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The Definitive War Movies: 30-21

As we continue with the list, we still see a lot of World War II, but throw in some World War I and Persian Gulf War, too. While some of the films in this portion of the list spin the war film into something a little more ingenious, it doesn’t completely rule out the idea of a patriotic call to arms film. We also see a few more foreign language films on the list, as well as some Oscar winners for their work. Without further ado, let’s light this candle.

courtesy of toutlecine.com

30.  Black Book (2006)
Directed by: Paul Verhoeven

Conflict: World War II

In 2008, the Dutch public named it the greatest Dutch film ever made. Who am I to argue? A surprisingly complete film from a director who has Showgirls and Hollow Man under his belt (and Starship Troopers and Robocop…I can’t be too hard on him), Black Book is the story of Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a Jewish singer hiding in the Netherlands from the Nazi regime. After nearly dying in a Nazi attack, Rachel finds herself still behind enemy lines. She gets involved with a Resistance group who eventually bleach her hair blonde and begin to use her as a spy, working as a secretary at the SD headquarters and befriending various SS officers, after attending one of their parties. It slowly devolves into a game, as Nazi officers figure out that Rachel is a spy, but decide to convince the Resistance that she is, in fact, an informant for them. While the majority of the films on this list are male-focused, Black Book is a rare case of a war film with a female protagonist, brilliantly played by van Houten. She received critical praise for her work, nominated for various Critic Association awards. While she had worked for almost ten years before Black Book, van Houten found her first international recognition for her powerhouse performance here. Six years later, she re-entered international consciousness with her role as Melisandre in Game of Thrones. GOT fans, do yourselves a favor – watch Black Book and see how much more the priestess of the Red God and Lord of Light can do.

courtesy of thecultureconcept.com

29. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Directed by: David Lean

Conflict: World War I

David Lean’s sweeping, dramatic story of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is widely recognized as one of the greatest film of all time, but lands a little further down the list because of its lack of true warfare. The majority of the movie is Lawrence stationed on the Arabian peninsula, more or less shielded from the more front facing side of World War I, focusing more on his connection with his Arabian tribes and his personal struggle with his own military and his deep seeded dislike of violence. The film is broken into two parts – the first focuses on Lawrence and how he gained acceptance and control over areas on the Arabian peninsula, working with local tribes to rebel against the oppressive Turks in the area. The second half sees Lawrence struggling to maintain his “no violence” stance, only to find himself eventually drawn into the warfare he had long been against. It’s a fascinating character study and one of the greatest singular performances every caught on film, but in terms of a true war film, it doesn’t stack up as highly as it could. Lawrence of Arabia takes place during war and is inherently about the effects of war, but it isn’t really focused on the war so much as it is the cultural imbalances not often discussed within the tenets of war. T.E. Lawrence went to the desert to check up on the British army there and ended up finding a place where he felt like home. Even as he is finally drawn to join the battle, he finds himself thrilled not to fight, but to join his new brothers.

courtesy of celluloidheroreviews.com

28. Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)
Directed by: Allan Dwan

Conflict: World War II

More John Wayne, this time centered on a group of Marines who go through the necessary training and eventually take part in the Battle of Iwo Jima. It grabbed Wayne an Oscar nomination, thought he came away empty handed. In the film, he plays a Sergeant John Stryker, the bane of his squad’s existence. Basically, he makes his team go through rigorous training, which they don’t like. Sure enough – as you’d expect – the team learns during battle that his methods were important in their development as soldiers. As with most every John Wayne war film, Sands of Iwo Jima is the antithesis of antiwar – it is a picture of patriotism and the need for “tough love” through every step of a soldier’s development. But, it doesn’t manage to show the “tough as nails” leader in a softer light at one point, so that makes it all okay. Sands of Iwo Jima doesn’t hold up – John Wayne was not the most skilled actor of his time, to say the least. But it is a great example of what war films were like post WWII, when patriotism was viewed as virtue and the United States had yet to blemish its military record so negatively.

courtesy of filmjournal.net

27. Stalag 17 (1953)
Directed by: Billy Wilder

Conflict: World War II

The film sat on the shelf for a year – Paramount was worried that no one would want to see a film about prisoners of war, especially when the country was still knee deep in the Korean War. Finally, when the American POWs were released from the Korean War, the company released it in the hopes that its timely subject would exploit moviegoers and their current tastes. William Holden (Oscar winner for the role) stars as J.J. Sefton, one of hundreds of POWs held at the Luftwaffe prisoner-of-war camp along the Danube River. When two soldiers try to escape, they are shot and killed. This results in the rest of the prisoners coming to the conclusion that someone told the guards, which begins a long running search for a mole within them (actors have contended that they never found out who the informant was until the final few days of shooting the film). What results is a fascinating game of cat-and-mouse, where Sefton leads the charge to find the betrayer, though he himself has found himself under investigation. Holden has always been a severely underrated actor, but his collaborations with Billy Wilder were certainly standouts (his work in Sunset Blvd. is probably his best). Stalag 17 provided a more cast-focused film, but Holden clearly headlined and held the film together. Doesn’t hurt that it was based on a Broadway play, but completely rewritten by Wilder and screenwriter Edwin Blum.

courtesy of seanax.com

26. The Big Red One (1980)
Directed by: Samuel Fuller

Conflict: World War II

One of the stranger lifecycles of any film on the list, The Big Red One was cut up drastically upon its first release in 1980, only to be restored and re-released at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, seven years after Samuel Fuller’s death (the restoration is 49 minutes longer). Lee Marvin stars as Sgt. Possum, leading his infantry through North Africa. Meanwhile, we are also introduced to Feldwebel Scroeder (Siegfried Rauch), the German “sergeant” of the Nazi regime, who shares a lot of the same code that Possum does, most importantly that soldiers cannot be labeled as “murderers,” but are, in fact, “killers.” They are shown in sharp contract to Private Griff (Mark Hamill), a marksman who doesn’t want to take part in killing anyone until he sees the true horrors of war in a concentration camp. Marvin is phenomenal in the film, delivered a layered performance he doesn’t show too often. The film is about Possum and his conflicting ideals – it begins with him killing a German soldier who was surrendering during World War I, an action he has since lived with and pondered over many a night. As his involvement in World War II is fleshed out, we eventually see that this man, despite his leadership skills, may very well be the last person you want to follow.

a_glorious_return_with_inglourious_basterds-p125. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Conflict: World War II

More World War II, but this time less a typical war film and more a revenge killing wet dream that is more style than substance (though not by a lot). Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds was originally written in 1998, but was delayed when Tarantino was unsatisfied with the ending. Two Kill Bills and half of Grindhouse later, he came back to the project and delivered one of the best films of 2009. To sum it up, Inglourious Basterds is 3+ storylines that intersect. First, a band of Jewish American soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) just heading through enemy lines, collecting Nazi scalps. Second, a cinema in Paris is run by a young woman (Mélanie Laurent) who finds herself the object of affection for a Nazi war hero, who convinces her to show a biographical film about his heroism, directed by Joseph Goebbels. The third involves SS colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), the infamous “Jew Hunter,” looking for Jewish countrymen and women in hiding. The three stories eventually intersect at the aforementioned theater in Paris, making for some revisionist history fireworks. I didn’t live through World War II. My parents didn’t even live through World War II. I’m not Jewish. In fact, I’m blonde with blue eyes and white. But, dammit if this movie isn’t an enjoyable watch to see vengeance taken retroactively. Tarantino’s work earned him an Oscar for Original Screenplay, as well as a Supporting Actor win for Waltz. Though it has been criticized for a warped portrayal of a sensitive time period, it’s still a bold work that was Tarantino’s best work in 10+ years. He tried to recapture lightning in a bottle a few years later with Django Unchained, but the impact wasn’t nearly as great.

courtesy of nytimes.com

24. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
Directed by: Clint Eastwood

Conflict: World War II

The good half of Clint Easwtood’s attempt to show the conflicting sides of the Battle of Iwo Jima (the other being the dreadful Flags of Our Fathers), Letters from Iwo Jima tells the story of Japanese soldiers during World War II. Headlined by a brilliant performance from Ken Watanabe, the film is almost entirely in Japanese, despite it being an American work. While there are dozens of films made about the great conquest of the villainous Japanese military from the Western world, few have taken the approach to depict what the men of that military went through. Letters from Iwo Jima centers on a few of those men and their struggle to serve their country, predicated on honor and privilege. Private First Class Saigo (Watanabe) feels his side is doomed and it would be insane to continue fighting the American army, only to be disciplined for his “treasonous” thoughts. He sees fellow soldiers executed at the hands of his own commanding officers for feeling the same way. Meanwhile, Saigo begins to learn of the backgrounds of his fellow soldiers, finding more common ground than expected. Eastwood’s bold choice on topic and language at first looked crazy, but the box office proved otherwise, as Letters from Iwo Jima out-earned its English language counterpart greatly, thanks to a better story, better casting, and more skilled moviemaking. It didn’t hurt that American was in the midst of a time when the enemies were getting less and less vilified, thanks to American protest regarding government policies.

courtesy of flickeringmyth.com

23. Three Kings (1999)
Directed by: David O. Russell

Conflict: Persian Gulf War

It’s more a post-war film than a war movie, but it still qualifies. Plus, it’s a great effort from a typically overly idiosyncratic director. Three Kings stars George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube as military soldiers in Iraq cleaning up the final bits of the Persian Gulf War. While on another humdrum mission to collect surrendering Iraqi soldiers, they uncover what appears to be a map to bunkers that contain stolen gold. The next day, they travel under government cease fire without incident to find the gold, only to uncover a hidden insurgence of anti-Saddam soldiers who turned on their own Iraqi army. This leads to more difficulty, as they attempt to rescue these men, only to be split up and captured themselves. What results is a surprisingly fresh take on a war that seemed commonplace. While films like Jarhead pointed to the Gulf War being a waste of time, Three Kings turned the tables into something that criticized American foreign policy and interrogation techniques long before Guantanamo Bay and the second war in the Persian Gulf. Russell had yet to blossom into a mainstream, Academy-adored director and screenwriter and this felt like the film that began pushing him that direction. In a filmography that includes risky films like I Heart Huckabees and Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings is the movie that bridges the gap between those strange outings to the more mainstream audience pandering films like American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook (the latter I actually really like; the former not so much). But, it’s still a war movie. And a pretty damn good one.

courtesy of austinchronicle.com

22. The Dirty Dozen (1967)
Directed by: Robert Aldrich

Conflict: World War II

I suppose to start, it’ll be fun to just list every person in this crazy film about 12 army convicts being used as commandos to just wreak havoc and raid German troops: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Richard Jaeckel, George Kennedy, Telly Savalas, and Donald Sutherland. It’s told in three separated acts – recruiting the crew, training them, and carrying out the mission at a chateau. Some war movies are subtlety anti-war. Some are discussions on the male psyche and the difficulty of dealing with the horrors of war. Then there’s The Dirty Dozen, based on E.M. Nathanson’s novel of the same name, which is just a thrilling ride with some of the most despicable protagonists they could dig up. The post alone has the tagling “Train Them! Excite Them! Arm Them! Then turn them loose on the Nazis!” Five of the 12 have been sentenced to death by hanging. Five of them have been sentenced to at least 20 years hard labor (whatever that means). Two will be imprisoned. Their sentences have been agreed to be lightened if they participate, so why not? So, in the end, who needs subtlety and analysis when you can just blow up the Nazis? It’s crazy, but it’s a lot of fun.

courtesy of empireonline.com

21. Sergeant York (1941)
Directed by: Howard Hawks

Conflict: World War I

Gary Cooper’s Oscar winning performance was as Alvin York, one of the most decorated soldier of World War I, made during the early involvement of the United States in World War II. It was the highest grossing film of 1941, telling the story of a York, who grew up in backwoods Tennessee. After getting struck by lightning, he decides to put his drinking and fighting days behind him, only to get drafted into the military. After his superiors learn of his shooting skills, they promote him and send him to Europe to attack during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in 1918. Eventually, York is the only man left in his platoon who hasn’t been killed or wounded, but manages to take an officer captive and ends up forcing over 100 men to surrender. For his act, he wins the Medal of Honor and gets a grand homecoming. Sergeant York is a borderline exploitation film, driving home the idea of religion and “leaving it in God’s hands,” but in a way that is relatively melodramatic and preachy. Still, Cooper’s performance is inspirational; it didn’t hurt the film’s box office that the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred while it was in theaters. It drove up enlistment, thanks to its patriotic themes – even a man who refuses to fight will pick up a rifle when the time calls for it. Especially if his Bible flips to the perfect verse when the wind hits it just right.

–Joshua Gaul

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