12 Classic World War II Capers (Better Than The Monuments Men)

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Though it's a throwback to simpler times when movie stars queued up to give Jerry a thump on the kisser, The Monuments Men has a more high-falutin’ agenda than most wartime capers. While George Clooney and pals set out to save liberated Europe’s cultural prizes from Hitler and his band of goose-stepping morons, earlier Hun-bashing capers were breezier affairs, and here are a dirty dozen examples to prove it. Whether dressed up as a thriller, actioner or simply disguised as a narrow-eyed Nazi like Clint in Where Eagles Dare, here are some of the men-on-a-mission war flicks you should seek out.

The Guns Of Navarone (1962)

The mission: To blow up two huge guns and allow trapped Allied forces to escape from a neighbouring island…

Here’s the deal: the Nazis have built two guns so huge you could drop Blofeld down them and they’re going to use them to blow the shit out of Allied shipping in the Aegean Sea... and probably other seas too, if they've got the energy. Luckily the Brits have a suavely moustachioed ace up their sleeve in David Niven’s explosives expert, a band of hardnut commandos (Gregory Peck, Stanley Baker, Anthonys Quinn and Quayle) and some salty Greek partisans to help get them into Navarone. There’s a wounded man and a Jerry turncoat – because there’s always one – plus a massive German manhunt to dodge, but their pluck and derring-do sees them home. A wartime hun’dinger.

Lip-stiffening moment: The badly wounded (and nicknamed) ‘Lucky’ Franklin (Quayle) demands the “leave me behind” role when the band escape the Nazis’ clutches. “You can buy me lunch in Simpsons when this is all over,” Niven tells him, not letting his comrade’s mortal wounds get in the way of a free meal.

Good German? Wehrmacht officer Walter Gotell reminds the captured band that he’s not one of those evil SS types, before immediately finding some people who are.

Cultural significance: No art is saved, but the geography of Greece is altered slightly.

The Train (1964)

The mission: Preventing the Germans scarpering from France with a train full with masterpieces…

A serious-minded contribution to the canon of wartime thrillers. Like Captain America meets The Antiques Roadshow, this John Frankenheimer flick reminded free love hippies that their druggy shenanigans had been hard won by men with chiselled jaws and captured Schmeissers. Or in this case, Burt Lancaster. Despite the handicap of being French in the film, Lancaster’s doggedness in the face of overwhelming Naziness sees him rescue a locomotive’s worth of stolen fine art in a solo mission. It’s an astonishing feat and one only Lancaster could have pulled off without substantial reinforcements. As depicted in The Monuments Men, the Germans’ real-life plan was to make off with the art and presumably use it to sell posters to students. The Chagall of it.

Lip-stiffening moment: Despite being shot in the leg and having almost no interest in art, Lancaster’s character pursues the Germans relentlessly, saving le jour heroically.

Good German? Nope, Colonel Franz von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) missed that class at Nazi school.

Cultural significance*: It’s based on the story of train No. 40,044 (they had a lot of trains back then) and inspired by Rose Valland – Cate Blanchett’s character in TMM – who helped prevent the systematic looting of France’s art in 1944.

Kelly's Heroes

*The mission*: To raid and rob a French bank vault full of gold ingots…

This punky counterblast to the standard heroics of World War II flicks has a markedly different feel to The Longest Days, Anzios and Merrill's Marauders of ‘60s Hollywood. None of those movies start with the Americans shelling their own men – or have Kojak in them. Kelly’s Heroes was made in the era of Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22, when the Vietnam War broadened the concept of serving your nation to include such activities as, say, looting 14,000 gold bars from a French bank vault. An entertainingly oddball heist caper that revels in its own silliness, Brian G. Hutton’s movie combines the talents of Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Carroll O’Connor and Donald Sutherland, and sets them on a madcap misadventure through minefields, past Tiger tanks and, accidentally, into the frontline of the war effort. It’s all set to a brassily tongue-in-cheek Lalo Schifrin score.

Lip-stiffening moment: Don’t let the presence of Clint Eastwood fool you, the most patriotic people in this movie are probably the Germans.

Good German? Karl-Otto Alberty – without whom there’d be no German tank commanders in cinema – plays a German tank commander. Greedy rather than actively good, he is, at least, not a total bastard.

Cultural significance: We think Clint blows some up.

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

The mission: To discover the identity of a German mole in British intelligence…

This spine-stiffening, Broadsword-calling, categorically amazing caper classic is another Alistair MacLean joint (see also: The Guns Of Navarone and, if you’re really bored, Force 10 From Navarone) that’s never on the telly enough, despite being on the telly all the time. Plot-wise, there’s a big Bavarian pile (Schloss Adler, AKA Hohenwerfen Castle), a captured Yank general (Carnaby) and a team of badasses parachuted into save British intelligence from a thorough Krauting. It’s unlikely to need much recommending in these parts so we’ll just give a quick mention to Ron Goodwin’s iconic score, Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton’s performances as the Allies' schloss adjusters and the virtuoso cable car sequence before getting back to rooting out the office double agent.

Lip-stiffening moment: Every time that theme plays, which, to be fair, is a lot. You’ll be using your lip as a sideboard by the end.

Good German? Not really. There’s an indifferent German in Colonel Paul Kramer (Anton Diffring) and a fully paid-up Germanator in Gestapo uberbastard von Hapen (Derren Nesbitt). You wouldn’t have either round for tea.

Cultural significance: Not massive, although the castle seems nice.

The Great Escape

*The mission*: To get as many POWs out of the clink as bally well possible…

Where to begin with this Stalag staple? Inspired by a mass breakout from Stalag Luft III in 1943 and previously told in The Wooden Horse (1950), John Sturges’s romp sets new records for derring-do and yippety-dip. It’s starrier than Aquarius The Water Bearer, has more boy’s own spirit than a barrel full of cub scouts, offers Steve McQueen hooning around on a motorbike, cunning Gestapo types, Elmer Bernstein’s great theme and cinema’s worst Australian accent. Plus tunnelling... lots and lots of tunnelling. Bank holidays would be pretty dull without it.

Lip-stiffening moment: Courageously in the face of cold-blooded murder, the escapees defiantly face down their SS executioners.

Good German? Camp commandants tend to be reasonably good eggs in war films and Luftwaffe Colonel von Luger does come across as a decent man just trying to do his job. Not particularly well, it has to be said.

Cultural significance: The men dedicate themselves to “sports and gardening: all the cultural pursuits” to distract Jerry from their plans. But they’re all just a ruse, see! So no.

The Eagle Has Landed

*The mission*: To assassinate Winston Churchill at his country retreat…

A naughty pick considering we’re meant to be (half-) rooting for the enemy in John Sturges’ action-thriller. Then again, they’re all dressed as Poles and sound like they’re from Elephant Und Castle, so it’s not that hard to go with it. The good guys – blowhard Larry Hagman and his keen-as-mustard deputy – just aren’t half as cool as Kurt Steiner (Caine), Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland) and co., and because their mission to assassinate Winston Churchill in Norfolk is basically suicidal, this is one grizzled squad of German fallschirmjäger we can mostly get behind.

Lip-stiffening moment: When Steiner tries to save a Jewish girl from an SS goon, he delivers the memorable put down: “He reminds me of something that I occasionally pick up on my shoe in the gutter! Very unpleasant on a hot day.”

Good German? Caine and his crew are honorable, decent men stuck on the wrong side. One even sacrifices himself to save a child from drowning.

Cultural significance: A church gets trashed, an actor gets shot and someone ends up in the duck pond. Where we come from that’s a biennale.

Operation Crossbow

The mission: To destroy Germany’s V1 and V2 production. Heck, to destroy the entire ‘V’ franchise if possible...

A little-known fact for the next time this turns up on Sunday afternoon telly: Operation Crossbow was re-released in America as ‘The Great Spy Mission’. Eye-wateringly literal it may have been, but that title certainly captures the key elements of an espionage caper with more twists than a 1950s prom dance. Its Broken-Arrow-in-the-Third-Reich premise is that the Nazis are launching new terror weapons at London, and Winston Churchill, not unreasonably, isn’t happy about it. Cue Operation Crossbow, in which a tiny crew of secret agents are charged with infiltrating an underground V2 factory and, if at all possible, wrecking it. There’s a double agent – because there’s always one – and George Peppard, who brings it home for Team Winston by guiding in the Bomber Command raid sent to destroy the facility.

Lip-stiffening moment: One of the team resists capture, torture and eventually execution without spilling a single bean about the mission.

Good German? Anton Diffring – him again! – pops up as a German soldier.

Cultural significance: Um, protecting Winston’s humidor from German rockets?

The Heroes Of Telemark

The mission: To destroy a heavy water plant in Norway and foil the Nazis’ atomic bomb programme…

Like Where Eagles Dare meets Ski Sunday, this snowy action-thriller relives the days when water came in ‘still’, ‘sparkling’ and ‘heavy’. The latter is a principle ingredient in the Nazi scheme to build the A-bomb and drop it on the nearest women and children. They need to be stopped and Dr Rolf Pedersen (Kirk Douglas) and Knut Straud (Richard Harris) are just the men for the job. Issued with explosives and kagools, the pair head off to recce Norway’s fjordlands with a view to blowing them up.

Lip-stiffening moment: Finally finding his courage, Kirk Douglas’s boffin teams up with Harris’s implacably angry resistance man and proves himself a hero. The title is a bit of a spoiler.

Good German? Nope, just horrible reprisal-ordering ones. Old favourite Anton Diffring turns up to snear menacingly in a leather coat.

Cultural significance: The Nazi A-bomb could have destroyed every gallery in London, so chalk one to Team Culture.

The Dirty Dozen

The mission: To raid a French chateau and wipe out its assembly of Wehrmacht officers...

An altogether gnarlier concoction than your average war flick, Robert Aldrich’s sequel-spawning actioner is basically a Western on the Western Front. The band-of-crims mentality – and levels of violence – are closer to Peckinpah than Sturges, though, with a squad of corrosively badass types assembled, trained and unleashed on German high command by real-life veteran Lee Marvin. Donald Sutherland, Telly Savalas, John Cassavetes and Charles Bronson form the brawny team of countercultural icons and much R-rated bloodshed ensues. Cynical, jaundiced and totally spectacular.

Lip-stiffening moment: Unless you have a particularly cynical lower lip, you won’t find much to stiffen it here.

Good German? Not one.

Cultural significance: A French chateau and all its attendant antiques are blown to smithereens.

Escape To Victory

*The mission*: To spring the German offside trap or escape trying...

An Allied formation that lines up with Rocky in goal, Jack Carter at full back and Pele in attack take on the pride of the Wehrmacht, the referee and the odds in a loveably daffy POW sports movie that doubled up as a summer holiday for its Panini album cast of professional footballers (Moore! Ardiles! That bloke from Ipswich Town!). Everyone is having fun here, even if the characters have all the depth of a silhouette free-kick wall, and you have to forgive any flaw set to that theme tune. Sylvester Stallone would have another go at the whole busting-out-of-the-joint lark in Escape Plan, though sadly not in baggy shorts.

Lip-stiffening moment: The French crowd bellow “Victoire! Victoire!” in defiance of both the Germans and the actual scoreline.

Good German? Max von Sydow takes a break from all those lowbrow Ingmar Bergman fodder to play Major Karl Von Steiner, a twitchy camp commandant. His chivalry even extends to applauding an Allied goal in the big match. Anton Diffring commentates.

Cultural significance: A German penalty is saved. Public holidays have been declared for less.

The Cockshell Heroes

The mission: To paddle into Bordeaux harbour and sink Jerry shipping...

Future Bond man Cubby Broccoli oversaw this grand showcase of British pluck that combined 007 daring with Q inventiveness. The true-life story sees cranky Trevor Howard and a team of commandos canoe into a heavily-fortified harbour, attach limpet mines to German ships and try to escape shooting at the end of it. Coincidentally, these are the three disciplines that comprise the world’s worst triathlon.

Lip-stiffening moment: Despite being a bystander on the mission, Trevor Howard volunteers to join it when a man is wounded. That’s courage.

Good German? If there were, they were all replaced by the Gestapo.

Cultural significance: Not a sausage.

Inglourious Basterds

The missions: To kill Hitler and the entire Nazi hierarchy, and scalp as many of the other Nazis as possible…

This wartime caper may not be entirely historically accurate, but it’s too much fun for that to bother any but the most hardened historians. Obvious highlights include the scenery-chewing Christoph Waltz as loquacious SS man Hans Landa, Michael Fassbender looking cool even with the name of German thesp Brigitte Horney stuck to his forehead and Brad Pitt channelling Foghorn Leghorn into a personal quest for “Nasssi scalps”, as well as a backhanded tribute to the transformative power of film – specifically into fuel with which to immolate Hitler, Goebbels and the other Swastika-sporting psychopaths attending the premiere of Stolz Der Nation.

Lip-stiffening moment: Any scene starring Archie Hicox (Fassbender) is automatically plucked-up.

Good German? Nuanced Germans is about the best we can do here. War hero Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) has a certain slimy charm but both he and Hans Landa (Waltz) are fully on the Fuhrer's dime.

Cultural significance: Cinema is snatched from out of the Nazis’ clammy palms and the world is spare Triumph Of The Will 2.