Monday, May 31, 2010

Top 25: War Films You Should Know

In honor of Memorial Day, let’s talk about the Top 25 war movies you should see to be well versed in war movies. This is an interesting list because it mixes some patriotic films with some anti-war movies, and it includes movies that are fairly accurate and some that are complete fantasy.

Interestingly, there are few war films that deal with the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Spanish American War, the Mexican American War or Korea. And those films that do touch on these topics can hardly be considered memorable or influential. You may also note that there is nothing about Iraq (for which I recommend the miniseries Generation Kill). Let us begin. . .

1. Apocalypse Now (Redux) (1979): This movie sits atop many greatest war movies lists and it deserves its place -- but make sure you see the redux. Based on Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” Apocalypse Now is a criticism of the Vietnam war. But it is not anti-war or anti-American, despite what many people believe (I should do an article on this point). What it is, is critical of distant commanders living in luxury as they send troops to fight wars on a part-time basis. It is a criticism of starting wars but not fighting to win. Now’s characters, all played by top-notch actors, are iconic, and you literally can’t escape its most famous quotes, from “the horror, the horror,” to “Saigon, I’m still in Saigon,” to “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

2. Platoon (1986): I don’t like starting this list with two Vietnam movies in a row, but they both deserve their places. Platoon is the movie that changed the relationship between the public and Vietnam veterans. Even though Oliver Stone intended this as an anti-military diatribe, Americans took this film as an opportunity to embrace Vietnam Veterans and to make peace with the war. It’s also an extremely well done movie that became the template for all future movies based about Vietnam. Incidentally, this is not the only film to backfire on Stone, see e.g. Wall Street which had a generation of Americans idolizing Gordon Gekko. “Somebody once wrote: ‘Hell is the impossibility of reason.’ That's what this place feels like.”

3. The Longest Day (1962): This movie is one of those shining moments. This movie features a who’s who of Hollywood leading men from the 1950s/1960s, who work their way through American’s crowning moment in World War II -- the D-Day invasion. It’s well written, well acted, well shot, and it doesn’t cheapen the Allies’ achievement by making the Germans into subhuman creatures or idiots. And all of this adds up to a movie that feels as real as a documentary, but is as entertaining as carefully crafted fiction. “The thing that's always worried me about being one of the few is the way we keep on getting fewer.”

4. Gettysburg (1993): Gettysburg the battle is the most pivotal moment in our nation’s history: a Southern victory would have meant British recognition and a permanent split. Gettysburg the film is easily the greatest Civil War movie. Filmed before CGI, the producers gathered thousands of historical recreationists to create the most realistic Civil War battle scenes you will ever see. This movie shows all of the insanity of combat tactics in that era and the hardships the troops faced. It shows you how the armies differed, and how these really were citizen armies. And unlike movies like Glory, Gettysburg has no agenda; it presents a highly nuanced discussion of the nation’s politics and it gives all sides a fair presentation. “To be a good soldier you must love the army. To be a good commander you must be able to order the death of the thing you love.”

5. The Great Escape (1963): Despite its seemingly fantastic plot, The Great Escape is an amalgam of true stories combined into one giant escape. This movie presents some of the coolest leading men of its era but, unlike other ensemble films, this one is plot driven and it makes the actors work for it, rather than the other way around. This movie also, to its credit, presents a nuanced view of the Germans, showing the historical distinction between the treatment POWs received from the Luftwaffe versus the treatment received from the SS and the Gestapo. “It is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape.”

6. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930): Based on the most important novel about the life of average soldiers, All Quiet follows a group of German boys who happily go off to fight for German in The Great War, WWI. They quickly learn that war is not what they thought it was. This is the first major anti-war film of the “talky” era, and this book/film set up the genre conventions and themes that continue to this very day. “War isn’t the way it looks back here.”

7. The Dirty Dozen (1967): A story of twelve convicts who are given the chance to earn their freedom by taking on an impossible mission, this is more of a tough guy film than a war film, but it’s become a classic war movie. This movie also shows how America was changing from the post-WWII era to the counter-culture era, as many counter-culture elements made their way into this film. In many ways, Dirty Dozen signals the end of the patriotic war film. “Killin' generals could get to be a habit with me.”

8. Das Boot (1981): Originally a German miniseries, this movie is the only realistic movie about submarine service. This film covers all the bases of the German U-boat campaign in the North Atlantic during WWII, and it does so accurately, from showing the privileges extended to submariners (beards and the fact that they did not adopt the Hitler salute), to showing the hardships of life on board, e.g. the cramped conditions, the stench, the boredom interspersed with shear terror, and it showed the terrible dangers, e.g. submariners had a 75% casualty rate. “ALARM!!”

9. Patton (1970): Ok, I have to admit, I don’t like this film. I find it dull, simplistic and uninteresting -- kind of like The Big Red One. But millions of people love this film and it is considered George C. Scott’s finest film, so it belongs here. “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.”

10. Bridge On The River Kwai (1957): Alec Guinness plays a British commander who, through power of personality, all but takes over the prison camp where he and his men are being made to work on a bridge for the Japanese. . . until Guinness starts to go insane. Beautifully shot by David Lean, tremendous acting and highly dramatic, this is a brilliant film, though this film really angers the veterans who were there, who point out that none of it is factual (even the river is misnamed) and that it completely ignores the horrific brutality of the Japanese. “We can teach these barbarians a lesson in Western methods and efficiency that will put them to shame. We'll show them what the British soldier is capable of doing.”

11. Saving Private Ryan (1998): I have serious problems with the characters in this film, who are far too cynical and far too modern to accurately represent Americans of the WWII generation. I also despise the emotional manipulation that permeates this film. But I can’t deny its place on the list. This film opened the door for more gory, realistic war movies, and would reset the template for future war movies. Still, I much prefer the far superior miniseries Band of Brothers. “James Francis Ryan of Iowa? Your brothers were killed in combat. . . all of them.”

12. Sands of Iwo Jima (1949): Sands is the story of a group of American Marines as they island hop in the Pacific. It climaxes with the invasion of Iwo Jima. This movie captures the resolved spirit of America at the time, a spirit symbolized by quiet determination and unselfish sacrifice without glory-seeking. I also see this as John Wayne’s finest performance. Interestingly, this film has recently come under fire for its portrayal of Japanese soldiers in ways that are now considered racially insulting and its use of the term “Jap.” "That’s war. . . trading real estate for men."

13. Stalag 17 (1953): Staring William Holden, this is the drama that inspired Hogan’s Heroes. This is a tremendous story about justice in a POW camp and how easily people are turned against each other when they suspect a fellow prisoner of being a German spy. “What is this anyway, a kangaroo court? Why don't you get a rope and do it right?”

14. Full Metal Jacket (1987): Jacket follows a group of recruits as they go through Marine Corp training and ultimately end up in Vietnam. To me, this film suffers from Kubrick Syndrome, i.e. I respect it much more than I like it, but its images and quotes have embedded themselves deeply in our culture. A good, but much less well known substitute that follows similar lines is The Boys In Company C. “What is your major malfunction?”

15. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970): An ensemble piece that established the template for movies like Midway and miniseries like The Winds of War, Tora tells the story of the bombing of Pearl Harbor from both the Japanese and American sides. As a typical ensemble film, Tora suffers from having too many characters and trying to give them all equal time. It also works for its actors rather than the other way around, e.g. each actor gets to play smarter, wiser and more noble than the people they are portraying really were. “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

16. Sergeant York (1941): This film is a biography about America’s biggest World War I hero, Sergeant Alvin York, whose life parallels American thinking at the time of WWI. York, a pacifist, wanted nothing to do with the wider world, but when he found himself drafted, he did his duty and he did it with modesty and American practicality. York became a true American hero, and Gary Cooper plays him perfectly. “Folks back home used to say I could shoot a rifle before I was weaned, but they was exaggeratin' some.”

17. Zulu (1964): Filmed as a protest against imperialism, Zulu is the best film about colonial armies. The story involves the Zulus who have massacred a British column and are now headed toward populated areas in South Africa. Standing in their way was a small British detachment at Rorke’s Drift. Combining incredible cinematography, with a true story, a fair presentation of both sides, and filmed with the participation of actual Zulu warriors (and their king), this is a compelling film. It was also Michael Caine’s first major role. “If 1,200 men couldn't hold a defensive position this morning, what chance have we with 100?”

18. Black Hawk Down (2001): A true story of when a small group of American special forces soldiers found themselves surrounded by thousands of Somali gunmen, this film is the modern American version of Zulu. We also know now that many of these gunmen were trained and equipped by Al Qaeda, making this the first battle of the modern war on terror. “Nobody gets left behind.”

19. Kelly’s Heroes (1970): One of the few “capers” films to use World War II as a setting, this is a truly entertaining film about Clint Eastwood and his merry band of malcontents who decide to skip on ahead of the American army so they can steal a vault full of gold bars. “Then make a DEAL! . . . maybe the guy’s a Republican. Business is business, right?”

20. The Dawn Patrol (1938): This is the first film to my knowledge which dealt with the loneliness of command. Staring Errol Flynn and David Niven, Flynn finds himself going from carefree WWI fighter pilot to commander of a squadron and soon needs to send his friends to their deaths. “You know what this place is? It's a slaughterhouse, and I'm the butcher!”

21. The Guns of Navarone (1961): This was written as an anti-war movie by a writer with communist sympathies during the cold war. But, as so often happens, it actually makes a very different statement. Indeed, the main theme to the movie ultimately comes across as “it’s time to take a stand and stop sitting on the sidelines,” which is actually a rather pro-war statement. “You think you've been getting away with it all this time, standing by. Well, son, your bystanding days are over! You're in it now, up to your neck.”

22. Where Eagles Dare (1968): More a spy film set in WWII than a war film, Eagles is nevertheless an excellent movie about the less conventional aspects of WWII. Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood are sent on a mission to expose traitors in British Intelligence. “Broadsword calling Danny Boy.”

23. The Green Berets (1968): The only pro-Vietnam War film made, this John Wayne film follows a small detachment of Green Beret soldiers as they train South Vietnamese soldiers. The movie does a good job of laying out why we were fighting, but the film is overly simplistic and lacks realism. Still, it’s worth seeing. “That's newspapers for you, ma'am. You could fill volumes with what you don't read in them.”

24. A Bridge Too Far (1977): Bridge is the true story of an overly-ambitious paratroop attack that went wrong. This film suffers from being an ensemble film with too many characters, each being too over-the-top heroic, and it is difficult to accept anti-war types like Robert Redford playing heroic American soldiers. But the film is entertaining and it is well known. “We haven't the proper facilities to take you all prisoner! Sorry!”

25. They Were Expendable (1945): This John Wayne/John Ford film is about the PT boats that defended the Philippines after Pearl Harbor, and how the Navy came to respect their value, particularly as they became essential in evacuating senior personnel from the advancing Japanese.

There are, of course, others that did not make the list for various reasons. I did not include Schindler’s List because it’s not really a war movie. I didn’t include Paths of Glory and Cross of Iron, two excellent films, because they simply aren’t that well known. If I could add one film that everyone should see, it would be a Finish movie: Talvisota (The Winter War) (1989). This is the story of the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939 told from the Finish perspective. It is an excellent film.

Anything you would add? Anything you would remove?

Check out the new film site -- CommentaramaFilms!


LL said...

You mentioned Band of Brothers in passing, but I feel that even though it was a mini-series, it was still a film and deserves mention because it "worked" at so many levels.

All of the great Navy movies (except Das Boot) were likewise omitted, "In Harm's Way", "The Enemy Below", "They were Expendable", "Midway", "Sink the Bismark" "Up Periscope", etc.

StanH said...

Great list others I really enjoyed were,

“The Blue Max,” 1966 George Peppard.
“Enemy at the Gates.” Jude Law 2001
“We Were Soldiers.” Mel Gibson 2002

Several wild and weird sorta war flicks, Dr. Strangelove, MASH, Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-5.

Anonymous said...

I've only seen a handful of these. Among others...

-I own "The Complete Dossier" of Apocalypse Now on DVD but I never got around to watching the Redux version. I saw the film for the first time in a long time when I bought the DVD and I had forgotten just how surreal it is at times. Why do you recommend the Redux specifically?

-The Great Escape is just fun, fun, fun. I commented about it elsewhere on this site... it's serious but doesn't take itself too seriously, the three hours just fly by, Elmer Bernstein's score has become an iconic piece of film music, and a friend of mine has a young son who's going through a WWII phase (God bless him) and I keep telling him, "Show him this movie!"

-I like Patton... it's not something to watch every day but it's enjoyable and George C. Scott just commands your attention. I was able to see Jerry Goldsmith perform his iconic Patton march live in concert almost ten years ago.

-I like Saving Private Ryan but, like many movies of this nature, it sags a little in the middle. And you are correct - it set the trend for all subsequent war movies, from the jittery action (accomplished by adjusting the shutter angle of the camera) to the desaturated colors. And why is Ted Danson in this movie? :-)

-Full Metal Jacket has been referred to as "two movies in one" by many people, which is what usually happens in movies like this (Stripes is another example). You have the first movie about training, and the second movie about a mission. It's funny to hear (read?) you say you respect it more than like it... I've said the same thing about Eyes Wide Shut.

-Where Eagles Dare is a perfect example of a movie you couldn't do about the war today (sneaking around a castle wearing the enemy's uniform, a hot blonde who tags along, etc.). I saw it only last year and enjoyed the hell out of it. It's worth it for the cable car scenes alone.

patti said...

i'll never forget leaving the theater after watching platoon with friends. without exception, they hated it and declared it "too violent." yet i thought it was one of the most profound i had ever seen. we argued endlessly about it. i realized then that my take on the world was vastly different than most.

AndrewPrice said...

LL, I certainly didn't mean to short the Navy! I chose Tora Tora Tora over Midway because they are very similar in style and could almost be the same movie. I thought long and hard about Sink the Bismark and The Enemy Below. There were also several other films along those lines that I enjoyed (as well as things like Guadalcanal Diary), but I simply ran out of space.

I completely agree with Band of Brothers -- absolutely fantastic. I just didn't want to add it because I've generally kept miniseries off these lists. But it does certainly deserve a place on the list. Not only is it a great "film" but it's reset the template as well, with Pacific now and with others.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, I enjoyed those too, especially Enemy at the Gates. I thought about Dr. Strangelove and Mash, but they were really "war movies" in that sense.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

I agree with you Stan, We Were Soldiers is my favorite Vietnam War flick.
I still get choked up when I see the final battle scene.

As far as TV series go I loved Combat! I watched the entire series again last year (available on netflix).

That series and many of the WW2 flicks were instrumentable in gettin' me to join the Navy (I tried the Marines first, but the recruiter was out to lunch at the time).

AndrewPrice said...

Patti, I don't doubt that! But it's the people with the "different" perceptions who make the world move.

I think Platoon was certainly the most violent war to come along at that time. But I think it was relevant violence, not gratuitous, and I agree that it was a profound movies. And I think history has made its judgment as it survives while other similarly-themed movies like Hamburger Hill are long forgotten.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

I also like To Hell and Back, although the movie suffered from poor direction, IMO.

Great list, Andrew. I would definitely put Sargeant York at number one though. :^)

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, That's funny how coincidences shape our lives. Imagine if the recruiter had brought a lunch from home that day, then your whole life could have been different!

We Were Soldiers is definitely very emotional at the end. I think a lot of these films are very emotional.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Give me a moment, you always ask questions that need long answers! LOL!

AndrewPrice said...


First, see the rest -- especially if you have a WWII film in your mind somewhere. You should know these films if you want to make a war movie.

Re: Apocalypse Now, I think I’ll do a column on it. But the reason to watch the Redux is that the regular version cuts out almost all of the parts you need to understand the film. What you’re left with in the regular version is a nonsensical surreal film that doesn’t seem to have a theme except that everyone is crazy. The Redux adds a lot of explanation and in particular adds a scene with some Frenchmen that really changes the complexion of the movie. Watch that and tell me it doesn’t change your understanding of the movie. They talk about being betrayed by the home front (students, unions and communists), about their government not being willing to take the fight seriously, and they implore the Americans not to repeat their mistakes in that regard.

Re: The Great Escape, agreed. That’s one of the most entertaining WWII films out there. It’s cool, fun, and full of totally memorable moments and characters. Steve McQueen is one of my favorites. And the soundtrack is awesome. I can hum it right now it’s so memorable.

Re: Patton. Lots of people like Patton, which is why it’s on the list. To me, it came out in an era when the “epics” they were making just weren’t very good -- made for TV creativity. I know I’ll be hunted down for saying this, but it’s the same thing with The Godfather in my book . . . it just wasn’t shot in a way that makes the film interesting to me.

Re: Ryan, I have issues with that film, like I do with many of Spielberg’s later films. He has lost the art of filmmaking and instead relies on effects and over-the-top emotionalism. I MUCH prefer Band of Brothers.

Re: Kubrick, with the exception of The Shining, I feel that way about all of his films. The quality/art is undeniable but they always feel hollow to me. I agree about the two movies in one ideas as well -- that rarely works in my opinion. It makes the movie feel disjointed. That said, many great films start one way and seamlessly work their way into a completely different story before they are over, but they don’t usually do the dramatic time switch.

Re: Where Eagles Dare. Good point. I think you made that point before and you’re correct. A movie like this about Iraq or Afghanistan would be incomprehensible to Americans, plus none of our current crop of “top actors” could pull it off.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, It's hard to say that Sergeant York was influential enough to make the top spot, but I really enjoy that film -- it's just got something about it that makes you proud to be an American.

Writer X said...

THE GREAT ESCAPE continues to be one of my all-time favorites. Remember vividly watching it on TV with my Dad and my brother. So many other great flicks. Very hard to choose but your list is a good one!

Happy Memorial Day, all!

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Writer X, The Great Escape is probably my favorite war movie. There is nothing about that film I don't like, and so much that I do -- great actors, great director, great scenes, great plot, great soundtrack, etc.!

MegaTroll said...

Great list! These are all good movies. Happy Memorial Day everyone!

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Mega. Feel free to add anything I missed!

Ponderosa said...

Nice list. I'd add Battleground (1949) and perhaps Force 10 from Navarone.

Despised Enemy at the Gates but can’t remember why. Perhaps I’ll give it another go. Really like Patton. Guess that makes us even. Definitely agree about Band of Brothers excellent.

As for SPR the first 20 minutes make it worth it. But the rest of the movie is so, so…”off”. I haven’t been able to put my finger on it problem. Too contrived?

And what about Casablanca?

AndrewPrice said...

Ponderosa, I'm a big fan of Force 10 From Navarone and Robert Shaw in particular, but I'm not sure how influential it is.

Battleground is a good and interesting film. It has an interesting feel to it that is very different that other WWII films of the era.

I agree about SPR being too contrived. That's the problem with Spielberg's later movies, they are about fake emotional setups rather than good story telling.

I enjoyed Enemy At The Gates except that the love story in the middle of it was misplaced and should have been dropped.

Anonymous said...

Scott, Give me a moment, you always ask questions that need long answers! LOL!

I get it all out at once, instead of returning to the site ten times day. :-)

I thought of one, though it probably falls more into the "political" category: Path to War, which aired on HBO and tells the story of the Johnson administration's actions before and during Vietnam. It's basically 2+ hours of a bunch of white guys sitting around and talking but it's damn good.

Michael Gambon plays LBJ, Alec Baldwin plays Robert McNamara, and Donald Sutherland plays Clark Clifford. You'll see a lot of familiar faces including Felicity Huffman, Bruce McGill, Tom Skerritt, and Frederic Forrest. Gary Sinise even shows up as George Wallace (he had already portrayed Wallace for director John Frankenheimer in another TV movie).

HBO also did a great movie last year called Taking Chance, with Kevin bacon, though it's a smaller, more intimate film.

Joel Farnham said...


Great list. Thanks for the list. It gives me a to-do watching list.

BevfromNYC said...

GWTW was a war movie too...

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, How did I know you would bring that up? ;-)

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, You're welcome. Feel free to add to the list if you have anything else to add.

AndrewPrice said...

But Scott, we want you coming back 10 times a day -- that makes our sponsor (the Happy Bunny Munitions Company) happy. You don't want to make Happy Bunny unhappy do you?

Taking Chance was a very good film, well done, very emotional -- an excellent tribute.

I never saw Path To War.

Individualist said...

Well I do not see anyone listing it here but I would add the movie "Glory" to this list. Morgan Freeman's speech about burying the dead and wondering when oh when will it be my turn was great.

Say what you want about Patton the speech in the front of the movie was the best.

" No Poor D#$#$ B3#$$@# ever won a war by dying for his country, he won that war by making the other poor d#$# B#$%##$ die for his country" Sums up the American ideal for fighting a war in my opinion. We like to win.

I can't remember the names but the last two WWII films about Iwo Jima, the first from the American perspective and the second from the Japanese were very good.

AndrewPrice said...

Individualist, There are a lot of classic speeches in war films, going all the way back to Henry V's speech in Shakespeare's Henry V. "Once more unto the breach. . ."

Individualist said...


One more question for you about the movie Patton. I kn ow you did not like it however when I watched the movie again a year ago I seemed to notice the point being to show how Patton was humiliated and a prima donna and how this overshadowed his leadership ability and insight as a general. (I had not seen it since I was a kid and my enthusiasm at the time was my Dad's respect for Patton more than the movie)

How fair is this to the real story of Patton. Seems to me while Patton did have many spectacular failures he was maybe not quite the pathetic figure that the movie protrayed him to be.

AndrewPrice said...

Individualist, It just so happens that I read Patton's biography a few years ago, so I can answer your question.

The movie is fairly close to the biography. All in all, he was a mixed bag.

Patton was a guy who had moments of brilliance, had undeniable leadership ability, and had tremendous insight as a general. But he was also prone to huge mistakes because he was incapable of self-evaluation and was unwilling to consider that he might be wrong.

Moreover, he caused all of his own problems because he was impossible to get along with -- arrogant, abusive, and intolerant of anyone who didn't agree with him.

Compared to the film, I would say he was not nearly as sympathetic as the film makes him out to be. Nor was he as pathetic as the film makes him. He was able to achieve things that the other American generals thought were impossible and he saved a lot of lives doing it, but he was highly self-destructive as well.

CrispyRice said...

Happy belated Memorial Day to all, with deep gratitude to everyone who died to keep this country free!

Re your list, Andrew, I'm a girl and so well... I'm actually surprised at how many of them I've seen. I'd just add the chicken version of the Great Escape to the list. ;)

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, Chicken Run, very fun movie!

Anonymous said...

thanks for this nice post 111213

Post a Comment