You cant show war as it really is on the screen, with all the blood and gore. Perhaps it would be better if you could fire real shots over the audiences head every night, you know, and have actual casualties in the theater.
War movies deal in the extremes of human behavior. The best films address not only destruction on a vast scale but also reach the depths of humanitys response to the grotesque horror of war. They present human conflict in its most bizarre conditionswhere men and women caught in the perilous straits of death perform feats of noble sacrifice or dig into the dark battalions of cowardice.
War films provide viewers a way to vicariously experience combat. But the great ones are not mere vehicles for escapism. Instead, they provide a source of inspiration, while also touching upon the fundamental issues at work in wartime scenarios.
War movies are a popular genre. There are literally hundreds, with many now available on video or DVDand some endlessly replayed on television. Most of them are detailed quite nicely in Mike Mayos War Movies: Classic Conflict on Film (Visible Ink, 1999).
It was not easy
selecting a small number to view so I focused on films
that touch on modern warfare (from the First World War
onward). Here are 21 of my favorite war films that run
the gamut of conflicts and human emotions and center on
the core issues often at work in the nasty business of
(1949). John Wayne is Sgt. Stryker, the toughest and meanest
platoon leader alive (Wayne received an Oscar nomination
for best actor). Stryker leads his men through boot camp
and into the Pacific area to fight the Japanese. This
film is one of the best of its kind and, as it was meant
to do, it inspires.
The Third Man (1949). Carol Reeds The Third Man, which deals primarily with the after-effects of the ravages of war, is a great film by anyones standards. Set in postwar Europe, this bleak film (written by Graham Greene) sets forth the proposition that the corruption inherent in humanity means that the ranks of war are never closed. There are many fine performances in this film, including Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli.
From Here To Eternity (1953). Fred Zinnemanns adaptation of the James Jones novel is one of the best films ever made. Set in Hawaii on the eve of the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, it interweaves the personal conflicts of individual servicemen and women with the angst of military life lived on the verge of war. Great cast and performances from Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster and Ernest Borgnine.
(1955). Audie Murphy was the most decorated soldier in
World War II, and this film is his autobiography. A fascinating
story that would probably be dismissed as fantasy if it
were not true. Murphy is capable playing himself, with
a fine ensemble cast.
(1957). This Stanley Kubrick film is an antiwar masterpiece.
The setting is 1916, when two years of trench warfare
have arrived at a stalemate. And while nothing of importance
is occurring in the war, thousands of lives are being
lost. But the masters of war pull the puppet strings,
and the blood continues to flow. This film is packed with
good performances, especially from Kirk Douglas and George
(1962). John Frankenheimers classic focuses on the
psychological effects of war and its transmutation into
mind control and political assassination. All the lines
of intrigue converge to form a prophetic vision of what
occurred the year after the films release with the
assassination of John F. Kennedy. The chilling film is
well written (co-written by Frankenheimer and George Axelrod)
and acted. Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury
head a fine cast.
Based on a true story of a mass escape by officers from
a German prison camp, this film made Steve McQueen a star.
But McQueen had great support in James Coburn, Charles
Bronson, James Garner, David McCallum, Richard Attenborough,
et al. McQueen unknowingly sold a lot of motorcycles
with his performance.
Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb
(1964). One of the great films of all time, Stanley Kubricks
Dr. Strangelove burst onto the cinematic landscape
and cast a cynical eye on the entire business of war.
Strange and surreal, this film is packed full of amazing
images and great performances. Peter Sellers should have
walked off with the Oscar for best actor (but he didnt).
Sterling Hayden and George C. Scott are excellent in support.
The Train (1965). This is another superb film by John Frankenheimer and an equally great performance by Burt Lancasterwho, at age 51, does all his stunts. Lancaster is cast as Labiche, the reluctant leader of a French resistance group, who valiantly attempts to derail a Nazi train loaded with stolen French artwork masterpieces. A good supporting cast includes Paul Scofield and Jeanne Moreau.
The Dirty Dozen (1967). Robert Aldrichs Dirty Dozen is a fun, entertaining war filmif there is such a thing. A group of criminals and misfits are gathered together by a tough renegade major (Lee Marvin) to attack a German stronghold during World War II. Besides Marvin, this film has a great cast (John Cassavetes, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Robert Ryan, Telly Savalas, et al).
George C. Scott gives a great performance here as the
maniacal World War II general, George Patton. Pattons
philosophy was one that conquered his times: "Now
I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war
by dying for his country. He won it by making the other
poor dumb bastard die for his country." If only it
were this simple.
(1970). This is one of Robert Altmans best and most
influential filmsas can be seen in the popular spin-off
television series. Everyone knows the story of this group
of misfit American doctors during the Korean War. Fine
performances by Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould.
Michael Ciminos Academy Award-winning film is one
of the most emotion-invoking films ever made. This story
of a group of Pennsylvania steel mill workers who endure
excruciating ordeals in the Vietnam War is one film that
makes its point clearwar is the horror of all horrors.
Robert DeNiro is fine, and Christopher Walken, who won
a best supporting actor Oscar, is superb.
I consider this Francis Ford Coppolas best film.
Based on Joseph Conrads novella, The Heart of
Darkness, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) treks to
the Cambodian jungle to assassinate renegade, manic Colonel
Kurtz (Marlon Brando). This antiwar epic is a great visual
experience with fine performances from its ensemble cast.
No other submarine film compares to Wolfgang Petersens
epic. Set in the final days of World War II, Das Boot
has a harrowing sense of claustrophobia. This is a film
about men who are pushed to the breaking pointand
then beyond it. How do they deal with overpowering hopelessness?
What form will their surrender or disintegration take?
(1986). This is not Oliver Stones best film, but
it is one helluva war movie. Set before and during the
Tet Offensive of January 1968, this is a gritty view of
the Vietnam War by one who served there. Indeed, when
Stone is not filling the screen with explosions, he makes
the jungle seem all too reala wet place for bugs,
leeches and snakes, but not for people. Fine performances
by Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger.
(1987). Stanley Kubricks take on Vietnam is one
of the most powerful and psychological dramas ever made.
Focusing on the schizophrenic nature of the human psychethe
duality of manKubrick takes us through a hell-like
Parris Island boot camp and into the bowels of a surreal
Vietnam through the eyes of Joker (Matthew Modine). Every
facet of this film, as in all of Kubricks work,
is top notch.
(1980). Though Lee Marvin won his best actor Oscar for
Cat Ballou (1965), his performance as the Sergeant
in Sam Fullers autobiographical view of World War
II may be his best work. The story actually starts in
World War I and winds its way into World War II Europe.
This is a surreal film punctuated with bleak humor. "Killing
insane people is not good for public relations,"
the Sergeant says. Fuller, however, brings the audience
face-to-face with the horror of war and our tendency to
surge forward into hell without counting the consequences.
(1990). Adrian Lynes thriller hits the psyche like
a thunderbolt. A man (Tim Robbins) struggles with some
of the things he saw while serving in Vietnam. Back home,
he gradually becomes unable to separate "reality"
from the surreal, psychotic world that intermittently
intervenes in his existence. This bizarre film touches
on the sordid nature of war and the corruption of those
who manipulate and experiment on us while we fight on
their behalf. Good cast (especially Elizabeth Peña),
an excellent screenplay (Bruce Joel Rubin) and adept directing
make this film one nice trip.
(1996). Keith Gordons adaptation of Kurt Vonneguts
surreal novel is a film that is meant to keep the viewer
off-balance and, thus, engaged in the story. It centers
on American Howard W. Campbell, Jr. (Nick Nolte) who,
by becoming a Nazi propagandist, spies for his country.
Eventually, Campbell is captured by the Israeli government
and is headed toward the gallows. Gordon, a former actor,
handles the direction of this complex film with grace
and maturity. Good screenplay (Robert B. Weide) and an
excellent lead performance by Nolte. John Goodman, as
usual, does well in support.
The Invasion Sequence
(1998). The long opening sequence of this film is unlike
anything in any other Hollywood depiction of war. Its
25 minutes of barely comprehensible chaos and mutilation.
Many veterans have stated that it is the most accurate
re-creation of an amphibious assault. Credit for this
sequence goes mainly to director of photography Janusz
Kaminskito be shared with editor Michael Kahn, sound
designer Gary Rydstrom, writer Robert Rodat and director
Steven Spielberg. Beyond thisi.e., the other 150
minutes of the filmSaving Private Ryan is
a run-of-the-mill movie.