Friday, May 23, 2014

My Favorite Films: War Films

War is hell... photogenic, exciting hell. In honor of Memorial Day, here are my favorite war films.

1. The Great Escape (1963): This is easily my favorite war film. Not only does this film highly a vast array of tough guys from the era, but it lets each be himself within the story rather than just giving them cameos. Even better, it doesn’t make the Germans out as monsters or incompetents. That gives the good guys some strong characters to play off of, and it makes the challenge feel more authentic.

2. Zulu (1964): Love this film! Again, this is a film which respects both sides and shows the amazing bravery of both. Also, despite being written by Marxists, this film comes across as very fair in presenting the issues of the day.

3. Bridge on the River Kwai (1957): Alec Guinness is amazing in this. He plays the stiff-upper-lip British commander who works hard to keep his men from falling apart into a rabble in a Japanese prison camp and soon he starts to cross the line into becoming a collaborator, even as he humiliates his Japanese captors.

4. Gettysburg (1993): No CGI and yet, you get to see tens of thousand of soldiers fighting the most important battle in US history, and you get to hear both sides presented fairly and in detail. A truly thoughtful film.

5. Das Boot (1981): This is the definitive submarine film and it’s positively gripping to watch the horrors these guys go through.

6. The Dirty Dozen (1967): What a great idea combined with fantastic execution. I never get tired of watching this one.

7. Where Eagles Dare (1969): This is an awesome a spy thriller that involves two incredibly compelling actors – Eastwood and Richard Burton. A very smart and entertaining story.

8. Breaker Morant (1980): A strong morality tale that just happens to be true, this film shows you how the Boer War was fought and how Britain tried to wash its hands of its tactics by blaming commanders.

9. The Guns of Navarone (1961): Another film written by a communist, this one ends up as a surprisingly rousing call to arms to defend freedom.

10. Kelly’s Heroes (1970): A fun heist film about some guys who learn about a cache of gold bars behind enemy lines and they set out to get that gold by moving the lines.

11. The Longest Day (1962): Packed with stars, this gives you a huge overview of the D-Day landing.

12. Platoon (1986): This is the definitive Vietnam film and it’s truly impressively done.

13. Stalag 17 (1953): What an excellent film about a man wrongly accused of being a traitor.

14. All Quiet On The Western Front (1930): Based on an amazing book, this film captures the feel of what WWI was really like for long-suffering ground troops.

15. Stalingrad (1992): A fascinating film which does an excellent job of showing the horror of the fight to the death that was Stalingrad. Just seeing the size of the unit shrink throughout the film is shocking.

16. Sergeant York (1941): This film is kind of a last hurrah of the “innocent American.” It’s also an excellent feel good film as this humble hero does his duty in an amazing way.

17. Tora Tora Tora (1970): Easily the best Pearl Harbor film, this one presents both side quite fairly.



Kit said...

Downfall, one of the best movies I have ever seen.

To accompany Gettysburg I would add the incredibly moving Glory.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I liked Glory, but it didn't capture my imagination enough to watch it over and over.

I haven't seen Downfall except for the scene that's made it to infamy online.

shawn said...

No love for Patton?

I could throw in Ran as well. Sure it's all samurai, but dang if they didn't have some epic battles.

shawn said...

Now that I think about it, HBO's Band of Brothers was excellent as well.

Otherwise, pretty good list Andrew.

shawn said...

I would also add:
Master and Commander
Gallipoli- the ending gets me every time.

Outlaw13 said...

12 O'Clock High. Gregory Peck as the bomber commander who is burdened with the duty of sending airmen on missions that many don't return from.

To Hell and Back. The most decorated Soldier in American military history stars in a movie about his WWII exploits.

We Were Soldiers. Mel Gibson as COL Hal Moore, in the story of the fight involving the US 7th Cavalry and the North VIetnamese Army in the Ia Drang Valley.

The Big Red One. Sam Fuller's semi autobiographical film about a platoon in WWII starring Lee Marvin.

On a personal note, many people enjoy Platoon, I do not. It may be a great piece of filmmaking but vast majority of those who served in Vietnam were not dope smoking, war crime committing animals. The film did Vietnam Vets no favors and helped perpetuate the myth of the crazed veteran. I personally don't want to ever see that movie be lauded for anything...but everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

PDBronco said...

Some John Ford additions - They Were Expendable, The Wings of Eagles, the Calvary Trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon [my favorite of the three], Rio Grande.

Non-Ford additions - A Bridge Too Far, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Dam Busters, Destination Tokyo, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, The Caine Mutiny.

And finally, Desperate Journey mainly for a Ronald Reagan one-liner: "The iron fist has a glass jaw!"

Kenn Christenson said...

I would add the first half of "Full Metal Jacket." Talk about stealing the show: R. Lee Ermey delivers one of the most iconic performances in cinematic history - which completely overshadows the second half of the film.

Kit said...


Downfall is a classic. It portrays the last 10 days of Nazi Germany largely through the eyes of Hitler's personal secretary. It also features a young boy in the Hitler Youth and a German medical officer.

Bruno Ganz nails Hitler perfectly. He is be very charismatic, fatherly to his secretary, tender to close friends (such as Goebbels), and wacko borderline wacko-insane wavering between depressed over the coming defeat, screaming that the German people "deserve" to die for not winning the war, and indulging delusions of "Final Victory".

It also depicts the fanatical loyalty of several Nazis (I lost count of the number of suicides) and the destruction of Berlin.

Kit said...

I second Zulu, Gettysburg, The Longest Day, and All Quiet on the Western Front. I have not seen the Great Escape in a long time but I remember it being very good. Same w/ Dirty Dozen.

Das Boot, Breaker Morant, and Sergeant York are each on my "too see" list.

I also second Outlaw's We Were Soldiers. I remember it being very good. As well as Shawn's Band of Brothers and Master and Commander. PDBronco, I thoroughly enjoyed Fort Apache.

Kit said...

The Lone Survivor. Great movie about the Afghan War. Though, its one of the few movies about the Afghan War made that is not openly anti-war and anti-American.
With that I might add Zero Dark Thirty, the movie about the death of Bin Laden.

Also, maybe Black Hawk Down. Perhaps the last mainstream Hollywood movie until Zero Dark Thirty and The Lone Survivor to depict American troops in the current day positively.
Unless you want to count Battle: Los Angeles, which is a criminally underrated movie.

Tae Guk Gi: Korean-made film about two brothers drafted into the South Korean Army. Very anti-war with the older brother gradually losing his humanity to protect his younger brother and it brutally depicts the (real life) atrocities of both the North and South Korean governments in the war but an excellent movie, nonetheless. Powerful performance from South Korean actor Dong-gun Jang.

Kit said...

BTW, I listed 2 foreign films because everyone beat me to the punch on the best American movies.

djskit said...

Another vote for "They Were Expendable" It's hard to pick the best war film of that era, but John Ford and John Wayne are always a powerful combination.

The scene in the bar when "Marcheta" begins to play. Gets me every time.

And the lovely Donna Reed - the story goes that Ford was an absolute A-hole to her and made hrer cry on several occasions. Then, just before shooting the dinning room scene, he gives her a necklace - you can see the relief and joy in her eyes the whole scene.

Finally, the scene on the runway and the last plane out - the unspoken horror of the fate that those left behind will experience at the hands of the Japanese.

Kit said...


John Ford was an a-hole to a lot of people.

Unknown said...

Wot no GWTW?

Joking aside, I love the top three. I also second Master and Commander as an enjoyable ride. Some other suggestions would be: The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Casablanca, Dr. Zhivago, Saving Private Ryan, The Man Who Would Be King, Lawrence of Arabia, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, and The English Patient.

wulfscott said...

Haven't seen all the films, but the ones I have seen that are listed above are among my favorites. Thoughts on some:
Where Eagles Dare - British intelligence was scary good, so I like this one. The British, though, had identified and turned (or eliminated) EVERY German agent in the UK (the British XX department). Every agent the Germans had spying on the British was a double agent working for the British, which is an impressive achievement.
Just recently saw part of "They Were Expendable" on cable. Very good film about ordinary servicemen and women doing their duty despite the lack of hope. djskit, "the unspoken horror of the fate" of those left behind was on my mind when seeing Donna Reed (Nurse Davyss) on screen, too. Really a good film.
Gettysburg - thousands of re-enactors were the extras in the film. Gunpowder is expensive (in the quantities needed for cannon) so the filming was the first time the re-enactors could have dozens of cannons firing at the same time.
Good list, not enough time to comment on all of them.

Kit said...

My favorite scene in Zulu.
Private Cole: "Why does it have to be us? Why us?"
Colour Sergeant Bourne: "Because we're here, lad. No one else. Just us"

LINK (50sec)

Just about everything Colour Sergeant Bourne does is awesome in that movie.

Unknown said...

"A prayer's as good as a bayonet on a day like this." I agree that Bourne (Nigel Green) is awesome. There are so many fantastic scenes: the aftermath of the first assault ("There's... something else. I feel ashamed."), the singing morale battle ("Well, they've got a very good bass section, mind, but no top tenors, that's for sure."), the disciplined last stand, firing in ranks...

AndrewPrice said...

Excellent choices all around. There are a great many excellent war movies. There are very few of recent vintage, but there are still a great many.

Also, I notice that most are about WWII. It's too bad really because I would love to see more movies about older wars. There just isn't much (or anything good) about Napoleon, the American revolution, or even ancient Greece. I'd love to see more about the British in India or the Chinese rebellion too.

AndrewPrice said...

John and Kit, I love the comment about them having a great base section "but no top tenors." LOL!

Kit said...

I think the BBC did a series of TV-movies about the Napoleonic Wars starring Sean Bean based on the Richard Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell. I've read a few of the books, they're quite good.

AndrewPrice said...


AMC has a show called Turn about a spy ring in the American Revolution. It took me a couple episodes to get into because it has a high learning curve and it's not written in the clearest of ways -- plus the hero is a putz. But once I got into it, I was hooked.

Anyway, AMC is doing a marathon tomorrow. I recommend everyone check it out.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, The Sharpe stuff was really good, BUT (1) the video quality is sadly very low and the DVDs were unwatchable, and (2) it didn't really deal with Napoleon except in the background. I do highly recommend the series, but it doesn't exactly scratch a Napoleon itch.

PikeBishop said...

Kit and John: And my favorite exchange in all of Zulu.

"Well if it's a miracle Colour Sergeant, then its a short chamber, Boxer Henry, point four-five caliber miracle."

"And a bayonet Sir, with some guts behind it."

PikeBishop said...

Andrew: as we discussed on another thread, I find "Where Eagles Dare" to be unwatchable today, despite the great Alistair Maclean penned script, because of its era. Eastwood and Burton wave their gun in the general direction of the enemy and nine or ten Germans fall like nine pins.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, That's an excellent line too. I love how the film is full of contradictory view on everything.

On Where Eagles Dare, it does suffer from that, but I still enjoy it. The story and dialog make up for it for me.

Tennessee Jed said...

a favorite genre of mine .... sorry I was away from the net for several days. I agree with most of your list. Nothing I really disagree with, just a few that would probably not make my top ten. I also enjoyed Midway, The Victors. Last of the Mohicans, The Big Red One. Agree that Platoon was fine film making, but I also agree with Outlaw. I'm not saying that stuff didn't happen, but it makes some isolated incidents appear commonplace. Lone Survivor is one of the very best I have seen.

Anonymous said...

Sorry I'm late!

I won't admit to the films I've never seen so I will simply say, "Good list." :-)

I recommend Path to War, an HBO movie from the early 00s about Vietnam seen through the eyes of LBJ and his inner circle. I'm not politically-astute enough to say whether it's biased one way or another... but it's very good. Lots of scenes simply with guys sitting around tables talking about troop movements and VC tactics.

Michael Gambon plays LBJ and a lot of familiar faces show up. Alec Baldwin, Donald Sutherland, Bruce McGill, Chris Eigman (a regular in Whit Stillman's movies), Philip Baker Hall, Felicity Huffman, Diana Scarwid, Frederic Forrest, and Tom Skerritt.

Gary Sinise even shows up as George Wallace, which is an interesting in-joke since he and directed John Frankenheimer had worked together on a Wallace TV movie previously.

Floyd R Turbo said...

Many on my list are already named of course:

Others on my list... Paths of Glory

Henry V,

The Battle of Algiers,


To End All Wars... criminally underseen WW2 POW film with Robert Carlyle and Kiefer Sutherland,

Rescue Dawn with Christian Bale and Steve Zahn

Full Metal Jacket

The Patriot

Documentaries: Restrepo

Chosin... about Korea

Anonymous said...

What, no Star Wars? ;-)

Which brings me to my point. I've seen very few of the films mentioned, but aren't they technically more _battle_ films (taking place in the context of a war)?

I kind of like to think of war in the larger sense, like good vs. evil. To that end, film series/anthologies are better at portraying the lesson that evil cannot be appeased, it must be opposed and defeated. Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and (hopefully) The Hunger Games all have to potential to instill this value in modern generations. They certainly aren't likely to learn it in college.

Outlaw13 said...


I think you know perfectly well what most people consider a "war movie". :)

Some that haven't been mentioned yet that I've enjoyed:

Pork Chop Hill. Gregory Peck stars in a film based on a true story about Korea.

Rough Riders. I know it was a TV movie but it is a great telling of the story of Teddy Roosevelt and the charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish American War.

The Bridges at Toko Ri. I know a lot of people like this film and I do too for the most part, but I just can't get past Mickey Rooney flying a rescue helicopter in a green top hat.

There are some I enjoy but aren't great by any means, like The Hunters with Robert Mitchum as an F-86 pilot. Part of it are just horrific but the cinematography of the aircraft is just spectacular. I also really enjoy watching John Wayne's Green Berets...which really is a WWII movie acting as a Vietnam flick...if you don't think about it too much it's not that bad.

Anonymous said...

War is hell, but I love a great war movie.

The Great Escape - it is fun, inspiring and really well made with a really sad ending.
Das Boot - amazing
Breaker Morant - a courtroom thriller, war movie...? Amazing and based on a real event.
The Guns Of Navarone - Classic.
Kellys Heroes - a heist war movie, reminds me of Three Kings which was
also great.
Stalag 17 - saw this as a kid and was blown away (especially after growing up with Hogans Heroes).
All Quite on the Western Front - Anti War movie of choice
Sergeant York - very slow, but I could not look away.
Tora Tora Tora - even handed movie, someone should have went to jail for the
Peral Harbor movie.
Band Of Brothers - its a mini series but it is the best one ever.
Gallipoli - Best Australian War movie and based on a real story.
To Hell And Back - The hero playing himself! Crazy.
We Were Soldiers - Brilliant.
The Big Red One - Epic.
Platoon - depressing as hell, but really well made.
Full Metal Jacket - quotable as all hell.
Lone Survivor/Zero Dark Thirty - Only Afgan War movies worth a dam, both are great.
Black Hawk Down - Insta classic.
The Lighthorsemen - Story of the last great cavalry charge at the battle of Beersheeba by the Anzac troops.
Cross Of Iron - Germans vs Russians with a great cast and script.
The Desert Rats/The Rats of Tobruk - Great story, history wasn't as important of the story.

Probably missed a few...


AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw and Jed, I don't enjoy Patton either. To me, it focuses on the wrong things and misses the bigger picture of his life.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I haven't seen that one. I can't imagine it wouldn't be biased though.

AndrewPrice said...

Floyd, Excellent additions! I particularly like Henry V, Paths of Glory and The Battle of Algiers! Excellent choices!

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, War films is the official category or "military films" I think they call them now.

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw, I'm on the fence about Pork Chop Hill. It's a good movie, but it's a troubling movie too.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Excellent list! :D

Tohokari-Steel said...

All Quiet on the Western Front: Have yet to finish it, but from what I've seen, it's pretty dang good.
Saving Private Ryan: One of the two Tom Hanks movies with the word "Saving" in the title. My Dad got it on DVD, but can't watch it because he finds it that hard to sit through.
Downfall: Mentioned MANY times, so no summary required.
We Were Soldiers: a Vietnam War movie that DOESN'T vilify the American forces. It shows that, while it was traumatic, there was still honorable people on both sides.
Lone Survivor: More recent movie, but still enjoyable. Shaky cam shows up right when it should (gunfights are supposed to feel disorienting).

I'm also looking into a Korean war movie called "Brotherhood of War".

BevfromNYC said...

Okay, I have to say it...Gone With The Wind...yeah, it's a war movie! And Mrs. Miniver , The Best Years Of Our Lives, League If Their Own, generally movies about what happened on the home front ...

Unknown said...

Henry V - would that be Olivier (1944) or Branagh (1989)?

Saving Private Ryan. I also listed this one. I have only seen it twice, and would not rush to see it again. Yet almost every scene lingers vividly in my memory.

AndrewPrice said...

John, Branagh. I thought his interpretation was amazing. Olivier feels very "by the book" to me.

I'm not a fan of Saving Private Ryan. It's far too cynical. too defeatist and too manipulative for me.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, Yep! :D

AndrewPrice said...

Tohokari, It's worth finishing. It's worth reading actually. It's a very good book.

Anonymous said...

The Deer Hunter. On my personal list (I love lists) this is the third best movie ever made and DeNiro's is one of the nominees for best performance ever by an actor.One of the tests for a great film is does it keep you watching with the same level of intensity after you've seen it? I know how the russian roulette scene comes out and I still wince every time a hammer clicks on an empty chamber. Every thing else about it. The wedding. Robert Deniro's awkward homecoming with Meryl Streep where they start to get to know each other again. The scene where DeNiro has the deer in his sights and lets it go,screaming OKAAAAY to the sky. And the end. One of the greatest endings to a film ever,especially given the context of the time in which it was made. The seventies was a cynical era,at least as far as films went. The scene where they all sing God Bless America could have been done jingoistically or cynically,either of which would have ruined the film,but it wasn't. It was this battered little group of people,all of whom,combatants and homestayers had been so damaged by the war,startinf to pull themselves together again. Cimino shot the bolt with that one,but he was a legitimate genius.

Anonymous said...

Paths of Glory. A crossover war film and courtroom drama, a very powerful experience all the way around.
It's always great when a movie that you have fond memories of comes through.I was home by myself the other day,I'd cleaned the house and it was raining. I went looking through my dvd collection and I picked up Uncommon Valor,which I hadn't watched in years. I was very happy at how well it has held up.
Three Kings wasn't really a war film, it was a heist film set in a war but I wanted to throw it some love.
The 13th Warrior. Not a traditional war film but if you think about it, it's the story of the war between the Northmen and the Eaters of the Dead.Lo there do I see my father...
What I used to do every week on my first day off was watch the opening scene from Gladiator and the end of the Thirteenth Warrior.Try that sometime to set the tone for your day.
The Siege of Firebase Gloria.
The Patriot.
Blackhawk Down. Incredibly intense and hard to watch, but great.
The 2004 version of The Alamo. I've never seen the John Wayne version and sadly I guess I never will. I went to Amazon to buy it so I could compare the two but overwhelmingly the Amazon reviewers said that the dvd is chopped up and ruins the movie. Sad.
I give a thumbs up to Platoon.Stone is an ass and his intent was to tar the Americans in Vietnam but what I try to do is ignore that. A long time ago I was in a discussion at Big Hollywood and I said try to watch Platoon and pretend it's not about Vietnam. I know that sounds goofy at first, but pretend that they're exploring a new planet or that they've been sent to some unmapped
country to investigate reports of copper deposits or something. My point was that if you watch it as a Vietnam war movie it will piss you off. If you watch it as a character study of men under stress it is a fascinating film.

Anonymous said...

Gypsy -

I'm not familiar enough with The Alamo, except to say that various parties have attempted to fund a restoration of the film over the last few years, but nothing's happened since.

There might be a light at the end of the tunnel. No one thought we'd ever get an extended cut of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but then Criterion did it. They scoured the planet to find every last scrap of usable footage (and even some of it wasn't that usable).

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, You don't remember the Alamo?

Sorry, someone had to say it. :)

AndrewPrice said...

GypsyTyger, That is an interesting test: how intently you watch films the second and third times through.

Firebase Gloria was an interesting film. I don't know if I enjoyed it or not, but I found it compelling. Same with The Boys In Company C.

Tennessee Jed said...

About Sharpe - the final episode in the original WAS the Battle of Waterloo. Good, but not able to capture the true scope of the battle. We need some good aerial CGI to do that. More recently, there were two newer Sharpe movies shot in 16x9 format in HD. They weren't released in blu-ray, but video quality much, much better.

Tennessee Jed said...

I don't know that I can agree with you about Patton, though Andrew. I thought Scott captured him brilliantly, and the film did focus on the key aspects of his character. A fighter who couldn't deal adequately with the politics of the top of the military hierarchy

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, The film just doesn't work for me. It's filmed in a drawn out, but disconnected style that I don't like.

Dave Olson said...

It's not a "War Film" per se, but yesterday I watched Taking Chance. Or rather, I watched the last 20 minutes because I didn't see it listed until then, but I've seen it before. And just as when I read the original story, I found myself tearing up for a kid from Wyoming I never would have known about.

Not all war films are about guns and explosions.

Anonymous said...

Good choice Dave,

Taking Chance made me cry, not ashamed to say. That was the first Iraq/Afgan war movie that I can think of that didn't talk down to the audience or the soldiers themselves. Just and amazing story about the price paid by soldiers and those left behind.


Anonymous said...

Speaking of The Alamo...

Click here.

Anonymous said...

WOW! The crew at MGM sound like a pack of cheap pricks. It's ok though. In the afterlife John Wayne and David Crockett will kick their asses.

Anonymous said...

It's funny... whenever people say they don't want to give Hollywood any of their money, it's projects like this that often get the shaft.

But yeah, MGM is cheap. I don't know why they won't license this to a third party - they have deals with Criterion, Kino, and Shout! Factory, and probably a couple other indie labels as well.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That stinks about The Alamo. It's not Wayne's best, but it's absolutely worth saving.

Anonymous said...

In case anyone is still reading...

There's even a new Facebook page dedicated to saving the film now.

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