Tag: World War Two

Twelve O'Clock High (1949)

Twelve OClock High header
Gregory Peck takes on the burden of command in Twelve O’Clock High

Director: Henry King

Cast: Gregory Peck (Brg General Frank Savage), Hugh Marlowe (Lt Colonel Ben Gately), Gary Merrill (Colonel Keith Davenport), Millard Mitchell (Mj General Pritchard), Dean Jagger (Major Harvey Stovall), Robert Arthur (Sgt McIllhenny), Paul Stewart (Major “Doc” Kaiser), John Kellogg (Major Cobb)

It’s tough at the top. Imagine how much tougher it would be if you job involved pushing people to their limits, and then a little bit further, in a job that puts their lives at daily risk? It’s the sort of burden commanders of American Bomber wings faced during the Second World War. It’s already got to Lt Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill), a decent guy and much-loved officer, who has grown so close to his men he can’t face sending them off to get killed over Europe any more. He’s replaced by Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck), a by-the-book tough son-of-a-bitch who won’t tolerate men who can’t or won’t do their duty. But will the pressure of constant action, escalating casualties and a growing bond with his men also get to Savage?

With Peck at the top of his game, in one of his finest performances of stoical dependability and Lincolnonian authority concealing a carefully nurtured warmth and humanity, Twelve O’Clock High is a very different war film. Here the focus is much less on derring-do and heroism and more on the unbearable psychological pressure a life on the front lines brings. It’s all presented with a documentary style realism – so much so, that the film was used for decades in the USAAF as a training film on successful styles of command.

It’s about the impact that sustained trauma has – how it can make even the toughest man eventually paralysed by over-thinking, uncertainty and doubt. Davenport is a very popular CO – and good in the job in many ways – except the key one: he’s lost the ability to push the men and his willingness to sacrifice them. Essentially, in the nicest possible way, he’s damaging morale by letting the company reflect his own exhaustion, depression and amiable defeatism. He’s lost the ability to push men to want to achieve everything they can for the cause: meaning they are now doing the military equivalent of punching the clock, delivering the barest minimum an attack requires. Mistakes and errors are tolerated and, perversely, casualty rates are rising.

It’s what Savage is sent in to fix. Which he does by essentially blowing apart the cozy, boys-club feel of the Bomber Group. Air Exec, Lt Colonel Ben Gately (a great performance from Hugh Marlowe), is stripped of his command (for not leading from the front) and assigned to commanding the “The Leper Colony” a plane crewed by those Savage believes least likely to pull their weight. Drills are bought in and under-performance is no longer tolerated. Dropping out of formation for whatever reason – a move that puts the rest of the Bomber Group at risk – is punished harshly (a pilot is demoted to the “Leper Colony” for breaking formation to support another a plane, a decision that could have doomed the Group to death). Savage is the ultimate heartless drill sergeant.

Only of course he’s not: as Peck makes clear, the burdens of command weigh as heavy on him as they did on Davenport. But Savage is a professional who knows tough love is what’s going to keep most of the Group alive, accomplishing their missions and bringing the war to an end. And Savage’s policies work: the Bomber Group starts to achieve well above their previous performance. The pilots greet Savage by handing in a group transfer request, but by the time the request is heard by the army (Savage’s adjutant Stovall having delayed the requests with red tape) as a man they back the General. Savage gets then to take pride in themselves and their unit – so much so that, during their first strike on German soil, off duty men smuggle their way onto planes to be part of the mission. (Savage of course doesn’t let slip his pride, rebuking men for abandoning their posts on the base).

Underneath it all, Savage is starting to feel closer to his men. A young pilot, decorated but starting to get worried about flying, is mentored and encouraged by him. Gately responds to the tough love from Savage by aiming to prove to him he is indeed the best pilot in the squadron – winning Savage’s respect, not least when he flies several missions concealing a spinal injury. The pressure inevitably builds on Savage as he finds it harder and harder to maintain his professional demeanour while becoming closer and closer to his men (he even refuses a transfer back to his original job in HQ, as he feels the group isn’t ready for him to leave yet).

It all builds to one of the most famous breakdowns in film, as Savage goes from physically unable to climb into the cockpit to a confused state on the runaway and then catatonic until the Group returns home. This is beyond daring stuff for a 1940s Hollywood film, a true portrait of the effects of wartime pressure on a hero, which never once questions his competence and cowardice but in fact holds up the qualities that led to his breakdown as admirable ones. Peck plays all this with great power and control – and if Savage shrugs off his catatonic state later and the film doesn’t really explore the long-term impacts, the very fact that it showed someone as admirable, competent and professional as this suffering psychological damage from war was quite something.

It’s not a perfect film. King’s shooting style is often unimaginative and the film takes too long to get going – much of the first half an hour is a slow chug towards Davenport being relieved and Savage taking the post. More could be made of the impact of the war on the rest of the men on the group: it’s telling that only Jagger’s Stovell gets a scene where he also is allowed to let off steam against the pressure, getting drunk the night of a big raid, and he won an Oscar for it. But as something very different in Hollywood’s approach to the War, it really stands out as a companion piece to The Best Years of Our Lives.

Midway (1976)

Charlton Heston fights in one of the great naval battles at Midway

Director: Jack Smight

Cast: Charlton Heston (Capt Matt Garth), Henry Fonda (Adm Chester W Nimitz), James Coburn (Capt Vinton Maddox), Glenn Ford (Rear Adm Raymond Spruance), Hal Holbrook (Comm Joseph Rochefort), Toshiro Mifune (Adm Isoroku Yamamoto), Robert Mitchum (Adm William Halsey), Cliff Robertson (Comm Carl Jessop), Robert Wagner (Lt Comm Ernest L Blake), Robert Webber (Rear Adm Jack Fletcher), James Shigeta (Vice Adm Chuichi Nagumo)

On 4th June 1942, the fate of the Pacific naval war was arguably settled. The Japanese plan to invade the American base on the island of Midway and, crucially, wipe-out the American aircraft carrier force, instead saw a near total US victory and all four Japanese aircraft carriers destroyed. The story is re-told here as a classic all-star Hollywood epic, with the first hour dedicated to the planning and the second hour to the events of 4th June.

After its – successful – run in the cinemas, Midway was re-edited into a two-part TV mini-series. To be honest, that feels more like its natural home. It’s competently directed by Jack Smight – but no more than that – and revolves around several scenes of star-actors pushing models around maps and less famous actors pretending to fly planes in front of blue-screen. The film makes a proud statement at the start of how it has chosen to use only actual archive combat footage to “honour those who fought” – but this actually, you suspect, was motivated more by the fact it’s much cheaper to purchase and clean up piles of stock footage than it is to shoot things afresh.

The main narrative covers the planning and the crucial day of the battle itself. A brief “human interest” story is introduced via Charlton Heston’s (fictional) Captain Matt Garth, an aide of Admiral Nimitz. Will Chuck improve his relationship with his fighter pilot son, who has fallen in love with a Japanese girl? Whadda you think? Saying that, this rather clumsy human-interest story (which features the only female character in the film) does make some interestingly critical points about the policy of internment against Japanese Americans – stressing both the injustice and explicit racism (American Germans and Italians faced no such fate) behind the policy.

In fact, Midway is very sympathetic in general to the Japanese – as Nimitz even says at the end, perhaps it was less a question of skill than luck that led to the final outcome. The Japanese navy is presented as an honourable and thoughtful opponent, respectful of human life and conducting the war via a code of honour (the kamikaze runs of cliché are completely absent). In particular Admiral Naguma (well played by James Shigeta, in possibly the film’s stand out performance) is a decent man caught-out continuously by horrendous luck and timing, who pays a heavy price. Midway is strong in stressing there is no leeway at sea – get caught out there and it’s the bottom of the briney for you.

The Japanese planning is even slightly tragic in its flawed assumptions – crucially they are totally unaware that their codes are broken and that, far from launching a surprise strike, they are actually sailing into something of a trap – while Toshiro Mifune brings a lot of nobility to Yamamoto even if all he really does is pensively stare at a series of maps.

On the American side, Fonda leads the way, giving Nimitz more than a touch of Fordian home-spun heroism. Heston’s presence does well to link together the various true-life characters and location. Most of the rest of the all-star cast are restricted to one or two scenes: Coburn rocks up to handover a report from Washington, Wagner briefly pushes models across a table in a planning room and (hilariously of all) Mitchum delivers both his tiny scenes from a hospital bed, coated in skin cream.

When the action gets going though, it’s done pretty well with the po-faced, stodgy seriousness these war-time later 70s epics nearly all seemed to have in common. The stock footage does actually look pretty good and the drama of the battle – and the tactics – are captured fairly well. It’s intermixed with some real ships and all scored with a great deal of punch by John Williams. It’s all really B-movie, TV-movie-of-the-week stuff but it’s also far from obviously flag-waving either, instead doing its best to be even-handed and even a little bit critical. You’ll learn what happened and also have a bit of fun into the bargain.

Schindler's List (1993)

Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley excel in Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Liam Neeson (Oskar Schindler), Ben Kingsley (Itzhak Stern), Ralph Fiennes (Amon Goth), Caroline Goodall (Emilie Schindler), Jonathan Sagall (Poldek Pfefferberg), Embeth Davidtz (Helen Hirsch), Malgorzata Gebel (Wiktoria Klonowska), Mark Ivanir (Marcel Goldberg), Beatrice Macola (Ingrid), Andrzej Seweryn (Julian Scherner), Friedrich von Thun (Rolf Czurda)

It was the film Spielberg spent over a decade building up the courage to make. Schindler’s List not only marked a new era for him as a film-maker, it also helped a wider audience directly confront the horrors of the Holocaust. At a time when Holocaust denial was starting to rise, Schindler’s List straight-forwardly but powerfully placed the reality of this crime firmly in the eyes of the world. Schindler’s List today remains one of the most emotionally powerful Holocaust movies, the standard to which all others are judged – and peerless example of committed and passionate film-making.

Based on Thomas Keneally’s Booker-prize winning “non-fiction novel” Schindler’s Ark, the film is set in Krakow during the Second World War. As the German occupying force crowds the Jews into the overcrowded Ghetto in the first step of what will become systematic extermination, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) arrives in town looking to make his fortune. Charming, gregarious and quick with a bribe, Schindler soon makes friends with senior SS members. Setting up an enamelware factory to supply the Wehrmacht, it is staffed entirely by cheap Jewish labour (supplied by the SS) and run by skilled Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) while Schindler handles ‘public relations’ (bribes and schmoozing) with the SS. But, over time, Schindler struggles more and more to close his eyes to the murder of the Jews – a fact made even more prominent with the arrival of brutal SS commander Amon Goth (Ralph Fiennes).

Schindler’s List is chillingly, shockingly honest in its depiction of the horrors of the Holocaust. But it’s easy to forget how cunningly and gently it eases you into the nightmare you are about to watch. This is after all a film that uses Schindler as its POV character. What we are experiencing is his perception of the Holocaust, and through that trying to grasp what could potentially have made this opportunist and profiteer into a humanitarian. As such, the film is careful to give a slow build to the monstrous genocidal fury of Nazism.

In fact, much of the first thirty minutes could almost play out as a sort of triumphant against-the-odds success of a morally flexible charmer. There are a surprising number of laughs in that opening thirty minutes, at Schindler’s chutzpah and weakness for a pretty face. The opening sequence is a delightful demonstration of his confidence: we know he has nothing but the clothes he stands up in and what cash he can scrape together when he enters a nightclub frequented by the SS bigwigs we needs to impress. When he walks in no-one knows who he is: by the end of the evening a waiter is dumbfounded another guest doesn’t know who Oscar Schindler is. Much of the first act is a chronicle of Schindler playing the angles, crossing the right palms with silver and charming left right and centre to make himself a somebody from nothing.

Imagine you didn’t know what the Holocaust was. You’d think this could be a very different film. There are clues: the unspoken loathing Ben Kingsley’s Itzhak Stern clearly feels for this man who smilingly hires cheap Jewish workers from the SS (the workers get nothing) to staff his factory. The fear any Jewish character expresses when confronted with a German officer. The desperation and dirt of the Ghetto. But, like Schindler, there is enough there for you to think “yeah, it’s tough on the Jews, but it’s could be worse, it’s not my problem”.

Schindler wants to be thought of as a good man, but deep down he knows he isn’t: you can see his discomfort when he’s thanked by a one-armed man Stern has inveigled into working in the factory. He already knows he doesn’t deserve thanks – guilt that expresses itself at anger against Stern for hiring a one-armed ‘machinist’ in the first place. After all he’s running a business here.

That one-armed man is the first death we see, executed at a roadside for not being able to shovel snow from the road. Any chance of turning your face away again is lost with the arrival of Amon Goth to liquidate the Krakow Ghetto and build a new concentration camp. Played with a bloated, dead-eyed sadistic sadness by Ralph Fiennes (Goth bitches constantly about his workload, drinks to excess and is as desperate to be liked as he is uncaringly brutal), Goth oversees acts of inhumanity that leave the viewer shocked and appalled.

Spielberg films the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto like a documentary observer and doesn’t flinch from the brutality: summary executions, dead bodies left in the street, the late night slaughter of any hiding in the Ghetto. Doctors euthanise their patients (who drink the poison with thanks in their eyes) before SS guards can machine gun them in their beds. Spielberg embodies this in a single red-coated girl (one of the few splashes of colour in the film), who walks through this nightmareish hell, witnessed from a hill by the horrified Schindler. Later the same red-headed girl will be wheeled on a cart of twisted, exhumed bodies to be thrown onto a bonfire of rotting corpses.

It’s but an entrée into the nightmare of Goth’s camp and the later hell of Auschwitz. In the camp, Goth snipers those not ‘working’ from the balcony of his hilltop villa. Anyone can be executed at any time. Selections see naked inhabitants of the camp running in circles, the weak pulled out to be dispatched to the death camps. Mountains of corpses are burnt, their ashes falling like snow on Krakow. Later, a misdirected train of Schindler Jews arrives in Auschwitz where human ashes form a constant mist. Terrified the women are stripped, their hair removed and herded into a shower room: the terror of this sequence alleviated only when water not gas falls from the shower heads. Spielberg shoots all this with a careful but horrific immersiveness, which never lingers on horrors but always acknowledges them while moving you onto the next terror.

You can criticise Schindler’s List for focusing on the few thousand who survived this senseless barbarism rather than the millions of dead – but the film offers a cause for hope. That, even when things are at their worst, people can decide to do good. Itzhak Stern (a beautifully judged, deeply humane performance from Ben Kingsley) calls the list “an ultimate good”, with everything around it evil. Faced with such horrors, perhaps we need to know that a man like Oscar Schindler can turn the skills he used to enrich himself towards saving lives: bribing officials, spinning stories, presenting a front to his SS partners of an uncaring businessmen while saving as many lives as he can.

Played with huge charm and authority, mixed with a fascinatingly unknowability by Liam Neeson, the film bravely never offers a definitive answer as to what turned Schindler into a man dedicated to others rather than himself. There is no single moment where he makes the conscious turn, instead the film presents the shift as a gradual but inevitable change: as the real-life Schindler himself said, in such a situation there was no other choice.

Schindler’s List isn’t perfect. Despite his best efforts, Spielberg’s sentimentality creeps in. Neeson’s final scene takes things too far, culminating in a blatantly manipulative breakdown, weeping that he did not do more – as if Spielberg is worried we didn’t get the point. Some moments lean into Hollywood convention, from Goth’s gun repeatedly misfiring when attempting to execute a worker (who survives) to Goth and Schindler cutting cards to decide the fate of Goth’s brutalised maid Helene (a sensitive and heartfelt Embeth Davidtz). But what it gets right far outweighs this.

Spielberg presents the Holocaust with unflinching emotion and a carefully controlled sense of moral outrage. Beautifully (some argued too beautifully) filmed by Janusz Kaminski in cool black-and-white with a sensitive score from John Williams, it introduced the Holocaust to an entire generation. No other director could perhaps have done that.

In a sense Spielberg’s career was building towards this, his mastery of cinematic language (this is a superbly edited film by Michael Kahn) utilised not for thrills but to illuminate one of the darkest hours of history. But with that, it also provides hope for humanity, perhaps the key to its emotional impact. The acting is sensational – Neeson has never been better, Fiennes is extraordinary, Kingsley far too easily overlooked as the film’s heart. Traumatising, horrifying but vital and essential, Schindler’s List brings to life with deep respect the worst of history.

Downfall (2004)

Bruno Ganz excels as Adolf Hitler in Downfall

Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel

Cast: Bruno Ganz (Adolf Hitler), Alexandra Maria Lara (Traudl Junge), Ulrich Matthes (Joseph Goebbels), Juliane Kohler (Eva Braun), Corinna Harfouch (Magda Goebbels), Heino Ferch (Albert Speer), Christian Berkel (Professor Ernst-Gunther Schenck), Matthias Habich (Professor Werner Haase), Thomas Kretschmann (Hermann Fegelein), Michael Mendl (General Weidling), Andre Hennicke (General Mohnke), Ulrich Noethen (Heinrich Himmler), Birgit Minichmayr (Gerda Christian), Rolf Kanies (General Hans Krebs), Justus von Dohnanyi (General Burgdof)

Few people had such an impact on the 20th century than Adolf Hitler. Countless dictators unleashed genocide and war, but few on Hitler’s scale. His dark presence lingers like a cancer on German history, an existential guilt the country has spent generations trying to exorcise. Chronicling the final days of Hitler in his Berlin bunker, told with cinematic verve and documentary realism, Downfall was the first German film to directly tackle Hitler. Perhaps it needed a German film to present a Hitler who felt real rather than an under-the-bed monster – and was able to look into his darkness, and the horror of his world, in a way few films have ever done.

Downfall was controversial on release for ‘humanising’ Hitler. Certainly, the film shows a man capable of consideration and even moments of warmth. But it’s never in doubt a man can be kind to a secretary or affectionate to a dog and still be a sociopath who greets news of young soldiers dying with the words “that’s what young men are for”. Can still be so wickedly egotistical he decides the entire German population should join him in immolation while manipulating with quiet emotional pressure as many of his followers as possible to join him in suicide. Watching the film, you cannot escape Hitler’s monstrous destructiveness, his complete lack of empathy and his instinctive, brutality.

Much as we might not want to face it, Hitler was human: a ruthless, megalomaniac and genocidal one. Part of the fascination of the film is watching those closest to him – Eva Braun, his secretaries, his immediate staff – try to reconcile the kinder private man they know with the one they hear screaming for his Generals to be shot and ranting about Jews and his desire to annihilate entire populations. At one point Eva Braun tells Junge that when saying those things “he is being the Fuhrer” – as if Hitler and the Fuhrer are some hideous Jekyll/Hyde monster.

Downfall charts the final spiral of Hitler as he goes through the stages of grief at his impending defeat. Self-confidence turns into carpet-chewing anger, when reality becomes unavoidable. Grief mixes with fury as Hitler blames everyone – his Generals, his followers and finally the German people themselves – except himself. Never once does the film offer the slightest shred of sympathy for Hitler, this nightmare being all his own creation, consuming him just as it consumed tens of millions before.

As Hitler, Bruno Ganz is quite simply phenomenal. Studying for months film of Hitler, Ganz captures his physicality perfectly – adding Hitler’s likely (undiagnosed) Parkinson’s, a twitching hand he constantly hides behind his back like a nervous expression of his doubt. In private conversation, Ganz’s Hitler is polite and even a little warm, but never anything less than a monster of self-absorption. His favourite topic is himself, and his quiet expectation that everyone should join him in death is matched only by his cold dismissal of those who fail to live up to his twisted standards.

This is nothing to his furious outbursts at those perceived to have betrayed him. His spittle-fuelled rants perhaps only come close to the true carpet-chewing bawlings Hitler was apparently capable of, but they are tour-de-forces of relentless fury and self-pity. Ganz plays Hitler with empathy, but makes it very clear Hitler was incapable of such an emotion himself. The suffering of others is nothing to him. He sheds tears over the death of his dog and barely bats an eyelid at the deaths of thousands: instead they are a perverse monument to himself.

Nazi Germany is the country he created, and Downfall is exceptional in showing how the last days of the Reich were like the final hours of a cult. Few things display this better than the Goebbels themselves. Ulrich Matthes chilling Goebbels is so consumed with devotion for his leader, weeping when ordered to survive and continue the fight, that he cannot imagine living without him. Like Hitler, his fury is reserved for the German people – to him the German people chose their fate and cannot complain that their throats are now being cut.

This is matched by the devotion of his wife Magda, played with a chilling, twisted sadness by Corinna Harfouch, so devoted to Nazism and Hitler she decides (with the logic of a twisted fanatic) her children should die rather than live in a world without them. In a quietly devastating, almost impossible to watch, scene she feeds them ‘medicine’ (actually a sleeping agent) – her eldest daughter, sensing something is wrong, resists desperately before being force fed – then silently breaks a cyanide capsule in each of their mouths, with a kiss to each forehead. Everyone in the bunker knows this happening, but no one stops her. In this cultish world, where death is normalised and suicide expected, it’s only natural.

The second half of the film is a rash of suicides. A German doctor, his hands filthy with the euthanasia programme, detonates two grenades at a dinner, killing his whole family. The Goebbels shoot themselves and order their bodies cremated in a grim echo of Hitler’s own fate. As survivors plan a breakout, an officer calmly states he’s not leaving and shoots himself in the mouth – no one bats an eyelid. Hitler hands out cyanide capsules like candy, the unspoken expectation constant.

This callous brutality and nihilistic embracing of death is constant during the grim, pointless, desperate battle for the city. Indoctrinated children are press ganged into the front-lines and then choose suicide over surrender. Lynch mobs prowl the streets, executing anyone not seen to be fighting – mostly old men, disabled veterans and anyone not holding a gun. The film never suggests the German people are victims, but suggests the final target of the Nazis was Germany itself.

The film is a long spiral into an anti-chamber of hell. After the opening half hour, the Russian advance means the action retreats almost entirely underground into the bunker. In this subterranean world, the cast slowly thins out as people seize their chance to flee, leaving only the most deluded, hard-boiled and fanatical. Generals may protest Hitler’s denunciations of the ordinary soldiers, but will pull their guns on anyone who even suggests the idea of surrender.

In a country where Hitler has encouraged a denial of reality, the scheming and jockeying for position continues even in this madness. Even those who see the end is here are still deluded: Himmler firmly believes a brief chat with Eisenhower will be enough for the SS to be entrusted with maintaining the peace against Bolshevism. Only Speer (played perhaps with too much sympathy by Heino Ferch, in the film’s one mis-step) is clear eyed about what is happening.

Downfall is relentless and eye-opening in destruction of the final days of the Reich. Its reconstruction and research is faultless and acting breathtaking. Framing the device through the experiences of naïve secretary Traudl Junge (an excellent Alexandra Maria Lara), we get a sense of how the scales slowly and painfully fell from the eyes of the German people. It’s atmosphere of oppressive claustrophobia and bleakness is expertly done, with events swiftly and awfully spiralling down into one where death becomes an unremarkable inevitability. No one could come out of this either admiring Hitler or seeing anything in Nazism other than a twisted cult that consumed its followers with the same blood-curdling carelessness it did its millions of victims. Hitler may have been a human, but Downfall makes clear he was never humane.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Harold Rusell, Dana Andrews and Fredric March find coming home can be as tough as war in The Best Years of Our Lives

Director: William Wyler

Cast: Myrna Loy (Milly Stephenson), Fredric March (Sgt Al Stephenson), Dana Andrews (Captain Fred Derry), Teresa Wright (Peggy Stephenson), Virginia Mayo (Marie Derry), Cathy O’Donnell (Wilma Cameron), Harold Russell (PO Homer Parish), Hoagy Carmichael (Butch Eagle), Gladys George (Hortense Derry), Roman Bohnen (Pat Derry), Ray Collins (Mr Milton)

Three men return from the Second World War. They’ve changed, but everything around them seems the same. How do they even begin to adjust when no one really understands what they’ve been through? The Best Years of Our Lives was a sensation when it was released, speaking to a whole country reeling from the shock of war. Many films focus on the gruelling experience of war, but few take on the struggle to find a place for veterans and help them reintegrate into normal life.

Our three veterans all meet at the airport, trying to home to the same small (fictional) city in the Midwest. Normally they would probably have never met: but war has given them a shared bond they will find hard to replicate back home. Al Stephenson (Fredric March) is a banker, who has developed something of a drinking problem to the surprise of his wife Milly (Myrna). Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) was a café worker who became an Air Force Captain – but finds that doesn’t interest employers back home. He also now has nothing in common with the flighty, flirty wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) he married before shipping out – and far more in common with Al’s thoughtful daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright). Homer Parish (Harold Russell) lost both his hands, replaced with mechanical hooks. Can he overcome the adjustments – and allow himself to be loved by Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell)?

What The Best Years of Our Lives explores brilliantly is how quick we are to praise heroes, but how slow we can be to offer them practical help and support. These problems aren’t just restricted to an unlucky one or two – the film goes out of its way to demonstrate the problem is universal. Our three leads are from different services, and radically different walks of life: an important businessman who served as a sergeant, a wash-out who found a purpose in the air force and an athletic sailor who returns without his hands. Rich or poor, it’s tough to find your place whoever you are.

Wyler shoots all this with a documentary realism, with extensive use of deep focus photography. It helps make this a frequently moving film. It sometimes feels like Wyler just captured real events. Flying home our heroes see “people playing golf like nothing happened”. They are all so nervous going home that both Al and Homer both suggest going for a drink rather than leave the cab they are sharing. Everyday problems about going to the office or looking for a job seem more affecting because we know they’ve come back from the war and don’t deserve knock-backs like this.

The heart of this film is Fred’s struggles to find some sort of purpose on civvie street. War offered more opportunities to him more than anyone else. He is a nobody who became a respected somebody. Now he can’t get a job in a department store. As a potential employer tells him, his CV is stuffed with irrelevant experience and his years out of the job market mean he’s fallen behind the rest. This is how a man with a chest full of medals, winds up serving ice cream and busting a gut trying to flog perfume to housewives who let their children run wild around his stand.

Dana Andrews is the heart of this film, giving a marvellous performance of great depth and sadness. Haunted by nightmares, Fred’s optimism drips away the longer he fails to find proper work. Perhaps most heart-breakingly of all, he increasingly makes himself the target of his dry wit. By the time he has surrounded to the indignity of taking back his old soda jerk job (and reporting to the spotty kid who used to be his assistant), Fred is disparagingly belittling his own wartime accomplishments.

If someone as matinee idol handsome, with a wonderful war record, as Fred can’t get ahead, what chance does anyone have? Fred’s wife (Virginia Mayo, marvellously smackable as this shallow girl) isn’t even interested in him, only the idea of him – begging him to wear his uniform (medals and all) for as long as possible so she can show him off like a new handbag. Fred is knocked back so many times, he comes to believe he deserves it. In a beautiful scene, late in the film, he walks through a field covered in old air force bombers. It’s a striking visual metaphor – one Fred is all too aware of – that he’s as much on the scrap heap as them.

The Best Years of Our Lives shows time and again how quick we are to forget. Al is hauled over the coals for offering a loan to a collateral-free GI who wants to start a farm. But Al feels a loyalty to men like this – and he recognises, unlike his superiors, there are qualities you just won’t find in a bank account. Homer is confronted at Fred’s workplace by an arrogant anti-Commie, who suggests the entire war was a waste of time, spent fighting the wrong foes. Calling Homer “a sucker” for losing his hands in the wrong war leads to a fight – and Fred losing his job for punching the guy out. Where is the sense of debt to these people?

Homer not only has to deal with disability – but also the metallic claws which get him all the wrong attention. The army trained him how to use the claws – but as Al observes, watching Homer’s awkward homecoming “couldn’t train him to put his arms round his girl”. They can solve the practical problem, but there is no support for actually coming to terms with the emotional impact.

Homer is played by real-life veteran paraplegic (and non-actor) Harold Russell, in a poignantly sincere, unstudied performance. It becomes even more heart-breaking, as his torment clearly rooted in Russell’s own experiences. When Homer demonstrates to Wilma how vulnerable he is without his hands –  if a door shuts, he’s trapped in a room, he can’t dress himself– it’s almost unbearably sad (O’Donnell is equally good in this scene). Russell’s simple, matter-of-factness is more moving than any histrionics.

The only plot that doesn’t get fully explored is Al’s implied drinking problem. He gets pissed the first night home (and his wife comments several times on his growing reliance). Everything to Al feels a little different – his kids are older, his bankwork seems stuffier. Today the film would dive more into Al’s probable survivor guilt. But Al makes a stand when others won’t to help his veterans – and March has a superb, low-key speech at a banquet in his honour where he vows to invest small loans into returning GIs. The film also gently probes – and in some ways leaves open – the ongoing problems he and Milly (warmly played by Myrna Loy) have had in their marriage, problems which Al’s absence and drinking have not helped solve.

Wyler pulls these threads together in a restrained style that largely avoids melodrama (though Hugo Freidhofer’s score is frequently overblown – Wyler apparently hated it). Instead, dilemmas are grounded in reality. Al might like Fred, but the last thing he wants is for Fred to get his daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright in a gentle, touching performance) caught up in a divorce. In a perfect example of Wyler’s restrained, documentary style, Al and Fred have a quiet man-to-man discussion, before Fred calls Peggy to see he can’t see her anymore. He does this in the back corner of the frame while the foreground shows Al listening to Homer and his uncle play the piano. It’s a perfect example of the way Wyler uses deep focus to give the film a fly-on-the-wall quality.

There is something extraordinarily modern about The Best Years of Our Lives. It feels calm and un-histrionic – and of course many veterans still struggle today. The camera feels observational and unobtrusive and the characters respond to situations in a very natural way. It’s also helped by the wonderfully natural acting. It all comes together in a film that is important without feeling like it’s trying to be important. An observant, sensitive exploration of the experience of veterans (made by a veteran), that never feels false and looks at our world with affection but realism.

Mrs Miniver (1942)

Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon hold the homefront together in Mrs Miniver

Director: William Wyler

Cast: Greer Garson (Kay Miniver), Walter Pidgeon (Clem Miniver), Teresa Wright (Carol Beldon), Dame May Whitty (Lady Beldon), Reginald Owen (Foley), Henry Travers (Mr Ballard), Richard Ney (Vin Miniver), Henry Wilcoxon (Vicar), Christopher Severen (Toby Miniver), Brenda Forbes (Gladys), Clare Sanders (Judy Miniver), Helmut Dantine (German pilot)

Mrs Miniver was made when history was in flux: conceived at the height of the Blitz, shot and then parts re-shot either side of Pearl Harbor and released in 1942 after America had entered the war. A patriotic flag-waver, designed to build American sympathy for a Britain standing alone, it was a huge hit, won Best Picture and had a profound impact on Allied morale (Churchill called it more help to the War effort than a flotilla of battleships). It still carries an inspiring, cockle-warming charm and a hefty emotional punch, made even more affecting by the stoic determination (rather than hand-wringing emotion) every setback is met with.

In a small village just outside London, lives the Miniver family. Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) cares for her family in a large country house. She has three children with architect husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon). Their life is contented – and then war breaks out. Oldest son Vin (Richard Ney) joins the RAF – after falling in love with Carol (Teresa Wright), niece of the local grandee Lady Beldon (May Whitty). Clem joins the ships travelling to Dunkirk. Kay holds the domestic fort, protecting her family from air raids, facing down a German pilot and helping shepherd her small village through the trauma of air raids to something approaching a normal life.

Mrs Miniver is all about that stoic, British stiff-upper-lip attitude, of doing your duty uncomplainingly and quietly. As they said “Britain Can Take It”, and the film is a celebration of the nobility of perseverance. It’s designed to inspire and it does: it’s melodrama played with a low-key reserve, which is genuine and heart-felt. There is a reason Goebbels (and he would know) called this a “refined powerful propagandistic [tool]” – it makes you completely emphasise and relate to its characters. We share their moments of joy just as much as the profound tragedy of their losses.

And there is a lot of loss in Mrs Miniver – way more than you might expect, with the film’s final act throwing at least two painful gut punches you don’t expect. Tragedy touches all of us and war carries away the innocent and undeserving with as much eagerness as it does the militaristic. There seems to be no reason or justice to it – but instead the difficult acceptance of fate and the necessity of being part of a struggle larger than ourselves.

In a powerful speech that concludes the film, the vicar stands in the bombed-out ruins of his local church. It mirrors a scene near the beginning, as he regretfully but with quiet reserve announces the outbreak of war. Now he gives a rousing speech that this is war of all the people, against the tyranny that threatens us, where the dead our mourned but not forgotten. It’s a powerful speech (brilliantly delivered by Henry Wilcoxon), of the painful necessity of duty at the time of war that still stirs (it was distributed nationally by Roosevelt’s insistence).

The stoic, good-natured, supportive community, who protect each other and desperately try to maintain hope and nobility when death could strike at any time, contrasts firmly with the only German we see. A wounded pilot who gains entrance to Kay’s home at gunpoint. Kay calmly disarms him, feeds him and tends to his wounds (after all he is the same age as Vin) – he responds with a vicious speech of violent hate, bragging at the deaths the Luftwaffe have inflicted on Europe. It’s the only time her reserve really breaks, as she slaps him – and even for a moment seems to consider dispatching him. Her delayed shock is clear later when she casually smokes one of Clem’s cigarettes – a mixture of restrained shock, relief, horror and confusion across her face. It’s the closest direct danger comes – and the closest she comes to openly expressing rage and anger at the hand the world has dealt her.

The film revolves around Greer Garson’s (Oscar-winning) performance. Though it’s easy to see Kay as a sort of saint, that’s underestimating the huge burden Garson had: she effectively embodies an entire Homefront of scared people doing their duty. It’s a performance of stiff-upper-lipped warmth, her desperation, fear and protective nature clear in every beat. You can see it in her mix of distracted fear and pride when Vin announces he has joined the RAF, and the front of “everything will be alright” she puts on for the children during an air raid that tears her house apart.

Of course, that disaster is met with a “I always wanted to redo that dining room” fortitude by her husband, Clem. Pidgeon and Garson forged a partnership that would run through several movies here, and spark off each other wonderfully. Pidgeon gives a solid grounding to Garson, while she helps find warmth and humanity in an otherwise distant actor (Pidgeon lacks Peck’s – who he resembles in many ways – ability to convey warmth under reserved dignity). Pidgeon’s stirring sense of duty excels, not least during the Dunkirk sequence.

That sequence is very well executed, a small series of boats gradually growing in size until they fill the Thames. When duty calls, people respond with gusto and pride. Alongside this, normal life continues as much as possible: not even the war will stop the flower show. This remains a heart-warming centre piece – pinched for an episode of Downton Abbey – as Lady Beldon overrules the sycophantic judges and gives the prize to the deserving winner, local station manager Mr Ballard (Henry Travers, sweet but receiving a generous Oscar nomination).

The acting is pretty much spot on. Teresa Wright (Oscar winning) is endearingly genuine and vibrant as Vin’s wife to be (and Lady Beldon’s niece) Carol. May Whitty, channelling those grande-old-dames-with-hearts-of-gold, gets every beat right, from comedy to tragedy, Wilcoxon is marvellous. It’s all so heartfelt and earnest you can overlook the fact most of the (largely American and Canadian) cast go for cod-Brit accents or cliched working class vowels – just as you do the fact that neither the towns or countryside in the film looks particularly British (an opening sequence in London looks plain wrong in every sense).

And you can’t fail be stirred by its celebration of quiet determination and unshowy self-sacrifice. You can certainly argue that it’s not a work of art, like other films nominated that year for Best Picture. But, none of them would have (or continue to have) the emotional impact this has. Sure, it feeds off an American nostalgia for English-country-village life – but it does so with a noble cause. Well-acted, very well directed, it still inspires and continues to provoke pride today.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Tom Hanks leads a platoon of men through incredible sacrifice in Spielberg’s landmark Saving Private Ryan

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Tom Hanks (Captain John Miller), Edward Burns (Pvt Richard Reiben), Matt Damon (Pvt James Francis Ryan), Tom Sizemore (Sgt Mike Horvath), Jeremy Davies (Cpl Timothy Upham), Vin Diesel (Pvt Adrian Caparzo), Adam Goldberg (Pvt Stanley Mellish), Berry Pepper (Pvt Daniel Jackson), Giovanni Ribisi (Medic Irwin Wade), Dennis Farina (Lt Col Anderson), Ted Danson (Cpt Fred Hamill), Harve Presnell (General George Marshall), Bryan Cranston (Colonel), Paul Giamatti (Sgt William Hill), Nathan Fillion (“Minnesota” Ryan)

There are few films you can categorically point to as changing cinema. Saving Private Ryan is one of those films. Before it, there had never been a war film like it: afterwards there would not be war film uninfluenced by it. Spielberg turned the Second World War from the picturesque setting for an all-star epic, into something immediate, ground-level and utterly, terrifyingly all-consuming. The “boots on the ground” vision of war, that didn’t shirk once from capturing the horrific cost and terror of war and had no suggestion of adventure. Hollywood would look at war differently ever more.

From landing at Omaha beach on D-Day, the film follows a single week in the lives of Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and a platoon of soldiers, sent on a ‘public relations’ mission. Three brothers have all been killed in action, with their mother receiving notification of their deaths all on the same day. The top brass decide she has suffered enough and that her last remaining son James (Matt Damon) should be bought home. Problem is, he’s a member of the 101st Parachute Airborne – and no one is quite sure where he’s been dropped. Miller and his men are to find Ryan and bring him home – despite the resentment of his men that their lives at being put at risk to save one man.

Any discussion of Saving Private Ryan begins with that Omaha beach sequence.  It’s hard to even begin to understand the impact this sequence had on audiences in 1998. Quite simply, we’d never seen anything like it. Expectations before its release was that Spielberg was producing a crowd-pleasing, Dirty Dozen style men-on-a-mission film. No one expected a savage, brutally realistic vision of what warfare actually meant, with its brutal, swift and random death.

The sequence starts with Spielberg panning across the faces of soldiers in the landing craft Miller and his company are riding to the beach. He lingers on these faces – only for them to be promptly ripped to pieces by machine-gun fire the second the doors open. Omaha beach is a savage nightmare, the closest thing you can image to hell on earth. Machine gun bullets rip down relentlessly on the pinned down soldiers – and the camera throws us right in there with them.

With drained out colours, hand-held camerawork (some of it operated by Spielberg himself), mud, blood and sand spraying up into the lens, it’s all-consuming. The film’s sound design is awe-inspiringly good, every single sound (the splatter of sand, the thud of bullets ripping through flesh, the snap of rifles) builds into a shatteringly immersive crescendo with no respite. Spielberg doesn’t shy away from the horror. Bodies are mutilated by bullets. Heads are caved in. A soldiers walks the beach, carrying his own severed arm. Medics treat soldiers drowning in their own blood, crying for their mothers. Bullets claim the brave and scared alike.

You watch and you can’t believe anyone emerged from this alive. The cost of getting off the beach is seismic. The visceral horror doesn’t let up over the first 25 minutes as Miller’s company – suffering huge losses – struggles from landing craft, to beach, to storming the German defences. Our ear drums are assaulted by bullet sound effects, and every single step shows us some new horror. There are no long-shots, no cut aways and the only peace we get is when we share with Miller his tinnitus from narrow-escape explosions. The brutality is even-handed – after the massacre on the beach, the US soldiers show no mercy to the Germans (two of whom are gunned down surrendering and begging for mercy), officers urging their men to “let ‘em burn” as on-fire Germans fall from incinerated machine gun banks.

It’s extraordinary – and sets the tone. Combat is immediate, visceral, terrifying, brutal and always carries a heavy cost. The human body is infinitely fragile and every death – high or low – is met with fear, loneliness and regret. Veterans had to leave the cinema during screenings to compose themselves, and viewers were stunned into silence. You could watch Saving Private Ryan and feel you never even began to understand what war was until then – and that even with this taste you can still never understand it. It’s a brutal zero-sum game with only losers.

Any film would struggle to follow that: but Saving Private Ryan does a fabulous job of maintaining the dramatic force of its opening sequence before its book-end final battle, as the remains of the platoon join Ryan’s unit in a seemingly-hopeless defence of a vital bridge in a bombed out town (another grim, gripping and stunning slice of war with the added kick to the guts of watching people we have spent the entire film with being blown away and ripped apart by bullets).

Spielberg’s film explores what makes the cost of this worth it. It’s a film about the power of sacrifice: the sacrifices the men make to find Ryan, but on a larger scale the sacrifices this whole generation made for those that were to come. When Miller urges Ryan to “earn this”, he’s speaking to us all. Men like him died to give us the chance to make the world a better place. The sacrifices of this platoon for one man is all part of the same price this entire generation made for the ones that were to come.

And one of the things sacrificed is the rules of humanity. Prisoners are shot, unarmed men are killed – if you play this game, you play to win. Thrown into Omaha, the audience understand this – meaning we feel as little patience with translator Upham (a fine performance of out-of-his-depth-fear from Jeremy Davies), who whines about right-and-wrong, as his colleagues, who understand living-and-dying is the only issue out here anyone cares about.

Understanding this depends on relating to the soldiers – and the cast has been hand-picked for that. None more so than Tom Hanks, channelling his relatability into a home-spun, ordinary man forced into extraordinary and brutal situations that have left a shattering mark on him. With an intermittent tremor in his hand, Hanks embodies the stoic sacrifice of a generation. It’s a landmark performance. There are many fine performances in the film, Tom Sizemore (battling drug addiction and a promise of instant dismissal if he relapsed) perhaps the stand-out as his hardened sergeant.

If Saving Private Ryan has a fault, it’s that it falls into Spielberg’s sentimentality trap. Sometimes the man can’t help himself. The film is bookended by an old man visiting war graves – someone we discover at the film’s end is Ryan himself. As if somehow still not trusting us to get the message about sacrifice and horror the film has so effectively communicated, old-man-Ryan explicitly tell us, tearily asking his wife if he has led a “good life”. It’s a hammer-home the film doesn’t need and dents its final impact. (I’d also say the film has endless empathy for US Joes, but sees all the Germans as a ruthless swarm fighting an evil cause, although many of them were also as scared).

But these are quibbles in a film that does so much right – and which reinvented an entire genre. It’s one of Spielberg’s masterpieces, a stunning display of directorial skill and immersive film-making, and its impact never seems to lessen. It gets as close as any film can to showing us war – and yet it is still a million miles further away than most of us (thankfully) will ever have to get.

From Here to Eternity (1953)

Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity’s most famous moment

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Cast: Burt Lancaster (First Sergeant Milton Warden), Montgomery Clift (Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt), Deborah Kerr (Karen Holmes), Donna Reed (Alma Burke/Lorene), Frank Sinatra (Private Angelo Maggio), Philip Ober (Captain Dana Holmes), Mickey Shaughnessy (Sergeant Leva), Harry Bellaver (Private Mazzioli), Ernest Borgnine (Staff Sergeant James “Fatso” Judson), Jack Warden (Corporal Buckley)

Dominating the 1953 Oscars, From Here to Eternity is exactly the sort of sweeping, highly-professional studio epic Hollywood at its best produced in its Golden Years. Everything turned out pretty much right, with iconic imagery and characters, and skilled production and acting turning a soapy story into something quite profound. From Here to Eternity is entertainment-as-art, a sharply intelligent film that sails along smoothly. It feels like a generational progression from Casablanca – it may not quite hit those heights, but it deserves to be in the same conversation.

It’s 1941 at Pearl Harbour and three soldiers discover going their own way, rather than conforming to rules and expectations, causes no end of trouble. Private Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) is repeatedly hazed by his comrades (with the support of his CO) for refusing to join the boxing team. A champion boxer, Prewitt retired after accidentally blinding an opponent and nothing will persuade him to go back. His only comfort is with local social club ‘hostess’ Lorene (Donna Reed). First Sergeant Warden (Burt Lancaster) is persuaded to try for officer – because otherwise he risks prison for his love affair with the CO’s unloved wife Karen (Deborah Kerr). Private Maggio (Frank Sinatra), Prewitt’s only friend, is a loyal wild-card who can’t stick to the rules and is targeted by brutal stockade sergeant “Fatso” Judson (Ernest Borgnine).

From Here to Eternity sounds like a great big soap, a sort of 1980s glossy TV mini-series made before its time (it was later remade exactly as that). It’s got that in its DNA, but is made with such luscious, professional, old-school Hollywood excellence it becomes something special. Superb craftsmen work in every position to produce a classic melodrama with touches of romance, thriller, war drama and tragedy. With excellent performances across the board (Sinatra and Reed both won Oscars, while Lancaster, Clift and Kerr were all nominated), FHtE tells emotive, empathetic stories about genuine characters trapped in situations beyond their control.

The film is a masterclass in adaptation. The original novel – a popular tome of its day – tells a story crammed full of sex, STDs, homosexuality, bad language and violence across its 800+ pages. No wonder it was a hit – and no wonder, under the Production Code, it was thought impossible to adapt it into a film. Screenwriter Daniel Taradash carefully reworked and ‘hinted’ at several things that could not be explicitly said (for example, no one calls Lorene a prostitute, but you’d have to be pretty dense not to realise she is doing more than pouring drinks in that bar). Restraint, as it often did, demanded invention and bought out the best (and subtle work) in people. The film’s requirement to focus on dialogue and character rather than controversy hugely works to its benefit.

Zinnemann was the perfect director for the material. Drawing wonderful performances from the actors, he also keep the film intimate, drawing us closer to the characters over scale, despite the temptations of the film’s location shooting in Hawaii (Zinnemann pushed strongly against shooting in technicolour and widescreen). The film also fits perfectly with one of Zinnemann’s key pre-occupations: the struggle of principled men (most strikingly Prewitt) in a society that demands them to say or do something against those principles. Just as the townspeople wanted Marshal to run and the Tudor court wanted More to swear allegiance, so our characters buck against conforming with the roles they are expected to play.

You can see why the military – after supporting the project – were less happy when they saw the film. The individual is championed at the cost of the machine. Prewitt’s principles are praised, while his regiment is hopelessly corrupted by his incompetent and careerist commander. The hazing is endemic, and supported from above – and no one even notices or cares that Fatso is also abusing his position to brutalize Maggio. The CO is so useless – as well as ruining his wife’s life, rendering her infertile and cheating on her all over town – that the company is effectively run by First Sergeant Warden, the only NCO with the courage of his principles. Under pressure from their army sponsors, the film does see the chain of command cashier the CO (a scene Zinnemann hated) – but the sympathy is with the individual rather than the system.

From Here to Eternity is also a highly effective romance. Its most famous image will always be the clinch between Lancaster and Kerr, kissing and embracing while the turf washes up around them. But the film is also realistic – its why it remains so effective. Warden and Karen are made as miserable by their growing love as they are happy (they even comment on this). Relationships are never an easy ride, and demand constant dedication. Lorene and Prewitt’s relationship is far from rose-tinted, with the two of them constantly forced apart by their own mistakes and choices.

It’s melodrama told with emotional intelligence and realism – and Zinnemann gets great performances from great actors. Lancaster brings immense strength and purpose to Warden, but also a concealed vulnerability and decency. Kerr – revitalising her career after a string of “good wives” – brilliantly conveys Karen’s desperation and misery, along with her wary hope her life could change. That moment on the beach, the surf washing around them as they make-out is a rare moment of relaxed happiness. Other than that, its one tough conversation after another – stolen moments in bars or cars, where the two of them confront the difficulty of their situation, but also their need for each other. That’s old school romance for you – unavoidable, but never-endingly difficult and even a little painful.

Sinatra (in the role that changed his career – and the debate around how he got the role inspired that horse’s head in The Godfather) brings charm, cheek and tragedy to Maggio. How did Maggio end up in this man’s army? He’s quietly fun loving, but bucks the rules like almost no other character in the film. Sure he’s an upstanding guy – the only one who sticks by Prewit and defends him – but he can’t follow a simple order. Mostly because he’s not really disciplined enough. Plus he makes enemies – worst of all Borgnine’s bruising sergeant. He’d be so much happier running a bar for soldiers than he ever is being a soldier himself.

This makes him very different from Clift’s Prewit. Clift gives one of his finest performances as this fully-realised tragic hero. Prewit is a man of principle who, for the best reasons, makes choices that have a terrible impact on him. He’ll stand by his decision not to box, even though it opens up a bucket load of unpleasantness for him and Maggio. If that leaves him with one friend and no supporters, so be it. He may not look like a boxer (the studio wanted a more muscular lead), but he is every inch the emotionally conflicted, guilt-plagued and confused GI, stubborn but profoundly sincere, with the strength of character to stand alone, but the vulnerability to need affection from Lorene (and respond like a lovesick kid when he thinks she has spurned him). It’s a complex, mature and excellent performance.

All these events are eventually dwarfed by the outbreak of war. If there is one thing that Zinnemann will accept is bigger than the individual, it’s world war. The film quietly counts down to the attack on Pearl Harbor (without the characters realising it), sneaking us peaks at calendars and reports to let us know how close we are to the fateful day. When it comes, it reveals the characters of the people we’ve been following. Warden takes command in a way his CO never could. Prewit, hiding out with Lorene (Reed by the way is marvellous, her investing Lorene with a real world-weary sadness), decides its his mission to return from AWOL, despite the dangers this will cause him. The attack is grippingly but simply filmed.

From Here to Eternity is a complex film, made with real professional skill, and a rewarding character study. Zinnemann gets the tone right at almost every single point and draws out brilliant performances from a very strong cast. As an example of Hollywood Studio film making, it’s hard to beat.

The English Patient (1996)

Ralph Fiennes excels as the tragic The English Patient

Director: Anthony Minghella

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Count Almasy), Juliette Binoche (Hana), Willem Dafoe (David Caravaggio), Kristin Scott Thomas (Katherine Clifton), Naveen Andrews (Kip), Colin Firth (Geoffrey Clifton), Julian Wadham (Maddox), Jurgen Prochnow (Major Muller), Kevin Whatley (Sergeant Hardy), Clive Merrison (Colonel Fenelon-Barnes), Nino Castelnuovo (D’Agostino)

Sweeping, luscious, beautiful and an epic translation of an almost unfilmable novel into something supremely cinematic, The English Patient swept the board with nine Oscars at the 1996 Academy Awards. The English Patient has sometimes had a rocky reputation (not helped by an episode of Seinfeld where Elaine was famously non-plussed by the film). Like some of Minghella’s later work, it’s almost too well made for some to get past, looking like prime award bait. I didn’t “get it” the first time I watched it. But I – and the naysayers – were wrong: The English Patient is rich, rewarding and throbbing with a very British sense of repressed emotion and slow embracing of dangerous passions.

Adapted from Michael Ondatje’s multiple-award-winning novel, it unfolds across two time frames, hinging on a plane crash in the Sahara in 1942 that opens the film and leaves its pilot, Hungarian Count Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), hideously burned beyond recognition. The entire film is both an epilogue to that crash and a prologue explaining how we got there. In 1945, Almasy asserts he remembers nothing, even his own name. In what we later learn is a bitter irony, he is mistaken for an Englishman due to his perfect English. He is nursed through the final days of his life in an abandoned Italian monastery by a Canadian nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche), who has lost nearly everyone she loves in the war. Through Almasy’s memories, we see his life before the war as part of an international society of cartographers. In particular, the love affair that grows between him and Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott-Thomas), the wife of another member of the society – an affair that will have life-shattering repercussions.

Appreciation for Minghella’s film must start with his ingenious screenplay. The English Patient, a book that moves eclectically between multiple timelines, shifting perspective frequently, and delivers its story in almost impossibly rich prose, should have been unfilmable. Minghella creates something which is both a mirror of the book’s intention, but also a cinematic text. You could use this as a teaching tool for adaptation (bizarrely one of the few Oscars it didn’t win was for Screenplay!). Working in close partnership with editor Walter Murch, Minghella’s film effortlessly cuts back and forth between at least three timelines, but never once confuses or jars. With (according to Murch) over 40 time transitions (that’s one almost every 3-4 minutes, fact fans), this could have been a jarring, impossible to follow mess. Instead, narrative clarity is its watchword.

But the film also succeeds because it’s the apex of Minghella’s ability to combine luscious, poetic story-telling with acute emotion and passion. It shouldn’t be a surprise that someone who showed such understanding of grief in Truly, Madly, Deeply acutely understands how joy and pain can go hand-in-hand in love. Perhaps one of the reasons people found this a difficult film is that Almasy and Katherine are not a traditional romantic pairing. Both guarded, sometimes even cold and distant people, they are tentative, perhaps even scared, of the deep bond they immediately feel. A bond that burns all the more brightly because of the compromises and barriers in their emotional lives.

Almasy is distant, aloof, a man easy to know but impossible to understand. Katherine has a very English reserve behind a certain patrician warmth, playful at times but very aware of duty. What’s fascinating – and moving – about the film, is that these two people actually have a huge groundswell of passion between them. They are besotted with each other, but for reasons ranging from background to their own fears of emotional involvement, struggle to admit it to each other. They fling themselves at each other in romantic couplings with an almost animalistic longing. They make each other laugh. They allow themselves to speak of deep feelings, experiences and thoughts that they would not express to others. And they are also able to hurt each other through resentments, distances and shunnings in a way no one else could.

It’s a decidedly unconventional romance – compare it to, say, the next year’s Oscar winner Titanic with its far more conventional love story – but it works wonderfully. The slight air of repression also means that the confessions of deep-rooted feelings – Scott Thomas’ reveal of a gift she has never parted from, or Fiennes’ face twisted in emotional anguish – carry huge impact.

It also helps that the film is set in the sort of grand vistas that David Lean would be proud of. While you can certainly argue (with some justification) that The English Patient is a picture postcard film, its perfect visuals of the desert, the stunning beauty of so many of its shots, add to the extraordinary luscious old-fashioned 1930s romance of its setting. It could all be taking place in a world of von Sternbergesque romanticism.

Minghella’s film also interweaves skilfully the 1945 story line, revolving around Juliette Binoche’s Hana. Binoche won a deserved Oscar for a sensitive, vulnerable performance as a woman terrified of emotional commitment (sound familiar?), scared anyone she grows close to is doomed to die. Her romance with bomb disposal expert Kip (a strikingly delicate performance from Naveen Andrews, with just enough hints of anti-colonial tension mixed in) seems ready to fit this trope, but instead develops in unexpected ways. It also contributes perhaps the film’s most sweepingly romantic moment when Kip uses a pulley system, a flare and a bit of muscle to give Hana a sweeping up-close look at some Renaissance frescos. But while our flashback romance has the foreboding of doom to it, this one instead shows us the hope of a life restarting.

The English Patient also makes some striking points about the insane foolishness not just of war, but nationalism and Empire. The cartographers are a pan-European group who come together as equals, disregarding all concerns of nation. Instead they find a freedom to behave – intellectually, emotionally and sexually – in a way they never could “at home”. They represent a chance of being free to make our own choices, rather than dictated by arbitrary borders. Problems of nationhood are what will bring disaster. Colonialism is viewed equally critically: Kip gets sharp digs in at Kipling and also makes clear that his status as an Indian officer in the British Army is one of uncertainty.

Minghella’s film also works because of the mastery of the performances. Fiennes is in nearly every scene (many of them under a layer of make-up), and the role is a perfect match for the surface coldness in his performance style, which hides his wit and sensitivity. Cheated of the Oscar, Fiennes has rarely been better – his clipped romanticism mellowing in the 1945 section as a gentler but broken man. Scott-Thomas is perfectly cast – I’m not sure any other film has used her skills better – as a woman who compromised on happiness at the wrong time, and now cannot express herself.

The English Patient is a romance of slow moments, of inferred passions, which only at a few points before the end flower into something intimate. But it carries a huge emotional force, precisely because of this. Its technical work is faultless – Gabriel Yared’s score is a sumptuous mix of inspirations – and the acting superb (as well as the stars, Firth is marvellous as a decent but dull man cuckolded, Dafoe adds a layer of unpredictability as a 1945 houseguest and Whatley is the picture of working-class decency in a rare film role). The English Patient is Booker-prize film-making in its depth, richness and the work it asks you to put in, mixed with a David-Lean-meets-Mills-and-Boon pictorial loveliness, where each frame is a sun-kissed example of pictorial perfection. Mixed together, it makes for a sumptuous and deeply emotional package that I find more and more rewarding with every viewing.

The Great Escape (1963)

Steve McQueen is the Cooler King (King of Cool?) in The Great Escape

Director: John Sturges

Cast: Steve McQueen (Captain Virgil Hilts), James Garner (Flight Lt Bob Hendley), Richard Attenborough (Sqd Leader Roger Bartlett), James Donald (Group Captain Ramsey), Charles Bronson (Ft Lt Danny Welinski), Donald Pleasance (Flt Lt Colin Blythe), James Coburn (FO Sedgwick), Hannes Messemer (Oberst von Luger), David McCallum (Lt-Commander Eric Ashley-Pitt), Gordon Jackson (Ft Lt Andy MacDonald), John Leyton (Ft Lt Willie Dickes), Angus Lennie (FO Archie Ives), Nigel Stock (Ft Lt Dennis Cavendish), Robert Graf (Werner)

Is there a film in Britain more associated with holidays than The Great Escape? While I was growing up it felt like a day-off wasn’t complete unless the BBC screened it as part of their afternoon schedule. In Britain is has a status as a sort of cosy uncle, a part of the furniture of many people’s filmic lives. There is always something comforting and reassuring about The Great Escape. So much so, people forget it ends with a large bodycount and the majority of our heroes further away from freedom than when they started.

But it doesn’t really matter, because The Great Escape is one of the last hurrahs of effective, nostalgic war-films. The sort of hugely enjoyable caper that recognises the cost of war, but also celebrates the pluck, ingenuity and guts of Allied servicemen, running rings around those dastardly cheating Nazis. Where we would all like to look back and remember those days when men-were-men and worked together towards a common goal. Sturges has created a marvellous tapestry of a movie, that pulls together several striking scenes, characters and snippets of dialogue into a true ensemble piece that reflects the camaraderie and unity that exists between the prisoners as they work towards their escape.

In some ways, The Great Escape is such good fun, such well-packaged entertainment and telling such an exciting, uplifting and (in the end) moving story that it’s almost immune to criticism. You’d have to have a pretty hard heart not to enjoy it. And you’d have to be pretty cynical not to enjoy the way it presents a series of obstacles and then carefully demonstrates the fascinating and rewarding ways the prisoners resolve these. It’s also notable that, aside from the shadowy Gestapo types, the film doesn’t really have an antagonist. The enemy is that fence. Most of the Germans are just regular soldiers doing a job – it’s only the brutal final-act Gestapo who are aren’t playing this eccentric game. But this helps us sit back and enjoy the film as a caper – just as it makes the burst of machine-gun fire that (nearly) ends the film even more impactful and shocking.

Sturges’ gets the tone of the film spot-on, and also draws a series of perfectly balanced performances from his all-star cast. I think it’s fair to say a lot of the film’s success was connected to Steve McQueen’s casting in the crucial role of Hilts. McQueen channels a sense of 1960s anti-establishment cool into the film (unlike the rest of the POWs, he seems to be wearing basically his own clothes in t-shirt, chinos and bomber jacket). Iconically bouncing his ball against the wall in a cooler, a natural loner (who of course still does his bit), with a cocky sense of defiance and some exceptional motor-bike skills, Hilts is undeniably cool. He’s the face of the film – and the one you walk away wanting to be.

He also gets the film’s definitive claim to fame, with a series of daring motorbike stunts as he races across Germany to escape. Mostly performed by McQueen himself (although not the most famous fence jump, done by a stuntman) this last act chase is a gripping, action counter-point to the more cagey, paranoid runs of the other escapees. It’s so exciting and feel-good, it’s a surprise to remember that Hilts actually gets caught. But then, if he hadn’t, we’d have lost McQueen’s cool, wry shrug of acceptance as he and his mitt were sent back to the cooler in the camp for another 20 days.

The film tees up plenty of sub-plots for the rest of the cast, with Sturges’ spreading the love very effectively. Charles Bronson gets perhaps the best plot as “tunnel king” Danny Welinski who holds back his crippling claustrophobia almost long enough. I think this might be Bronson’s finest hour, giving a real vulnerability to Danny, with genuinely quite affecting whimpers and fear at confronting the tunnel – making his struggle all the more moving. Bronson makes a wonderful double-act with John Leyton as fellow tunneller Willie Dickes, the two of them forging an affecting bond of loyalty.

A similar bond also forms between James Garner’s suave and playful scrounger Jack Hedley and Donald Pleasance’s professorial forger Colin Blythe (has there ever been a more “Colin” Colin on film than Pleasance?). The final moments between this pair carry perhaps the biggest gut-punch of a film that has a surprising large number of them. Pleasance’s sad attempts to hide and combat growing blindness are genuinely affecting, while Garner is a master at conveying depth beneath a light surface. Sturges’ film taps into the nostalgic memories most of us have (or have picked up) of this war being one where life-long friendships were formed against horror and adversity.

Attenborough does most of the thankless heavy-lifting as Big X, but the film uses his Blimpish authority well. Gordon Jackson has a memorial role as the number #2 famously caught out by his own vocal trap (the sort of irony films like this love). Fans of the TV show Colditz can enjoy seeing David McCallum in a very similar role as a daring young escapee. James Donald channels British reserve as the senior officer. The film’s single truly bizarre performance is from James Coburn, with an Australian accent from the Dick van-Dyke school of ineptitude, so terrible even Sturges surely noticed it when cutting the film.

The Great Escape marshals all these cards extremely well. Any combination of any of these actors produces fireworks. It’s one of the best boys own adventure you can imagine. It in fact gets the perfect balance: you can spend a large chunk of the film thinking that being locked up in a German POW camp looks like the best time ever – and then it chillingly reminds you with its sad coda of the terrible cost of war. But it’s that first hour and half and its celebration of grit, guts, determination and ingenuity that really works – and it’s so entertaining that it solves immediately any mystery as to why any public holiday you’re 10-1 to find this popping up on your afternoon TV listings.