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Ten Terrific War Movies You Probably Never Heard Of

I’ve always been a war film buff, maybe because I grew up with them at a time when they were a regular part of the cinema landscape. That’s why I read, with particular interest, my Sound on Sight colleague Edgar Chaput’s recent pieces on The Flowers of War (“The Flowers of War Is an Uneven but Interesting Chinese WW II Film” – posted 2/20/12) and The Front Line (The Front Line Rises to the Occasion to Overcome Its Familiarity” – 2/16/12) with such interest. An even more fun read was the back-and-forth between Edgar and SOS’s Michael Ryan over the latter (“The Sound on Sight Debate on Korea’s The Front Line” – 2/12/12), with Michael unimpressed because the movie had “…nothing new to add to the war genre,” and Edgar coming back with “…‘new’ is not always what a film must strive for. So long as it does well what it set out to do…”

Good or bad, familiar or novel, what struck me most profoundly in reading these pieces was that such an obvious, avid interest in the war movie lay in these Asian filmmakers. It’s a marked contrast to the place the war film holds here at home.

From the 1920s into the 1980s or so, movies about men and the combat experience were a Hollywood staple, from The Big Parade (1925) to The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) to The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) to The Longest Day (1962) to Platoon (1986) and Top Gun (1986). But some time after the 1980s, the popularity of the war movie began to wane.  The last war movies to cross the $100 million line in domestic grosses were Roland Emmerich’s simplistic The Patriot (2000 — $113.3 million), Ridley Scott’s sanitized Black Hawk Down (2001 — $108.6 million), and Michael Bay’s incredibly bad Pearl Harbor (2001) which pulled down an equally incredible $198.5 million. You have to go all the way back to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998 — $216.1 million) to find a movie that clicked with both audiences and critics.

A gauge of just how out-of-favor the combat movie is can be found in The Hurt Locker (2008).  With the U.S. embroiled in two of the most controversial wars in its history, the film garnering universal acclaim and copping six Academy Awards to boot, including Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, The Hurt Locker finished at the domestic box office #116 for the year ($17 million) in a field of 521 releases behind movies like Astro Boy and Saw VI.  Locker’s entire worldwide gross of $49.2 million was just a hair better than the opening weekend domestic haul for Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.

Edgar’s and Michael’s discussion reminded me of the greats and near-greats, the adventures and the incisive dissections of men at war.  It occurred to me that there were movies most of us know:  the classics (All Quiet on the Western Front [1930]) and the evergreens that never seem to lose their popularity (The Dirty Dozen [1967]).  But then I got to recalling the not-so-classics; the small movies unnoticed in their time, the good-but-not-great flicks, the high-profile efforts that missed their mark in their day with appreciation only coming with time and retrospection.  They pretty much run the gamut between the poles set by Michael Ryan and Edgar Chaput; from the novel and unique to those that do the familiar, but do it exquisitely well…

1- Men in War (1957). Directed by Anthony Mann; adapted from Van Van Praag’s novel, Day without End by Ben Maddow and Philip Yordan.

Like its worn-out infantrymen, Men does not cry out in anguish nor anger, but is, rather, a sigh of grim resignation.

Few war movies have ever distilled combat to such an elemental level. Although a title card at the beginning of the film tells us this is Korea in 1950, the war and the parties involved don’t matter. In fact, Mann largely keeps the enemy off-screen because while this is a movie set in Korea, it’s not about Korea. It’s about all men in every war. There are no causes, no patriots, no heroes, no reasons…nothing beyond making it to the end of the day alive. Maddow/Yordan’s simple story of a platoon’s day-long walk to illusory safety reminds one of the WW II classic A Walk in the Sun (1945) crossbred with the legend of The Flying Dutchman; these men seem damned to an eternity of marching from nowhere to nowhere, with nothing but a dozen different kinds of death lying in wait, melded into the seemingly deserted country around them.

Robert Ryan, at his world-weariest, commands a cut off, decimated platoon he’s trying to lead through hostile country to the supposed haven of an American-held hill. He hooks up with a renegade sergeant (Aldo Ray) working to get his shell-shocked commander out of the war zone. Ryan is a humanist, pledged to getting at least one of his men back alive. Ray is an ugly combination of brutal survivor’s instincts and equally brutal killer’s instincts, pledged only to himself and his beloved colonel. Between them are a dwindling number of men looking to this Jekyll/Hyde coupling to get them home.

Deliberately paced, intentionally episodic, supported by an artfully thin Elmer Bernstein score, Men feels both realistic and ethereal (a friend of mine hit it on the head when he said, “It almost feels like a Twilight Zone episode), literal and poetic. There are no great actions: wind in the tall grass turns out to be an enemy creeper; a tired soldier walking through woods stumbles and finds himself staring at the detonator of a mine poking up through the carpet of fallen leaves.

When Ryan has to face the fact that the hill they’ve struggled toward all day is occupied by the enemy, his commander’s reserve finally falters and he spouts the truth of his unit’s damnation: “Battalion doesn’t exist. Regiment doesn’t exist. Command HQ doesn’t exist. The USA doesn’t exist. We’re the only ones left to fight this war.” And then somehow, he pulls himself together to plan an assault on the hill with his few remaining men for no other reason than, “We’ve got no place else to go.”

2- Attack! (1957) Directed by Robert Aldrich; Adapted from James Poe’s play, The Fragile Fox, by Norman Brooks.

If Men in War is a resigned sigh, the WW II-set Attack! is an hysterical scream of rage. Men in War is combat at its most elemental; Attack! is a three-ring nightmare of self-interest, revenge, loyalty, and cowardice elevated to manic levels by the life-and-death pressures of combat.

Eddie Albert is Cooney, a spineless company commander who has already cost the lives of one of platoon leader Costa’s (Jack Palance) squads. Shielding Cooney is battalion CO Bartlett (Lee Marvin) looking to curry favor with Cooney’s politically powerful father back home. Trying to keep all the excesses in check is company exec Woodruff (William Smithers) who gains a promise from Bartlett that with the war so close to ending, Cooney’s outfit will probably never see combat again.

But it’s December 1944, and the Germans’ surprise Ardennes offensive – what will come to be called The Battle of the Bulge – puts Cooney’s company literally under the gun one more time. Again, Cooney falters, and, again, costs Costa men. The story comes to a bitter head in a shadowy basement as rabidly vengeful Costa, his arm mangled by a German tank, finds Cooney hiding with Woodruff and other company survivors as the enemy occupies the town above. Costa is slowly bleeding to death, emboldening the gutless Cooney who smirks and giggles as he nudges a pistol just out of reach of the belly-crawling Costa.

The movie never lets up, not even in its closing image of the bodies of Cooney and Costa lying side by side on stretchers. Cooney lies peacefully, released from the pressure of having to be a hero for his father; while Costa, his body frozen in a silent cry like something from Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” seems to still call for blood justice even in death.

3- Hell Is for Heroes (1962). Directed by Don Siegel. Written by Robert Pirosh and Richard Carr.

It is the closing months of WW II and an under-strength squad is assigned to defend a sector facing the German Siegfried Line normally manned by a company. The squad’s only edge comes in the form of Reese (Steve McQueen), a born hunter/killer who is only in his element on the front line.

It’s a simple, familiar plot juiced by a disturbing mix of honest desperation and equally honest brutality. One of the most haunting sequences in the film comes when Reese leads two of the squad against a German pillbox in a nighttime foray which goes horribly bad when one of them – laden with a flamethrower – trips a mine. As Reese and the other man (Mike Kellin) make a mad dash for their own lines, Kellin is hit. Reese gets the screaming Kellin back to their lines but it’s too late. Frantically, with his last breaths, Kellin – knowing he’s dying and imagining his wife getting the news — gasps out, “Don’t tell her it was like this!”

McQueen – not yet a major star –is a standout in a uniformly strong ensemble in one of war movies’ first portraits of an adrenaline junkie who only comes apart when he’s off the front line. He’s all fire and ice dished out in disciplined bursts until Kellin’s ugly death leaves him cradling his submachine gun for comfort, like a child holding on to his teddy bear. When his platoon leader asks him if he’d made the right call in making the run at the pillbox, McQueen – looking lost for the first time – forlornly says, “How the hell do I know?”

4- Castle Keep (1969). Directed by Sydney Pollack. Adapted from William Eastlake’s novel by Daniel Taradash and David Rayfiel.

The Cuban Missile Crisis had taken us to the brink of nuclear war, the U.S. was – for the second time since WW II – sinking into another confused conflict for reasons so abstract as to be pointless to the people at home asked to support it, and the men tasked with fighting it. It seemed the only lesson learned from WW II and its loss of 50 million souls was to make wars smaller.

That postwar disillusionment stirred by the growing morass in Vietnam spawned a number of impressive novels which dealt with the absurdities and insanities of war with darkly comic absurdity and insanity, among them Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and William Eastlake’s Castle Keep. All were set in the so-called “Good War” — WW II – to make Studs Terkel’s point that there is no such thing as a good war.

Movie audiences at the time didn’t click with the film adaptation of Eastlake’s novel; it’s odd, highly symbolic, comedy-colliding-with-tragedy, often surreal texture was too alien a sensibility, and it didn’t help that it’s hardly a flawless movie. Sometimes it works too hard at being offbeat, the symbols have all the subtlety of a poke in the eye, and the film’s whorehouse scenes shot in a 60s oh-wow style have aged into an oh-oh. But it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job considering the challenges of Eastlake’s novel with its episodic structure, multiple narrators, and dream-state prose.

Tuning in to the film’s frequency means understanding it to be a WW II fairy tale with GIs falling in love with Volkswagens, beauty v war, caped princesses (a countess, actually) on horseback galloping through snowy woods. Burt Lancaster commands the motliest of motley crews, a group of GIs battered in both mind and body assigned to occupy a strategically-placed castle. If the movie seems to ramble through its first two-thirds, it still grounds us in its principals: Lancaster, the warrior incarnate; Patrick O’Neal, the art lover who would rather lose the battle than destroy the castle and its treasures; Peter Falk as the life-loving soldier cum baker, and the rest of Eastlake’s bizarre ensemble.

Like the novel, the film finally coheres into a driving narrative line when the castle’s occupiers find themselves astride the German line of advance. Pollack’s battle scenes gain their power not just from their impressive mounting – and they are impressive — but also from their deftly blended undertone of the oddly comic and the poignantly heartbreaking. Imagine the final battle of Saving Private Ryan – but with jokes…bitter jokes that fit.

The film’s strongest and most affecting scene – taken almost line-for-line from Eastlake’s novel — has three soldiers dying in a rose garden, while the narrator imagines them still alive, entering the castle and marching “…up the wide marble stairs clear to the high alone turret on top where they could see all the way home.”

5- Murphy’s War (1971).  Directed by Peter Yates. Adapted from Max Catto’s novel by Stirling Silliphant.

If Castle Keep is a WW II fairy tale, Murphy’s War is a WW II version of Moby Dick. The vengeance-crazed Ahab is Peter O’Toole’s Murphy; the white whale a German U-boat which torpedoed his ship and massacred the crew before hiding out in the muddy waters of Venezuela’s Orinoco River to wait out the last days of the war.

Few directors had as strong a gift for a sense of place as Yates, and he captures an edge-of-the-civilized-world remoteness which emphasizes both the global range of the contagion of war, as well as the pointlessness of this particular duel. Murphy may occasionally pay lip service to the war to the affable French caretaker (Philippe Noiret) he cajoles into helping him, but this is a personal vendetta and nothing more. As with Ahab, the collateral damage his obsession brings down on the innocents around him – the natives who rescued Murphy – only fuels rather than curbs his mania.

Murphy’s defining moment comes during the third act face-off as he tries to ram the sub with an abandoned work barge, his wide, blue eyes filled with mad determination. The Frenchman brings Murphy the radio news that the war is over. “Their war!” Murphy spits back, “Not mine!”

6- The Train (1964). Directed by John Frankenheimer. Adapted from Rose Valland’s book, Le front de l’art by Franklin Coen and Frank Davis (as well as seven other uncredited writers).

WW II and the Allies are close to taking Paris. Paul Scofield is an aristocratic German officer charged with delivering a trainload of art looted from Paris museums to the Reich while Burt Lancaster is the emotionally exhausted, cynical leader of what’s left of a Resistance cell ordered by their London handlers to stop the train without damaging its cargo. Ironically, Scofield – the looter, the brutal conqueror – is the one cultured enough to appreciate the aesthetic value of his cargo, whereas Lancaster sees it only as exacting a needless cost in blood.

Few war movies work in such heady philosophical terrain. What’s a culture worth? Is there a value to the aesthetic soul of a nation? There is no clear answer, and the movie ends provocatively unresolved, juxtaposing the abandoned crates of Picassos and Monets and Gaugins against the jumbled corpses of the civilian hostages used as shields against sabotage, then murdered when they were no longer needed.

Frankenheimer, as good at action as at drama, plays this moral debate against some incredible pre-CGI action sequences, all the more powerful for our knowing that what we are seeing is exactly what we are seeing, and not a realistic cartoon generated by a computer: real trains colliding at 60 mph, an entire rail yard disappearing in a cascade of enormous explosions.

And yet the most powerful moment in the film is the dead quiet final standoff between Scofield and Lancaster, alone among the litter of bodies and crates around the abandoned train, and hovering over them that question which echoes so often among the best movies about men and war: was it worth it?

7- The Secret Invasion (1964). Directed by Roger Corman. Written by R. Wright Campbell.

If you’re in a lighter, impossible-mission-Guns-of-Navarone kind of mood, holding its own against such big-budget Navarone-sized spectacles is B-movie maestro Corman’s surprisingly engaging contribution to the genre.

Three years before action classic The Dirty Dozen featured an American special ops team of convicted criminals sent against the Germans, Corman/Campbell had Stewart Granger as a British officer putting together a team of elite convicts for a special op in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia.

At his best, Corman had the gift of infusing his low-budget flicks with enough tweaks to keep an audience on the hook, and Invasion is no exception. At first, it seems like a behind-the-lines thriller, but then the plot takes a turn and Invasion becomes a POW escape flick, and then, after another turn, it becomes a wide-open WW II actioner, with still another zig and zag left before its holy-crap! climax.

Not the least of the film’s unexpected gifts is Campbell’s touch with character, particularly Raf Vallone as a cerebral Mafiosi who passes up a chance at escaping the mission simply out of the intellectual curiosity in seeing how things will play out; and icy B-movie regular Henry Silva as a cold-blooded killer, shattered after accidentally smothering a baby, finding atonement through a final, ultimate sacrifice.

It’s not great cinema, but it is – like so much Corman – infinitely fun storytelling; the celluloid equivalent of stopping at a back road diner, ordering a cup of coffee and a wedge of pie, then afterward sitting back satisfied thinking, “I know it was only coffee and pie, but ya know? That was damned good coffee and damned good pie!”

8- Go Tell the Spartans (1978). Directed by Ted Post. Adapted from Daniel Ford’s novel, Incident at Muc Wa, by Wendell Mayes.

With the exception of John Wayne’s jingoistic, simple-minded The Green Berets (1968), Hollywood studiously avoided dealing with the war in Vietnam in any major way from the time the U.S. committed ground troops in 1965 until years after the fall of South Vietnam ten years later. Do an anti-war movie, and one risked alienating the older audience and antagonizing the powers that be who oversaw media regulation. Do a movie supporting the war, and one risked putting off the young, draft-age audience so critical to the box office. And, there was the underlying question of just how open any audience was to a movie dealing frankly with a conflict that had left the national psyche morose and traumatized.

Made on a shoestring budget, Spartans was one of the first combat movies to take on Vietnam, using the experiences of a small group of pre-1965 advisors as the war in microcosm. Sometimes the movie is a little too complete, touching too many bases, yet it tragically brings home why and how the war would go so badly in the years to come.

9- Ulzana’s Raid (1972). Directed by Robert Aldrich.  Written by Alan Sharp.

Hey, that’s not a war movie! That’s a Western!

Well, it is and it isn’t, and back in 1972, quite a number of reviewers picked up on what the always subversive Aldrich was up to.

A fresh-faced cavalry lieutenant (Bruce Davison), advised by seasoned scout Burt Lancaster (don’t ask me why he’s in so many movies on this list), is charged with hunting down a small band of Apaches who’ve gone off the reservation on a killing spree.

It’s a gutty, grim Western, but, in the early 70s, reviewers saw in Davison’s stumbling idealism and white man’s arrogance and complete mystification by the alien brutality of his enemy the same missteps and lack of understanding that was going on in Southeast Asia. Davison is first appalled, then enraged by the Apaches’ wake of torture and murder, and then is even more appalled when he sees his own men vindictively mutilate the corpse of a dead brave. After Davison reprimands his men, he turns on the placid old scout. “Well, killing I expect, Mr. McIntosh, but mutilation and torture? I cannot accept that as readily as you seem to be able to.”

“What bothers you, Lieutenant,” Lancaster replies quietly, “is you don’t like to think of white men behaving like Indians. It kind of confuses the issue, don’t it?”

Ulzana’s Raid is a Western, and is also a war movie, a movie about all wars, and how the moral fiber of the best men can be tested by the abrading effect of extreme violence and an environment where – as Lancaster’s McIntosh advises the young lieutenant – “The first one to make a mistake gets to buryin’ some people.”

10- “Hills Are for Heroes.” Directed by Vic Morrow.  Written by Gene L. Coon.

Ok, I cheated. This isn’t really a movie. It’s a two-part episode of the 1960s WW II TV series Combat!, but I couldn’t resist. Airing in the series’ fourth 65-66 season, it’s a cast and fan favorite for reasons obvious to anyone who sees it; take out the commercial breaks and it is a hell of a movie.

In the early to mid-1960s, before Vietnam had grown into the national soul-breaker it would become, TV was still looking back nostalgically at The Good War with series like The Gallant Men, 12 O’Clock High, The Rat Patrol, Garrison’s Guerillas, and Combat! Combat! was the longest running and most popular of the bunch, and arguably the best. Over the course of its five seasons, the show fell into a regular pattern. One of its two rotating leads (Morrow and Rick Jason) would lead the same squad of regulars on a mission into enemy territory that involved a lot of shooting and pyrotechnics, ending with our handful of heroes always triumphing over greater numbers usually suffering nothing more than a wound to the arm or leg. Over five seasons, some of the regulars must have been shot in the same arm a half-dozen times.

But on a fairly regular basis, the show would rise above its format, using the setting of the war for strong, sometimes affecting adult drama. And, maybe once or twice a season, the show would rise still higher and tease at reaching the profound. “Hills Are for Heroes” was the one time they made it.

It doesn’t look like TV, it doesn’t feel like TV, and much of that credit goes to Morrow who took the directing chair on this one to give “Hills” a visual panache rarely seen on TV then or now. And even though the same cast of regulars fills out most of the rolls, Morrow gets a level of performance from them they were rarely given the opportunity to display.

Rick Jason is Lieutenant Hanley whose platoon is ordered to take two hills, each topped by a machine gun bunker, which command an important road. But the hills offer absolutely no cover and the crossfire from the two bunkers is murderous. Hanley’s CO will not accept, “It’s impossible.” Again and again, Hanley sends his men up the hill, trying one clever stratagem after another, but all it gets him is more dead and wounded and more hounding from his seniors.

The men grow resigned, then fatalistic; they’ll keep being sent up the hill until they’re all dead. In his best performance on the show, Jason’s Hanley – for the only time on the series –begins to crack.

Finally, Hanley’s people do manage to take the hill but that doesn’t end their Sisyphusian nightmare.

The triumphal cheers are still echoing up the hillside when Hanley orders his men off the hill. The situation elsewhere on the battle line has changed and Hanley’s been ordered to withdraw from the hill.

“Remember it,” he orders what’s left of his men. “Remember every bit of it. Because we’ll be back.”

– Bill Mesce