Rather than writing about current films that are out, and I am planning on seeing the re-make war film Midway, I wanted to write on the great war films. I don’t think that I have done this before, but on a day of remembrance, and remembering those who have paid the ultimate price for my freedom and those all around me, I was thinking about a Top Ten List for War Films. As an aside, this is an important day. Having been to the Normandy beaches, and seen the US, Canadian, British and yes German cemeteries in France I am reminded of the 75th Anniversary of D-Day landings and turning the tide on the war.
*Black and white photo credit to Kim Godwin Hines
So many were lost. So many were so young. Tomb stones that have birthdays for dead as teenagers, and I as a parent can think about my sons, my daughter, my nieces and nephews and how we are so lucky to not live in a time of war and conflict. I cherish my German friends too, and think how in a different time we could be across a battlefield from one another. I compile a list, and it is not easy to do. War brings out raw emotions and passion and creates opportunity for great performances. Even though I list 10 films I have chosen to list alphabetically, and not in a particular order it does not identify one as the best. It can’t be done in my opinion. I will also note that there are many on here given Oscars, but that doesn’t necessarily add them to the list. Here goes:
- Apocalypse Now (1979): for many, the list alphabetically as well as for merit would begin and end here. Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece set in the Viet Nam war with a crew, led by Martin Sheen, on a small boat looking to end the command of a rogue elite solider, played by overweight Marlon Brando. Graphic, gory, and made more poignant to me after watching the documentary on Viet Nam by Ken Burns. Brilliant. It did not win the Oscar for Best Picture, which most would say now was a travesty (Kramer v Kramer won).
- Bridge on the River Kwai (1957): David Lean directs this fabulous film, which won seven Oscars, including Best Picture. Excellent performances all around led by Sir Alec Guiness, who most younger people see as only older Obi Wan Kenobi. He won Best Actor for this. A group of British POWs forced to build a bridge by their Japanese captors also look to find a way to destroy it.
- Das Boot (1981): Not many films can make you feel like you more fully understand of a life in which you have no experience. The life of a German U boat sailor is shown here, and shows in dramatic fashion how challenging that would have been. It also shows a German perspective, showing that they had thoughts and feelings and issues to contend with on all side, which many films focusing on the Allied story seem to forget.
- Deer Hunter (1978): Another chilling story starring Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken as close friends sent to Viet Nam and their war time experiences. From the early wedding in a small industrial town, where the guys enjoyed hunting, to their experiences and how they impacted them from the War. A gripping and excellent achievement for Michael Cimino as director. Awards include Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Walken and Meryl Streep, and Actor for De Niro.
- Dunkirk (2018): The recent addition to the list for me is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Filmed in IMAX and using very little CGI. He recreates well the turning point in the Second World War, arguably, with the saving of the British and French troops trapped in France and surrounded by the German forces. 300,000 men were there, and the British army would have been wiped out had they not been rescued by a civilian armada of small watercraft. Nolan shows the land, air and sea aspects with heroic efforts made by many. The individual young soldier struggling just to survive in a confusing and desperate time is revealed. The companion piece to this from political perspective is Darkest Hour with Gary Oldman playing Churchill. The Americans at this point were not in the war, but it is a tale of British survival and resilience.
- Patton (1970): George C Scott famously played the controversial WWII US General in this epic film. Another Best Picture winner, and also Best Actor for Scott. He refused to accept the award claiming that he did not feel as though he was in a competition with other actors. That is a sidenote to a film that shows the vanity and hubris of those who can fight in war. Some people just live for it and thrive in that environment. Patton was one of them it seems. Patton famously struck one of his soldiers for being a coward. War can shape many lives, and in this one it hardened the man who took it as his own personal campaign through Africa and Europe to defeat Rommel and the Germans.
- Platoon (1986): Oliver Stone, Mr Conspiracy, wrote and directed this Viet Nam film showing the dichotomy in attitude of a single platoon within this war. The focal point is the young recruit played by Charlie Sheen, in many ways mirroring the personal journey of his father’s career in Apocalypse Now. The young solider is shown the ropes in the wet, bug-infested jungle with various battles that take place. His platoon is run by two different sergeant’s who are “battling for Sheen’s soul”. Both played excellently by Tom Berenger and Wllem Dafoe. This won Best Picture and Best Director.
- Sink The Bismarck (1960): Maybe it’s me with a Navy bias because of my Gramps and his service, but I have always enjoyed this movie set in WWII. The Germans had constructed a large battleship that was feared for its gun range and ability to cause destruction on the seas. In its first real test, it destroyed the British HMCS Hood with one shot. Hit and sunk. The British forces realize that they need to sink the Bismarck before more destruction ensues. There are no Oscars. It is just a story well told of the war on the seas.
- Saving Private Ryan (1998): Steven Spielberg dramatically brought to life the battle on D-Day at Normandy with the landing at Omaha beach by the Americans. This is an American story predicated ultimately on finding one solider, whose three brothers were already killed in Europe, and US Army Chief of Staff, George Marshall decides to send a small group to go find the fourth brother and safely return him home to his family. No parents should have to sacrifice so heavily on the altar of freedom, in the words of Abraham Lincoln which are used by Marshall to explain his decision. The middle of this piece lags for me, but the opening beach sequence has no match anywhere. The noise, the bullets, the graphic violence and injuries. One feels exhausted watching it, and feels that anyone who survived that day, deserves to go home already. But that was not the case. Tom Hanks stars, along with a lesser known supporting cast. If people don’t regard Apocalypse Now as the best war film, many consider this it.
- Zero Dark Thirty (2012): I am a Jessica Chastain fan. I freely admit it. This role took her career to new heights, as she showed herself as a CIA operative looking to find and kill Osama Bin Laden as a driven, smart, focused and formidable proponent of her cause. This movie was initially to be about the unsuccessful search for Bin Laden, but then he was found and killed in May 2011. The screenplay was then re-written and you see the operation in the last half an hour that took him down. Chastain embodies this role and challenges her superiors and commits to ensuring that this terrorist pays for the actions that he coordinated on September 11th 2001, and for which many had given up hope of ever seeing it occur.
Other notables not on the list, because when you look into it, so many stories have been put on film about wars and war time. These include: They Will Not Grow Old (2018), the colourized and improved WWI documentary directed by Peter Jackson. This is simply mandatory viewing to better understand the First World War from the perspective of the soldier’s themselves in their own words; Schinder’s List (1993), epic story about holocaust; The Hurt Locker (2008), much of the same crew as Zero Dark Thirty filmed this; Full Metal Jacket (1987) Stanley Kubrick with memorable training sequence; Imitation Game (2014) about code breaking Enigma machine and Alan Turing; Dirty Dozen (1967) Lee Marvin leads a group of convicted prisoners on a dangerous mission to help the cause and would give them their freedom; Great Escape (1963) a great cast including Steve McQueen escapes from a German POW camp; The Thin Red Line (1998) a Terrence Malick film showing the insanity of war on the Pacific side, Hacksaw Ridge (2016) the Mel Gibson WWII film of a conscientious objector who refuses to hold and fire a weapon, but will protect life as a medic as part of a platoon. He ultimately is awarded a Medal of Honor, the first man to do so without firing a shot; Tora Tora Tora (1970) is the Pearl Harbor attack and also follow up with Midway which shows the Japanese forces first having an unmitigated success on December 7th, and then struggling with the follow up attack; finally Judgment at Nuremburg (1961) showing the Nazi trials which pose interesting legal issues and arguments like retroactive law making (there were no laws about war crimes or crimes against humanity before WWII), as well as making soldiers criminally responsible for following orders, and the upper level judges who allowed to have the Nazi regime decline so many rights and freedoms to ensure compliance and tolerance of atrocities. Maximilian Schell won the Oscar for Best Actor as German defense lawyer. One final addition: Glory (1989) set in the US Civil War, it is the story of the first regiments of black soldiers from the Union army. Denzel Washington won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Morgan Freeman also part of the excellent cast.