With Brad Pitt-starrer Fury out this week, audiences are being asked once again whether or not the World War II film genre still holds sway at the box office, and whether the movie world has, in fact, got anything more to say on this topic. There have been so many World War II films made since the war itself ended in 1945, we would be forgiven for thinking that everything there was to say has already been said, but screenwriters and directors are constantly finding new ways to tell the story.
Fury focuses on the exploits of a grizzled, hardened sergeant nicknamed ‘Wardaddy’; how original the story is that Fury actually tells remains to be seen. It’s easy to forget that there’s more to the Second World War than heroic, moustachioed men and tanks rolling through blitzed-out French villages, but there is and was, and Netflix has a nice little selection of World War II films; some of which go over old ground, others of which manage to shed new light on some of the world’s darkest moments in history.
1. Saving Private Ryan
Steven Spielberg’s 1998 classic did so well at the box office it was the second highest grossing film of that year, worldwide. But that was before audiences had suffered so much battle fatigue and decided that their money was possibly better spent on superheroes and villains, so who knows how well Fury is likely to do in the end of year roundup, what with the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy or Captain America: The Winter Soldier to contend with.
When Tom Hanks’ Captain John Miller washes up on Omaha Beach in June 1944, he and his men have little idea that they’re about to spend a good deal of time searching for the almost-mythical Private Ryan (Matt Damon), in order to save Ryan’s mother from the pain of losing all four of her sons to the war. With the film’s incredible opener and its now famous depiction of the brutal reality of war, not to mention the often tense camaraderie of beleaguered soldiers, Saving Private Ryan is without doubt one of the best World War II films ever made.
2. Black Book
Depicting a completely different side of life in World War II to that of either Saving Private Ryan or Fury, the Dutch-made Black Book was directed by Paul Verhoeven and was voted by the Dutch public in 2008 as the greatest Dutch film ever made. Following the life of Rachel Stein (Clarice van Houten) who is captured by the Germans for the crime of being Jewish, and who soon loses her brother in an SS attack on their refugee party, Black Book concerns itself with the actions of the Dutch resistance whilst the country was occupied by the Nazis.
The only person to survive the attack, Rachel adopts a non-Jewish pseudonym and joins up with a Resistance group in The Hague, proceeding to infiltrate the local SD headquarters, first by seducing the commander Ludwig Muntze (Sebastian Koch), and then by getting a job there as a secretary. Whilst undertaking various jobs for the Resistance Rachel, now known as Ellis, begins to fall for Muntze, which serves to underline the film’s main aim of disrupting the generally approved upon narrative of the Second World War, that of the Good Guys, and the Bad Guys.
Away from the machismo of the average war movie, and removed from the clean cut arguments of Hollywoodised historical films, Black Book presents us with a film, and a time period that was full of shades of grey.
3. Lust, Caution
Another film concerning resistance movements, this time in Japanese-occupied China and Hong Kong, Lust, Caution is Ang Lee’s follow-up to Brokeback Mountain and won him his second Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. As with Black Book, Lust, Caution follows a young woman’s involvement in the resistance as well as her romantic entanglements with those who are meant to be considered the enemy.
Fleeing Shanghai for Hong Kong in 1938, Chia Chi (Tang Wei) enrols in Lingnan University and joins a drama club where she meets patriot Kuang Yu Min (Leehom Wang), who wants to make a bigger difference when it comes to resisting their occupiers than just a few patriotic plays. Convincing Chia Chi to take on the role of “Mrs Mai” in order to seduce a special agent for the Japanese Government in China, Mr Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) Kuang sets Chia Chi on a path that leads not only to the film’s famously (and controversially) graphic sex scenes, but also to treachery, heartbreak, and failure.
4. The English Patient
Anthony Minghella’s stirring Second World War epic, based on the book by Michael Ondaatje, swept the board at the Oscars when it was released, winning nine out of the 12 awards it was nominated for, including Best Director for Minghella and Best Picture. With Kristin Scott-Thomas, Ralph Fiennes, and Colin Firth all on board, The English Patient was a veritable panoply of British talent, but it was Juliette Binoche’s wonderful portrayal of French-Canadian nurse Hana who stood out when it came down to award-winning.
Hana is caring for a burn victim in a bombed out monastery in Italy, a man who has never revealed his name to her, and whom she therefore refers to only as the English patient. With the arrival of a member of the Canadian Intelligence Corps, David Caravaggio (Willem Defoe), however, the so-called English patient’s story comes out and his identity is revealed to be that of Hungarian cartographer, Count László de Almásy (Fiennes), who Caravaggio believes to have collaborated with the Germans.
Slipping between Almasy’s pre-war narrative set in Tunisia and the final days of war in Italy, The English Patient covers a lot of ground and shows us once again, just how many different lives were affected by the war, and how many different stories there are to be told.
With a list of Second World War movies taking in stories from America, the Netherlands, China, as well as North Africa and Italy, it seems unfair to deny entry to one of the war’s major players: the Germans. This 2004 film, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel takes in the final ten days of Hitler’s reign over Germany in 1945 and depicts what happened in Hitler’s bunker as well as elsewhere in Berlin.
Humanising Hitler, which by and large the film aims to do, is a tricky, rather controversial business, but as with some of the other films on this list, as well as other great World War II films, Downfall complicates the previously accepted narrative of the Second World War, by refusing to accept that Hitler was anything less than human. It would be so much easier for all of us if he weren’t of course (or if it were all actually Hydra as in the case of another great World War II film, Captain America), but Downfall’s refusal to truly demonise one of history’s worst tyrants and warmongers is heroic in that it serves to remind us all just how it were able to happen in the first place.