Monday, October 09, 2006

Top 12 of World War II (plus 1)

As the days dwindle down to a precious few before Clint Eastwood unveils Flags of Our Fathers, AP movie writer David Germain marks the occasion by saluting twelve of the finest movies ever made about World War II, a list "covering combat, prison camps, the Holocaust, espionage and sabotage, life on the homefront, homecomings and even the dreary boredom of war for some of its combatants."

To his lineup, I would add -- if only for its historical importance and subsequent influence -- Guadalcanal Diary (1943), among the first and best of the flag-waving, crowd-pleasing WWII combat dramas designed to honor U.S. soldiers, boost homefront morale, and enhance America's image abroad during wartime. Based on Richard Tregaskis' best-selling book about the U.S. Marine invasion of the Solomon Islands -- one of the earliest American victories against Japanese forces -- this reasonably gritty and generally well-acted drama is remarkably persuasive for a movie supposedly set in the South Pacific, but shot on location at Camp Pendleton, California. Its episodic depiction of day-to-day survival under enemy fire has been repeatedly used as a template for similar jungle-combat scenarios filmed during and after WWII. More important, its introduction of a fighting unit comprised entirely of archetypes is the first significant employment of a lineup that would reappear, with only minor variations, in countless other war films.

Yes, friends, we're talking about the multi-ethnic platoon, the emblematic band of brothers that purposefully epitomizes the demographic diversity of America. It's a convention that has long been razzed and satirized by critics, academics and stand-up comics. During World War II, however, the cliche was a deadly serious element of many Hollywood movies. Indeed, the cliche was actively encouraged by the Office of War Information's Bureau of Motion Pictures, the government agency charged with advising and influencing the film industry's contributions to America's war effort. Why? Because during wartime, doggone it, all good Americans should transcend their differences and unite in common purpose against a common enemy.

For audiences accustomed to more graphically violent and morally ambiguous renderings of men at war, Guadalcanal Diary may seem like a quaint relic from a distant past when the Greatest Generation fought the good fight. (I don't have to tell you that one of the soldiers adopts a stray dog, do I?) But even cynics must admit that the movie has quite a few undeniably affecting moments. Chief among them: William Bendix, representing the common man as citizen soldier, improvises a prayer during a long dark night of Japanese bombardments. It's worth noting how the character's words were echoed more than a half-century later by Tom Hanks' schoolteacher-turned-soldier in Saving Private Ryan (No. 1 on Germain's Top 12).

Anything you'd care to add to the list?

5 comments:

Reel Fanatic said...

Mr. Germain's list was indeed a great resource, and very well written .. though it's not the most technically advanced flick on the list, my favorite would have to be Boorman's Hope and Glory, which I've watched probably six times by now

Bob Dowdall said...

During the war I was a little boy so the movies I remember were after I was 3, which would have been 1944. The first movie I ever saw was Topper with Cary Grant and Constance Bennett. They showed 16mm movies on Friday nights at the local Grange Hall in Fowlers Mill, which at that time was the middle of nowhere. (Now a chic area with ski runs and fancy restaurants and lovely expensive homes.) We arrived at the Grange Hall and I was quickly sucked in. I got up from my chair and walked behind the portable screen and yelled, “Daddy there is no body here” This sent the entire audience into gales of laughter. My poor Dad was most embarrassed but a couple weeks later I really embarrassed him at my first basket ball game. There I took off my long pants and ran out on the court in the middle of the game. Apparently I thought you had to wear shorts to play basketball. My Dad for the next forty years thought that was hysterical.

From WW2, Lassie was the one movie that stood out. I had two collies and the movie had such an impact that I cried my self to sleep for about three nights - no more Lassie movies.

I remember seeing WW2 movies as Bell for Aldano. Casablanca, Lifeboat and 30 Seconds Over Tokyo. Movies about WW2 that were made later that make my list are: Tora Tora Tora (watched part of it being made.), Das Boot, From Here to Eternity, Guns of Naveron, In Harms Way, The Longest
Day, Stalight 17 (my Mom and Dad went to see it but I was not allowed I was 15 saw it on Video at 50), Bridge on the River Kwai, Mr. Roberts and South Pacific round out the list. I know there are others but I cannot seem to remember.

Anonymous said...

Keith Gordon's beautiful, challenging "A Midnight Clear" is often overlooked in this genre. The final close up of Ethan Hawke in the film haunts me to this day.

- Crow T Robot

Josh said...

"The Great Escape" is one of my 10 favorite flicks of all time, so that gets my vote. And I second the call for "A Midnight Clear."

Berg said...

on TCM, Wankowiotz said that Dwight D Eisnehower called THE STORY OF G I JOE the best film ever made about WW II, and the film that made Mitchum a star ...