I finished my review of Overlord, the fantastic 2018 World War II zombie movie, with a call on Hollywood to be so bold as to green-light more movies like it. I was greatly pleased when I encountered Ghosts of War, a 2020 World War II horror film that seemed to be following in Overlord‘s footsteps. I’m an alternate historian, and so I’m a sucker for anything that mashes up history and the supernatural like this.
The film revolves around five American soldiers after D-Day who are tasked with holding a chateau in the French countryside from the Germans until a relief force comes. It’s a simple plot, at first, and a natural way of combining two wildly different genres.
The vast majority of actors here are people you’ve likely never heard of, with the exception of Theo Rossi, who you may recognize from Luke Cage on Netflix.
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Sometimes the conventional wisdom is right.
When Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 French Resistance classic Army of Shadows was released in the United States in 2006, many reviewers listed it as their favorite movie of the year. Newsweek called it a “fatalistic masterpiece”, The New York Times an “austere mise-en-scène in which Resistance fighters carry the shame of a nation on their squared shoulders.” LA Weekly described it as the “crowning achievement” of a director who specialized in minimalistic film noir. “Unlike the romantic images of freedom fighters perpetuated by the popular media, Melville’s movie is stripped of self-congratulatory hero worship and other puffery,” wrote the Austin Chronicle.
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George W. Bush once told John Kerry, “You forgot Poland!” when the Democrat listed the few countries that supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
We history buffs can use a similar reminder that Poland is, in fact, not lost. World War II in Europe began when German tanks stormed across Poland’s border after a flagrant false-flag at Gleiwitz (or Gliwice). The Red Army came not long afterward. Auschwitz, the most infamous of the Nazi death factories, is remembered by many, but we sometimes forget it was built in the Polish town of Oświęcim.
When the Poles feature in (alternate) history, they are often reduced to victims of German and Soviet armies. This does them a disservice: the Polish fought, and fought hard. There was the Warsaw Uprising and the Polish forces under Władysław Anders that fought in Italy.
The movie Hurricane, released as Mission of Honor in the United States, is about some of those Polish warriors, specifically those who served as foreign pilots in the Battle of Britain. These were men who had escaped Poland, often served in the French Army of the Air, and then made their way to the UK after the Fall of France. At a time when Poland as a country could not do much, her sons were doing everything they could to defeat her enemies abroad.
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Good alternate history sticks close to real history. Philip Kerr forgot that cardinal rule in Hitler’s Peace.
The novel starts off promising enough. Kerr references real-world events, including Heinrich Himmler’s peace overtures to the Western Allies and the German plot to kill Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at the Teheran Conference in 1943.
But he tries to do too much by featuring not one but two plots against the Big Three and throwing in too many historical characters, including the widowed wife of German security chief Reinhard Heydrich and British intelligence agent Kim Philby, who spied for the Russians, for seemingly no other reason than to mention their names.
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When I first learned of Overlord, I thought that it sounded like something out of the Alien Space Bats subforum of alternatehistory.com. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen threads with the exact premise of this movie: zombies in World War II. What studio executive green-lit this?
Pay close attention to the film, though, and you will see it has antecedents. It has a whiff of Inglorious Basterds and the zany historical carnage of a Wolfenstein game. If you’ve seen many World War II movies, you will notice something very clever: that this is not a zombie movie in Occupied France, but an old-fashioned World War II movie with zombies. The characters match the archetypes of midcentury war epics: gallant American servicemen, resourceful French resistance fighters, sadistic SS officers. This is a decision that makes the whole enterprise more original than it otherwise would be.
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If you look at a map of Europe and the Middle East, you’ll probably notice that two countries could have given Hitler access to North Africa and the Middle East without too much of a water jaunt. At the west end of the Mediterranean, Spain could have given him access to Morocco and then to the rest of North Africa. On the east end, Turkey could have given him easy access to the Middle East, then on to North Africa. German troops in Turkey could have pushed into Iraq, where Iraqi nationalists revolted against the British in 1941, then Jordan, Palestine and Egypt. They could have also pushed north from Turkey into the Soviet Caucasus region, going after Soviet oil that way rather than through the route which led to Stalingrad.
Both Spain and Turkey stayed neutral through most of World War II. I’ve seen several discussions of what might have happened if Spain had come in on the Axis side. I haven’t seen much on the potential roles of Turkey.
Continue reading “What If Turkey Had Entered World War II?”
Never Was readers may be familiar with Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series. I’ve used animations from the seven films, which were produced for the War Department between 1942 and 1945, in several stories, including “How the Nazis Planned to Invade Great Britain” and “The Rise and Fall of Japan’s Empire in Maps“.
But did you know the animations were from Disney? That Capra used Axis propaganda footage in his films? And that there were four more Hollywood directors who made movies for the war effort?
I didn’t. In Five Came Back, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Greengrass, Lawrence Kasdan, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep and Guillermo del Toro tell the story of how five directors invented the war documentary.
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It is hard to imagine France starting World War II. Its entire military strategy, including the construction of the formidable Maginot Line, was premised on fighting a defensive war. The only people who ever envisaged 1930s France as the aggressor were Nazi propagandists, and I doubt even they believed what they wrote.
To make the scenario remotely plausible, we probably need to start by changing the outcome of World War I. A more lenient peace that would have allowed Germany to keep its gains in the west, including Alsace-Lorraine and maybe Belgium, could have given the world a revanchist France in the 1920s, which in turn could have given way to a Weimar-like France in the 1930s with the far left and far right vying for power. Either could be motivated to start a war.
But such a France would not be allied to Britain, and such a war would not involve the United States. The outcome would almost certainly be French defeat.
Continue reading “What If France Had Started World War II?”
On June 14, 1941, German commanders amassing their forces on the Soviet border received the message “Dortmund”. The name of the city on the River Ruhr was the prearranged codeword that the final preparations for Operation Barbarossa were to begin as a prelude to the commencement of the invasion of the Soviet Union. From this moment on, there could be no turning back. This was the culmination of months of German planning and preparation, and more than a decade of ideological conditioning on behalf of the Nazi regime. It was to be the crucial step in the Nazi plans for European, and eventually global, dominance, yet in retrospect many have argued that it was Hitler’s greatest folly.
In this series, I’ve contemplated how changes in German and Soviet strategy could have altered history and the fortunes of each side, but now that we’re at its end I’d like to finally consider what might have happened if instead of the “Dortmund” message the German commanders at the front had instead been sent the codeword “Altona”, the signal indicating that Barbarossa had been canceled, or at least postponed.
It’s difficult to imagine such a scenario. Hitler had talked of invading the Soviet Union as early as 1922 and had been discussing it as a military reality since the summer of 1940. However, the actual planning for Barbarossa only began in December 1940 and prior to that it might have just been possible that Hitler could have been persuaded to pursue different goals, at least as a prelude to his eventual ambition.
To find out why this might have happened, we need to go back to a train journey undertaken in the autumn of the previous year, one that would shape the course of European history.
Continue reading “When the World Held its Breath: Altona”
Old war movies are frequently smeared as jingoistic and morally simplistic. There is also the reckoning with François Truffaut, who argued no movie can ever truly be antiwar.
But the history enthusiast in me always finds something to enjoy in these movies, where heroic Americans, Britons and Allies (almost always from the Anglosphere) in awe-inspiring tanks and sleek propeller planes fight the good fight against cruel Nazis and Imperial Japanese.
Nor are these films as uncritical as they are sometimes made out to be. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), The Bridge at Remagen (1969) and even bits of The Guns of Navarone (1961) show the sheer cruel madness of war.
It is in this context that we must consider Red Tails, the 2012 movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, the African American fighter pilots who battled both American racism and German military might in Italy.
It does much the same things as The Great Escape (1963) or The Guns of Navarone, where Americans are heroes and Germans are villains, with the twist of race relations woven into the plot as any movie about the Tuskegee Airmen must. In this, it is far more nuanced morality-wise than the stereotypical old war movie, moving it more into the territory of The Bridge of Remagen and showing that American racism deeply affected the war effort, both in Europe and at home.
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