Based on the columns of popular war correspondent Ernie Pyle (Burgess Meredith), Story of G. I. Joe was released in 1945 at the very end of WWII. The movie follows “C” Company of the 18th Infantry as it fights across North Africa and up through Italy, focusing on a handful of ordinary soldiers and the well-liked Lieutenant Walker (Robert Mitchum). Actual veterans of the Italian campaign, waiting on the west coast for deployment to the Pacific, played extras in the movie.
Check out our spotlight of director William Wellman for reviews of his other war movies. You’ll notice his war films avoid unrealistic heroics in favor of poignant stories of ordinary men under hellish circumstances.
Spotlight: William Wellman and His War Movies
Director William Wellman served in France during WWI with the Lafayette Flying Corp. He put this experience to good use in the 1927 WWI movie Wings, winner of Best Picture at the very first Academy Awards ceremony.
Wellman’s war movies bring war down to the human level. The 1949 movie Battleground tells the story of the Battle of Bulge from the point of view a company of the 101st Airborne. The men are moved around in the snow from unknown point to unknown point, trying to keep warm, scrounging for something to eat, hoping not to lose another friend. They don’t even know for sure what country they are in.
Gregory Peck plays an Irish Monsignor, who, during WWII, rallies an unlikely group of people to shelter Allied soldiers and Jews in Nazi-occupied Rome. The events in The Scarlet and the Black are inspired by true events, and the character of Monsignor O’Flaherty, inspired by a real Vatican priest. Gregory Peck is brilliant here as the lively and cunning O’Flaherty who goes up against Coronel Herbert Kappler, the head of Nazi operatives in Rome. Kappler, in turn, is deftly played by Christopher Plummer. While cold and ambitious, the colonel is also a dedicated family man—certainly not a one-dimensional character.
Plummer and Peck don’t share too much time on-screen, but when they do it’s a delight. Shot on location in Rome, this beautiful film features great acting and a well-placed plot. A must-see in my book.
Based on the life of Wilhelm Furtwangler, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Taking Sides examines Furtwangler’s role during the Nazi era. Was he a collaborator as hard-nosed U.S. Major Arnold sets out to prove? Or was he an artist who walked a tightrope as he tried to keep his music separate from politics?
Set in 1937 Nanjing, China, as the Japanese invade and pillage the city during the Sino-Japanese War, The Flowers of War is a heart wrenching but very emotional story of the evils and atrocities of war. Thrown together as a means of survival, Christian Bale, an American mortician, a group of young Chinese school girls, and a band of courtesans hide in an old Nanjing church. With nothing in common, the three groups learn to pull together as death and destruction surrounds them.
Bravery, romance, and wonderful acting from the entire cast make this Golden Globe nominated movie one not to miss.
Even though this movie is listed as a foreign film, it is primarily in English, with small portions in Mandarin.
I’ve seen the clip of Robin Williams saying, “Gooooood morning, Vietnam!” loads of times and always wanted to watch the film; I finally viewed Good Morning, Vietnam for the first time after his death.
As an irreverent airman and a DJ in 1965 Saigon, Adrian Cronauer is in Vietnam to provide a bit of comedic relief to the troops (and as a bonus, irritate his superiors). Williams’ comedic talents are on full display. His monologues, voices, and impersonations, as well as his physicality, keep your eyes glued to the screen. And while he excels as a comedian, he handles the dramatic turns admirably as well.
The music is amazing, highlighting many hits of the 1960s. Check out the soundtrack that nabbed Williams a Grammy (it features a mix of Williams’ comic routines and music).
Check out Roger Ebert’s take on Williams’ performance and the film.
During WWI, one of the most notorious battles of the war was fought on the Gallipoli Peninsula in the crumbling Ottoman Empire. French, British, Australian, and New Zealand troops suffered a great defeat against the Turks. Gallipoli is the story of two young Australians who join the army for adventure and soon find themselves in a strange land facing overwhelming odds.
The first Australian set half of the movie is full of humor and boyish adventure building to the tense and poignant end. Mel Gibson plays one of the two young soldiers in one of his very early roles.
You can also watch a documentary about the battle in Gallipoli.
Did you know? 100 years ago, on June 28, 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the catalyst that started World War I.
Grand Illusion (1937)
Three French officers are captured and held as prisoners of war by the Germans in World War I. Lt. Marechal was a mechanic before the war; Lt. Rosenthal is from a wealthy banking family; and Capt. De Boeldieu is from an aristocratic military family. The camp commander, Capt. Fon Rauffenstein, feels a great affinity for Boeldieu, but Boeldieu sees that the world of de Boeldieus and von Rauffensteins has passed.
This POW movie has many scenes we have learned to expect: the camp show, digging a tunnel and depositing the dirt in the garden, and unhappy Russians. The beautiful black and white cinematography, the humor, and the poignancy of each of the men’s stories make this a memorable movie. Missing this movie is strictly verboten!
In French with English subtitles.
For more on the film, check out the articles on TCM.com. And for other films set during WWI, check out our recommended movie list.
Paths of Glory (1957)
In the French army during World War I, in order to gain promotion, General Mireau orders an impossible attack against the Germans. When the attack fails, Mireau orders the court martial and execution of three men as an example to the rest of the men. Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas) is appalled and determined to give the men an honest defense, but the powers above have already decided the ending to this story. The greatest enemy isn’t always the men in the other trench, but your own officers. Directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Looking for more WWI films? Check out our list of recommended movies.
Army of Shadows = L’Armee des Ombres (1969)
Produced in France in 1969, Director Jean-Pierre Melville’s film was not available in the U.S. until 2007. The “army of shadows” is a group of French Resistance fighters who must use their wits and courage to survive in the Vichy France as they spy on the Nazis and instigate acts of sabotage.
This is not your typical action-packed war drama; instead, Melville focuses on the fighters’ states of mind. In doing so, he captures the moral difficulties the Resistance encountered as they fight a brutal enemy and protect themselves and comrades whose arrests or mistakes placed them in danger.
In French with English subtitles.
For more on the film, visit the Criterion Collection website, plus Rotten Tomatoes and Roger Ebert.