Whether portraying the folly or glory of armed conflict, outstanding war films place the best and worst of our shared humanity in stark relief: on the good side lies our capacity for courage and sacrifice in the interest of a cause bigger than ourselves; on the other, we confront our innate barbarity and impulse toward aggression, which thousands of years of civilization have failed to eradicate.
These special movies not only recreate the horror of combat, but also portray the human toll war takes beyond those who fall on the field of battle; most pointedly, it examines what becomes of veterans returning home to face a world that will never feel the same again.
For this Memorial Day, I've ranked my own choices for the greatest English-language war pictures ever made. In a spirit of tribute and remembrance, I urge you to watch one or more of them. I know I will.
10) They Were Expendable (1945)- This is the inspiring true story of the PT boats- and the men who commanded them- during the dispiriting early days of the Second World War in the Pacific. Frustrated Skipper John Brickley (Robert Montgomery) and his right hand man, Rusty Ryan (John Wayne), initially have considerable difficulty convincing the Navy brass of the PT boats' value to the war effort. In the face of reversals and retreat from the Japanese, these valiant, steadfast officers are forced to hunker down and wait for the opportunity to show the world what the PTs can really do. Eventually, these nimble craft will play a vital role in turning the tide in the Pacific theater, allowing General MacArthur to fulfill his famous promise to return there in glory. The legendary director John Ford delivers a powerful human tale of faith and hope sustained during the darkest days of the war for the Allies. Montgomery (father of Elizabeth from "Bewitched", and a decorated PT boat Captain himself during the conflict) delivers a remarkably human, unmannered performance as the embattled but stoic Brickley, while the Duke cements his own growing stardom with a charismatic turn as Ryan. Donna Reed also makes for a bewitching love interest as the nurse who falls for Rusty. One of Ford's real gems, too often overlooked.
9) Patton (1970)- Director Franklin J. Schaffner's rich portrayal of the controversial, larger-than-life World War II general recreates all the excitement and drama of the European front, while exploring one career officer's outsize ambition to expand his own role in this historic conflict. We see how Patton's unusually aggressive style most always yielded the desired results on the battlefield, yet so rankled both superiors and subordinates that the top leadership position he craved-and the adulation that went with it- would inevitably elude him. In a role turned down by Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, and Robert Mitchum, actor George C. Scott delivers a towering rendition of the profane, colorful general, by turns making us admire, revile, and pity this man, who was driven by a profound sense of pre-destination. Karl Malden provides stellar support as Patton's more measured but equally brilliant colleague General Omar Bradley, but this is Scott's show all the way, as evidenced by his winning the Best Actor Oscar, an award he turned down on principle (he called the Oscar ceremonies a "meat market"). The film garnered an additional six statuettes, including Best Picture, Director and Screenplay. "Patton" endures today as an epic war film that tells a very human story.
8) All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)- Based on the famous novel of the First World War by Erich Maria Remarque, this quintessential anti-war film traces the traumatic transition of raw German recruit Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres), from naive idealist to shell-shocked veteran on the blood-soaked battlefields of Europe. After he and his fellow students are cajoled into signing up for battle in a wave of patriotic fervor, Baumer arrives at the front only to experience a merciless onslaught of death and deprivation that quickly calls into question all the nobler sentiments that led him there. Only a tough but warm-hearted veteran, Sergeant Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim), keeps Paul from going mad. Still potent stuff eighty years after its release, Lewis Milestone's "All Quiet" portrays the genuine panic and bewilderment of enlisted soldiers at the front of "the war to end all wars", when recent advances in weaponry caused unprecedented devastation. The movie transcends dated elements to convey the full horror of this juncture in history, and the recurring tragedy of youth and innocence senselessly lost. Ayres is ideally cast as the green Baumer (the actor's experience in this role actually led him to become a conscientious objector in World War 2), but the unprepossessing Wolheim is particularly memorable as Katczinsky. "Quiet" won Oscars for Best Director and Picture, the first "talkie" war film to do so.
7) The Longest Day (1962)- Scripted by Cornelius Ryan (from his own book) and orchestrated by Daryl F. Zanuck, this monumental recreation of the D-Day invasion is told from multiple perspectives, including that of the French Resistance and stunned Nazi commanders. Proceeding in three star-studded segments, "Day" covers everything from Allied preparations at sea, to behind-the-lines paratroop drops, to the Normandy invasion itself. The behind-the-scenes story of this film approximates the jaw-dropping scope of the very event it portrays: In 1962, legendary producer Zanuck spared no expense in bringing this long but gripping recounting of the D-Day Allied invasion to the big screen. This epic excels for its innovative camerawork and detailed restaging of events, but most of all, for its powerhouse cast: John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Rod Steiger, Robert Ryan, et al. Most of the big stars appear in their own set pieces, but the cumulative effect is still powerful, bringing to life one of this country's most historic and heroic moments.
6) Apocalypse Now Redux (1979)- During the Vietnam War, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is given the unusual assignment of tracking down and eliminating rogue Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a decorated career officer who has broken the chain of command and is presumed insane. Willard and his team venture into remote territory to find the enigmatic Kurtz. Symbolically, they're all traveling to the very core of man's bestial instincts. Will the young Captain succeed in his mission, or go mad in the attempt? Director Francis Ford Coppola's re-edited "Redux" version includes new scenes which help clarify some loose ends in the original cut of this acknowledged masterpiece. "Apocalypse" stands as a wildly ambitious, mesmerizing acid-trip of a war movie that melds together the savage themes of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" (on which it's based) with the inherent waste of Vietnam. The final result is grand spectacle, augmented by a brilliant use of music. The key performances-from Sheen, Robert Duvall and the late Dennis Hopper in particular-achieve a rare intensity, and even Brando- bald, bloated, and incoherent- manages to fascinate. Once seen, never forgotten. For the ideal double feature, follow this with (Francis's wife) Eleanor Coppola's revealing documentary on the jinxed production of this film, "Hearts Of Darkness" (1991).
5) From Here To Eternity (1953)- Based on James Jones' epic novel, this sprawling tale of love and fate at a critical time and place in our country's history follows two intersecting story lines: first, disillusioned army sergeant Milt Warden (Burt Lancaster) begins a torrid affair with his commanding officer's bored, neglected wife (Deborah Kerr), while at the same time, the young, horn-playing Private Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) finds romance in the arms of a club hostess (Donna Reed), before becoming a tragic victim of his own past boxing prowess. Notably, all this intrigue takes place on Pearl Harbor, just as that naval outpost - and the United States itself - literally get bombed into World War II. This stunning adaptation of Jones's smash bestseller virtually swept the 1953 Oscars - and no wonder. All these years later, it remains a fascinating, multi-layered human drama set within the larger canvas of impending, world-changing conflict. The all-star cast is uniformly excellent, with Lancaster's assured performance providing a solid counterpoint to Clift's more sensitive portrayal of Prewitt. Also, Frank Sinatra's Oscar-winning turn as hotheaded, scrawny Maggio single-handedly revived his sagging career. (The normally wholesome Reed also won a statuette, playing against type.) Highlights: the torrid beach scene with Lancaster and Kerr, and that culminating Pearl Harbor attack sequence.
4) The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)- Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), a spit-and-polish British officer, endures a humiliating confinement in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during the Second World War, and is forced to lead the building of a bridge for the movement of Japanese materiel, a task which slowly begins to consume him, blurring his sense of allegiance. All the while we watch the relationship between him and the formal but civilized camp commandant (Sessue Hayakawa) evolve from outright hostility to something close to mutual respect. Ultimately, an American enlisted man (William Holden) who knew Nicholson in the camp but has since escaped, is assigned to return and blow up the bridge. Based on a true story, this riveting war film, shot in Sri Lanka, represented a new career peak for director David Lean, who'd go on to shoot the monumental "Lawrence Of Arabia". Top-notch acting (Guinness won an Oscar after initially turning down the role), authentic atmosphere and a brilliant script add up to grand adventure and powerful human drama. The whole ensemble cast is superb, notably Holden, Hayakawa, and the late, great Jack Hawkins.
3) The Deer Hunter (1978)- When we first meet three young steelworkers from Western Pennsylvania- Michael (Robert DeNiro), Steven (John Savage), and Nick (Christopher Walken), the men, friends since childhood, are celebrating Steven's marriage, while Mike and Nick take turns flirting with Linda (Meryl Streep). Then all too abruptly the trio gets shipped over to Vietnam for active duty. Soon they are captured by the Vietcong and are forced to endure the misery and torture of a North Vietnamese POW camp. Though eventually they manage to escape, none are home free yet. Solid Vietnam films abound, but few pack the wallop of this highly intense and disturbing feature from then-newcomer Michael Cimino. Beyond the graphic scenes of the group's inhuman, unbearable captivity, the film shakes us up even more in the aftermath, as the stalwart Michael goes searching for his old friends, a perilous and selfless act of love and loyalty. This gut-and heart-wrenching feature deservedly won Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Supporting Actor (Walken, who is unforgettable.) Streep also got her first Oscar nod for this. One of the all-time champs, but definitely not for the squeamish.
2) Saving Private Ryan (1998)- After a bloody, harrowing, casualty-heavy landing on Omaha Beach during the 1944 D-Day invasion, battle-weary Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) is given an assignment from top brass: He and a motley squad of close-knit GIs are to rescue one Private Ryan (Matt Damon), now the sole survivor among four enlisted brothers, from an area crawling with Nazis, and return him home. As their dangerous search progresses, the men begin to question the rationale behind the mission. A virtuosic, hard-hitting war film by Hollywood icon Steven Spielberg, "Ryan" opens with an intensely violent 24-minute battle sequence that many claim is the most realistic ever committed to celluloid. (It's certainly powerful-reportedly, a number of WWII veterans experienced post-traumatic shock watching it.) But the film's true achievement, apart from its Oscar-winning editing and visual effects, is its charged storyline and debate over the merits of bloodshed. Aided by a first-rate cast including Edward Burns, Vin Diesel, and Giovanni Ribisi, "Ryan" honors the sacrifice of soldiers while acknowledging that war truly is hell-on-earth.
1) The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)- The great Sam Goldwyn produced this groundbreaking movie about the plight of returning servicemen at the end of the Second World War. The film follows the unique readjustments to civilian life faced by three veterans who all hop the same transport home: There's Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), an officer and pilot coming back to a dead-end job and an uncertain relationship; Al Stephenson (Fredric March), an older soldier returning to a loving family and stable career with (seemingly) little to worry about, and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a sailor who has lost both his hands in combat, and already abhors the pity he expects to receive from his parents and fiancee. Thanks to William Wyler's expert, understated direction, each of the three characters that make up this remarkably sensitive, perceptive picture is subtly drawn, evoking the complex challenges that confront veterans of all ranks. Regardless of each man's individual challenges, they all share the need somehow to make sense of their war experiences while readjusting to a permanently changed America. Even with the requisite dose of sentimentality and romance, this brilliant film never strays far from its central premise that no matter what you return to in a time of peace, war changes you forever. Oscar-winner for Best Picture, Best Actor (March) and Best Supporting Actor (Russell, an actual amputee veteran who is incredible here). Truly a triumph for the ages.
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