#1) Battleground (1949)
Battleground is, in my opinion, one of the best WWII movies ever made. This film, done in the aftermath of WWII, was shot using original uniforms, equipment, and vehicles, avoiding the problems that later films had in that regard. Set in the 101st Airborne Division during the Battle of the Bulge, Battleground is a retelling of the famed siege of Bastogne from the perspective of a common infantry squad. Realistic and down to earth without the vile language and gore of modern films, Battleground feels like a genuine story of the 1940's. The banter, jokes, and standard operating procedures speak of the 1940's military, not rebranded military extras from today's WWII films. If you can only make time for one WWII Movie this summer, this should be the one.
Tora Tora Tora is the only film that even approaches an accurate portrayal of the fateful attack on Pearl Harbor. Filmed with a massive American and Japanese cast, and using many of the actual locations on Oahu that were in use during the attack, Tora Tora Tora is a long, at times slow paced film that shows the choices and decisions that led to the outcome of December 7th, 1941. The film shows the dynamics faced by both sides. On the Japanese side, the rigid, uncompromising position of the militarists forces Admiral Yamamoto's hand, leading to the choice of a preemptive strike on the US Pacific Fleet. In the mean time, American intelligence discerns the looming war, but peacetime inertia and the fateful decision of General Short to prepare for the wrong attack leads to the American fleet being defenseless at its moorings that day. Aside from some relatively minor language, the films has few vices, and is replete with accurate details that make this film one of the best ever done on a WWII subject.
Twelve O'clock High, based on a 1948 novel of that title is a story of men against themselves and their weaknesses. Little attention is paid to the enemy, but rather to the dynamics of men in endless rounds of grueling combat. The fictional 918th Bomb Group is losing men and bombers at higher than average rate, for no return in terms of target damage. It is up to General Frank Savage to turn this hard luck group around, with resistance from all ranks as the group is pulled off flying missions to focus on crucial retraining. The film loosely follows the efforts of the 8th Air Force out of England in the summer of '43, acting less as a historical drama, but instead answering the question, "What is Maximum Effort?" Few WWII films delved into the men of the 8th Air Force as well as Twelve O'clock High has, and the film is well worth watching.
The Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in April of 1942 would capture the attention of the Allied world in a dark time, buoying Allied morale and rattling previously victorious Japanese strategists. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo told the uncensored story of that great mission, highlighting the bravery of the men that flew what should have been a suicide mission. Despite being a wartime film, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo lacks the corny propaganda feel common to the period, and instead gives the perspective of the crew of plane #7, The Ruptured Duck, as they trained for and eventually bombed Tokyo. The sets were phenomenally detailed and accurate for the era, and the use of vintage B-25s of a comparable configuration to those used in the raid adds to the realism of the film. All told, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is a film that you will not want to miss.
The Longest Day is the best know D-Day film to date. Although various details were still classified, The Longest Day goes to great lengths to show the grand scope of the Normandy invasion in June of 1944. Where the film does go astray though, is perhaps in its choice of too many big name actors filling out the credits. Most are not distracting in their portrayals of their characters, but I would have been more satisfied with someone like Charleton Heston filling John Wayne's role as LtCol. Ben Vandervoot. Also, the film's budget did not allow for the sort of reconstructions that made Tora Tora Tora as good as it is. Simply, the uniforms and equipment are just off, not enough to ruin the film, but it does take away from the experience. The average lay person won't be distracted by it, but WWII buffs will notice. Those critiques aside, The Longest Day is the only dramatic portrayal of the Normandy Invasion out there, and it remains a strong classic to those that can look past its relatively minor inaccuracies.