War Films


TOBRUK. Universal Pictures, 1967. Rock Hudson, George Peppard, Nigel Green, Guy Stockwell, Jack Watson. Screenwriter: Leo Gordon. Director: Arthur Hiller.

   You have to review the movie that you watched, not the one you wished you’d seen. Such is the case with Arthur Hiller’s Tobruk, a war film helmed by a director best known for his cinematic adaptations of the works of Paddy Chayefsky and Neil Simon. While it’s a completely solid movie and adheres closes to the tropes of the “North African Second World War desert combat film” sub-genre (I made that up), the plot and dialogue never quite match the unique possibilities offered by the following premise. “A Canadian-British soldier who shuns heroism teams up with an idealistic German-Jewish commando to take destroy the Nazi oil depot in Tobruk, Libya.”

   Sounds like you’d have a good tale to tell, right? How two men from disparate backgrounds must find common ground in order to achieve a greater good that transcends their differences. How one man learns the value of sacrifice and heroism and finds, under the glare of the unforgiving desert sun, what it means to fight a cause worth fighting – and dying – for.

   But no. That’s the film I wish I had seen. Now, there are indeed flashes of potential scattered throughout the movie. There’s a powerful exchange in which Bergman (George Peppard), the German-Jewish commando explains to his Canadian counterpart, Major Donald Craig (Rock Hudson) what the war effort means to the Jewish people.

   And there’s the mention, too often forgotten today, of how Egyptian officers and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem were scheming to team up with the Nazis against the British in Egypt and Palestine. But all of this great material is ultimately wasted as the film bogs itself down in mild, inoffensively didactic lessons about human prejudice.

   Now, you may be asking yourself: why watch Tobruk after everything I just told you? Simple answer: the atmospherics and the combat scenes. Hiller does an exceptional job in staging the latter and gives the viewer a real powerful jolt to the senses.

   There’s the obligatory scene in which our hero (Hudson) attacks Nazis with a flamethrower and there’s also a beautifully crafted scene in which the Allies scare away a band of Arab tribesmen looking to exchange two prisoners for guns. The soundtrack, by Polish composer Bronisław Kaper, who also scored Gaslight (1944) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), works seamlessly with this visual material and gives it a gritty, sweaty feeling.


OPERATION EICHMANN. Allied Artists, 1961. Werner Klemperer, Ruta Lee, Donald Buka, Barbara Turner, John Banner. Director: R. G. Springsteen

   Arrogance. That was Eichmann’s defining trait. At least that is how it was presented in Operation Eichmann, a 1961 release from Allied Artists. Directed by R. G. Springsteen, best known for his extensive work with B-Westerns, the film is a deeply flawed, but nevertheless historically interesting feature about the rise and fall of SS officer Adolf Eichmann, the man considered instrumental to the logistics of the concentration camp system set up by the Nazis in Poland and Germany.

   German-American actor Werner Klemperer, whose father was Jewish, portrays Eichmann as an arrogant, obsessive, and paranoid man who is absolutely devoted to the Nazi cause. Although Klemperer may be best known to American audiences for his portrayal of Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes, his performance in this downbeat, grim feature demonstrates that he was an immensely talented actor also capable of handling serious dramatic roles.

   The film traces Eichmann from the height of his political power during the Nazi regime to his life on the run in Madrid, Kuwait, and Argentina. All the while, seeing himself as the natural heir to Hitler, Eichmann was also interested in wealth and women. As depicted in the film, it was Eichmann’s haughtiness and paranoia that did him in and allowed for Israeli intelligence agents to eventually capture him in Argentina and bring him back to Jerusalem for trial.

   The main problem with the film, aside from the fact that it looks and feels more like a TV show than a feature film, is that we never really get to know the film’s nominal hero: an Israeli intelligence agent who was a child in Auschwitz and remembers Eichmann’s brutality from his childhood. David (Donald Buka) is a cipher, a character that the audience never gets to really know. This is a real shame, for there could have been a much more gripping film here about a young boy who grows up seeking vengeance on Eichmann.

   Instead, Operation Eichmann presents David as a staunch moralist, more concerned about trying Eichmann than in killing him. Klemperer was also a far more compelling screen presence than Buka, allowing his fictionalized Eichmann to completely overshadow the unfortunately empty character of David. And without a compelling hero to root for, one is left with remembering Klemperer’s Eichmann more than anything else. Which is not necessarily terrible, given Klemperer’s stand out performance. But it didn’t do much to make me believe this movie is worth a second viewing.


BACK DOOR TO HELL. Lippert Pictures / 20th Century Fox, 1964. Jimmie Rodgers, Jack Nicholson, John Hackett, Annabelle Huggins, Conrad Maga, Johnny Monteiro. Director: Monte Hellman.

   For a low-budget combat film that doesn’t have a particularly compelling plot, Back Door to Hell is nevertheless worth a look. Directed by auteur Monte Hellman, the movie features a young Jack Nicholson in a starring role as one of three soldiers sent to the World War II-era Philippines for a reconnaissance mission.

   Nicholson, along with popular music singer Jimmie Rodgers and actor John Hackett, portray a diverse trio forged in fear as much as in valor. The three soldiers team up with a war weary Filipino guerrilla leader named Paco in a quest to free captives from the Japanese occupying forces. They also go on a daring mission to radio the American forces vital intelligence necessary to prepare for the forthcoming battle against the Japanese.

   Back Door to Hell, which was filmed on location in the Philippines, was made on a rather modest budget. And it shows. But with Hellman at the helm, it’s a far more stylish product than his mentor Roger Corman’s 1960 film Ski Troop Attack (reviewed here ).

   Indeed, there are some sequences that reminded me quite a bit of Anthony Mann’s work with James Stewart in the Western genre. In 1964, Hellman was a little known Hollywood director without a cult following. But that was all to change in the years ahead with the release of Ride the Whirlwind (released on television in 1968) and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). As for Jack Nicholson, he went on to a pretty good career as well.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

ESCAPE TO ATHENA. ITC Films, UK, 1979. Roger Moore, Telly Savalas, David Niven, Stefanie Powers, Claudia Cardinale, Richard Roundtree, Sonny Bono, Elliott Gould. Director: George P. Cosmatos.

   In the past several years of writing movie reviews, I’m more than certain I’ve used the word “uneven” to describe a movie. In fact, I’m sure I’ve used it fairly often, because let’s face it: a lot of movies are uneven. Some are even “highly uneven.” But nothing prepared me for the unevenness exhibited in the comedy/war film/adventure film mash-up that is Escape to Athena.

   Take the first half hour of this movie, for example. It’s a cross between a gritty WW2 thriller and a lighthearted imitation of Hogan’s Heroes.

   A bunch of Americans, as well as an Italian cook and British scholar, are being held captive in a German prison camp on a Greek island. The stalag commandant, Major Otto Hecht (Roger Moore) utilizes his prisoners’ free labor to dig up ancient Greek artifacts. Soon enough, he’s got two more prisoners on his hands: two recently captured USO performers, the wisecracking Charlie (Elliott Gould) and his traveling companion Dottie (Stefanie Powers). Gould plays it for laughs, more than once speaking in Yiddish. Mel Brooks was able to pull this type of balancing act off. It simply doesn’t work here.

   As far as the gritty thriller aspect, that’s also a focal point of the film’s first half-hour. Those scenes feel as if they were set in a different cinematic universe entirely. In the local town on the same Greek island, local resistance leader Zeno (Telly Savalas) is hoping to prevent the SS from executing more civilians. The contrast between these rather downbeat sequences and the lighthearted humorous (although decidedly not funny) moments in the stalag could not be greater.

   But somehow, despite all expectations on my part, the two distinctly different films eventually mesh into one somewhat enjoyable action film, following Zeno as he begins to work with the escapees from the prison camp to stop the Nazis from repelling an Allied invasion. Unfortunately, it takes about an hour until there’s a consistent tone to the movie. At that point, Escape to Athena becomes a standard action film, albeit one with an extraordinarily well-filmed motorcycle chase through the narrow alleyways of Rhodes.

   A couple of final thoughts. (1) Roger Moore, while always a delight to see on the screen, is not well cast in his role as a German officer. His faux accent isn’t convincing anyone and (2) Lalo Schifrin’s score, which includes Greek influenced renditions of American patriotic tunes, works quite well. It is one of the things that is consistently good in this otherwise extremely uneven film.


TARGET ZERO. Warner Brothers, 1955. Richard Conte, Peggie Castle, Charles Bronson Richard (Wyler) Stapley, L. Q. Jones, Chuck Connors. Screenplay: James Warner Bellah & Sam Rolfe. Director: Harmon Jones.

   In the Korean War movie Target Zero, Richard Conte stars as Lt. Tom Flagler, a hard-nosed soldier devoted to ensuring that his men get through the war alive. It’s not a bad trait to have, especially given that Flagler’s patrol has been cut off from their main unit: Easy Company. Joining the patrol for the perilous journey in hostile territory is Ann Galloway (Peggie Castle), a United Nations scientist working in the Korean peninsula, and a British tank crew.

   For a war movie, there’s comparatively little action for large segments of the movie. Indeed, the movie is more of a character-driven, than a plot-driven, film. Although the plot – lost patrol seeks to make its way to safety – it’s the film’s story, or multiple stories – that make it worth watching. Flagler is, on the surface, tough as nails and reminds Ann that “everyone fights his own war” as an excuse for some of the behavior he encounters from soldiers under his command.

   But it’s clear that the war has gotten to Flagler. His effort to please his troops and to pretend he cares about them personally is beginning to look like a charade, a mere veil to cover his own insecurities and worries. Fortunately, Flagler has a relatively competent bunch under his command. There’s Sgt. Vince Gaspari (Charles Bronson), Pvt. Moose (Chuck Connors), and Felix (L.Q. Jones in a standout supporting role). There’s also a South Korean soldier and a Native American soldier in his patrol, giving the 1950s film the racial diversity often found in World War II combat films.

   You’ll probably be none too surprised to learn that there’s a romantic angle to the movie. Despite his initial resistance, Flagler finds himself falling for Ann. Romance during wartime is a standard film theme. But romance blossoming amidst combat in an otherwise all male patrol is somewhat unique and actually works well to flesh out Flagler’s personality.

   Still, Target Zero is primarily a war film, not a romantic drama. There’s a relatively harrowing scene in which the patrol machine guns down a group of North Korean soldiers attempting to escape after Flagler and his men successfully commandeering a communist convoy in order to steal their petrol for the British tank crew. The final battle sequence, however, feels like a bit of a let down. The ending, in which the patrol finds itself on a ridge surrounded by thousands of North Korean troops, has a deus ex machina aspect to it. Did someone say, “Call in air support?”


THE TRAIN. United Artists, 1964. Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau. Director: John Frankenheimer.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

TONIGHT WE RAID CALAIS. 20th Century Fox, 1943. Annabella, John Sutton, Lee J. Cobb, Beulah Bondi, Blanche Yurka, Howard Da Silva. Director: John Brahm.

   Although Tonight We Raid Calais is most certainly a war film, it is emphatically not a combat film. Rather, it belongs to that particular subset of movies, filmed and released as the war was raging in Europe, in which ordinary people are forced to make a choice between accommodating themselves to the Nazi occupation or fighting back against the Third Reich despite great personal risk to their families. It’s a morale booster, to be sure, but one benefits from John Brahm’s direction and Lucien Ballard’s cinematography.

   Much like the superb Edge of Darkness (1943) starring Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan, which I reviewed here, Tonight We Raid Calais tells that story of a small-town community that summons the will to take on the Nazis. Instead of a Norwegian fishing village, this film unfolds in northern France, not too far from the eponymous port city that sits across the English Channel.

   Geoffrey Carter (John Sutton), a French-speaking British commando lands in Nazi-occupied France with a mission. He is to seek out the precise location of a German munitions factory and to find a means of relaying that information to the RAF. After attacking and killing German soldiers, Carter hides out in a French farmhouse. The family, lead by patriarch M. Bonnard (Lee J. Cobb) is a house divided: Bonnard is a staunch French patriot opposed to the Nazis; his wife (Beulah Bondi) is grief-stricken by the loss of her son, Pierre; and his daughter, Odette (Annabella) who distrusts the British and is ready to somewhat accommodate herself with the German presence in her country.

   The plot, which runs at a steady clip, follows Carter as he both tries to ensure that Odette doesn’t betray his plans and works to enlist the local townsfolk into a plan to burn their crops at night so as to give the RAF a clear view of the factory. Getting in his way is the occasionally bumbling, but clearly devious Sgt. Block (a truly miscast Howard Da Silva who simply is not believable as a Nazi) who has more than a fleeting romantic interest in Odette.

   What really makes Tonight We Raid Calais a standout film, however, is not the rather standard “commando behind enemy lines” storyline, but rather a subplot that takes place (Spoiler Alert) toward the end of the film. After the local German commander executes M. Bonnard and his wife for their resistance activities, Odette takes it upon herself to avenge her parents’ deaths.

   Indeed, due to the aforementioned actions of the character portrayed by Annabella, Tonight We Raid Calais also belongs to the “female revenge thriller” subgenre that can exist comfortably within film noir, action films, or martial arts films. In this case, the female revenge narrative occurs within the context of a war film, making Annabella’s character much more memorable than the British commando she is aiding.

   Overall, this is one of the better World War II films released during the course of the war. It’s at times overly sentimental, but with an edge to it. There are some genuinely tense moments, much of it due to Brahm getting the most of his actors, including Lee J. Cobb who, although he was in his early 30s at the time of filming, was very convincing in his role a late middle-aged French farmer willing to sacrifice his life for a cause greater than himself.


ATTACK! United Artists, 1956. Jack Palance, Eddie Albert, Lee Marvin, Robert Strauss, Richard Jaeckel, Buddy Ebsen. Director: Robert Aldrich.

   Jack Palance, whose extensive movie career ranged from art house to grindhouse, starred in two World War II films directed by auteur Robert Aldrich; namely, Attack! (1956) and Ten Seconds to Hell (1959). I happened to watch the second of these two films about a year ago and went so far as to re-watch it about six months after that to get a better appreciation for Aldrich’s skillful – one might even say, singular – aesthetic.

   As far as war films go, Ten Seconds to Hell is a fairly untraditional one, both in terms of subject matter and visual presentation. In that movie, Palance, along with Jeff Chandler, portray defeated German soldiers tasked with dismantling unexploded Allied ordinances left in the obliterated cities of the newly defeated Third Reich. Filmed in black and white, the movie presents the men in shades of grey, reflecting their morally compromised position as former German soldiers now nominally working for the Allies.

   The film is not only bereft of active combat sequences, but it is also an exceedingly claustrophobic one, with scenes often filmed in confined, semi-interior settings in which the near possibility of death looms large over the proceedings. Death, such as it occurs, is the indirect, long-term result of prior human action rather than a fate delivered immediately at the hands of a gun or a tank turret.

   The same cannot be said for Attack!, the first of the two Aldrich-Palance war film collaborations. In this earlier film, death is a cruel, personal fate that comes as the direct, immediate result of human action or, as in the case of the opening sequence of the film, human inaction. The movie opens fairly quickly into a gritty combat scene. In a battle set outside a Belgian city, Lt. Joe Costa (Palance) is hoping to get support for his men, but unfortunately for his men that doesn’t come to pass. The reason, as we soon learn is that the company’s CO, Captain Cooney (Eddie Albert in a stellar performance) is a drunken coward who never wanted to be in combat and just wants to make his father proud.

   After the disaster on the battlefield, Costa, along with Lt. Harold Woodruff (William Smithers) are determined to let Lt. Col. Clyde Bartlett (Lee Marvin) know how little they think of Cooney. There’s a problem, however. Cooney hails from the same Southern town as Bartlett. Not only that, the two men have known each other since childhood and Bartlett once clerked for Cooney’s father, a local judge who we are to understand to be a big man in a small pond. Bartlett, who isn’t completely unaware as to what type of man Captain Cooney is, isn’t about to do anything to jeopardize his relationship with his friend’s politically influential father.

   When Cooney orders Costa and his men into a yet another unnecessarily dangerous combat situation, Costa loses his cool. He threatens Cooney with death should the clearly incompetent captain falter again in his judgment. Not surprisingly, Costa and his men get pinned down in a farmhouse, only to be deprived of assistance from Cooney. It’s at that moment that we realize that Costa was deadly serious about returning back to base and murdering his increasingly erratic and inebriated captain.

   This, of course, makes Attack! a particularly subversive combat film, one that the Defense Department officially refused to grant production assistance. The enemy as it is presented in Attack! is not so much the anonymous, nearly faceless German soldiers on the opposite side of the battlefield, but rather the company’s commanding officer.

   Albert portrays the drunken, cowardly Cooney with nearly perfect combination of pathos and rage, making him an individual to be pitied as much as feared. Trust me when I say that the scene in which the mortally wounded Costa returns to confront the drunken, whimpering Cooney is wartime drama at its best.

   Aldrich, far more than most directors, knew how to get the very best out of Palance, as his performance is simply breathtaking to behold in this gritty, morally complex war film. I wouldn’t go so far as to posit that Attack! is a particularly pleasant viewing experience, but it’s certainly a nearly unforgettable one.


SKI TROOP ATTACK. The Filmgroup, 1960. Michael Forest, Frank Wolff, Wally Campo, Richard Sinatra, James Hoffman. Screenwriter: Charles B. Griffith. Director: Roger Corman.

   What’s better: a bloated high budget war film that reaches for aesthetic and narrative greatness, but completely misses the mark or a decidedly downscale production that doesn’t aspire for greatness, but provides the viewer with a decent enough story and some well choreographed combat sequences?

   I ask because the latter is how I’d describe Roger Corman’s Ski Troop Attack, a movie that is by no means an outstanding combat film, but one, thanks to screenwriter Charles B. Griffith, with just enough realistic sounding dialogue to make it a perfectly watchable low budget charmer.

   Filmed in South Dakota over the course of ten days, Ski Troop Attack follows the exploits of a group of American soldiers behind enemy lines in snowbound Nazi Germany.

   On skis, the men scout out the area and eventually make their way to a railroad bridge that they intend to destroy. Leading the group is the by the book (of course!) Lt. Factor (Michael Forest) who repeatedly clashes with the hot headed Sgt. Potter (a nearly perfectly cast Frank Wolff).

   Joining them for the mission are the Southern good old boy Pvt. Herman Grammelsbacher (Richard Sinatra) and the ethnic Yankee Pvt. Ed Ciccola (Wally Campo). There’s tension among the men, of course, but none of it rises to the level of actual deep animosity. It’s more of a friendly sort, exacerbated by wartime. In some sense, what makes Ski Troop Attack watchable is that it is at its core a buddy film.

   That said, the film is unmistakably low budget, with no big special effects or gigantic set pieces. But at a running time just shy of 70 minutes, the film nevertheless sort of works as it was surely intended: as temporary escapism. Look for scene in which a completely incongruous jazz score by Fred Katz plays in the background as three of the American soldiers line the railway bridge with explosives. It’s so creatively bizarre that it actually makes this quirky film more valuable to posterity than it naturally had any right to be.


BATAAN. MGM, 1943. Robert Taylor, George Murphy, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Nolan, Lee Bowman, Robert Walker, Desi Arnaz, Barry Nelson. Director: Tay Garnett.

   Although there are a few brief moments of levity, Bataan is overall a rather bleak portrait of men in wartime. Filmed on set and released in the midst of the Second World War following the notable defeat of U.S. forces in the Philippines to Japanese Imperial forces, Bataan is a brooding, claustrophobic movie and one notably bereft of flag-waving patriotism or uplifting musical fanfare.

   With a solid cast, one that features Robert Taylor and Lloyd Nolan in starring roles, this combat film is hardly one of the very best, but it remains a gripping and poignant reminder of the grim realities of modern warfare. The quasi-mythical plot is something straight out of The Alamo. A ragtag group of misfits from various American ethnic groups under the command of a surly leader, Sgt. Bill Dane (Robert Taylor), are forced into a last man standing suicide mission. Low on supplies and fatigued by war, they have been tasked with the nominally impossible mission of blowing up a bridge to slow the oncoming Japanese advance.

   Making matters even more complicated is the threat of malaria and the fact that one man in the unit (Lloyd Nolan) may be hiding a secret from his past, one that involves his past interactions with Sgt. Dane.

   Bataan works best as a gritty combat film. Indeed, the action sequences are particularly memorable. The same, however, cannot be said for much of the dialogue, a lot of which feels artificial and stilted. The lack of women in the film is also particularly noticeable, making this film really more about male friendship in the face of imminent death than anything else. This is a man’s world, one replete with danger, and, even though there is a brief allusion to a romantic subplot, it’s one that is never developed.

   That’s actually for the best, as it avoids the pitfalls of far too many war films that have included some sort of romance to either offset the realistic violence or to appeal to a female movie going audience. Bataan is about men in wartime, all of who know that death lurks just around the corner in the steamy, tropical jungles that fate has chosen to ensconce them.

BATTLE OF THE BULGE. Warner Brothers, 1965. Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, Robert Ryan, Dana Andrews, George Montgomery, Ty Hardin, Pier Angeli, Barbara Werle, Charles Bronson. Director: Ken Annakin.

   For a war film that runs nearly three hours long, Battle of the Bulge unfortunately ends up feeling surprisingly incomplete. That’s not to say that there aren’t some great scenes and solid performances by a well known cast; rather, it’s just that the movie, when viewed in its entirety, doesn’t leave the viewer with a particularly compelling reason why this particular combat film is so much better, or so different, from others that came before it. The fact that the film isn’t particularly historically accurate doesn’t help matters, either.

   Directed by Ken Annakin, a craftsman known for his work in the British comedy genre, Battle of the Bulge was both photographed and exhibited in 70mm, providing the motion picture a truly larger than life glimpse of combat and ferocious tank battles. With an all-star cast, including Henry Fonda, Robert Ryan, Dana Andrews, Charles Bronson, and Telly Savalas, it’s difficult not to enjoy the movie for these fine actors’ presences alone. Add to that an exceptional performance by Robert Shaw as a fervent German tank commander and you’ve got an enviable ensemble of top talent.

   Even so, the movie just doesn’t have enough tension or compelling subplots to make it a particularly memorable combat film. In some ways, it feels as if all these fine actors where merely going through the motions, playing their parts well but not giving their characters distinct idiosyncratic personalities. We never get a real sense of how the war has truly affected the American soldiers we are supposed to root for. And without that, Battle of the Bulge ends up being interesting to look at and engaging enough to continue watching until the end, but comes across a little too much like a documentary, or at least an historical recreation component of a documentary, for its own good.

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