War movies were my father’s favorite genre—mainly World War II movies, but he had been known to view the occasional World War I or Korean War drama.
And since we had the one TV, I subsequently became a fan of them myself. One film I watched quite often with him (due to repeated viewings on NY Channel 9’s Million Dollar Movie) was Sahara, starring Humphrey Bogart trying to lead a small, disparate group of fighting men through the Sahara and imperiled by lack of water, dwindling supplies, internal dissension—and did I neglect to mention the larger German force on their heels? It remains an entertaining, satisfying and occasionally powerful film—and one of my favorite war films. Yet it’s hard to find it for ‘free’ on Amazon Prime or YouTube, and this is what most of this very subjective article will cover, since it is Memorial Day weekend (or a little past, depending on when you’re reading this) and the name of the game of this article is war films you can stream for free (or thereabouts).
One of my favorite sub-genres within the war film consists of films set in prisoner of war camps (always a far cry from Hogan’s Heroes.). Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17, in which William Holden won an Oscar for his sterling performance as a cynical, conniving, enterprising POW who finds himself even more ostracized after a suspected betrayal, is available on YouTube. In addition, one can find the lesser-known The Password is Courage, writer-director Andrew Stone’s fact-based saga of the adventures of one Charles Coward (yup, that’s his name, played by Dirk Bogarde) and his efforts to escape his confinement. And while The Great Escape is not on YouTube, it is available for free on Amazon Prime. For many (myself included), it represents the apex of the POW film, complete with determined, sometimes desperate prisoners, individual heroics, and plenty of sacrifice. It also doesn’t hurt that there is plenty of star power in the form of Steve MacQueen, James Garner, Charles Bronson, Richard Attenborough, and a host of others.
Several World War Two films, especially those made during wartime (and in the case of the British film industry, filmed while the Axis threat was imminent) celebrated the men in uniform. In Which We Serve and The Way Ahead (both on YouTube) are British flag-wavers, but more than that, as each concerns itself with heroism, dignity, and responsibility in time of war. Both also have stirring sequences and poignant vignettes, and are well worth seeing. The Story of G.I. Joe takes a relatively grim, realistic look at men in war from the perspective of the journalist Ernie Pyle (played by Burgess Meredith) and featuring an Oscar-nominated performance (Supporting Actor) from Robert Mitchum as the weary, compassionate Lieutenant. If you’re looking for something a little more theatrical (it was based on a play) and slightly offbeat, you might want to try Counter-attack a 1945 effort starring an effectively understated Paul Muni as a Russian soldier trapped underground with a group of German soldiers—trying to keep them at bay while both eliciting information (and trying not to reveal secrets himself).
Perhaps my favorite kind of war films are those that focus on “the mission,” that difficult task which, if accomplished, can turn the tide of the war. Many are even fact-based, or inspired by actual events. The Heroes of Telemark (found on YouTube) is an exciting tale set in Norway and has its stars Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris forming a rather turbulent alliance (I get they weren’t too crazy about each other off-screen, as well) in order to prevent the Nazis from developing an atomic weapon of their own. The Bridge at Remagen and A Bridge Too Far concern two campaigns centered either around bridges that the Allies wanted to keep standing while the Axis wanted kaput (Remagen), or a bridge that featured in what was ultimately an ill-fated campaign (A Bridge Too Far). Both films feature strong casts, some powerful action sequences, and enough human drama to maintain viewer interest.
Since I’m saving my absolute favorites for the end…well, here they are. The Guns of Navarone (also my father’s favorite, as it was filmed on the Greek island of Rhodes, where he was raised) and Where Eagles Dare, both the work of Alistair MacLean, are perhaps two of the three war films I return to the most. They both deal with commando missions, in which a small, elite group of men penetrate an impregnable fortress in order to wreak havoc and disrupt (in this case) the Nazis and their plans for world domination. Both films are marked by exciting action sequences, some (but not too much) ruminating on both the folly of war and the necessity for someone to carry the burden. And of course, both are anchored by performers in top form: Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, and Irene Papas in The Guns of Navarone; Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, Mary Ure (along with Papas, playing an unusually active role for a woman in these kinds of films) in Where Eagles Dare (Both on Amazon Prime for a nominal charge).
Finally, there is Burt Lancaster in The Train. Inspired by events in the waning days of the war, wherein the Nazis were attempting to loot France of its artistic treasures, and the efforts of the Resistance to stop them, it is one of the few war films to seamlessly blend effective action sequences with incisive characterizations and dialogues that don’t merely function as markers. The importance of resistance, the sanctity of human life vs. the importance of art—all these are addressed, with no pat answers given. Paul Scofield is flawless as the Nazi general committed to the notion that art should be owned by those who can appreciate it, while Burt Lancaster is the Resistance fighter who tries to reconcile his notions of right and wrong with the conflicting wishes of those above him. And all those superb action sequences (and Lancaster’s stunt work) were accomplished without the aid of special effects. It’s a must-see—and it’s free for Amazon Prime members.