This week sees the release of George Clooney‘s “The Monuments Men” (read our review here), which carefully follows the template of what’s come to be known as the men-on-a-mission movie, and has been around even before the Second World War came to a close. The recipe is simple: take a bunch of men (the more ill-suited and quarrelsome the better), give them an objective—killing Hitler, looting Nazi gold, saving Private Ryan, protecting crucial work of arts from destruction by the Germans—and send those men on the mission.
It’s proved a consistently popular genre over the years, with plenty of classics or near-classics, including “The Guns Of Navarone,” “The Dirty Dozen,” “Von Ryan’s Express,” “Where Eagles Dare,” “The Eagle Has Landed,” “A Bridge Too Far,” or more recently, “Inglourious Basterds.” But there’s also a fair few that aren’t spoken about in the same measure that might deserve to be, and so, as such, we wanted to pick out five lesser-known WWII men-on-a-mission movies that you might not know unless you’re an expert on the genre, but are just as worth checking out as any of the above, or indeed “The Monuments Men.” Check them out below, let us know if you have any of your own undersung favorites in the comments section.
“A Walk In The Sun” (1946)
Lewis Milestone was the man behind one of the first truly classic war movies, “All Quiet On The Western Front” (which won him Best Director at the Oscars), and the same DNA runs through “A Walk In The Sun,” a quiet, unglamorous movie that would be remarkable released at any time, but is especially so given that it was shot during the war itself. Based on the novel by Harry Brown (who’d been a serving soldier and went on to pen the screenplays for “Sands Of Iwo Jima,” “A Place In The Sun” and “Ocean’s 11,” among others), it sees a Texas Division platoon, including the likes of Dana Andrews, Lloyd Bridges, Richard Conte, Norman Lloyd and Sterling Holloway, land in Italy, and head out to destroy a bridge and capture a farmhouse. But unlike some of these films, the mission is never really the central thing here, and the title isn’t misleading—aside from a few brief snippets of action, this is about the majority of time at war, the long hours, or even days in between, where the soldiers principally shoot the shit and mourn their losses. Which is not to say that isn’t tense. In fact, quite the opposite: Milestone cannily establishes that at any moment, the platoon could come under attack, and you never feel the safety of downtime in the way that you might in more obviously structured movies. Full of terrific performances (most notably from Andrews), and incredibly powerful without dipping into sentimentality, it’s a film that was undoubtedly ahead of its time (indeed, nearly two years elapsed between the shoot and 20th Century Fox releasing the film, in part because the U.S. Army asked for a few reshoots). The military establishment were ultimately delighted with the film, but make no mistake: it’s not a propaganda picture, just a simple and honest depiction of men at war, and the lives they lived.
“The Train” (1964)
We’re cheating a little bit with this one. Firstly, we really hope you’ve seen “The Train,” which is one of director John Frankenheimer‘s very best films, and one of the best WWII movies around, if perhaps a little overlooked among the wider public. Secondly, it only just qualifies as a men-on-a-mission movie, coming closer to a man-on-a-mission movie: while there is a small French resistance group involved, it really comes to the battle of wills between Burt Lancaster‘s railway inspector and Paul Scofield‘s culture-loving Nazi. But it’s also probably the truest precursor to “Monuments Men,” and as such, we felt it deserved shouting about once more. In the days between the D-day landings and the liberation of Paris, Scofield’s Col. Franz von Waldheim loads up a train full of French masterpieces to return to Germany with, and curator Mademoiselle Villard (Suzanne Flon) enlists the Resistance to delay the train, without damaging the cargo. Lancaster’s Paul Labiche and co aren’t especially concerned at first, but are pushed into action after an elderly man is executed for his own act of sabotage. Originally to be directed by Arthur Penn, who Burt Lancaster fired a few days into production, the scale and scope of the movie got much larger once Frankenheimer came on board, and much to the film’s benefit: the train sequences are genuinely thrilling, second only to “The General” in the history of the genre. But there’s also real substance to it, as the movie delves into the importance of art, and whether it’s worth all these deaths, in a way that George Clooney‘s film never really engages with (it’s a particularly nice touch to make Lancaster’s character something of a philistine, and Scofield the culture vulture). Surprising, nuanced and totally gripping, if you’ve never seen it, it’s probably a better way to spend your weekend than with “The Monuments Men.”
“Operation Crossbow” (1965)
An all-star espionage flick, “Operation Crossbow” is a gripping and wildly enjoyable telling of the real-life operation to bring down the Nazi rocket program. Directed by Michael Anderson (“The Dam Busters,” “Logan’s Run“), and with a script co-written by the legendary Emeric Pressburger, under the pseudonym Richard Imrie, the film cuts cannily between the German attempt to develop the V1 and V2 rockets (with Paul Henreid, Helmut Dantine and Barbara Rutting among those involved) and the Allied mission to bring it down, devised by scientific adviser Trevor Howard and intelligence head John Mills, and executed by George Peppard and Tom Courtenay, among others. In the early stages, it feels closer to a procedural than a simple action film, with an impressive level of detail and realism at work, even if the story has been heavily fictionalized (the German scenes are even played in German rather than accented English, which is rare enough these days, let alone back then). There are twists and turns as undercover agents are embedded and exposed, and an impressively brutal sequence where Sophia Loren, making a cameo as an innocent Italian woman, is brutally dispatched by Lilli Palmer (particularly excellent) in order to keep the operation under wraps. It’s glossy and impressively mounted, with some especially handsome photography by Erwin Hillier (“A Canterbury Tale“) but has some brains too, so much so that some might find it overly talky in the early going. They’ll be more satisfied with the explosive shoot-out finale, though the rest of us think that it’s the point at which the film goes off the rails, even if the action is well-staged. Still, it’s an immensely watchable couple of hours up until that point.
“The Devil’s Brigade” (1968)
A fairly conscious result of the success of “The Dirty Dozen” the previous year, “The Devil’s Brigade” is much less well known than its predecessor, and dated a little faster, but it’s still a pretty rollicking good time as far as rip-offs go. Melding WWII action and culture-clash comedy, it follows the formation of the legendary 1st Special Service Force, an elite commando unit who became known as, you guessed it, The Devil’s Brigade. Lt. Col Robert Frederick (William Holden) is the man in charge of pulling together the unruly American troops (mostly made up of Army convicts) and the buttoned-down, kilted Canadians, led by C.O. Major Alan Crown (Cliff Robertson), with the intention of deploying them for special work in Norway (though in the end, it’s the storming of an Italian fortress that turns out to be their proving ground). Directed by prolific B-movie specialist Andrew V. McLaglen (“The Wild Geese“), the film, like many war movies, is essentially split in two, with the first half focusing on training, and the clashes between the Americans and the Canadians, and the second seeing the unit, now respecting each other, taking on the Nazis. A little more restrained and realistic than some of McLaglen’s other pictures, it’s a bit formulaic by nature, but the director brings his more-than-capable action chops to the final act, with a dizzying climb and then brutal hand-to-hand battling, with a genuinely thrilling result. But the highlight really comes in the performances—Holden and Robertson are terrific in the lead roles, and the supporting cast, full of grizzled, not-especially well-known character actors, is a very deep, highly enjoyable bench, with Claude Akins (“Rio Bravo“) and the magnificently mustached Jack Watson (“Peeping Tom“) particular standouts, their hard-fought friendship providing the real emotional backbone of the movie. There’s a reason it’s not a classic, but for those who find “The Dirty Dozen” a bit sour, this is a pretty decent alternative.
“Play Dirty” (1969)
Another film that very definitely followed in the footsteps of “The Dirty Dozen,” “Play Dirty” is actually a real gem, one that overcame a troubled production (supposed co-star Richard Harris never turned up for work, and original director Rene Clement, of Oscar-winner “Forbidden Games,” was fired early into production) to become a complex and subversive take on the genre, stylishly made and very well acted. Based loosely on events in the North African front during the war, and with a script co-written by famous British TV presenter/sometime Ken Russell collaborator Melvyn Bragg, the film focuses on Michael Caine‘s Capt. Douglas, an oil company worker with an honorary military commission who, despite his lack of combat experience, is ordered by the harried Col. Masters (Nigel Green) to lead a team 400 miles behind enemy lines to blow up a fuel depot. And that unit is a pretty rum bunch: his number two is convicted insurance fraudster Capt. Leech (“Howard’s Way” star Nigel Davenport, who was originally cast in a smaller role before taking over the part when Harris didn’t show), and the rest include a Greek drug smuggler, a Tunisian rapist, and two gay Senussi tribesmen. Unlike many of its contemporaries, this doesn’t glorify war in the least, with a sense settling in early that Douglas and Leech’s mission is pretty much a futile one, caused more by bickering among higher-ups than any sense of right or justice. And the men pretty much know they’re screwed, and feel no loyalty to their commanders or each other. As a result, this feels closer to “Kelly’s Heroes” or even the much later “Three Kings” than most men-on-a-mission movies, not least when it reaches its incredibly bleak conclusion. But it’s also thoroughly enjoyable at the same time, with a wry, sarcastic humor and some crackling extended wordless action sequences (André de Toth, best known for directing the 3D horror “House Of Wax” despite having only one eye, was second-unit-director on “Lawrence of Arabia,” and knows how to shoot the hell out of the desert). It’s something of a lost classic, we’d argue, and worth tracking down.
Honorable Mentions: Perhaps not quite fitting the criteria, or just missing the cut, there’s also Sam Peckinpah‘s brutal told-from-the-other-side “Cross Of Iron,” Don Siegel‘s powerful fighting-to-the-last tale “Hell Is For Heroes” with Steve McQueen, the enjoyable spaghetti war film “Five For Hell,” with an excellent performance from Klaus Kinski, final Archers production “Ill Met By Moonlight,” and Roger Corman‘s shameless “Dirty Dozen” rip-off “The Secret Invasion.” Any others worth mentioning? Let us know in the comments section.