By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist February 6, 2014 at 1:51PM
This week sees the release of George Clooney's "The Monuments Men" (read our review here), which carefully follows the template of what's come to be known as the men-on-a-mission movie, and has been around even before the Second World War came to a close. The recipe is simple: take a bunch of men (the more ill-suited and quarrelsome the better), give them an objective—killing Hitler, looting Nazi gold, saving Private Ryan, protecting crucial work of arts from destruction by the Germans—and send those men on the mission.
It's proved a consistently popular genre over the years, with plenty of classics or near-classics, including "The Guns Of Navarone," "The Dirty Dozen," "Von Ryan's Express," "Where Eagles Dare," "The Eagle Has Landed," "A Bridge Too Far," or more recently, "Inglourious Basterds." But there's also a fair few that aren't spoken about in the same measure that might deserve to be, and so, as such, we wanted to pick out five lesser-known WWII men-on-a-mission movies that you might not know unless you're an expert on the genre, but are just as worth checking out as any of the above, or indeed "The Monuments Men." Check them out below, let us know if you have any of your own undersung favorites in the comments section.
"A Walk In The Sun" (1946)
Lewis Milestone was the man behind one of the first truly classic war movies, "All Quiet On The Western Front" (which won him Best Director at the Oscars), and the same DNA runs through "A Walk In The Sun," a quiet, unglamorous movie that would be remarkable released at any time, but is especially so given that it was shot during the war itself. Based on the novel by Harry Brown (who'd been a serving soldier and went on to pen the screenplays for "Sands Of Iwo Jima," "A Place In The Sun" and "Ocean's 11," among others), it sees a Texas Division platoon, including the likes of Dana Andrews, Lloyd Bridges, Richard Conte, Norman Lloyd and Sterling Holloway, land in Italy, and head out to destroy a bridge and capture a farmhouse. But unlike some of these films, the mission is never really the central thing here, and the title isn't misleading—aside from a few brief snippets of action, this is about the majority of time at war, the long hours, or even days in between, where the soldiers principally shoot the shit and mourn their losses. Which is not to say that isn't tense. In fact, quite the opposite: Milestone cannily establishes that at any moment, the platoon could come under attack, and you never feel the safety of downtime in the way that you might in more obviously structured movies. Full of terrific performances (most notably from Andrews), and incredibly powerful without dipping into sentimentality, it's a film that was undoubtedly ahead of its time (indeed, nearly two years elapsed between the shoot and 20th Century Fox releasing the film, in part because the U.S. Army asked for a few reshoots). The military establishment were ultimately delighted with the film, but make no mistake: it's not a propaganda picture, just a simple and honest depiction of men at war, and the lives they lived.
"The Train" (1964)
We're cheating a little bit with this one. Firstly, we really hope you've seen "The Train," which is one of director John Frankenheimer's very best films, and one of the best WWII movies around, if perhaps a little overlooked among the wider public. Secondly, it only just qualifies as a men-on-a-mission movie, coming closer to a man-on-a-mission movie: while there is a small French resistance group involved, it really comes to the battle of wills between Burt Lancaster's railway inspector and Paul Scofield's culture-loving Nazi. But it's also probably the truest precursor to "Monuments Men," and as such, we felt it deserved shouting about once more. In the days between the D-day landings and the liberation of Paris, Scofield's Col. Franz von Waldheim loads up a train full of French masterpieces to return to Germany with, and curator Mademoiselle Villard (Suzanne Flon) enlists the Resistance to delay the train, without damaging the cargo. Lancaster's Paul Labiche and co aren't especially concerned at first, but are pushed into action after an elderly man is executed for his own act of sabotage. Originally to be directed by Arthur Penn, who Burt Lancaster fired a few days into production, the scale and scope of the movie got much larger once Frankenheimer came on board, and much to the film's benefit: the train sequences are genuinely thrilling, second only to "The General" in the history of the genre. But there's also real substance to it, as the movie delves into the importance of art, and whether it's worth all these deaths, in a way that George Clooney's film never really engages with (it's a particularly nice touch to make Lancaster's character something of a philistine, and Scofield the culture vulture). Surprising, nuanced and totally gripping, if you've never seen it, it's probably a better way to spend your weekend than with "The Monuments Men."