This summer -- July 28, to be precise -- will mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, aka The Great War, the War to End All Wars and the European War (in America, at least, which didn't enter until three years later). It was a conflict that changed warfare technologically, culturally and spiritually. It was one of the more costly conflagrations in the history of humanity.
So what's up at the movies? World War II.
Centennial or no centennial, it's become clear this year that the Second World War remains first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of filmmakers everywhere. "The Monuments Men," directed by George Clooney, told the story of art investigators rescuing world masterpieces from the clutches of Nazis. "Generation War," a soapy import derived from a popular German miniseries, told of five friends going their separate ways at the outbreak of the war. This year's Oscar-winning short film, "The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life," was about 109-year-old pianist and Auschwitz survivor Alice Herz-Sommer; and "Stalingrad," about World War II's most strategically important battle (and history's costliest), was a high-end Russian production whose message was neatly summarized by Philadelphia Inquirer critic Stephen Rea: "War is hell. But hell, it makes for good cinema."
So it has ever been -- and so shall it continue. On Nov. 14, moviegoers will see the release of "Fury," starring Brad Pitt as a battle-hardened tank commander in the last months of World War II, attempting to "strike at the heart of Nazi Germany." Angelina Jolie will direct "Unbroken" (Dec. 25), based on the biography by Laura Hillenbrand ("Seabiscuit"), about Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who was taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II. Mexican director Alejandro Monteverde's "Little Boy" is a comedy coming June 6 (D-Day) about a boy trying to bring his father back from World War II. Still awaiting release dates are "Suite Francais," starring Michelle Williams and Margot Robbie, about a French villager who falls for a German soldier; and Jim Sheridan's "Playing With the Enemy," about teaching German prisoners of war to play baseball at a POW camp in Louisiana.
And next Friday, "Walking With the Enemy," about Hungarian heroics in the face of Germany's attempted eradication of its Jewish population, opens on Long Island, focusing on a little-known aspect of Holocaust history.
"When we were doing our interviews, it was mostly older people you could learn things from," said director Mark Schmidt, whose "Walking With the Enemy" is based on real-life Pinchas Rosenbaum, who rescued his fellow Jews from enemies both foreign and domestic. "They were behind the Iron Curtain so long, and Hungary didn't teach the true history of what happened there."
Getting at the true history has much to do with the evolution of World War II as a movie subject, according to Morris Dickstein, film critic, author and distinguished professor of English and theater at the Graduate Center of City University in New York. It has gone through several phases, he said, the biggest being the shift from combat drama to Holocaust story, "a fascination that has not yet ended."
"It was at first provoked by the amnesia of the first 25 years, when neither the survivors nor the work at large were willing to really look this horror in the eye," Dickstein said. "Then, both the survivors and the perpetrators began dying off, which led to a raft of survivor testimony. The unexpected commercial success of 'Schindler's List' only fueled the flames, besides providing money for an immense archive of witness testimony."
GOOD GUYS VS. FASCISTS
The Second World War was, admittedly, a far more costly endeavor than World War I (16 million died in the first war, about 60 million in the second, a figure that includes death due to famine, disease and extermination). But understanding World War I also requires something like the schematic to a TV set in order to get the players, the grievances and the interconnecting alliances straight in one's head. By comparison, the agenda for World War II is much simpler -- good guys against fascists.
"No other war offers such clean-cut contrasts," Dickstein said. "The Good War and the Greatest Generation make for strong story lines. New frontiers in the portrayal of violence make for far greater realism, beginning with 'Saving Private Ryan.' The slow-motion trench warfare of World War I lacks both the drama and the melodrama" of World War II, he said. World War I "is suitable mainly for anti-war stories like 'All Quiet on the Western Front' and 'Paths of Glory.' "
And new facets of World War II keep presenting themselves, he said, as in "Monuments Men," which echoed the headlines about the recovery of art years after it was stolen by the Nazis.
"Then, there is the fact that the Nazis are ideal villains," Dickstein added. "It blows the mind that the Nazis were not only the greatest killers in history but the greatest liars and thieves."
World War II a hard movie genre to define
There have not been countless movies made about World War II -- it just seems that way, especially if you include all the subgenres: the Holocaust film, the POW camp film ("The Bridge on the River Kwai," "The Great Escape"), the prequels, sequels and even a Nazi propaganda masterpiece like "Triumph of the Will." Is "Casablanca" a World War II movie, or the nine-hour "Shoah"? How about Ernst Lubitsch's comedy "To Be or Not to Be," which is about theater people under the Reich? The five choices below are about Men at War. But as good as they may be, they also point up that it's a far-flung genre.
THE STORY OF GI JOE (1945) Based on the work of war correspondent Ernie Pyle (and released two months after he was killed in battle), this moving drama directed by the great William Wellman features Robert Mitchum and Burgess Meredith and has long been admired as a kind of outlier in the World War II movie catalog, a mainstream war film more concerned with the effects of battle on the men waging it than on the battle itself.
ARMY OF SHADOWS (1969) Jean-Pierre Melville's fatalistic tour de force about the French Resistance went unreleased in the United States for 40 years after its opening in France. But when it did arrive, it made critics' top 10 lists across the country, as well as best foreign-language film awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, Los Angeles Film Critics Association and National Society of Film Critics.
THE BIG RED ONE (1980) The wartime experiences of director Sam Fuller, who won a Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart, are the backdrop for this masterpiece, which follows the 1st U.S. Infantry Division as it fights its way from North Africa through Italy, France, Germany and up to Czechoslovakia, providing rich characterizations, some harsh humor and the occasional bizarre digression (the birth of a baby in the well of a tank, for instance). Lee Marvin stars, along with Robert Carradine and Mark Hamill.
DAS BOOT (1981) Originally a five-hour miniseries for German television, this U-boat thriller inflicts on its audiences a palpable sense of suspense, terror and breathless claustrophobia as Jurgen Prochnow, as the ship's captain, pushes his craft and his crew to nautical depths and dramatic heights.
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) It eventually marches into sentimental goo, but the opening of Steven Spielberg's epic -- the literally blood-and-guts invasion of Normandy -- is hard to beat in terms of immediacy and horror.