This was a tough list to narrow down. When you start looking at the history of war films, the catalog grows and grows and the page could fill with great cinematic moments. The following pictures are prominently war movies, dealing with combat, soldiers, the horrors of conflict. This in order to shorten the list and separate films like Schindler’s List and MASH, films that take place during war but do not directly examine the psychology of combat. Rather, they approach it through different avenues:
10) All Quiet on the Western Front – There is a stigma about war pictures from the thirties and forties, that they all are very positive in their approach to war. They are the “pro-war” films that disappeared after Vietnam. But All Quiet on the Western Front, released in 1930, was an exception to that rule. The story revolves around a group of German schoolboys who are coaxed into fighting in World War I and discover the horrors and the disillusionment with killing. Aside form having the coolest title on the list, All Quiet is perhaps the only great war picture to deal with the first World War.
9) The Hurt Locker – This might find its way further up the list in later years, but for now there are eight pictures with a more solid foundation. Nevertheless, Kathryn Bigelow’s taut action film, set in the midst of the most recent war in the Middle East, never leans one way or another on the political side of things. Instead, she allows the performances from Jeremy Renner, the reckless bomb technician, and Anthony Mackie, the levelheaded company man, divide the thoughts and opinions of the war. This is the first great picture about the war in Iraq, one that is sure to get imitators now that it won Best Picture.
8) Glory – Somehow, when war films are being discussed, this Civil War epic from Edward Zwick gets overlooked. Perhaps because it deals with the Civil War. Telling the true story of Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick, really stretching his abilities here), the leader of the Civil War’s first all black volunteer company, Glory not only has some inspired fight scenes, it also has what is arguably still the greatest performance of Denzel Washington’s career. Glory handles prejudices and mindsets deftly, and never shies away from the way things must have been.
7) The Deer Hunter – Michael Cimino’s Academy-Award winning film is a lot of things, all revolving around what adds up to a brief act in the actual Vietnam conflict. This one is memorable for specific scenes, namely the roulette scene in Vietnam that aroused much controversy for its factual liberties. And there is the wedding scene, an hour-long opening act that could be its own short film. But that wedding scene, and the camaraderie between the men at the center of this story is vital in understanding how the war ultimately affects them. With a solid performance from Robert DeNiro, and an astounding turn from a young Christopher Walken, this is a heartbreaking picture with flashes of brutality and psychological horror that will forever stand in the pantheon of war pictures.
6) Full Metal Jacket – Stanley Kubrick’s journey through the hell of Vietnam does not start on the battlefield. Rather, it begins in boot camp, and takes an unabashed look at the psychological damage a hard-driving drill sergeant could have had on this poor young men who had no other choice but to saddle up, shave their head, and carry a rifle. Vincent D’Onofrio gives a truly haunting performance as Private Pyle, a performance that truly dominates the memory of most. What many forget is that Private Pyle’s decent into madness is but the first act of the film. The remainder revolves around Joker (Matthew Modine) and his platoon fighting their way out of a city in Vietnam. What begins as seemingly a pro-war film evolves into something much darker, more disturbing by the end.
5) Platoon – Oliver Stone borrowed from his own experiences in Vietnam, telling a semi-autobiographical tale about a young man who leaves college to fight in the war. Platoon is heavily an anti-war picture, but some great acting represents the two sides here. There is the pro-war side, led by Tom Berenger as a badly scarred – mentally and physically – Sgt. Barnes, a vicious monster who relishes in pain and bloodshed. And there is the antir-war side, led by a pot-smoking company man just making his way, Elias (Willem Dafoe). Both sides have their followers and the detractors, and the division is seemingly down the lines of hippies and bureaucrats in America.
4) The Longest Day – This is perhaps remembered as John Wayne’s best war picture, but the cast of stars here is unsurpassed by any other film. Telling the story of the D-Day invasion on the beaches of Normandy, The Longest Day stars Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery, Robert Wagner, Rod Steiger, Sal Mineo, Roddy McDowall, Peter Lawford, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton… the list goes on. The Longest Day also looks at the conflict that day from both the German and American sides, an unprecedented idea at the time, and the action and battle scenes still hold up today thanks to the expansive cast of great talents.
3) Apocalypse Now – As much of an undoing of Francis Ford Coppola and the cast as it was an undoing of the idea of Vietnam, Apocalypse Now is an epic adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, set against the backdrop of Southeast Asia. The performances here go beyond the screen; Martin Sheen as Captain Willard and Marlon Brando as the insane Colonel Kurtz hold a spot in our imagination as truly haunting, disturbed human beings whose destinies are seemingly foregone conclusions. Dealing not only with the horrors of war, but the horrors of humanity and of the dark places in the mind, Apocalypse Now transcends genre and indicts human existence more than it does any specific war.
2) The Thin Red Line – Depending on what day you catch me, Terrance Malick’s meditative war epic might be number one on my list. But today, it is a close number two. The Thin Red Line, much like The Longest Day, is littered with stars: Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Jim Caveizel, Adrian Brody, John Travolta, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Jared Leto, to name a few. But what makes Malick’s vision so unique is the eye of Malick himself, the way he observes not only the gun battles or the horrors of war, but the nature in which these events unfold. Firebombs and bullets rip through not only people, but place as well. Malick has always been anxious to tie humanity in with nature, and doing it in the setting of the battle in the pacific lends to some beautiful photography.
1) Saving Private Ryan – No surprise here. What is a surprise, what is so amazing in its banality, is the Academy’s decision to reward Shakespeare in Love with Best Picture over Steven Spielberg’s everlasting war masterpiece. No other picture, not even The Longest Day, has done justice to the chaos, the madness, the bloodshed that took place that day in June of 1944 on the beaches of Normandy. And the cast, from Tom Hanks to Matt Damon and all the way through, disappears into their roles here. These actors look and feel and are textured as soldiers in World War II. Dialogue is evenly distributed between battle sequences throughout that are epic in each their own way. While the narrative drive is specific, the larger scope of the picture is all encompassing, and an unforgettable experience.
SHOUTOUTS: To Patton and The Bridge on the River Kwai, to great war films that I just couldn't find a spot to fit in.