Coming out of Dunkirk last week (guys, it’s amazing- go watch it (except for the erasure of everyone who wasn’t a white man from WWII)!) I was inspired to write a list of great war films.
When I got on it the next day I realized belatedly that war film knowledge is really a big gap in my film expertise. I haven’t watched most of the classics yet (Bridge on the River Kwai, All Quiet on the Western Front, Das Boot, Patton, etc.) and I couldn’t get more than a few minutes into Saving Private Ryan when I tried to watch it a few months ago. (It’s just so overblown and melodramatic).
My list would have been solely Hacksaw Ridge and Dunkirk, and we can’t have that- even if I do write movie pairing posts sometimes.
So I decided to ease into the subject with a genre I know a little (okay, a lot) more about- wartime romances.
My criteria were vaguely as follows: 1) There must be a war that actually took place in reality. 2) The plot must primarily follow some kind of romantic trajectory- the love story can’t be a secondary consideration, which rules out things like Hacksaw Ridge and Watch on the Rhine.
Be warned- it’s a bit of an eclectic list, but all are worthwhile in my book.
Way Back When:
- A Royal Affair: A salacious lesson in Danish history. Princess Caroline (Alicia Vikander) falls in love with German Dr. Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen- swoon) and together they plot to push an agenda of sweeping reforms past her mad husband King Christian VII. What ensues is more a revolutionary political upheaval, and it trends the line of the romantic element being secondary to the social statement being proposed. But it just makes it.
The Civil War:
- Gone With the Wind: I don’t think I need to give any background for this famous film. Besides, the scene in which Rhett and Scarlett finally kiss in front of the inferno that is the remains of Atlanta (actually the set of King Kong) makes my argument for me.
- Cold Mountain: A wounded but still very attractive (possibly more attractive?) Jude Law tries to make it home in the last days of the Civil War to reunite with his beloved Nicole Kidman. Renee Zellweger’s Ruby Thewes is an unexpected delight. Warning for some pretty graphic violence.
World War I:
- The African Queen: I really can’t believe Bogie and Katharine Hepburn getting together, but they’re both so delightful to watch anyway it doesn’t much matter. I love IMDb’s description of Bogart’s character as a “gin-swilling riverboat captain” which is completely accurate. Civilians trying to blow things up, pretty excellent.
- Waterloo Bridge: The 1940 one with Vivien Leigh, who plays an unlucky ballerina. First she believes her fiancé to be dead. then she loses her job and turns to prostitution. It’s actually pretty heartwarming.
Okay, it’s been a while since I watched it but I remember there being a particularly lovely and kind older man.
- Testament of Youth: I think I like Alicia Vikander more than I pretend to. This film is told from her perspective, as her memories. Kit Harrington of Game of Thrones-fame being her love interest. “A story of young love, the futility of war, and how to make sense of the darkest times.” Would it be callous of me to also say great costume design?
- A Very Long Engagement: Audrey Tautou plays Mathilde, a woman who must search far and wide for her fiancé, presumed dead, who disappeared from the trenches of the Somme. She is limited by physical disability caused by childhood polio but empowered by her great heart. I’m so poetic. That was all me.
- Wonder Woman: This is the one film I’m most torn about including. While there are many films on this list (all of them really) that blur the line between fiction and reality, none of them delve quiet so far into fantasy as Wonder Woman does (as a super hero film- although I guess that depends on how you feel about the likelihood of people bursting into song in the Alps). But because it is so closely grounded in World War I (albeit a largely fictionalized version of World War I) and the romance between Steve Trevor and Diana is so pivotal, I’m tossing it on here.
Everything Else is World War II:
- Casablanca: Obvi.
- To Have and Have Not: One of my favorite movies of all time, partly because of the PALPABLE frisson between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (this was their first film together-they would later marry) and also because of Humphrey Bogart’s adorable drunk friend Eddie (one of my many spirit animals). By the end of this film you too will want to be nicknamed Slim (like Lauren Bacall, not drunk Eddie).
- The Sound of Music: The Sound of Music is a bit more ‘epic’ in length and doesn’t really stick with any one romance- I think I was aiming for the one between Maria and Georg, but as a youth-ier youth I was endlessly inspired by Liesl and Rolf. So there’s definitely an argument against this one being on the list- the lack of a prominent love story. With the stipulation that this is really a musical about music, I think it deserves a spot here.
- South Pacific: I’m just going to shove the only other musical in right after and hope no one notices. This film is objectively terrible but subjectively I’m very fond of it. Some Enchanted Evening is the only really great song, but that doesn’t stop me from having ‘Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair’, ‘Honey Bun’, and ‘There is Nothing Like a Dame’ stuck in my head 24/7. There’s a noticeable discussion of race and prejudice, which the film tries to handle justly and liberally. It might succeed if all of the non-white characters weren’t offensive stereotypes.
- Gloomy Sunday: Budapest in the thirties. Two men in love with the same woman, Ilona. One, a pianist, is inspired to write his only composition, Gloomy Sunday. The melancholy song appears to trigger a string of desperate suicides. There is truly something about this movie verging on magical realism. Until a German man also falls in love with Ilona. Then things get very real very quickly.
- Atonement: A beautiful film based on an also beautiful novel by Ian McEwan (the only novel of his that I’ve liked) in which Bryony Tallis, a very imaginative young writer, accuses her sister’s lover (Keira Knightley being the sister and James McAvoy being the lover) of a crime he did not commit, potentially separating the two permanently against a backdrop of World War II England. Surprise cameo by Dunkirk also in the mix.
- The English Patient: This one is an epic of various romantic plotlines told both in real time and in flashback during the final days of World War II. It too me two tries to get through it, but now that i have I can truly say that I really love it. It’s very sweeping and atmospheric, and you have to be in the mood to soak it in.
What do you think? What am I missing? Where should I start with war movies?