Got tired of doing reviews of individual movies, so figured I might as well go the whole hog and do a rundown of the ten best, IMHO, war movies of all time.
1. Les Carabiniers (The Riflemen); Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1963.
Godard’s stunning movie about two fairly unintelligent young men who get lured into joining the army with promises of wealth, travel and women is hands down my favourite war movie. There are no special effects here, no climactic battle scenes showing war in all its hellish glory, no stories about young lives torn with torment and indecision, no angst. Instead there is the simple fact of two country lads, drunk on the power of their uniforms and guns, going about killing and stealing and commiting atrocities in the name of the King.
What’s stunning about the movie is the innocence with which these acts are done – the blind obedience, the unquestioning, instinctive way in which these two young men become unfeeling killers, without losing their essential simplicity. Life is cheap here; Death is accidental and arbitrary and all causes are meaningless. There is only the alternation of terror and beauty, of evil made more terrifying because of its childishness. At one point in the movie, one of the protagonists is given orders to take a group of civilians out to the forest and execute them. Godard shows you the obvious pleasure this young man takes in being given so ‘responsible’ a task, his swagger at being in command, the way he takes them further than necessary just to show that he calls the shots (forgive the pun) and the self-important way in which he makes sure they are dead. This is the way a child would act if he / she were suddenly made class monitor, and Godard shows you how frightening it is that War puts the power of life and death into the hands of such uncouth children.
Not to be missed – there’s a scene where a beautiful young woman who’s about to be executed recites Mayakovsky while the rag-tag bunch of young men stand around pointing rifles at her, clearly entranced by her beauty and her spirit, trying to get over the awkwardness of being the one to fire the first shot. This would be hilarious if it weren’t so terribly poignant. It’s scenes like these that make Godard’s move a true masterpiece.
2. Apocalypse Now; Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1979. (recently re-released with additional footage as Apocalypse Now Redux)
Coppola’s classic may be the greatest movie ever made about the Vietnam War. Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (an interesting interpretation of the story, btw – intriguing watching, if, like me, you’re into Conrad), Apocalypse Now is the story of one man’s (Martin Sheen) descent into the hell of Vietnam to find an officer gone crazy (Marlon Brando, in a performance that completely underwhelmed me). But the plot of the movie is just an excuse that allows Coppola to pack in some incredibly telling scenes about the war. This is a movie of unforgettable vignettes – the helicopters playing the Ride of the Valkyries, the colonel who stands around in the battlefield doing a strategic discussion on whether the surfing of the coast where they’ve landed will be any good, the exploding napalm, the confusion and blankness of the fighting around the bridge (a vision of Hell straight out of Dante), the killing of innocents with gunfire, the showgirls at night – every scene, every image of this movie stays with you forever. This is a movie that manages to be heartstoppingly real but also kind of cool and visionary at the same time (the music helps – check out the opening sequence with the Doors playing The End*).
3. Full Metal Jacket; directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1987.
In some ways, Kubricks’ Full Metal Jacket is almost a continuation of Apocalypse Now. The movie share many similarities – Full Metal Jacket is a lot less visionary, though, and not half as stunning visually; on the flip side, Kubrick has a clearer and more cynical point of view about the war, and doesn’t feel the need to burden himself with some dramatic, outlandish ending.
Full Metal Jacket is essentially two movies – the first is the story of a Marine training camp, where a hard-nosed Drill Instructor turns a bunch of fairly normal young men into ruthless soldiers. Kubrick brings to this scenario the combination of pathos and irony that only he is capable of – there is some incredible humour here (see the speech about how Jesus has a hard-on for Marines because they’re the ones who keep sending him fresh supplies for heaven; or the one where the Drill Instructor speaks with pride of how Lee Harvey Oswald got off three shots in under 6 seconds hitting a moving target at 250 feet, and one of those hits a head wound – this, the Drill Instructor feels, is a prime example of what a motivated marine with the proper training is capable of!) but there’s a great sense of outrage behind the humour, an indignation that the world should be this way and a sadness for those who have to suffer for it. If you really want to see Kubrick tear into the logic of the war establishment, of course, you should watch Dr. Strangelove, but if you’ve already seen that, then this movie is a close second.
The second movie tracks the career of one of the marines at the boot camp – a sergeant Joker, who is now a reporter for Stars and Stripes. From here on the movie follows a path fairly similar to Apocalypse Now – Joker’s journey into the heart of the war being a good setting to show vignettes of life in Vietnam. What makes this trip special is the incredible sense of balance Kubrick brings to the picture he’s showing you – in some ways Joker (who wears a helmet with the legend “Born to Kill” but also has a peace sign pinned to his jacket) is an metaphor for this ambiguity (at one point in the movie, a colonel asks Joker what he means by this; Joker replies that he wanted to say something about the essential duality of man, in the Jungian sense – much to the discomfort of the colonel who then proceeds to lecture him on the importance of God and country). The duality that Kubrick brings to the movie is not simply between war and peace though, it is also between pathos and humour – the scene with the colonel comes right after a shot of an open mass grave and a voice over saying “The only thing the dead know is that is better to be alive.”
Full Metal Jacket is a deceptively simple film – on the surface, it seems like a simple exploration of the war, but it’s also a deeply metaphoric film. There’s a scene in the film where a soldier on scout patrol gets shot by a sniper and lies screaming in the street. The platoon leader wants to pull back, fearing an ambush, but his men, horrified at the thought of leaving a comrade behind, make charge after quixotic charge to rescue him, ending up getting shot themselves. Ultimately the whole unit is forced to launch an offensive against the enemy position. As an allegory for the escalation of the Vietnam War, I can’t think of a more brilliant sequence.
4. The Longest Day; directed by Ken Annakin and others, 1962.
For a movie that was made more than 40 years ago, this incredible war classic remains one of the most compelling and brilliant movies about war ever made. Based on the book by Cornelius Ryan, The Longest Day is a true war epic – that shows you the invasion of Normandy from the perspective of a whole host of characters – German, French, American, British. Never before or since has a single day of war been portrayed in such richness.
Highlights of the movie: An incredible star cast including: John Wayne, Richard Burton, Henry Fonda, Sean Connery, Robert Mitchum, Kenneth More and many, many, others; a sweeping multi-dimensional quality that both keeps you engaged and gives you a sense of the incredible complexity of what’s going on, thus blending the specific human details with the larger historical picture; an emphasis on realism and humour – this is not really an anti-war movie and there’s some level of Allied heroics involved, but for its time, its reasonably unbiased and highlights the idiosyncracies of the war effort rather than its glory.
Most memorable scene: The scene right at the end where Richard Burton, playing a down English pilot, points to a dead German soldier and says to the American GI next to him: “He’s dead. You’re lost. I’m wounded. I wonder who won?” Brilliant.
5. Platoon; directed by Oliver Stone, 1986.
Another of the great Vietnam War epics, Platoon features an interesting cast (in particular it stars Willem Dafoe – one of my favourite actors) and has some of the most brilliantly shot battle scenes in the history of war film-making. This is Oliver Stone in his prime, and the intensity and clarity he brings to the movie, the atmosphere of tension and fear and stress he creates, has few equals. Unfortunately, Stone feels the need to burden the movie with a complicated story about conspiracy and betrayal – which, in my opinion only detracts from the film. The characters pre-occupation with their own interactions seems insular and self-centred given the grimness of the world around them.
That said, Platoon is still a must watch movie – some of the sequences here are truly spectacular (just watch the scenes of the GIs entering the Vietnamese villages) and Stone introduces a focus on personality and psychological interplay that is quite missing from both Apocalypse and (to a lesser extent) from Full Metal Jacket. In these movies the characters are observers, reacting to the war around them; in Platoon they are true participants, making and being made by the war.
6. Saving Private Ryan; directed by Steven Spielberg, 1998.
For my money, the last great movie Steven Spielberg made. Or half a great movie. That incredible opening sequence on the beach at Normandy may be the best half hour of war movie footage ever shot (if the rest of the movie were close to being that good it would easily be number one), but the film goes slowly downhill from there. The initial part, where they’re still searching for Ryan isn’t bad either – Spielberg has a stunning feel for visual effect, and some of the scenes (like the sniper in the rain in the ruined French town) are vivid and moving. But by the time Tom Hanks and company find Ryan and then settle down to make their heroic stand in some obscure town, the movie has degenerated into camp, and the last scenes could come out of any of hundreds of war movies showing a small band of allied heroes taking on the evil Nazi forces. You can almost see Spielberg’s talent running out.
It says a lot for the first part of the movie, though, that despite the problems I have with the second part it still ranks high on my list of all-time great war movies. The fact is simply that the first hour, hour and a half of Saving Private Ryan is a must see; after that, it’s really up to you
(Btw, that initial beach storming sequence makes interesting watching with the Longest Day, which also has similar sequences of the Normandy invasion. If nothing else, it shows you what thirty plus years of film technology can do)
7. Tora! Tora! Tora!; directed by Richard Fleischer and Kinji Fukasuku, 1970
Possibly the least well-known of the movies in this post, Tora! Tora! Tora! is a depiction of the events leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbour, ending in the attack itself, as told from both the US and Japanese perspectives. What makes this a spectacular film is the grainy, almost documentary like quality of the film. Like The Longest Day before it, Tora! Tora! Tora! is not so much a story of one person or a particular set of people (see for instance the execrable Pearl Harbour) but rather of an event in history itself, with the characters being incidental human figures in a larger historic dance. I don’t know enough about the Pearl Harbour incident to comment on the historical accuracy of the script, but I understand that it is fairly accurate, and it certainly seems plausible – simply because it provides an amazingly balanced picture of the attack, so that you both share in the triumph of the Japanese at managing to pull off a surprise attack and in the anguish and bewilderment of the Americans caught in it. This is one of those rare war movies that refuses to take sides, and seems to have no agenda except the telling of the story the way it really happened, with comment or criticism.
The other spectacular thing about the movie is the depiction of the attack itself, which is done with incredible realism and effect, specially when you consider that the movie was made in 1970, when computer imaging didn’t exist.
8. Patton; directed by Franklin J Schaffner, 1970.
The other big war movie released in the same year as Tora! Tora! Tora! was, of course, Patton. Patton is a hard to classify war movie – on the one hand, it seems realistic and cynical, cutting through the high speeches about patriotism and glory (don’t miss the wonderful speech right at the start with the line about the important thing being “to get the other son of a bitch to die for his country”), showing you the petty rivalries and the politics behind the war effort, and depicting, in reasonably graphic detail, the savage reality of War. On the other hand, it’s also a movie that lionises a man who is a pure warrior, making him seem so much larger than life that you can’t help looking up to him, whether as a monster or a martyr (depending on your point of view).
This perhaps is the genius of the movie, and it’s chief saving grace – the fact that it shows you the true warrior spirit in all its brutal majesty, and leaves it to you to decide whether such power should be allowed to run untrammelled in the interest of winning wars, or whether it is precisely this sort of brutality that we must guard against in seeking peace. If there is a message in the movie, it is that if we’re going to fight wars anyway, we might as well go the whole hog and leave it to the real generals who will fight it well, rather than letting politicians make decisions that will effect the lives of thousands on the front.
Patton‘s other great achievement, of course, is the way it creates an incredible portrait of the general – making him a tragic figure worthy of some greek drama, a sort of modern-day Ajax. George C Scott puts in an incredible performance here, and the movie is worth watching just for the incredible power he brings to the screen.
The trouble with Patton is frankly just that it’s too long. While the opening sequences are stirring and engaging, the movie loses its way by the end, becoming too protracted, too long drawn out. In some ways, this is the point of the movie – that sense of tiredness, of endless, hopeless trudging with the unacknowledged certainty at the back of your mind that things will not work out. But this also means that you leave the movie with a terrible feeling of weariness, which makes me rank it relatively low.
The other issue is that for all the war footage, this is not really a movie about War. This is a movie about a personality who just happens to be a general – the War is somewhat incidental here, and while you get a good sense of Patton the man, you never really understand what it is that makes him so great a general.
9. Skammen (Shame); directed by Ingmar Bergman, 1968.
You didn’t really think I was going to get through a list of ten movies without including Bergman, did you? In some ways calling Skammen a war movie is a bit of a stretch – it’s the story of a couple living on a remote island whose world is shattered by a civil war that breaks out on the island. There are no battle scenes here, no real war action of any sort. There are almost no soldiers. In some way, this is a movie about the effects of War (especially Civil War) on the civilian population. Bergman does not show you any actual fighting, just the aftermath – the burning houses, the bodies lying in the grass, the interrogations of the civilian population, the brutality of passing soldiers, the executions, the flight of innocents, the plight of refugees.
Yet for all that violence is a real presence here, in a way it is in no other film on this list. Frankly, if there had been a little more war action in the movie, Skammen would have been on the top of this list. As it is, it deserves honourable mention for the way in which Bergman create scene after scene that simply burns into your brain. This is film-making at its most visionary, its most poetic, its most intense. Bergman’s great gift is his ability to show you the beautiful in the ordinary, to create mythic images out of realistic scenes. And Skammen shows him doing this at the peak of his powers – if there is one scene that depicts forever the incredible sense of loss that war brings, it can only be that scene towards the end where a boat of refugees runs into a group of drowned soldiers – the sight of those gaunt, suffering faces staring leaden-eyed at the sea of bodies they are slowly pushing their way through could come straight out of Durer.
10. The Thin Red Line; directed by Terrance Mallick, 1998.
In some ways, The Thin Red Line (based on a James Jones novel about the battle for Guadalcanal) does everything right. It has a cast that reads like a who’s who of serious actors in the late 90’s (Sean Penn, Adrian Brody, John Cusack, John C Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Nick Nolte, Ben Chaplin; oh, and George Clooney, but some things you have to forgive!); it’s a movie that combines some incredibly realistic action with touches of truly moving poetry; it manages to steer clear of being either too jingoistic or too bluntly anti-war; the dialogue is intelligent, the camera work exceptional, the action engrossing.
The trouble is that there’s really nothing about the movie that you can hold on to – in some ways, the Thin Red Line is the best example out there of the standard ‘realistic war film’ – it lacks personality. I remember watching it with rapt attention when it came out, and remember being truly impressed and moved by it, but now that I think back I can’t for the life of me remember any one particular scene (I have this hazy image of some underwater shots of people swimming in water, but that’s about it) that simply blew me away.
Nevertheless, The Thin Red Line is an exceptional movie about the realities of war, and one well worth the watch.