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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Film: The Best War Movies Ever

By Noah Mallin

My good friend Cletus and I put our heads together this week and other than coming away with grease in my hair I also came away with this list of the best war movies ever, in time for Memorial Day here in the United States. They are in no particular order. Cletus argued for 10 films, I argued for 20 and we settled on 15 plus one more for extra value.

1) Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Steven Spielberg's epic was a big Summer hit, coinciding with a generational re-examination of the Second World War at a time when what's been dubbed "the greatest generation" was thinning considerably. The first twenty minutes rank with the best cinema has to offer, a harrowing re-creation of the D-Day landing at Normandy Beach that uses hand-held cameras, washed out cinematography and inventive sound design to pummel the viewer into a state of mute horror. The rest of the flick has a hard time grabbing the viewer's attention after the bravura opening but taken on their own there are some incredible scenes and fine performances, led by Tom Hanks and Jeremy Davies as a combat shy language expert. Essentially an homage to the films that originally honored these men, it's a moving and sometimes breathtaking work.

2) Paths of Glory (1957)
Stanley Kubrick's tough, impassioned anti-war film cuts deep. The story set during World War I concerns a group of French soldiers, led reluctantly by Kirk Douglas, who balk at joining the carnage. The overall battle ends in defeat and the higher-ups decide to make an example of this small group to shift the blame for the failure. Absolutely searing.

3) Sergeant York (1941)
Legend has it that real-life World War I hero Alvin York requested three things from the producers of this film before he would sell them the rights to his life story. His wife shouldn't be played by a typical Hollywood starlet, the heroics had to be told straight and without embellishment, and he would have to be played by the everyman actor of the day Gary Cooper. All accounts have Director Howard Hawks sticking to this agreement, delivering a rousing film about heroism that is inspiring while also being though-provoking. York was a pacifist who tried and failed to obtain conscientious objector status and was drafted. A crack shot, he had to be convinced to take part in combat. When a force of Germans mow down several of his unit members, he personally killed 25 of the enemy, while capturing 132 of them.

4) M*A*S*H (1970)
M*A*S*H was set during the Korean War, but it was clear to audiences that this was a sharp satire of the then-current war in Vietnam. The film was a huge hit, establishing director Robert Altman and stars Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland as avatars of a new Hollywood elite. Altman would never have a hit as big again, but many of his innovations are here most notably his flair for ensemble casts, his overlapping dialogue and sound, and his flaunting of genre conventions. Some of the humor comes of as sexist now but this is an uproarious iconoclastic war comedy. Those who only know the television show are in for a treat.

5) The Great Escape (1963)
Based loosely on a true story, The Great Escape is a rousing adventure that also contains much of the tragedy of war. Set during the Second World War, it has a brilliant ensemble cast including Steve McQueen, James Garner, British director Richard Attenborough, and Charles Bronson planning a daring operation to flee the German POW camp that holds them. Includes a famous motorcycle chase with McQueen.

6) Bridge on The River Kwai (1957)
One of the greatest films of all time, David Lean's epic explores issues of duty and honor and offers no easy answers. Alec Guiness won an Oscar as did Lean and the blacklisted writers. Guiness is simply unforgettable as the leader of British officers in a brutal Japanese POW camp. At first he resists camp commander Sessue Hayakawa's edict that the British prisoners build the titular bridge. After a brutal solitary confinement he agrees, believing that the British will prove their superior engineering and building skills to the Japanese. William Holden is haunting as an American officer who escapes the camp but is coerced to return.

7) The Dirty Dozen (1967)
In it's own sly way, as incendiary an anti-Vietnam film as M*A*S*H would prove to be only disguised even better for mass consumption by director Robert Aldrich. World War II set film concerns a band of dead end criminal soldiers forced into a brutal mission with very little chance to survive. Lee Marvin is outstanding as their commander and the cast including Telly Savalas, Ernest Borgnine, John Casavetes, Robert Ryan, and Jim Brown is top-notch.

8) The Thin Red Line (1998)
Terence Malick came back from a long absence to direct this film set in the Pacific during World War II. Criticized by some for it's incredible lush scenery, the fecundity surrounding the soldiers is the point of the film. The rich life around them in these islands acts as a rebuke to the brutality the young soldiers experience and are asked to perpetrate. Fantastic cast including John Cusack, Nick Nolte, Jim Cavaziel and Woody Harrelson and stunning cinematography.

9) The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)
The true story of war reporter Ernie Pyle, beloved by the troops for telling it like it was in his dispatches. William Wellman's film shows incredible contrast between the downtime and the battles and Burgess Meredith was never better as Pyle. Robert Mitchum became a star on the strength of his portrayal of the caring, hard-bitten Commander who has to see his unite depleted as he receives unasked-for battlefield promotions. Pyle was felled by a sniper's bullet shortly before the film's release.

10) The Deer Hunter (1978)
Michael Cimino's epic tragedy was one of the first Hollywood films to deal with Vietnam directly. Though it's harrowing war scenes may have been divorced from reality, they pack a punch, especially when contrasted with the scenes depicting life before and after the experience of the young men who go off to war, played beautifully by Robert DeNiro, John Cazale, John Savage, and Christopher Walken. The controversial Russian roulette scenes in a POW camp are indelible.

11) Apocalypse Now (1979)
Avoid the overhyped Director's cut and seek out the tighter original version which stays on course without a some lengthy pointless digressions. Coppola aimed for a masterpiece but like the Vietnam war he was depicting, he ended up biting off more than he could chew in this troubled production. There are some incredible sequences, particularly involving Robert Duvall who nearly steals the movie as a surf-happy air cavalry man. The ending featuring Brando was as anticlimactic and depressing as the actual wars denouement.

12) Platoon (1986)
For better or worse, the film that put Oliver Stone and Charlie Sheen on the map. Kicking off a wave of Vietnam films in the 80s this was a surprise hit. Bombastic, over-the-top, and reductive, it's still a helluva film. Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe are standouts in career-making roles.

13) Stalag 17 (1953)
Billy Wilder's pitch dark drama is shot through with moments of levity but the cynicism of its worldview is as inescapable as the POW camp the characters are stuck in. William Holden, in an Oscar winning performance, plays the sardonic king of the cynics in the Nazi camp. He's trusted by no-one, just as he trusts nobody. The Nazi's deftly play the interns against one another, especially when it appears that there is a mole in their ranks.

14) Das Boot (1981)
The six-hour TV miniseries version of Wolfgang Petersen's submarine-set film is a bit much to take but the theatrical film version is nail-bitingly good. Told from the point of view of the crew of a Nazi u-boat, it's impossible not to sympathize with them. They are as much victims of Hitler's brutality as the Americans they are pitted against. The claustrophobia and fear of their lives underwater is palpable throughout.

15) Patton (1970)
Star George C. Scott saw Patton as a critique of war but Franklin J. Shaffner walks a delicate line, allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions from Patton's megalomania and military genius. Scott was never better and the Academy agreed, awarding him Best Actor which he refused to accept. The film also won Best Picture and its sweeping scope and intelligent screenplay make it timeless.

16) The Big Red One (1980)
Director Sam Fuller made a number of lean low-budget Word War II flicks in the 1950s but all of his work would lead up to this, based on his own combat experiences. Originally compromised by an inelegant studio cut, film critic and historian Richard Schickel assembled a longer version after Fuller's death based on his original screenplay and using leftover footage. The result was a revelation, showing the full sweep of unexpected juxtapositions of beauty in the midst of carnage. A lost masterpiece.


Mike Lorah said...

Haven't seen a lot of these, but no complaints about what you have listed. I'd have to see a few of them again to adequately judge them.

I can't recall much past the first fifteen minutes of Saving Private Ryan, and The Deer Hunter's pacing really made it difficult to get into.

I'll have to rent the original cut of Apocalypse Now, since I only saw it for the first time last week, and it was the bloated Director's Cut you refer to. It definitely had some fat to trim, but I still found it extremely intense as a whole. It'll be nice to see how much more powerful it can be without the diversions.

Bridge on the River Kwai is friggin' incredible, and Platoon certainly deserves the majority of its rep.

Anonymous said...

This list is great, however, I think you could add a couple more. The Spielberg/Hanks TV miniseries "Band of Brothers" as well as the surprisingly little known film "Saints and Soldiers." both are set during WWII and both are brilliant.

...and actually, Gibson's "We Were Soldiers" (Vietnam war film) is great too.

elaine m said...

there are a couple more worth seeing. the Spielberg/Hanks TV miniseries "band of brothers" as well as the little-known film "Saints and Soldiers." both about WWII and both are brilliant.

Austin personal trainer said...

Breaker Morant 2nd
The Lighthorseman 3rd
Paths to Glory
The Great Santini
Town without Pity
Band of Brothers - the absolute best
Twelve O'clock High
We Were Soldiers
The Deer Hunter
Blackhawk Down
Empire of the Sun
Saving Private Ryan