George Bernard Shaw, Hillaire Belloc and GK Chesterton

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Making Lists of War Films

Available from 6th June
Being male and an internet user, I’m a sucker for lists. It seems that currently everything on the internet that isn't porn or a cat video is a Buzzfeed-style list. And being an over-educated male in his 30s, I’m obsessed with World War Two (more of which here). So, since it’s the anniversary of D-Day – and I have a book out on the subject (right) – I thought I’d compile a list of war movies.

But it’s not that simple. I mean, there must be a Top Ten Classic War Movies. You can ink in half a dozen straight away: Where Eagles Dare; A Bridge Too Far; The Great Escape; The Dam Busters; Battle of Britain; Bridge on the River Kwai – but are they great movies? The story of the Battle of Britain is exciting and stirring because the story of the real events is astonishing and stirring, especially if you’re British. But the film itself, if memory serves, is rather pedestrian. Likewise, the achievements of Barnes Wallace and the Dam Busters make a good story (although it’s effect on the war has been overstated) but is it a great film? I'm not sure. 

Where Eagles Dare is on the cusp, too. It’s more of a spy story than a war story. And it does veer on the side of the ridiculous. There’s probably a list of Preposterous War Movies, which would undoubtedly include The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes, and be topped by the most absurd of the lot, Escape to Victory. (I suspect the idiotically-spelt Inglourious Basterds is in this category too, but I've not seen it.)

Then there are the Important War Movies, like The Longest Day and Dunkirk. And then the Meaningful War Movies like Catch 22, which, let’s be honest, is a bit of a mess. And there's A Matter of Life and Death, a popular ‘classic’ which I find to be insufferably naff. Then there are more recent classics like Saving Private Ryan; Letters from Iwo Jima; Flags of Our Father; The Thin Red Line which I’m prepared to believe is every bit as boring as most people say it is.

But which list does Schindler’s List go? Confession: I’ve never seen. I just haven’t. I bought it on VHS, then my video recorder broke and I switched to DVDs. But is it a ‘great war film’ given it’s more about the effects of the war than the war itself? Also in this category Wartime Movies is Casablanca which is pretty much the perfect movie. Funny, moving, evocative with the perfect ending. Plus there’s the Indiana Jones movies where the Nazis provide some good villains and plenty of cannon fodder - but it's not actually Wartime.

Oh, it's also confusing and arbitrary. Ultimately, the lists are meaningless. So here’s a list that’s at least meaningful to me. I love all the classics, however you define them, but here are some war films that have stuck with me for a variety of reasons.

War Movies I’ve Never Forgotten
Downfall (2004) – A war film told from Hitler’s perspective. Genius. Hitler is tired, furious and insane. And everyone around him is terrified. This is a not a film anyone can forget in a hurry.

The Heroes of Telemark (1965) – I suspect the Norwegians are offended by this movie given Hollywood stars are playing their war heroes, but Norwegians are decent chaps, so probably don’t want to make a fuss. I haven’t seen this film for years, but the bit that really sticks out for me a section of the movie that’s completely silent. No soundtrack. No extra suspense needed. Just sit and watch the drama. Have I remembered this right? Comments below.

Escape from Sobibor (1987) – I’ve not seen this movie referred to or mentioned since I saw it at school. Someone had it on VHS. It’s a TV movie about a mass-escape from a death camp. I remember that having seen it, it puts The Great Escape into perspective.

Conspiracy (2001) – Kenneth Branagh at his chilling, creepy best as SS-Obergruppenf├╝hrer Reinhard Heydrich (I obviously cut and pasted that from Wikipedian) in this BBC/HBO TV movie about the 1942 Wannsee Conference where the Final Solution was put into action. Brilliantly written by Loring Mandel.

Operation Daybreak (1975) – Again, someone had a VHS of this film at school. It stayed with me a long time, although I can no longer remember the details of it. Looking it up, I see that it’s about the attempted assassination of SS-Obergruppenf├╝hrer Reinhard Heydrich from the film, Conspiracy. All I do remember is the intrigue and the secrecry and the realisation that a lot of the war was not running up beaches with guns or clearing machine gun nests, but keeping your mouth shut and trying to act normal.

To Be Or Not to Be (1983) – This Mel Brooks remake isn’t really a war film, but a screwball comedy set during the war. But it has a good heart to it and genuine peril. It stayed with me because of the Hitler parody song which I found very funny, having not seen The Producers up to that point. If you'd seen The Producers first, this might have been a bit of a disappointment.

Five Graves to Cairo (1943) – I watched this film on a small TV on a canal boat on a family holiday about 25 years ago. I hadn’t planned to watch it, but found that once it was started, I couldn’t turn it off. It's probably dreadful. But I've never forgotten it.

Black Book (2006) – Tense, brilliant, intriguing and shocking. And at the time, the most expensive Dutch movie ever made.

Good (2008) – Viggo Mortenson and Jason Isaacs play friends who drift apart through the pressures of life in Germany during the war. According to Wikipedia “The film was poorly received by critics and its release was limited. It currently holds a 34% Rotten rating on RottenTomatoes.” Seems that they all found it a bit meh. I rather liked it. I also see it's based on a play, which isn't surprising. It's a bit talky.

Life is Beautiful (1997) – Is it possible to have a romantic comedy partly take place in Concentration Camp? Yes. Yes it is. Amazing.

Come and See (1985) – Once you’ve seen this film you can’t unsee it. Some critics rate it as the best war film of all time. They may be right. It is certainly the most harrowing as it covers the Nazi occupation of a Eastern Europe where unspeakable atrocities happened.  This film brilliantly highlights how disorientating, disgusting and destructive war really is.

And finally, Enigma (2001) – This was memorable because it was a bit of a disappointment. I really enjoyed the book and was looking forward to it. Robert Harris spins a good yarn. Plus I love the subject matter: Bletchley Park and codebreaking. Heck, I wrote three series of a Radio 4 sitcom based on that world (Hut 33). But it was a bit underwhelming. Mind you, I know from personal experience that doing stories about breaking a very complicated code is not easy.

So I decided to do it again in a novel I’ve just written called Crossword Ends in Violence (5). It features Bletchley Park, crosswords, chess, spies, D-Day and a Russian Gulag. I sometimes describe it as Robert Harris meets Terry Pratchett. Or a quintessentially British thriller. But you can make up your own mind from June 6th, when it’s available as an e-book HERE.

Do please leave a comment about your favourite war films - and why they stuck in your mind.