Entertainment Movies 21 of the best World War I & II books and films
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21 of the best World War I & II books and films

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When Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th 1914, following the invasion of neutral Belgium, many around the world celebrated in the streets, including in Australia, with then Prime Minister Andrew Fisher pledging full support. Few could have imagined the earth-shattering consequences that would leave millions dead before Armistice on November 11, 1918, including some 100,000 on the shores of Gallipoli, as commemorated on Anzac Day this week.

That history would repeat itself between 1939-1945 is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all, with countless more lives lost. We take a look at some of the finest books and films depicting these global conflicts.

1. Gallipoli (film)

Picnic at Hanging Rock director Peter Weir shot the seminal Anzac movie in Gallipoli, with a screenplay by fellow Australian, playwright David Williamson. Shot on a tiny budget, Weir nevertheless captures the dread of one of WWI’s most disastrous campaigns, lending the film an impressive style and capturing the camaraderie of the doomed troops, including a young Mel Gibson and Mark Lee. 

Photo: Supplied
Gallipoli, starring Mel Gibson, is one of Australian cinema’s finest films.  Photo: Supplied

2. A Farewell to Arms (book and film)

Based on his service on the Italian front as an ambulance driver, Ernest Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms is one of the finest books written on WWI, depicting the love affair between a wounded soldier and his nurse. It was first filmed by Frank Borzage with Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper in the lead roles, and then again by Charles Vidor with Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones.

3. Good-Bye to All That (book)

Robert Graves’ autobiography traces the loss of innocence in the wake of WWI that compelled him to leave the UK behind. Stretching from his stifling Victorian upbringing to the horrors of trench warfare and beyond, it’s one of the enduring classics.

4. All Quiet On The Western Front (book and film)

Told from the other side, All Quiet on the Western Front was penned by German author Erich Maria Remarque and relays the disillusionment of one young man faced with the lunacy of war and determined to survive so he can bring about change. Originally filmed in 1930 by Lewis Milestone, a mooted remake starring Daniel Radcliffe seems to be stuck in production limbo.

5. Paths of Glory (book and film)

While Dr. Strangelove satirised the Cold War, Stanley Kubrick’s 1957’s Paths of Glory adapted Humphrey Cobb’s fiercely anti-war novel depicting the execution of four French soldiers who refused to carry out an obviously doomed assault during WWI. Adolphe Menjou plays the merciless French general with Kirk Douglas as a lawyer turned soldier. The tile is taken from the Thomas Gray poem Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

6. Joyeux Noël (film)

Only slightly wandering into sentimental territory, there remains an uncanny power to French writer/director Christian Carion’s Joyeux Noël, depicting the surreal ceasefire on Christmas Day, 1914, which saw German, British and French troops lay down their arms and play football. Their superiors were not amused and swiftly shut it down.

7. Kokoda (film)

Devastatingly honest, Australian writer/director Alister Grierson recreates the horror of the Kokoda trail in this 2005 movie, all mud, rain and dysentery. Starring young actors Luke Ford, Tom Budge, Simon Stone, Travis McMahon and Jack Finsterer, it lacks some of the camaraderie of Gallipoli, but still packs a punch.

8. Catch-22 (book and film)

Joseph Heller’s satirical novel about the misadventures of US Air Force Captain John Yossarian as he tries to get discharged is one of the finest of the 20th century. It was filmed by The Graduate and Closer director Mike Nichols in 1970, starring Alan Arkin, Martin Balsam and Buck Henry, who also penned the screenplay.

9. Slaughterhouse-Five (book and film)

Kurt Vonnegut’s satire, published in 1969, has as its centrepiece the devastating firebombing of Dresden, one of the Allies’ darkest moves. Told through the eyes of time travelling solider Billy Pilgrim, it’s partly autobiographical with Vonnegut a POW held in Dresden who survived the catastrophe by climbing into an underground meat locker. The film adaptation by George Roy Hill won the Prix Du Jury at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival.

10. Where Eagles Dare (book and film)

Depicting the daring rescue mission of a US general held in an apparently impregnable Nazi fortress, this rousing yarn starred Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood and Mary Ure. Directed by Brian G. Hutton, Alistair MacLean penned the screenplay and novel simultaneously.

Photo: Supplied
Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton in Where Eagles Dare. Photo: Supplied

11. The Great Escape (book and film)

Speaking of great escapes, John Sturges’ 1963 epic film about the break out from infamous German POW camp Stalag Luft III was based on the non-fiction book by Australian prisoner Paul Brickhill. It stars the impeccably cool Steve McQueen alongside Charles Bronson, James Garner and Donald Pleasence.

12. The Dam Busters (book and film)

Brickhill also wrote another instant classic in The Dam Busters, about the British Royal Air Force Squadron 617’s inspired bouncing bomb attack on the German Ruhr Dams. Michael Anderson’s big screen adaptation was a box office smash that also drew from Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s book Enemy Coast Ahead.

13. A Bridge Too Far (film)

Sean Connery, Ryan O’Neal, Michael Caine, Dirk Bogarde and Sir Anthony Hopkins. Who can argue with a cast like that? Richard Attenborough’s 1977 film adaptation of Cornelius Ryan’s non-fiction book about the failure of Operation Market-Garden is fantastic.

14. The Guns of Navarone (book and film)

Scottish novelist Alistair MacLean conjured up the fictional Greek island of Navarone but drew on the Allies’ real Dodecanese campaign to seize the German-held Aegean islands. J. Lee Thompson directed the Hollywood adaptation starring Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn.

15. The Thin Red Line/From Here To Eternity (books and films)

American author James Jones’ semi-autobiographical novel about the futility of WWII was adapted into a compelling big screen outing in 1988, starring Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson and John Cusack, by auteur Terrence Malick, returning after 20 years in the cinematic wilderness. Jones also wrote From Here To Eternity, adapted into the Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr and Montgomery Clift movie in 1953.

16. The Bridge On The River Kwai (book and film)

David Lean’s startling film about British soldiers forced to build the Burmese Railway by their Japanese captors under extreme duress went on to win seven Oscars, including Best Director for Lean and Best Actor for Alec Guinness. It’s based on the novel by French author Pierre Boule.

17. Europa Europa (book and film)

Based on the autobiography of Salomon Perel, a young German Jew who escaped the holocaust by posing as a Nazi, Agnieszka Holland’s fascinating film adaptation starred Marco Hofschneider as Salomon with Julie Delpy as his would be anti-Semitic suitor.

Photo: Supplied
Marco Hofschneider and Julie Delpy are a nazi impostor and an anti-semite in Europa Europa. Photo: Supplied

18. Life Is Beautiful (film)

One of the most affecting holocaust movies of all time, Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful also caused quite a bit of controversy, by bringing humour into the darkest of all places. He inhabits the role of Jewish waiter Guido who first uses his knack for comedy to win the heart of Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), then five years later, when they find themselves in a concentration camp, he uses it to shield their son form the true horror. Winning three Oscars and the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes, it’s a testament to the strength of the human spirit.

19. Anne Frank: The Diary Of A Young Girl (book and film)

The seminal holocaust text, young Jewish girl Anne Frank was given a diary as a present on her thirteenth birthday in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. Less than a month later her entire family would be hidden in the tiny upstairs annex of her father’s office, where they would remain for over two years before being betrayed in the last year of WWII. Adapted for film, TV, radio, theatre and even opera, that one girl’s voice has become an enduring light long after her death is truly remarkable.

20. Downfall (film)

One of the best WWII films ever made, the German language Downfall (Der Untergang), based on exhaustive research from several historical books and memoirs, depicts the fall of Berlin from the perspective of Hitler’s bunker. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s perfectly judged film captures the truth behind the banality of evil, steadfastly refusing to caricature the Nazis. It’s just a shame that Bruno Ganz’ impeccable turn as the Fuhrer sparked a million silly memes.

21. Saving Private Ryan (film)

Steven Spielberg’s bone-shudderingly realistic recreation of the D-Day landings spends 24 minutes on the wholesale slaughter of American GIs on the shores of German-occupied Normandy. Starring Tom Hanks alongside a vast cast that includes Matt Damon and Tom Sizemore, it scored five Oscars, including Best Director for Spielberg.