1. Max Manus – Man of War (2008)
First on the list is the Norwegian war biopic Max Manus – Man of War. Released in 2008 it was a huge success in Norway (the premier was attended by the reigning King) but struggled to break into the US, German and UK markets. The film follows Norwegian resistance fighter, Max Manus, in his fight against Nazi Germany during which he was part of the formidable Oslo Gang. An often forgotten part of WWII history, the viewer is shown an in depth look at what the war was like for Norway. It not only shows the horrors the local populace faced from the Nazi regime but also highlights the complicated relationship with their foremost ally: Great Britain.
Man of War revolves around the sinking of the SS Donau and the groups preparation and difficulties they faced in completing their mission. It is a refreshing look at resistance organisations in WWII films which usually revolve around assassinations (Inglorious Bastards, 2009) or over the top battles in open ground (Defiance, 2008). Instead, Man of War keeps a simple idea of sabotage and explores the complications which come with it leading to a satisfying and realistic portrayal.
The gritty gunfights and realistic sabotage attempts are surprisingly not where this film shines. Max Manus has a sobering and depressing look at post war life in a victorious country which was known to hit hard among veterans watching the final 5 minutes. The ending should be happy, jubilant and filled with victory parades but instead it narrows down on Max’s own bittersweet viewpoint and how even though the Allies had been victorious he had lost nearly all of his friends. What’s that saying? War is not about who is right, only who is left.
2. The Thin Red Line (1998)
Stay with us now… We’re not saying The Thin Red Line was underrated in the 90’s, it was in fact held to critical acclaim. But in modern day where films such as Saving Private Ryan (Also 1998), Pearl Harbor (2001) and the masterclass miniseries that was Band of Brothers (2001) still hold their own and remain re-watched by millions each year, The Thin Red Line, however, seems to get forgotten about. This is despite it’s incredible ensemble cast, $50 million budget and Hans Zimmer OST.
So why is it forgotten about? It’s not as action packed as Saving Private Damon and it doesn’t have the romantic love story of Pearl Harbour which appeals to a greater audience. But it remains a solid film, and is arguably more realistic than the previously two mentioned war films. The soldiers find themselves in a gritty, unforgiving and frankly mad battle that was Guadalcanal where no character has plot armour. The fight sequences are punchy and thrilling, with a big emphasis on not being able to see the enemy that’s shooting you. The subtle link with nature throughout the film is perfectly placed – every soldier on that island could be fighting for their lives but the spider making its web in the tall grass doesn’t care and is ultimately unaffected.
3. Sand Castle (2017)
This war drama slipped by most people’s radar when it came to Netflix in 2017 largely due to a relatively poor advertising campaign and being overshadowed by Christopher Nolan’s epic Dunkirk which came out at a similar time. However, it deserves to be watched. Sand Castle will not change your opinion on the Iraq War, it will likely not make you cry and it will rarely excite you. But that’s sort of the point… Sand Castle is meant to be a reflection of the war and has similarities with Jarhead (2005) in that the boredom and realities of war are focused on more than any flashy combat sequences.
The film emphasises on the pointlessness of the conflict for the everyday man and how both sides struggled to make sense of what the Iraqi population wanted. Is it an amazing film? No. Is it underrated? Yes and you will probably be pleasantly suprised.
4. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
Twinned with the film Flags of our Fathers of the same year, Letters from Iwo Jima delves where no American war drama really dared go before – the sole viewpoint of the Japanese at one of the bloodiest and grittiest battles of the Second World War which cost 27,000 US casualties and 18,000 Japanese deaths. It follows both Private First Class Saigo and Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi who’s stories start separately but end up being tragically entwined.
Tadamichi is shown as an intelligent tactician who is well aware of Japan’s assured defeat both on the island and for the war. However, he progressively changes the defences of the island and initiates brutal but effective tactics to inflict maximum casualties on the Americans, complimenting the school of thought that causing enough US casualties could broker a better peace agreement for Japan. The film impressively does not make the viewer hate Tadamichi as an Axis war criminal (given most of the audience is American), don’t get me wrong you won’t love Tadamichi, but you will certainly respect him.
Saigo on the other hand is a hardworking Japanese civilian thrown into the war, given a rifle and told to defend an island he cares little about. His friends die of disease, suicide and enemy fire all around him whilst the Allies close in on his continually retreating position. He is scared, confused and ultimately fearful of the US war machine tearing through the island. Director and producer Clint Eastwood uses Saigo to humanise the often vilified Japanese military of World War Two. It works and you will be willing Saigo on to survive, a very difficult thing for a audiences of previously Allied nations to achieve.
5. Gallipoli (1981)
A relatively forgotten about World War One epic about two Australian young men, played by Mel Gibson and Mark Lee, sent to fight on the British led military disaster of Gallipoli. One is a hopeful athlete with a promising career in sprinting ahead of him – more than happy to serve his crown. The other is a more pessimistic and pragmatic individual, who only wants to open a bike shop in Perth and live a simple life. The pair clash heads and have their views challenged by the other throughout the film.
Where Gallipoli shines is how it perfectly captures the absurdity of British command for the operation. The men find themselves bored waiting for an attack and entrenched just a few hundred meters from the shores where they landed weeks before. Gallipoli sheds light on the complete disregard from high command as to the lives of their soldiers, with an exception for a few good commanders who’s hands are tied by their superiors. This film with leave you seething at the orders of the top brass whilst heartbroken for the men who’s lives get needlessly thrown away in the trenches. Similar to 1917 (2019) the films later stages revolve around the fight against time and the limitations of sending messages to commanding officers on the ground – in fact if you’ve seen 1917 you will notice some similarities which I believe helped inspire Sam Mendes.
The final shot of this film, which I will not spoil, is cinematic genius – worth watching it just for that.
Agree with our top 5? Disagree? Let us know in the comments!