Top twenty. Now we start to see the more widely recognizable films that people have some emotional attachment to. World War II gets a few mentions in this portion of the list, but this is one of the more diverse sections, overall. We get a mention of the Boer War, the Algerian War, and the Korean War, as well as the only movie about the American Civil War on this list.
Conflict: Boer War, World War I, World War II
The only film on the list that spans multiple wars is also probably the least battle-focused film on the list. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is told through an extended flashback, following Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) as he rises through the ranks of the British military from war to war. The flashback is in response to younger soldiers viewing him as an out-of-touch elderly officer who has no idea what it takes to be a military man in the current time. Colonel Blimp is a fascinating retrospective style film that goes through various stages of the same man’s life, highlighting important friendships, romances, and conflicts that shaped who he has become. Think Forrest Gump without all the saccharine melodrama and quirky historical cameos. Directed by the filmmaking team of Powell and Pressburger, Colonel Blimp is insightful in terms of how war has changed in 40 years, how the British military has evolved, and how some of the old techniques and personalities are still necessary, even when the world has turned to larger weapons and greater battles. Of all the films on the list, it’s probably the most focused on the changes in style and the ongoing jettisoning of honor during wartime. Most importantly, it demonstrates how important an amazing mustache is as a commanding officer.
Conflict: American Civil War
The only movie on the list to focus on the American Civil War, Glory is the story of Captain Robert Shaw (Matthew Broderick) and his promotion among the Union Army to command the Army’s first all-black infantry. While commanding those troops, he learns that any black soldiers found by the Confederacy and their white commanders will be executed on point. Despite this, none of his volunteers leave, all fighting for the collective good. We meet many of the infantry, including central character Trip (Denzel Washington, Oscar winning role), who is the personification previously enslaved African-American men and the guilt a white man has with disciplining and leading these men. In the end, Glory is basically told from a white perspective, but still exposes the internal struggle of the Union Army – they fight for their rights, which includes the abolition of slavery, but they still don’t respect the black soldiers, even denying them basic needs. The American Civil War was about more than slavery, but Glory is the best war film about the injustices in America’s history and the men who fought to correct them.
Conflict: Vietnam War
In a universe full of anti-war films, Full Metal Jacket‘s message often gets lost, if only because it contains two performances far greater than the movie itself. Based on the novel The Short-Timers, the film follows a platoon of Marines through their training and into Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. As usual, Kubrick’s direction tends to feel distant and disconnected, which would normally function well for the topic. But, among dozens of other anti-war films that focus on Vietnam, Full Metal Jacket suffers criticism, due to its somewhat unfair comparisons to other films of the era. A young Vincent D’Onofrio gives an incredible performance as Private Pyle, gaining 70 pounds to his frame to play the slow, incompetent soldier. Opposite him is the aggressively hateful work of R. Lee Emery as Sergeant Hartman, a drill instructor who makes it part of his personal goal to mentally destroy the soldiers, especially Pyle. Most of Emery’s lines were ad libbed, as he drew on his own experience in war times. What results feels like two films – the first half is gripping, as we see the soldiers slowly breaking down under the degradation of Hartman and the endless preparation for warfare; the second half takes us to Vietnam, where the stories get a little shattered and messy. But there are few war movie scenes that will burn themselves into your psyche deeper than Pyle discovered in the bathroom, loading his rifle. Horrifying.
Conflict: World War II
It’s the war film that feels more like a sprawling art film than anything. As you’d expect from Terrence Malick, The Thin Red Line is less about the war itself and more about the majesty of the world we fight for and the somewhat pointless endeavors we enact trying to defend it. Malick hadn’t made a film for 20 years and his return came overstuffed with actors galore. Among them, Sean Penn, George Clooney, John Cusasck, Adrien Brody, Woody Harrelson, John Travolta, Jared Leto, and more. That doesn’t even include Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Viggo Mortensen, and Mickey Rourke, whose scenes were cut from the 171 minute film. A fictionalized account of the Battle of Mount Austen in the Guadalcanal Campaign, it focuses on the C Company and their struggles during the war. Unlike the other films on the list, Malick’s approach is much less gritty – there’s a stylized beauty with John Toll’s camera that makes even death scenes seem like museum-level art. It doesn’t approach the same anti-war or pro-war rallying cries we see so often in war movies. It may not even have a real stance on the matter. The film grabbed a number of Oscar nominations, but went home empty handed; war films are supposed to be heavy-handed and deliberate, right? As the alternative, The Thin Red Line, while incredibly weighty and somewhat elitist, refuses to sink into an “easy to digest” category.
Conflict: World War II
Yet another prisoner of war escape movie, The Great Escape is the ruler by which all the others have come to be measured. Starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasance, and James Coburn, the film is based on the novel of the same name by Paul Brickhill, which is based on true stories and people. After the Germans have all but used up any resources continuously recapturing Allies POWs who escape from their less secure camps, they move the ones most likely to plot another escape to a new, state-of-the-art high-security prison camp. The commandant is sure no one will get out. After multiple attempts, the POWs finally decide it’s time to settle in. But, sure enough, when they bring in a new prisoner, affectionately called “Big X” (Attenborough), he decides to hatch an epic plan involving all the other POWs, or “every escape artist in Germany.” This involves Ocean’s 11 level planning and three tunnels named Tom, Dick, and Harry. Despite the incredibly heroic story and the expected results, The Great Escape’s best aspect is the refusal to end on a perfect note. It runs a little long and gets a little wrapped up in itself, but Steve McQueen’s lead performance supported by an incredible cast makes for an exciting look at what men will do to be free.
Conflict: Algerian War
It may well have been a documentary, for all we know. Gillo Pontecorvo’s critique of the French government and their manifest destiny style tactics in Algeria was and still is one of the most stark, realistic portrayals of military conflict caught on screen. Filmed entirely in black and white and taking most of its cues from the Italian neo-realism movement (it’s delivered in most parts as newsreel footage), The Battle of Algiers focuses on the period between 1954 and 1957, when guerrilla fighters from Algeria went up against French military paratroopers in an effort to regain ground they had lost. While most depictions of war on this list serve as rallying cries, The Battle of Algiers actually became a model for political movement in the world, thanks to its unflinching portrayals of the assembly of guerrilla troops. The film was banned in France for five years, partly because it was unclear whose side of the fight the film was supporting. The film has been used as a way to help train troops preparing for battle, helping them see how non-traditional enemies may gather their armies. The United States Pentagon even held a screening in 2003, stressing that, in the film, the French technically won, but at what cost? If it takes killing innocents, is there really victory? Despite the outcome of the actual Battle of Algiers, Algeria would go on to win the Algerian War, gaining their independence from France. The Battle of Algiers was and still is almost a handbook on guerrilla warfare and terrorism, but which side is it on?
Conflict: Iraq War
The little movie that took down Avatar, The Hurt Locker was also the first film to win a best director Oscar for a female filmmaker, given to Kathryn Bigelow. While centering on a three man bomb disposal unit in Iraq, the main protagonist is Sgt. First Class William James, played by Jeremy Renner. The film is based on the accounts of screenwriter Mark Boal, a freelance journalist stationed with a bomb squad in Iraq for two weeks in Iraq in 2004 (Boal’s screenplay also won an Oscar). James is as skilled at defusing bombs as anyone in the military, but his tactics and devil-may-care attitude tends to rub his fellow soldiers the wrong way, mostly because it puts them in danger. But, as we learn about James, he runs on sheer adrenaline at all times, a man much more comfortable in danger than he is in safety. Renner’s work is magnificent; Bigelow’s direction is tight – not a shot is wasted. Post-release, outside of universal praise from critics, the film did receive some criticism from Iraq War veterans about the inaccuracies, specifically with the lack of structure and command to force James to fall in line. But, again, it’s a movie. The Hurt Locker was never about the structure of the military; it’s more concerned with the addiction to war, despite the fear of death at every turn.
Conflict: Korean War
Before it became one of the most beloved television shows of all time, M*A*S*H was a brilliantly written, acted, and directed Best Picture nominee. Robert Altman directed a script from Hollywood 10 member Ring Lardner Jr., sent to prison in the 1950’s for defying the House of Representatives’ Un-American Activities Committee. M*A*S*H begins with the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital and the new doctors who arrive: “Hawkeye” Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and “Duke” Forrest (Tom Skerritt). They immediately request a new thoracic surgeon be sent, in the form of “Trapper John” McIntyre (Elliot Gould). From there, just like any other Robert Altman film, it’s heavy on dialogue and surrealism, as we see quite a bit more roughhousing, drug use, and sex than in most military films. Additionally, this was an early effort from Altman, whose filmmaking style is decidedly different than most directors. As a result, Gould and Sutherland spent quite a bit of time trying to get Altman fired (Gould would later apologize). In the end, the style worked, despite the heavy ad-libbing typically found in Altman work. Producers made sure to be as clear as possible that the film was depicting the Korean War, rather than the Vietnam War, as the film is decidedly anti-war altogether. Regardless, M*A*S*H is still one of the greatest black comedies of all time, influencing every other post-1970 war comedy on or off this list.
Conflict: World War II
It took the world by storm as the most realistic depiction of wartime ever conceived (it’s not, although the Omaha Beach sequence sounds pretty dead on). Saving Private Ryan has gone down in history as one of Steven Spielberg’s most celebrated efforts, mostly because it took World War II and Spielberg-ed it. Beginning during the D-Day Normandy Invasion, the film follows General George Marshall (Tom Hanks) as he assembles a team of six men from his company to find Private First Class James Ryan (Matt Damon), his mother already having lost his three brothers in the war (do they actually do this?). Littered with dozens of skilled actors, Saving Private Ryan starts with a bang and keeps the tempo until the third act, when it becomes the Steven Spielberg crowd pleaser it needs to be. The film grabbed 11 Oscar nominations, winning five, but losing to Shakespeare in Love for Best Picture. It did however win Spielberg another Best Director Oscar, despite some fellow directors criticizing its message (Oliver Stone believed it to directly influence America’s decision to attack Iraq). In the end, Saving Private Ryan is a clean film, suffering from the same issues that many of Spielberg’s other late career films do, but still triumphs as an honest look at a war that, on the surface, made more sense than it did for those involved.
Conflict: World War II
It won the Oscar for Best Picture. George C. Scott won the Oscar for Best Actor, but refused to accept it due to his dislike over the idea of acting competitions in general. In the years since, for as many films as George C. Scott has given great performances, there will never be another like Patton. The biographical account of General George S. Patton is famous for its opening sequence, where Scott as Patton addresses the audience directly in front of a massive American flag. From there, it jumps to Patton in action in North Africa, taking command of some demoralized troops and “whipping them into shape” through discipline. We then follow Patton as he moves through North Africa into Sicily, into France, then Germany. Patton is clearly characterized as a respectful man, one who sees how difficult war is on all men, both Allies and enemies. He believes wholeheartedly that he was meant to lead these soldiers to victory, almost in a religious fashion. What’s remarkable about the film and performance is, to this day, side by side photos of George C. Scott and George S. Patton would still throw people for a loop. Scott’s performance is so memorable that he has all but usurped the true identity of Patton, a war hero whose story needed to be told. Patton endures almost 45 years later thanks to a great lead actor, a comparable job directing, and a screenplay written bu Edmund H. North and Francis Ford Coppola.