War Films



● ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC. Warner Brothers, 1943. Humphrey Bogart, Raymond Massey, Alan Hale, Julie Bishop, Ruth Gordon, Sam Levene, Dane Clark, Glenn Strange, and Ludwig Stossel. Written by John Howard Lawson, Guy Gilpatric, A.I. Bezzerides, and W.R. Burnett. Directed by Lloyd Bacon (and uncredited Raoul Walsh & Byron Haskin.)

● DAS BOOT (THE BOAT). German, 1981. Jurgen Prochnow, Herbert Gronemeyer, Klaus Wennemann, and Martin May. Written & directed by Wolfgang Petersen, based on the novel by Lothar Buccheim,

   A contemporary view and a weary look back from the other side.

   Action in the North Atlantic enlists Warners stock company into the Merchant Marine and pits them against ruthless Nazi U-Boat commanders as they ply the war-torn Atlantic (where else?) with much-needed supplies for the good guys.

   When it’s not bogged down by patriotic speeches and propaganda scenes, this is a dandy action flick with outstanding special effects: Massive convoys, ships blowing apart, U-Boats cruising the depths, and a freighter pulled to shore by hordes of cheering Russians, all done on studio sets, and done to mesh visually with the film as a whole — never quite convincing to my jaded eyes, but never jarringly unconvincing either.

   Unfortunately, when things aren’t blowing up there’s that script to get through. Bezzerides and Burnett, two authors I highly regard, are credited with “additional dialogue” and I sincerely hope they didn’t spew this hokum. Every time the action flags, someone has to raise an idiot question about the purpose of all this, and get patly put down by right-thinking Americans. Even when Bogey slugs some guy in a bar, it’s not just because he’s bothering the pretty chanteuse; the lout’s also blabbing about outgoing cargo boats in front of a “Loose Lips” sign.

   Almost forty years later, the Germans took a jaundiced but no less heroic look back at the same year in the same theater of operations. Das Boot opens with a celebratory orgy attended by outgoing naval officers drunk to walking-comatose state, the veterans trying to keep a straight face among the fiery youths shipping out for adventure and the glory of the Reich. Quite a contrast to Warners’ Action, but oddly moving in its own way.

   Once we get into the U-Boat, director Petersen and cinematographer Jost Vocano integrate smoothly into the cramped confines, with long tracking shots jostling through crowded passageways, tight close-ups and a camera that never seems more than elbow-length away from anything. Where Action in the North Atlantic goes for spectacle, Das Boot builds tension, with long stretches of fruitless patrolling, men getting on each other’s nerves, and a short burst of action that leads into even more tension as depth charges echo around the sub, and men bounce around like marbles in a tin can.

   The special effects here are on a smaller scale, but quite as effective as the showier stuff in Action. And in terms of character, the relatively unknown (to me) cast of Boot seemed more real than the actors I know and love from the earlier film. But this is not a put-down. Taken together, the two films make a fascinating and fun-to watch contrast as history seen then and seen now.




JUMP INTO HELL. Warner Brothers, 1955. Jacques Sernas (as Jack Sernas), Kurt Kasznar, Arnold Moss, Peter van Eyck, Norman Dupont, Lawrence Dobkin, Patricia Blair (as Pat Blake), Lisa Montell (as Irene Montwill). Writer: Irving Wallace. Director: David Butler.

   This somewhat obscure 1950s war film is a decidedly anti-communist, flag waving piece. And the flag being waved here is most assuredly the red, white, and blue. But not the one you might expect from Warner Brothers. No. Instead, it is the tricolor flag of the French Republic which is being proverbially hoisted here.

   Rather than taking us into an American unit in the Second World War or the Korean War, Jump Into Hell showcases the French military in its last stand against the Viet Minh communist revolutionaries at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. As an entry point into the story, the movie focuses primarily on four French soldiers who chose to volunteer for duty. The emphasis is on Captain Guy Bertrand (Jacques Sernas), who has never been in any real combat but was a German POW during the Second World War.

   Joining him are Captain Callaux (Kurt Kasznar), who seems to think that showcasing his bravery might help with his marital problems; Lieutenant Heldman (Peter van Eyck), who fought under Rommel, but is not a member of the Foreign Legion; and the youthful and decidedly innocent, Lieutenant Maupin (Norman Dupont).

   While there’s a subplot involving Bertrand’s illicit love affair with the wife of a soldier already based at Dien Bien Phu, most of the film is about how these four men adapt to life in a combat zone. As you might expect with a somewhat lesser war movie from the era, there’s a lot of stock footage in this one. Unfortunately, it’s exceedingly obvious and does serve to take the viewer out of the story.

   As far as direction and cinematography, it’s nothing special. Adequate, but not anything overly memorable one way or the other. There are some very good moments in Jump Into Hell such as when Callaux volunteers to get much-needed drinking water for his unit, but nothing that remotely compares to other combat films. All told, it’s a somewhat unique film because of its subject matter about the French in Indochina, but it’s not anything I’d recommend going out of your way to see.




COMMANDOS. 20th Century Fox, UK, 1968. Lee Van Cleef, Jack Kelly, Giampiero Albertini, Marino Masé, Götz George. Director: Armando Crispino.

   You probably know Jack Kelly best as James Garner’s co-star in Maverick, in which he portrayed Bart Maverick, brother to Bret (Garner). Outside of television, Kelly also appeared in numerous films throughout the 1950s, including a leading man role in the enjoyable, if somewhat clumsy, thriller The Night Holds Terror (1955) (reviewed here).

   In 1968, he would co-star with Lee Van Cleef, also best known for his work in the Western genre, in the Italian war film, Commandos. Based on a short story penned by Menachem Golan, who later co-owned Cannon Films with his cousin Yoram Globus, this macaroni combat film is better than you might expect. With a tight script, the movie doesn’t waste too much time with the requisite preliminary introductions. Indeed, within fifteen minutes or so, we are behind enemy lines in a daring raid.

   The plot follows Italian-American commandos who, under the leadership of Sgt. Sullivan (Van Cleef), are assigned the task of capturing oil wells in North Africa. But for this particular mission, they have a new leader, the greenhorn Captain Valli (Kelly). Sullivan, a hardened and shell-shocked combat veteran who lost men at Bataan, is wary of Valli. He knows the type. Too eager to prove himself. Too eager to send men to their deaths in pursuit of career advancement. This conflict between the two men gets to the heart of the film.

   There are other important elements as well. An Italian prostitute who finds herself caught between the Americans and the Italians. A Goethe-appreciating German officer who thinks he has struck up a real friendship with Valli. And a subplot involving an Italian fascist officer who leads a prison break. There are plenty of action scenes, of course. There are also the obligatory shots of desert tank warfare. All told, the war sequences are captured with verve and gusto.

   While it may not be nearly in the same league of many of the major studio war films released in the 1960s, Commandos has its own gritty charm. One final note. The screenplay is credited to four different writers. Among them, future giallo maestro Dario Argento.



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 BronisÅ‚aw 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.

Next Page »