6 Great Realistic World War 2 Movies: They Tell It Like It Was!
The Mosquito Bomber
I Will Be Shot Down for Sharing My Favorite Movies
Disagreements lead to war, right? And there is no bigger topic of disagreement than favorite movies. So, if I tell you which six movies I think are great realistic World War II movies, I'm sure to be shot down by some readers who don't like what I do. I'll hear even more from the folks who can't believe I didn't include anything with Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne.
But the ultimate lesson of war is that war is horrible and unnecessary. If we learn to live with respect for different opinions, we shouldn't need to go killing each other. So, I hope you will listen as I share my views, and even explain why I didn't include a lot of favorites. And I encourage you to add to my list in the comments below!
Let's create a lively discussion, not a deadly one!
What's a Success Author Doing Reviewing War Movies?
So, I've written a hundred articles about how to be happy and how to succeed. What am I doing writing movie reviews?
Well, I've got three reasons:
- Like everyone else, I procrastinate. So I've turned my procrastination to good use by sharing some fun and wisdom that I learned watching TV late into the night.
- I write about different types of leadership. One of the four types of leaders, the Dominant leader, is the classic military leader. In fact, one of my favorite movies, 12 O'clock High, is the story of how this type of leader was defined.
- War is about victory, and victory is one type of success. Personally, I prefer winners of the Nobel Peace Prize who prevent war, like these women leaders. But I acknowledge how war can teach us courage and show us how to create a great team and be successful.
So, walk with me into the world of war movies, and learn leadership on the way.
Why Realistic Movies? And What Makes a Movie Realistic?
I like movies - dramas or documentaries - that tell it like it was. Sure, less realistic, more Hollywood, creative, dramatic, or even fantasy war movies have something to tell us. But what they tell us is only the author's idea of the truth. And the truth has a lot more to offer than one person's idea of the truth.
I'll illustrate this with two movies I didn't include on my list:
Mosquito Squadron (1960). The Mosquito was an early, small British World War II bomber. That's about all that was historically accurate in this movie. The movie is really about a romantic triangle. A squadron leader is shot down and crashes and is presumed dead after a bombng raid. His best buddy is promoted to take his place - and also falls in love with the dead man's wife. But the guy who crashed isn't really dead. Talk about conflicting loyalties!
As great as the romance is, the depiction of the war is all wrong. Downright impossible events are patched together to make the romance work, and to present the writer's idea of heroism. And everyone has 1960s haircuts and 1960s values - nothing is true to the war era.
Mosquito Squadron is a fun romp, but not on my list of realistic movies.
Morituri (1965) is a deeply symbolic movie with Marlon Brando and Yul Brenner trapped on a German freighter bringing raw rubber from Japan to Marseille. The Allies don't want to sink this ship, they want to steal it. So they blackmail a German expatriate hiding in India (Brando) to go on board disguised as an SS officer and sabotage the scuttling charges. The movie starts as a reluctant commando thriller and turns into a symbolic journey where the characters on the boat represent the types of people struggling in Germany as Germany begins to lose the war. There is a loyal German who hates the Nazis (the captain, played by Yul Brenner); a loyal Nazi party member (the first officer); prisoners of war destined to die in the camps when they reach Germany; and even a Jewish woman who comes on board. The sinking ship becomes a metaphor for the sinking German nation in the second half of the war.
It's a moving, meaningful story. It's a symbolic vision, and Morituri is a movie worth seeing. But it is not, and is not intended to be, a realistic movie.
So What Makes a Realistic Movie?
As far as I'm concerned, a war movie is realistic if:
- The events that occur in the movie actually happened, at least most of them. And when an event is changed, the creators of the movie acknowledge it.
- Names may be changed, but the people being depicted are depicted accurately, and their intent and their character are explored in a way that intends to show us their view of life, their issues, and their decisions.
- As much as possible, the character, actions, scenes, equipment, and actions are accurate to the period. We don't see British war heroes making light of rationing (as in Mosquito Squadron above).
Now, historical reconstruction will not be perfect. Some adjustments will be made so the movie can flow. Some equipment may not be from the period, because it can't be affordably reconstructed. And, plain and simple, errors will be made when movies are made.
And there are sure to be movie buffs and history buffs in every theater who will jump on to the Internet Movie Database (www.IMDB.com) or Wikipedia or a movie blog and tell everyone that that airplane wasn't flown in that month of the war. In fact, you know a movie is realistic when you start to see complaints about those types of details!
Six Great Realistic War Movies: The List
So, here we go, in order of year released:
- Twelve O'Clock High (1952). The model of American leadership seeking to discover the "maximum effort" an airman can make without breaking.
- Flat Top (1952). The Navy's version of the same leadership issue: Shaping up young hotshot air crews for duty on aircraft carriers in World War II.
- The Dam Busters (1955) shows how scientists and courageous pilots worked together to destroy dams and flood the Ruhr Valley, taking the air war into Germany for a crucial victory.
- The Battle of Britain (1959) the story of the courage of the air defense of Britain during the crucial first months of Germany's assaults, and Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring's crucial mistake that saved England from invasion.
- Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) A fascinating alternate view of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Both the Japanese attack and the American defense, and both political issues and military efforts are detailed out. But the perspective is from the Japanese side.
- Ike: Countdown to D-Day (2004) A unique movie that explores the nature of strategic command and the strategic decisions that made the liberation of France and Allied invasion of Germany possible.
In case you are foaming at the mouth because you don't see your favorite movie here, please read on after my reviews. I write about great movies that didn't make my list, recommending them and explaining my preferences.
Frank A. Armstrong
Twelve O'Clock High (1949)
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor pushed America rapidly into a war in Europe and the Pacific that we were not fully prepared for. A generation of peace means that only the very top men in the military have war experience. And, when it comes to an air war in modern, fast, metal airplanes, both airmen and airplanes were untested and in short supply. In the fall of 1942, a few flyers with too few airplanes had to take on the might of Nazi Germany. Night-time bombing had proven ineffective. Daylight raids were incredibly dangerous. But it had to be done.
The military rule called for "maximum effort" by the bomber squadrons. But what is "maximum effort"? World War II was the first Western war in which the terrible psychological toll of warfare was under consideration. The shell-shock of World War I (which was called battle fatigue in World War II, and has now been renamed as posttraumatic distress disorder (PTSD), was recognized, but not well understood. And the psychological cost of ordering men into life-threatening situations until they died was not yet clear, either.
Real men were living and dying with these problems. One squadron is having particularly hard luck - losing more airplanes and pilots than any other, again and again. A navigation error makes them three minutes late for a rendevous, and five planes go down where other squadrons lost no more than two. Something must be done.
Brigadier General Frank Savage (played by Gregory Peck) takes overa the squadron and enforces extreme discipline. No one can avoid flying by claiming to have a cold. The bar is shut down - no drinking. And one plane is renamed the "Leper Colony" and includes all the men who have made big mistakes. They must shape up - or die.
What Makes 12 O'clock High Realistic
The battle scenes are genuine wartime footage from allied bombers fighting the Luftwaffe. The whole movie was filed in black and white to match that footage. I can tell you that the real footage is nothing like re-created Hollywood air battles. The movie-makers also crashed a real B-17 - no special effects wizardry here!
Brigadier General Frank Savage is a fictional representation of Colonel Frank A. Armstrong (among others). His portrayal was so realistic that Armstrong was delighted.
The issue of the movie: the discovery of the type of dominant, disciplined command that calls men to do their best but also pushes them to the breaking point is entirely real. In fact, the movie is still used by the military - and by corporations - as a leadership training tool today.
Devotion to an Illusion
One of the most fascinating conclusions of 12 O'clock High and the military quest for a command that will produce "maximum effort" is the discovery that one must be loyal to an illusion to achieve it.
People will not do their very best for an ideal. It is too bloodless and impersonal. Ideals call forth faith, but not loyalty.
But if troops are loyal to their commanders, or commanders to their troops, then the commander wants to see the troops live, and can't order them to their deaths. And the troops know their commander is human, and will make mistakes. That knowledge gives rise to fear, dampening the edge of maximum effort. To make it all even more difficult, loyalty to buddies on one's team makes each man close to the man he knows. This can lead to decisions in battle that save one life at the loss of many others.
Twelve O'clock High shows the answer the army found to all these problems. Men (and women) need to be dedicated to an illusion: to a squadron or a regiment. Commanders change. Crews change. Missions change. Locations change. But a name or number or a logo remains the same. The famed Flying Tigers of the Pacific Front won a well-deserved reputation and the logo and name moved from the 1st American Volunteer Group to the US 14th Air Force.
We see the same in sports. What stays the same in a franchise? Ownership changes. Management and coaching change. Players are traded or retire. The team may move to a different city, or may even change it's name.
Loyalty to a name that seems to be a living group allows our greatest effort. We build an illusion of a perfect group of humans. Each of us can fail while we are devoted to something that lives on. That gives us the courage to give maximum effort, even when the effort involves death-defying risks and inhumane acts of war.
What Makes 12 O'clock High Great
The terse depiction of the real tension of that early period of the war, when just a few airmen kept Nazi Germany at bay while waiting for America to produce tens of thousands of aircraft and hundreds of capable pilots, is exceptional. The pain of command sending exhausted men to fly out day after day, knowing that each day, some will die, is the haunting presence of the movie. Such gritty, direct story telling shows us what a piece of the war was really like.
What We Learn From 12 O'clock High
There is a surprising subtlety and depth to 12 O'clock High. The first commander of the squadron is removed from command because he has gotten too close to his troops. He can't blame them for an error that lead to someone dying. If they beg off from duty, claiming to have a cold, he can't bring himself to order them into the air, and quite possibly to their deaths.
But when General Savage takes over, his approach is, at first, too brutal. He almost loses all of his pilots to transfer requests. Then, later, he falls into the same trap as the previous commander: human compassion leading to battle fatigue. (I won't tell you how that plays out - no spoilers here!)
The ultimate lesson is that "maximum effort" is impossible to define. We only know we've achieved maximum effort when we go one step farther - and break down. And the alchemy of leadership is complex. Too much drive, and the troops come to hate and despise the leader. Too much compassion, and we allow errors that kill our troops. The balance of three elements: drive, compassion, and loyalty is the key to maximum effort.
Aircraft Carrier on Fire
Flat Top (1952)
Flat Top takes the same issue that the US Army Air Force to the Pacific, and to the Navy flyers stationed on aircraft carriers. (For the history buff: The USAAF became the US Air Force in 1947, independent of the army, and the US Navy continues to operate its aircraft within the naval command structure.)
Young fighter pilots - flyboys - have a reputation as hotshots. Flying faster than the speed of sound and landing your plane on an aircraft carrier that looks like a postage stamp floating in the ocean seconds before you land is not a safe place for one-man heroics. What does it take to shape up a bunch of hotshots into a responsible team? Watch Flat Top and find out.
What Makes Flat Top Realistic
Once again, for the aerial scenes, only real combat footage was used. But for Flat Top, the directors wanted color, so they used footage from the Korean War. This makes Flat Top a bit less realistic, as the folding-wing aircraft of WW II are seen on the carrier, and a different model is flying in the air! Still, the realism of actual battle footage works wonders.
The boring passage across the Pacific followed by a huge air and sea assault where attacking Japanese airbases on the island and protecting the fleet at the same time is a huge challenge is a thoroughly accurate recounting of the life of fighter pilots on carrier duty in the Pacific in WW II.
What Makes Flat Top Great
The tension between Dan Collier, Group Commander on the carrier (played by Sterling Hayden) and Lieutenant Joe Rodgers, the Executive Officer under him and lead pilot (played by Richard Carlson), is the tension of the strict, dominant survivor as leader versus the compassionate executive commander close to his military team. In the very first scene, Collier orders Rodgers to ground hotshot pilot Ensign Barney Smith, and he remains grounded - and frustrated - all the way across the Pacific. Collier is angry, but Rodgers takes the stunt landing lightly. Smith is desperate to prove himself. There is a beautiful scene where he receives a letter from his parents saying how glad they are that he is flying for America, and he can't tell them he is grounded.
Both strictness and compassion are needed for success, but neither of the two men sees it that way, and they lock horns throughout the movie. Slowly, through combat, Joe Rodgers learns to see both sides of command. He grows into a worthy replacement when Collier is promoted at the end of the film.
The Bouncing Bomb
The Dam Busters (1955)
The Dam Busters is a great war movie for an engineering geek like me.
Early in the war, Churchill and his cabinet are looking for innovative weapons to solve strategic problems. One big problem is the need to destroy the dams of the Ruhr Valley deep in Germany. The dams are safe from high-altitude bombing because only a direct hit at the dam's base - below water level - will break it. And they are protected from torpedo attack by torpedo netting.
Barnes Neville (B. N.) Wallis (portrayed by Michael Redgrave) is an engineer with a daring idea. He wants to create a dam-busting bomb that will drop from an airplane, have backspin like a golf ball, and skip across the water like a skipping stone. Then, when it hits the dam, it rolls down the dam wall, staying close to the concrete. When it explodes, the dam is blown away at the base, and gives way. Voilà, broken dam, flooded Ruhr valley, loss of clean water, destroyed hydroelectric power plants, halted German industry.
If that sounds science-fictional to you, you are not alone. A lot of top military brass in England thought so, too. Many scientists and engineers improved on Wallis's idea. But it was his unflagging pursuit of his inventors vision through doubting military commanders and overwhelmed bureaucracy that got the bomb built and tested on an old mining dam in Wales scheduled for destruction - and it worked.
The second half of the bouncing bomb dam-busting team was the young Wing Commander, Guy Gibson (played by Richard Todd), who led the bombing raid, Operation Chastise. The planes had to be modified to carry the heavy bombs and make them spin. The attack on Germany extended beyond the range of fighter aircraft, so the bombers were going in without the protection of aerial cover. They had to fly exactly 60 feet over the water at 240 miles per hour by high hills, drop the bombs precisely on target with nearly untested targeting devices, and pull out before crashing. It would be only a slight exaggeration to call it a suicide mission.
What Makes the Dam Busters Realistic
The movie dramatizes - and only slightly simplifies - the many bureaucratic barriers and technical problems that needed to be solved. Ingenious dual spotlights shown down from the plane to the water - when the two lights converged to create one circle, the plane was exactly 60 feet over the water. Two different targeting devices were tried, and one of them was shown in the movie.
The minute-by-minute re-enactment of the raid is awesome. It's accurate all the way down to the code words used to report mission success and the fate of Guy Gibson's dog.
What We Learn From Dam Busters
The raid succeeded in knocking out two of the three dams that were targeted, and the Ruhr did flood at high season. Politically, this was an important victory because it allowed Churchill to brag to Stalin that the British were carrying the war into Germany and helping weaken Hitler's military might.
But those two victories are only half the story. There were two ways in which the dam busters were a big bust. Only nine of the nineteen bombers that flew the mission returned. Losses were so heavy that it was a long time before Allied forces tried low altitude bombing Germany again. And there was a more serious problem. The broken concrete dams were quickly rebuilt with sand, allowing war production to resume. Those sand dams could have been destroyed again and again by high-altitude bombers safely following up on the success and sacrifice of Operation Chastise. But those safe, high-altitude raids were never ordered.
The steep barriers of disbelieff and bureaucracy and the lack of cooperation and follow-up to Operation Chastise are exemplary. Throughout the war, the British military faces such internal rigidity, infighting, and lack of common sense. As a result, many good initiatives lost much of their value, and the bombing of the Ruhr Valley dams is just one example.
The Battle of Britain (1959)
"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
Winston Churchill does have a way with words, doesn't he? Those were his words of praise for the fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in its defense of England in the Battle of Britain.
Germany had captured all of Europe in a blitzkrieg, a lightning-war, where it overwhelmed the air forces and then the land forces of one nation after another. Ruling all of Contintal Europe and driving the British off the continent at Dunkirk, they were poised to invade England. Indees, many Englishmen thought that invasion was only weeks away. The British government removed station names from railway stations and street signs to confuse invading forces.
Only two things stood in Hitler's way: The English Channel and the RAF. The Channel was sure, but it would only slow down Hitler's armies, not stop them. The RAF was tiny - outnumbered by more than five to one by the experienced Luftwaffe. The RAF had two types of fighters: The famous Spitfire, which was brand new, and the Hurricane, which was slower. The Spitfire would take on the German fighters, allowing the slower Hurricanes to harry the German bombers.
In the first few weeks, losses were devastating. Reischmarschall Herman Göring focused his attacks on the RAF airfields of southeast England. If the RAF failed there, London was an easy target.
But Göring was a morphine addict who had seen only easy victories. The RAF stood against him. And then, in either a fortunate accident of timing or a brilliant strategic provocation, on August 25, 1940, England bombed Berlin. Hitler, enraged, ordered Göring to bomb London. Göring did this for just a few days. But those few days gave the nearly-defeated RAF a chance to rebuild its airfields and bring new fighters down from the Midlands. Göring expected no English air defense and instead saw more British fighters in the air than ever before. The British fighters were, in fact, so crowded in the air that they weren't very effective. But they proved their point. The RAF was still in fighting form. And that changed the history of the war.
Göring was demoted and Germany abandoned its plans to invade England. It never got another chance.
The Battle of Britain tells the whole story in precise detail. It's historical accuracy makes the uncertainty of those dark days incredibly real as flyers with as little as ten hours in a Spitfire head into battle.
If you want even more details and to see what it's like to fly in a spitfire, check out the documentary The Real Battle of Britain with brothers Colin and Ewan McGregor as they interview veterans and learn to fly a Spitfire.
The Aircraft Carrier Yorktown
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
Tora! means attack, and Tora! Tora! Tora! was the radio code word that announced that the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was indeed a surprise, and was devastating.
The movie Tora! Tora! Tora! provides a unique view of both sides of the Pearl Harbor story, and shows many moving pieces. It presents extremely accurate facts and suggests the most likely interpretations, and yet it leaves open many genuine historical uncertainties.
- Did the Japanese intend a sneak attack? Or did they try to coordinate the declaration of war with the surprise attack, only to have the embassy run late due to relying on a two-fingered typist?
- Given the Americans intercepted Japanese diplomatic messages and broke the Japanese code, why was Pearl Harbor so unprepared for the attack?
- Was it just luck that the aircraft carriers were all out to sea, or did the US Navy get itself as ready for the attack as it could?
All these questions come together to paint a complex picture of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which can be seen as a victory or a defeat for the Japanese in so many ways.
In terms of political strategy, it was the beginning of certain defeat for the Japanese. The army, not the navy, was in control, and they believed they were invincible. They would not listen to the Harvard-educated Navy Admiral Yamamoto who warned against policies that would ensure that the US would enter the war. But the army wanted to invade Southeast Asia, and they knew that the Americans would attack sooner or later. Pearl Harbor was a first strike designed to cripple American military power in the Pacific.
Ironically, the attack on Pearl Harbor provided definitive proof that aircraft carriers, not battleships, were the heart of modern naval power. Yet the Japanese attack plan targeted battleships, seeing them as the most importand capital ships. Five American battleships and 13 other ships were destroyed. But all three American aircraft carriers were deployed at sea and never came under attack. So the damage done was severe, but the core of American naval power in the Pacific, the aircraft carriers, were unharmed.
Similarly, Admiral Yamamoto wanted a declaration of war made 30 minutes before the attack. But either bungling of decoding and typing, or a clever ruse by Japanese high command (army and navy) above Yamamoto turned the surprise attack into a sneak attack. Militarily, it made little difference. Politically, the attack coming before the declaration of war allowed President Roosevelt to declare the attack on Pearl Harbor "a day that will live in infamy." Japan failed in its unrealistic goal of demoralizing the United States and keeping out of a Pacific war. Just the opposite: The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor united the United States in war as nothing else could have.
Roger Ebert completely panned Tora! Tora! Tora! as a historically accurate, but boring movie. Rotten Tomatoes accurately portrayed it as "an insightful and well crafted World War II acton drama that was the result of years of negotiations between the two countries."
I found Tora! Tora! Tora! dramatically powerful. Then again, I am a student of Japanese culture and a lover of art films. I can easily see how a war buff could be disappointed. But I think the historical accuracy is important. And isn't it kind of amazing that two deadly enemies, each despising the other, can come together 25 years later to share the story and learn from it together?
"Ike" General Eisenhower
Ike: Countdown to D-Day (2004)
Ike: Countdown to D-Day is a most unusual movie. It covers the 83 days between Eisenhower's appointment as Supreme Commander of the Allied forces and the D-Day invasion on Tuesday, June 6, 1944.
What makes this fascinating is the complete lack of battle action. This is a movie that focuses on strategic decisions and the attitude of leadership that Eisenhower used to create a team out of egos as varied as tee-totalling Montgomery and big-mouthed George Patton.
The movie is extremely accurate with regard to historical facts, except for a few changes of date to fit events into the time frame. And the trailer for the movie admits to those changes. For example, the censure of Patton over his mistreatment of shell-shocked troops occurred several months earlier.
Key issues are which moon and tide is the best day for the attack and how to keep the Germans thinking that the Allies would attack Calais and not Normandy.
Two things make Ike: Countdown to D-Day exceptional. One is the steady tension as issues are worked out one by one. The other is the constant tension over decisions that could cost the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers. One wrong decision or one loudmouth could make that huge difference. For D-Day to succeed, each decision must be right, and the secret must be kept.
If you are an Eisenhower fan, you might also check out Ike: The War Years, both the made-for-TV movie and the mini-series where Robert Duvall plays General Eisenhower.
The succinct writing and sharp direction keep a brisk pace of one dark, somber scene after another. The flow of political, military, and personal decisions is non-stop.
You can think of Ike: Countdown to D-Day as a prequel to perhaps the greatest World War II movie of them all: The Longest Day. So why isn't The Longest Day on my list? Only because it is too famous!
Great Movies Not on My List
John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart
Hear, Hear to Hollywood! It's love of drama is wonderful. And that is why that no John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart movies made my list. None of them is realistic enough; They are all too Hollywood.
For John Wayne, I would have liked to include The Wings of Eagles. It is based on a real issue: The development of light aircraft carriers to speed fighters and bombers across the Pacific. But that issue was decided before the war, and the fictionalized version just does not meet my criteria for a realistic movie. Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) is another great story.
Similarly, Humphrey Bogart's stories of small men in the European War such as CasaBlanca (1942), Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943) and Passage to Marseille (1944) are all great dramas.
It has been said that John Wayne won the war in the Pacific and Humphrey Bogart won in Europe. But that is only true in Hollywood.
Prisoner of War and Holocaust Movies
There are two prisoner of war movies, Stalag 17 (1953) in Germany and King Rat (1965) in the Pacific. They are both excellent and realistic - I just consider them to be in a category of their own.
Movies about the Holocaust also are a category of their own.
Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan
Band of Brothers (2001)is not a movie, but a 10-part miniseries well worth mentioning. In a Hollywood Reporter review, it is said to have "captured the varied experiences of ordinary soldiers better than" any other (1998) has excellent realism and period details, but the storyline itself is fictional.
Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) was thought for many years to be realistic, but it turns out the underlying story was a legend during the war, not fact. Still, it's a great movie.
Midway (1976) with Charlton Heston and Henry Fonda is a great movie that gets the facts right as background to a fictional plotline.
Patton (1970) the movie, of course, must be included, even though events are not as historically accurate as they are in a movie like The Battle of Britain. And The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1951) with James Mason is worth considering. Why aren't they on this list? Only because i plan to write another article comparing Rommel and Patton as generals.
See You on the Front Lines!
One thing we have today that we didn't have during World War II is the Internet. Most of these movies are available on Netflix, many on Watch Instantly. It's almost like having a time machine. World War Two is just a click away - See you there!