Best World War II Thrillers
With the release of Robert Zemeckis' Allied this week, a story of spies in World War II Casablanca who fall in love and have their bonds tested by the threat of counter-espionage, I wanted to take a look at several notable thrillers within the WWII subgenre which embody similar themes. Here you'll find stories of spies, prisoners-of-war, political schemes and intrigue, and not the overtly-violent films normally found on similar lists like Saving Private Ryan or Inglorious Basterds. Without further ado, here are five films worth checking out:
Stalag 17 (1953)
Director Billy Wilder was known for making some of the most entertaining Hollywood films during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and his major contribution to the war genre, Stalag 17, is no exception. Starring William Holden, who had previously acted in Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, it follows a group of American soldiers imprisoned in a German POW camp, who attempt to uncover a whistleblower within their ranks, after two fellow prisoners are killed during an escape attempt. Adapted from a Broadway play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, which was based on their own experiences, Wilder's version was notable for being shot in chronological order, and to keep suspense at bay, the director did not let any of the cast know who the informant was until the climactic moment was filmed. Holden later won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance, and to date has the shortest acceptance speech in the telecast's history.
The Great Escape (1963)
Another major POW film, and certainly one of the most rousing and entertaining war films to date, John Sturges' epic depiction of a jailbreak amongst a team of American and British soldiers remains as captivating today as it did upon release. With an all-star cast including Steve McQueen, James Garner, Charles Bronson, Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasance, and James Coburn, The Great Escape works through building up the relationships amongst the core ensemble for most of its first half, then executing the titular sequence to suspenseful effect. The score by Elmer Bernstein has become just as famous as the film itself, being used in a myriad of pop culture entities as a callback to the thrilling heights reached by Sturges' production.
Army of Shadows (1969)
Jean-Pierre Melville's depiction of French Resistance agents attempting to carry out their plans in Nazi-occupied France has long been considered the most controversial film of the director's career. Tense from start to finish, its primary characters avoid detection and persecution while assisting Allied forces and taking extreme measures with traitors within their ranks. Released only a year after the period of civil unrest in France 1968, Army of Shadows was not received well by critics and quickly disappeared from theatres. It wasn't until the mid-90s that Cahiers du Cinema, who had originally denounced the film, published a re-appraisal of the film that would lead to its restoration and theatrical premiere in America almost 40 years after its release.
Das Boot (1981)
Chronicling the exploits of a German submarine unit facing dire measures in underwater combat, Das Boot is a phenomenal humanistic, and certifiably claustrophobic depiction of war from an atypical perspective. Released first as a theatrical film and later a miniseries at twice the length, director Wolfgang Petersen captures the highs and lows of war, as its characters experience victory against their adversaries at first, but over time come to endure the monotony of their confines, before facing disastrous ruin in a fight for survival. Das Boot was nominated for six Academy Awards - a distinction not commonly granted to most foreign films, and has come to be recognized as a superlative portrait of life during wartime.
Black Book (2006)
Set towards the end of WW2, Paul Verhoeven's Black Book follows Rachel (Carice van Houten), a Dutch Jewish girl who scarcely avoids death and capture at the hands of the Nazis, later joining a Resistance team to extract revenge on those who murdered her family. Undertaking another identity in the form of Ellis de Vries, Rachel agrees to work with the Resistance by gaining entrance to the Nazi headquarters to seduce one of their top officers. Verhoeven's story takes many twists and turns, with a number of shocking revelations at hand, all within the realm of controversy he has garnered as a filmmaker.