“Nazis. I hate these guys.”: 15 WWII Movies Worth Watching Before You See Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.
Who knew that the Nazis — one of the most brutal regimes in the history of brutal regimes — would be responsible for such fun, mind-blowingly awesome entertainment? The second I see a dude in a grey German uniform and an eye patch enter the frame, I’m like “Whoa. That Nazi is going to provide me a great amount of entertainment this evening”. So, with Inglorious Bastards having recently premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, I figured I’d put together a list of some awesome WW2 films as a resource for anyone wanting to beef up their WW2 film knowledge before checking out Tarantino’s self-proclaimed ‘masterpiece’. It’s worth noting that I focused on older films — pre-1980 for the most part — and only the stories featuring Nazis. It was tough to cut this down to 15 films, but I’m sure you all will be able to come up with some movies I’ve forgotten or haven’t seen. I’m also sure we’ll get lots of people wagging their finger at the absence of Saving Private Ryan, so to be clear: I like that film. Just didn’t make the list.
Anyways, have a look and be sure to make some time to check out some of these films before August! (I will be posting a companion piece to this list at The Documentary Blog, featuring some recommended documentaries on WW2 and the Nazi’s. Stay tuned!)
Even though I don’t think Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS is anywere near the caliber of filmmaking represented elsewhere on this list, I do think it’s worth mentioning as the forefront of an entire sub-genre of torture films spawned from the horrible stories that have surfaced regarding the gruesome experimentation that took place in some Nazi concentration camps. The term “Nazisploitation” has since been coined to describe this group of low-budget, graphic torture films that managed to combine the exploitation and women-in-prison sub-genres within a “historical” WW2 setting. Unfortunately, I’ve only seen the censored version of this film and as I watched it, an abrupt cut would interrupt any full frontal nudity or graphic content. Total buzzkill. I can’t say whether or not Ilsa is the best representation of this sub-genre, but I will say I was caught up in its ridiculous characterizations and am amazed that these movies may be the sole representation — in fictional narrative terms — of the atrocities that took place in these camps. And before you ask, I haven’t seen any of the sequels. (For documentary fans, check out Joe Berlinger’s Grey Matter, which looks at some of the Nazi experimentation on the brains of the mentally handicapped.)
Gianfranco Parolini’s (credited as Frank Kramer) awesome spaghetti WW2 film Five for Hell gives us a goofy but fun look at the American GI as seen through an Italian lens. Gianni Garko (credited as John Garko) plays Lt. Glenn Hoffmann, a bubblegum chewing, all-American who assembles a team of soldiers to infiltrate a German hideout to steal some secret Nazi war plans. We’ve seen the story many times before, but the inconsistent tone and oddball characterizations make Hell for Five a particularly unusual viewing experience. Like all American GI’s, Lt. Glenn Hoffmann’s weapon of choice is a hollowed-out-lead-filled baseball which he whips at the heads of whatever Nazi soldiers get in his way. Even better is the fold out miniature trampolines carried by his platoon, turning an otherwise typical storming of a Nazi base into a glorious circus act. The horrors of war indeed! Worth noting; a great score by Elsio Mancuso (credit as Vasco Mancuso), a great perfomance by Klaus Kinski as a nasty Nazi officer, and a hefty serving of crash zooms. Hell for Five isn’t perfect — and certainly has its slow moments — but it’s a fun watch that proves that in the hands of the right people, stereotypes can be fun!
Fritz Lang’s ‘Man Hunt’ is the only film on this list to have actually been in production DURING the war. In fact, after it’s release in 1941, Lang had originally been criticized for portraying the Nazi’s as being too brutal; a result of his extreme anti-Nazi sentiments. Looking at it now, I’d say it seems pretty harmless in its characterizations. I almost didn’t include it on this list seeing as it isn’t really a war film per se, but rather a Hitchcockian thriller with a touch of The Most Dangerous Game. Walter Pidgeon plays Captain Alan Thorndike, a big game hunter who’s decided to hunt down the biggest and baddest game of all; Adolf Hitler. Caught in the act by an SS soldier, Thorndike is captured and thus eleminated; or so they thought. He stows away on a ship, making friends with a young Roddy McDowall (like, 10 year old young). Quick on his heels is a German agent, played by John Carradine, who eventually catches up with Thorndike and thus, adventure ensues! A great film that illustrates the early influence of the war on American filmmaking. (Before you ask, Fritz was born in Austria, but Man Hunt was an American production.)
I liked Play Dirty because of its pacing and it’s quirkiness. Michael Caine plays Captain Douglas; a British Petroleum executive whose comfortable existence as a port contractor is shattered when he’s assigned a dangerous mission: travel deep behind enemy lines and destroy an Afrika Corps fuel depot. He’s accompanied by a rag-tag group of officers led by Captain Leech — an ex-con whose only concern is to get Douglas back safely in exchange for an extra 2000 pounds promised to him by his Colonel. The group also contains a homosexual couple, which must’ve been an interesting choice for the time. The team disguise themselves as Italian soldiers and make their way across the deserts of North Africa. There’s some great action in the film, and a wonderfully mundane — and long — sequence in which the men must hoist their vehicles up a steep hill. The sequence plays like Fitzcarraldo in the desert! Director Andre De Toth handles the film with elegance and style and I was surprised by some of the stylized cinematography; specifically, a sequence in which the soldiers bury some men after a fire fight. The dutch angles and quick cuts has an intense Sam Raimi-esque feel that was an interesting choice. In the end, some might find Play Dirty somewhat dry (no pun intended) but I thought it was an interesting take on the WW2 film.
There seems to be some confusion surrounding Quentin Tarantino’s ‘borrowing’ of the title and the overall influence of Enzo G. Castellari’s Italian WW2 film ‘Quel Maledetto Treno Blindato’, a.k.a. The Inglorious Bastards. Tarantino’s film is definitely not a remake but certainly seems to be utilizing the basic premise (which is obviously taken from The Dirty Dozen, and I’m sure can be attributed to tons of films previous to that) and seems similar in tone. Castellari’s version was goofy at times and certainly didn’t shy away from comedy. Although not as directly geared towards humour as Kelly’s Heroe’s may have been, it showcases the charm and oddball sensibilities that you might find in many spaghetti westerns. The film also touches upon some similar plot points seen in a few other films on this list; the men are heading to Switzerland, as are the soldiers in Von Ryan’s Express, and they’re end up taking part in a mission involving the German’s V2 rockets, as do the commando’s in Operation Crossbow. It’s another great representation of the Italian take on American’s in WW2.
Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Cross of Iron’ is the only film on this list that’s told strictly from the viewpoint of the Nazi’s, and maybe that’s why it never received much attention. As expected, it’s both dark and violent, and at times might be a little too cerebral for the average war film fan. It’s certainly the least ‘fun’ film on this list, but the complexity of its characters — most notably James Coburn’s Sergeant Steiner and Maximilian Schell’s Captain Stransky — and the viscerally engaging action sequences give Cross of Iron a personality of its own; albeit maybe one of a chaotic, drunken madman. The direction is quite solid as Peckinpah makes good use of slow motion and his colour palette is appropriately drab and desaturated; something that would become almost a cliche in modern war films. Worth noting; the opening credit sequence is particularly effective, mixing stock footage of the Hitler youth and the botched invasion of Russia while underscored by an upbeat German folk song.
Unlike The Guns of Navarone, Guy Hamilton’s Force 10 From Navarone could probably be considered slightly fluffy and maybe even a little campy. You could say that this film is to The Guns of Navarone as Moonraker is to Guy Hamilton’s own Goldfinger. Hell, Richard Kiel — Jaws from Moonraker — even makes an appearance! Luckily, I liked Moonraker and I loved Force 10 From Navarone. It definitely has that 1970’s James Bond look and feel; diffused cinematography, dated optical compositing and a generous use of miniatures. The plot is a bit complicated, but essentially the two lead surviving characters from the original Guns of Navrone are assigned to a new mission; infiltrate Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia and hunt down a German spy who’d they thought was previously executed. Of course, they’re eventually side tracked and end up attempting to blow up a bridge. Go figure. The story might be a bit of wild goose chase, but I found it to be a great adventure and a ton of fun watching this small group of soldiers eluding the enemy, only to be caught, and elude yet again, and get caught yet again, and so on. The film pretty much picks up where The Guns of Navarone left off, starting with a long — and unnecessary — recap, only this time, Gregory Peck and David Niven are replaced by Robert Shaw (his second last film) and Edward Fox. Joining them on their mission is a young post-Star Wars Harrison Ford and a young pre-Action Jackson Carl Weathers. Worth noting; a pre-Strange Brew Angus MacInnes plays one of the allied soldiers, eh? Beauty.
I know some people have reservations about the casting of comedic actors in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Does this mean the film will be…funny? I certainly hope so. If there’s anything Tarantino can do well, it’s black comedy. It’s also a decision that’s in line with some pretty great war films of the past; mainly Brian G. Hutton’s Kelly’s Heroes. With a solid ensemble cast including Clint Eastwood, Donald Sutherland, Don Rickles and Telly Savalas, Kelly’s Heroes managed to combine the action and thrills of a decent war film with some good, usually subtle comedy. In fact, the tone and the plot — a group of soldiers infiltrating enemy lines to steal some Nazi loot — is reminiscent of David O. Russel’s ‘Three Kings’, a film that I loved. Worth noting; an awesome theme song and a great performance by Carroll O’Connor as Major General Colt.
Even though its story is loosely based off of a real military mission, ‘Operation Crossbow’ is more of a lesson in adventure than actual history. George Peppard (best known as Hannibal on the A-Team) stars in this extremely fun espionage thriller that was more than likely an answer to the James Bond craze of the sixties. The film follows at team of engineers who volunteer to be sent behind enemy lines to sabotage a Nazi rocket that could destroy London. The three men, fluent in German, take on the identities of dead Nazi officers and embed themselves within the enemy camp. The twist; their new identities may not be as solid has they’d expected when the men discover that one of their Nazi alter-ego’s is wanted by police for murder! Totally awesome! Sophia Loren received top billing even though she simply makes a cameo in the film; an apparent favour for her then husband and producer of Operation Crossbow, Carlo Ponti. Also worth noting; Trevor Howard, who plays a skeptical science advisor, was also in Von Ryan’s Express! Incestual WW2 movie making rules!
Imagine ‘The Great Escape’ on a train and you’ve pretty much got ‘Von Ryan’s Express’. Old Blue Eyes plays Colonel Joseph L. Ryan; an American pilot shot down in Italy only to be captured and brought to a P.O.W. camp. Surrounded by British soldiers, Ryan finds himself forced into a leadership role after discovering the previous high ranking officer had been killed. After the Italians surrender to the German’s, Ryan and his troops end up re-captured and shoved into boxcars to, I assume, be transported to a German P.O.W. camp. After accusations of treachery – hence the nickname -˜Von Ryan’ â€“ Sinatra’s character decides to lead an escape plan which sees them escaping from their boxcar through a hole in the floor and subsequently eliminating the Nazi guards controlling the train. After donning the German uniforms, the men must guide the train through enemy territory towards freedom; Switzerland! This movie is tons of fun and features a pretty crazy moral crisis for Sinatra’s character and an ending that more than likely surprised audiences upon the films original release. Worth noting; a great Jerry Goldsmith score!
The Dirty Dozen, as far as I can tell, seems responsible for creating its own sub-genre. Any films featuring a band of unlikely misfits on a suicide mission are usually referred to as being ‘like the Dirty Dozen, only with (fill in the blank)’. Much like Die Hard and Speed resulted in films being described as ‘Die Hard…on plane’ or ‘Speed…on a train’. Lee Marvin leads this crew of military criminals, some sentenced to execution, as they attempt to infiltrate an enemy chateau on the eve of the D-Day invasion. The Dirty Dozen features yet another great ensemble cast with many names mentioned elsewhere on this list, including Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown and John Cassavettes. Definitely one of the more unconventional war films of the time and certainly a representation of the era in which it was made, The Dirty Dozen is totally bad ass.
Like Where Eagles Dare, The Guns of Navarone is a fun, albeit much slower, thrill ride that finds a small team of officers infiltrating a seemingly impenetrable German outpost. This time, Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn are among a team of men who accept the mission to sabotage a pair of guns on the island of Navarone, keeping the Royal Navy from rescuing 2000 soldiers held up on the island of Keros. Disguised as Greek fisherman, the team approach the island and scale a massive cliff wall, immediately reminding me of The Princess Bride — yet not once reminding me of the opening of Star Trek 5. There’s a great relationship between Peck and Quinn’s characters, who at one time were friends yet now are enemies forced to work together. Sort of like Balki and Larry in Perfect Strangers. The Guns of Navarone is an epic journey and certainly set the bar for many adventure films to follow.
This could be the most fun I had out of all the WW2 films on this list. There’s something about snow Nazi’s that really gives me a solid buzz. Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton lead a team of British commandos (Eastwood being the sole American) on a mission to infiltrate a Nazi castle and rescue a captured Brigadier General. The cool thing? The only way to access the castle is by cable car! (A sequence that is later imitated in Moonraker) There’s tons of action and adventure mixed with a touch of espionage and a few plot twists. Definitely a fun time. Worth noting; Where Eagles Dare is one of three films on this list based off of novels written by Alistair Maclean, but the only one in which he wrote the screenplay. The other two are The Guns of Navarone and Force 10 From Navarone.
Here’s a film that successfully combines the horrors of Nazi P.O.W. camps with the universal fun of tunnel digging. Seriously, I remember watching this movie when I was a kid and being totally enthralled by the trolly system these guys had going. It’s like The Dog Who Stopped the War, only with guns instead of snowballs and no dog. (Note: It’s nothing like The Dog Who Stopped the War) This could manage to hold ones interest simply from an engineering aspect; nevermind the awesome cast (Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasance, James Coburn, James Garner) and cool action, all at the hands of the amazing John Sturges. A definite must see for all film fans and a movie that simply couldn’t be left off of this list.
Samuel Fuller’s ‘The Big Red One’ manages to cover so much ground and assemble so many characters that it puts The Band of Brothers to shame. His trademark grittiness and occasionally heavy handed social commentary shines through as we follow the 1st Infantry Division — nicknamed ‘The Big Red One’ — from North Africa to Sicily, and eventually to Omaha beach on D-Day. Lee Marvin plays Sgt. Possum, who’s experience in the first world war finds him leading his “Four Horsemen” through some pretty crazy situations, including delivering a baby inside of a panzer tank — a scene that plays out quite hilariously in contrast to the otherwise morose tone of the film. Star Wars geeks will recognize this film as the ‘Luke Skywalker war movie’, as Mark Hamill plays Pvt. Griff, a soldier who refuses to kill. I was lucky enough to see the fully restored Cannes 2004 version of the film — now available on DVD — as Fuller intended it to be seen. This version was put together under the supervision of Richard Schickle after Fuller passed away. Please take the time to check out ‘The Big Red One’. And while you’re at it, have a look at his Korean war film, ‘The Steel Helmet’.