This week sees Brad Pitt donning his WWII uniform for the first time since the Oscar-nominated “Inglourious Basterds” in David Ayer’s “Fury” (read our review here, and our interview with Ayer here) in which he, alongside Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena and Jon Bernthal, crew a Sherman tank as it pushes into Nazi Germany in the dying days of the Second World War.
The Second World War remains an eternally popular subject for the movies 75 years on from the beginning of the conflict: even aside from “Fury,” this year alone, films like “The Monuments Men,” “Unbroken,” “Phoenix” and “The Imitation Game” have opened, with plenty more surely to come. But the genre’s enduring popularity means that it’s easy for films as such produced in the last three-quarters of a century to slip between the cracks.
It’s unlikely to happen to “Fury,” given its A-list stars and huge marketing push, but there are plenty of similar (or sometimes, very different) pictures that never got the love they deserved or have faded over time. To get you prepared for the release of Ayer’s film this weekend, here are ten undersung and underseen World War Two pictures that you might not know but you should certainly check out. Take a look below, and recommend your own favorites in the comments.
Steven Spielberg‘s “Saving Private Ryan” changed the way that we thought of D-Day, but twenty years earlier, a relatively unknown filmmaker brought a vision of the same events that was just as bold, even if few people saw it at the time. Directed by filmmaker and actor Stuart Cooper (best known for playing one of “The Dirty Dozen“), the film began with his character being commissioned to make a non-fiction short about a tapestry woven about the invasion of Normandy. Instead, he ends up making a formally experimental combination of drama and documentary, mixing archival footage and specially shot scenes that remains a powerful and hugely impressive take on the events. The film focuses on Tom, an everyman who’s called up to the East Yorkshire Regiment, meets a girl, is part of the D-Day invasion force, and then (spoiler?) dies on Sword Beach, one of the five main landing areas in Normandy. There’s nothing especially innovative about Tom’s narrative, which hits a number of familiar war movie beats, albeit in an admirably sweet, low-key way: you really come to feel for the boy by the time he’s on a landing craft. But the blend of drama and documentary is absolutely seamless, leading to a truly stunning (given the meager budget), and wrenching finale. But that blend isn’t the only innovation; Cooper deploys flash-forwards, dream sequences, and fantasies, leading to a vaguely trippy feel that makes it feel entirely different from WWII pictures that had come before, a fever dream rather than a retelling. Despite winning the Special Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, U.S. distributors (reluctant to put out a war film in the closing days of the conflict in Vietnam) didn’t pick the film up, but it was eventually dug up by the Telluride Film Festival in 2004, leading to a belated theatrical release in the United States a couple of years later. It’s also now available from The Criterion Collection.
“Play Dirty” (1969)
Following in the footsteps of “The Dirty Dozen,” “Play Dirty” is a real gem. The film 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 shooting) 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, 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 film 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 justice. And the men pretty much know they’re screwed, and feel no loyalty to their commanders or each other. As a result, the film 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 a lost classic, worth tracking down.
“Edge of Darkness” (1943)
As much as they may have functioned at the time as propaganda, it’s fascinating to watch a World War II film that was made when that war was still in progress. Indeed, in 1942 when this Lewis Milestone film was being made (for release in 1943), the outcome of the war was very far from a foregone conclusion. But starring Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan and featuring a host of name actors in supporting roles like Walter Huston, the wonderful Ruth Gordon and Judith Anderson (aka Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca”), the film is not just notable for timing and starriness; it’s a surprisingly layered and complex story, elevated by some very fine filmmaking. Set in the fictional fishing village of Trollness during the Nazi occupation of Norway, it’s an absorbing account of the manifold ways that the locals of this small hamlet respond to the invasion; they range from resistance firebrands, to hesitant humanists, to those who choose to bury their heads in the sand, to outright traitors, or, to use the appropriate eponym, quislings. All shades of opinion are represented, and while the Germans are little more than ciphers, the evenhandedness elsewhere makes this an unusually thoughtful piece of propaganda. And there are some truly inspired touches — Sheridan’s radical resistance fighter gets a wonderful, almost subversive moment where she talks the dashing Flynn out of running out to kill the German soldier who brutally raped her. And her fragile, nervy, distracted mother, played by Gordon, proves that heroism comes in all stripes when she indicates she’s come to her senses by simply bringing her husband his hat and coat that he might attend an underground meeting. And there is a great satisfaction of course to be gained in that moment when all unite and stage a pitched battle for their little town —old ladies firing from upstairs windows and women turning on their German lovers. A remarkably effective and affecting portrayal of ordinary people caught up in the extraordinary circumstance of this extraordinary war.
“Mr. Klein” (1976)
An overlooked high watermark in the erratic career of director Joseph Losey (who made London his home after being blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s), “Mr. Klein” is a French-language film starring Alain Delon as a bourgeois art dealer and profiteer whose complacent existence is threatened when he comes under suspicion of being a Jew. But it’s much, much weirder and more ambivalent than that, dipping into the Kafkaesque and the surreal, so much so that the war setting recedes into the background, until the very ending. It’s an examination of the fragile nature of identity as Delon’s Klein starts to be mistaken for a Jewish man with the same name and who looks a little like him, and whose dog appears to like him too. As he becomes more motivated to track down this other Mr. Klein, he is “North by Northwest”-style further incriminating himself in the eyes of the authorities. The whys and wherefores of the plot are not the point though: it’s an evocation of the nightmare of authoritarianism and the pathetic insubstantiality of our identities, no matter how deeply held. And so for a large part of its running time, it does feel like a beautifully shot and dressed odyssey of self-absorption, oddly removed from its setting in a time when so much actual human suffering and injustice was occurring ,to people who had much more vital things to worry about than personal identity crises or their social standing. But that turns out to be the true brilliance of this peculiar, arrhythmic film. It weaves such a mystery around the notion of Klein’s identity (helped by his characterization as an unlikeable, empty, dissipated ladies man who thinks nothing of profiting from the miseries of others) and the man or men who are trying to co-opt it, that it’s jarring when real life, in the shape of a fateful transport filled with Jews being corralled to a concentration camp, arrives. Klein is taken away with them, and the hunted, incredulous look on Delon’s face says it all. He’s innocent, but then so is every other poor soul on that bus. It’s an eloquent if enigmatic way to make the point that the social edifices which we believe exist to keep us safe can become the very things that ensnare us, and in its oblique, dispassionate fashion it brings home the horror and helplessness of persecution better than a more straightforward narrative ever could.
“Black Book” (2006)
One of the many pleasures of “Game of Thrones” has been its rediscovery of the criminally underused Carice van Houten, who until recently we always thought of as “that criminally underused actress from ‘Black Book.’ ” And her role in Paul Verhoeven’s lavish, unsubtle but entertaining WWII drama should really have made her a bigger star than she is, even with the film being recited largely in (a variety of) non-English languages. Playing the daughter in a wealthy Jewish family who is already on the run as the film begins, Van Houten’s Ellis is put through the wringer, with Verhoeven maybe directing in a manner a million miles from a Starship Trooper or a Robocop but still finding a place for his very visceral, fleshy style. From the scene in which a naked Van Houten is doused in shit, to the now-infamous pube-dyeing sequence, to a variety of shoot outs, sex scenes, narrow escapes and exciting set-pieces, the film is a smorgasbord of war movie, spy movie and doomed love story tropes. But it’s all put together with such gloss and craft that it’s easy to forgive its flaws, and underneath the sheer entertainment value that Verhoeven and his excellent cast (Sebastian Koch also deserves praise) wring from the dramatic setting of Holland at the end of the war, there is the kernel of something heartfelt. And indeed, some care is taken to portray the possibility of goodness on all sides within this impossibly complex web of a deception, double crosses and betrayals, although Verhoeven’s tendency to flatten complexity out does mean that his “Good German” is impossibly good and the love affair between him and Ellis seems to thrive despite the fact that, purely by his position if not inclination, it’s inconceivable that he does not bear at least some responsibility for the evil done on his watch. Nonetheless, for a good old-fashioned war movie, spiced up with some distinctly non-old-fashioned nudity and violence, “Black Book” is a slick, engrossing movie marked by a captivating central turn and a satisfyingly twisty thrillride of a plot.
“Flame and Citron” (2008)
The most expensive Danish film ever made to that point, starring Denmark’s biggest star in Mads Mikkelsen, directed by the acclaimed Ole Christian Madsen (who had previously directed Mikkelsen in the very good “Prague”) and based on the true story of a pair of Resistance assassins who became causes celebres in the closing stages of the war, “Flame and Citron” has all the ingredients for the kind of heritage prestige pic that can often become mired in a kind of weighty reverence. But while it’s not without its stodgy aspects, particularly the first part which is marred by an irritatingly redundant voiceover, “Flame and Citron” goes beyond that minor deficiency to deliver an interesting character study of two men committing heroic yet deeply compromised acts of violence. Co-starring Thure Lindhart as the eponymous Flame (so-nicknamed due his bright red hair which surely can’t have been a help in remaining incognito), the film is a handsomely mounted thriller, almost noirish in its stylings and in the perhaps overcomplicated plotting, right down to the potential double agent/femme fatale who catches Flame’s eye (Stine Stengade, who also starred in “Prague”). But it’s most successful as a portrait of the extraordinary relationship between these two men —a permanently sweaty Mikkelsen is the de facto getaway driver while Lindhart’s Flame pulls the trigger more often— and the strain that their messy, grey-area lives put on it. Neither is otherwise what we might consider heroic, but their loyalty to one another, through betrayals and danger and in the teeth of their crumbling personal morality (is it possible to kill so many people and remain “good”?) is the touching throughline that feels both like their redemption and their doom. And quite aside from the performances, the loving period detail and the gloss of the filmmaking, “Flame and Citron” is a nuanced evocation of the desperate closing months of the war: it seems at once like it will never end and as if the end is approaching too quickly, when everyone will be called to account in peacetime for actions that war both necessitated and excused.
“Come and See” (1985)
World War II has inspired films of all genres, from daffy adventures to satires to biopics to propaganda, but perhaps the one that comes closest to truly evoking the seismic horror of the conflict, especially from a partisan Russian point of view and through the uncomprehending eyes of a boy little more than a child, is Elem Klimov’s astounding “Come and See.” Named for a biblical passage concerning the destruction wrought by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, this film is one of very few that could live up to such a grandiose reference, but Klimov’s does and then some, punctuating the story of young orphaned Flyora’s (Aleksei Kravchenko) desperate struggle to find a place in the world, with some of the most unforgettable and troubling imagery of the civilian cost of war ever to be captured on film. The tiny tendrils of friendship or fellow-feeling Flyora experiences are viciously pulverized in a world dehumanized almost beyond recognition, where stacks of bodies are left to rot, peasants are crammed into churches to be burned alive and gang rapes and child murder are commonplace. But Klimov’s film is not simply a catalogue of realist horrors, it’s a deeply impressionistic, woozy, disorienting experience as well. You could call it a nightmare, but that implies that you can wake up —it’s better understood as a vision of hell. And while it was intended as a corrective to a narrative of World War II that often overlooks chapters such as the burning of over 600 Belorussian villages, it becomes much more that that: a soul-searing, scarring indictment of the human capacity for unending cruelty. It’s almost unwatchably bleak, rendered compulsively watchable by Klimov’s filmmaking mastery. It would prove to be his last film, as he stated later, “everything that was possible I felt I had already done.” Again, it seems an impossibly bombastic statement, but watch “Come and See,” and feel the sustain of horror and violence and innocence warped that lingers long after its stunningly evocative final moments (in which Flyora shoots his gun at images of Hitler that spool back progressively in time) and it might simply start to feel like the literal truth.
“The Cranes Are Flying” (1957)
Given a history as a whopping great target for the likes of Napoleon, Hitler and, well, most of the Western world, it’s not surprising that the Soviets were behind some of the most powerful and beautifully made war movies ever made, from “Battleship Potemkin” to the aforementioned “Come And See.” After the war, there’d been a fallow period in once-vibrant Soviet film due to Stalinist censorship, but when the dictator died, restrictions lifted somewhat, and “The Cranes Are Flying” was one of the first fruits. From “I Am Cuba” director Mikhail Kalatozov and based on a play by Viktor Rozov, the film centers on Veronika (a stunning performance by Tatyana Samojlova) whose beau Boris volunteers as the Soviet Union goes to war with Germany, only to go missing in action and for her parents to be killed in a bombing. She reluctantly marries her cousin after he rapes her, and eventually learns that Boris died in action, saving another man. It sounds bleak, and it is (the film feels like an influence on Lars Von Trier, among others), but there’s a strange sense of hope, or at least catharsis, to the film, a rare and early chance for the nation that lost more people than any other to the war to mourn their losses collectively. But it’s also a bravura piece of filmmaking: the creaky melodrama beats that were cliches even then are given fresh energy by the sheer energy of the dizzying photography and powerful (if hardly subtle) montage. Kalatozov was something of an heir to Eisenstein in many respects, and in this beautiful, terrible film, he firmly makes the case as to why.
The phrase “haunted submarine” sounds like something more from Roger Corman than something belonging on this list, but terminally underrrated early-’00s horror “Below,” while imperfect, delivers elevated genre thrills while containing some real substance. Director David Twohy’s follow-up to his sleeper hit “Pitch Black,” and written and produced by the unlikely figure of Darren Aronofsky, the film is set on submarine the USS Tiger Shark in the Atlantic Ocean in August 1943. The boat, captained by Lieutenant Brice (Bruce Greenwood) after the death of its captain, picks up three survivors, including a nurse (Olivia Williams) and a German POW (Jonathan Hartman) from a torpedoed hospital ship, only for eerie and eventually fatal goings-on begin to take place. Is it bad luck brought on by having a woman on board (a traditional naval no-no)? A saboteur? Or something more supernatural? Twohy has a real feel for the ins-and-outs of a sub crew (which includes reliable hands like Holt McCallany, Jason Flemyng and, in a surprising early role, Zach Galifianakis), making the Tiger Shark feel lived-in and real, but his feel for tension is even better. This is a psychological chiller in the best of ways, drawing on the J-horror genre that was so popular at the time without copying it, and you could hardly ask for a freakier setting for something like this than a tin tube in the middle of the ocean. The script (also credited to Twohy and Aronofsky pal Lucas Sussman) also manages to set out a genuinely involving plot, and draws the characters pretty well for the most part, though Greenwood (getting a deserved lead role) and Williams fare better than the blander Scott Foley or Matthew Davis. But most importantly, the film also serves as a clever investigation into the guilt and doubt that comes with being a commander in wartime and the effect it can have on the psyche. One of the more underseen and undervalued genre pictures of the last couple of decades (even if the ending goes off the rails a little bit).
“Went The Day Well?” (1942)
Given the title, its setting of a quaint English village, and its pedigree as a product of the famous Ealing Studios, best known for charming comedies like “Passport To Pimlico” and “The Titchfield Thunderbolt,” you’d be forgiven for expecting something sweet, good-natured and gentle from “Went The Day Well?” But the film, shot and released at the height of the war, was quite the opposite: a tense, gripping and surprisingly brutal action film, a sort of 1940s Nazi-bashing “Die Hard” that still has the considerable power today. Based on a story by Graham Greene and directed by Brazilian ex-pat Alberto Cavalcanti, it’s a what-if scenario that sees a group of invading German soldiers, disguised as British troops and aided by the fascist-sympathizing local aristocrat, taking over the tiny village of Bramley End. But the villagers, all civilians, won’t have any of it, and begin to fight back. It’s an unashamed piece of propaganda, but a hugely subversive one, with a message that’s both borderline-socialist (kill the treacherous aristocrat!) and full-on feminist —women are front-and-center of the movie. There’s an enormous amount of texture to the way that Cavalcanti and his writers draw the village, with wry humor and, eventually, real pathos. Because there’s plenty of pathos to come: the film is unsparing and harsh when it comes to its violence to an almost shocking degree, with characters you’d ordinarily deem safe proving to be the first to meet Nazi bullets. It’s undoubtedly a wish-fulfillment fantasy to some degree: a chance for the British public to get their hands dirty and stick it to Jerry. But there’s plenty of nuance and subtlety to it, and Cavalcanti shoots the film with a thrilling, docudrama approach. If you haven’t seen it —and you probably haven’t— this is one to search out sharpish.
Honorable Mentions: We could have kept going for much longer, and you can find a few extras in this feature from earlier in the year on men-on-a-mission movies. But there’s also 1944’s “Days Of Glory,” “Carve Her Name With Pride” (1958), “The Bridge” (1959), “Paratroop Command” (1959), the great Japanese picture “Red Angel” (1966), Clint Eastwood vehicle “Where Eagles Dare” (1968), which we figured might be a little too well-known, Sam Peckinpah‘s “The Cross Of Iron” (1977), Verhoeven‘s “Soldier Of Orange” (1977), Sam Fuller‘s “The Big Red One” (1980), Michael Mann‘s “The Keep” (1983), Russian pictures “Stalingrad” (1993) and “The Cuckoo” (2002) and Ed Zwick‘s underrated “Defiance” (2008). Any others? You know where to fly the flag for them. — Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang