Tag Archives: WWII movies

Left Behind

Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle

by Hope Madden

In 1974, Hiroo Onoda found out World War II was over and that he could return to Japan from the Philippine jungle where he’d been hiding since 1944. This is true. This happened. And it feels like such a tragic squandering of a lifetime that you almost have to cling to the absurdity of it, make it a joke.

Instead, French filmmaker Arthur Harari mines Onoda’s story to examine the more universal if romantic theme of finding meaning in your own life.

Across nearly three hours we travel with Onoda, from the drunken dishonor of his recruitment – he’d been rejected as a pilot because he was afraid to die – through the training that would make him believe in his singular mission, on to that mission and the decades of reimagining reality to create something in keeping with that mission.

Harari’s film glides easily from war story to survival tale to odd couple bromance, each shift marking a passage of time and a new reality for Onoda.

Almost immediately upon landing in the Philippines, Lubang Island fell to the Allies. Onoda, a novice intelligence officer, convinced six men to remain with him rather than surrendering, assuring the troops that their mission was to regain control of the island no matter the circumstances.

Hiroo Onoda – as portrayed in youth by Yûya Endô but in particular in mournful old age by Kanji Tsuda ­– is a mixture of sorrowful elegance rarely depicted with such humanity in a war film. The vulnerability both actors bring to the role creates a soldier worthy of empathy rather than mockery.

Onoda’s second in command, Kozuka – whether played in youth by Yûya Matsuura or in maturity by Tetsuya Chiba – becomes the bold and tender heart of the film. Passionate and foolhardy, he’s a wonderful counterpoint to Onoda’s quiet discipline. Both pairings of actors create compelling rapport, but Tsuda and Chiba are especially heartbreaking.

Eventually, of course, Onoda is found. A tourist of luxurious means (Taiga Nakano) put finding Onoda on his list of must-dos, right up there with finding a Yeti. Once found, the tourist’s flippant privilege in the face of Onoda’s unimaginable loss and confusion perfectly encapsulates the shift in cultural ideals and the sheer self-congratulatory idiocy of the 1970s. But with limited screen time, Nakano acquits his generation nicely.

Harari’s film is lovely, heartbreaking and respectful. Onoda becomes not just an anomaly, an oddity, but an image of a generation lost and a promise forgotten.

I Spy

Six Minutes to Midnight

by Hope Madden

Eddie Izzard always brings an unexpected charm and wit to roles, most of which benefit from the surprise in casting. Shadow of the Vampire, several different Oceans movies, and the beloved Get Duked! come to mind.

Between those films and Six Minutes to Midnight, Izzard changed pronouns. (Go girl!) This is relevant only in that I will be referring to Izzard as she, regardless of the fact that she plays British intelligence agent Thomas Miller, a he.

Miller finds himself filling in as substitute teacher at the prestigious Augusta-Victoria College at Brexhill-on-Sea in England. It’s August of 1939, which means England is days away from being drawn into WWII, and the institution is a finishing school for wealthy German girls.

It was a real school, run with Nazi ideals. It went so far as to contain a swastika alongside the union jack on its official school logo and badge. The existence of this anomaly in British history inspired the screenplay by Izzard and co-star Celyn Jones.

The idea also drew a stellar cast including Judi Dench, James D’Arcy, Jim Broadbent and Carla Juri. Each member of the supporting ensemble offers a strong, sometimes unexpected performance in a film that feels intentionally stilted.

The physical difference between Dench and Juri matches their characters’ emotional gap, an excellent metaphor for the schism in the school itself. Darcy is much fun, and Broadbent is never less than wonderful, as you would expect.

Director Andy Goddard, who’s done a lot of TV, keeps the thrills intimate, using the coastal setting to create a sense of isolation. Goddard’s frequent collaborator Chris Seager lenses the film with a throw-back elegance that suits it.

What works best in Six Minutes is an understated theme of culture clash, and a reminder that England contained plenty of German sympathizers who felt the only opportunity to survive, should this war come, was to embrace the concept of hail to victory.

Izzard, unfortunately, doesn’t work as well. There’s a melancholy to the character that is effective, but as the central figure in a spy thriller, Izzard seems miscast. There is a great deal of running—so, so much running—which eventually comes off as comedic even when it should not.

The writing is often rushed and the plotting superficial. Goddard has trouble finding and sticking with a tone, and regardless of the time-bomb of a title, the film feels less like a mad dash to end a cataclysm and more like a series of bumblings that somehow turn out OK.  

It’s not enough to ruin the effort, but it’s enough to keep Six Minutes to Midnight from leaving a lasting impression.

Paint it Black

The Painted Bird

by Cat McAlpine

If you paint the wings of a sparrow (or stitch a star to his jacket) the rest of the flock will no longer recognize him. The other birds will swarm and peck him until he plummets back to the earth. This is just one of the horrific lessons a young boy learns as he desperately searches for anywhere or anyone safe in war-torn Eastern Europe.

The Painted Bird is a nearly three hour long misery epic that follows this young boy, unnamed until the final shot of the film, looking for home during World War II. His parents have left him in the care of an elderly woman as they flee the Germans. But his banishment to the countryside cannot spare him from the horrors of the holocaust.

This film is hard to get through. Forty viewers walked out of its 2019 Toronto Film Festival showing. I would’ve walked out too, given the chance. The opening scene finds the young boy (Petr Kotlár) being chased through the woods. Another group of boys catch him. They rip away the small pet gripped in his arms, so quickly that it’s hard to identify, and they set it on fire. As he is beaten, the boy turns his head and watches his pet run in screaming circles until it dies. And then it gets worse.

What follows is a brutal parade of the worst humanity has to offer. Domestic abuse, graphic violence, multiple instances of animal abuse and death, rape, child abuse and rape, and more. Then the war crimes start around hour three.

The tale is an adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński ‘s 1965 novel of the same name, which made one of Time’s 100 Best Novels lists. Though lauded, the book is no less controversial, and is just as riddled with cruelty.

Directed and adapted by Václav Marhoul, the final product is beautifully shot in black and white. But the lack of color doesn’t make the rotten core of The Painted Bird any less pungent. Without color, Marhoul creates gut- wrenching scenes all the more visceral by adding textures like wet eyeballs on a dusty floor or the violent placement of a bottle that made me retch.

I won’t let it go unmentioned that while violence and depravity are the overarching themes, women have some of the worst characterizations in The Painted Bird. They are either mothers or depraved sexual deviants, or mothers of dead children who have since become sexual deviants. A few are witches.

Everyone is painted darkly, but with more male characters there are more opportunities for men to be shown in shades of gray.

The real conflict at the center of The Painted Bird is understanding how we use art to honestly bear witness to our cultural horrors. I cannot and would not recommend this film to anyone, it was too awful to watch. But you could argue that this is precisely why it must be seen.

The Painted Bird is a well-shot, well performed, and incredibly moving piece of cinema that is peppered with familiar faces (Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgard, Julian Sands). You simply have to be willing to go where it wants to take you. And all of those places are dark.

We Shall Fight on the Beaches


by Hope Madden

Christopher Nolan, one of the biggest imaginations in film, takes on a WWII epic – the truly amazing evacuation of 400,000 British troops from certain death on the beaches of Dunkirk, France.

Nolan = epic, yes. His career is marked by complicated ideas, phenomenal visual style and inventiveness, ever-increasing running times and head-trippery. So, if you’re prepared for a long, bombastic, serpentine, heady adventure, you are not prepared for Dunkirk.

Though the word epic still fits.

Nolan’s storytelling is simultaneously grand and intimate. To do the story justice, he approaches it from three different perspectives and creates, with a disjointed chronology, a lasting impression of the rescue that a more traditional structure might have missed.

The great Mark Rylance brings in the perspective of the courageous Brits who manned their pleasure boats and headed toward the beleaguered troops to ferry them to safety.

From the air, Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden offer the view (literally and figuratively) of the RAF, undermanned and outgunned, maneuvering to end as much of the carnage as possible while the evac takes place.

And on the ground amongst those desperate for removal is young Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), the actor with the most screen time and quite possibly the fewest lines. He’s the reminder that these soldiers were heroes – flawed, brave, terrified and young.

The cast is appropriately huge, including a surprisingly restrained Kenneth Branagh as well as James D’Arcy, Cillian Murphy, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney and, of course, One Direction’s Harry Styles (who commits himself respectably).

Solid performances abound without a single genuine flaw to point out, but the real star of Dunkirk is Nolan.

Talk about restraint. He dials back the score – Hans Zimmer suggesting the constant tick of a time bomb or the incessant roar of a distant plane engine – to emphasize the urgency and peril, and generating almost unbearable tension.

Visually, Nolan’s scope is breathtaking, oscillating between the gorgeous but terrifying open air of the RAF and the claustrophobic confines of a boat’s hull, with the threat of capsize and a watery grave constant.

What the filmmaker has done with Dunkirk – and has not done with any of his previous efforts, however brilliant or flawed – is create a spare, quick and simple film that is equally epic.


Spy Versus Spy


by Hope Madden

In turns grand and intimate, Allied blends pulp and melodrama with old Hollywood glamour.

We open on a dashing Max Vatan (Brad Pitt), landing in a North African desert where he’ll be met by a mysterious driver delivering his new identity. Vatan will join French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) in Casablanca on a mission to assassinate a Nazi official.

Director Robert Zemeckis’s vintage spy thriller begins with a bang. Stylish and gorgeous, the first act embraces an old-fashioned dazzle that suits both Pitt and Cotillard.

Problems arise – for Vatan and Beausejour, as well as the film – once the couple relocates to London. Vatan takes a desk job with the Royal Air Force while his new wife and child wait lovingly at home. But when command turns up evidence that Marianne could be a German spy, this ideal life begins to crack.

Both Cotillard and Pitt perform respectably with a script involving tensions that reach toward the ludicrous. Pitt carries himself with a weird stiffness, but his face wears joy, weariness and emotional tumult in a way that the actor has rarely managed.

Cotillard is characteristically excellent, her own demeanor turning the edge of every expression with a hint of something sour. She is effortlessly mysterious, a characteristic required for the part.

Steven Knight’s screenplay loses momentum once the couple settles into their homey London life, and for all Zemeckis’s visual wizardry, the balance of the film never recaptures the thrill of their early adventures.

Instead, we settle for several gloriously shot sequences – a love scene inside a car beset by a sandstorm, a party interrupted by an air raid. But even the tensest late-film moments feel staged, even borrowed.

Knight’s writing tends to play better with grittier, more street-savvy direction (think Eastern Promises or Dirty Pretty Things), but Zemeckis likes a big stage. The result, though often entertaining because of solid performances, is too much of a mishmash to really work.


God and Country

Hacksaw Ridge

by Hope Madden

Bathing an audience in violence – but violence in service of a noble cause – has become filmmaker Mel Gibson’s stock and trade.

Braveheart was a great movie – thrilling, self-righteous and violent as hell. But Gibson really hit paydirt as a director when he underpinned his gorefests with images of the victimhood of the Christian. (Or, of Christ himself.)

Gibson returns to what works with his latest, Hacksaw Ridge.

There is no question that the story of WWII veteran Desmond Doss not only deserves but requires our attention. A conscientious objector and devout Seventh Day Adventist, Doss refused to bear arms and yet he single-handedly carried 75 injured soldiers to safety during a particularly bloody battle in Okinawa.

Screenwriters Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan burden the film with every cliché in the WWII movie arsenal, from the wholesome hometown love to the flatly stereotyped platoon mates to nearly every line in the film.

Yet, between Gibson’s skill behind the camera and Andrew Garfield’s commitment to his character, Hacksaw Ridge always manages to be better than the material. And there is really no denying Gibson’s knack for action, carnage and viscera – all in the service of non-violence, of course.

It was Doss’s faith that kept him strong in his non-violent beliefs, just as it was his faith that kept him courageous in battle. Whether you believe in God or you do not, you will admire Desmond Doss, and Garfield does him justice.

He’s goofy and layered and at no point does Doss’s own explanation of his faith feel like a sermon. Thank God.

Garfield also boasts lovely chemistry with just about every actor onscreen – this is particularly touching in some early scenes with Teresa Palmer, playing Doss’s hometown sweetheart Dorothy.

So, come for the wholesome message, stay for the flaming soldiers who’ll flail in unimaginable agony before your very eyes.

It isn’t tough to shock with violence when you’re re-telling the greatest story ever told, but to one-up the carnage in a war movie? Have you seen Platoon? Saving Private Ryan?

Well, Gibson has, and he won’t be intimidated. But give the man credit, these sequences are breathtakingly choreographed, as full of energy and clarity as they are human entrails. If you’re looking for an opportunity to satisfy your bloodlust while also celebrating pacifism, well, Gibson’s got you covered.