Top Ten Wartime Romances

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The backdrop of war has often provided an epic setting for some of the greatest romances in cinematic history, as audiences’ appetite for tragic love stories shows no sign of abating. To celebrate the release of Testament of Youth, out on digital platforms from 8th May 2015, and on Blu-ray and DVD from 25th May 2015, courtesy of Lionsgate Home Entertainment, we take a look at some of the greatest wartime romances to hit the screen… tissues at the ready!

Testament of Youth (2014)

Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander), irrepressible, intelligent and free-minded, overcomes the prejudices of her family and hometown to win a scholarship to Oxford. With everything to live for, she falls in love with her brother’s close friend Roland Leighton (Kit Harington) as they go to University to pursue their literary dreams. But the First World War is looming and as the boys leave for the front Vera realises she cannot sit idly by as her peers fight for their country, so volunteers as a nurse. Both Vikander and Harington bring a wonderful playfulness to their initial courtship (with brilliant comedic support from Joanna Scanlan as their chaperone), and as the war separates them evolve this chemistry into something utterly moving.

Cold Mountain (2003)

This critically acclaimed wartime epic tells the story of Confederate soldier Inman (Jude Law) who undertakes a perilous journey back home to Cold Mountain, North Carolina, in order to reunite with his sweetheart, Ada (Nicole Kidman), the woman he left behind to fight in the Civil War. Along the way, he meets a long line of interesting characters, all the while avoiding the soldiers tasked with hunting deserters. Parallel to his story is Ada’s, as she struggles to learn the ropes of managing her deceased father’s farm with help from the scatty, no-nonsense Ruby (an Oscar-winning turn from Renée Zellweger), all the while fantasising about the return of her lost love. Kidman and Law spend hardly any screen time together, yet their brilliant, yearning performances more than make up for this to illustrate their desperation and longing to reunite.

Birdsong (2012)

This BBC mini-series based on Sebastian Faulk’s novel recounts the life and times of Stephen Wraysford (Eddie Redmayne). An English soldier fighting in the trenches of Northern France during WWI, he is continually haunted by the memories of the French Isabelle (Clémence Poésy), a married woman he had an affair with 6 years previously. Redmayne and Poésy are perfectly cast as the impetuous lovers, while the backdrop of a balmy summer in provincial France perfectly captures the claustrophobia and repression of their predicament.

Atonement (2007)

This heartbreaking wartime drama based on Ian McEwan’s bestselling novel boasts a stellar cast, including Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saiorse Ronan, Benedict Cumberbatch and Vanessa Redgrave. When the budding romance between Cecilia Tallis (Knightley) and Robbie Turner (McAvoy) is cut brutally short following a lie told by Bryony Tallis (Ronan), the repercussions span several decades. After choosing the army over prison, Robbie is stationed at Dunkirk, while Cecilia takes a role as a nurse in London. Knightley provides a masterfully reserved turn as the stoic Cecilia, while McAvoy’s take on the morally upstanding, innocent and fundamentally kind Robbie is completely heartbreaking – and special mention must be given to Wright’s masterful tackling of the novel’s twist ending.

Casablanca (1942)

This classic WWII drama, starring Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart as former lovers Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund, takes place in unoccupied Casablanca and is responsible for one of the most mis-quoted movie lines of all time. When the Nazi Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) arrives in Casablanca, the sycophantic police Captain Renault (Claude Rains) goes above and beyond to appease him- including detaining Czechoslovak underground leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). Lazslo’s partner is Ilsa, who ran out on Blaine in Paris and left him completely embittered. But when it transpires that her reasons were honourable, the pair hatch a plan to run off together again, and pick up where they left off…

The English Patient (1996)

Anthony Minghella wrote and directed this multi-award winning epic based on Michael Ondaatje’s novel about a doomed romance set against the backdrop of WWII. In a field hospital in Italy, nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche) is caring for a pilot who was horribly burned in a plane wreck. Hana determines mid evacuation that the patient shouldn’t be moved far due to his fragile condition, so the two are left in a monastery to be picked up later. Slowly, she begins to piece together the patient’s story told in flashbacks. She discovers that her charge is in fact the Hungarian Count Laszlo Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) –who while mapping unchartered territory in North Africa, was thrown together with English couple Geoffrey (Colin Firth) and Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott-Thomas) resulting in an affair which lead him to betray not only his friend, but his country.

The End of the Affair (1955)

Adapted by Lenore Coffee from Graham Greene’s novel, this classic stars Van Johnson as Maurice Bendrix, the clandestine lover of married Sarah Miles (Deborah Kerr). When Maurice disappears during the London blitz, Sarah is overwhelmed with guilt, feeling that her unfaithfulness has led to Maurice to be placed in danger. In a fit of desperation she prays for his safe return, promising to end the affair if only his life is spared… and the rest is in the title. Featuring wonderfully emotionally complex performances from all the leads, the film is also notable for a standout performance from John Mills, as the private detective hired by Sarah’s husband Henry (Peter Cushing) to keep tabs on her whereabouts.  

Gone with the Wind (1939)

One of the most beloved movies of all time, and winner of ten Academy Awards, including for Hattie McDaniel’s and Vivien Leigh’s performances, Gone with the Wind follows the life of spoiled, pampered Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Leigh). After discovering a former beau is engaged, Scarlett’s behaviour leads her straight into the arms of the wayward Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), the black sheep of a wealthy Charleston family, who is instantly fascinated by the spirited, self-absorbed Scarlett. The movie’s action continues, through the American Civil War, the burning of Atlanta, Scarlett’s journey from riches to poverty, and three marriages, all the way to the now-classic closing line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Life is Beautiful (1997)

This stunning tragicomedy was directed by Roberto Benigni and also garnered him a best leading actor Academy Award. Set in 1939, Benigni plays Jewish-Italian Guido Orefice working as a waiter to fund his plans to open a bookshop. When he meets a school teacher named Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), his effervescent humour ultimately sweeps her off her feet. On the fifth birthday of their son Giosué (Giorgio Cantarini), World War II is in full force, and since they are Jewish, the Germans take away Guido and Giosué to a labour camp. Wanting to be with her family, Dora insists she goes too, but is taken to the women’s side of the camp. In an attempt to protect Giosué from the horror of their situation and ensure they are not separated, Guido tells him that they are playing a game, in which he can win points by staying out of sight of the guards. The first to win 1000 points wins a real tank. Guido’s primary goal is to keep Giosué safe at all cost, while he desperately tries to find out a way to get his family out of the camp and keep the Germans at bay before they discover Giosué.

Shining Through (1992)

David Seltzer‘s adaptation of Susan Issacs‘ novel is set during WWII, and stars Melanie Griffith and Michael Douglas as work colleagues who ultimately become lovers. When Linda Voss (Griffith) applies for a job with international lawyer Ed Leland (Douglas), he hires her immediately upon discovering she is fluent in German. He’s an undercover OSS officer in need of a German translator, but when America enters the war, he abandons his practice to become a full-time spy. Meanwhile Linda travels to Berlin to infiltrate the Nazis and find out more about “a bomb that can fly by itself” … as well as desperately searching for the whereabouts of her Jewish relatives.

Testament of Youth is available on digital platforms from 8th May 2015, and on Blu-ray and DVD from 25th May 2015, courtesy of Lionsgate Home Entertainment.

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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.



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