Top 10 War Movies
From the Civil War to Vietnam, we look at how Hollywood defined life on the battlefield
by David Fear
Special to MSN Movies
Stories of armies going once more unto the breach predate cinema by several thousand years, but it is surprising how the gung-ho imagery of war films (think of that iconic Joe Rosenthal photograph of the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima and it's hard not picture "The Sands of Iwo Jima's" John Wayne amongst the soldiers) have affected how we think of combat, for better or for worse.
War films have been around since the beginning (D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of A Nation") and as the latest Civil War-meets-"Dr. Zhivago" epic "Cold Mountain" proves, the guts-and-glory genre shows no signs of going away. Sometimes thrilling and heroic, sometimes unbearably tragic, the war film thrives primarily because it takes viewers into the heat of battle from the safety of a comfy cineplex chair.
From spectacles of victory and the agony of defeat to the anti-war fixin'-to-die rags, these movies attempt to recreate, review and reflect on history's conflicts. Whether it's nation vs. nation, brother against brother or simply "the horror, the horror," the following 10 films dare to explain "why we fight" and, occasionally, ask "what are we fighting for?"
10. "The Red Badge of Courage" (1951)
Director John Huston's adaptation of the classic Civil War novel is like a Matthew Brady photograph come to life, all sepia-toned visuals and gritty visages of boys plagued by the anxiety and fear as they march toward death. Examining the fine line between bravery and cowardice, the film scored a casting coup by enlisting Audie Murphy, the decorated WWII hero, to play Stephen Crane's conflicted hero Henry Fleming (he'd later play up his own wartime exploits in the 1955 auto-biopic "To Hell And Back"). Huston's insistence on emphasizing the book's anti-war sentiments didn't sit well with the Cold War-era studio heads, and the film was severely cut while the director was off filming "The African Queen." Compromised or not, it's an amazingly sensitive look at the conflict that tore our nation apart.
You'd almost swear you were watching actual footage of that decisive Civil War battle in 1863, when General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen), Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) and over 150,000 troops clashed over a disastrous attempt to penetrate the Union defense lines that would have led the Confederates to overtake Washington. Thanks to the fanatic attention to detail that writer/director Ronald F. Maxwell gives to every aspect of the event, from weaponry and military strategy talk to the brass buttons on the officers' uniforms, this epic four-hour film brims with an aura of authority on the subject. And the massive recreation of "Pickett's Charge" (filmed on the actual spot where the battle took place!) is not only one hell of a jaw-dropping spectacle, but can boast the single most impressive collection of prosthetic facial hair ever assembled for the screen.
Long before that legacy TV show turned Alan Alda into the thinking woman's sex symbol and made the members of the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital corps household names, this biting satire from filmmaker/American treasure Robert Altman applied the dark irreverence of "Catch-22" (whose own movie adaptation would be released later the same year) to the war film and forever warped the genre. The setting might have been Korea, but it didn't take a brain surgeon to find contemporary parallels in the conflict Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Trapper John (Elliot Gould) were diffusing with gallows humor and a merry prankster-ing that fit right in with America's counter-cultural zeitgeist. Even amid the laughter and feel-good football game ending, the reminder of war's price casts a shadow over the proceedings, crowding the frame with bloodied operating tables and full body bags.
Stanley Kubrick's satire of the Marine Corps mentality wasn't the first film to center on Vietnam, but thanks to a razor-sharp wit and philosophical take on the morality of America's homegrown killing machines, it's certainly one of the best. The tale of Pvt. "Joker's" misadventures through boot camp and the Tet Offensive plays like "Candide" on a bad batch of orange sunshine, and former drill instructor R. Lee Ermey's foul-mouthed sergeant-from-hell is one of the funniest, scariest caricatures of a military man ever committed to celluloid. Critics have argued that the tragicomic first half featuring Vincent D'Onofrio's pathetic Pvt. Gomer Pyle plays better than the sniper-hunt second half, but the final shot of numbed troops chanting a familiar tune -- "M-I-C-K-E-Y" -- never fails to send chills up the spine.
Steven Spielberg's World War II opus isn't just another men-on-a-mission action film or your run-of-the-mill foxhole melodrama, although its later scenes do ladle on the Spielberg syrup ("Earn this, Ryan!" says the kindhearted platoon captain ... cue stock John Williams string score). What redeems the movie's faults is that opening 20-minute sequence: Boatloads of soldiers storming the beaches of Normandy, graphically cut down by the dozens. The sped-up cinematography and handheld camerawork emphasized the battle's chaos and confusion, adding a level of realism to modern war films that hasn't been equaled. The moment where an infantryman examines the helmet that saved his head from a bullet, only to have his luck run out two seconds later, sums up the cruel irony of combat to a T.
5. "Battleground" (1949)
Remember those clichés about WWII films, where the melting-pot platoons are all made of stereotypical dogfaces? You know, the guy from Brooklyn who can't wait to see the Dodgers play again, the young rookie who's scared of dying, the soldier with the creased snapshot of his girl back home, the ethnically diverse supporting cast, etc.? This was the film that started it all, or at least solidified those archetypes into cinematic myth. Centering on the self-proclaimed "battered bastards from Bastogne," director William Wellman's tribute to the frontline camaraderie and frayed nerves of a single Army unit doesn't skimp on the Saturday-matinee action (the snow-bound battle scenes are amazing). Its strength, however, is in portraying the life of the foot soldier in all its hard-bitten, fear-driven flintiness.
4. "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930)
Over 70 years after it was released (and subsequently banned by several European countries), this Oscar winner still has the power to move viewers to tears. A group of young German students, emboldened by a professor who preaches the heroism of warfare, enlists when World War I gives them the chance to prove their manhood. They soon discover that the reality of machine guns and the impossibility of survival have replaced any notions of war-hero glory. The movie's memorable shots of soldiers tangled in barbed wire and caught in the bullet-riddled "no man's land" has been used ad infinitum in other films as shorthand for the brutality of war in the industrial age, and the final sequence of a hand reaching out for a butterfly condenses the tragedy of Erich Maria Remarque's novel into a single heartbreaking shot.
The "greatest generation's" fight has been portrayed as many things onscreen, but this breathtaking masterpiece may have been the first to turn the World War II film into an existential haiku on death and rebirth. Reclusive director Terrence Malick came out of a self-imposed retirement and assembled an all-star cast -- Sean Penn, John Cusack, John Travolta, George Clooney, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson -- to explore the spiritual toll of killing for God and country in the Pacific Islands. Contrasting gorgeous tableaus of nature with the man-made destruction that battle brings, Malick's tone poem is one of the few movies to deal with the weary soul of the solider as well as his physically wracked body, and the result is nearly transcendental.
This World War I melodrama is a stinging indictment of the power gap between officers and the gentlemen who serve them, taking to task the men who sip tea while ordering soldiers to their death. A general demands a French regiment attempt to overrun a German post, a suicide mission that his unit eventually refuses to carry out after sustaining heavy casualties. Their common sense is deemed cowardice by a military court, and not even Kirk Douglas's sympathetic colonel can save three random enlistees from the firing squad. You can practically smell the mustard gas in Stanley Kubrick's first major film as he glides his camera through the trenches during the central siege, making viewers feel as if they're standing right next to the doomed men. After a gut-wrenching climax, he tacks on a beautiful coda -- a sing-along in a French tavern -- that offers a glimmer of hope amid humanity's self-destructive nature. It's a bona fide classic, in every sense of the word.
1. "Apocalypse Now" (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola's journey into the heart of darkness avoids the realism of most war movies for a baroque, operatic sense of madness, and somehow manages to get closer to "the horror, the horror" of Vietnam than any other film. Filming the killing fields like they were Bosch paintings, it's an epic full of moments and sequences that have become part of cinematic history. It's impossible to hear Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" without seeing those Huey choppers descending on that Vietnamese village, or to forget Robert Duvall's surf-crazy Col. Kilgore declaring his love for the "smell of Napalm in the morning." Whether your tastes favor the extra-crispy "Redux" or the original recipe, this version of war as hell will take you on a ride that is absolutely unforgettable.