With Memorial Day a week ago and Independence Day fast approaching, it seemed fitting to look at the history of war films from the world (I’m American, after all – though this site originates in Canada). So, as we move through the list, the important aspects to remember: first, these have to take place during wars or battles that actually happened. So, that means a great war movie like Starship Troopers won’t make the cut. Second, the more warfare it has, the higher it ranks. So, while many films take place during a war, the ones with no actual fighting on screen lose points, let’s say. Let’s not waste time. Let the fighting begin.
50. Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Directed by: Barry Levinson
Conflict: Vietnam War
Nothing says war like a radio DJ played by Robin Williams. The list starts with a war-comedy that earned Williams his first Oscar nomination (lost to Michael Douglas for Wall Street) which was the first to point to his ability to be a legitimate actor, rather than an unstoppable joke machine. Good Morning, Vietnam takes place in Saigon, as Adrian Cronauer (Williams) arrives to work at the Armed Forces Radio Service. He is, as Williams typically is, a loose cannon who refuses to abide by regulations, feeling that his American-focused broadcasts give the soldiers something they don’t typically get: a taste of home. After befriending a Vietnamese woman, Cronauer finds himself drawn into the world around him, getting closer to the line of duty than he ever has been. The film was critically praised, winning Williams a Golden Globe and eventually being named by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 greatest American comedies of all time. The film is relatively light on actual warfare, but the conflict still exists within what is otherwise a relatively standard “fight authority” story.
Conflict: The War in Afghanistan
The most recent film on the list was a surprise box office and critical success, earning two Oscar nominations for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing. Lone Survivor stars Mark Wahlberg as Marcus Luttrell, a sniper in SEAL Team 10, a reconnaissance and surveillance team stationed in Afghanistan, looking for Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. He works alongside three other Marines, played by Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, and Emile Hirsch, and Lt. Commander Erik Kristensen, played by Eric Bana. They sneak through the mountains, coming upon some shepherds. After debate, they release them, only to find themselves ambushed by Taliban forces. From there, it’s a high energy trek through the mountains and forests, the team slowly shrinking one-by-one. Based on the true story of Luttrell, while the film functions as an action-focused war film, it also takes steps to avoid the “American glory above all” mindset, clearly identifying the Afghan residents’ role in the rescue mission. In such a young “war,” Lone Survivor is a bright spot of media treatment, finding a medium between anti-war and manifest destiny by stripping away the global conflict and delivering a character-focused drama.
48. Rescue Dawn (2006)
Directed by: Werner Herzog
Conflict: Vietnam War
Werner Herzog’s 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly was the source material, Herzog deciding to write a fictional screenplay based on the same story. Rescue Dawn stars Christian Bale as Dieter, a U.S. Navy pilot who is shot down over Laos during a combat mission. He is captured by the Pathet Lao, a communist organization in Laos that eventually organized and led the North Vietnam army. He is told he can leave if he signs a document condemning the US. His refusal leads to torture and relocation to a prison camp, where he meets more American soldiers, played by Jeremy Davies and Steve Zahn. From there, Dieter plots his escape, eventually convincing the others to join him, though only Duane Martin (Zahn) follows through with him in the effort. Herzog shot the film in Thailand – Bale, Davies, and Zahn spent months losing weight to give the appearane of war prisoners. Herzog then shot the film in reverse. Despite the historical inaccuracies brought to light post-release, Herzog’s film is still relatively successful, rather than retreading the same ground he did nine years earlier. It’s not one of Herzog’s more imaginative works, but it still tows the line as a solid look at the trek through the jungles of Thailand and their overbearing nature.
47. Kelly’s Heroes (1970)
Directed by: Brian G. Hutton
Conflict: World War II
Another war comedy, Kelly’s Heroes tells the story of a group of soldiers who try to rob a bank behind enemy lines. Private Kelly (Clint Eastwood) learns of some gold in a local bank vault, so he convinces the rest of his platoon to sneak off and steal it. His crew includes Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Carroll O’Connor, and Donald Sutherland (I know – it’s insane). As in most comedic ensembles, most of the characters are relatively one-dimensional, each serving as a foil within the “collection of misfits,” as it were. The film was originally meant to have a female role, only to have it eventually cut, resulting in an all-male cast. Later, Eastwood claimed publicly that MGM had cut a multitude of extra scenes from the film which would have given the lead characters more depth. But, in the long history of American war films (and limited history of war comedies), Kelly’s Heroes finds its place among them, standing as one of Eastwood’s rare departures from drama and western, holding his own against comedic greats like O’Connor and Rickles. The biggest surprise was the unexpected success of the song “Burning Bridges,” performed by Mike Curb’s Congregation at the beginning and end of the film, which found its way onto the Billboard singles chart in 1971.
46. Alexander Nevsky (1938)
Directed by: Sergei Eisenstein, Dimitri Vasilyev
Conflict: Teutonic Invasion of Novgorod
It’s easily the most recognizable conflict covered by any film on this list. After a ten year absence from making films, Sergei Eisenstein took advantage of growing discord between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during the Stalinist era by producing this film about a Russian folk hero fighting a German insurgence. Alexander Nevsky stars Nikolai Cherkasov as the title prince, who rallies the people of his town of Novgorod to meet invading Teutonic knights to defeat them in an epic Battle of the Ice that takes place on the surface of the frozen Lake Peipus. A less than subtle attack on the situation in the Soviet Union at the time, Eisenstein’s original plans included helmets on the German soldiers with swastikas, as well as a fiercely anti-Catholic agenda, clearest in the appearance of swastikas on the knights’ bishop. While the film is much more structured than other Eisenstein films, the final Battle of the Ice actually spans 30+ minutes of the film – over a quarter of the running time. Vasilyev is given co-director credit on the film, though he was more or less hired to ensure that Eisenstein stuck to a schedule, rather than getting to caught up in the formalism of his style. Alexander Nevsky was Eisenstein’s first dramatic film with sound and, while it may not be the pinnacle of his work, its influence can be felt throughout plenty of genres since.
45. Gallipoli (1981)
Directed by: Peter Weir
Conflict: World War I
Before Mel Gibson was directing movies about Jesus, he was a small time Australian actor. Two years after his trademark role in Mad Max, he teamed up with Peter Weir on this long-gestating project about the Gallipoli campaign during the first World War. Gibson stars as a cynical railway worker who tries to win prize money for racing, only to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force alongside his competition, an 18-year-old stockman named Archy (Mark Lee). Their time in the military sees pain and suffering, eventually seeing them deep in battle in the Turkish peninsula of the title. Gallipoli is a rare Australian war film in a world dominated by American and other Western power-produced films. But, regardless of the setting or country of origin, it still emotes the same themes we see in plenty of other war films: young men forced into combat, losing their innocence, and either dying or becoming a shells of what they once were. Gibson’s work is some of his best, while Lee – recruited for the film after a photo session with Weir – delivers a novice, idealistic performance that fits the story perfectly. Much like plenty of other films on the list, it’s not a movie about war – that’s simply the setting for a movie about a friendship that defined two men until the end.
44. Casualties of War (1989)
Directed by: Brian De Palma
Conflict: Vietnam War
Based partly on an article in The New Yorker by Daniel Lang, Casualties of War tells the story of the incident on Hill 192 during the Vietnam War, starring Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn, and John C. Reilly. Fox tells the story in flashback as Private Max Eriksson, eight years removed from the incident. Without going into too much detail, after a fierce battle, Eriksson’s group finds themselves on enemy territory, but without an oncoming threat. This leads to one of the soldiers kidnapping a local Vietnamese girl and he and his fellow military men take advantage of her. All except Eriksson, who refuses, even after threats by his commanding officers. Eventually, this leads to a trial and the ongoing question of ethical codes vs. loyalty to your brothers in arms. Released just three years after Oliver Stone’s Best Picture winner Platoon, it covers a lot of the same topics, but to middling results. While Stone’s film took a broader approach, De Palma’s focused so intently on one situation that it ended up fraying around the edges a bit. Still, the graphic nature of the film and horrific picture of the realities of the war manages to stir up nightmares.
43. El Cid (1961)
Directed by: Anthony Mann
Conflict: Unification of Spain
In Spain, Don Rodrigo Diaz is recognized as a folk hero; “El Cid” (Castillian Spanish pronounciation of the Arabic word for “Al Sidi,” which mean “Lord) fought the North African Almoravides, eventually leading to the unification of Spain. In 1961, Anthony Mann enlisted movie epic poster boy Charlton Heston to realize the story, starring alongside international beauty and superstar Sophia Loren. As Don Rodrigo (Heston) heads to meet his future bride (Loren), he gets himself caught up in a war with a Moorish army, only to release the enemy commanders, resulting in accusations of treason. For the most part, the film follows him on other missions, seeing him defeat various conspirators and tower high above the world he lives in, despite the corruption and murder around him. El Cid remains a favorite of Martin Scorsese, despite its spectacle status. Upon the film’s release, its scenery and cinematography was hailed as one of a kind, though Loren found herself in a legal battle with the production company, as her role in the film was downplayed (unintentionally or not is up for debate) in favor of Heston’s. It grabbed three Oscar nominations in all and, while it may get lost in the shuffle of various other epics of the era, there’s no denying its beauty and depiction of a historical icon.
42. The Longest Day (1962)
Directed by: Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, Gerd Oswald, Darryl Zanuck
Conflict: World War II
Well, with so many to chose from, I had to include at least one John Wayne film on the list, didn’t I? Filmed in a docudrama style, The Longest Day was the fictionalization of the D-Day descent on Normandy, told from every side of the battle. The film takes its time focusing on the actual decision to go into Normandy by Dwight D. Eisenhower, the American president at the time. Then it takes an American perspective, a German perspective, a British one, and a French one, each segment directed by someone else. Each foreign language segment was actually spoken in the native dialects, with subtitles included – a new technique, at the time. The major American role in the film – Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort – was actually sought by Charlton Heston, but was later given to Wayne, which forced Heston out. Vandervoort was actually 28 years younger during the actual event than Wayne was during the filming of the movie. Wayne also demanded a higher salary as compensation for director Zanuck’s previous comments about him to the press. The film was stuffed full of actors from the various nationalities, actually marking Sean Connery’s last film before he inhabited the role of James Bond for the first time. Despitre its originality and its attempt to show the war from all sides, the film sometimes gets lost when discussing some of the great World War II films. But, it still garners mentions here, if only for the first attempt to show a multi-faceted view of war.
41. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Directed by: Oliver Stone
Conflict: Vietnam War
It was the movie that proved Tom Cruise was more than just a pretty face (though, I would argue, his performance in Rain Man is better than he gets credit for). Oliver Stone directed and co-wrote (with Kovic) the adaptation of Ron Kovic’s autobiography about his time in Vietnam during the war and his return home. During his tours in Vietnam, Kovic witnesses a fellow officer kill civilians, accidentally shoots and kills another soldiers, and eventually finds himself paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. Kovic then finds himself disillusioned by the public’s treatment of veterans (especially crippled ones) and is abhorred by the minimal care provided to him by the government he served for so long. Of Stone’s Vietnam trilogy, this is really the most pessimistic, focusing less on the horrors of war and more on the post-war horrors our veterans go through. Cruise grabbed his first Oscar nomination for the film, one of the eight the movie achieved (it won Best Director for Stone and Best Film Editing). Stone wanted to film in Vietnam, but could not, due to relationships between the two nations still on the outs. A Vietnam veteran himself, with Born on the Fourth of July, Stone made his most visceral attack on the American military system to date, sometimes leaning to the unreasonably aggressive side. But, the message worked – the film is still considered one of his best and is commonly included in the list of worst Best Picture snubs (it lost to Driving Miss Daisy).
— Joshua Gaul