XIPHOS’ TOP 12 MODERN WAR MOVIES
I’ve posted this thing everywhere else on the Internet so I figured I would post here also. Content is content right?
BEST OVERALL WAR “MOVIE”: Band of Brothers (2001)
I know this is a cheat because Band of Brothers was a miniseries but this is my list. I thought this series showed very well what life in a rifle platoon is like, from training through combat to the aftermath. I also thought it had one of the most amazing hours of television ever made with the episode about the medic. I also respect that HBO didn’t mess with the production and demand a love interest or ramp up the story with fake situations or incidents that never happened. They played straight down the line.
TOP ELEVEN WAR MOVIES IN MY OPINION
1. The Thin Red Line (1998): This lyrical, beautifully shot study of men in combat still stuns me every time I watch it. The movie in general is about Army troops on Guadalcanal but what it truly examines is what it means “to serve” in all the various meanings of the word. TTRL hits on a theme that’s going to run through this article many times. I believed that the people on screen were a unit. Every messed up, scared, hyperactive one of them especially Jim Caviezel’s character. I’ve known this guy, the oddball you wouldn’t think was able to do anything right but he’s the guy that carries the weight when things go wrong. All ground forces throughout history have had this guy in their ranks.
2. The Big Red One (1980): This movie could easily have been #1 and I look at it like #1A. This movie is Samuel Fuller’s version of the book he wrote with the same name. (Great read.) It chronicled his time as a rifleman in the 1st Infantry Division (The Big Red One) in WW2. This hard hitting, gripping, gut wrenching movie showed the horror of modern warfare yet it completely humanizes the characters and their actions and everyone on screen seemed like a true person to me and all the characters acted like soldiers. I can’t recommend this movie enough and remember these two words: Lee Marvin. It’s no wonder he screamed authentic in his role as the platoon sergeant, he was a combat Marine in World War Two.
3.Twelve O’Clock High (1949): Technically this isn’t a “combat” movie but it’s probably the single best war movie about the rigors of being in command of men whose job kills them in horrible ways. Gregory Peck is masterful, and I mean absolutely on top of his game, as Brigadier General Frank Savage who assumes command of a “hard luck” B-17 squadron flying endless sorties over Germany in the early part of WW2. This movie is so well made and insightful that all United States military academies and Officer Basic Courses show it as a study in leadership. The air war over Europe was a savage affair and one almost ignored by Hollywood. This movie is one of the few to examine the cost a leader has to pay in sending men to their death every day in flying tombs.
4. The Longest Day (1962): Pound for pound the BEST movie about the D Day operation on film. It absolutely destroys The Beard’s saccharine infused dreckfest Saving Private Ryan. (More on that insultingly wretched movie later.) Oh sure, the amphibious assault scene was well handled but compared to the actual HUMAN emotion shown in The Longest Day, Ryan was a piffle of a movie. Due to its run time The Longest Day is another movie that slowly develops which is a hallmark of 60’s and 70’s cinema. We get to know the characters involved a little, even if there are dozens, and we care about what happens to them. This movie is another one that played it straight and didn’t embellish on actual events.
5. Battle of the Bulge (1965): This lushly shot leisurely paced movie about command and combat in a pivotal battle in WW2 is a genuine labor of love. The movie is told from both sides of the conflict. The movie is based on the real life exploits of the 2nd Armored Division smashing back of the German 2nd Panzer advance at the Battle of Celles and showed the sacrifice those brave tankers made against a superior armed foe. The movie does a good job showing just how confusing and out of control combat can be for everybody, generals and privates alike.
6. Pork Chop Hill (1959): Based on historian S.L.A. Marshall’s book (interesting book), it features another standout performance by Gregory Peck as a lieutenant in charge of a platoon of men defending a worthless piece of real estate in the waning days of the Korean War. I’m going to use a quote from Variety I found and it sums this movie up perfectly: “Pork Chop Hill is a grim, utterly realistic story that drives home both the irony of war and the courage men can summon to die in a cause which they don’t understand…”
7. War Hunt (1962): Not many have heard of this movie but it featured Robert Redford’s debut performance as the moral counter force to John Saxon’s character. Saxon, who is totally mesmerizing in this movie, is a death lover that war has taken over completely. Saxon’s character enjoys long walks at night with a knife in order to kill enemy soldiers and goes out on solo patrols to kill after the Korean War cease fire went into effect. Redford acts as a counter balance and an example of morality that has to be present in the human soul during war. This movie is probably best known for Saxon’s death dance over an enemy he killed. I think the movie should be remembered for the moral juxtaposition of the main characters because on some level they both are operating on a morality they see as right and proper. I believe these two characters are the template Oliver Stone used for the Barnes and Elias characters in Platoon.
8. The Steel Helmet (1951): Samuel Fuller yet again nails combat. The Steel Helmet has realistic, ultra violent combat scenes especially for 1951. The actors seemed like soldiers and not actors “acting” like soldiers. I think the familiar and comforting cliche of the “grizzled cigar smoking platoon sergeant” was created in this movie. According to my research, this movie was made on a budget $103,000 but looks like it cost 10 times that amount.
9. Go Tell the Spartans (1978): Based on Daniel Ford’s 1967 book Incident at Muc Wa: A Novel of War in Southeast Asia (I have not read this book but hope to remedy that situation soon) and tells the story of a group of American Army advisers sent to a lonely deserted village in 1964 to defend it against the Viet Cong. Burt Lancaster, who went into his own pocket for $150,000 dollars to help finish this ultra low budget movie, is amazing as Army Major Asa Baker. He’s a combat weary, three war veteran, obeying orders he knows he can’t carry out. He’s saddled with a hand full mostly green American advisers and ultra reluctant Vietnamese soldiers. This movie shows how the lives of fighting men are gambled at the hands of idiotic civilian and military administrators because they are blinded by their mistaken belief in how smart they are. Go Tell the Spartans was envisioned, created and embraced as an “anti-war” film. I see it as a movie about what a fickle mistress the concept of duty and honor can be.
10. We Were Soldiers (2002): Based on retired Lt. General Hal G. Moore’s and Joseph L. Galloway’s book We Were Soldiers Once…And Young (excellent, excellent book) about the battle of the Ia Drang valley in 1965. Both Moore and Galloway were at the Ia Drang in 1965, Moore as Commanding officer of the the First Battalion 7th Cavalry and Galloway as a reporter along for the ride. The Battle of Ia Drang was the first major combat operation in the Vietnam War and more importantly it was the first to use helicopters in a large scale combat operation. The Ia Drang was supposed to be a show case operation of helicopters in combat. All the 1-7 had to do is set down, do a large scale sweep of the area and get out. No muss, no fuss, no bother. In reality the operation wasn’t like that at all due to the fact that they set down right on top of an entire North Vietnamese Army division. If the 7th Cavalry were overrun or pushed off the Landing Zone it might have ruined the helicopter as a battlefield tool.
This is an exceptional movie about men in combat and the incredible things they can accomplish under dire circumstances. Also, good lord, the musical choices were amazing especially when the surviving members of 1-7 are issued the order to fix bayonets and take out the NVA headquarters. The order to “fix bayonets” is not one an Infantryman wants to hear. It means your options have dwindled to exactly zero. We Were Soldiers played things straight and did not embellish.
11. Full Metal Jacket (1987): C’mon, you didn’t think I would get through this without mentioning a Marine movie, now did you? This is Stanley Kubrick’s best and most complete movie in my opinion because the source material is amazing. Read the book if you get a chance. Every thing about this movie is right and rings so true that it hurts. It has real people, real emotions and realistic depictions of combat in an urban environment. It also has Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, ’nuff said.
War movies I hate with the intensity of 10 billion suns going supernova at the same time:
1. Saving Private Ryan (1998): The love for this offensively bad, saccharine filled crap pile is something I will never understand. It’s a lame, cliche filled, badly cast, written, acted and directed movie. It never fails to hit a false note on every level and is so crammed full of BS I thought it should double as a manure farm. All the worst of The Beard’s instincts are on full display in Saving Private Ryan. Yes the amphibious assault scene was top notch but past that there is zero in this movie that’s good. That corny, schmaltz filled wrap around at the beginning and end with old Ryan and his family at the cemetery is so sickly sweet it caused instant onset diabetes in me. I hate this movie.
2. Pearl Harbor (2001): Or as I call it, Ben Affleck Fights World War Two by Himself. Hey Mikey Bay, got a moment? Stick to making bad movies about giant robots hitting each other (TM Sal Bando), that’s your forte in this world. Stop insulting the memories of people still alive with movies like Pearl Harbor. I will give you credit where credit is due. The attack sequence with the Kates, Zeros and Bettys flying in over what will become Lost’s filming location was quite beautiful. Past that, your quiver was empty on this movie, more so then usual.
That’s it. I look forward to getting eviscerated in the discussion to follow. Mahalo!