World War II is often described as “the last good war.” It’s also one that the United States didn’t intend to enter until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, “a day that will live in infamy.”
At that time, the United States was ill-prepared for war — especially one fought on two fronts: the war in the Pacific and in Europe.
Legend has it that immediately after the Pearl Harbor sneak attack, Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto opined, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”
Whether he actually said it or not, that’s exactly what resulted. America’s industrial might switched gears from producing domestic goods to wartime production, and patriotic men of all ages flooded the recruiting offices, eager to serve.
And when it was all over, Hollywood began producing riveting films that depicted the war’s heroes, its battles, and the victims. Here are Newsmax’s list of the best in each category, listed in alphabetical order.
“Patton” (1979) This film won actor George C. Scott an Academy Award for his portrayal of the legendary Gen. George S. “Blood ’n’ Guts” Patton. “Patton” also won six other Oscars, including for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.
In 2003, the Library of Congress’ U.S. National Film Registry selected “Patton” for preservation as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
Said reviewer Roger Ebert, “It is one of those sublime performances in which the personalities of the actor and the character are fulfilled in one another. Although the role was offered to other actors who were bigger stars, … it is unimaginable without Scott.”
“The Gallant Hours” (1960) Just as George C. Scott brought Patton to life, legendary actor James Cagney did the same to Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey. “The Gallant Hours” turned out to be Cagney’s final leading role in a dramatic film.
It portrays the critical period less than one year following Pearl Harbor, when Halsey assumed command of the American forces in the South Pacific. This ultimately became a turning point in the allied struggle against the Japanese Empire.
Wrote Bosley Crowther for The New York Times, “But more than a documentation, more than a drama of what went on within the cabin of Admiral Halsey in one of the most perilous phases of the war, this film is a brilliant tribute to the gallantry of the admiral himself, thanks in large measure to the performance of James Cagney in the role.”
“To Hell and Back” (1955) This depicts the story of Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier in U.S. history, and is based on Murphy’s autobiography of the same name. Just as Scott was born to play Patton, and Cagney, Halsey, there was only one person who could have portrayed Audie Murphy, and that was Murphy himself.
Rotten Tomatoes gave “To Hell and Back” a 100% TomatoMeter score, with an 88% audience score. A.H. Weiler wrote for The New York Times that Murphy "lends stature, credibility and dignity to an autobiography that would be routine and hackneyed without him.”
“Dunkirk” (2017) This film uses an ensemble cast to portray the World War II evacuation of allied forces from Dunkirk prior to the United States’ entry into the war. The story is told from three perspectives: land, sea, and air.
“Dunkirk” received eight nominations at the Critics’ Choice Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Acting Ensemble Cast.
The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw gave the film five out of five stars and said that the film’s director, Christopher Nolan, "surrounds his audience with chaos and horror from the outset, and amazing images and dazzlingly accomplished set pieces on a huge 70mm screen, particularly the pontoon crammed with soldiers extending into the churning sea, exposed to enemy aircraft.”
“The Longest Day” (1962) This was based on Cornelius Ryan’s non-fiction book of the same name, and depicts the June 6, 1944 D-Day Normandy invasion. The film’s authenticity was boosted by employing an international cast: American, British, French, and German.
Wrote Bosley Crowthe, reviewing for The New York Times wrote: “The total effect of the picture is that of a huge documentary report, adorned and colored by personal details that are thrilling, amusing, ironic, sad.” He added, “It is hard to think of a picture, aimed and constructed as this one was, doing any more or any better or leaving one feeling any more exposed to the horror of war as this one does.”
“The Great Escape” (1963) This film was based on the true story of a mass breakout of allied troops from a German prisoner of war camp. It depicts the meticulous planning that went into the operation and its bold execution. This was followed finally by the triumphant success of some escapees, and the heartbreaking failure of others.
“There are some exceptional performances,” wrote Variety. “The most provocative single impression is made by Steve McQueen as a dauntless Yank pilot whose ‘pen’-manship record shows 18 blots, or escape attempts. James Garner is the compound’s ‘scrounger’, a traditional type in the Stalag 17 breed of war-prison film.”
“Come See the Paradise” (1990) This uses a love story, starring Dennis Quaid and Tamlyn Tomita, as a vehicle to depict the cruel internment of Japanese-American citizens following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert called the film “a movie about people who insist they are Americans, even when small and evil-minded people in power would treat them as if they were not.” He added that “‘Come See the Paradise’ is a fable to remind us of how easily we can surrender our liberties, and how much we need them.”
“Schindler’s List” (1993) This is the inspiring Steven Spielberg film that tells the story of Oskar Schindler, who, along with his wife Emilie, saved more than a thousand primarily Polish-Jewish refugees from the Holocaust by employing them in his factory.
Film critic Roger Ebert said of the film, “Steven Spielberg's epic film, more than three hours long and shot in black and white that brings the stark feel of actuality to the screen, tells the story of an enigmatic man named Oskar Schindler, who began the Second World War hoping to become a millionaire, and ended it by spending his fortune and risking his life to try to save some 1,100 Jews who worked in his factory.”
“Schindler’s List” was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, winning seven of them, including Best Picture and Best Director.
“The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946) This William Wyler classic reminds us that it’s not just refugees who are the victims of war — it’s more often than not the returning soldier, sailor, airman and Marine bringing home the scars of battle — both visible and hiden.
This film follows the lives of three veterans returning from World War II, who find it difficult to adjust to civilian life. They include a war hero who has to return to being a soda jerk because he can’t compete with more highly skilled workers; a bank executive who gets into trouble for giving favorable loans to veterans; and one who lost both hands in the war and struggles to adjust when he returns to his fiancée.
Writing for The New York Times, Bosley Crowthe said of the film, “It is seldom that there comes a motion picture which can be wholly and enthusiastically endorsed not only as superlative entertainment, but as food for quiet and humanizing thought.”
“The Diary of Anne Frank” (1959) This film depicts the true story of a young Jewish girl who lived in hiding with her family during World War II in Amsterdam, and is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name.
It won three Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actress for Shelley Winters, who later donated her award to the Anne Frank Museum. In 2006, it was also honored as the eighteenth most inspiring American film on the list AFI's 100 Years…100 Cheers.
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