Have Americans Ever Heard of the British Free Corps?

I wrote this piece about five or six years ago for a military museum in Kansas that focused on World War II.  I came across a book that mentioned the British Free Corps, a unit within the Waffen-SS that was started by a possibly mentally-ill and staunchly anti-communist Englishman, and included mostly bored or indifferent POWs from Britain and other nations of the Empire.  The unit never saw combat, but was instead viewed as a useful propaganda tool by none other than Hitler himself.  Many Americans are not aware that such a unit ever existed.  I admit that I was once one of them.  Any mistakes in the article are my own.

The Strange History of the British Free Corps

Many people are aware of the infamous German military arm known as the Waffen-SS.  The Waffen-SS were the armed military units known for its brutality and slaughter of civilians, most notably on the Eastern Front, as well as shooting Allied prisoners-of-war in the west.  And they will forever be linked to the death camps and the Holocaust.  But not too many people, even those with an avid interest in the history of World War II, have ever heard of the SS unit known as the British Free Corps.

The creation of this little-known unit was the brainchild of John Amery, a British civilian living in France at the time of Germany’s swift takeover of that country in May 1940.  Amery was a rabid anti-Semite and anti-Communist, as well as a pathological liar with possible mental health issues.  He was also the son of Leopold Amery, a British Cabinet minister and staunch supporter of Prime Minister Winston Churchill and British imperialism.  John Amery, living in the shadow of his well-to-do father, undoubtedly was trying to live up to something he felt he never could.  A failed career in movie-making and a vagabond existence led to an increased desire to move out from underneath his father’s shadow.  This fierce desire to make a name for himself ultimately led to the betrayal of his country and his countrymen.

Amery was approached by German agents in the summer of 1942, after unsuccessfully attempting to join the army of the Vichy French.  Flattered by the German attempts to court him, as well as “stunned” by the alliance of Great Britain with Russia, he soon became a willing participant in Nazi Germany’s propaganda machine.  At first, Amery attempted to talk his German handlers into allowing him to broadcast by radio a British “hour” of propaganda, calling for the British government to join Germany in its fight against the Soviet Union.  This was granted, and Amery began a traitorous career in radio that was rivaled only by the infamous “Lord Haw-Haw,” who annoyed the British with his tirades against the Allied war effort.  But another plan soon began to evolve in Amery’s troubled brain which would lead to the creation of a fighting unit within the fanatical Nazi SS.  Amery proposed raising such a unit by seeking out willing volunteers from the thousands of British POWs that were languishing in German prison camps.  In his line of thinking, his fellow countrymen would jump at the chance to serve with Germany against the Red Communist hordes of Stalinist Russia.  No less a personage than Adolph Hitler was intrigued by the idea and granted permission to Amery to conduct a recruiting drive.

Amery outlined his ideal for a unit that he wanted to name the “British Legion of St. George.”  These volunteers would not fight against fellow Englishmen, but with their German allies on the Eastern Front.  The Nazis had previously allowed other nations to recruit and raise SS formations, such as the SS Wiking division, which had volunteers from Norway, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands.  And because they were to fight alongside other SS units, they would be allowed to wear the uniform of the SS, despite Amery’s ridiculous desire to have his unit wear regular British Army uniforms.  Amery quickly became an embarrassment to the Germans, drinking heavily and consorting with various prostitutes, one of whom died by asphyxiation on her own vomit after a typical night of heavy drinking.  He did manage to conduct exactly one recruiting drive in a POW camp that held British prisoners, managing to recruit four members for his legion, including a 17 year-old English sailor named Kenneth Berry, but was quickly heckled and shouted down as being a traitor by the majority of the prisoners.  Still determined to pursue his idea, Amery continued on as a member of the British Legion of St. George (which was later changed by the Germans to the British Free Corps) in name only.  The Gestapo did not want Amery anywhere near the unit that he had created. The Germans, after making sure that Amery would have no further connection with the unit, installed a trustworthy English-speaking German officer by the name of SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer (Captain) Hans Werner Roepke to command the BFC.   Recruiting was still conducted and pursued, but even at its height, the BFC was comprised of only about 55 men, with several having joined not out of any desire to rid Europe of communism, but of a chance to be free of the life of a POW.  The men of the BFC included several nationalities from within the Empire, and included native-born Englishmen, Australians, Irishmen, Scots, South Africans, and even a New Zealander.

The BFC officially came into being on January 1, 1944.  On Hitler’s fifty-fifth birthday, April 20, 1944, the BFC was presented with a union-jack patch in the shape of a shield to be worn on their lower left sleeves as well as the customary SS cuff title which bore ‘British Free Corps’ in gothic-type script.  The men had a parade the next day in anticipation of a successful recruiting drive.  But due to lack of recruits, the unit spent the majority of its time drinking, fighting with German troops, chasing women, and sitting around with nothing much else to do.

The BFC never saw combat and according to author Adrian Weale, who has extensively researched this group, 59 men total served in the BFC at one time or another, at its height reaching a full strength of only 27 men, which was smaller than a contemporary German platoon.  Despite recurring failures of recruitment, the Germans saw the unit as a valuable propaganda ploy and put quite a bit of effort in keeping it afloat.  The unit was dissolved before the end of the war and many of its members were charged with treason.  John Amery was captured by Italian partisans and handed over to his countrymen. The British tried him for treason against his King and country.  He claimed that he had never been a Nazi, but admitted to being an anti-Communist.  His counsel tried to show he was mentally ill, but at his hearing he pleaded guilty, possibly believing that doing so would get him a reduced sentence (and maybe also hoping that his father’s position in government could save him).  The proceedings lasted all of eight minutes, and he was found guilty of treason and hanged on December 19, 1945.  Several other former members of the BFC received jail sentences, while others escaped punishment entirely, given stern warnings by the British government to closely watch their future conduct.  Thus, the strange story of the British Free Corps passed into history.

For further reading, please see Adrian Weale’s book Renegades: Hitler’s Englishmen, from which much of the above article was taken.

What Makes One Battle Worse than Another?

GIs prepare to move out on patrol in the Hurtgen Forest.

So I have to admit that I was pretty proud of myself to have figured out how to conduct an opinion poll and put it up on this blog.  I usually think polls are rather stupid and not always as scientific as they are vetted to be, but I did it anyways. In case you missed it, my first opinion poll asked what America’s worst battle was during World War II. I received a few snarly comments both to the blog site and another account that is linked to this blog.  A few people demanded to know how it was possible to gauge “the worst” battle if I didn’t clarify what it was about the battle that made it the worst.  I purposefully did not clarify because I wanted to see what the readers thought, and then discuss it a little further in a future post, which is what I am doing now.  Of course any battle is going to be horrible, but there are some factors involved that can generally make one battle seem more “worse” than another.

Weather, for one, can really play a factor in battle.  One of the coldest winters on record hit Europe in 1944.  Allied troops, especially during the many Hurtgen battles and the Battle of the Bulge, suffered terribly from frostbite and trenchfoot, in many units causing more casualties than from enemy action.  Many GIs at the front had to make due with their summer uniforms and kits, since many in the high command thought the war would be over before the end of the year, and because higher-ranking officers were living it up in Paris while the privates, non-coms, and junior officers at the front were freezing and suffering miserably.

Terrain is another factor.  The Hurtgenwald was a dense 50-square mile forest that invited comparisons of  frightening old German folktales. Dark, scary, and foreboding, the Germans fortified and defended the Hurtgen, and wondered in amazement why the Americans attempted several times to attack straight through it.  Pre-sighted artillery shattered the often 100-foot tall trees, raining shrapnel down upon soldiers whom quickly learned to hug the base of a tree to better avoid the steel-and-wood splinters that showered down upon them.  Very few roads went through the forest, giving vehicles little room to manuever.  American armor, artillery, and air support played such a reduced role due to the terrain of the forest that the infantry often was without any support against deadly German fortifications, in a battle the U. S. Army quickly wanted to forget about after it was finally over by February 1945. Some 33,000 (12,000 KIA) casualties were suffered by the Allies, with some divison’s infantry regiments having turnover rates of 200%, meaning the men going into the battle became casualties, as did all of their replacements.  The Hurtgen was the longest battle in U. S. Army history and one of its costliest. 

Iwo Jima was another battle where terrain played a factor in contributing to the loss of over 6,000 Marines and Navy personnel.  The black volcanic ash on Iwo made it difficult for the Marines and their tank support to move well, while the Japanese soldiers were dug into the earth itself, attempting to fulfill General Kuribayashi’s admonishment to kill ten Americans before they themselves were killed. Naval and air bombardment did little to kill the Japanese defenders on Iwo, and Marines had to ferret out the Japanese defenders one-by-one, often using just their hand grenades, flamethrowers, rifles and machineguns. The Japanese garrison of 18,000 men on Iwo Jima was destroyed, with only 216 prisoners being taken by the Marines. 

Ego is one hell of a reason for soldiers to die, but in the above mentioned cases and several others, it is a big reason why men went to their deaths for objectives that in hindsight were arguably unnecessary or of little value.  General Douglas MacArthur, wanting to fulfill his promise to return to the Philippines, did just that beginning in October 1944, fighting his way up from Leyte to Mindoro to Luzon, causing over 60,000 American casualties.  Some historians argue the Philippines, like Iwo Jima, should have been bypassed, isolating the Japanese garrisons on these islands, in order to save lives and to focus on bringing the war to Japan itself.  General Mark Clark wasted many Allied lives in his determination to reach Rome, which he finally did on 5 June 1944, enjoying his accolades for one full day before the invasion of Normandy took the spotlight off him and put it squarely onto the campaign in France.

Lack of pre-war preparedness was a symptom suffered not just by the U. S. Army, but the Navy as well, which also caused a good number of casualties in the wars early stages.  The Japanese Imperial Navy had superior night-fighting capabilities, for which they trained before the war had even started.  The U. S. Navy did not train in night-fighting and suffered for it, such as at the Battle of Savo Sound in August 1942, in which the U. S. lost four cruisers and a destroyer, as well as nearly 2,000 sailors.  It wasn’t until the country could produce more ships, weapons, soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen that the tide began to turn.  But experience also played a huge role in winning or losing a battle.  Savo Sound and Kasserine Pass are two examples of battles in which little to no experience of fighting led to American defeats.  Poor leadership was also a factor, such as in North Africa, but to the credit of men like General George C. Marshall and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, those seen as incompetent or lacking imagination were usually quickly sacked and replaced by men whose leadership qualities were hoped to be more competent and aggressive. 

There are obviously several factors in each and every battle that make them diverse, with just a single component being added or removed that could make it seemingly “worse” than another.  The components can change due to a number of circumstances ranging from weather, terrain, logistics, casualties, or any number of various factors.  What ultimately makes a battle memorable is, of course, the outcome. Most people of the Allied nations, especially Americans, are proud to point out that we didn’t lose many battles during World War II.  And even the ones we did lose, we were able to avenge at a later date or at another place.  The victors of any war are always the authors of the histories of it, and their point-of-view often becomes slanted and engraved in stone.  Most historians know that the winners did not achieve their victories so easily, and questions such as what makes a battle “the worst,” while seemingly a waste of time, is at least an exercise in thought to bring some truth to bear over certain longstanding fictions.

Book review: D-Day and the Battle of Normandy: A Photographic History

D-Day and the Battle of Normandy: A Photographic History.  Simon Trew.  Somerset, UK: Haynes Publishing, 2012.  320 pp.

The Allied invasion of Normandy, France, on 6 June 1944, continues to fascinate almost seventy-years after that historic day.  In that span of time, literally hundreds, if not thousands, of books and articles have been written on some topic concerning D-Day and the ensuing campaign.  The author of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy: A Photographic History, Dr. Simon Trew, is deputy head of the Department of War Studies at Britain’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and is the author or editor of several other books on military history, particularly on the Normandy campaign.   His new work is a welcome and must-have addition for anyone with even a modicum of interest about those tense few months in Normandy, when the Allies cracked Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and brought the war closer to Germany.

Narrowing the field down from an astounding 20,000 images Trew was able to find during his research, is a riveting collection of 385 rarely seen photographs of the Normandy campaign.  Combing various archives in Great Britain, Germany, the United States, and Canada, the quality of these photographs are outstanding, a testament both to the care and handling they have received in their 68 years, as well as the skill and professionalism of the photographers that first took them.  Instead of focusing on the more famous photo-journalists that landed in Normandy with Allied soldiers, such as Robert Capa, Trew gives us the photos taken by the official military photographers.  These American, British, Canadian, and German still photographers were often right in the thick of the action.  The photos themselves are all in high-quality black & white.  Many of the images are what you would expect of a book about Normandy: the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and paratroopers, as well as their weapons and vehicles, are all highlighted.  We are also treated to rarely seen photos of personalities made famous by the war, including the well-known:  Patton and Bradley; Churchill with Montgomery; as well as lesser known persons, such as Juan Pujol (the spy known as Agent GARBO), Lieutenant General J. C. H. Lee, and various nurses, medics, armor crews, and military policemen. But the truly striking photos are those showing the dead (of either side), and the stress and fear captured on the faces of the subjects, whether a terrified German prisoner, a wounded American GI, or a combat fatigued British Tommy.  Others show the sad plight of French civilians, caught up in the middle of a great battle on their own soil.  There are great heart-warming moments as well, such as the ecstasy on the faces of those French civilians that came with liberation, or the calming reassurance shown by a British officer to his very young and frightened German prisoner that he would not be harmed.

The photographs are well-organized and user-friendly.  The book is broken up into nine total chapters, while no less than 35 photographs make up each chapter, and each individual photo having a number that corresponds to a thumbnail of the image at the end of each.  A well-described caption accompanies the thumbnail, as well as the archive the photo was culled from, and the photographs number and the date it was taken (if known).  As a former photo editor and military photographer, the writer of this review knows how infuriating it can be to wade through hundreds of photographs, having one catch your eye, only to find that it has no caption information whatsoever.   Trew resolves this nicely by having done as much research as possible on the images that had little to no caption information.  When scant information was available, Trew drew upon his vast knowledge of the Normandy campaign to either write his perspective on what the photograph showed, or discussed how the image fit into the larger picture of the battle itself.  These are not your typical newspaper photo captions, but well-detailed and informative ones, which adds tremendous insight on each and every photo.

However, the introduction and “question-and-answer” portion of the first 22-pages, in which the author answers the questions he believes the intended audience of the book would ask most, seems strangely like a bit of an afterthought.  The text font also seems to change from very large to not-so-large, which also contributes to the first part of the book being a bit incongruous to the photos.  There may have been a better way to disseminate all the relative information concerning the photographers from the various belligerents, the types of cameras they used while in Normandy, and all the other miscellaneous research that is highlighted.  Trew’s research is top-notch, and a full-length companion history on official military photographers with a sampling of some of these photos would be an extremely welcome project.  But here, the Q&A session  makes the book seem a bit schizophrenic, and one wonders if  the author shouldn’t have stuck with showcasing the incredible photographs, which may have allowed for more to be included.

Some readers will no doubt also notice and lament the number of actual photos taken on D-Day itself.  I would counter that very few military photographers went in with the first or successive waves onto the beaches, or jumped with the paratroopers into the bocage.  In any case, most of the Allies (and their German counterparts) were a bit too involved in combat to be worried about picture taking.  As the landings were deemed successful and the Allies gained a toehold in France, many more army photographers were able to be brought over from Britain to move around and record history as the campaign in Normandy stretched on into August 1944.

Trew does state that pictures taken by photographs of the US Navy or Waffen-SS are not included in the book, and this is a shame.  Whether there is just a lack of them (which seems to be the case, at least with SS photographs), it would have been a windfall had any been found or included, as most readers could probably recognize just how rare indeed these are.  Also, there is a complete lack of color photographs, with the only color image being that of the book’s cover.  Trew mentions that this was mostly due to cost (and as the writer of this review can attest, color photos are typically much more expensive to reproduce and retain one-time copyrights of).  This would lead one to conclude that the publisher, Haynes Publishing, was a bit stingy regarding paying for photographic rights.  It certainly reflects poorly on Haynes for not taking the project seriously enough to willingly pay out some more money for a few of these striking images to be included among the well-thought out chapters.  The price of the book ($49.95 USD) is a bit steep for the general public, but it is admittedly not cheap to  include photographs in any book, let alone nearly 400 of them.  Copies on Amazon.com can be had for about 20 dollars less.  However, if one is a student of the battle of Normandy or of World War II history in general, and enjoys strikingly rare photographs from the war, then this book will appeal to the amateur, armchair, or professional historian.

My Least Favorite World War II Movies

Alright, so my last post was all about my 10 favorite World War II movies of all time.  I took some flak from some people that thought my picks were wrong, but again, these are based solely on my own opinions.  I could rattle off an entire list of movies of this genre that I like (Stalag 17, Thin Red Line, Memphis Belle, City of Life and Death, Where Eagles Dare, etc.).  And since I did a best of list, I feel it’s time to do the inverse of that.  So now this post will highlight my least favorite WWII films and why I don’t care for them.

5. Red Tails

I had some high hopes for this film, and then I saw that George Lucas was involved.  I haven’t been a fan of Lucas’ since I was a little kid and the original ‘Star Wars’ films were out.  Lucas executive produced the film and directed some of the scenes, which a person can usually discern by the stilted, weak, and often groan-inducing dialogue. It’s as if he has the actors do one take hurriedly and then tells them, “Hey, don’t worry about it, I’ll just green screen it to clean it up.”  While I wanted to like ‘Red Tails,’ the story of the African-American Tuskegee pilots and the 332nd Fighter Group, I just found the dialogue cheesy, the story somewhat weak, and wishing the Tuskegee Airmen would be given a better film tribute for their heroic exploits.  The HBO film ‘Tuskegee Airmen’ is actually a better movie, although that one is also rife with mistakes, including the historically inaccurate “fact” that the Tuskegee fighter pilots never lost a bomber they were escorting.  It has since been proven that they did indeed lose at least 25 bombers on missions over the skies of Europe.  While the special effects were decent, the rest of the movie just left me cold.

4. U-571

Note: Bon Jovi gets it smack in the face at :38 seconds into the clip.

The British must hate what glory-hogs we Americans are, and I don’t blame them.  ‘U-571’ involves a commando mission undertaken by American submariners (led by Matthew McConaughey and….gulp….”rocker” Jon Bon Jovi) to capture a German Enigma cipher machine, which helped the Allies break Nazi codes.  The Polish were actually the first to break the codes, and the British did the majority of capturing these from various U-boats throughout the war.  While the film is your standard action/adventure, it should be noted that the real U-571 was lost with all hands off the coast of Ireland after being bombed by a British short flying boat.  The film isn’t horrible, it just can’t compare to the penultimate of submarine movies from WWII, ‘Das Boot.’  I will say that the tension and action scenes in ‘U-571’ are fairly well done, and Bon Jovi dies in a particularly gruesome way, so it’s not all that bad…but I’ll watch ‘Das Boot’ over this any day of the week.

3. Saints and Soldiers

The film begins with a depiction of the Malmedy Massacre, in which SS soldiers of Kampfgruppe Peiper shot American POWs during the Battle of the Bulge.  Inaccurately, paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Divison are shown as some of those prisoners. The 101st was not yet involved in the battle at that point.  Most of the Americans shot by the SS were members of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion.  Also, the film depicts the Americans as instigating the massacre, as some prisoners break ranks and run. There have been conflicting stories on the massacre since it happened, but most American survivors claim the Germans moved trucks and tanks into the vicinity of where the POWs were herded with the intention of mowing them down with machine guns.  Other prisoners, playing dead in the snow for hours, claimed that  other German soldiers passed by, often laughing and occasionally firing a weapon into the bodies of the dead Americans. The tone of the film is often one of “forgive thy enemies,” which shouldn’t come as a real shock since the director and film company are all of the Mormon faith. I don’t mean to infer that I dislike this movie because it has Mormon-backing, but it can at several times throughout the movie come across as too preachy. Also, the plot centers around the Malmedy survivors rescuing a British pilot that has some ultra-important intelligence he MUST get back to the Allies.  What was so important he had to tell them?  That the Germans were going to attack through the Ardennes Forest?  Too little, too late.  The Allied Command had its collective head so far up its collective ass at that point that they probably wouldn’t have believed the intel anyways. And with everything as chaotic as it was at that point in the Ardennes, would the intel even have served a purpose?  The Bulge was reduced in about a month, and the news of the Malmedy Massacre spread like wildfire, as did the paranoia about German spies in American uniforms, both of which only served to stiffen Allied resolve.  The movie seems a bit hokey at times and doesn’t come off as very believable.  I’ve admittedly only seen this once, but I believe that will be enough for me.

2. Battle of the Bulge

Speaking of the Bulge, I had almost forgotten about this stinker of a film.  Despite the stellar cast involved, including Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, Robert Ryan, and Robert Shaw, the movie is racked with inaccuracies including the wrong types of tanks standing in for German Tigers, a lack of snow and fog which played such a huge role in the real battle, and the fact that the terrain in the film looks nothing like that of the Ardennes (the film was mostly shot in Spain).  Modeled after SS Colonel Joachim Peiper, Shaw’s Colonel Hessler comes equipped with a black Panzer grenadier uniform, a stoic Teutonic accent, and a ton of blonde highlights. Almost every actor here looks too old to have even been involved in the movie battle (the film was released in 1965), and the director tried to capture too many of the smaller battles of the Ardennes in a 3-hour movie.  And while in reality the battle was somewhat of a setback, it wasn’t going to change the outcome of the war one little bit. And I just realized that Telly Savalas did a hell of a lot of movies about the war, and the others were far better than this!

1. Pearl Harbor

“Pearl Harbor” is a two-hour movie squeezed into three hours, about how on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese staged a surprise attack on an American love triangle.”

That is renowned film critic Roger Ebert on the famously bad Michael Bay movie ‘Pearl Harbor,’ which was released in 2001.  I’d agree with Ebert that it was closer to a three-hour movie, but felt more like a four-hour one.  Good friends and pilots Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett vie for the attentions of nurse Kate Beckinsale, and I’ve seen divorced couples that have more passion together than either of these two yokels do with her.  Bay does manage to squeeze Cuba Gooding, Jr., in to play hero Dorie Miller, and the rest of the cast is filled out by a young Jennifer Garner, a dependable Tom Sizemore, and a bunch of lesser-knowns that seem to have appeared in ‘Black Hawk Down’ or any other war film made around the same time.  Throw in Alec Baldwin as Jimmy Doolittle and you have a film trying to achieve too much out of its purview.  And that’s what Bay does when he moves Affleck and Hartnett (who I thought were fighter pilots but are apparently also bomber pilots!) off of the Hornet to revenge bomb Tokyo.  A supposed “epic” that was intended to relive the old days of Hollywood’s classic-era, ‘Pearl Harbor’ failed to have anything important to say.  Along with Bay’s other works (including the love-it-or-hate-it ‘Transformers’ trilogy), the entire film seems a schizophrenic mess that wants to be too many things to too many people.  When it comes to movies about the Japanese attack, it is highly advised, and a much smarter choice, to go with ‘Tora, Tora, Tora,’ than this disaster movie.

Dishonorable Mentions:

Miracle at St. Anna

Dead Snow (ok, not a WWII film per se, but a pretty mindless zombie film about living dead Nazis. Somewhat fun, but mostly dumb).

Victory (apologies to my European friends, but I can’t get excited about what is essentially a soccer flick).


Hitler-The Last 10 Days (You made the man who played Obi-Wan Kenobi and Lt. Col. Nicholson play Hitler?!  That seems blasphemous in so many ways)!


My Top Ten Favorite World War II Movies

10. Saving Private Ryan

While I can pick this movie apart with the best of ’em, I do think the battle scenes really set this one apart.  And while many gripe that Hanks was too old to play a Ranger captain, or that the rest of the cast were stereotypes of all GIs from many older war flicks, the first 20-minutes were just absolutely mind-blowing.  And while it did take the real heroes hours to get off that beach and push the Germans back, the violence and horror are laid bare for all to see.  Steven Speilberg has made many films that take place during the war, but I give him props here because he set the bar for war films high, and departed from the usual bloodless-GIs-running-off-the-Higgins-boats-cheering-loudly to storm and take Omaha Beach we had been accustomed too previously.

9.  Letters From Iwo Jima

General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) directs the movement of his troops on the island of Iwo Jima.

One of my favorite actors and directors, Clint Eastwood, made this a companion film to ‘Flags of Our Fathers.’   And while ‘Flags’ told the story of the iconic Marine Corps photograph of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima, ‘Letters’ takes a look from the Japanese perspective.  General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) is the man in charge of all Japanese troops on the island, and exhorts each man to kill at least 10 Americans before they die for the Emperor.  Kuribayashi is almost a sympathetic character here despite this, as we see him in flashbacks in the U. S., gracefully accepting an elaborate .45 pistol from American military officers at a reception in his honor before the war.  Kuribayashi has no allusions as to what will happen to himself and his men.  He knows Iwo is their final resting place and none of them will ever see Japan again.  Eastwood does a good job of capturing that fatalism and melancholy despite the fanaticism shown by Japanese troops.  Some critics felt he went too easy on the Japanese, but I think it’s important to remember that one can’t paint a broad brush against an entire group of people, even Japanese soldiers.  These same critics often point to the scene between Baron Nishi and a wounded American marine that is captured and hauled into Nishi’s cave.  Nishi treats the marine well,  and after the young man dies, Nishi (a former Olympic medalist who is fluent in English) reads a letter from the man’s mother.  Nishi’s men listen as he translates it back into Japanese, and all of them no doubt realize just how much they have in common with their enemy.  More likely, they just wind up missing their own mother’s, and would not hesitate to kill the next American they encounter.  Japan’s record of brutality during the war has been well-known, and much made of the Bushido code.  I also enjoyed ‘Flags of Our Father’s’ as well, and think Eastwood did a phenomenal job on both.  ‘Flags’ does get a little clumsy in its jumping around, but as a companion set, these two stand up both together and alone as excellent war movies.

8.  Ballad of a Soldier

I honestly just saw this film for the first time about six months ago, and I have to admit I was astonished and blown away for several reasons.  First because the film is Russian, and was made in 1959, smack dab in the middle of the Cold War.  Second, because we Americans didn’t see the Soviets as people like us, despite their being our allies in World War II.  They were cold, distant, brutal, and sacrificed their soldiers in ways Americans couldn’t understand.   ‘Ballad of a Soldier’ is anything but cold.  It  is not so much a war movie, as it is a movie about love.  Love is the key theme set against the backdrop of war.  Little combat is actually shown, although the effects of war pervade the movie throughout.  A mother awaits the return of her son, and gazes out for miles on the Russian steppe.  It is revealed that her son has been killed in the war, in a foreign country far away.  Cut to a young Russian soldier named Aloysha single-handedly destroying two German panzers. His commanding general wants to give him a medal, but he asks for leave instead, hoping to help his mother fix her leaky roof.  His request granted, Aloysha begins a journey back home with six days of leave.  The various types of love depicted in the film are then explored.  At one point Aloysha runs into a fellow soldier named Vasya, who has lost a leg in battle and does not want to return home.  He tells Aloysha that he doesn’t want to be a burden to his wife and that their marriage was in trouble before he left.  After speaking with Aloysha, Vasya changes his mind, and is ecstatic to find that despite the loss of a limb, his wife welcomes him back, just glad to have him with her once more.  Aloysha then meets Shura, a young woman, and the two fall in love, which happens rather awkwardly but quickly, it being wartime.  After some further delays and adventures, Aloysha finally gets home, but only has a few minutes to see his mother, who is overjoyed to see him.  But the joy turns bitter when she realizes he has to go back to the front.  This film, despite being made by a former “enemy,” has a humanity that is universal in its simplicity.  The ending is one of the most heartbreaking I’ve ever seen and it will stay with you for some time.

7.  Inglorious Basterds

Many people will probably stop reading after seeing this on here, but bear with me.  Quentin Tarantino’s Jewish revenge fantasy is not historically-accurate AT ALL!  For many history-types, that is an unforgivable sin.  But why can’t history have fun every once in awhile?  That’s exactly what this film felt like: Fun.  And that may sound horrible, especially considering the subject matter, but Tarantino takes his shots at many of the Nazi higher-ups.  He has a few of them die in a way we know isn’t the real way they went, but who wouldn’t want to see Hitler and Goebbels get shot up in a violent, messy way?  Christoph Waltz is the star here, mesmerizingly evil and smarmy as SS Colonel Hans “the Jew Hunter” Landa (for which he won the 2009 Best Supporting Actor Oscar).   Brad Pitt does his best hillbilly impersonation, and the Jewish-American GIs are essentially goofy looking young nerds that would have been better cast in some lame teen comedy.  Melanie Laurent is excellent as Shoshana Dreyfus, the lone survivor of a Jewish family killed by Landa, and plotting against the Nazi hierarchy in a theater she now owns.  My favorite part of the movie takes place in an undergound bar, with British Lieutenant Archie Hickox (played by Michael Fassbender), accidentally giving himself away to a fanatical SS major while pretending to be a German officer.  The shootout and bloodbath that ensues after some hissing banter is pure Tarantino.  And while Tarantino’s film ideas aren’t always fresh, I do enjoy the dialogue he writes and the well-formed characters he usually creates.  Most of the time both are gloriously (or ingloriously in this case) over the top, but you can never really claim that any of his film’s are boring.  While historically a mess, this is pretty good fun.

6.  The Longest Day

Lt. Gen. Vandervoort (John Wayne) gathers American paratroopers with him to assault German positions in the movie ‘The Longest Day.’

This film seemingly has nearly every famous male actor from the 1950s and 60s in it.  John Wayne (much too old to play Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort), Roddy McDowall, Henry Fonda, Sal Mineo, Eddie Albert, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Richard Todd, Robert Wagner, Rod Steiger, etc., all together in this movie based on Cornelius Ryan’s classic about the D-Day invasion.  And while it’s a little Ra-Ra in tone, it gives us a glimpse into not only what the Allies experienced on that day in June, but the confusion the Germans were going through as well.  I’ll always have an issue with the way the Americans are seen running off their landing craft and straight onto the beach, but movie violence back then was fairly bloodless and largely inferred, not the seeming gore-fest it is today.  It’s one of those movies that can be on and I can jump into it at any point and still enjoy it.  A true classic.

5.  Downfall

This German film captures the last few days of Adolph Hitler’s Germany right up until he kills himself alongside Eva Braun in his bunker in Berlin.  Seen through the eyes of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s young secretary, we witness the depravities and horrors the Third Reich unleashed come home to roost.  While the viewer does not feel any sympathy towards Hitler and his supporters, one does gain some sympathy for those Germans that are caught squarely in the midst of his insanity. As the Soviets battle fanatical and often extremely youthful Nazis in the street, Hitler’s grip with reality comes undone.  He orders forces he no longer has to make stands against the invading Bolsheviks.  The SS men under his command fight on to the end, or wind up surrendering to the Russians, only to learn that their fate was often a decades-long imprisonment in a Soviet Gulag.   One truly does feel bad for the children of Josef and Magda Goebbels, as they are poisoned by their own mother, who does not want any of them to live in a “world without National Socialism.”  The audience gets a sense of just how much these people believed in their perverse cause, but not why.  Bruno Ganz does a phenomenal job of playing Hitler.  And although Hitler is often seen and played as a monster, he was all too human, and that is what Ganz is able to bring out.

4.  The Dirty Dozen

Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin starred in the 1967 action-adventure World War II film ‘The Dirty Dozen.’

One of the best action-packed adventure movies ever made, with an all-star cast that could never be duplicated again.  Who would one get nowadays to star in a remake of this 1967 classic?  Clooney?  Maybe.  Pitt?  Perhaps.   Hell, some of the original stars WERE actual World War II veterans-Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy and Robert Ryan all served.  Round out this awesome lineup with John Cassavettes, Richard Jaeckel, Jim Brown, Donald Sutherland, Clint Walker, and Trini Lopez and you have a recipe for a kick-ass action flick!  Based upon the real-life unit of demolitions experts within the 101st Airborne known as the “Filthy Thirteen,” the ‘Dirty Dozen’ begin as a group of convicts are trained as commandos to go into France before D-Day to kill several high-ranking German officers and throw the Nazis into confusion.  The catch-if they refuse the training or try to escape, they go right back to prison to have their sentences carried out.  For many of them, that would mean death at the end of a rope.  Lee Marvin stars as Major John Reisman, a tough OSS officer, ordered to whip the convicts into shape and lead them into Nazi-occupied France.  This is another of those films that I could watch again and again and never get sick of.  Cassavettes nails the role of Franko, the most rebellious of the convicts, while Savalas stars as A. J. Maggott, a race-baiting, female hating psychopath who nearly ruins the mission before it even begins.  An instant classic.

3.  Patton

I believe that if George S. Patton, Jr., had ever seen this movie, he would have liked it very much.  He definitely would have liked George C. Scott’s gruff and powerful voice (his was actually more high-pitched and nasally), and would have enjoyed seeing his pulling-one-over on Monty in Sicily (some historical facts are played with a bit fast-and-loose), but this film helped cement Patton’s reputation as an ornery, fiery, cussing fighter despite his clashing with Bradley, Eisenhower, Montgomery, and any soldier suffering from combat fatigue.  While only one of two actual slapping incidents is depicted in the film, Patton firmly did not believe in combat stress at all.  The opening scene, of Patton in full regalia (including ivory-handled revolvers on his hips) in front of a huge American flag and giving a “pep talk” to his troops, is based on a speech he gave to Third Army troops.  Francis Ford Coppola, one of the screenwriters, had to tone Patton’s real speech down, as it was peppered with several swear words, and the director wanted to get the movie in under an ‘R’ rating.   Scott won the Best Actor Oscar in 1971 for his performance as Patton, but very un-Patton like, gave it back, citing his disbelief in acting competitions.

2.  Kelley’s Heroes

“Always with the negative waves Moriarty!”

I just must be a sucker for those World War II movies with great casts, action, and some humor.   And you can never go wrong when you have Clint Eastwood starring.  Throw in Don Rickles as “Crap Game,” Donald Sutherland as “Oddball,” and Telly Savalas as “Big Joe,” and this movie is seriously entertaining every time.  Plus, you have Carroll O’ Conn0r playing the hilariously naive General Holt (not to mention Len Lesser, ‘Uncle Leo’ from ‘Seinfeld)!  Eastwood stars as Pvt. Kelley, a former lieutenant that was demoted and became the scapegoat for another officer’s screwup.  After capturing a German officer and finding a gold bar in his possession, Kelley gets the German drunk and is told about more gold bars worth some 16 million dollars sitting in a bank vault 30 miles behind German lines.  Rounding up some suspicious characters, including a hippie tank driver played by Sutherland who pesters his gunner to “quit it with those negative waves,” and a hustler played by the great Don Rickles, Kelley and the rest plan their heist and then fight their way through German lines to grab the loot all while trying to survive.  Being made in 1970, the movie reflects the way a fed-up and war weary American public was dealing with the Vietnam War.  Kelley’s heroes are also sick of their war and figure if they’re going to risk their lives for something, why not $16 million?  One of my favorite parts of the movie is near the end, when after enlisting the help of an SS tanker to blow the doors of the bank open, Kelley tells the Nazi goodbye.  The SS officer gives him the straight-armed Nazi salute, and Kelley shoots him a look like he’s about to shoot him as only Eastwood could give.  The German responds with the more proper salute with the fingertips of the right hand to the right eyebrow and Eastwood returns it somewhat agitated.  It’s Kelley saying “hey, even though I’m sick of this war and sick of you, you started this thing and I’d still rather kill you than buy you a beer, so don’t be giving me that Nazi crap!” Sometimes it’s just all about a look.

And my #1 favorite movie you ask?

1.  The Best Years of Our Lives

The winner of 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, the ‘Best Years of Our Lives’ does not even include any combat action (although it does include some flash backs for Dana Andrews’ Air Corps pilot).  A fantastic movie about three veterans returning to their hometown, it follows how each readjusts to a society that is ready to put the war behind them even though they themselves may not be.   The veterans, Fred Derry (Andrews), Al Stephenson (Frederic March), and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), return to their lives and families but feel out of place and that they are no longer the same as when they left for the war.  Derry’s young wife wants to go out and party, while Al is becoming an alcoholic.  The movie really belongs to Homer, played by real-life amputee Harold Russell who lost both of his arms in a training accident during the war.  In the film, Homer lost his arms from burns when his aircraft carrier was sunk, and returns to his parents home, where he feels shut off from everyone else due to his disabilities.  His girlfriend Wilma is glad he has returned alive, but Homer doesn’t want to be a burdern to her and pushes her away.  Some have accused the film of being a tad schmaltzy, and perhaps it is, but it is one of the few to examine what it is like for veterans returning home from war.  These men were the victors of World War II, but many came back with physical and mental issues that were hardly addressed.  I have often wondered why Hollywood has not remade this film.  Of all their horrible remakes, perhaps it’s best they just leave it alone.  But I can’t help but think with the current wars we are involved in, how much an updated version of this story would be fantastic, if done simply and understated.  No big explosions, no on-screen murders or gratuitous sex scenes…just a low-key drama on the effects of war on veterans and how sometimes it takes awhile for the people who love them to let them heal and get help.  And to stand by them when the nightmares return.  And while none of the three men in the movie ever completely healed, they were able to make the best of what they could with what they had.  There is a strong theme of hope throughout the film, and it is a masterpiece of subtlety and poignancy.