10 War Mini-Series You Must See

When I wrote my post on ANZACS the other day I realized that there are quite a few great war mini-series out there. There are certainly more than 10 but out of all those I’ve seen or heard of, I would say, the 10 that I mention below are the ten you should really not miss. They all cover different wars or different aspects of the same wars. Many of them are better than most movies. My favourites are Band of Brothers, Hornblower, Sharpe and Generation Kill.

Wings (1976) WWI Air Combat. I must admit, I haven’t seen this yet but it has a great reputation among air combat fans and should be a nice companion to the WWII based series Piece of Cake.

Danger UXB (1979) WWII – Bomb disposal unit. I liked this series when I watched it quite a bit. It gives you a good feel for what a bomb disposal unit had to go through during the Blitz. All the different types of bombs. The characters are appealing and we get a good impression of civilian life during the Blitz as well. Here is my review.

Das Boot 1985 – WWII submarine. Das Boot exists in two versions. One is the cinema the other the TV version which was twice as long. I have seen the cinema version which is one of the best war movies there is. Some people prefer the longer TV version. It’s worth checking out.

ANZACS (1985) WWI. Infantry combat. I just reviewed the final episodes of this excellent mini-series that follows the ANZACS from Australia to Gallipoli and from there to the Somme and back home again. Great combat scenes and a nice “band of brothers” feel. It also contrasts British command and Australian insubordination in a funny way. Here is my review.

Piece of Cake (1988) WWII Air Combat. The series follows the men of the Hornet Squadron during the early weeks of WWII. It shows how inexperienced boys become excellent fighter pilots.

Sharpe (1993 – 2008) – Napoleonic wars. Infantry and cavalry. Based on the novels by Bernard Cornwell this is a very elaborate and suspenseful series. In its center is the character Sharpe an enlisted man who is such an excellent soldier that he is soon raised to the rank of officer. This is problematic as he isn’t an aristocrat. He faces injustice and adversity. Sean Bean stars as Sharpe. It’s one of the best roles of his career. Here is my post.

Hornblower (1998 -2003) – Napoleonic wars. Naval combat. This is another extraordinary tale of one man’s ascent. Ioan Gruffud stars as Horatio Hornblower which might explain why I hear this series mentioned quite often by women.  If you like Master & Commander, you will love this. It’s like a very long version with an appealing central character. It is based on the books by C.S. Forester. Here is my post.

Band of Brothers (2001) WWII. Infantry combat. This is one of the most amazing series. Based on the book Band of Brothers it follows the paratroopers of Easy Company from 1941 – 1945, starting in the US until the freeing of the KZ’s. The characters of this tight-knit company are very well depicted and you really care for all of them. Seeing them die or get wounded is harrowing. Some of the episodes, like the one called Bastonge, are so intense, they still overshadow most other WWWII infantry combat scenes I’ve seen before or after.

Generation Kill (2008) Iraq. Special unit. This is a series that is hard to get into, especially when you are used to others. It has a very slow build-up but after two episodes I really appreciated it. It achieves a very authentic depiction of modern warfare and shows how problematic it is to send a generation used to war games into combat. It shows how much is absolutely boring, just standing around and waiting. At the center of the unit is the “Iceman” Sgt Brad Colbert played by Alexander Skrasgard. The Iceman is an amazing character and even more so because he is based on a real person. This guy really always keeps his cool. The series is based on the account of an embedded journalist. Here’s the link to the book. And here is my post on The Iceman.

The Pacific (2010) – WWII. Infantry combat. If you do not compare this series to Band of Brothers, you will like it. It’s less the story a group of people than individual stories. The soldiers are also shown during their leaves and some love stories are incorporated. However the combat scenes are even grittier that those in Band of Brothers. Not pretty at all. My favourite episode is Rain on Cape Gloucester. Here is my Pacific short review.

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First Light (2010 TV) A TV Movie Based on the Memoir of a Spitfire Pilot

Geoffrey Wellum was only 18 when he joined the 92 squadron of the RAF in May 1940. He was one of the youngest pilots. He flew over 50 missions during 18 months, all through the Battle of Britain and beyond. After a forced break of several months he flew again but finally had a nervous breakdown and stopped for good. A while back he published his memoirs First Light on which this TV movie is based.

First Light is a treat for everyone interested in Spitfires, their pilots and the Battle of Britain. In between scenes we see and hear Wellum talk about his experiences. I think that hardly any pilot flew over such a long period and this many missions as he did. The strain and  stress of being a Spitfire pilot is really palpable.

When he arrived at the base no one thought he would make it as far more experienced pilots were shot down. The other pilots were a bit reluctant at first to accept him as he was so young. The RAF was in desperate need of pilots and couldn’t really be too choosy. Soon the other pilots realized that he was a good pilot and a fine man and they accepted him. During the day they flew their missions, sometimes even in the pouring rain, in the evenings they came together to sing, drink and dance with girls.

There are many moments typical for air combat movies. The moment when they fly back to the base and everyone is anxious to see if anyone is missing. The love stories, the drinking, the friendships. The older men who feel protective of the younger ones. The sadness when one of their friends dies.

Maybe First Light wouldn’t be so special as a movie if we didn’t know that it ‘s a true story. But the fact that it is a true story and the presence of Wellum himself make this worth watching.

Instead of a trailer I attached a mini-documentary. Hope you will like it.

The Blue Max (1966) Is it the Best WWI Air Combat Movie?

Some people argue that The Blue Max is the best WWI air combat movie there is. What is certainly interesting is that we see a movie from a German point of view. What is also quite obvious is the fact that it is better than The Flyboys. But does this really make it the best WWI air combat movie?

The Blue Max is an interesting movie because it is more than just an air combat movie. It provides a fascinating character study and shows us what can become of a talented but overambitious person like the main character Bruno Stachel (George Peppard).

At the beginning of the movie Stachel is an infantry man but he gets promoted and becomes a pilot. This is actually an interesting bit and I was wondering how often this really happened in reality. Usually the fighter pilots were hardly aware of what was going on in the trenches. Their idea of war was very often equal to an elegant if deadly pastime. Not unlike hunting only including the two sides of being the hunter and the hunted at the same time.

Pilots during WWI were mostly aristocrats like the famous Baron von Richthofen aka The Red Baron (who can also be seen in a short sequence). From day one the other pilots let Stachel feel that he isn’t one of them. What he doesn’t have in social status he tries to make up for in ambition. It is his one and only goal to earn the medal called the Blue Max that is awarded only after 20 kills. He believes this will earn him the respect of the other pilots.

Stachel is absolutely not a nice guy. He is as unlikable as can be but still there is a certain tragedy in his fate as he unfortunately falls in love with the wrong woman (Ursula Andress), yes, the first Bond Girl).

The way he tries to achieve his goal, The Blue Max, is totally reckless and more than once he endangers himself and his comrades alike.

The movie got a lot of praise for the story which is quite interesting however, I think, it would have benefitted if it hadn’t been that long. Some shortening would have been really good.

What the movie is truly famous for, and for good reasons, is the aviation part. The air combat scenes are very well filmed. Without CGI they achieved to show quite something.

I was not totally convinced by George Peppard. I think the movie would have been better with another lead. On the other hand I thought that Ursula Andress wasn’t all that bad and James Mason was decidedly very good.

I have no idea how I would rate this but I guess 4/5 should do it justice. For the aviation and air combat parts it would deserve 5 points, for the length and the main actor only 3.5.

Even though The Battle of Britain is not a WWI movie, it is the movie The Blue Max has been compared to most often. Look at it any which way you want and you will have to admit that The Battle of Britain is the better movie.

Still it is one of the best WWI air combat movies.

Should you be interested here’s my Favourite Air Combat Movies List.

633 Squadron (1964) British Air Combat Movie that Would Make a Great Remake

The British movie 633 Squadron is an entertaining air combat movie. It has a little bit of everything in it. It is part adventure story, war movie , suicide mission and romance. Although it is not great it has a lot of potential and would be a great choice for a remake. None of the actors is remarkable, exchanging them wouldn’t do any harm and the special effects could do with some revamping as well. Still if you have a special interest in aircraft you might want to watch it as it gives you the possibility of seeing a real Mosquito (as far as I know only one is the real thing, the others were remade). The Mosquito was a funny, enduring little plane and is one of the rare made of wood. When it entered production in was one of the fastest operating aircraft.

“In 1940 I could at least fly as far as Glasgow in most of my aircraft, but not now! It makes me furious when I see the Mosquito. I turn green and yellow with envy. The British, who can afford aluminium better than we can, knock together a beautiful wooden aircraft that every piano factory over there is building, and they give it a speed which they have now increased yet again…” (Hermann Göring)

File:Mosquito 600pix.jpg

The story of 633 Squadron resembles the story of the much better movie The Dam Busters. A group of pilots has to go on a secret mission and drop bombs on a German rocket fuel factory that is based in Norway. The Norwegian resistance does also play a part in it and the squadron leader falls in love with the sister of one of their members. The squadron is a typical war movie squadron that pushes diversity to the limits. We see British, Irish, Scottish, Australian and Indian members. The accents are quite enjoyable if you go for that kind of detail. The mission itself is quite gripping and suspenseful. The losses were, as could be expected, extremely high.

633 Squadron is loosely based on a true story which makes it interesting to watch, still I would say if you want to see two really great British WWII air combat movies, go for The Battle of Britain or the aforementioned The Dam Busters.

Aces High (1976) British WWI Air Combat Movie

I was curious to watch Aces High as it is one of the few WWI air combat movies we have. I did remember vaguely that some critics didn’t like it at all and wanted to find out for myself. I had the feeling it might not be as good as Der rote Baron aka The Red Baron although that is decidedly more of a guilty pleasure than a movie providing historical accuracy. I was right. Aces High isn’t even remotely as good as Der rote Baron and certainly not on the same level as The Blue Max which depicts a fascinating if revolting character. Unfortunately, it could have been good. It’s a narrow miss. What is particularly annoying is the fact that the flight scenes and the contrast of the combat on the ground and in the air is shown very well. It also shows once more the complacency and inadequacies of the high command. While their pilots are shot down one by one, they sit together, eating, laughing, drinking and gossiping and even deny them parachutes because that would make them week in battle. The movie doesn’t spare us and shows one particularly chilling episode in which we see a pilot falling to a certain death that might have been prevented if he had been given a parachute.

The story is told in a few sentences. Young Lt Croft (Peter Firth) arrives in France after barely 14 hours of flying practice. The CO of the base he has been assigned to is his brother-in-law, Major Gresham (Malcolm McDowell), a man he admires incredibly. He finds Gresham extremely changed. Disillusioned, hardened, distant and a full-blown alcoholic. The rest of the lot is not much better; either they drink or they are shell-shocked. The only nice and cool-headed one seems to be an older officer, Capt. “Uncle” Sinclair (Christopher Plummer).

Gresham cannot spare young Croft and has to take him on dangerous missions right away. The young man enjoys every minute of it. He is naive and enthusiastic.

You will probably think that this doesn’t sound too bad, I agree, it doesn’t but it still isn’t a good movie. Aces High has a big problem with its characters. Apart from Christopher Plummer’s character, they are uninteresting, flat and two-dimensional cardboard figures. This is disappointing because, as said, the air combat scenes are decent, the planes are decent and there is one incidence in which they make a trip to the front line and see a group of blinded soldiers that is quite harrowing. I’m afraid, I can’t rate this any higher than 3/5.

The Way To the Stars aka Johnny in the Clouds (1945) A British WWII Movie about British and American Pilots on a UK Bomber Base

Starting just before the Battle of Britain The Way to the Stars tells the story of two friends and the people that surround them on a British airbase. Flight Lt. David Archdale (Michael Redgrave) and Pilot Officer Peter Penrose become friends when Penrose (John Mills) arrives at the base where Archdale is squadron leader in 1940.  The years go by. Penrose who was a total rookie at the beginning of the movie becomes a good pilot. Archdale gets married to the hotel manageress Toddy and they have a baby. Penrose falls in love with Iris who lives at the hotel with her very stern aunt.

In 1942, just before the Americans join the base, Archdale doesn’t return from a mission. Shortly before this he withdrew Penrose from flying duty as he had done far too many missions. He was now a controller which he hated. When his friend dies he becomes very bitter  and breaks up with Iris.

The arrival of the Americans in 1942 changes the tone of the movie. We could say that we become witnesses of a real culture clash. I think this is very well done and the movie manages to do both countries great justice. I enjoyed this a lot as it is so insightful and does poke fun at both.

One of the American pilots, the eponymous Johnny (Douglass Montgomery), plays an important role in the second half of the movie.  He is married but he likes Toddy a great deal, probably falls in love with her. This is not a clichéd story of an adultery but a nuanced  tale of two people who meet each other, feel very close and realize that under other circumstances they would have become lovers.

For the aviation buffs out there I have to say that we see no combat scenes but we benefit greatly from the time during which this movie was shot as you will hardly see so many original planes and different types of planes in any other movie (certainly not in anything modern). We get a particularly  good feel for the American Flying Fortress. An important part of the movie takes place in Toddy’s hotel which allows for some great character portraits. It is quite a motley crew that one would have encountered in a hotel during the war. Another interesting aspect.

In many ways this is a unique movie. Touching and quite accurate in the depiction of life on an airbase at the time. 4/5

The Tuskegee Airmen (1995) or The True Story of the 332nd all Black Fighter Squadron

The Tuskegee Airmen is one of those brilliant HBO TV movies that is far too less known. How often do you watch a war movie that leaves you cheerful at its end? Well that´s what will happen should you watch The Tuskegee Airmen. It is fun. It is uplifting. It is a tale of heroism, determination, skill and overcoming the biggest obstacles that you can possible face: ridicule, racism, discrimination. Watching this movie is also infuriating like any story belittling others for their race, color, gender, social background etc. The Tuskegee Airmen is a true story that has almost a fairytale ending. I am not saying it doesn’t have its very sad moments, no true war story goes without them, but all through the movie we admire the spirit of those who do not give up, no matter how intense the adversity.  They are winners in the end.

At the beginning of the movie a group of young black Americans is boarding a train to Tuskegee, the base where future fighter pilots are trained. Some of them are already experienced pilots, others are aspiring pilots. They join because they share a passion for aircraft but also because they want to serve their country. But the moment they arrive in Tuskegee they face racial discrimination of the worst kind. They have to take the tests they already took  again because the result were too good. And when they prove that they know more than other pilots they are still not taken seriously and told that they don’t have a country, that they are not welcome. After several months of training and outstanding results they are not allowed to go overseas as there are still so many people, including politicians, who think it is unacceptable a black person should fly a highly sophisticated aircraft. Only after Mrs. Roosevelt flies with one of them, are they finally sent off to Africa. In Africa the same story repeats itself all over again. White pilots are sent on missions, while the Tuskegee Airmen  are being held back and ridiculed. Finally they are given a chance and  are told to escort a bomber squadron. They do this so well that the white bomber pilots do not believe that black pilots flew the planes. In the end the bomber squadron has to accept that the finest American pilots are black pilots and ask especially for them to escort them when they fly an attack on Berlin. It is said that in none of their missions did they lose one single bomber. An outstanding result.

I read that this movie and the story behind it filled many an African-American viewer with pride. I can sure understand this. There are so many glorious moments in this film and it really cheers you up when those brilliant pilots are finally acknowledged and rewarded with medals.

The cast was well chosen. Laurence Fishburn stars in one of his more likable roles. Cuba Gooding Jr. is in it, as well as Allan Payne, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Courtney B. Vance and Mekhi Phifer.

I think, you can easily tell, how much I enjoyed this movie.

Should you be interested in the topic of African-American Soldiers in War Movies, please read my post.