Hollywood’s interest in depicting war onscreen goes back to its earliest days. For the most part, the presumed filmmaker intentions are to either honor the sacrifices of the soldiers that go to war, or to give us a sense of the horror of it, or some mix of the two. There are times when the profit motive seems to loom larger, making the Hollywood/war marriage somewhat unsavory (Michael Bay directing “Pearl Harbor” comes to mind). Today on Veteran’s Day we thought we would give you our list of war films that have done it right.
Probably no other genre has had a more profound effect on me than the war film. In fact, the first film I ever saw in the theater, when I was five, was Midway in 1976 in one of those long-gone Main Street theaters in my hometown. As I wrote in one of our earliest posts, Platoon shattered me as a 17 year-old, completely changing my outlook on Vietnam, war in general, and especially the veterans who came back from that war. Subsequent films showed me how complex the issues are surrounding waging war, from the political to the personal. I should also add that I don’t get all my information from movies, there have been many documentaries, news stories, and books that have informed me as well. Here is my list of favorite war films, in no particular order.
- Midway (1976) – I’ve rewatched it since 1976 and it still holds up. It has one of those amazing classic Hollywood casts: Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Hal Holbrook… even Pat Morita. I just found out this is being remade for next year with Woody Harrelson? Ugh.
- Glory (1989) – I just watched this Civil War drama last week with my two sons. Denzel Washington was intense and deserved of his first Oscar recognition, but I also think Matthew Broderick turned in a career performance.
- Full Metal Jacket (1987) – Kubrick gave us an uncomfortable peek into the psychology of trained killers, amidst the insanity of the Vietnam War objectives.
- The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) – I often think about the penultimate 2-word line in this film: “Madness! Madness!”.
- Courage Under Fire (1996) – My second Ed Zwick/Denzel film on this list. I full-on cried watching this. Denzel gets me every time. Beyond the theme of PTSD, it is one of the few films to explore the topics of friendly fire and women in combat.
- Hacksaw Ridge (2016) – Hate director Mel Gibson if you want, but find me a better made film about honor and heroism in war. I challenge you to keep a dry eye.
- Platoon (1986) – I’ve watched this film so many times. I’ve never been in combat, so I can’t say definitely it is “realistic”, but it sure makes me feel like it is. Such a compelling grunt’s-eye view and flawless production. A triumph for Oliver Stone.
- A Bridge Too Far (1977) – Another of Hollywood’s dream casts – Connery, Redford, Caine, Hackman, Hopkins – in a straightforward, but well crafted film from the master of the epic – Richard Attenborough.
- Born on the 4th of July (1989) – Oddly, I did not like this film the first time. Maybe it made me feel uncomfortable, as intended. On second viewing years later I appreciated both Tom Cruise’s fearless performance and Oliver Stone’s intent to show an unflinching portrayal of the struggle for many returning vets.
- Restropo (2010) – Ok, this isn’t a Hollywood film, but it’s an important and well-made documentary on the experience of soldiers in modern warfare in places like Afghanistan. If you haven’t seen this, you owe it to yourself to seek this out.
DJ: You took a lot of mine. Glory is up there in my top 10 of any film, it’s fantastic, still the Civil War film that towers over all others. Love these big cast films, we both left out The Longest Day another big one. I agree with your take on “July”, Cruise never stretched much again. Platoon and Full Metal Jacket can’t say enough about.
War movies are some of my first film memories, they were always on TV, mostly WWII films so I can always appreciate a good one. I remember seeing the terrible John Wayne film The Green Berets and real life hero turned actor Audie Murphy’s great To Hell and Back as some of my first memories. These films are not always about the war itself, sometimes trying to portray a greater message, a lot of times that war is hell, often also propaganda, see The Green Berets. Here are some of my favorites.
- Apocalypse Now (1979) – The king of all war films for me. It’s a version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Brando’s made-up lines are amazing.
- Saving Private Ryan (1998) – The storming of the beach opening scene would be enough for this film to make any top ten.
- Sergeant York (1941) – May be the first war film I saw, Gary Cooper as the pacifist title character was Oscar worthy.
- Paths of Glory (1957) – Stanley Kubrick’s statement on the horrors of war is one of his forgotten masterpieces and his first film about war.
- Hart’s War (2002) – Another underrated gem, this showed me that Colin Farrell could act and it’s a solid film, even Bruce Willis is good.
- The Dirty Dozen (1967) – The Magnificent Seven of war films. One of the best casts around and despite that director John Cassavetes steals the show from all of them as criminal turned soldier Franco. I can keep this one on a loop.
- Enemy At the Gates (2001) – Ed Harris and Jude Law are snipers pitted against each other during WWII, great tension.
- The Boys in Company C (1978) – This is the Vietnam movie that is an ancestor of Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. The first to really question the war.
- Good Morning Vietnam (1987) – Robin Williams moves between manic and depression in a both heartbreaking and uplifting film.
- Where Eagles Dare (1968) – Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood infiltrate German troops, full of twists and turns and some great action sequences.
MG: I’ll always remember seeing the first half hour of Saving Private Ryan in the theater. Along with the rest of the audience, I sat in silence, stunned at what Spielberg and his team had put on film. Apocalypse Now is in my top 10 too, but I didn’t want to take all the masterpieces I know we both admire. I had thought Good Morning Vietnam was a great war film, but saw it again this year and it was very uneven. Enemy at the Gates is an underappreciated war film for sure. I’m ashamed to say I have not seen Paths of Glory. That is something I need to rectify.