


It's Memorial Day in the States, which means it's time for war movies. But instead of just a routine list of the greatest war films of all time, boring for you to read and boring for me to think up (hey, have you heard of this All Quiet on the Western Front picture?), I decided to spice things up with a list of:

Ten Great Under-Seen War Movies
(Listed alphabetically)

Battleground (William A. Wellman, 1949)

Nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, but please don't let that stop you. In some ways a romanticised vision of war that makes all the civilians feel really swell, but the stress on the characters' everyday guy-ness rings intensely true, and the depiction of the easy camaraderie found between men who know they're going off to die is simply beautiful, and I hope like hell that it's true. Not one of those films that makes you think you understand what combat feels like, but something that's oddly even rarer: a film that makes you understand what tramping through the mud with the rest of your unit feels like. One of the fullest tributes to Our Boys put out in a less-cynical age.

The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925)

One of the most widely-praised box-office hits of the 1920s, and rightly so; its perplexing absence from DVD has unfortunately condemned it to semi-obscurity in the present day. Taking the oft-told story of how combat can turn an optimistic patriot into a broken cynic, Vidor's awe-inspiring treatment of WWI veteran Laurence Stalling's screenplay is far more intimate and fresh than just about any later plot built along the same lines.

The Bridge [Die Brücke] (Bernhard Wicke, 1959)

Generally speaking, German filmmakers didn't exactly rush out to make movies about their country's wartime experience. Of the few examples that exist, my favorite is easily this hyper-realistic and sublimely unsettling description of how in the final days of the war, the only people left to face the Allies' guns were teenage boys, eager to prove their manhood through the idiotic sacrifice of their lives to save a tactically useless bridge. Sickening and powerful, and probably the most flat-out angry anti-war film on this list.

Ivan's Childhood [Ива́ново де́тство] (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962)

Part of me wonders if it's appropriate to put the debut film by one of the most important filmmakers of the last 60 years on an "under-seen" list. Then part of me recalls the unspeakable power of this story of an orphaned 12-year-old who turns spy for the Soviet Union, a crushing human story that's also one of the most immaculately-shot movies of the 1960s, and figures that as long as there's a single person who still hasn't seen it, then it's "under-seen".

The Lost Patrol (John Ford, 1934)

A fascinating, semi-nihilistic tale of existential panic made shortly before Ford entered the stage of his career known to anyone but Ford completists, this remake (I have not seen the original) tosses a good number of British soldiers into the heart of the World War I desert, surrounded by unseen snipers, and watches as they disintegrate before our eyes. Victor McLaglen is unusually tight and restrained as the unnamed sergeant, while Boris Karloff is surprising and brilliant as a man who goes crazy from heat and religion. Taut and slightly horrifying, it's one of the most impressionistic and uncanny depictions of the battlefield as an almost literal hellscape.

The Messenger (Oren Moverman, 2009)

Though not without it's fair share of problems (it is Oscarbait, after all), Moverman's directorial debut takes a look at a side of military service and warfare that most of us probably don't think about very often: the men responsible for informing the folks back home that their loved one has died. At its best, this is a shattering, gorgeously painful character study: though they are never in danger, it's hard to imagine a pair more wracked by the constant presence of death.

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (Preston Sturges, 1944)

While some filmmakers looked at the struggles and heroism on the battlefield, others told stories of the people back home, of which likely the best - and certainly the least-serious - is this hyperbolic farce by the finest satirist of the 1940s. While your Mrs. Miniver, for example, presents the families left behind as all starch and patriotism, Sturges's epic screwball about a woman who gets knocked up by a departing soldier takes all the piss out of the idealised version of what stateside life ought to be like in wartime, and it's nasty, funny as hell, and uncomfortably truthful all in one blast of comic energy.

Neighbours (Norman McLaren, 1952)
The great Canadian's hysterical and deadly serious satire of militarism and aggression is one of the great short films you'll ever see, eight minutes of boundless cinematic invention that culminates in one of the most amusingly disturbing anti-war messages ever. Probably best just to watch it, but be careful; the video quality isn't what it should be.

The Steel Helmet (Sam Fuller, 1951)

It would have been so easy to lard this film up with one Fuller film after another; but I have instead elected to stick with just the one which I tend to think is the best (just nudging out the same year's Fixed Bayonets!). The first Korean War film, released just months after American troops entered that conflict, it's chockablock full of the typical Fullerisms: a rushed production that plays onscreen as desperate narrative urgency rather than cheapness, and a profoundly detailed depiction of on-the-ground soldiering that could only be told by a WWII veteran who was also a trained journalist.

Wooden Crosses [Les croix de bois] (Raymond Bernard, 1932)

Vies only with All Quiet itself as both the finest of all World War I pictures, and the best war movie of the 1930s. Utilising documentary film techniques in the most casual way, it thrusts the viewer into the very stuff of warfare like nothing until the opening of Saving Private Ryan would ever attempt again, yet its fidelity to the hell of combat doesn't stop it from telling a human story rich enough and full enough to make the movie a masterpiece even if it contained not a single combat scene. This isn't just one of the great under-seen war films; it is one of the great under-seen films, full stop.


Colin said...

Great list. I'm ashamed to say I haven't seen a single one of these films, but I'm looking forward to remedying that as soon as possible.

I must commend you for having the balls to write of any soldier, even a Nazi one, that they are "eager to prove their manhood through the idiotic sacrifice of their lives". This is exactly the kind of no words-mincing, straightforward eloquence that makes me appreciate your blog. I'm just glad for your sake you're not a public official.

Cal said...

I must confess to being bored senseless by Battleground. It was much too blatant for my tastes.

Wooden Crosses is a film I'd never heard of but I'm eager to visit it if you're comparing to All Quiet, which is incredible. I can't find it on my DVD rental site though :( . Any ideas?

Samuel Wilson said...

I'll vouch for Wooden Crosses, which does for urban fighting what All Quiet did for the trenches. It's part of a Criterion Eclipse two-film set named for the director, along with Bernard's five-hour Les Miserables from 1935, if that helps anyone looking for it.

Tim said...

It's on Netflix. Not sure if that helps, but the film is definitely out there.

Jason said...

No "Tigerland" eh? Perhaps it doesn't fit the criteria.

javi75 said...

I think your full-length review of "Wooden Crosses" was part of what I read the day I discovered your blog, or shortly after that, and it was one of the things that made me addicted to it. I remember it was one of your "Sunday classics" (or something like that) series.
I guess the review is availabe in your full index but I think you should always include links to the movies you've already reviewed whenever you mention them.