A very happy Independence Day to you, and Treason Day to my friends from across the pond. Who knew that a bunch of hot-headed vandals from Boston would create all of this by throwing some tea in Boston Harbor. Sounds like the guys I grew up with.
We’re celebrating our 243rd year of independence from Great Britain. My erstwhile rucking partner and buddy—my English Bulldog, who was born on the 4th of July—and I will get an early start and binge a bunch of military films. Since we recently celebrated the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings less than a month ago, we decided this year will be a strictly World War II binge affair.
And yes, there are tons of great period war films, so to narrow it down to just five is tough, but here’s what’s playing at our hacienda this year. Feel free to come over and enjoy them with us, but knock loud—the surround sound will be cranked up to drown out the bulldog’s snoring.
5. “The Great Raid” (2002)
A well-made and underrated film that never had a chance with audiences after Miramax sat on it for over a year and gave it little fanfare when it was finally released. It’s a true story of the 6th Ranger Battalion that rescued more than 500 prisoners from the Bataan Death March in the Philippines. As the Japanese were forced back across their shrinking empire, they were killing POWs. The Rangers were tasked with getting into position at the POW camp in Cabanatuan far behind Japanese lines and get the prisoners out before they could be executed.
Starring Benjamin Bratt, James Franco, Max Martini, Joseph Fiennes, and Connie Nielsen, all of the characters, with the exception of who Fiennes portrayed, were actual people who took part in the raid. The filmmakers give great credit to the Filipino guerrillas led by Cpt. Juan Pajota, who created a diversionary attack and held the Japanese quick-reaction forces from reaching the camp.
Lt. Henry Mucci (Bratt) is the commander of the Rangers. Cpt. Bob Prince (Franco) plans and leads the raid. Nielsen is the real-life Margaret Utinsky, who smuggled medicine into Cabanatuan for the POWs while working with the Manila underground.
While the final credits roll, the film features actual war footage of the aftermath of the raid, and shows the POWs being returned to U.S. control. There are also scenes of them arriving back in the States. They were not forgotten.
4. “Battleground” (1949)
This is a fictionalized but highly-accurate film about the Battle of the Bulge and the 101st Airborne at Bastogne. It was MGM’s highest-grossing film in over five years when it was released. It won two Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Writing, and nominated for Best Picture, Director, Actor in a Supporting Role (James Whitmore), and Best Film Editing.
The film centers around the battle-hardened veterans of the 327th Glider Infantry, but the fictitious “Item Company” as glider regiments had only eight companies. Whitmore was outstanding as the hard-bitten platoon sergeant Kinnie; while Van Johnson, playing a typical paratrooper, Pfc. Holley, is always looking for an angle. Marshall Thompson is Pvt. Layton, a replacement who no one wants to know because replacements all get killed so soon. The outstanding cast also features a young James Arness and an even younger Ricardo Montalbán as an L.A. kid intrigued by his first glimpse of snow. George Murphy and John Hodiak also star.
It shows the men of the 101st at their best and worst against overwhelming odds to hold Bastogne before they were relieved. This was an unusual film, as it had none of the typical bluster and clichés of war films of the time and showed the men fighting a dirty, cold, messy battle, where all of them just wanted to get out in one piece. Excellent film—Whitmore alone is worth watching this one.
3. “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (1970)
This huge blockbuster made to show the attack on Pearl Harbor was meticulously done and creates appropriate tension and drama of how all of the events played out, even though we knew beforehand the Japanese were going to attack.
The film shows both the Japanese and American perspectives equally. Many of the leading Japanese members of the military—including Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, who designed the attack on Pearl Harbor—didn’t want war with America. But the hotheads in the government ruled the day and got their war (sounds vaguely familiar).
The American perspective shows plenty of bureaucratic inadequacy, poor judgment, ill-preparedness, and just plain ol’ bad luck. The only thing that favors the Americans in this battle was the aircraft carriers, Japan’s primary targets, weren’t in port. The timing didn’t work out for them in that aspect.
The film had a nearly documentary feel for the way it stuck to the events and timeline of the battle. The final 35-45 minutes is the actual attack. Filmmakers didn’t have the advantage of CGI but was still portrayed quite well.
With an all-star American and Japanese cast, the actors take second fiddle to the story as it unfolds. Character development is never considered. This was a grand undertaking and the filmmakers created an epic…which the battle was.
2. “The Longest Day” (1962)
Until “Saving Private Ryan” came out, this was the definitive D-Day war film. It features three directors showing the British, American, and German perspectives regarding the huge invasion and how of the leaders of each country perceived it. In their portrayals, the actors do right by the historical figures.
The film is in black and white because the producers wanted a World War II newsreel feel to the action. The only drawback to the huge cast was the ages of two main characters. An older John Wayne plays the young Lt. Col. Benjamin “Vandy” Vandervoort, a Battalion Commander of the 82nd Airborne, who at the time of the battle was about 27. Robert Ryan was only 37 but acted as the wizened Gen. James M. Gavin, the commander of the 82nd.
But perhaps the best trivia for this fine film involves Richard Todd, the excellent British actor who plays Maj. John Howard, who arrives early on June 6th by glider to take Pegasus Bridge. In real life, Todd was a British paratrooper lieutenant who arrived at Pegasus Bridge after Howard’s troops had taken it to reinforce them. In the film, Todd wears the same beret he wore on D-Day. And in one scene where he’s waiting for Lord Lovat and his Commandos, Todd is next to another actor portraying…Richard Todd (shown in the photo above—Todd is on the left, with his doppelganger on the right). That’s pretty good stuff there.
The battle scenes are well done. Robert Mitchum steals the show, portraying Brig. Gen. Norman “Dutch” Cota of the 29th Infantry Division. At the film’s conclusion, put in the opening sequence of “Saving Private Ryan” for another perspective of Omaha Beach.
1. “Band of Brothers” (2000)
The outstanding ten-part miniseries created by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks isn’t a film per se, but has to be included in the best World War II works. Based on the outstanding book by Stephen E. Ambrose, “Band of Brothers” deals with the lives of ordinary soldiers, a company of the 506th Parachute Infantry in the 101st Airborne Division. The series follows them through their initial training in Toccoa, Georgia, battles across Europe, and ends with the men in Berchtesgaden, Germany at war’s end in Hitler’s mountain retreat.
The largely British cast does a fantastic job of creating believable American characters. The men of Easy Company are breaking new ground as a parachute infantry. However, they first have to deal with their first commander Cpt. Sobel, the martinet who gets lost every time he’s in the field. The jumps into Normandy and Holland were well done, and the action is absolutely first rate.
After Normandy, Holland, the Battle of the Bulge, and other combat in France, nothing could shock the battle-hardened men of Easy Company more than a concentration camp (a real one) could. But then, as the Germans surrender, one German commander addresses his troops for the final time and the men realize that many of their enemies were little different than themselves.
Favorite episodes were #2 Day of Days, #7 The Breaking Point, and #9 Why We Fight.