War provides a perfect and almost infinite number of storylines for movies. Action, conflict, extreme human emotions, and time spans are perfect for cinematic storytelling. War films can have crystal clear good versus evil plot lines, or opaque ambiguous plot lines. The conflict can be between characters or within a single character under extreme emotional duress. The possibilities are endless. War movies can also be vehicles for propaganda or instruments of intense political debate. WWI, for example, is still somewhat shrouded in ambiguity. To this day the mechanics, the timetable of the mobilization, and the failure of negotiations that led to war are known in minute detail but the underlying causes for this terrible war are still hotly debated. No one really understood the reason for the industrialized slaughter on the Western Front or why a whole generation had to suffer through the trauma. The carnage and the cost in human life were so great while the causes were so obscure that war movies about WWI made between 1918 and 1939 were somewhat rare. Wings, Hells Angels, Dawn Patrol, and All Quiet on the Western Front are among the few WWI films whose fame survives to this day.
WWII on the other hand was initiated by a dictator who was clearly a monster. Adolf Hitler’s skillful use of propaganda films, such as Triumph of the Will, provided Allied countries ample visual imagery of a modern mechanized military menace threatening the entire free world. The war against Nazi Germany and its allies was an easy war to frame in terms of good versus evil. It is not surprising that the ‘Golden Age’ of war movies is between 1940 and 1969. Many actors, writers, and directors were part of the war effort if not actual veterans. John Ford, James Stewart, and David Niven are just a few of the successful players in Hollywood who risked their careers-even their lives-to help in the war effort.
As the Cold War mutated into the War on Terror then morphed into an apparent resurgence of the millennial struggle between Christianity and Islam, war movies began to descend into a morass of moral ambiguity similar to the era between WWI and WWII. Even the just cause of defeating Hitler and stopping his racial genocide doesn’t warrant heroic treatment in today’s Hollywood. I was thoroughly disappointed in the movie Dunkirk and I was fully prepared to hate The Darkest Hour. I thought Dunkirk was suspenseful, realistic, and kept me on the edge of my seat but ultimately it left me flat. On the other hand I ended up liking The Darkest Hour. Humanizing a legendary figure like Churchill in a movie is always a risky venture but in this movie I thought it worked. Both these movies are about the same historical event, the total defeat of Allied armies in Europe in 1940 and the rescue of the British Army from Dunkirk snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. The Darkest Hour left me with a sense of hope. Winston Churchill stood up in the face of an overwhelming calamity and defied the victorious pomposity of Adolf Hitler. Dunkirk simply beat me up and left me exhausted. Hyper-realism alone isn’t always good storytelling. They forgot that a movie is supposed to also be entertaining.
CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED WAR MOVIES
(War Films on Filmsite.com’s 100 Greatest Movie List)
African Queen (1951) Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn team up in Africa to fight Germans in central Africa in WWI. It’s more of an odd couple love story than a war movie, but they get shot at and try to sink a warship and it really is one of the great movies of all time.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) One of the best war movies ever made. It’s also an anti-war movie that perfectly sums up the stupidity, futility, and terror of WWI trench warfare.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) won Best Picture, David Lean won Best Director, Alec Guinness won Best Actor and the movie won seven Oscars total, back when that really meant something.
Casablanca (1942) The greatest movie ever made and I guess it’s a war movie. It’s got Nazis, Vichy French, the underground and resistance. There’s no actual combat but there’s a gunshot or two towards the end.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is another one of David Lean’s epic war movies. It also won seven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director.
Paths of Glory (1957) is Stanley Kubrick’s WWI anti-war movie starring Kirk Douglas. It rivals All Quiet on the Western Front as one of the best films about the terror and stupidity of war on the Western Front.
Schindlers List (1993) A movie about the horrors of the Holocaust.
ROB’S FAVORITE WAR MOVIES
(From the Golden Age of War Films 1941-1969)
They Were Expendable (1945) John Wayne war movies are a cliché, but for a reason. They were some of the best war movies ever made. This was a war time production but wasn’t completed until after the Japanese surrender.
Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) is the most iconic of all the John Wayne war movies.
Sergeant York (1941) Howards Hawks directed Gary Cooper in an Academy Award winning performance. It is based on the real story of Alvin York who was one of the most famous of all reluctant heroes.
Sahara (1943) Humphrey Bogart plays a tank commander in North Africa during WWII. It’s just an awesome movie.
Battleground (1949) Great cast, great action, it’s the best movie ever made about the 101st airborn division at the Battle of the Bulge.
Lifeboat (1944) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Need I say more?
Mister Roberts (1955) Only movie on the list in which no shots are ever fired but John Ford directs Henry Fonda, Jimmy Cagney, Jack Lemon, William Powell, and Ward Bond. Stellar movie.
Twelve O’clock High (1949) Gregory Peck’s finest performance.
Zulu (1964) Based on actual events, this is an incredible story of bravery under fire.
The Red Badge of Courage (1951) John Huston was a writer/director who made great movies from great books and Audie Murphy was the most decorated hero of WWII.
The Great Escape (1963) Another movie with too many major stars to count.
Post Viet Nam (Sort of)
M*A*S*H (1970) It’s an anti-war comedy rather than a war movie but it is the most famous and iconic of all anti-war movies. It is also very funny.
Patton (1970) BioPic of America’s best corps commander.
Kelly’s Heroes (1970) A guilty pleasure.
A Bridge Too Far (1977) This film is also from a book by Cornelius Ryan, A Bridge Too Far, but it is more of an anti film because it emphasizes the folly of war. It’s a fantastic film with an all-star cast.
Das Boot (1981) A German made film about the fatalism of U-Boat crews at the end of WWII.
Ran (1985) Kurosawa version of King Lear, but also definitely an anti-war film from post war Japan. A visually striking and unforgettable film from one of the world’s great directors.
Full Metal Jacket (1987) Viet Nam war film directed by Stanley Kubrick. Its two films in one. (Or schizophrenic!)
The Last of the Mohicans (1992) Actually one of the few movies (not directed by John Huston) that’s better than the book.
Braveheart (1995) Mel Gibson’s masterpiece about the price of freedom.
Black Hawk Down (2001) An excellent portrayal of American Special Forces in the new War on Terror.
American Sniper (2014) A biopic of America’s best sniper in the Iraq War.