WWII in Film

I wish I had something much more impressive to offer for this, my 200th post at The Pietist Schoolman, but the week being as busy as it’s become, I’m going to punt a bit and devote a post to asking a question:

What’s your favorite World War II film (or TV series, or episode of a TV series)? In particular, do you have a favorite WWII flick that isn’t all that well known?

Twelve O'Clock HighI ask because — after years of making empty promises to this effect to Bethel History majors — I finally developed a proposal for a sophomore-level course on the international history of World War II and had it approved. Here’s the proposed catalog description:

The causes, course, conclusion, and legacy of World War II, particularly as experienced by American, British, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, and Russian civilians and soldiers. Key topics include collaboration and resistance, genocide, the war in film, remembrance and forgetting, and the social and economic impacts of the war.

I’m excited about the course for all sorts of reasons. First of which is that, while it will fulfill the American history category of Bethel’s general education curriculum, I’m consciously constructing it as an international history course, both to bring America’s unique experience of the war into relief (e.g., Americans did not have to host a theater of the war, were not forced into the collaboration/resistance/acquiescence choices that Europeans and Asians had to make in the face of German or Japanese occupation, and could at least tell themselves that they were fighting a “good war”) and to introduce students to the global dimensions of the conflict — including how it’s been remembered.

So we’re going to read an oral history of Japanese soldiers and civilians, plus excerpts from Russian, German, Chinese, and other participants. But as the catalog description indicates, I also want to take advantage of the J-term format (I’ve got students for nearly three hours each morning for three weeks, and it’s the only academic course they take) and look at the war in film.

Now, I’ve got some time to work out the kinks, as this course won’t enter my teaching rotation until January 2014. (It’s meant to rotate with the new version of a World War I course that will take students to western Europe for J-Term, which will start in 2013.) So I’m still scouting for materials and would appreciate your recommendations.

In particular, let me know about relatively obscure American films or,  better yet, non-American films that might help illuminate the war as it’s been seen from other perspectives. And tell me why you think it would be an important movie for undergraduate students to see. If I only end up with time to a few minutes from that movie, which scene would you choose?

Rome, Open CityAnd if you’ve seen so many you don’t even know where to start… Have you seen any of the following films? (I’ve used various sources to identify them as important or at least interesting works, but have not yet seen them myself.)

  • Rome, Open City (Italy, 1945)
  • The Burmese Harp (Japan, 1956)
  • Ballad of a Soldier (USSR, 1959)
  • Army of Shadows (France, 1969 — really regretting not having seen this one yet!)
  • Jacob the Liar (East Germany/Czechoslovakia, 1975 — so no, not the Robin Williams version)
  • Europa Europa (Germany, 1990)
  • Stalingrad (Germany, 1993)
  • Katyn (Poland, 2007)
  • City of Life and Death (China, 2009)

Thanks for your help! More about this course to come as it takes shape…


7 thoughts on “WWII in Film

  1. A black and white movie, Run Silent, Run Deep, is a good movie to get a sense of what the US submarine war was like. One interesting aspect of it is that it depicts the cramped conditions and the unavoidable human response to them. The cat and mouse encounters with Japanese ships above them are tense and realistic.
    (Chris, your paternal grandfather, who served in the Navy during WWII, always liked this movie. It wouldn’t have had his approval if it was too far off the mark in its depictions.)

  2. I’d have to put in a vote for _Das Boot_. For me, it’s one of the better WWII films, combining a very high degree of technical accuracy with great acting, and a strong sense of the cost of the war for the combatants (even those on the side of the aggressor). I’d suggest a sequence of three clips: one from the very beginning, when the crew are just heading out to sea, looking like fresh-faced children; another from near the middle of the film, where, after being savagely depth-charged, the boat surfaces to finish off a British freighter, which shows the crews’ reactions as they back the boat away from a group of drowning British sailors who are swimming toward it; and then the very end, where the crew returns to Germany, looking like very old men (even though it’s a matter of months later), and are mostly killed in an air raid right after disembarking. The look on Jurgen Prochnow’s face just before he dies (as he watches the boat sink) is wrenching.

    _Run Silent, Run Deep_ is a great film, too–with stellar performances from Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster (and a fun one from a very young Don Rickles in his first-ever film role), and also great technical accuracy; but I think it focuses on the war more as an opportunity for creating a great suspense story than as a subject unto itself (Robert Wise, who directed the film, used it almost as a template for creating the spaceship battles in the second Star Trek movie, which he also directed many years later, although he humanizes the bad guy in that movie way more than RSRD does the Japanese!).

    Another one that might be interesting that’s much lesser known is _Morituri_–wonderful, tense performances from Yul Brynner as a German merchant marine captain and Marlon Brando as an allied agent put aboard to sabotage the ship.

    1. I love both those sub movies, different as they are. Run Silent, Run Deep is also the template for a 1st season Star Trek (original series) episode, “Balance of Terror,” which introduces the Romulans.

      Strangely, Das Boot always make me think of France… When I was living there doing dissertation research, I decided it would be fun to try growing a serious beard for the first time in my life; then I looked in the mirror one day after about two months, rubbed the patchy growth, and realized that I looked like I belonged on a U-boat. 🙂

      Thanks for breaking the ice, and keep the suggestions coming!

      1. Cool stuff. Though I always related that particular Trek episode more to _The Enemy Below_ (the Mitchum/Jurgens version), in terms of the conflict of wits between the two wily captains. Love that episode!

  3. My wife Pam and I both love Foyle’s War and now we have all the episodes on DVD. The setting of Hastings, England, from 1939 to just after the war provides all sorts of historical context to what the British went through from beginning to end. Great plots,complex and intriguing characters and wonderful visual settings.

    There was also Bridge on the River Kwai. It had a great cast and a sense of the madness of war through British discipline responding to Japanese prison camp cruelties . . . ultimately leading to destruction of the POW built bridge.

    Chris, I think your proposed class sounds great.

  4. Thanks, Steve! My wife and I also loved Foyle’s War and are hoping there might still be some post-war episodes produced. And Alec Guinness’ performance in River Kwai is one of the greatest in film history!

    Thanks for the great suggestions. If I can pique the interest of a WWII buff like yourself, I know I’m on the right track with the course. 🙂

    1. Chris,

      One very quick story. About ten years ago, the 90+ year old mother of one of the members of Excelsior Covenant Church passed away. She (the mother) was an English “War Bride” and came to the U.S. in 1946. During the war, she was a member of the British equivalent of the WAC’s and served in London during the blitz. She was a British veteran and so, for her funeral, we found a Union Jack–placed it on the coffin–and sang “God Save the Queen.” It was a very moving experience for the family–and for me.

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