October 1, 2016

The Ten Greatest War Movies

Confession: Not a single Myrna Loy film shows up in this list. But we just can’t resist posting this photo of Loy serving coffee to American sailors during World War II. Lucky guys.

by Robert J. Avrech

Movies about war are ideally suited to the kinetic energy of motion pictures. The eternal themes of love, courage and loyalty are given full range in the theater of war. Readers will immediately notice the absence of silent films and movies from Hollywood’s golden age. Yes, in spite of our love of classic cinema we are the first to admit that sound and modern special effects have rendered most older war movies tame and stylized.

We have also excluded war movies that treat war as “senseless killing” or set forth a pacifist narrative. As far as Seraphic Secret is concerned, a just war is the only method by which moral states can triumph over evil nations. War is too serious a business to be intellectually castrated by fuzzy minds who traffic in moral equivalence.

We concentrate on movies that feature intense warfare, yet whose narrative line does not neglect the more intimate, personal stories. We have eliminated home-front movies, fantasies of good Nazi soldiers ( Auf Wiedersehen, Das Boot), movies about Holocaust victims, tales of spies, and POW movies, sub-genres that—except for good-Nazi movies, historically suspect and morally loathsome—deserve and will receive ten best lists all their own.

I invite WoW readers to list their own ten best war movies.

10. The Lighthorsemen, 1985

Beautiful Australian movie shot entirely in South Australia, that takes place during World War I, telling the story of a light horse unit fighting in Ottoman Palestine. The final assault on Beersheva is a masterpiece of filmmaking. The director, Simon Wincer, told me that he was working with very few horses and just used lots of “simple camera tricks” to make the final charge such a tour de force.

 

9. Gettysburg, 1993

This is a long movie, but it’s riveting. The battle of Little Round Top, the furthermost left flank of the entire Federal line, is exquisitely choreographed. When Jeff Daniels, as Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, orders his men to fix bayonets a chill runs up your spine. In spite of the bad wigs and even worse beards, a very effective film.

 

8. Duck You Sucker, 1971

Oh gosh, where to begin? This Sergio Leone epic is saddled with the worst title in movie history. Rod Steiger, a lice-ridden Mexican bandit, and James Coburn, a mysterious Irish Republican explosives expert on the run from the British, reluctantly team up and join the Mexican revolution. Enio Morricone’s score will haunt you for days afterwards. A neglected masterpiece.

 

7. Patton, 1970

The opening shot and monologue are, perhaps, the greatest introduction to character and personal narrative ever to be seen in motion picture history. Patton was a bully, an anti-Semite and a braggart, but he was a great field commander. The script and score wisely play up Patton’s mystical side which adds a whole new dimension to this memorable film.  George C. Scott’s performance deservedly won him the Academy Award for Best Actor. He refused to accept it, saying he rejected the idea of such competition among actors.

 

6. Lawrence of Arabia, 1962

One of the first lessons a screenwriter learns is to define heroes by their faults. The script for David Lean’s masterpiece elegantly portrays Lawrence’s emotional struggles with the violence he claims to abhor but in which, ultimately, he delights. His confused sexual identity is on display in several subtle scenes, and his divided allegiances between the British empire and the romanticized desert Arabs is fully rendered. This movie strikes the perfect balance between sweeping epic and intimate portraiture.

 

5. Zulu, 1964

The true—well, sorta—story of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, 1879, South Africa, where ninety British soldiers fought against several thousand Zulu warriors. At one point a young bugler, lips trembling, asks the tough Sergeant: “Why? Why?” And the Sergeant, stiff-upper lip, as the British used to be, replies, “Because we’re here, lad.” A young and incredibly gifted actor named Michael Caine makes his very first major film appearance as a foppish young officer who becomes a man in the crucible of battle. Zulu’s score by the great John Barry, is one of the most memorable I have ever heard. During the Yom Kippur War I used to hum it to myself to keep up my spirits and remind myself that numbers don’t matter, that in the end discipline, courage and fortitude triumph.

 

4. The Winter War, 1989

A spectacular Finnish movie that tells the story of the hundred day Winter War fought by Finland against the Soviet Union from November 30, 1939 to March 13, 1940. It was the Winter War that convinced Hitler that invading Russia would be a cake walk.This epic details how ill-equipped, inept, and poorly led Soviet troops repeatedly flung themselves against brave and determined Finnish soldiers posted in thin lines across a massive front. Fighting in bitter, subzero weather, the story is told through the multiple story lines of a single squad composed of farmers, school teachers and village merchants, intensely patriotic men whose lives in a harsh, isolated land breeds first-rate soldiers. The overwhelming strength of the Soviet Union in men and armaments seemed to doom the Finns to a fast and bloody defeat. But the Finns are a stubborn people whose resistance should rank with greatest last stands in military history.

Based on a classic, Hemingwayesque novel of the same name by Antti Tuuri, the central character, Martti Hakala, is a member of the 23rd Infantry regiment, an easy-going farmer who likes nothing better than plowing the fertile earth. The battle scenes are huge and impressively choreographed with waves of screaming Soviet soldiers charging frontally—flank attacks are way too subtle for the Soviet bear—into pitifully narrow Finnish lines. It takes a while for non-Finnish viewers to identify all the supporting characters, but soon enough the individual soldiers become distinct. Family life is lovingly rendered. The sturdy women who wait anxiously for their men to return are blessedly unglamorous. The film has a nicely understated heroic yet gritty quality that correctly views war as abrupt bursts of blood drenched chaos and soul-shattering fear. This is a classic war film that deserves a wide international audience.

 

3. Come and See, 1985

The Nazi occupation of  Byeloruss was particularly savage. In this Soviet film, Florian, a naive teenager anxious to join the partisans, and Glasha, a village beauty, end up together, wandering a landscape that resembles hell on earth. Every frame of this film thunders with powerful, unforgettable images. The almost medieval world of the peasants is in stark contrast to the mechanized death brought by the Nazis. There are moments of lyricism that are just overwhelming. In a rain drenched forest, Glasha stands on a log and dances the Charleston. The title comes from  The Apocalypse of John:

And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.

 

2. Ride With the Devil, 1999

A brilliant Civil War movie about the merciless bushwacker warfare on the Kansas-Missouri border. A near perfect screen adaptation by James Shamus based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell. Vivid and touching performances by Tobey Maguire, Jeffrey Wright, Skeet Ulrich, Simon Baker, Jonathan Brandis and Jewel. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, as a psychotic bushwhacker, nearly steals the show with an over-the-top performance—is he playing the character sorta gay?—that shouldn’t work but does. The massacre of Lawrence, Kansas is a harrowing, extended sequence you will not soon forget. A major box office flop, Ride With the Devil will eventually be recognized as a timeless masterpiece.

 

1. Seven Samurai, 1954

Director Akira Kurosawa’s epic, the greatest movie ever made, speaks directly about the moral imperative of a just war.

The Seven Samurai takes place in medieval Japan, a time when bandits—the terrorists of their time—roamed the land looting, raping and killing defenseless farmers.

Seven down-at-the-heels Samurai warriors are hired to defend one poor village. The Samurai do not negotiate with the bandits. They do not try and appease them. Nor do they ponder the root causes of banditry. The Samurai set strategy and kill the bandits. One by one.

Every true warrior understands there is no deterrence and no freedom without the disproportionate use of force.

The climactic battle in the rain, where mud, blood and tears mix, is perhaps, the finest choreographed battle scene ever staged.

Every skilled director in Hollywood studies this masterpiece and tries—without success—to emulate Kurosawa’s cinematic style. We all stand in Akira Kurosawa’s shadow. This is the film that compelled me to become a screenwriter.

If you love movies but have not seen The Seven Samurai, you are without oxygen.

5 Comments

  1. Here are some I’d add, especially in view of what appears to be your criteria Robert (you have to admit, Das Boot was quite a movie) : Gods and Generals, The Battle of Algiers, The Longest Day, The Caine Mutiny, From Here To Eternity, Breaker Morant, Braveheart, and The Patriot (unless we’re boycotting Mel Gibson). And what about Brando and Viva Villa?
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  2. You left out Gods and Generals. Which tells very fairly the story of why the South fought. Duvall, one of the greats was tremendous as Robert E. Lee, and Stephen Lang absolutely brought Stonewall Jackson to life.

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  3. One of my all-time favorites. Unfortunately it came out during the Iraq War, a lot of a-hole critics dismissed it as ‘a pro Bush movie’ and the studio didn’t promote it all that much so it didn’t appear in that many theaters. I had to drive a ways to see it but when the opening sequence came on with the regimental flags of all those brave men on both sides waving in the wind…definitely something special. Ted Turner financed it (he appears as a cameo in the film) but he ran into problems financially afterwards and wasn’t able to finance the sequel that was to have covered the rest of the war and would have been called ‘The Last Full Measure Of Devotion.’

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