War! What is it good for? An action-packed evening on the couch, that’s what! When I asked Horror News readers and Facebook friends to tell me their favourite war movies, the response was terrific. While I can’t deny the quality of films like Gone With The Wind (1939), Lawrence Of Arabia (1962), Battle Of Britain (1969), Kelly’s Heroes (1970), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), Ran (1985), Platoon (1986), Gettysburg (1993), Braveheart (1995), 300 (2006) or Inglourious Basterds (2009), I can only count it down to twenty. But what a fantastic list it is, celebrating some of the best and most sobering combat films in cinema history. Lock and load! Fire in the hole! Cocks away! Cabbage-crates coming over the briny! Sausage-squad up the blue end! Grab your egg-and-fours and let’s get the bacon delivered! You know, of course, this means war!
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930): A young soldier faces profound disillusionment amongst the soul-destroying horror of the Great War in this vivid and consistently involving version of Erich Maria Remarque‘s famous pacifist novel. It distills the progressive disillusionment of young German infantry persuaded to sign up by a jingoistic teacher. As the boys witness death and mutilation in the trenches all around them, any preconceptions about the enemy and the conflict disappear, leaving them angry and bewildered. “You still think it’s beautiful to die for your country. The first bombardment taught us better. When it comes to dying for your country, it’s better not to die at all.”
APOCALYPSE NOW (1979): Loosely based on Joseph Conrad‘s Heart Of Darkness, it tells the story of Captain Willard and his voyage into the Cambodian jungle, at one stage accompanied by an air cavalry unit led by Robert Duvall as a gung-ho commander with a love of Wagner, surfing and napalm: “You smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” It might contain subtexts aplenty and positively drips in meaning, but Francis Ford Coppola‘s exquisitely excessive ode to the evil that men do (or in their hearts…or something along those lines) surely ranks amongst the most visually stunning films of all-time, courtesy of master cinematographer Vittorio Storraro. The grueling production and Coppola’s insistence on authenticity led to vast budget overruns and physical and emotional breakdowns, but it was worth it. This eventful journey up a sinewy river leads the youthful pre-West Wing Martin Sheen deep into the primeval jungle, where he eventually reaches the shocking lair of rambling fruitloop Colonel Kurtz, played by rambling fruitloop Marlon Brando, who promptly threatens to mumble Sheen to death. The horror, the horror.
BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001): To many, this heavy-artillery exercise on the futility of war might look like an extended version of the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan (1998). This gruesome, relentless and intensely uncomfortable film certainly feels painfully real, but what else can one expect when maestro Ridley Scott tackles a true story? Scott manages to conjure a glorious defeat out of a military disaster when the elite Delta Force helicopter troops were brought down by warlords controlling the Somali capital Mogadishu in 1993. The undoubted bravery of the group, part of a United Nations peacekeeping force, is underlined while questionable strategic decisions are largely ignored.
THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957): David Lean‘s anti-war classic stars Alec Guinness as a British officer who raises the morale of his captured regiment in a POW camp in Burma by building a wooden railway bridge. However, the construction – while giving his men a reason to live – also unwittingly helps the Japanese war effort, a quandary that comes to a head when an Allied commando force led by William Holden is sent in to blow it up. A brilliantly intelligent and stirring epic with superb colour photography, it won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Music, and Best Actor for Alec Guinness, who was rather dubious about accepting the role, saying “I can’t imagine anyone wanting to watch a stiff-upper-lip British colonel for two and a half hours!”
DAS BOOT (1981): With documentary detail, Wolfgang Petersen‘s mammoth masterpiece delivers a claustrophobic insight into life aboard a German U-boat during World War Two. Captain Jurgen Prochnow must motivate his depth-charge-shocked crew to action as they head out from La Rochelle in search of Allied convoys. The superior extended version allows the pacing and time to chillingly convey the spirit-sapping combination of boredom, filth and sheer terror of life on board. Easily the best of its…sub-genre! Get it? Sub? Genre? I don’t know why I even bother with you sometimes.
THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967): This film understandably broke box-office records with its irresistible mix of cynicism, action, humour and tough-guy posturing. US Army major Lee Marvin trains and leads a dozen condemned (and mostly unhinged) soldiers on a suicide mission during World War Two. Their objective? Kill as many high-ranking Nazi officers as possible while whooping it up at a closely-guarded chateau in France. Dropped into occupied France, Trini Lopez’s character was killed off early after his agent apparently asked for more money. Written some twenty years prior, Nunnally Johnson‘s script was polished-up by Lukas Heller, writer of Flight Of The Phoenix (1965), with director Robert Aldrich casting the film impeccably. The Dirty Dozen boasts outstanding turns from Lee Marvin, John Cassavettes, George Kennedy, Donald Sutherland, Telly Savalas and, unfortunately, three mediocre sequels and a television series.
ENEMY AT THE GATES (2001): Based on true events and reportedly Europe’s most expensive production ever, Enemy At The Gates is a surprisingly intimate film. This generally engrossing, sometimes thrilling suspense story is set during the battle for Stalingrad, centering squarely on a legendary Russian sniper played by Jude Law, who rapidly rises to national hero status. He is challenged to an extended duel by the German’s crack sharpshooter, played by Ed Harris.
FULL METAL JACKET (1987): “The dead know only one thing – it is better to be alive.” Based on Gustav Hasford‘s short story The Short-Timers, Stanley Kubrick‘s mesmerising Vietnam epic had its thunder somewhat stolen by the hoopla surrounding Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986). But hey, that’s what happens when you d*ck around endlessly deciding on your next project. Nevertheless, it has one hell of an opening – chubby-cheeked Vincent D’Onfrio‘s stare remains as potent as ever, and R. Lee Ermey‘s unforgettable drill sergeant is etched into the subconscious of people who haven’t even seen the film! Never mind the remaining seventy minutes, it’s astonishing, but a sure-fire way to lose your girlfriend when you suggest watching it one more time…but it’s almost worth it.
THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963): After thirteen years of trying, producer-director John Sturges‘ mammoth escape adventure finally made its way to the screen with spectacular results. A sprawling, exciting and unfortunately true story, only three would get away in the largest prison breakout ever attempted. Richard Attenborough is the brains, Charles Bronson is the Tunnel King, Donald Pleasance is the forgery expert, Steve McQueen is the grinning Cooler King, James Coburn has the dodgy Australian accent, and James Garner is Hendley The Scrounger (he can get his hands on anything). The Great Escape is stirring, successful, ingenious and – dare I say it – captivating, and few will forget the stunning motorcycle sequence where Steve McQueen attempts to jump the barbed wire into neutral Switzerland, albeit on a very British Triumph T110 bike. On the down side, it also inspired Hogan’s Heroes.
THE HURT LOCKER (2008): In the rubble-strewn wreckage of Iraq, an Explosive Ordinance Disposal team ply their dangerous daily trade, and they do it against a backdrop of hostility, aggression, and a constant threat of instant death from the Improvised Explosive Device they are attempting to defuse. Director Kathryn Bigelow gets the audience down into the dust and dirt, in the path of bomb fragments and sniper fire, for an unforgettable trawl through the Middle Eastern quagmire.
M*A*S*H (1970): It may be the wacky antics of a mobile army hospital stationed in Korea, but for those who were raised on the television spin-off, this truly original black comedy might come as a rude shock – something that would doubtless please its director, Robert Altman. He somehow managed to sneak the film under the radar (no pun intended – this time) of a troubled 20th Century Fox who were having some serious hassles with the escalating budgets on Patton (1970) and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). With a large, mostly unknown cast, the film made stars of Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould, won an Oscar for Ring Lardner Junior‘s script and became a monster hit, forcing major studios to start taking these anti-establishment films seriously. It sure as hell wouldn’t happen today.
1941 (1979): It may not exactly be a laugh-riot, but what an epic motion picture! After the phenomenal success of Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977), Steven Spielberg was given carte blanche and seemingly unlimited funds to produce 1941, dismissed by many critics as National Lampoon Goes To War and, in many ways, they were right. Nevertheless the film looks absolutely beautiful and authentic – Spielberg insisted on using real forties film stock, and showcases more ambitious model work and special effects than anything attempted by Gerry Anderson. A series of story-lines clash one paranoid night, two weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, in a complex script written by Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale, ably assisted by John Milius, who had just finished the screenplay for Apocalypse Now (1979). Spielberg had some incredible assistant directors on-set, too: Toshiro Mifune directed the Japanese sub crew, Penny Marshall directed the USO girls, and the huge crowd scenes were supervised by friends like Frank Marshall, John Landis, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese! 1941 also boasts one of the best John Williams soundtracks ever, and an amazing cast too many to mention, from the late great John Belushi to a young cigarette-smoking Mickey Rourke.
PATHS OF GLORY (1957): All is not quiet on the Western front, when a gung-ho French general puts three soldiers on a sham trial for cowardice after a battalion refuses to go over-the-top to certain suicide. Director Stanley Kubrick’s blistering courtroom drama and anti-war movie featured hitherto unseen levels of battle scene authenticity, centering on a powerhouse performance from Kirk Douglas as sympathetic colonel Dax, an idealist who defends the three grunts against the blatant injustice. Kubrick originally changed the ending of the film to make it more upbeat, but Douglas balked at the changes and demanded the film be shot as written, and this bleaker version was snuck past studio bosses.
PATTON (1970): A triumph of many things: Dimensional photography, biographical reconnaissance, and a notably singularised attention to portraiture – all of which rests firmly on the broad shoulders of George C. Scott, whose gargantuan performance as controversial military commander George S. Patton makes other war biopics look like a Sunday school class. “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” The driven General was equally at home fighting his superiors as well as the Germans in the last days of World War Two – like when Patton inspires the US Army to sweep across France and relieve the besieged town of Bastogne during the Battle Of The Bulge. The film bagged seven Oscars but George C. Scott famously turned down his award for best actor, stating that such a competition between actors was unfair and called it “A meat parade.”
PEARL HARBOR (2001): The reviews were not kind to this supposed tribute to the victims of that fateful day. ‘Bombs away!’ seemed to be the general consensus from most critics, and deservedly so. In fact, it’s rather difficult to resist the urge to fast-forward to the spectacular special effects supervised by Australian CGI artist Ben Snow. But if you do that, you’ll miss the incomparable Jon Voight delivering Roosevelt’s heartfelt post-attack speech about anything being possible, rising from his wheelchair like Peter Sellers in Doctor Strangelove (1964). Something else you don’t want to miss is the look on Ben Affleck‘s face when he returns from the dead to find Kate Beckinsale in the arms of his best mate Josh Hartnett. Truly, Michael Bay is a gift to us all – if only he wasn’t serious.
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998): Cynics who scoff at Steven Spielberg‘s marshmallow heart and dedication to sentiment might want to revisit his lacerating indictment on the futility of war. Book-ended by two intense battle sequences, the tumultuous opening is a staggering cinematic experience that thrusts the viewer into a maelstrom of mayhem as the allied troops struggle to reach Omaha beach amidst a relentless spray of bullets, blood and vomit. Filmed on Ireland’s Ballinesker Beach in County Wexford, the opening sequence alone cost more than six million dollars and involved fifteen hundred extras, including more than twenty amputees who were used to portray soldiers maimed during the landing. Forty barrels of fake blood were used to simulate the effect of blood in the seawater. Led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), an American unit is under orders to track down a soldier, Private Ryan (Matt Damon), so he might return home to his mother in America, where she is grieving the unimaginable loss of her three other sons to the war.
STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997): “We must meet this threat with our valour, our blood, indeed our very lives, to ensure that human civilisation – not insect – dominates this galaxy now and always.” This quote perhaps best sums up the intentionally over-the-top gung-ho ideology of director Paul Verhoeven‘s utterly mad space-combat epic in which a fascist future society sends an army of sexy teenagers into battle against a horde of ugly giant alien bugs. Both an outrageous science fiction spectacle and sly military satire, by waging war on an inhuman enemy, the film (like the original Robert Heinlein novel) neatly sidesteps any issues of political correctness.
THE THIN RED LINE (1998): Terrence Malick‘s story of the World War Two battle for Guadalcanal is loosely structured around several narrative threads weaved together to both blur and separate each soldier’s individual plight. Working like a seesaw, shifting its balance between nirvana-like stasis, harrowing intensity and sombre reflection, it never hesitates for any semblance of equilibrium. The plot counts for little. Moody and majestic, this is a true epic, with moments of quiet contemplation giving way to spectacular, ear-splitting battles as the troops attempt to take a key Japanese bunker on Hill 210, a position fiercely-defended by machine-guns and mortars. Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, John Travolta, George Clooney, Adrien Brody, Nick Nolte and John Cusack are just a few of the names on the impressive roll-call.
THREE KINGS (1999): This cheeky reworking of the classic Kelly’s Heroes (1970) is set during the tail-end of Operation Desert Storm, American soldiers George Clooney, Mark Whalberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze discover a map that points to millions in Kuwaiti bullion, but getting hold of the gold is just the start of their problems. Three Kings delivers the same searing indictment on the pervasively corrupting nature of war as Apocalypse Now (1979). A taut, satirical gambit from director David O. Russell who serves up much of war’s absurdities as vignettes of a surreal, comedic nature: An exploding cow; a veiled refugee armed with an automatic handgun and a Louis Vuitton handbag; during a shootout an Iraqi soldier spots reporter Nora Dunn and says “She’s much shorter than she looks on TV.” A rich script makes cracks at the expense of the regime of George Bush Senior, Middle East military policy and the skewed camaraderie of the quartet of get-rich-quick merchants. Highly recommended.
ZULU (1964): The legendary stand by a hundred British troops defending a garrison against a force of four thousand Zulu warriors at Rorke’s Drift is superbly realised in director Cy Endfield‘s epic historical adventure. The steamroller tactics of a Royal Engineers officer (Stanley Baker), determined to stand his ground despite having only a skeleton garrison at his command, are constantly at odds with those of his young by-the-book lieutenant (Michael Caine). Superbly-conceived battle sequences and an impressive performance by the rookie Caine make this as memorable as any war film before or since.