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DVD Review: World War II Collection, Vol. 2 – Heroes Fight For Freedom

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Warner Bros. has released yet another expansive box set from its very large film library. Like the title says, World War II Collection, Vol. 2 – Heroes Fight For Freedom gives us more films about World War II but this collection primarily deals with the battles in the Pacific.

It’s nice to see more of these lesser known war films — well, lesser known compared to The Big Red One and The Dirty Dozen that were found in the first World War II Collection box set.

Air Force

Howard Hawks (The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo) directs this tale about The Mary Ann – a B-17 Flying Fortress – as it deals with the battle at Pearl Harbor and flies missions over the Philippines, Wake Island, and the Coral Sea.

One of the refreshing aspects of Air Force is the film’s focus on the crew of The Mary Ann rather than on any specific battle. The crewmen interact with each other. These interactions are classic moments of boys being boys, as these guys have carefree conversations about anything on their mind. This carefree attitude even extends to some characters that aren't well-liked.

Aerial Gunner Joe Winocki (John Garfield) is one such character who didn’t seem cut out for the Air Force. He was cut from the pilot program and had been moping around ever since. It isn’t until The Mary Ann picks up a dog named Tripoli from some Marines stationed on Wake Island that he is able to find his spirit. Even though it’s against regulations to have animals on board, Winocki fights adamantly to keep him. This fight for Tripoli reinvigorates Winocki and his sense of purpose on the B-17, even causing him to want to stay past his enlistment period.

Some of the crew felt uneasy about one addition — Pursuit Pilot Tex Radar (James Brown) — after the Pearl Harbor attack. Radar rubbed some the wrong way over his dislike of big planes. He might also have a thing for one crew member’s sister. But who knows?

The focus on the crew members’ relationships with each other isn’t fully realized until later in the film when much of the action (and for 1943 effects, they’re pretty darn good) happens. Getting to know each of the men allows you to become more involved in their well-being. When the Japanese attack, you worry for them; you root for them; you applaud them.

36 Hours

The most important battle in World War II is the historic D-Day invasion. D-Day was the major turning point of the war in the Allies’ favor. James Garner (Major Jefferson Pike) stars in this George Seaton-directed tale of an elaborate Nazi ruse to get information about D-Day.

Pike is one of the few people who knows intimate details about the D-Day invasion, and the Nazis have had some success with falsifying their prisoners’ environment to make them think they are among friends. Major Walter Gerber (Rod Taylor) has 36 hours to obtain the information before the Nazis send in the SS to get it themselves.

Gerber is very confident that he will get what he wants. He’s been successful in eighteen other cases, and thinks he knows Pike as well as a brother. Despite Gerber’s successes, everyone is gunning for his failure. Will he succeed? The outcome of the war rides on it.

The film’s one weak spot is its lack of suspense. Gerber is a likeable character to hate. The hospital setting is too comforting an environment. Pike doesn’t seem in any real danger. 36 Hours is a fine movie, but it lacks the dire suspense that made Hitchcock films so thrilling.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo

“The Doolittle Raid” was one of the most important missions in the war over the Pacific. Numerous defeats to the Japanese navy made World War II’s duration seem longer and longer. The Allies needed a victory. America needed a victory. Lt. Col. James Doolittle (Spencer Tracy) devised a plan to bomb Tokyo and put fear into the Japanese.

Based on the novel of the same name by Robert Considine and Major Ted W. Lawson, Mervyn LeRoy’s film is a comprehensive look into the training and execution of the raid, following Lt. Lawson (Van Johnson) — one of the brave volunteers — as he balances work and home with his pregnant wife Ellen (Phyllis Thaxter).

Since Lawson himself wrote the book, it’s unsurprising that much of the movie deals with the intimate relationships between Lawson and his wife, and Lawson and his fellow pilots and crew. Lawson and Ellen have very cute and passionate conversations, reminding me of the dialogue in Casablanca. Lawson even plays a poker game with a few Army and Navy guys, if you can believe it. Their camaraderie is stunning. Despite the circumstances and bleak outlook of the deadly mission, these soldiers kept calm and focused, never wavered and never quit.

The Hill

Sidney Lumet (Network) directs this unique film about a British disciplinary camp in the Libyan Desert. For any offense, minor or otherwise, British soldiers are sent here to learn to be soldiers or to be broken men.

Sean Connery stars as Trooper Joe Roberts, and he is the main target of Staff Sergeant Williams (Ian Hendry), who makes Roberts repeatedly traverse the hill of the title — a towering sand hill. Even as he is made to perform more hill runs than his cabin mates, Roberts still finds the energy to mock Williams, including shoveling sand into the faces of other soldiers who Williams ordered to toss water at him.

At first the cabin mates don’t get along, a couple men even fight amongst themselves. But they soon realize that they’re all in it together. Their situation is worsened by mate George Stevens (Alfred Lynch) having a mental breakdown after being repeatedly made to run the hill, once even doing it in the intense heat with a gas mask on.

The gas mask is one of many allusions that the film makes comparing the disciplinary camp to Nazi concentration camps. In one scene, the heat made the others delirious, and Roberts jokes that it isn’t the sun that they’re staring at but a Gestapo lamp.

Lumet directs surprisingly large number of scenes using the handheld camera. This camera use shows how rough the camp is. There is a huge difference between the language of the terms "prison camp" and "disciplinary camp". Lumet suggests that they aren’t as dissimilar as they seem. Cells are small, but look thick and suffocating when you’re behind them.

Hell To Eternity

There aren’t many heroes in this world. Guy Gabaldon is one. Hell To Eternity tells the true story of Guy as he grows up to be a great man. As a boy, he goes through harsh times, living by himself during the Depression. His friend’s father invites Guy (Jeffrey Hunter) to live with them in their Japanese household, and Guy finally knows what family and love really are.

His world is turned upside down when Japan attacks Pearl Harbor and one of the saddest chapters in American history begins. The U.S. government feared its own citizens and ordered all Japanese-Americans into internment camps. Guy feels extraordinary pain that his foster family faces such discrimination. But his family tells Guy to turn the other cheek, and that the government is doing what it thinks is best: “No one bats a thousand.”

Guy is initially rejected from the Army because of a perforated eardrum. He drifts through the years without any purpose; but when he visits his family at one of the camps he asks to join the Marines, citing his fluency in Japanese. He is accepted and is sent to Saipan where he finds why he is special compared to the rest of the Marines. He is the only one who can convince the many Japanese civilians and soldiers scattered throughout the island to surrender.

Risking his own life, Guy roams alone to prevent any more bloodshed, American or Japanese. He is credited with saving hundreds of Japanese from suicide and hopeless fighting as the Americans capture the island. He faced long odds as a child, but got through it with the love of his family. Guy returned the favor and the love.

Command Decision

Commanding military officers usually get the benefit of the doubt for the decisions they make. They research them, and take responsibility for them. Sam Wood (The Pride Of The Yankees) directs this rare glimpse into the process that General Dennis (Clark Gable) has to go through to for permission to order a massive bomb raid (Operation Stitch) on a German air force installation that is building jet fighter planes.

Based on the play by William Wister Haines, Command Decision tells of a World War II battle fought with words as dangerous as guns. The officers argue back and forth, each trying to convince the other that he is right and the other is wrong. Casualties mount as Dennis’ bombing raids go unsuccessfully. The longer the mission goes without meeting its objective, the longer the war seems without an end.

Dennis finally convinces Brigadier General Clifton Garnet (Brian Donlevy) with a firm and passionate speech on why his air raid mission will win the war and how waiting would cede Europe to Hitler. It’s Dennis’ unflinching conviction that the raids’ success means Allies’ success that makes Dennis a great general, as well as a great leader. You can see the hurt in his eye as other generals spew out the numbers of lost Americans in the previous losing missions.

Dennis contends that failure to continue the missions would mean that all of those American deaths would be for nothing. To the top brass, all of those deaths are just numbers; to Dennis, they’re men that he has personally shared meals with. He makes decisions that he hopes will shorten the war for everyone, praying that everyone comes back alive. These are decisions that no one wants to make.

Special Features

Like other Warner Bros. DVD catalog box sets, the studio included various vintage short films. It’s nice to see these in some digital form, especially the World War II shorts, but wouldn’t it be better to devote an entire box set to these shorts instead of scattering them on dozens, if not hundreds of DVDs?

Many of these WWII shorts are propaganda pieces, plain and simple. Many of them are Oscar nominated as well. The Air Force DVD includes the Women At War short that gives an account of the wives of soldiers who volunteered to work for the military and factories. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo includes Movie Pests, which gives a very bland assessment of distractions we all hope to avoid at the movie theatre.

Many cartoon shorts make their way too. Bear Raid Warden is funny and King-Size Canary is so comical you’d think you see it on The Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. Every DVD has trailer galleries, but it’s a shame more featurettes could not be found that were specific to the movies in the set. Other than that, this set does a fine job giving these overlooked WWII movies a shot at reaching more viewers.

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