“Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” is a retelling of the first U.S. air raid on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The scenes are stoic. Men head for battle without a second thought. Women bravely bid them goodbye, while preparing to do their own bit at home for the greater good. Films released during wartime most often veer into propaganda.
Boosting the country’s morale is the primary objective. But director Mervyn LeRoy went beyond. He focused on the details – preparations for the raid, the aftermath, and moments depicting the crew and what they go through. The result on the screen is chilling. Don’t expect introspection or nuance, however. This war movie is unapologetic, even employing commonly-used racial slurs at the time.
The Steel Helmet (1951)
“The Steel Helmet” is one of the only war movies set against the backdrop of the Korean War. We have movies galore about WWII and the Vietnam War. By contrast, the Korean War fought during the 1950s finds little mention in Hollywood and has been seemingly relegated to obscure annals of history.
“The Steel Helmet” changed all of that, offering crucial insights into a war few in the world knew about at the time. What made it so radical, apart from the subject matter? The film was made in the middle of the Korean War and makes no bones about its message. It is a harrowing account of a battle fought in a Buddhist temple.
The Great Escape (1963)
It’s not an overstatement to call John Sturges’s “The Great Escape” one of the finest works of cinema the world has seen. Other WWII films that came after have all had to live up to the exceptional standards set by the film. The story follows a group of Allied prisoners in a German POW camp determined to break out. The cast featurs the likes of James Garner, Charles Bronson, Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn and Steve McQueen.
Each one contributes to the cause, with special skills that Sturges goes to great lengths to showcase. For a while it seems like we’re watching an almost comedic heist film until violence ensues, jolting us into remembering where we are – in the thick of bleak, devastating conflict during WWII.
Breaker Morant (1980)
“Breaker Morant” reminds the world of lesser-known, often forgotten chapters in war history. This Australian drama takes place during the Second Boer War in South Africa. Viewers meet a group of three Aussies in the British Army, facing trial and prosecution for heinous war crimes. At the film's heart is a debate about ethical philosophy, which works exceptionally well given its many loopholes in historical inaccuracy, but one can probably forgive that.
The Bruce Beresford-directed film is more of a courtroom drama. Civility in battle (whatever that might mean) is dead. Just like “The Grand Illusion,” this film centers on “wars of gentlemen” — an idea which in itself is highly problematic and morally ambiguous. For those who like breaking their heads around philosophy and ethics (yes, even in war), "Breaker Morant" is a must-watch.
Force 10 From Navarone (1978)
Most people know about the 1961 cult film “The Guns of Navarone,” but only the most ardent war film fans remember that the film has a sequel. It’s a shame since “Force 10 From Navarone” is one of the most brilliant and underrated war films to have come out during the 1970s. Unlike its predecessor, the film’s scale is much smaller.
What it seemingly lacks in scope it more than makes up for with impeccable performances and exhilarating battle scenes. The story follows an American special unit during WWII that infiltrates enemy lines in pursuit of an escaped Nazi prisoner. Directed by Guy Hamilton, the action progresses rapidly (much like his James Bond films) and features stellar performances by the likes of Harrison Ford, Robert Shaw, and Barbara Bach.