This article doesn’t cover movies made by the Axis Powers before their downfall. This article tells about some movies that have the Axis winning the day. “Bataan” and “Wake Island” were made during World War II. “The One That Got Away” is a 1957 British film. “The McKenzie Break”, “A Bridge Too Far”, and “Tora! Tora! Tora!” are 70s vintage movies. These movies say much about the times they were made. You have just read some of this article’s spoilers and there are more spoilers in the rest of this article.
The movie’s initial setting is November 1941 when Major Geoffrey Caton (Brian Donlev) assumes command of a U.S. Marine garrison on Wake Island. Civilian construction workers were also on the island. Major Canton is a by the book Marine. He began air raid drills and demanded the civilian construction workers participate. This angered the head of the construction crew, Shad McClosky (Albert Dekker). Japanese Envoy Mr. Saburo Kurusu (Richard Loo) dropped by on his way to the United States. Kurusu made a speech about continuing the peace between the United States and Japan. Ivan Probenzky (Mikhail Rasumny), a U.S. Marine from Poland, had his wife and child in Warsaw. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and soon after attacked Wake Island. Lt. Bruce Cameron’s (Macdonald Carey) wife (Sally Cameron) was killed in the Pearl Harbor attack[i]. The Japanese heavily outnumbered and outgunned the Island’s defenders. The Japanese demanded the Americans surrender. The Marines answered with cannon fire. The Marines repelled numerous attacks. The Japanese demanded the Americans surrender before the Japanese made their final assault. The Americans remained defiant and the Japanese wiped out all the defenders after a fierce fight.
The Battle of Wake Island lasted from December 8 – 23, 1941. Work began on the movie before the battle ended.[ii] The soldiers engaged were 1,100 American, many civilian volunteers, and 2,500 Japanese. American casualties were 120 killed and 49 wounded. Japanese casualties were 820 killed and 333 wounded.[iii] The Japanese evacuated most of the 1,616 Americans they captured. The Japanese kept 98 of the captured construction workers on the island to build fortifications. On October 5, 1943 the Japanese executed these construction workers.[iv] Wake Island remained in Japanese hands until after the war. The U.S. tried Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara and a Lieutenant Commander for murdering the civilians. Some Japanese officers committed suicide and, in some cases, incriminated Sakaibara in their suicide notes.[v] They were sentenced to death. The U.S. Military executed Sakaibara, and 5 other war criminals, by hanging on June 18, 1947. His subordinate’s sentence was commuted to life in prison.
[i] Civilian casualties in the Pearl Harbor attack were 49 killed and 35 wounded. Most of the civilians killed were civilians who worked on the military bases.
[ii] History Channel, Wake Island: Alamo of the Pacific.
[iii] Historynet.com, Battle of Wake Island, Facts, information and articles about the Battle of Wake Island, December 8-23, 1941. http://www.historynet.com/battle-of-wake-island, last accessed February 13, 2018.
[iv] Historynet.com, Battle of Wake Island, Facts, information and articles about the Battle of Wake Island, December 8-23, 1941. http://www.historynet.com/battle-of-wake-island, last accessed February 13, 2018.
[v] History Channel, Wake Island: Alamo of the Pacific.
This 1943 movie is set in 1942 during the Battle of Bataan. A small group fight to slow down the Japanese advance on Bataan. The group represented a cross section of Philippine Army and U.S. service members. The group included Filipinos, an African-American (Kenneth Spencer), and a Hispanic-American Felix Ramirez (Desi Arnaz). There is a sailor, Seaman Second Class Leonard Purckett (Robert Walker) whose rate is a musician and Lt. Steve Bentley (George Murphy), a pilot. A sniper kills their leader, Captain Henry Lassiter (Lee Bowman), early on. Lt. Bentley cedes the leadership to Sergeant Bill Dane (Robert Taylor). Felix Ramirez dies of malaria. The others are killed off one at a time. Lt. Bentley flies a kamikaze mission. Most of the others die heroically, a couple die stupidly. Safety tip, when there are enemy forces around don’t stand up and shout.
The Battle of Bataan lasted from January 7 – April 9, 1942. There were 120,000 U.S. and Filipino troops and 75,000 Japanese troops involved in the battle. The official military history of Imperial Japan’s involvement in the Pacific War from 1937 to 1945 put Japanese casualties at 3,107 killed, 230 missing, and 5,069 wounded. U.S. and Filipino casualties were about 10,000 killed and 76,000 captured. About 2,000 of the Bataan defenders escaped to Corregidor. These troops were killed or captured when Japan captured Corregidor.
The Japanese force marched the Bataan prisoners approximately 65 miles (110 kilometers) to POW camps. This was dubbed The Bataan Death March. The Japanese brutally treated the prisoners. Some were summarily executed. Only 54,000 POWs made it to the camps. The U.S. Army convicted Lieutenant General Homma Masaharu of war crimes on the grounds of command responsibility and executed him by firing squad on April 3, 1946[i].
[i] The Bataan Death March by Jennifer Rosenberg, updated April 7, 2017, (https://www.thoughtco.com/the-bataan-death-march-1779999), last accessed, February 25, 2018.
The One That Got Away
This 1957 movie is about the escape of then Oberleutnant Franz Xaver Baron von Werra. Hauptmann von Werra was the only Axis prisoner of war (POW) to escape Canadian custody and return to an Axis country. The movie begins with Oberleutnant von Werra (Hardy Krüger) crash landing his Bf 109 in a field. Von Werra holds three British troops at bay until he destroys his papers. He is questioned by Captain Cock Foster (Colin Gordon).
Von Werra attempts to escape while he and other German prisoners are on a walk outside the camp. While the prisoners are on a break von Werra rests on top of a stone wall. With other prisoners providing cover and the guards attention elsewhere von Werra rolls over to the other side of the wall. When the prisoners resume their walk, von Werra runs away. Two women (Celia Hewitt and Etain O’Dell) who are working in the field wave their arms and yell. Some German prisoners wave and yell back. The guards think it is mutual flirting. It is some time later the British realize they are a prisoner short. This triggers a massive manhunt. A woman walking out in the rain spots von Werra and alerts members of the Home Guard. The Home Guard finds von Werra lying in a bog.
His second attempt is more sophisticated. He and some other POWs dig a tunnel. One of the problems they have to deal with is hiding the noise. They do this by playing records, singing, and tap dancing. When they complete the tunnel von Werra and some other prisoner’s escape. He tries to fly out of Britain by pretending to be a Dutch pilot. He gets into the cockpit of a Hurricane but the British capture him before he can start the engine. The other escapees had already been captured.
The British move Von Werra and the others to Canada. On a train the during the winter, with others providing cover, Von Werra made another escape attempt. Von Werra pretended to be sleeping. As the other prisoners distracted the guards von Werra opened a train window and jumped out of the moving train. Von Werra made his trek in the snow. He walked and hitch hiked to the St. Lawrence River. He attempted to cross the frozen river but part of the river wasn’t frozen. The icy waters of the fast running St. Lawrence river stood between him and, then neutral, America. He went to a closed boat house and dragged a boat to the water. At the end of his endurance he put the boat in the water and collapsed into the boat. The boat made its way to an icy bank. He didn’t know which side of the river he was on. He climbed a ladder at the sea wall and collapsed inside a building. A police officer found him and there he learned he was in America.
Von Werra sent Captain Cock Foster a post card of The Statue of Liberty and thanked him for the cigarette. The closing scroll explained von Werra made his way from America, to Mexico, to South America, to Spain, then to Berlin. The scroll also explained within a year of his escape von Werra’s plane was on patrol and was seen crashing into the sea. He was never found.
Oberleutnant von Werra had claimed 8 air victories and to have destroyed 5 aircraft on the ground during the Battle of Britain. Pilot Officer Gerald Stapleton and Flight Lieutenant Paterson Hughes were credited with shooting him down on September 5, 1940. When Oberleutnant von Werra jumped from the train in January 1941 he was about 30 miles (50 km) from the St. Lawrence River. He crossed the river near Ogdensburg, New York. He saw the New York State Hospital in Ogdensburg and turned himself over to the first police office he saw.[i] The American authorities initially charged him with entering the country illegally. The American authorities notified the German Consulate. With the help of the German Consulate and German sympathizers he got to Mexico. His journey took him to Brazil. From Brazil he went to Spain then Italy and finally Germany.
He returned to Germany on April 18, 1941 a national hero. Hitler awarded him the Knights Cross. He was promoted to Hauptmann. He married and wrote a book about his escape, which has not been published. The Luftwaffe assigned him the job of improving German techniques for interrogating POWs. Supposedly when he told how well the British treated him the Germans improved their treatment of western Allied POWs.[ii] The Luftwaffe made him the commander of 1 Gruppe/Jagdgeschwader 53 (I/JG53) in July 1941. His unit served on the Russian Front until August 6, 1941[iii]. He scored 13 victories against the Soviet Air Force bringing his total air victories to 21.[iv] The Luftwaffe moved I/JG53 to Mannheim-Sandhofen, Germany. On October 25, 1941 on a patrol over the North Sea Hauptmann Franz von Werra developed engine trouble and crashed into the sea without a trace.
[i] Prisoner of War Archive, (http://www.pegasusarchive.org/pow/franz_von_werra.htm), last accessed, March 3, 2018.
[ii] Summary of authentic Franz Xaver Baron von Werra (13 July 1914 – 25 October 1941) LUFTWAFFE, (https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/authentic-Franz-Xaver-Baron-von-Werra-13-July-1914-25-October-1941-LUFTWAFFE-/142627521320), last accessed, March 3, 2018.
[iii] Asisbiz.com, (https://www.asisbiz.com/Luftwaffe/jg53.html), edited by Matthew Laird Acred, last accessed, March 3, 2018.
[iv] Fighter Aces of the Luftwaffe, by Col. Raymond F, Toliver, (Ret) and Trevor J. Constable, © 1977.
Tora! Tora! Tora!
This 1970 movie is a docudrama about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A news report about the movie said it was made with real ships, real planes, and real money. Its budget was $25.5 million. Many critics panned the movie. Roger Ebert gave the movie one star. He wrote it was, “one of the deadest, dullest blockbusters ever made”.[i] The movie was also a box office flop, in the United States. It made less than $30 million in the United States.
What critics disliked is this movie’s strength. Most war movies either focus on a small group of people who have a limited view of what is going on or on a few characters that seem to be everywhere. The characters in “Tora, Tora, Tora” were actual people or composites of people who were involved in the Pearl Harbor attack. Rather than hysterics or bravado it was people doing their job. The movie is informative both from a historic standpoint and in showing how minor things can sometimes make a major difference.
The movie showed how the Americans had good electronic intelligence on the Japanese. It shows the meticulous planning the Japanese put into the attack. It shows the Americans as being concerned rather than blissfully unaware. The concern led to the mistake of putting the aircraft on the airfield at Hickam Field to prevent sabotage. This made them easier strafing targets. The movie depicts the Japanese as ordinary and professional sailors. They sometimes question their leadership. There is one scene where a Chief Petty Officer would hold up cards of silhouettes of American ships and have the pilots shout out the ship’s name. He holds up a couple of cards which are easily identified. He holds up one card and the pilots hesitate. One pilot says, “Enterprise!” the Chief Petty Officer answers. “No, you idiot! It’s your own flagship!”
The Japanese plan is to deliver their declaration of war precisely 30 minutes before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Since the information is sensitive they can’t use a typist so they have one of the junior diplomats type the declaration. The diplomat was still typing at the time of the attack.
Washington wanted to warn Pearl Harbor of a possible attack but there were communications problems. They sent a message via telegram which would take time. The USS Ward attacked a Japanese minisub. The report was dismissed because it lacked confirmation. A radar operator reported a large number of aircraft headed for Hawaii. The assumption was the planes were U.S. B-17s coming in from the mainland.
On the morning of December 7, 1941 everything seemed to be going Japan’s way. The sunrise against the clouds appeared like the Japanese “Rising Sun” symbol. They got a Honolulu radio station and kept on that frequency to help guide them to Pearl Harbor. They achieved complete surprise. The American ships at harbor were raising their ensigns when the Japanese attacked. The American soldiers, sailors, and marines quickly went to their battle stations. The Japanese caused devastating damage to the ships at Pearl Harbor and the major airfields. The battle wasn’t all one sided. The movie depicted many of the documented actions of U.S. service members. This included a pair of airmen that took off from a satellite airfield and attacked the Japanese aircraft. This scene used real planes so the maneuvers were realistic. The air combat didn’t have the radio chatter that’s in most movies that depict dogfights.
The Japanese ambassador (Shôgo Shimada) delivered the war declaration 1 hour after the Pearl Harbor attack began. The U.S. aircraft carriers weren’t at Pearl Harbor. Admiral Chuici Nagumo (Eijirô Tôno) decided against sending a third wave of aircraft against Pearl Harbor. The USS Enterprise returned to find Pearl Harbor in shambles. The Japanese were overjoyed at their great victory, except for Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Sô Yamamura). He said the last lines in the movie, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”
The Japanese lost 29 planes and 5 midget submarines in the attack. U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) aircraft accounted for 11 of these planes.[ii] An additional 19 Japanese planes returned to their ships but were so badly damaged they were thrown over the side.[iii] The Japanese sank or severely damaged 18 American warships. These include 8 Battleships. The Japanese destroyed over 188 airplanes, mostly on the ground. They destroyed or damaged drydocks and airfields. U.S. casualties were 2,334 service members killed and 1,347 wounded. The sinking of the battleship USS Arizona accounted for 1,103 of the dead.[iv]
The crash landing of a B-17 in Tora Tora Tora was an actual crash that happened during the movie’s filming. The USAAF lost one B-17 in the Pearl Harbor attack.
Many years after the war the Japanese government apologized to the Japanese people for attacking Pearl Harbor before declaring war. An enduring myth, perpetuated in “Tora Tora Tora”, is by attacking Pearl Harbor before they declared galvanized the American people’s resolve to defeat Japan. Had the Japanese delivered the message on time the results of the attack would have been the same. The American people would have been no less outraged. In President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech he mentioned the letter the Japanese gave to America. Roosevelt stated while the letter stated there was no sense in further negotiations but did not state Japan was declaring war on the United States. The purpose of the Japanese letter was not for international legality. It had to do with Japanese culture. In Japan it was considered dishonorable to kill an enemy while they were sleeping. To satisfy honor the assassin would kick the pillow before killing.
[i] Roger Eber’s Official website, review written October 12, 1970, (https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/tora-tora-tora-1970), last accessed March 5, 2018.
[ii] Defense Media Network, Pearl Harbor: The Army Air Forces Fight Back, by Robert F. Dorr, December 7, 2011, (https://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/pearl-harbor-the-army-air-forces-fight-back), last accessed 3/17/18.
[iii] Pearl Harbor Air Combat, uploaded by Moulin Kubis, (https://www.scribd.com/document/292306467/Pearl-Harbor-air-combats) last accessed 3/17/2018.
[iv] World War II Almanac 1931-1945, by Robert Goralski, © 1981.
The McKenzie Break
This 1970 movie is set in a Prisoner of War camp in Scotland. The movie begins with the British wanting to handcuff 25 German officers in retaliation for the Germans handcuffing 25 British officers. The senior German POW, Käpitan zur See Willi Schluetter (Helmut Griem) points out there are 600 prisoners. The British send in some soldiers in riot gear. The Germans in a well-coordinated riot rout the British troops. This puts the British guards in a standoff with the German POWs. General Kerr (Jack Watson) assigns Captain Jack Connor (Brian Keith) to deal with the situation. Captain Connor has been in trouble for unruly behavior and fraternizing with enlisted members. Captain Connor is Irish, in his 40s, and before the war was a crime reporter. General Kerr assigned him because Captain Connor has a knack for coming up with unconventional ideas to solve problems. This is consistent with a popular 1970s theme; someone who has no regard for convention or military protocol uses unconventional means to outsmart the disciplined and rigid Germans.
When Captain Connor arrives at the camp Major Perry (Ian Hendry), the camp commandant, gives Captain Connor the back story. The former senior German prisoner was a general who didn’t cause trouble. When the general died of a heart attack Käpitan Schluetter became the senior prisoner. Käpitan Schluetter is a fanatic.
There is division on the German side. The U-Boat officers were loyal to Käpitan Schluetter. Lt. Neuchl (Horst Janson) refused to participate in the riot. Käpitan Schluetter insinuated Lt. Neuchl was a homosexual. Käpitan Schluetter considered Lt. Neuchl “a bad German”. The Luftwaffe officers were reluctant to follow Käpitan Schluetter. They didn’t like that Käpitan Schluetter intended to use the escape tunnel for only U-Boat commanders.
Käpitan Schluetter uses the next riot as cover for the escape of two POWs. These escapees were to make contact with a sympathizer and facilitate the mass escape. Käpitan Schluetter also uses it as an opportunity to have his men beat Lt. Neuchl. When Käpitan Schluetter saw his men made good their escape he called off the riot. A badly injured Lt. Neuchl got away from his attackers and made a run for the wire and was in British hands. Käpitan Schluetter immediately demanded to see his wounded men in the infirmary. Käpitan Schluetter had his men hang Lt. Neuchl in the infirmary. When Captain Connor tells Käpitan Schluetter about Lt. Neuchl’s death Käpitan Schluetter supplies Captain Connor with a motive for suicide. Captain Connor tells Käpitan Schluetter he believes Schluetter had Lt. Neuchl and the general killed. Captain Connor tells Schluetter he intends to see him hang for these murders.
The British find out two prisoners escaped. Captain Connor orders the barracks closed. This leaves the Germans out in the rain. Käpitan Schlutter defiantly sits in the mud and his men follow suit. The rain, which seems to work against him, aides Schlutter’s plans. After the other U-Boat captains get into the tunnel Schlutter causes the roof that’s holding the dirt to collapse. This deliberately kills many of the prisoners sleeping in the barracks. After the U-Boat commanders escaped through the tunnel Schlutter collapses the tunnel. Captain Connor isn’t convinced Schlutter and his men were killed in the collapses. The British decode the messages the Germans were sending home. The British learn the Germans plans to have a U-Boat pick up the escaped U-Boat commanders. Captain Connor wants to trail the escapees rather than capture them. This way the British could sink a U-Boat.
Käpitan Schlutter and his men carry out their meticulously planned escape. The British trail them for a time then lose track of them. Captain Connor commandeers an observation plane and has the pilot fly along the Scottish coastline for signs of the escapees. Captain Connor sees a sign. He tells the pilot to ignore the order to return to base.
The U-Boat surfaces and the escapees paddle in rafts to the U-Boat. Captain Connor reports the U-Boat’s position and a British PT Boat sails towards the position. Captain Connor orders the pilot to fly a series of low level passes over the rafts and the U-Boat. Käpitan Schlutter and the U-Boat fire on the plane as it passes over them. Groundfire damages the plane forcing the pilot to make an emergency landing in a field overlooking the coast. The U-Boat picks up some of the escapees. The U-Boat spots the PT Boat approaching. The U-Boat leaves before Käpitan Schlutter’s raft reaches the U-Boat. The U-Boat gets away with the escapees. Captain Connor knows both he and Käpitan Schlutter are in a lot of trouble.
Top World War II U-Boat ace, then Fregattenkäpitan Otto Kretschmer[i], was a POW in a British and later a Canadian POW camp. During his stay he was in constant contact with the U-boat High Command through coded letters and wireless. He started a riot over handcuffs. He had a “court of honor”. The court found the first officer of the U-570 guilty of cowardice for letting his U-boat fall into enemy hands. He arranged for the first officer to escape to sabotage the U-570. The officer was recaptured but tried to run and was mortally wounded. Kretschmer unsuccessfully tried to escape. The plan was for him and the other escapees to get picked up by a U-boat.
[i] Otto Kretschmer retired as a Flottillenadmiral.
A Bridge Too Far
This 1977 movie is about Operation Market Garden, the largest airborne battle in history.[i] In some countries it was released under the title “The Bridge at Arnhem”. The movie didn’t do well at the box office in America. The movie did very well in Europe and Japan.
The movie begins with the Germans in retreat. The only thing holding up the Allies logistics. The Germans have minimal air support, minimal supplies, and nonexistent morale. The Germans figured General Patton would lead the next assault, because he is the best. The Germans wished it could be General Montgomery but they realize not even General Eisenhower is that stupid.[ii]
The Allies will have General Montgomery in charge of the assault. His plan is Operation Market Garden. It involves capturing a series of bridges. The final objective is a bridge at Arnhem, which crosses the Rhine River. A successful operation could cause German to surrender by Christmas. Arnhem is 64 miles behind the German lines. The plan is for paratroopers to capture the bridge at Arnhem and hold it for 2 days. The ground forces would reach Arnhem within 48 hours and secure Arnhem. The Allied command didn’t believe the German troops would be much of a problem. They believed the German troops in the area were a mixture of old men and children. The Germans had two SS Panzer Divisions that needed rest. They Germans sent these divisions to Arnhem.
The movie did an excellent job of showing the scale of the operation. The operation seemed to start off well. All was not as it appeared. The radios weren’t working. Logistics and German resistance slowed down the ground advance. The ground forces kept falling behind schedule. The German’s quickly surrounded the forces at Arnhem. As the ground forces reached an objective a superscript showed how far the ground forces were from Arnhem and the paratroopers. The relief forces stopped just short of Arnhem. After 9 days the Allies ordered the troops at Arnhem to withdraw.
The movie shows a great deal of large scale combat. The dialogue is peppered with gallows humor. The movie shows the hardships of civilians whose homes became a battlefield. The movie shows great attention to historical accuracy. Lieutenant Colonel John Frost, who Antony Hopkins played in the movie, said the Germans very chivalrous during the battle and he hoped that was brought out in the movie.[iii]
Operation Market Garden began on Sunday, September 17, 1944. The airborne part of the operation consisted of 34,000 soldiers. About noon on September 19 Lieutenant Colonel John Frost learned there would be no rescue. He arranged a truce with SS-Obersturmbannführer Walter Harzer so he and the rest of the wounded could be transferred to German captivity. After a three hour truce the fighting resumed. On September 25 the British forces at Arnhem received the orders to withdraw.[iv] Allied losses were between 15,130-17,200 and German losses were between 7,500-10,000.[v]
[i] History of War.org, (http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_arnhem.html), last accessed 3/21/2018.
[ii] These are the words of the German Generals in the scene where they are discussing their situation.
[iii] The Arnhem Report – The Story Behind A Bridge Too Far, Produced by Gordon Arnell, Written and directed by Iain Johnstone.
[iv] ThoughtCo., World War II: Operation Market Garden, by Kennedy Hickman, (https://www.thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-operation-market-garden-2361452), last accessed 3/22/2018.
[v] ThoughtCo., World War II: Operation Market Garden, by Kennedy Hickman, (https://www.thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-operation-market-garden-2361452), last accessed 3/22/2018.
© 2018 Robert Sacchi
Robert Sacchi (author) on March 27, 2018:
You're very kind. These movies are definitely worth a look.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 27, 2018:
Your descriptions of these movies make me want to see the ones I have not seen. You are a good movie reviewer!
Robert Sacchi (author) on March 25, 2018:
Thank you for reading and commenting. I like to give some perspective on vintage movies.
FlourishAnyway from USA on March 24, 2018:
I liked how how sprinkled information on Japanese history and culture throughout discussion of these movies.