In honor of Memorial Day, and in honor of our brave men and women of the military, I've decided to put together a top ten list of my all time favorite war / army movies. And, just so you know, I've never served in the military so these choices are based on my love of movies, not out of any sense of realism or authenticity. Because I can't judge that. But they are all entertaining and show the bravery of those who have served.
And, to be honest, I didn't fret over this list too much, so I hope you won't quibble too much about the order or my picks. But they are all great films.
Happy Memorial Day!
#10. Enemy at the Gates
"All these men here know they're going to die. So, each night when they make it back, it's a bonus. So, every cup of tea, every cigarette is like a little celebration. You just have to accept that."
I'm glad I never had to fight in any wars, but I'm especially glad I didn't fight in the Russian army during WWII. They had it rough, and this is one of the few films that really explored just how rough it really was. It's a film that doesn't get a lot of attention, but it's one of my all time favorites. I think of it as Medal of Honor: The Motion Picture.
#9. The Caine Mutiny
"Mr. Maryk, you may tell the crew for me that there are four ways of doing things aboard my ship: The right way, the wrong way, the Navy way, and my way. They do things my way, and we'll get along."
This movie is just fantastic. I wouldn't want to pick the best performance of Bogart's career, but his portrayal of the ape-shit crazy captain from this film is as good a pick as any. It's a powerhouse performance in one of the best films about the US Navy I've ever seen. It's just gripping from start to finish, and the suspense, and entertainment, never lets up. Go rent it!
"Death? What you all know about death?"
Oliver Stone made this film back before he went crazy. Now, don't get me wrong... crazy Oliver Stone is one of my favorite directors, but there is still something to be said for the stripped down subtlety of his earlier films. They feel more honest somehow, and few films are as honest as Platoon. It's a brilliant film that works both as an examination of war and as an honest to goodness action film. I saw it for the first time when I was a kid and I am still trying to recover.
#7. Paths of Glory
"I apologize... for not being entirely honest with you. I apologize for not revealing my true feelings. I apologize, sir, for not telling you sooner that you're a degenerate, sadistic old man. And you can go to hell before I apologize to you now or ever again!"
Paths of Glory is the true story about a group of French soliders who are tried for cowardice during World War I and sentenced to death. But that plot synopsis doesn't do the story justice, since it is far more intricate and involved than you'd find in most war films. It's a film that asks a lot of questions and never gives any easy answers, but it's an exhilarating depiction of war and of the effects it has on the men forced to fight in them. Go see it, even if it is the most jaded and bitter film on this list. That doesn't mean it's bad.
#6. Letters from Iwo Jima
"We soldiers dig. We dig all day. This is the hole that we will fight and die in. Am I digging my own grave?"
In 2006 Clint Eastwood directed two films about the battle for Iwo Jima, Flags of our Fathers and this one. Both are brilliant war films, but this film is slightly more thoughtful, more original, and just more exciting. In fact, as good as Flags was, I think he released that film just so he could follow it up with this one, which tells the same story from the point of view of the Japanese. Just go rent it.
#5. Black Hawk Down
"When I go home people'll ask me, "Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?" You know what I'll say? I won't say a goddamn word. Why? They won't understand. They won't understand why we do it. They won't understand that it's about the men next to you, and that's it. That's all it is."
This movie is just amazing. No film better shows the absolute anarchy and mayhem of modern combat, nor the bond between those soldiers caught in it together. This movie has a spectacular cast, amazing direction, and a true story that is more gripping than any work of fiction. Go rent it.
#4. Born on the Fourth of July
"People say that if you don't love America, then get the hell out. Well, I love America."
-- Ron Kovic
This movie isn't just about war, but about what happens after. Tom Cruise gives the performance of a lifetime as Ron Kovic, a real-life soldier who received a wound in Vietnam that left him unable to walk for the rest of his life. It's not an easy film to watch, but it is a rewarding one on many levels, and the changes and growth Kovic makes as a person through some hard times mirrors the growth and changes we made as a country, though not always for the better. This film doesn't have the most exhilarating battle sequences, but it's still an incredibly exhilarating film all the same. And no matter how nuts Tom Cruise may be today, he'll always get a pass from me because he was so great in this film.
"Give 'em Hell, 54!"
There are a select few films that can make me cry. There are even fewer films that can make me misty just thinking about them. And Glory is one of them. It makes me misty not just for its powerful story, amazing acting performances, or dazzling film making, but more for what it represents. It's a film that shows both the best and the worst of our country, and it balances the two perfectly and profoundly. And it's also entertaining as hell, which is important too.
#2. Saving Private Ryan
"Keep the sand out of your weapons. Keep those actions clear. I'll see you on the beach."
-- Captain Miller
Forgetting for a moment the horrible framing sequence with the old man and the fact that this film doesn't really have much of a plot, it's still the most realistic and harrowing depiction of modern warfare I've ever seen. If you brought a camera crew to the Normandy Invasion, your footage wouldn't look too dissimilar from the opening battle of this movie. Spielberg changed the way war films are made with this film, and very few battle scenes since haven't ripped off his ideas and camera techniques. It's an amazing film and one that's well worth viewing over and over again. But, yeah, it's a little corny in places, and the framing sequence sucks. But the rest of the film is so good none of that matters.
1. The Bridge on the River Kwai
“Do not speak to me of rules. This is war! This is not a game of cricket!”
-- Colonel Saito
The Bridge on the River Kwai isn't just the best war movie of all time, but it's up there as one of the best films of all time from any genre. Alec Guinness plays Colonel Nicholson, a rigid army commander who is interned along with his men in a Japanese POW camp deep in the heart of Burma, is expected to lead his men in the construction of a bridge that will be vital to the Japanese war effort. Nicholson refuses, not out of a sense of duty to his country, but because the Geneva Convention expressly prohibits the use of officers in manual labor. His officers will not work, he tells the equally rigid Japanese Colonel Saito, and so the battle begins, between Nicholson’s intention to impose civility in a wholly uncivilized place and Saito’s fear of losing face.
Detached and yet at the heart of this battle is Major Shears, the only American of consequence in the film and one of the only characters capable of rational thought, played to perfection by William Holden. He is capable of rational thought, but in a way that makes him the most tragic character of all, as he is still a pawn in the fate that takes him from his near-fatal escape from the POW camp right back into it on a mission to blow up the very bridge which Nicholson was being forced to build. The conflict builds and builds until it finally erupts in once of the most exciting conclusions in film history.
The Bridge on the River Kwai is about WWII but it is not an anti-war film, at least not in so many words. When a film is this brutally honest, it doesn’t have to make any claim to its convictions on the matter either way. When you show war as it truly is, none can deny that it is indeed pure hell. The film does not show the war as a conflict between good and evil, as there are no characters found therein who can claim a true stake to either side. William Holden’s character is a liar and a cheat and Guinness’s is willing to sacrifice the health of his own men in order to satisfy his mad quest.
The Bridge on the River Kwai is not the kind of film you watch, but the kind that you experience and find yourself profoundly changed as an individual after having done so. Still not convinced? It won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Actor, and Director, so it’s gotta be good, right?