12 French War Movies You Must See Before You Die

France, a country that has endured and fought many wars, was at the center of many a battle and armed conflict, a country famous for its outstanding filmmaking has produced a very modest amount of war movies. You will find numerous WWII movies on the Resistance and a fair amount of rather psychological war-time movies but if you are looking for combat movies, you will not be lucky. I know of no French air combat or submarine movie at all.

There may be many reasons and I can only attempt an interpretation, comparing French cinema in general to the cinema of other countries. What becomes apparent soon is that the French are not keen on producing large-scale, epic or very action driven cinema. French movies are psychological and intimate. They focus on the dynamics between a few people, their interaction, the dialogue. Many of the most famous French movies focus on tiny details, small things. It’s easily understood that this doesn’t fit in with infantry combat movies with their huge casts and more action driven story lines.

In choosing 12 movies  I tried to pick the few real combat movies I knew and added the ones that I think excellent or that absoultely need to be watched. I also tried to covera wide range. I left out good ones, I’m sure.

For those who want to further explore French cinema the website French War Movies offers a great overview.

I discovered one huge problem for the non-native speaker when I watched La Grande Illusion recently as I bought a movie with English subtitles. Almost 2/3 of the dialogue was missing. I noticed the same when I watched and reviewed the Italian Rome, Open City (here is my review). Since French and Italian movies are dialogue driven, it’s very hard for a non-native speaker to fully appreciate them. I’m sure this is done better in more recent movies, still it is a problem.

With all this said, let’s open the curtain for twelve stunning movies:

La Grande Illusion aka Grand Illusion (1937): WWI. Jean Renoir’s movie is one of the great classics of European cinema starring the late great Jean Gabin. A POW movie that offers a lot. Interesting German characters included. (Here is the review)

Nuit et brouillard aka Night and Fog (1955): WWII. Alain Resnais’ Holocaust classic. Death Camps. Final Solution. Documentary/original footage about the horrors of the concentration camps. Gut-wrenching. Impressive. A must-see. (Here is the review)

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959): WWII. Another movie by Alain Resnais. A love story between a French woman and a Japanese man from Hiroshima. Interspersed with original footage of Hiroshima. Very special and poetic based on the scenario by Marguerite Duras. A must see for French cinema aficionados. (review upcoming)

L’armée des ombres aka The Army of Shadows (1969): WWII. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Resistance masterpiece. Another classic. Claustrophobic, impressive, sparse. Excellent actors. One of the most depressing movies I’ve ever seen. (Here is my review)

L’honneur d’un capitaine aka A Captain’s Honor (1982): Post war. Algeria. A captain who died on the battle field in Algeria is accused of having been a torturer and a murdered. His widow tries to prove that he wasn’t guilty. (review upcoming)

Dien Bien Phu (1992) : Indochina. Infantry Combat. Schoendoerffer’s movie shows the final defeat of the French in Indochina. Not nice to watch at all. (review upcoming)

Le pianiste aka The Pianist (2002): WWII. Holocaust. Tells the story of a Jewish pianist in the Warsaw ghetto. Harrowing and beautiful. My favourite Holocaust movie. Very moving. (review upcoming)

La chambre des officiers aka The Officer’s Ward (2001): WWI. Everything you never wanted to know about the horrible facial wounds that were so frequent during WWI. Made me quite sick. Painfully well-done  (Here is the review)

Un long dimanche de fiançailles aka A Very Long Engagement (2004): WWI. Based on Sébastien Japrisot’s eponymous novel it tells the harrowing story of young Mathilde who travels to the no man’s land of WWI in search of her lost fiancé.  This is one of the darling movies of international film critics. I did like it but wasn’t awed. Starring the much-loved Audrey Tautou. (review upcoming)

Joyeux Noël aka Merry Christmas (2005): WWI. The story of the little peace during the Great War. During the first Christmas in WWI, German, French and British/Scottish troops cease fire and play football together. Wonderful movie with great actors. One of  my Top 10 all-time favourites and one of the bestanti-war movies that exist. (Here is the review)

L’ennemi intime aka Intimate Enemies (2007): Algeria. One of the very few French Infantry Combat movies. Very good and very critical. About the ugly side of an ugly war that was officially no war. If you want to find out why I found this hard to watch, you’ll have to read the About page. (Here is the review)

L’armée du crime aka The Army of Crime (2009): WWII. French Resistance. Based on the true story of a group of young people and immigrants who fought a desperate fight against the Nazis. They were led by the poet Manouchian. This is an absolutely stunning and very tragic movie. One to watch and re-watch. It went directly on my Top 10. (Here is the review)

Advertisements

Henry of Navarre (2010) DVD Giveaway

It is the mid-16th Century and France is awash with blood, as the protestant Huguenots fight for survival against dark forces led by the treacherous Catherine De Medici. When she orchestrates the ultimate betrayal at the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, King Henry IV will fight his life’s greatest battle to ensure her treachery does not go unanswered…

Based on the novel by Heinrich Mann, experience an epic chronicle of one man’s heroic struggle against overwhelming forces in this action-packed and spectacular “5- STAR(Cambridge Film Festival) motion picture event with RIDLEY SCOTT STYLED BATTLE SCENES(Variety).

I’m really looking forward to watch this movie. This is the type of epic period drama that I love. And since I’m a sucker for great film music and love Hans Zimmer who has written the score of Henry of Navarre, there is twice as much to look forward to. Based on Heinrich Mann’s eponymous novel, starring Julien Boisselier, this international production offers large-scale cinema.

What’s even better, I am able to give away one DVD of Henry of Navarre courtesy of Showbox Media. All you have to do is leave a comment. I will draw the winners next Saturday and announce them on the following Sunday.

The giveaway is open internationally but the DVD is REGION 2 coded.

Henry of Navarre is out to buy on Blu-ray and 2 disc-DVD on 4th July 2011, courtesy of  Showbox Media Group.

The giveaway is now closed.

ANZACS Part III Ypres and Passchendaele (1985)

It is debatable when watching a series whether you should review each installment individually. I haven’t done it for The Pacific, nor for Hornblower or Sharpe, so why now do it for ANZACS? Because it is so good? Yes, it really is but so are the others. That’s not the reason then, the reason is that I’m in the mood to do it. Not everything needs to make perfect sense in life, occasionally we can do something just because we enjoy it and I enjoy reviewing ANZACS. There are not all that many good movies and series on WWI, it seems justified to re-emphasize that this one exists.

Part three is a s good as the first two parts and leads us even deeper into some of the catastrophic and notorious battles of WWI. Who hasn’t heard of Ypres or Passchendaele, who hasn’t heard how many soldiers died in these two offensives alone?

In this part we see that the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George and General Haig are really not on the same page. Haig is gung-ho, his strategy seems to demand too many losses and Lloyd George doesn’t think it’s justified at all.

Once more we also see how the British and the Australian culture clash when it comes to subordination. Another aspect that is covered in this part is the role of the respective churches. While the Church of England was fully supportive of the war, there were some voices in Australia saying that it might be high time to underline that Australia was independent by now and that the Australian church should adopt another attitude towards the war.

The man on the photo, Jon Blake is one of the main actors in ANZACS. He was also in in The Lighthorsemen. While finishing The Lighthorsemen he had a car accident and sustained severe brain injuries that left him in a near vegetative state. He died on May 29 2011. It’s a very sad story. He was a very promising young actor and many say he would have gone far. We will never know.

Here are the reviews of Part I Gallipoli and Part II The Somme and a List of Australian War Movies.

The Cranes are Flying – Letyat Zhuravli (1957)

It’s nice to watch a movie that is almost flawless like Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying, a masterpiece of Russian cinema. It’s touching and beautiful and for once free of any traces of propaganda as it was filmed after Stalin’s death.

I haven’t seen many movies depicting the Russian home front during WWII, so that was interesting as well.

The Cranes are Flying tells the love story of Boris (Aleksey Batalov)  and Veronica (Tatyana Samojlova), two young people who are very much in love and whose love is deeply affected by the outbreak of the war.

The only thing Veronica hopes when she hears about the war is that Boris will not be drafted, only he has other plans. He has already volunteered and his hasty departure doesn’t even permit to say good-bye.

Scenes like the one in which Veronica runs to the train station and hopes to see Boris one last time and say good-bye but is held back by the masses is quite tragic. She can see him but he doesn’t see her and no matter how much she fights to get his attention, it is utterly futile. We see many scenes like this in the movie, in which the camera stays for a long time on Veronica’s expressive face, which mirrors her tumultuous feelings and despair, and in which she seems to fight forces that are beyond her.

After Boris departure Veronica faces utter loneliness. Day in and out she waits for a letter from him but nothing arrives.  When she looses her parents in an air raid, she is completely alone. Fortunately Boris father is a kind man and asks her to live with them.

Boris cousin who was always very interested in Veronica tries to seduce her once Boris is gone and when she doesn’t give in, he finally rapes her. Desperate and lonely Veronica accepts to get married to him.

The family lives together in very quarters. The father and his eldest daughter are both doctors and constantly needed at the hospital. Even though she is now married, Veronica still waits for a letter from the front.

In the second half of the movie scenes from the front and the home front are interwoven.

The story is moving and sad but what is really compelling about this movie is the cinematography. The black and white shots are haunting. The way Veronica’s face is filmed is wonderful. Tatyana Samojlova really has a captivating and expressive face.

I was surprised about the characters as well. The father is one of the most positive father figures cinema has to offer. He is kind, gentle and understanding but at the same time determined and strong. He isn’t very patriotic and doesn’t think it is admirable to volunteer.

This is one of those movies that should not be missed and that will probably be even better when you watch it a second time.

Nuit et Brouillard aka Night and Fog (1955)

I don’t think there are many movies as hard to watch as Alain Resnais’ famous testimony Night and Fog. It’s a testimony to one of the darkest chapters in human history. The film is only 30 minutes long and combines actual footage with a documentary part on the concentration camps in 1955.

I have to admit that this movie made me physically sick. I could literally not stomach it.

The camera takes us to a concentration camp in 1955. This is pretty much what they still look like today. I think most of them have been preserved the way they were and can be visited. The camera approaches the camp and a monotonous voice that almost sounds as if reading a poem tells us what we see and meditates about the fact that this all looks so normal, that all the names like Dachau, Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Treblinka were once just names and spots on a map.

From those initial pictures the movie switches to actual footage and we see first the trains, then the arrival in the camps, the conditions of the barracks, the hospitals where they performed horrible vivisections, the showers, the furnace, the piles of bodies.

The combination of the voice, the back and forth between the images of today and the actual footage showing those emaciated faces, the grimaces of those who died in pain, the huge mountains of hair and shoes and skin… It’s hard to bear.

I think this is one of the most important films on the extermination camps there is.

Most of it can be watched on YouTube but it would be better to watch it in one go to get the full impact.

I had to watch all of it. I think those masses who endured all this deserved it. Who am I to complain about an upset stomach? After turning it off I was back in my own cozy life, while they had really been there…

Most important of all, a movie like this, that bears testimony to an atrocity, helps us to not forget and to never ever let it happen again.

Please also have a look at this great resource The H.E.A.R.T Holocaust Research Project.

Green Zone (2010)

Wouldn’t it be merciful to be among those who regularly fall asleep when watching a movie? I would have been so lucky if it had happened while watching this.

Green Zone is a hybrid movie that want’s to be war and action drama and most of all aims at a political statement. That’s just like decaffeinated coffee. If you can’t handle the real deal, just stick with something else. Some of my readers know that I do occasionally have strong reactions when I don’t like an actor. This isn’t case here. While not Matt Damon‘s most ardent fan, I enjoyed the Bourne movies. But that isn’t what you will get here.

The major problem is that the topic is really old news. By the time this movie was made everyone knew that there hadn’t been any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. To sell a story like that as if it was really a discovery can only work on people who have spent the last 10 years in a TV free dungeon.

Now, what is the story? Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) is in charge of a group of soldiers who are to discover the mass destruction weapons in Iraq. Every time they arrive at one of the places indicated on their maps that they got from intelligence, they find nothing. Miller starts to suspect that the information is wrong. He tries to talk to people in charge but they don’t want to listen. He talks to experts and a journalist and all pretend, that the intelligence is solid.

Frustrated and disgusted he tries to solve the riddle on his own. What follows is an initially action-packed hunt. What is important in my last statement is the bit about the “initially action-packed”. The action – and that is deadly for an action movie – slows down considerably during the last third. On top of that it gets confusing and, as said, the main topic isn’t gripping.

It’s an OK movie if you have nothing else to watch and are a huge Matt Damon fan anyway. I’d rate it 2/5.

The Last Samurai (2003) An Epic Tale

Take an American and put him into an exotic decor. Most of the time that goes very wrong. Occasionally it doesn’t and what comes out is an entertaining guilty pleasure like The Last Samurai, a movie midway between The Last of the Mohicans and Memoirs of a Geisha. Although it is not at the same level of Glory, one of my Top 10 war movies and Edward Zwick’s masterpiece, Last of the Samurai is equally beautiful.

Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a hardened, disillusioned and alcoholic veteran of the Civil War. Touring as special attraction with some sort of circus, he has clearly seen better days. He is haunted by what he saw in the war, the killings of the Indians, the battles. While in this sorry state, he is approached  by some Americans who want to hire him as military advisor for a newly established Imperial Japanese Army. If it pays good money, he would probably sell his mother, so he doesn’t hesitate long and follows the men to Japan.

The army consists mainly of peasants with no experience whatsoever in warfare. Despite their not being ready, one of the emperor’s advisors wants Algren to lead them to battle against rebellious Samurai who do not want to accept the changing of the times.

The moment when they are surrounded by these warriors in their incredible armour, it’s obvious they will lose the fight. In the chaos and mayhem that follows, Algren who has been severely wounded is taken prisoner by the Samurai and brought to their village high up in the mountains.

The landscapes and images are extremely beautiful, the ways of the Samurai seem mysterious and we can easily understand that Algren is fascinated. The moment he arrives in the village – and not only because the woman who takes care of him is very beautiful – he tries to immerse himself in the culture and the rituals of this ancient tradition.

In the months that he spends with them he learns their ways of living and fighting and becomes the friend of the their leader Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). When the imperial army attacks, he fights with him until the last.

I enjoyed the final battle and seeing the battle formations, it reminded me a bit of Waterloo.

I was surprised that I liked this movie I had thought it would be tacky but it is really not bad at all. Plus I have a thing for the Samurai armour. It’s one of the most beautiful armour in history. And their weapons are also quite fascinating, they didn’t use firearms.

It’s a very visual movie, with a good story. In other words, excellent entertainment.