War may be hell, but it sure has made for some great movies. Some tend to embrace the heroism and excitement of battle, while others direct our attention to lost lives, damaged bodies and broken souls. Either way, war is an inherently cinematic subject that has made for great dramas, documentaries, action films and even comedies.
Here’s a list of great war movies worth watching.
Few films have stripped war down to its terrifying, thrilling essence as Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” and few films have turned war into such an overwhelming, almost physical experience. Eschewing old-fashioned dramatics for state-of-the-art sensory overload, “Dunkirk” is both minimalist and maximalist, dropping us with little preparation into the chaos of World War II.
‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979)
Where Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” tries to make sense of the Vietnam War, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” concerns itself only with the insanity. Its narrative, in which an Army captain (Martin Sheen, right) heads upriver to Cambodia on a mission of murder, is a road-trip of horror and debauchery; the film’s final act, starring Marlon Brando as the despotic Colonel Kurtz, is one of cinema’s greatest nightmares. The film’s troubled production famously mirrored its subject. As Coppola himself said: “We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.”
‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ (1964)
Another war film from Stanley Kubrick, “Dr. Strangelove” is a gonzo satire of the ongoing, unseen Cold War. With its not-implausible plot — Sterling Hayden (right) plays an insane general who launches a nuclear airstrike against Russia — and a wildly entertaining cast that includes George C. Scott, Slim Pickens and Peter Sellers
in a triple role, “Dr. Strangelove” is a comedy with a distinctly chilly undercurrent. It somehow manages to be frightening, sorrowful and as endlessly quotable as “Airplane!”
‘The Dirty Dozen’ (1967)
Lee Marvin stars in “The Dirty Dozen,” playing Major John Reisman, who is charged with leading 12 men — all Army prisoners of varying degrees of depravity — on a suicide mission just before the D-Day invasion. With its implausible plot and dream-cast of actors (Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, right, Jim Brown, Telly Savalas), the movie works dazzlingly as pure, rollicking wartime action. But director Robert Aldrich (“Kiss Me Deadly,” “The Longest Yard”) puts his mean streak to good use, giving this movie a nihilistic jolt in nearly every scene. Is it anti-war? Yes, but only because it’s anti-everything.
‘Grand Illusion’ (1937)
It’s hard to say what’s best about “Grand Illusion,” Jean Renoir’s masterful World War I drama, but we can start with Erich von Stroheim playing a German aristocrat-soldier named von Rauffenstein. He isn’t the hero of the movie, but he’s somehow the protagonist, a man of wealth and taste who would rather trade cultural notes with his French prisoners than shoot them. Alas, war makes civility impossible, and in the end we weep more for a German clinging to his vanishing empire than we do for his victims. The film’s title is inspired by Norman Angell’s 1910 book “Great Illusion,” arguing that war, despite all appearances, is economic folly.
‘Battle of Algiers’ (1966)
“How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar?” That was the Pentagon’s advertisement for a 2003 screening of “Battle of Algiers,” 37-year-old film with uncanny relevance to the war in Afghanistan. Gillo Pontecorvo’s quasi-documentary drama about Algeria’s war of independence from France still feels like it was made yesterday, raising questions about terrorism, torture, public relations and the futility of remaking a nation in one’s own image. Look for Jean Martin — the film’s only professional actor — as a no-nonsense French general whose last name might as well be Rumsfeld.
“Patton” is arguably the anti-anti-war movie of its era, even though screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola would start making “Apocalypse Now” just a few years later. George C. Scott (pictured) gives a career-defining performance as General George S. Patton, whose hot temper and pitiless leadership style made him both hero and pariah during his lifelong military career. Arriving in theaters at the peak of mainstream American hippiedom, “Patton” focused on an out-of-fashion icon — hawkish, intolerant, politically incorrect — and won seven Academy Awards, including best actor for Scott. Oddly enough, he refused to accept it.
‘Stalag 17’ (1953)
William Holden won the Oscar for best actor as prisoner of war J.J. Sefton in “Stalag 17.” He plays a wisecracking loner who profits off his fellow inmates and cozies up to the German commanders (one played by Otto Preminger) but eventually becomes an unlikely hero. Billy Wilder’s adaptation of the Broadway play (itself inspired by the writers’ experiences in a POW camp) has a magical blend of freewheeling comedy, dramatic thrills and just the right touch of bitter realism. It’s terrifically entertaining, and American through and through.
‘Born on the Fourth of July’ (1989)
“Born on the Fourth of July,” Oliver Stone’s other definitive Vietnam War film (after “Platoon”), is based on the memoir by Ron Kovic, who left Massapequa to join the Marines and returned from Vietnam half-paralyzed and mentally shattered. Tom Cruise was an unlikely choice to play Kovic but did so admirably, earning his first Oscar nomination. Though many movies have tackled post-traumatic stress disorder, “Born on the Fourth July” eloquently describes it as a tangled mix of patriotism, pride, guilt and resentment.
‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (1962)
Racially problematic, historically inaccurate and highly romanticized though it may be, “Lawrence of Arabia,” David Lean’s World War I epic about British soldier T.E. Lawrence, remains a terrific cinematic experience. The movie’s portrayal of the enigmatic Lawrence is more nuanced than some critics gave it credit for, but the real draw is the overall sense of heroism and adventure. Maurice Jarre’s grand score, F.A. Young’s sweeping cinematography and Peter O’Toole’s supernova-blue eyes are impossible to resist. Peter O’Toole, right, as T.E. Lawrence, is shown with co-star Omar Sharif in a scene from the 1962 film “Lawrence of Arabia.”
‘Paths of Glory’ (1957)
Stanley Kubrick was fascinated by war (at least five of his 13 features directly address the subject), and “Paths of Glory” is widely considered one of the best anti-war films ever made. It takes place partly in the trenches of World War I and partly in a military courtroom, as French Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) tries to defend three soldiers against charges of cowardice. The movie’s dramatic narrative, and a central conundrum worthy of Stephen Crane, are so powerful that you might not even wonder how Kirk Douglas could be French.
‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998)
Frank Capra famously directed a series of seven World War II propaganda films after enlisting in the Army, but if he’d attempted to make a more realistic war movie, it might have looked like “Saving Private Ryan.” Director Steven Spielberg strikes the perfect balance between feel-good sentiment (Tom Hanks, center, plays an Army captain searching for a missing paratrooper) and the grisly nightmare of battle (the film’s graphic depiction of the Normandy invasion is impossible to forget). The film has been criticized as old-fashioned, but that’s partly the point: In the end, it’s a tribute to American soldiers and the sacrifices they made.
‘The Deer Hunter’ (1978)
You couldn’t ask for a better cast than Robert De Niro (pictured), Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep — the latter were relative unknowns — in “The Deer Hunter” to tell the story of Vietnam’s effect on three Americans in a small Pennsylvania town. Michael Cimino’s intense drama is occasionally clichéd (it portrays the Viet Cong as inscrutable sadists) and its Russian roulette theme can feel a little contrived. Still, for sheer dramatic power, “The Deer Hunter” is tough to beat.
‘American Sniper’ (2014)
Clint Eastwood’s film “American Sniper” is based on the memoir of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (an excellent Bradley Cooper), whose four tours in Iraq made him the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. The movie may lean right — Kyle is an unabashed Christian crusader — but it’s also a clear-eyed look at what war can do to even the most courageous and fully committed soldier. It’s currently the highest grossing war film in history.
‘Waltz With Bashir’ (2008)
The 1982 war between Lebanon and Israel is the central mystery in “Waltz With Bashir,” an animated, first-person documentary by Ari Folman, who served in the Israeli military and now suffers from both amnesia and nightmares. By talking to friends, psychologists, other veterans and journalists, Folman gets to the bottom of his mental block and comes to a shattering realization about his role in the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinians and Lebanese. It’s a mesmerizing, harrowing and utterly unique piece of filmmaking.
‘From Here to Eternity’ (1953)
“From Here to Eternity,” Fred Zinnemann’s grand Hollywood drama about military men and the women in their lives, is mostly a prewar movie: It takes place in isolationist America in the months just before the attacks on Pearl Harbor. That impending sense of doom, however, is what elevates this entertaining soap-opera into a meditation on American life before world events overtook it. The once-in-a-lifetime cast includes Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Montgomery Clift and a terrific Frank Sinatra, who won best supporting actor as the heartbreaking Private Maggio.
Though its anti-establishment attitude got watered down in the CBS sitcom, Robert Altman’s “M*A*S*H” remains the granddaddy of war comedies, a rollicking but also outraged film that uses the Korean War as a stand-in for Vietnam. At times the movie can feel like a wartime “Animal House,” with Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould as rowdy frat boys. It’s the undercurrent of death and horror — the triage scenes flood the screen with goopy red — that makes the humor feel like a gut-punch.
Oliver Stone’s modern classic “Platoon,” inspired by his own military service, became the first major film to be written and directed by a veteran of the Vietnam War. Starring Charlie Sheen as a wide-eyed new recruit and Tom Berenger as a sergeant without a moral compass, “Platoon” can feel a bit short on nuance — Willem Dafoe plays a Christ-like martyr — but it remains the definitive story of American innocence lost in a regrettable war. It won four Oscars, including for best picture and best director.
All opinion articles are the opinion of the author and not necessarily of American Military News. If you are interested in submitting an Op-Ed, please email [email protected].
By Rafer Guzman [email protected]
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