“They Were Expendable” is a grim account of how a pair of Navy men during WWII (John Wayne and Robert Montgomery) attempt to convince superiors that small PT boats must have a place during battles, and not just larger vessels. To understand why the men arrived at this conclusion, some context is in order. The film takes place during America’s early involvement in the war.
Even as the Allies rejoiced, they were suffering one setback after another. Many of the people involved in making the film had also experienced the war, either firsthand or in some other form – which explains the intensity in every scene. The “expendable” in the title is all-encompassing – boats, ships, and human lives. Service meant acknowledging and living with this truth every waking moment.
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
Few films have been as iconic as “Tora! Tora! Tora!” which sparked curiosity and attention for its joint production. The Americans and the Japanese collaborating on a war film was unheard of. Art had truly transcended borders and historical enemy lines! The story follows events leading up to Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
With Pearl Harbor, the United States had no choice but to get involved in WWII. The story unfolds from two opposing viewpoints with glimpses of the lives, motivations, fears, and convictions on each side. Featuring no A-list celebrities (a conscious filmmaking choice) the real star of the film is its narrative.
The Chimes at Midnight (1965)
“The Chimes at Midnight” is Orson Welles’s adaptation of Shakespearean plays transformed into a brilliant war movie. Welles was constrained by a limited budget but still manages to create sweeping scenes of medieval battles. Most importantly, the movie is about how dated ideas of honor and duty can slowly chip away at the joyful parts of human nature.
Welles plays the impervious John Falstaff. Falstaff is unrepentant but at the same time, a good man as any in every way that matters. At the heart of the story is his strained relationship with Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), the man who would become Henry V. Hal goes on to epitomize a king who inspires loyalty among friends and terror in those who dare to cross him.
Casualties of War (1989)
Even decades later, Brian De Palma’s “Casualties of War” is still tough to watch, which is reason enough to go ahead and do it! Back then, De Palma never found takers for his factual and graphic film about the abuse of a Vietnamese woman.
The story follows a group of American soldiers who engage in barbaric acts sanctioned by a violent yet enigmatic superior (Sean Penn). Michael J. Fox plays the moral center and expectedly pays the price for his honesty. Nobody was ready for the unbearable sadness depicted in the film. Such was its reception that “Casualties of War” reportedly stopped the endless cycle of Vietnam War films in the ’80s.
Grand Illusion (1937)
Jean Renoir crafted a masterpiece with “Grand Illusion.” The film follows the story of French prisoners of war and their captors. The film hit a nerve where it mattered the most. The infamous Joseph Goebbels loathed the movie and its critique of the war. Of course, his No. 1 gripe was how the film made Germany look bad. But it wasn’t just Germany that took offense.
When the film was re-released in 1946, the French took issue with its dated, “pacifist” message — especially in how the film depicted connections between German and French officers. By then, both countries were in the thick of WWII and its unimaginable atrocities. Still, Renoir’s film offers slivers of hope, suggesting that a shared sense of humanity can trump nationalistic agendas. But without concerted effort, this kind of connection might be lost forever.