Six films for the sixth of June
This Monday marks the 78th anniversary of the Allied landings of Operation Overlord — a good opportunity to share my June tradition. That is, I watch a rotation of classic World War 2 movies. Saving Private Ryan will not be on this list; see Andrew Klavan for why. This list deals exclusively with films about the Western Allies in the European Theater of Operations. There will be no Eastern Front or Pacific Theater movies (although you should check out Tora Tora Tora if you have never seen it).
The Longest Day
The classic among classics. This one really needs no introduction. It is a reasonably accurate re-telling of the Normandy landings with many touches of authenticity. This was based on Cornelius Ryan's definitive history of the same name, which also demands a place in any World War 2 library. The cast is absolutely star-studded and a list of who's who for this era in Hollywood. If you have never seen this one before, then there will never be a better time to do so.
A Bridge Too Far
The venerable Cornelius Ryan (an Irish-born correspondent who was attached to Patton's 3rd Army) is back with the follow-up to The Longest Day. This one covers Operation Market Garden, the infamous attempt to seize the bridge crossing the Rhine and into Germany's industrial heartland. This movie was slightly controversial back in its day for being an over-bloated production just to show an Allied defeat. However, the movie has largely been well regarded in retrospect for its attention to detail and high levels of authenticity. This is my favorite film, regardless of genre, and I make sure to watch it every year — cannot be recommended enough.
To Hell and Back
Audie Murphy's own story, starring the man himself. This one is a bit more old-fashioned in storytelling than the aforementioned films, but was always a favorite of mine. Once again, this one is based on a book that is worth reading in its own right. Honestly, there is not much to say about this one; it is an old-fashioned story about a patriotic American rising from poverty to being one of the most decorated men in U.S. Army history without glossing over the effects war can have on a man. The use of Murphy to portray himself really lends a lot of credibility to this movie and makes it absolutely worth watching.
The Big Red One
Sam Fuller's masterpiece is The Big Red One. Sam Fuller and star Lee Marvin both served in the war, and once again, this helps lend authenticity to the storytelling. This is not the story of glorious battles and elaborate operations. Indeed, this is the story of the cohesion and camaraderie of the men within a squad. Although, if I had to be honest, the main reason I enjoy this one is because it is one of the few noteworthy performances of Mark Hamill where he does not play Luke Skywalker.
This is a very close second for my favorite film of all time. Though this movie is set in war and the action is serious, with people getting killed, this movie is actually a bit of a comedy. For starters, the concept is pretty humorous: an overworked and underappreciated unit in the U.S. Army fighting in France comes across information about gold the Nazis looted and are storing in a bank behind enemy lines. The squad decided to use their command-imposed leave to steal the money. As Crap Game, played by Don Rickles, says, "it could be the perfect crime." Along with Clint Eastwood, the movie also stars Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland. There are some anachronisms, but it is all in the service of good fun.
Hell Is for Heroes or Go for Broke
All right, I lied. There are seven movies on the list, but I wanted to stick with the 6 motif. Both of these are equally worth watching (although Go for Broke is free on YouTube). Hell Is for Heroes is a relatively small production that has some neat bits. For instance, one detail I recall reading in the book Armageddon that is reflected in this movie is that the Germans nightly would probe Allied positions, and the Americans would patrol perimeters. At any rate, the movie is about a squad left behind by their company on the Siegfried line. The movie is also noteworthy for featuring younger versions of actors at the beginning of their careers, such as Steve McQueen, Bobby Darin, Bob Newhart, and James Coburn.
The other movie in this listing is Go for Broke, a movie made shortly after the war and starring several veterans who served in the unit portrayed. That unit is the incomparable 442nd Infantry Regiment. The unit was made up of patriotic second-generation Japanese-Americans or nisei (pronounced knee-say). Early in the film, the ni-sei (二世) are looked on with suspicion by their fellow Americans and have to prove themselves with faithful service that their loyalty lies with America. The veteran actors once again lend credibility to the story of the most decorated unit in U.S. Army history (receiving, among others, 21 Medals of Honor in two years).
Breason Jacak is a pen name.