I'm not sure why Warner Brothers waited until after Memorial Day to release its "Heroes Fight for Freedom" DVD set, but it doesn't really matter. The six films offer an entertaining, revealing look at how World War II was viewed by Hollywood during and after the conflict.
Here's what's included:
"Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" (1944)
Remember the raid on Tokyo that was awkwardly shoehorned onto the end of "Pearl Harbor"? This movie tells the same story, only much more effectively. Like most movies made during the war, "Thirty Seconds" has its corny elements (a home-front pregnancy, standard-issue comic relief), but they don't detract from the film's strong points. The raid itself is short but suspenseful, with some impressive special effects showing a bomber's eye view of Tokyo's destruction.
"Air Force" (1943)
Cutting away most of the corn, this tense, action-packed drama is even better than "Thirty Seconds" -- and it has a Pearl Harbor angle, too. A B-17 crew headed to Hawaii on Dec. 6 has to change plans when the Japanese attack, and their increasingly damaged plane hopscotches across the South Pacific, seeing action in virtually every hot spot in a matter of days. The concluding attack on a Japanese fleet is thrilling (if completely fabricated) and director Howard Hawks expertly weaves in his usual themes of teamwork, suffering in silence and sacrificing for the greater good. Among the extras is "Scrap Happy Daffy," a wild cartoon with Daffy battling Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito.
"36 Hours" (1965)
What a great premise: It's 1950, and Major Jeff Pike (James Garner) is recovering from amnesia in an Army hospital in Europe. He lost his memory just before June 1944's D-Day invasion, and if he can just tell the doctors what he remembers about that time, they're sure he'll recover. Here's the big twist: It's really 1944, a few days before D-Day, and those nice doctors are really Nazis, trying to trick Pike into spilling the beans about the invasion. Clever, eh? Too bad "36 Hours" squanders that potential, making the head Nazi a nice guy and the Nazi nurse a prisoner acting against her will. Garner is good, though, and it's a shame the rest of the movie doesn't rise to his level. Watch for John Banner (Sgt. Shultz of "Hogan's Heroes") playing a helpful German.
"Command Decision" (1949)
Clark Gable plays a tough-as-nails general (is there any other kind?) who orders wave after wave of bombers deep into Germany in hopes of destroying Hitler's jet aircraft program before it gets off the ground. Because the entire war could be lost if the Nazis deployed a fleet of jets, Gable feels he's justified in sending hundreds of men to their doom. The other generals and politicians disagree, but Clark is the star, so he turns out to be right in the end. "Command Decision" was based on a play, and it shows. Forget the aerial action of "Thirty Seconds" or "Air Force -- most of this movie takes place in offices and map rooms. There's a great bonus feature, though: "King Size Canary," one of the all-time great Warner Bros. cartoons. It's about a bird and cat who discover some growth formula. What "Command Decision" lacks in epic scope, "King Size Canary" makes up for -- and then some!
"Hell to Eternity" (1960)
Based on the true story of Guy Gabaldon, a tough kid who is adopted by a Japanese-American family during the Great Depression, this long, complex drama covers angles most war movies ignore. When Pearl Harbor is bombed, for example, Guy's adoptive parents are sent to an internment camp. A perforated eardrum keeps Guy out of the Army, but his skill at speaking Japanese gets him into the Marines. Eventually, he winds up on Saipan, in the middle of the last, bloody struggles against the Japanese army. The film doesn't shy away from the darker side of war, from Guy and his buddies getting drunk with some strippers to his time on Saipan, where Guy coldly kills dozens of Japanese. About the only thing that doesn't ring true is the casting: In real life, Guy was Latino, but here he's played by Jeffrey Hunter, who would play Jesus a year later in "King of Kings."
"The Hill" (1965)
By far the grimmest movie in the set, "The Hill" focuses on a British prison camp in the middle of the desert. Among the deserters, insubordinates and criminals are Sean Connery, who slugged a superior officer and refused to send his men to their deaths. Naturally, he butts heads with the camp's tough-as-nails commander. When one of the men dies, Connery and fellow prisoner Ossie Davis draw their line in the sand, so to speak. Stark, violent and directed (by Sidney Lumet) so that you can almost feel the brutal heat, "The Hill" is a compelling drama about World War II conflicts that take place far from any battlefield.
Will Pfeifer writes about new DVDs on Tuesdays and older ones on Sunday. Contact him at email@example.com.