Steve McQueen, left, Jud Taylor, James Garner, 'The Great Escape' (1963)

For, Friday, May 24, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: I had planned to reprint two more Monty Python interviews last week and this week, but instead reprinted my 33-year-old interview with Tim Conway after his recent death, and this week decided to offer something appropriate to Memorial Day. (The Python stories will follow.) The column below was originally printed in the Deseret News on May 26, 2016, under the headline, ‘Gear up for Memorial Day by watching these wartime flicks.’ And as an update, FYI, Armed Forces Day this year was May 18, Memorial Day is Monday, May 27, and Flag Day is June 14. Oh, and Costco, sadly, has cut back its DVD racks to nearly nothing.

As we leave Armed Forces Day behind and look toward Memorial Day (Monday, May 30), Flag Day (June 14) and Independence Day (aka the Fourth of July) we, naturally, find that patriotic wartime movies are on our minds.

Or if they’re not, all it takes is a glance at the DVD racks while strolling through Costco or Wal-Mart.

When the subject of war movies comes up it’s interesting to see so many people name favorites released within the past 20 or 25 years — “Saving Private Ryan,” “Schindler’s List,” “Unbroken,” “The Imitation Game,” “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Letters From Iwo Jima,” “Memphis Belle,” “The Pianist,” “Valkyrie,” “Pearl Harbor.”

Someone even mentioned “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Yes, there are Nazis, but no, not really a war film.

And even more surprising, all of them are World War II movies. For some reason we tend to associate the conflict fought by the Greatest Generation with our patriotic holidays.

There are lots of films out there about more recent wars, as well as older wars, but World War II still resonates, perhaps because our enemies at the time were so precisely delineated, and the double conflict of the European and Pacific theaters helped Americans understand what they were fighting for.

Not so easy with more modern conflicts, from Vietnam forward.

My favorite World War II movies are much older than 25 years. So, in case you don’t know them, or have forgotten them, here are a few titles to consider (all are available on Blu-ray, DVD or various streaming sites).


Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, 'Casablanca' (1942)

“Casablanca” (1942, b/w). Considered one of cinema’s greatest romantic dramas (and with, arguably, more quoted lines than any other single film), this is also a gripping wartime thriller about duplicity, loyalty and sacrifice, and how, during wartime, our smaller problems, in the words of Humphrey Bogart’s character, “don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains star, with Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Dooley Wilson. Nominated for eight Oscars, this one earned only three, but they were top awards — best picture, best director (Michael Curtiz) and best screenplay (brothers Julius and Philip Epstein, and Howard Koch).

“The Great Escape” (1963). Based on a true story, this all-star effort plays as much as a caper thriller (with liberal doses of comedy) as a POW escape flick. In a Nazi camp in Poland, British and American soldiers come together to plan an elaborate mass tunnel escape with everyone contributing their special skill sets. The pitch-perfect cast includes Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn and David McCallum.

“Patton” (1970, PG). George C. Scott won an Oscar (but declined to accept it) for his powerful portrayal of Gen. George S. Patton, a colorful, some would say tyrannical, and certainly controversial, U.S. Army leader during the Second World War. Scott is brilliant, and Karl Malden is also excellent as Patton’s friend Gen. Omar Bradley, and the staging of battle scenes is gripping and realistic. Nominated for 10 Oscars and winner of seven, including best picture, Franklin J. Schaffner as best director, and Edmund H. North and Francis Ford Coppola for best screenplay (two years before Coppola struck gold with “The Godfather”).

Others I would highly recommend include “The Guns of Navarone” (1961), “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), “A Matter of Life and Death” (1946), “The Big Red One” (1980), “The Bridge On the River Kwai” (1957), “The Longest Day” (1962, b/w), “Tora Tora Tora” (1970), “Stalag 17” (1953, b/w), “From Here to Eternity” (1953, b/w), “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961, b/w) … and there are many more. But these offer a variety to choose from, and you can’t go wrong with any of them.


Harold Russell, left, Dana Andrews, Fredric March, 'The Best Years of Our Lives' (1946)

And finally, one of my all-time favorite movies of any genre, “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946, b/w), a post-war examination of how World War II affected those who fought. The focus here is on three returning servicemen and the difficulties they face adjusting to civilian life: a decorated Army Air Corps captain (Dana Andrews) who has trouble finding work and discovers his wife has been unfaithful, an aging infantry sergeant (Fredric March) who turns to alcohol to soothe his jangled nerves, and a very young sailor (Oscar-winner Harold Russell) who lost both forearms in battle and now uses prostheses with hooks.

All of the actors are in top form, including Myrna Loy as March’s understanding wife; Teresa Wright as their daughter, who is attracted to unhappy Andrews; Virginia Mayo as the straying wife; Cathy O’Donnell as Russell’s sensitive and loving fiancée; and Hoagy Carmichael as the local piano-playing barkeep.

The three stories of these men and their troubled roads to rehabilitation intersect in natural ways and the struggles they go through are universal, though they will, of course, particularly resonate with veterans and their families. This is a film of its time but there’s a lot more going on here, resulting in one of those rare cinematic experiences that transcends its era to remain universally appealing decades later.

Nominated for eight Oscars, “The Best Years of Our Lives” won seven, including best picture, March as best actor, Russell as best supporting actor, William Wyler as best director and Robert E. Sherwood for best screenplay. In addition, Russell, a real-life amputee, won a second Oscar, an honorary award for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.”