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5 WWII Men-On-A-Mission Movies To See Before 'The Monuments Men'

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
February 6, 2014 1:51 PM
6 Comments
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Operation Crossbow

"Operation Crossbow" (1965)
An all-star espionage flick, "Operation Crossbow" is a gripping and wildly enjoyable telling of the real-life operation to bring down the Nazi rocket program. Directed by Michael Anderson ("The Dam Busters," "Logan's Run"), and with a script co-written by the legendary Emeric Pressburger, under the pseudonym Richard Imrie, the film cuts cannily between the German attempt to develop the V1 and V2 rockets (with Paul Henreid, Helmut Dantine and Barbara Rutting among those involved) and the Allied mission to bring it down, devised by scientific adviser Trevor Howard and intelligence head John Mills, and executed by George Peppard and Tom Courtenay, among others. In the early stages, it feels closer to a procedural than a simple action film, with an impressive level of detail and realism at work, even if the story has been heavily fictionalized (the German scenes are even played in German rather than accented English, which is rare enough these days, let alone back then). There are twists and turns as undercover agents are embedded and exposed, and an impressively brutal sequence where Sophia Loren, making a cameo as an innocent Italian woman, is brutally dispatched by Lilli Palmer (particularly excellent) in order to keep the operation under wraps. It's glossy and impressively mounted, with some especially handsome photography by Erwin Hillier ("A Canterbury Tale") but has some brains too, so much so that some might find it overly talky in the early going. They'll be more satisfied with the explosive shoot-out finale, though the rest of us think that it's the point at which the film goes off the rails, even if the action is well-staged. Still, it's an immensely watchable couple of hours up until that point.


Devil's Brigade

"The Devil's Brigade" (1968)
A fairly conscious result of the success of "The Dirty Dozen" the previous year, "The Devil's Brigade" is much less well known than its predecessor, and dated a little faster, but it's still a pretty rollicking good time as far as rip-offs go. Melding WWII action and culture-clash comedy, it follows the formation of the legendary 1st Special Service Force, an elite commando unit who became known as, you guessed it, The Devil's Brigade. Lt. Col Robert Frederick (William Holden) is the man in charge of pulling together the unruly American troops (mostly made up of Army convicts) and the buttoned-down, kilted Canadians, led by C.O. Major Alan Crown (Cliff Robertson), with the intention of deploying them for special work in Norway (though in the end, it's the storming of an Italian fortress that turns out to be their proving ground). Directed by prolific B-movie specialist Andrew V. McLaglen ("The Wild Geese"), the film, like many war movies, is essentially split in two, with the first half focusing on training, and the clashes between the Americans and the Canadians, and the second seeing the unit, now respecting each other, taking on the Nazis. A little more restrained and realistic than some of McLaglen's other pictures, it's a bit formulaic by nature, but the director brings his more-than-capable action chops to the final act, with a dizzying climb and then brutal hand-to-hand battling, with a genuinely thrilling result. But the highlight really comes in the performances—Holden and Robertson are terrific in the lead roles, and the supporting cast, full of grizzled, not-especially well-known character actors, is a very deep, highly enjoyable bench, with Claude Akins ("Rio Bravo") and the magnificently mustached Jack Watson ("Peeping Tom") particular standouts, their hard-fought friendship providing the real emotional backbone of the movie. There's a reason it's not a classic, but for those who find "The Dirty Dozen" a bit sour, this is a pretty decent alternative.


Play Dirty

"Play Dirty" (1969)
Another film that very definitely followed in the footsteps of "The Dirty Dozen," "Play Dirty" is actually a real gem, one that overcame a troubled production (supposed co-star Richard Harris never turned up for work, and original director Rene Clement, of Oscar-winner "Forbidden Games," was fired early into production) to become a complex and subversive take on the genre, stylishly made and very well acted. Based loosely on events in the North African front during the war, and with a script co-written by famous British TV presenter/sometime Ken Russell collaborator Melvyn Bragg, the film focuses on Michael Caine's Capt. Douglas, an oil company worker with an honorary military commission who, despite his lack of combat experience, is ordered by the harried Col. Masters (Nigel Green) to lead a team 400 miles behind enemy lines to blow up a fuel depot. And that unit is a pretty rum bunch: his number two is convicted insurance fraudster Capt. Leech ("Howard's Way" star Nigel Davenport, who was originally cast in a smaller role before taking over the part when Harris didn't show), and the rest include a Greek drug smuggler, a Tunisian rapist, and two gay Senussi tribesmen. Unlike many of its contemporaries, this doesn't glorify war in the least, with a sense settling in early that Douglas and Leech's mission is pretty much a futile one, caused more by bickering among higher-ups than any sense of right or justice. And the men pretty much know they're screwed, and feel no loyalty to their commanders or each other. As a result, this feels closer to "Kelly's Heroes" or even the much later "Three Kings" than most men-on-a-mission movies, not least when it reaches its incredibly bleak conclusion. But it's also thoroughly enjoyable at the same time, with a wry, sarcastic humor and some crackling extended wordless action sequences (André de Toth, best known for directing the 3D horror "House Of Wax" despite having only one eye, was second-unit-director on "Lawrence of Arabia," and knows how to shoot the hell out of the desert). It's something of a lost classic, we'd argue, and worth tracking down. 

Honorable Mentions: Perhaps not quite fitting the criteria, or just missing the cut, there's also Sam Peckinpah's brutal told-from-the-other-side "Cross Of Iron," Don Siegel's powerful fighting-to-the-last tale "Hell Is For Heroes" with Steve McQueen, the enjoyable spaghetti war film "Five For Hell," with an excellent performance from Klaus Kinski, final Archers production "Ill Met By Moonlight," and Roger Corman's shameless "Dirty Dozen" rip-off "The Secret Invasion." Any others worth mentioning? Let us know in the comments section.


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6 Comments

  • Bruce | February 18, 2014 3:20 PMReply

    I would add Ice Cold in Alex, directed J. Lee Thompson with John Mills and Anthony Quayle. Probbaly one of the best Men on a Mission war movies made but not seen by many people.

  • Reg | February 13, 2014 3:39 PMReply

    One great one and certainly an undervalued classic is Castle Keep from Sydney Pollack.

  • Fred | February 7, 2014 2:04 PMReply

    Great article as always, but "Roger Corman's shameless "Dirty Dozen" rip-off "The Secret Invasion" predated DD by 3 years."

  • Leigh | February 7, 2014 8:43 AMReply

    Why the hell did you give away the ending of "Play Dirty"? You are a moron!!!!

  • Jay | February 6, 2014 4:33 PMReply

    Ha my dad was a mountain climbing extra in The Devils Brigade. It's been a while, but I remember it being quite lame and dreadful.

  • flint | February 6, 2014 2:31 PMReply

    Play Dirty is a great selection. I'd also throw in another of Caine's WWII guys-on-a-mission movies, Too Late The Hero (from Dirty Dozen director Robert Aldrich).

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