These may not be the best known or most famous of WWII films, but they deserve to be. Keep an eye out. You’ll be glad you did.
1. Command Decision (1948) – Made just after WWII, this Air Force drama set in 1943 when the outcome of the war was still in doubt, is one of the most intelligent examinations of the burden of command ever put on film. Clark Gable is absolutely outstanding as Casey, a Brigadier General forced to give orders that on their face appear cold and even monstrous, but in truth are just the opposite. Caught between the Washington brass who have a war to sell and the men under him who see only a General ordering their comrades to certain death, Casey is a leader willing to be hated and even lose his command in order to do the greater good. What Casey cares about before anything is saving American lives. That means winning the war as quickly as possible, something which can only be accomplished if unspeakable sacrifices are made in the here and now.
The film’s real strength lies in a refusal to demonize the different points of view represented. Walter Pidgeon plays Major General Kane, Casey’s superior and the man who has to worry about the political considerations of how Casey’s heavy losses will affect public opinion, which is just upstream from the financial decisions made in Congress. In a less intelligent, lazier film (translation: a modern one) Kane would be portrayed as a bureaucratic boob only worried about his own upward mobility, but not here. Ultimately, we may not like the way Kane’s forced to think but we’re made to understand the idea of competing goods.
Representing the men is Van Johnson who steals every scene oozing a contempt, and at times, an outright hatred for Casey. The moment when he comes to finally understand the bigger picture is both touching and understated — one of Johnson’s finest.
2. Desperate Journey (1942) – Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan, Raymond Massey and Alan Hale had such memorable chemistry together in Michael Curtiz’s “Santa Fe Trail” (1940) that the four of them were rounded up two years later for Raoul Walsh’s rousing WWII action/adventure set behind German lines. Shot down on a bombing run, Flynn, Reagan, Hale and Arthur Kennedy are captured by Massey’s Nazi Major who makes a career-mistake in thinking he can convince Reagan to give up secrets [great Reagan video]. What follows is a rollicking actioner very much in the spirit of “Gunga Din” with one of my all-time favorite closing lines delivered by Flynn with the gusto and panache that made him an immortal: “Now for Australia and a crack at those Japs!”
3. Tomorrow is Forever (1946) – At first it’s easy to confuse this complicated look at a mother’s sacrifice as a soapy melodrama, even a gimmicky one, but that’s because the film doesn’t tell you what it’s really about until a very satisfying climax when the theme plays out fully and comes together. Claudette Colbert and Orson Welles are Elizabeth and John, just married and with their whole lives ahead of them. But it’s 1918, WWI rages and John goes off to do his duty. Alone with a young son, Elizabeth receives a telegram informing her John’s been killed in action. It takes years, but after some time she remarries and watches her boy grow into a man just as WWII begins. After losing her beloved first husband to one war, Elizabeth can’t bear the thought of losing her son to another. This changes when a visitor from war-torn Europe, who may or may not be a much older and nearly crippled John, helps her to understand that what’s at stake in this war is bigger than any mother’s love.
4. Happy Land (1943) – A horrible title can’t diminish the emotional power of this 20th Century-Fox oddity – a mixture of “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” — about Lew Marsh (Don Ameche-in his finest performance), a pharmacist living in picture-perfect small town America whose life is shattered after he loses his only son to WWII. The ghost of Gramps (the wonderful Harry Carey) snaps Lew out of a clinical depression by taking him on a tour of the past where Lew is allowed to discover things about his beloved son he never knew. This was a generous, selfless boy — a young man to be proud of and mature beyond his years who died for a higher cause he believed in.
“Happy Land” doesn’t simplify a father’s grief or pretend to have all the answers. When the credits roll, Lew’s still devastated and even a bit bitter. We’ve only been allowed to see the beginning of a healing process … and that this process will never end is made touchingly clear.
5. The Fighting Seabees (1944) – One of John Wayne’s lesser known WWII-era films, and one that deserves better recognition. The seabees are C.B.’s as in “Construction Battalion.” These are the men who build the bridges and airstrips in battle zones. But once upon a time, according to the movie, they were unarmed civilians, not allowed to fight back and frequently picked off by enemy snipers. Enter Wedge Donovan (Wayne), the head of Donovan Construction, who has watched too many of his men die helplessly and so he sets out to allow them to become armed enlisted men — The Fighting Seebees.
What sets this apart from other Wayne films, besides the opportunity to witness Duke dance a jitterbug, is that Wayne plays the role he’s usually up against. Donovan is a not a wise, seasoned pro. He’s an immature hot head whose arrogance and stupidity ends up getting a lot of men killed. Seeing Wayne in this kind of role takes some getting used to, but it adds a memorable emotional stake to what could have been a rote programmer. Of course, Wayne’s character redeems himself – and it’s a spectacular redemption – but that’s all you’re getting from me.