My 10 Best War Films

Jun 25, 2004 (Updated Sep 3, 2005)

The Bottom Line War is hell, as Sherman famously said, but it has inspired many top-notch films.

War, despite being one of humanity's worst innovations, nevertheless exerts a strange fascination for most people, hence its enduring appeal as a subject in both the printed page and movies. Great drama, or so we were told in high school English class, is based on some type of conflict (man vs. nature, man vs. fate, man vs. himself, and man vs. man), and war is, after all, the ultimate expression of conflict. No other human endeavor exhibits so many contrasting extremes; on the one hand, the bonding and comradeship born out of the shared dangers and miseries is unrivaled by anything in civilian life, and this is one of the themes many of the best war movies explore in varying degrees. Men and women often exhibit their finest traits under the strains of war: courage, loyalty, determination, inventiveness, and self-sacrifice. At the other extreme, war brings out the worst in people: cowardice, selfishness, cruelty, amorality, treachery, and avarice.

There is also no awe-inspiring spectacle in normal peacetime life to compare with the sights of a modern-day conflict, which is why war films are such an enduring genre. Even fantasy and science fiction films such as Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings or George Lucas' Star Wars saga are really war films in disguise, less graphically bloody than, say, Saving Private Ryan or Battle of Britain, but just as equally martial in tone and spirit.

Choosing 10 Best Films of any genre is difficult enough, but to choose 10 Best War Films is quite a challenge, since the term "war film" is very elastic. After all, the genre can encompass elements from others (romance, suspense, political intrigue, and even comedy). Because of this vagueness of definition, there will be some seemingly odd choices.

So, without further ado, I will now list my choice of 10 Best War Films, and not all of them are "combat" films.

1. Saving Private Ryan (1998): If 1993's Schindler's List was director Steven Spielberg's soul-searching and ultimately redemptive examination of why we fought the war (the movie graphically shows the Third Reich's true nature as an evil regime), then 1998's Saving Private Ryan is the emotional bookend that depicts the sacrifices made by citizen-soldiers who put their lives on hold -- and often lost them -- to save the world from becoming a charnel house ruled by Adolf Hitler and his Axis partners. It is a powerful if viscerally graphic film that has, in retrospect, reawakened our nation's interest in World War II and made us realize, however belatedly, how much we owe to the men and women of the rapidly dwindling "Greatest Generation." Based loosely on the real story of the Niland brothers, Saving Private Ryan tells the story of an eight-man squad of U.S. Army Rangers detailed to retrieve Pvt. James Ryan from Normandy after the death of his three brothers. Featuring the most intense and realistic cinematic depiction of the D-Day invasion, Spielberg's film is certainly far more violent and bloody than its closest cinematic cousin, Darryl Zanuck's The Longest Day.

2. Three Kings (1999): Writer-director David O. Russell's darkly humorous and offbeat heist movie does to Operation Desert Storm what Kelly's Heroes did to World War II.

Starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze, this film tells the story of four GIs who, at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, cross the Kuwaiti border into Iraq in search of a stash of gold stolen from Kuwait City by the retreating Iraqi Army. On their way to Karbala, where the gold is stored in a hidden bunker, the motley group of Americans stumbles upon the Shi'ite revolt against Saddam...and what began as a treasure hunt becomes a rather sobering experience as the GIs watch Saddam's forces crush the short lived revolt.

Russell's film mixes dark humor, witty dialog, and social commentary with some extreme photographic tricks, making Three Kings one of the weirdest -- yet effective -- war films to come out of Hollywood in recent years.

3. Apocalypse Now (1979): Francis Ford Coppola's original version of Apocalypse Now is a dark, sardonic, surrealistic yet mesmerizing reworking of Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness. Starring Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Fredric Forrest, Larry Fishbourne, and Dennis Hopper, Apocalypse Now trades Conrad's African setting for the then-still largely unexplored (by Hollywood, anyway) jungles of Vietnam.

The film's premise is deceptively simple. A hard-bitten, combat-weary Capt. Benjamin Willard (Sheen) is given a difficult (and highly classified) assignment: he is to travel up a long Vietnamese river on a Navy PBR (river patrol boat) to find the jungle outpost of Col. Walter Kurtz (Brando), a highly decorated and intelligent Special Forces officer who has gone "rogue" and utilizing what one senior officer describes as "unsound methods" to fight the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Willard is to locate Kurtz and "terminate (him) with extreme prejudice."

4. The Longest Day (1962): The Longest Day, Darryl F. Zanuck's ambitious and expensive recreation of the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy, is one of the best -- if somewhat flawed -- war films ever made. Boasting an all-star cast of 41 "A-List" (for 1962, that is) actors from four countries and filmed in various locations around France (Corsica doubling for most of the five invasion beaches on northern France) and made with the assistance of NATO's armed forces, The Longest Day was, for 31 years, the most expensive movie ever shot in black and white. It's the only major movie to attempt to convey the scope and drama of the D-Day landings from a multinational viewpoint.

5. A Bridge Too Far (1977): An unofficial sequel to The Longest Day. It's actor/director Sir Richard Attenborough's (Gandhi, Chaplin) epic recreation of one of the most controversial battles of World War II. A Bridge Too Far is also one of those films that fall under the category of "glorious failure." Like the subject it vividly depicts (Operation Market-Garden, an ambitious and daring attempt by the Allies to secure a crossing over that big river obstacle and outflank Germany's fortified defenses), it was a well intentioned and daring endeavor, yet it failed to capture a receptive audience and was quickly forgotten by all but a handful of history buffs and film critics (Judith Crist, a respected reviewer of the time, called A Bridge Too Far a "definitive World War II movie").

6. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970): One of the "big budget" semi-documentary war epics in the tradition of The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far, this joint Japanese-American production is still the definitive movie about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Based on books by Gordon W. Prange and Ladislas Farago and featuring some of the best battle sequences ever filmed, Tora! Tora! Tora! is a fair and balanced look at one of the most important -- and controversial -- events in American history.

7. Casablanca (1942): This classic love story set in French Morocco in December 1941 not only told the bittersweet tale of Rick Blaine, Ilsa Lund, and Victor Laszlo, but also commented on the tangled politics of the pre-Pearl Harbor era: American neutrality, the oppression of the Third Reich, the fate of thousands of Europeans who hit "the refugee trail," and -- personified by Claude Rains' inimitable portrayal of Louis Renault -- the grey zone that was Vichy France before the Allied landings in North Africa in November of 1942.

8. Summer of '42 (1971): This sentimental memoir by writer Herman Raucher and director Robert Mulligan is on the surface a better than average coming-of-age movie about 15-year-old Hermie and his friends Oscy and Benjie, their adolescent exploits on Packett Island, and especially Hermie's desperate love for the beautiful, older, and very married Dorothy. But its setting -- the American home front during that first post-Pearl Harbor summer of 1942 -- and the way Hermie's fondest dream does come true give the viewer a haunting glimpse at the effects of the conflict being waged overseas.

9. Platoon (1986): Oliver Stone's Academy Award-winning Vietnam film was not only a well-made movie based on the writer-director's own stint in the Army as a combat infantryman in the late 1960s, but it also was a catalyst for both a new interest in the veterans' experiences during the war and a seemingly endless wave of Vietnam-themed films of varying degrees of quality. Realistic and dark, it dared to show both the good and dark sides of American GIs as they coped with the jungle, their North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong enemies, and bitter divisions in their own ranks.

10. Black Hawk Down (2001): Based on Mark Bowden's non-fiction book, director Ridley Scott's film is a taut and harrowing account of the 18-hour Battle of Mogadishu. On October 3, 1993, less than a year after President Clinton began his first term as President of the United States and almost eight years before Sept. 11, 2001, a small force of U.S. Army Rangers and members of the elite Delta Force were helicoptered into the heart of Mogadishu, Somalia's war-torn capital, in a daring daylight raid to capture two of Somali clan leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid's top lieutenants. The plan was simple -- drop four "chalks" of Rangers to secure a perimeter around the target building (near the Olympic Hotel) while the Delta commandos -- the D-Boys, as the Rangers referred to them -- gathered the prisoners. Then they'd be exfiltrated by a convoy of armed humvees and trucks and whisked back to the U.S. Army base in Mogadishu International Airport. But the mission ran into trouble, and what was supposed to be a quick snatch-and-grab raid became an 18-hour firefight that left 18 American soldiers dead, over 70 wounded, and hundreds of Somali casualties.

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