I re-watched Glory the other day and while I still think it’s a very good movie, I don’t think it deserves to be in my Top 10 nor will it end up in my Top 20. Top 50 certainly. This made me think that it’s about time to revisit my Top 10. I had to replace Glory and I also decided to get rid of Band of Brothers. It is excellent, absolutely deserving of being watched and re-watched but it’s a mini-series and not a movie.
So here is the list which will probably change again, sooner or later.
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:
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’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)
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)
Robert Guédiguian‘s movie L’armée du Crime or The Army of Crime is one of the best war movies I have ever seen. I already said that it entered my Top 10 immediately. The question that remains: which one I am going to kick out? I’ll have to think about this later. For now let me tell you why I think The Army of Crime is such a brilliant piece of filmmaking. Apart from being based on actual events and being historically very accurate it is beautifully filmed. The actors are outstanding. The protagonists are heroical like not many but at the same time the movie doesn’t shy away to point its fingers not only at the Germans but also at the extremely shameful role the French government played during WWII. We had the heroism of the Resistance and Partisan groups on one side and the cowardly collaborators in the government, the police and among normal people on the other side. Shame on all of them. The movie shows all these aspects, nothing is hidden. This is the third French movie I have seen in a short period, L’armée des ombres aka The Army of Shadows being the first, The Officers’ Ward aka La chambre des officiers the second. I must say these movies manage something that not many others achieve. They get under your skin. You don’t only watch these movies, you live them. They don’t let you indifferent. Especially not this one.
1943, Paris, the Armenian poet Missak Manouchian (Simon Abkarian) becomes the leader of a special unit of the French Resistance. His people, men and women, are all very young immigrants. They are Hungarian, Polish and Romanian Jews and Spanish, Italian and Armenian Communists. They decide to form a group and fight for France, the country of the Human Rights, to free and to defend her. They are determined and well-organized and soon will be declared enemies number one. The German occupiers and the French police strike back savagely. They hunt them and use every possible way to capture and destroy them, be it bribery, torture or coercion. In the end they are betrayed and all of them are shot.
The movie tells not only the story of the group and their actions as a whole but shows many intimate portraits of all the individual members. I have hardly ever seen a movie displaying so much diversity. This is underlined by a brilliant score with influences of the music of all the different countries that came together in this fight.
The torture scenes are very graphic. We are not spared anything. The most incredible is that with the exception of one person none betrayed the others. Not even under the worst of torture I have ever herad of. While they were operating in the underground most of their families were being deported to camps. Manouchian is an exemplary man. A larger than life character. He does not use arms lightly unlike some of the other reckless young people. He is a poet, an orphan, a gentle man, married to a beautiful French wife, Melinée (Virginie Ledoyen), whom he loves dearly.
I would like to urge each and every reader to watch this movie as my words will never really manage to convey its utter beauty. It is also worth mentioning that we see a lot of Paris. The Army of Crime is one of those very rare movies that are, simply put, masterpieces in which every element is perfect.
The following people died for France: (AR = found on the Red Poster or Affiche Rouge):
Celestino Alfonso (AR), Spanish, 27
Olga Bancic, Romanian, 31
Joseph Boczov [József Boczor; Wolff Ferenc] (AR), Hungarian, 38
Georges Cloarec, French, 20
Rino Della Negra, Italian, 19
Thomas Elek [Elek Tamás] (AR), Hungarian, 18
Maurice Fingercwajg (AR), Polish, 19
Spartaco Fontano (AR), Italian, 22
Jonas Geduldig, Polish, 26
Emeric Glasz [Békés (Glass) Imre], Hungarian, 42
Léon Goldberg, Polish, 19
Szlama Grzywacz (AR), Polish, 34
Stanislas Kubacki, Polish, 36
Césare Luccarini, Italian, 22
Missak Manouchian (AR), Armenian, 37
Armenak Arpen Manoukian, Armenian, 44
Marcel Rayman (AR), Polish, 21
Roger Rouxel, French, 18
Antoine Salvadori, Italian, 43
Willy Szapiro, Polish, 29
Amédéo Usséglio, Italian, 32
Wolf Wajsbrot (AR), Polish, 18
Robert Witchitz (AR), French, 19