Twenty-One Great War Films
By John W. Whitehead

You can’t 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 audience’s head every night, you know, and have actual casualties in the theater.

—Sam Fuller

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 humanity’s response to the grotesque horror of war. They present human conflict in its most bizarre conditions—where 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 DVD—and some endlessly replayed on television. Most of them are detailed quite nicely in Mike Mayo’s 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 war.

Sands Of Iwo Jima (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 Reed’s The Third Man, which deals primarily with the after-effects of the ravages of war, is a great film by anyone’s 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 Zinnemann’s 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.

To Hell And Back (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.

Paths Of Glory (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 Macready.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962). John Frankenheimer’s 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 film’s 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.

The Great Escape (1963). 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.

Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964). One of the great films of all time, Stanley Kubrick’s 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 didn’t). 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 Lancaster—who, 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 Aldrich’s Dirty Dozen is a fun, entertaining war film—if 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).

Patton (1970). George C. Scott gives a great performance here as the maniacal World War II general, George Patton. Patton’s 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.

MASH (1970). This is one of Robert Altman’s best and most influential films—as 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.

The Deer Hunter (1978). Michael Cimino’s 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 clear—war is the horror of all horrors. Robert DeNiro is fine, and Christopher Walken, who won a best supporting actor Oscar, is superb.

Apocalypse Now (1979). I consider this Francis Ford Coppola’s best film. Based on Joseph Conrad’s 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.

Das Boot (1981). No other submarine film compares to Wolfgang Petersen’s 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 point—and then beyond it. How do they deal with overpowering hopelessness? What form will their surrender or disintegration take?

Platoon (1986). This is not Oliver Stone’s 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 real—a wet place for bugs, leeches and snakes, but not for people. Fine performances by Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger.

Full Metal Jacket (1987). Stanley Kubrick’s take on Vietnam is one of the most powerful and psychological dramas ever made. Focusing on the schizophrenic nature of the human psyche—the duality of man—Kubrick 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 Kubrick’s work, is top notch.

The Big Red One (1980). Though Lee Marvin won his best actor Oscar for Cat Ballou (1965), his performance as the Sergeant in Sam Fuller’s 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.

Jacob’s Ladder (1990). Adrian Lyne’s 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.

Mother Night (1996). Keith Gordon’s adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s 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.

Saving Private Ryan: The Invasion Sequence (1998). The long opening sequence of this film is unlike anything in any other Hollywood depiction of war. It’s 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 Kaminski—to be shared with editor Michael Kahn, sound designer Gary Rydstrom, writer Robert Rodat and director Steven Spielberg. Beyond this—i.e., the other 150 minutes of the film—Saving Private Ryan is a run-of-the-mill movie.