Eminently Watchable

These World War II Movies from the 1970s Can Teach You Something

A Tiger in Action

Too often, modern sensibilities and the latest special effects produce a war movie that is compelling and successful for the viewers of its time. It takes a more nuanced mind to find the timeless value in classic movies from a previous generation. The World War II years are of particular interst as the movies depicting this era were often made by people with direct experience of the exact or similar events depicted in the film.

It would be short-sighted to ignore the valuable insights provoked by these film makers. With those thoughts in mind, I give you five of the best World War II movies made in the 1970s. Make of them what you will.


The Bridge at Remagen (1970)

Robert VaughnThe Ludendorff Bridge located in the German town of Remagen would eventually become the first place where the American Army was able to establish a bridgehead on the eastern side of the Rhine River during World War II.

It was an important contest and both sides fought valiantly. The story is fairly cut and dried. The outnumbered and outgunned German forces, though dug into formidable defensive positions, are finally overwhelmed by superior and combined arms of the American military. Robert Vaughn, as the stalwart German commander, is not to be missed. His final scenes are quite poignant, even from a pro-Allied point of view.

Don’t Miss Moment –After the explosives are detonated but the bridge does not fall, the German commander (Robert Vaughn) tells his subordinate that “We are both in a lot of trouble.”


Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

Nip Plane's BombingThis film beautifully interweaves the actions of the two opposing forces during the prelude to and actual attack on the American Naval Base at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Navy in December, 1941. The ensemble cast includes many eminent actors from both the United States and Japan including Jason Robards, E.G. Marshall and So Yamamura.

The film was considered a box office failure even thought it was the ninth highest grossing film of 1970. On a more unusual note, it also heavily disrupted the career of the highly respected Japanese director Akira Kurosawa who, though writing much of the Japanese portion of the screenplay, eventually withdrew from the film and had his name removed from the credits.

Still, the story is compelling, the action is palpable and the cinematography is so beautiful and accurately filmed that many of the cut scenes were used three decades later in the 2001 movie, Pearl Harbor.

Don’t Miss MomentThe final scene where the ever pragmatic, Admiral Yamamoto says, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”


The German LT in Kelly's Heroes

Kelly's Heroes (1970)

Clint Eastwood brings his inimitable, Western character who doesn’t give a damn to the ETO of World War II. When he hatches a plan to steal $20 million in gold form a Nazi held bank, his tough but concerned sergeant, played by Telly Savales, tries to stop the suicide mission but finally relents when all the men in his platoon join Kelly.

A wide assortment of characters join the mission including Oddball (Donald Sutherland) and his tank crew (watch for Captain Steubing as the mechanic), Crapgame (Don Rickles), a human calculator and all-around, pain-in-the-neck, and Little Joe (Stuart Margolin) who, out of character and almost unbelievably, adds a little reason to the whole mix.

The movie works on multiple levels, It’s a comedy when Carroll O’Connor appears as the hard charging Major General Colt, is a tragedy when two of the team are trapped in an unexpected minefield, but it always works as a view into the serio-comic world of the average soldier. In addition, the music by Lalo Schifrin isn’t too shabby either.

Don’t Miss Moment –When told of the contents contained in the vault that he is guarding, the look of surpise on the face of the German lieutenant (John G. Heller) is priceless.


Cross of Iron (1977)

Cross of IronThis movie is one of Mr. David Samuel Peckinpah’s best. It is a magnificent piece of cinema verite with James Coburn playing the cynical, war weary, Corporal Steiner, a German soldier who understands the practicalities of war but who also has a conscience. Who else but the inimitable master of slow-motion, screen violence could do justice to such a unique vantage point on the horrors of war?

Cpl. Steiner is beset by a glory-hound, intent on winning the Iron Cross, in the form of Captain Stransky (Maximillian Schell). Throughout the movie, Steiner’s fatalism saves him again and again from the machinations of Stransky. It is only at the end that both see that resistance to Fate is futile.

Don’t Miss MomentThe opening scene, during the credits, sets the stage for the gore to come, when a tank driver obliviously plows his vehicle through a dead and distorted corpse leaving a consummately constructed, U-shaped human torso.


A Bridge Too Far (1977)

 A Bridge Too FarAs far as military historians are concerned, Operation: Market Garden was not the Allies’ finest moment. Ill-conceived by an egotistical General Montgomery, the entire operation hinged, if that’s the right word, on everything going as planned. It was a foolish error that should have been beneath a commander as skilled as Montgomery.

Nevertheless, the movie is spectacular in its cast, its cinematography and its attentions to detail. The plot revolves around the historical events surrounding the Allied attempt to bypass the German fortifications that made up the Siegfried line.

In this attempt, the Allies launched a major land and air assault to capture and secure bridgeheads at the towns of Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem in the Netherlands.  While much of the plan goes well, though the paratroopers at the final bridge in Arnhem are never adequately supported or resupplied and fail in their mission.

At the conclusion, General Browning (Dirk Bogarde) sums up the situation with the timeless quote, “"Well, as you know, I always felt we tried to go a bridge too far."

Don’t Miss MomentDon’t miss Gene Hackman as the Polish commander tasked with capturing the eponymous “bridge too far” at Arnhem. For a real laugh, just compare his Polish accent to Sean Connery’s English one.